Lauren Maas attended the launch of the new anthology, Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Arabic Gulf Poetry, held in Qatar last week.
By Lauren Maas
In a region about which wider Western understanding is more or less limited to the scope of a journalist’s 3-day investigation into the cache issues of the moment — oil, wealth, cultural acquisitions — there still remains a great emotional geography to be relayed about the Arabian Gulf countries and their peoples. Layered questions about their idiosyncrasies and commonalities, their fears and desires, their aspirations for the future and reservations about the present cannot, by their nature, be answered by pull-quote sized responses in the New York Times; it is far easier to talk about luxury cars, GDPs, and rising divorce rates.
The answers to these more ineffable questions and their conveyance is becoming the life’s work of creators from the Gulf, the writers, artists and innovators giving voice to a world they have both intimate knowledge of and inexorable stake in. It is clear that theirs is not work that can remain vacuumed, hidden from that of the other and from the eyes and ears of an increasingly global society–such was the central thesis of the book launch for Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar.
Three days, two readings, and three panels — featuring the work of seventeen poets and translators — celebrated the arrival of this first English language anthology of contemporary Arabian Gulf poems. The anthology was conceived in response to a palpable void of translated poetry collections in the region. Patty Paine, poet and Assistant Professor of English at VCUQatar, explained in her welcome address that several years ago she and her creative writing students found themselves at a loss for regional texts to study and wondering why this was so. Citing her desire to “give thanks to the incredible trust that has been given to us by Qatar to teach its young people,” Paine found herself, along with co-editors, Jeff Lodge and Samia Touati, and students, hard at work collecting poems from writers of Qatari, Saudi Arabian, Omani, Emirati, Kuwaiti, and Bahraini heritage.
What has accumulated in the process is a wonder to both contributors and readers alike. As evidenced by the performances and discussions that made up the event program, this text provides a window into the hearts and minds of writers who are at once both representative of their nations and individuals with unique voices and styles.
A question posed to the poets during a panel discussion was “How would you like the outside world to experience this book?”
In response, Saudi Arabian poet Nimah Nawwab said, “As an Arab, I’m fascinated. So what would this mean to the West?” Implied is a richness of content and language capable of captivating even those closest to it, thus it can only be imagined that it will enthrall those heretofore held at a distance.
To add to Nawwab’s comments, Kuwaiti contributor, Dr. Shurooq Amin, exclaimed, “It’s about time this happened,” and spoke of her desire for the anthology to “obliterate stereotypes.”
Conversation on the writers’ and translators’ panels was lively and gracious. Topics ranged from debate over poetry’s ability to affect social change, to the implications of writing in translation to native and foreign audiences. Moderator Margaret Obank of Banipal magazine explored the intentions of both the poets and the texts with translators William Hutchins and Ayasha Saldanha. President of the Poetry Foundation of America, John Barr, expressed a hope that within the pages of Gathering The Tide, American writers would find “the next T.S. Eliot” and emphasized the significance of language and sound in the contributions of Arab poetry to the global literary community.
From the personal and affecting narrative poems of Shihab Ghanem (who also gave touching tribute recently deceased contributors Ghazi Al Ghosaibi and Ahmed Rashid Thani), to the stark and image-driven lyrics of Ali Abdullah Khalifa, those readers who presented their work both in the original Arabic and in the translated English provided an experience of sonic variety that is seldom given to any audience, anywhere. Emirati poet Khulood Al Mu’alla’s brief, atmospheric incantations provided image-based anchors for the conflicting desires of the self and society expressed in the works of many of her peers. Her “An Unexceptional Poet” (trans. Samia Touati), revealed her artistic reservation as an intimate internal battle: “The sea has altered its seashores./Now, here, I am, alone/trying to hide my new poems in drawers with no keys.”
But most remarkable of the launch were performances from two of the youngest poets included in the anthology—Maryam Al-Subaiey of Qatar (left) and Laala Alghata of Bahrain (above). Al-Subaiey read her anthologized poem “The Invisible Army,” boldly questioning the value of human life in the context of worker’s rights in Qatar, and presented a new piece written for the occasion that handled, with poetic rigor, feelings of futility and suffocation drawn out of being a twenty-six-year-old woman on the verge of an arranged marriage. Her words may not have pleased everyone in the room, but they stood as testament to the power of the form, and the demand it places on the listener or reader to consider what they have not (or may not want to) consider.
During a panel discussion, Laala Alghata relayed a story of meeting a foreign acquaintance in person for the first time. This acquaintance, upon the meeting, told Alghata, “You’re nothing like the way I thought you’d be,” implying some unidentified negative expectation. To Alghata, the task of combating this vague and pervasive negativity towards Arab authors (indeed, in many cases, towards Arabs in general) often seems a daunting, if not impossible, task. “But poetry can begin remedy it,” she told the audience.
“The importance of knowing you’re not alone is massive,” Alghata said, bringing the trajectory of the event full circle, and emphasizing Gathering the Tide’s value not only as a work of translation aimed at bring Arabian Gulf poetry to the wider world, but as a work of collection aimed at encouraging, conciliating, and engaging a regional community. Poetry dissolves the loneliness Alghata speaks of, for both its readers and its writers. It is through a poem that the status quo is challenged, that fears and loves are championed, that the past is embraced or eschewed, and that empathy and experience find common ground. These abstractions have their particular formula and slant in this region, and those gifted with the ability to voice them deserve every opportunity to do so.
Gathering the Tide ushers in the beginning, one hopes, of many more such opportunities.
Group photo with poets, translators, and editors John Barr, Laala Alghata, Shurooq Amin, Shihab Ghanem, Patty Paine, Ali Abdullah Khalifa, Thuraya Al Arrayed, Hameed Al Qaed, William Hutchins, Nimah Nawwab, Zakkiya Malallah:
Lauren Maas teaches English Composition and Literature in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of VCU in Qatar. She earned a BA in English from the College of Charleston, and an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus in Fiction from Virginia Commonwealth University.
Some of the poets’ work is available online at Blackbird: “Gulf Poets Suite”