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In June, the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington hosted an evening of new generation spoken word poetry from the Gulf. Far from being a relic of the past, poetry has witnessed a modern revival through television and the Internet to reach an audience of millions in the Gulf Cooperation Council states. The AGSIW program included a discussion with three pathbreaking poets: Afra Atiq, a PhD candidate at UAE University and leader of Untitled Chapters, a literary hub for Emirati women; Fatima Al Hamid, a founder of Word Of Mouth Kuwait, a platform for artists and poets to share their work; and Salem Shukri Al Attas, an Emirati spoken word poet, who co-hosted the First Annual Abu Dhabi International Poetry Festival. Raymond Karam, AGSIW director of program outreach and communication, interviewed the poets about their motivations and how spoken word poetry has impacted their personal trajectories.
Raymond: Tell us a little about the scene and what brought you to where you are, and what the scene is like in the UAE and Kuwait.
Fatima: To be honest, for poetry specifically for English, there is no scene. It’s mostly Arabic. I have been writing since I was a kid. You kind of have a shame in writing sometimes. You don’t really want to show everyone everything it is. So it’s like, “Oh my God, am I good? Am I sure?” But then you grow, you learn. And then you start to show people. And sometimes people, they think it’s good, some people they don’t. I really listen to the people that tell me they don’t like it because if you really know what’s missing, you can actually get better.
Raymond: In your bio, it is really interesting, you said that you burned your journals at some point. Why did you do that and why did you reverse course?
Fatima: I don’t know what I was thinking. I was 16. At that age, you are a teenager so everything is a thing and I burned it because I was ashamed of writing my thoughts and my secrets. So I literally went outside; I put all my journals in this thing, I lit it up, and my mom went a little bit crazy. … But if I do publish something, it will be from the one that I never burned.
Salem: I can definitely relate to the shame thing because … I have been doing poetry for four or five years now and I didn’t tell my parents until March of last year. And so when they found out, it was a huge surprise to them. They had no idea: one, that a poetry scene existed in Abu Dhabi and two, that I was such a big part of it. I started writing because someone said there was a poetry slam and I said I wanted to join. So I wrote a love poem called “Karma” that I am glad I cannot find. I went up with my piece of paper and my right leg was shaking, I was stammering but the crowd was really nice and they gave me a really big ego. I thought “Wow, I’m the shit man. I’m amazing. I can do this regularly.” And so, I went to my first competition in Abu Dhabi and I got dead last. And it was a super humbling experience. And that’s where I met Paul Dorian Rogers who created Rooftop Rhythms in Abu Dhabi, which is a huge poetry scene that is all over the Emirates now. … I have grown with them and competed and finally won one or two [competitions] and my ego got a little bit of balance. People would be surprised by how big and influential the poetry scene is and it’s only growing and getting bigger.
Raymond: Tell me about the process of you coming out to your family [about your writing] and their acceptance, or what you went through.
Salem: This is a two-part story. It seems funny now but I assure you at the time, it wasn’t. So in 2012, I did a love poem and someone posted it on YouTube, and my uncle found it, and he put it on the family WhatsApp group. … My mom didn’t know I did poetry. And at the time, my GPA wasn’t where it was supposed to be and I’m writing a love poem, and she lost it. So I asked the guy to take down the video. [My mom] was super upset. I kept doing poetry but I didn’t allow myself to be recorded again.
The next year, once my grades were higher and I felt that I could prove that I could do both fluid mechanics and my poetry, I told my dad that I had a poetry competition and I wanted him to come. … He said, “You have a what?” I’m like “I have a poetry competition and I really want you to come.” My dad is like “Maybe we have a wedding to go to.” I’m like “Pa, this means a lot to me. I’m competing in poetry and I would like you to come.” So he’s like “Let me hear one of your poems.” So I performed one of my pieces. And he came and he loved it and he showed the whole family. But going from hiding it from my family to them accepting me and being proud of me and my dad telling me the morning that I am leaving, “I am really proud that you have a skill that’s recognized internationally and I am proud of who you are,” was huge for me.
Afra: I’m from Dubai and I’m part of a group called Untitled Chapters. Untitled Chapters is an all-female Emirati writing club. We nurture female Emirati writers. We do workshops; we do mentorships. We put out a book every year with all of our stuff. And the thing is, when a lot of us met each other, we thought we were the only one. So we all met through Untitled Chapters. So that’s kind of where the writing part of it started.
So the scene is growing. It’s new. We have about four poetry-specific venues right now in Dubai. It’s growing. And a lot of people are starting to express themselves in that way and I think it’s great. I think we need that because if you are only one, you think you are the best one in the world. But you need that competition. You need people to challenge you.
Audience member: Who are the Khaleeji women who have inspired you?
Salem: The one that really inspired me is my mother. I know it’s super cliché but I have a super specific reason. My mom was born in Mombasa [in Kenya]. And she didn’t learn to speak Arabic until she was eight years old. So when [her family] finally moved to Oman, they put her into school and it was really tough for her. And now, she is the person who tutors the little kids in Arabic. For me, this means it doesn’t matter where you start. My mom taught me that you can decide who you are. And you can get to where you want if you put in the work. Because the three things that don’t need talent are work ethic, determination, and being on time. … They just need you to decide this is who you are going to be. So my inspiration is my mother because she showed me I can be who I want to be and that my identity is my choice.
Audience member: What was it like for you as Arab women, going out in public especially for conservative countries like Kuwait and UAE. Have you faced any challenges socially?
Fatima: To be honest, in Kuwait, it’s not really close-minded to that extent. The issue with us, I think, is mostly not because I am female. It is because I am an Arab poet who writes poems in English. It’s not as respected as the local language. For me, poetry is not bounded by language. It’s one of the reasons … me and two other people founded Word of Mouth – it’s a poetry foundation in Kuwait. But for a lot of poets, they won’t perform in English because they say “I am Arab; I will perform in Arabic.” We want to break that identity because poetry, it’s just an expression not bounded by language. So for me, gender wasn’t as much of a big deal as the language.
Afra: For me, when I started, I got a lot of really negative comments. And it’s kind of funny because the comment I get the most is “You’re going on stage! You’re never going to get married!” I love it. I feel like I am breaking barriers. … What I love is that it is inspiring a new younger generation that doesn’t have that mentality. … So I am privileged to do it. It’s a great responsibility to do that for the next generation.
Audience member: Can you go more in depth about the struggle of speaking English and why you think there is this resistance there to express yourself in another language?
Afra: For the UAE, the big discussion we are having now is about national identity. That’s the big concern in the Gulf right now. And I feel like, a lot of people feel that if they express artistically in a language other than Arabic, they feel like they are losing their identity. … What I’ve discovered is that you don’t lose your identity. It follows you like a shadow. It goes wherever you go. It doesn’t change when you are speaking a different language. And that’s what I love about the story about Salem’s mom. It’s that you are who you are, and nothing is going to change that. I try to use poetry to change that idea.
Audience member: Why should I respect Arabic poetry?
Salem: You are not obliged to do anything. I respect Arabic poetry because I grew up with it. I understand the history of it and its roots. I know the Quran came down in a poetic form because that’s what the Arabs were good at. I know that to be able to be a poet is to be able to speak to all people. When the Prophet [Muhammad] was trying to explain to an Arab man the number of times he had to pray during a day and when, it was very difficult. So he came to the prophet and the prophet explained to him. He left and he came back. And he explained to him again. He left and he came back. And the man didn’t get it until the prophet said a poem about what he is supposed to do and the man got it.
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