The Maryland-based Loch Raven Review has put together a collection of 11 Arabophone poets, curated and translated by Zeina Azzam and Sharif S. Elmusa:
Although the list of 11 features the towering twentieth-century Syrian poets Muhammad al-Maghout and Saniyya Saleh, and also the well-known Saudi poet Fowziyya Abu-Khalid, the two editors — Azzam said over email — by and large “tried to bring out new voices.”
Indeed, at least one of the poets was completely unknown to them, as is clear from Tariq al-Karmi’s bio:
Tariq al-Karmi is an Algerian poet. We made every effort to contact the poet for biographical information to no avail. His poem, “The Greeting,” appears as one of ten of his poems on www.adab.com, which includes poets from all over the Arab world.
The feature boasts a total of fourteen poems by eleven poets: al-Maghout, Saleh, al-Karmi, and Abu-Khalid, and also Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud,Khawla Dunia, Widad Nabi, Mohamed Ali Yousfi,Adel Mahmoud, Taleb Abdulazeez, and Essayed Taha. The poets are from across the region — from Iraq, Palestine, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria — although with an emphasis on Syrian work.
They seem to have been collected without regard to a particular theme or style, but many circle around political frustrations — the frustration of a dream deferred — and with a vivid sense either of place, or of the marked absence of place, as in Palestinian poet Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud’s “Coffee.”
One theme the co-editors highlight in their introduction is love:
Love in Saniyya Saleh’s poem is of the romantic variety, where the lover is portrayed as a social fugitive; in Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud’s poem, love takes place at a café in the United States but recalls Saladin and Jerusalem; in Widad Nabi’s (Syria), men’s love for her is likened to their destructive love of and brutality against the Syrian city of Aleppo; in Fowziyya Abu-Khalid’s (Saudi Arabia), the bed becomes a place where apparently a young woman humiliates an aging husband, yet in another erotic poem of hers, love is highly sensualized; and in Taleb Abdulazeez’s verse, the addressee is asked to observe love and poetry in the city streets and not on sheets of paper or in the imagination.
Indeed, the first two poems — by Syrian poets al-Maghout and Saleh, who were married — are both about love. Al-Maghout’s is titled “Platonic Love,” and is about social and political exclusion, the times “a door or window was slammed in my face,” and ends by balancing out all the twenty-one lines of exclusion and ridicule with a final three where it is all made worthwhile by his love for poetry.
Saleh’s poem has no dedication, but it’s easy to imagine it directed at al-Maghout when she writes: “Let me bathe in your vigor / before I lose my joy and mischief, /before your night dims my moon. / We are both fugitives, / you in your clouds, / I in my earth.”
But what I found most vivid in this gathering of fourteen poems was the grounding in place. Alexandrian poet Essayed Taha’s “Our City Without Makeup” is both for Alexandria and acknowledging Alexandria as a confluence, a place from which one also leaves: “Alexandria knows your hair, / how you wash and dry it. / Knows the mole you hide on your shoulder / and that one evening, it will pack your bags / like a good grandmother / so you can try another city.” Iraqi poet Taleb Abdulazeez’s “At Paul Valéry Restaurant” is not in his native Basra but Sète, France, and Widad Nabi’s sharp-edged “Love Is Blue Bruises” is both Aleppo and not-Aleppo: “Many men loved me / as if I were Aleppo / and stalked me on both dirt and paved roads.”
In this poem, Nabi plays with the common conflation of woman and city-state, trying to seduce and to escape both as city and as individual. For both, love is bruising:
They bandaged the wounds and regretted the deed
but whenever they saw the bird alive, never to die,
they carved their names on his flesh with sharp knives
as the residents had done on Aleppo’s walls before they fled.
And in Palestinian poet Suheir Abu Oksa Daoud’s “Coffee,” there is a haunting absence of place. The cafe was “clean, no dust, free of pain, / cleared of the ashes of life.” And although we don’t know where it is (it might be near Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, where she now teaches) what’s important is the absence of specificity. “The café was American. / No scent of Arab in it / except for you,”.