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‘Home’: Nine Arab Poets Explore Interior Spaces in a New Bilingual Anthology

Home is breath and memory; it’s gossip and the sounds of neighbors; it’s bathroom mirrors and skin-temperature wooden floors. These and other images of domesticity populate Home: New Arabic Poems, a dual-language anthology out from Two Lines Press.

Home is the second book in the press’s “Calico” series. The first was an anthology of Chinese speculative fiction that appeared this past spring. And while an anthology of Arabic poetry might seem less groundbreaking than Chinese science fiction, unlike most anthologies of Arabic poetry in English translation, Home doesn’t aim to be completist or canonical. There is no introduction, no historical contextualization of the poems.

“In the Calico series, we’re really committed to finding new voices and upending expectations,” Sarah Coolidge, the series editor, said in an email. “We’re eager to see work that speaks to the present moment or breaks conventions, pointing to new ways of thinking about literature and our world.”

Instead of fitting the poems into a larger socio-historical framework, this slender anthology allows the poems to speak for themselves. It includes work by nine Arabic-language poets from eight countries, and all the work intersects in some way with an idea of “home.”

“Part of why we decided to pursue Arabic poetry was the feeling that, in particular, contemporary Arabic poetry is egregiously underrepresented in English translation,” Coolidge said. “We also noticed that what little was published tended to focus on political upheaval and other themes that are important but limiting.”

Giving Up the ‘Idea of Houses’

The poets included in the anthology are Samer Abu Hawwash (Palestine), Iman Mersal (Egypt), Mohamad Nassereddine (Lebanon), Saadiah Mufarreh (Kuwait), Riyad al-Salih al-Hussein (Syria), Ines Abassi (Tunisia), Ahmed Shafie (Egypt), Ashjan Hendi (Saudi Arabia), and Fadhil al-Azzawi (Iraq). Their works showcase markedly different styles, from the quiet, searching ironies of Iman Mersal to the sweeping, hungry lines of Saadiah Mufarreh.

Mersal was a must-include in an anthology that focuses on home. Among her recent books are a prose work about motherhood and a collection of poems titled Until We Give Up the Idea of HousesThroughout Mersal’s work, home is unstable.

In “They tear down my family home,” translated by Robyn Creswell, it is not only the physical home that is destroyed, but also the remembrances:

As if sledgehammers weren’t enough
the demolition men use their hands
to tear down the window djinn used to flit through
and with a kick the back door—even its memory—is gone.

In the poem, walls and windows are taken down, along with “the roof that never protected my childhood from the Delta rains.” Yet the poem continues to search for a connection to the narrator’s mother. In so doing, it turns away from the building and looks to the ground where she is buried, “under the camphor tree.”

Damaged Bodies, Damaged Homes

Homes are also unstable in the quick-burning poems of Syrian writer Riyad al-Salih al-Hussein, here co-translated by Rana Issa and Suneela Mubayi. In his long poem “A Marseillaise for the Neutron Age,” homes are damaged, as are the era, the bodies, the dreams, and the fruit. Here, the everyday is perilous, and homes are unsafe. It’s an age where there are “spies that serve you coffee / With morphine / The age of planes that feed bombs and toys / To humans[.]”

“In the Calico series, we’re really committed to finding new voices and upending expectations, We’re eager to see work that speaks to the present moment or breaks conventions, pointing to new ways of thinking about literature and our world.”

Sarah Coolidge
 The series editor

Al-Salih al-Hussein died at 28. He was beset by health problems, including kidney failure, hearing loss, and side-effects of a botched surgery. Yet his poetic voice remained clear and resonant, a Cassandra warning of future Syrian disasters. He published three collections, the last of which—Simple Like Water, Clear Like a Bulletcame out in 1982.

In the poem included in this collection, he seems to expect his own end. It has “Saturday burials / And sadness on Sunday / With pigs on Monday / And madness on Tuesday / With machine guns on Wednesday / And handsome death[.]”

Rusted Memories

Memories have dissipated in an untitled poem by Ahmed Shafie, co-translated by the author and Hodna Bentali Gharsallah Neurnberg. Most people have memories, the poem’s narrator tells us, but he has “two arms / held wide open[.]” All that remains of his distant village is “animals, relatives / tales of the dead, / and gossip.”

Here, the after-echo of memory is in search of home. The poem’s narrator asks his “noble friends,” who are liberating the homeland, to leave one small fraction of it unliberated.

It won’t hinder the construction of your triumphal arches,
but it’ll be enough
for my own father’s soul
to find its way home.

Memories are rusted in Ines Abassi’s “The Key,” co-translated by Neurnberg and Koen de Cuyper, where the poem’s narrator carries a key to a home to which they no longer belong. Although the poem uses contemporary imagery, it also evokes the longing of pre-Islamic poetry, where an abandoned campfire covered over by sand often signals loss.

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Here, the house that “won’t be our house tomorrow / is rusted with memories / and coated with the desert sand we left in our wake[.]”

Abassi’s house, like many throughout the collection, is less a physical structure than a site of relationships. At the end of the poem, the narrator takes “the key to the house that is no longer our house / that won’t be our house tomorrow / I threw it out with a heap of memories.”

Memories Lost, Memories Returned

In other poems, lost memories are brought back to life. In Samer Abu Hawwash’s spare, evocative “One Last Selfie with a Dying World,” translated by Rawad Wehbe, we stand in a bathroom and resurrect those who are gone:

It’s enough
once the bathroom fills with steam to exhale onto the mirror
the way you’d blow on hot soup
to give back to all the silent faces nestled in the forest of your head
their lost voices.

In Abu Hawwash’s poem, the kitchen, too, is a site of intermingled present and past, banality and philosophy. Here people enter into discussions: “about the customary shortage of bread, / water, / or happiness.”

In “The Unknown Man” by Fadhil al-Azzawi, lost memories are also returned. Here, translated by William Hutchins:

We always leave our days behind us. We drop them in a well
Like a pebble
Falling in the night.
A wet, unknown man always climbs up,
Sits on the wellhead,
And gives us back
What we have lost.

Although the anthology ends with poetry by al-Azzawi, who is the elder statesman of the book, the poets are not organized chronologically. Instead, their poems speak to each other across time and space, in two different languages, constructing an idiosyncratic look at meanings of “home.”

Coolidge said she hopes that, after reading the anthology, readers will continue in their journey with Arabic poetry. “Like all books,” she said, “it’s a jumping-off point.”


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