Winners in First-ever Barjeel Poetry Prize Hail from Palestine, Nigeria, UK, US, Egypt, and Beyond

The Sharjah-based Barjeel Art Foundation has announced the winners and runners-up of its first ever poetry prize. The poets are both adults and teens, writing in Arabic and English, and come from around the world, including poets in Nigeria, Gaza, and Russia:

This new prize, awarded for the first time in 2020, recognizes poems written in English and Arabic that respond to one of 20 works of twentieth-century Arab art.

The prize, judged by world-renowned poets, drew entries from more than 500 writers. The three adult winners for 2020 are: Islam Abdul Shahid Hanish (for poems written in Arabic), Emily Khilfeh (for poets of Arab heritage writing in English), and Charlotte Eichler (for international poets writing in English). 

The three youth-category winners are: Batool Abu Akleen (for poems written in Arabic), Nour Salama (for poets of Arab heritage writing in English), and Olajuwon-Alhaytham Abdullah Adedokun (for international poets writing in English). There were also six runners-up.

The twelve winning poems will be published early next month on Rusted Radishes.

As organizers noted, the first-ever Barjeel Poetry Prize list of winners is “incredibly diverse, with writers from around the world crafting works in a wide variety of styles. The winners and runners-up live in Nigeria, Lebanon, the US, Russia, the UK, Egypt, Palestine, and the UAE, with further origins in Pakistan, Syria, Palestine, and beyond. The youngest winner is 15-year-old Batool Abu Akleen, a student in Gaza.”

“Chanson Mystique”

Judge Hala Alyan said, of the winning poem in the “English, Arab Heritage, Adult” category, penned by Palestinian-American poet Emily Khlifeh: “I found ‘Chanson Mystique’ to be a gorgeously crafted piece, breathlessly paced and evoking the chaotic beauty of Suha Shoman’s painting.

“The poet does a remarkable job of dialoguing with the art, evoking Midwestern thunderstorms and ‘cherry juice/in Jerusalem.’ In the end, this is–above all else–a praise poem, as the speaker entreaties us to remember, ‘Here sits holiness of sorts,/here sits coral, blood & cherry, here scatters the stars/like my uncle scatters saplings.’”

Of the winning poem in the “English, International, Adult” category — Charlotte Eichler’s “Woman and Wall” — judge Tishani Doshi praised the assurance with which it “moves and shifts registers.” She went on: “There is insistence in this poem, of being alive, of giving life. The last stanza and that final image of the storks clacking beaks – the ‘hard kind of love in dirty nests,’ devastated me.”

Eichler’s poem was in response to Mohammed Issiakhem’s “Woman and Wall.”

“Black and White”

And of the winning Arabic poem, Islam Abdul Shahid Henaish’s “Before The Last Embrace,” judge Asmaa Azaizeh said that, “With a casual language and an intimate tone, the poet describes a moment of personal loss, and we are quietly drawn in. All through this relatively short poem that seems to expend no linguistic effort, we are drawn closer and closer, as though we can nearly touch the absence felt by the poet.”

This poem was a response to Hassan Sharif’s “Black and White.”

There were also three winning poems by teen authors, in categories also judged by acclaimed poets. Judge Golan Haji said, of the winning teen poem in the Arabic category — “I Did Not Steal the Cloud” by 15-year-old Gazan Batool Abu Akleen — that her writing awakens us, “Writing gives the oppressed the honor of facing themselves. Israel is a pioneer in humiliation, exerting authority through weaponry, and manufacturing prisons. One of its prisoners, a young traveler with a free gaze, uses just a few words to awaken our own gazes, which have been hypnotized by images of disaster.”

Naomi Shihab-Nye, who judged the category of teen poets of Arab heritage writing in English, said of the winning poem by Nour Salama, ” I was profoundly moved by the spare lines and the jagged occasional (but not too awkward) rhyming. Lines like ‘Three Palestinian boys/Were none by noon’ were searing in their understatement, yet huge implication.”

Salama, who is from Egypt, said of her work: “I wrote my poem like a story, so that the viewer could look at the two pieces and feel like they are in it, or in fact one of the three Palestinian boys.”

“Cactus with City in the Background”

And of the winning poem in the teen international category, by young Nigerian poet Olajuwon Abdullah Adedokun, judge Raymond Antrobus said that “the speed and rhythm of the lines become a kind of spreading fire, it roars and then simmers by the end where we are left with the feeling of the speaker, despite stating to have found ‘a home away from home,’ the sadness and pain for the ‘home’ that has been left continues to burn.”

Antrobus added: “This is serious poetry talent and this poet must keep writing!” 

Olajuwon Abdullah Adedokun wrote in dialogue with Asim Abu Shaqra’s “Cactus with City in the Background.”

Runners-up were: Syrian-Lebanese poet Nur Turkmani, with “Body Parts,” Russian writer Sofia Ezdina’s “Uncharted map of the body and remembrance of childhood,” Moroccan writer Michrafy Abdelwadoud, with “Guardian Cactus,” Lebanese writer Maria Georges Atallah’s “News Without News,” Dubai-based Pakistani writer Shiza Ronald Khokhar’s “Woman and Wall,” and Egyptian writer Fayrouz Allam, for “My Small Town.”

In addition to a monetary prize of $500 for winners and $250 for runners-up, poems will be published in the Beirut-based journal Rusted Radishes and displayed at Barjeel alongside the paintings. 

More about all the winners and runners-up can be found at the Barjeel Foundation website.