Friday Finds: Zeina Hashem Beck’s Bilingual ‘Duets’

The Australian magazine The Lifted Brow has posted two poems by Zeina Hashem Beck that appeared in their #38, in a new form Beck calls the “duet”:

Image by rabiem. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

The much-acclaimed Lebanese poet, who lives in the UAE, rightly likens the form to a pair of singers. The poem’s two languages work as two singers, echoing and responding and layering. Beck writes, in Lifted Brow, of the form:

My brain’s been insisting on inventing poems in two languages recently, and I’ve decided to listen to it. I call this form “The Duet”. The English lines are a poem in English, and the same goes for the Arabic lines. Both languages should also form a poem when read together. When the Arabic and English follow each other within the same stanza, this means the lines are some sort of translation of one another. When the two languages are in separate stanzas, this indicates different lines.

Beck’s books include Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017), 3arabi Song (Rattle, 2016) and There Was and How Much There Was (smith|doorstop Laureate’s Choice, 2016). Most of her works integrate English and Arabic in some way, although these duets give more space to the Arabic language as a full partner in song.

The poems are titled in both languages, as “Daily / كل يوم” and “Prophecy / نبوة.” As she notes, sometimes the lines roughly echo each other, as with the opening to “Daily / كل يوم”:

my little country is not enough
وطني الصغير لا يكفيني

While at others they respond to one another, as with the opening to “Prophecy / نبوة”:

do you still smoke?


نسيت كل شيء لكني لم أرم علبه الجيتان

Other times still, there seem to be two voices giving their own view on events, two intertwined melodies. In the English of “Daily / كل يوم,” the narrator abandons her little country and returns, eternally returning and eternally carrying “bags of pine nuts.” In the Arabic, we experience the smells of the little country: gasoline in the stations, nail polish in salons, dust in the corner store. After that, when we return to English, we’re in the airport, with the wonderful line “(put anything in a coffin and they’ll let you through),” bristling with Beck’s light-dark humor, presumably fostered by Lebanon’s long civil war.

After that, the Arabic echoes the pine nuts in bags, but there is also garbage on the ground.

The English moves back to how the narrator says she will “lose it every day on purpose & weep” in the absence of the little country. Now, in the English, there are different scents. Instead of gasoline and nail polish, we have bread and lemon. Then, while the English has the songs of the living and the dead in the ambulance’s wail, the Arabic has songs in the trees of the city. There narrator again moves from the multiply-meant “losing it” in English to, in Arabic, the hospital where the narrator was born:

i lose it every century every hour
& it returns every exile saying remember

هذا المشفى حيث ولدت
ما زال يحرس بكاء
الأمهات و الأطفال

The poem ends with the two singers coming together, echoing one another in “the poet’s love for balconies.”

Although there is surely a wide audience for poetry that moves between Arabic and English, there are few poets who write with significant amounts of both: Jordanian poet Siwar Masannat comes to mind. It’s a form with many possibilities, layers, potential for friction, and modes of reading. But for non-Arabic readers of The Lifted Brow, there’s also no “need” to have the Arabic. You could hear one melody, without the other, and that too could be a privileged mode of reading.

Read both poems on The Lifted Brow.