Literature has been a lifeline for Mona Kareem, a poet, translator and university lecturer who was stateless in her homeland, Kuwait, and is now building a new identity and career in the United States, where she was recently named Translator in Residence for the fall semester at Princeton University.
Even as a child, Kareem was curious about books and eager to spend time in her father’s library, though she was unaware at the time that she was forming the first links in the lifeline that would help her cope with being Bedoon, or “without nationality,” in Kuwait.
“I was curious about and jealous of that room full of books,” she said. “I was bored of childhood and children’s life, and that adults were controlling the course of their day. I had a feeling that that room was a getaway for my father, and that it could be my escape too.”
Kareem, who has studied and worked in the United States for nearly a decade, was born in Kuwait’s Farwaniyah governorate in December 1987, the eldest daughter of the writer Kareem Hazaa.
She had an exceptional poetic talent that allowed her to publish her first poetry collection, Naharaat maghsūla bi Ma-e el ’atash (Mornings Washed by Thirst’s Water), at the age of 14. Her second collection, Ghiyab bi asabi’ mabthūra (Absence with Amputated Fingers), followed two years later. She then studied literature and worked in journalism and translation in Kuwait.
Escape Through Literature
However, these early accomplishments always seemed incomplete to her, for she was denied citizenship and the benefits that come with it in Kuwait.
“I was depressed, my life was somehow halted, my university degree did not change anything in my life, and this made my parents very sad, especially since they were unable to help me,” she said. “I resorted to literature again to save me and help me escape my reality.”
The number of Bedoon people in Kuwait exceeds 100,000, according to human-rights organizations. Bedoon people are denied services that Kuwaiti citizens benefit from in terms of education, health and jobs. The Bedoon are divided into subgroups according to the different details of their legal status. Some of them get identification cards that allow them to enroll in private schools, the military, or specific jobs. The status of the Bedoon is transmitted from fathers to their children, even for those who were born in Kuwait.
Kuwait has witnessed protests and campaigns, mostly on social media, demanding the granting of Kuwaiti nationality to the Bedoon, but most of these movements end without significant gains. Moreover, people involved in such campaigns are often subject to legal prosecution. (See a related article, “Kuwait’s Stateless Residents Struggle for Education.”)
“I was depressed, my life was somehow halted, my university degree did not change anything in my life, and this made my parents very sad, especially since they were unable to help me.”Mona Kareem
It was male domination over the literary scene, and the Bedoon community in particular, that prompted Kareem to realize the importance of literature in her life.
“I felt that there was a relationship between literature and freedom. As a stateless woman of a tribal background, I did not find women around me who were free, independent or educated,” she said. “I feel that literature gave me the life I dreamed of; poetry was the main reason why I got a scholarship to go to university.”
A Ticket to Education
Because of her legal status, Kareem was not entitled to enroll in a public university. Yet her academic excellence and poetic talent helped her win a scholarship from a Kuwaiti family to study at the private American University in Kuwait.
“She had a great ambition that enabled her to advance scientifically and intellectually,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, a professor of political science and former president of the American University of Kuwait. “She was distinguished and diligent along with her poetic talent.”
After graduation, Kareem obtained a scholarship for graduate studies in the United States. She left Kuwait in 2011 and obtained a Ph.D. in comparative literature at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and later worked as a visiting lecturer of comparative literature at the University of Maryland. She is now taking up her post at Princeton and continuing to translate poetry from and to Arabic and English.
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Since her first departure, Kareem has not been able to return to Kuwait. Her participation in a conference on statelessness and gender discrimination that was held in Washington, D.C., in 2011, prevented the renewal of her temporary passport by the Kuwaiti authorities. So she sought asylum in the United States.
“As I am a Bedoon, my feelings were contradictory. Sometimes I refused that I was Kuwaiti, then after a while I had a reaction that I belonged to Kuwait, then I had a reaction that I am a human being. I think that they are all reactions or entries to discover my identity,” she said. “Only literature supported and helped me to discover that I am a combination of those identities altogether. I am a Bedoon, a refugee, and an Arab.”
Kareem has not seen her family for nine years. Yet, she is waiting for her U.S. citizenship so she can travel to see them in Kuwait, and then to visit all the Arab countries where she was denied entry in the past because she was stateless, and currently because she is a refugee.
“I miss them a lot,” she said. “Especially my parents.”
Writing as an Advocacy Tool
Despite leaving Kuwait, Kareem has not stopped supporting Bedoon people’s issues there. Recently, she criticized holding conferences in Kuwait that support Bedoon issues but do not include any Bedoon people among the conference organizers.
In an article published in this regard, she wrote, “It is strange that the authorities allow organizing such conferences. Still, the strangest thing is to invite officials who have not previously supported the cause of the Bedoon in any way. … The problem here is not in the solidarity work itself, but in its modalities, limits and nature.”
“She realized that we have a gap in the translated heritage of Arabic for other genres of writings by authors who are Blacks, women, gays, and those questioning their sexual identities.”Ahmed Nagy
a U.S.-based Egyptian writer
Kareem believes it is important for educational and cultural institutions to have a role in such moves. “Isn’t it important for the educated class, academics or jurists, to bypass the unilateral and negative nature of the rhetoric of ‘spreading awareness’ and replace it with a solidarity action from the heart of local institutions?” she wrote.
Kareem also continues to support all issues related to equality and justice in her literary and poetic works and even in her translation works, which include translations to English of Ashraf Fayyadh’s Instructions Within and a selection of poems by the Iraqi poet Ra’ad Abdel Qader, and translations to Arabic of poems by Alejandra Pizarnik, an Argentinian poet, and the novel Kindred, by Octavia Butler, a Black American science fiction writer.
Filling a Gap in Translations to Arabic
Kareem is keen to excavate and present different and exceptional critical insights, according to Ahmed Nagy, a U.S.-based Egyptian writer.
“Kareem noticed a serious problem in Western books translated into Arabic, that they are mostly written by white men,” he said. “She realized that we have a gap in the translated heritage of Arabic for other genres of writings by authors who are Blacks, women, gay, and those questioning their sexual identities.”
In 2015, Kareem wrote “Manifesto Against the Woman,” an essay denouncing racist and classist women. In it, she says, “I write against the Woman who thinks brazenly that we are one. She, whose behind perches upon the comfortable chair of citizenship, class, and race. Against the Khaleeji “kafila” [female sponsor] who goes to work and becomes a good citizen and liberated woman on the backs of Asian servants in her home, or goes on vacation and is exempted from work at night because of the Indian or Egyptian migrant. Against the Woman who cries foul about multiple wives (polygyny) but not about having multiple servants. This Woman resembles her state and class, not other women.”
Recently, Kareem released Femme Ghosts, a trilingual poetry chapbook in Dutch, Arabic and English.
Alexandra Chreiteh, an acclaimed Lebanese author and assistant professor of Arabic studies at Tufts University, believes that Kareem is breaking new ground in all of her roles: poet, academic, critic, translator and short story writer.
“She is an important voice we must listen to,” said Chreiteh. “Her third collection, What I’m Sleeping for Today (in Arabic), raises sensitive topics about identity and immigration, and the meaning of home, family and body. I paused for a long time, perhaps for months, as I kept thinking about this collection and its different vision that opens new meanings through the language that I could not imagine.”
Today, along with her literary and human-rights activism, Kareem is keen to be a part of the American literary scene, especially because she is a bilingual writer. “Part of my life now is to integrate here in the United States of America with society and to have a voice and opinion, not just someone waiting to return,” said Kareem. “I am an American here, and I am an Arab in the Arab world.”