Q&A: When death, war and song coexist

Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck speaks with Al Jazeera about writing on exile, displacement and war.

Zena Hachem Beck-Lebanese poet- Natheer Halawani
'When I write a poem, I do so because there's an inevitability there' [Natheer Halawani/Al Jazeera]

Beirut – To say Zeina Hashem Beck is an emerging poet would be an understatement. At 35, the Lebanese writer has already clinched multiple awards. To Live in Autumn, her first collection, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize.

This year, Hashem Beck won the Rattle Chapbook Prize for 3arabi Song, which fuses her passion for Middle Eastern culture with the destabilising forces of war and displacement in the region. She has also been praised by UK Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.

Rattle describes 3arabi Song as “a tribute to the Arab world and Arab singers, to refugees and refusal, to hope and home, to sorrow and song”, adding, “like no other collection we’ve read, these poems feel absolutely necessary”.

One of the poems – Ya’aburnee was inspired by the personal challenges Hashem Beck faces in bringing up children amid a barrage of ISIL-related headlines. Another, Naming Things, is addressed to refugees.

Al Jazeera spoke with Hashem Beck about her work and reflections on what it means to be an Arab writer today.

'One thing poetry should do is build bridges' [Courtesy of Zeina Hashem Beck]
‘One thing poetry should do is build bridges’ [Courtesy of Zeina Hashem Beck]

Al Jazeera: In your work, you frequently refer to war and exile. Do you view your poetry as political?

Hashem Beck: I view all writing as political – even when it’s about what your mother cooks, what kind of cigarettes she smokes, or how your father sang you Frère Jacques or Fairuz before you went to bed. The personal is always political.

The political, too, is personal. This morning, I watched a video of Syrian children in Aleppo swimming in a bomb crater. How do you not react? How is that not personal? How can I be an Arab writer and not write about war and exile?

Part of my job as a writer is to witness, to tell stories, to disrupt. This doesn’t mean my poetry is only about displacement and war. Actually, within 3arabi Song, the poems also offer some sort of celebration, resistance, beauty, song, and even humour.

Part of my job as a writer is to witness, to tell stories, to disrupt. This doesn’t mean my poetry is only about displacement and war.

Al Jazeera: To what extent does your personal life – your upbringing in Tripoli (Lebanon), your children, your interfaith marriage – influence your work?

Hashem Beck: For 3arabi Song specifically, Tripoli, my hometown, was a big influence – especially the summer of 2013. In August that year, my cousin was shot dead on the street. Two days after that, two mosques in Tripoli were bombed.

So my grief was both collective and personal. The entire city was in mourning, and that mourning was also very tangible in my own family. This is where poems like Listen and Dismantling Grief came from.

But sorrow is not all that we are. There had to be something that celebrates, too. From here came the urge to write about Arabic music and singers, which were a big part of my Tripoli childhood.

It’s not unusual for death, war and song to co-exist. The day after my cousin died, my aunt sat in her living room, crying, and from time to time, singing. This has never left me; this simultaneity of sorrow and song is present in almost every poem in 3arabi Song.

My children teach me. Like all children, they have this fresh way of looking at the world. Poems like Ya’aburnee – which is about the July 2014 war on Gaza, and how ISIL forced Christian families out of Mosul – incorporate my daughter’s questions and perspectives. 

As for my marriage, my interfaith marriage means I’m married to what a Lebanese society considers “The Other”. When you’re married to “The Other”, you’re even more aware of how ridiculous the fences we build around us are. And one thing poetry should do is build bridges.

This is perhaps where poems like Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) partly come from. At the end of that poem, religions merge with “Hallelujah. Amen. Amen.”

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Al Jazeera: Why is English the language of choice for your poetry?

Hashem Beck: I would say it’s a result of my post-colonial education. I was educated at a French school, where almost everything was taught in French. Then I went to the American University of Beirut, so I switched to English. English comes easier to me in writing than fusha (Modern Standard Arabic), which I never mastered.

My relationship with fusha is that of guilt and fear. Guilt that I don’t write in it, and fear that if I do, I’ll mess it up. My poetry deals with that, too. In Naming Things, I write,

“Akh ya baba [oh, father].

I’ve fallen in love

with Beckett, I stumble

on my Arabic inflections, confuse

subject and object

but have promised al-Mutanabbi

I will come back.”

The idea of exile in that poem isn’t only to be exiled from your land, but also your mother language. But I’d like to believe that even my English poetry speaks Arabic.

Hashem Beck won the Rattle Chapbook Prize for 3arabi Song 
Hashem Beck won the Rattle Chapbook Prize for 3arabi Song 

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Al Jazeera: Does the idea of a Western audience influence your work?

Hashem Beck: When I write a poem, I do so because there’s an inevitability there. I feel it’s necessary for me to be saying this, right now, regardless of who ends up reading it.

That said, I’m aware, of course, of the “Western gaze”. A gaze that might read my poems, and say, “oh those poor Arabs”, or “wow, a woman, speaking out loud, there in the Arab world”. It’s good to be aware of that gaze, because you have to resist it and not participate in feeding it.

Al Jazeera: What do you plan on doing next?

Hashem Beck: I’m preparing to launch two chapbooks – 3arabi Song, and There Was and How Much There Was, a 2016 Laureate’s Choice in the UK. I recently won the May Sarton NH Poetry Prize for my full-length collection, Louder than Hearts. It’s forthcoming in April 2017, and we’re now in the editing process.

My UK chapbook deals with womanhood and the patriarchy. Louder than Hearts, which includes poems from 3arabi Song, deepens my exploration of war, language, love, exile and home. 

Al Jazeera: What would you like people to take from your poetry?

Hashem Beck: When I read a necessary poem (which is different from just a good poem), it shakes me, even changes me a little, and deepens my understanding of the world. I hope my poetry manages to do some of that, and that it tells essential stories.

And as optimistic as this sounds, I also hope it convinces readers that poetry isn’t this elitist, incomprehensible art. I’ve had people come up to me after readings and say, “We didn’t know poetry does that”. Yes, yes it does indeed.

Source: Al Jazeera