Poetry We Admire: SWANA Poets
“[T]he organic and arborescent notion of a place—roots and branches—as well as the naturalized identity of a place and a people cannot be sustained against the backdrop of immigrant stories. From this perspective, the story of immigrants is not peripheral to the history of the Middle East; rather, it is an integral part of that social, cultural, and economic matrix.”
—Akram Fouad Khater, Becoming “Syrian” in America
“‘No one knows what goes on in the mind of the Divine. Perhaps He doesn’t care. Perhaps He is not angry. On a night such as this you feel you are able to rise up to the sky on a rope ladder. This is the land of poetry and the possible—and my daughter is named Hope. We shall pull down and we shall build, and we shall humble the sun itself to our will; and somehow we shall defeat poverty. The driver, who had kept silent the whole day, has now raised his voice in song: a sweet, rippling voice that you can’t imagine is his.”
—Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
“America I arrived to inhabit the realm of your language / I came to worry your words”
–Aria Aber, America
“I learned / it. I / had to.”
–Solmaz Sharif, America
“At the crux of this discussion is embodiment or embodied experience, moments of tangible, sensory living from which humans make sense of their world . . . [T]he body is an inherently mercurial object of inquiry that, at times, does not change the conversations in which people participate; nevertheless, the discussions must begin with the body itself.”
—Therí A. Pickens, New Body Politics
“Conversation is useless as a cup of water against a grease fire. Conversation will kill me and leave the audience grateful, glad, and at ease.”
–Fargo Tbakhi, Being Listened To
“In late 2002, the State Department began producing public-service announcements in which Muslim-American professionals spoke of the religious tolerance in America; these were televised in Muslim-majority countries. The aim was to convey that America was not at war with Islam, but with ‘terror,’ . . . and that post-September 11 ‘fears and suspicions’ had dipped and integration was proceeding.”
–Hisham Aidi, Rebel Music
“Like they don’t know who the terror is.”
–Lowkey, Soundtrack to the Struggle
Limited to a selection of five or so poems and a few (okay, several) quotes, Poetry We Admire, by design, can never act as a truly representative selection of SWANA voices. Nor should any one selection, however comprehensive, be viewed as an endpoint for readers seeking / sought by the words of SWANA writers — even when the writing is as excellent as it is here.
Anthologies are as good a place as any to continue. For more (still un)comprehensive collections of SWANA poets, see: The Poetry of Arab Women: A Contemporary Anthology, Poems for the Millennium (vol. 4), Behind Our Names: An Anthology of SWANA & Muslim-Identified Teens, & Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab-American Poetry.
Though not dedicated exclusively to SWANA poets, The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 3: Halal if You Hear Me, is another wonderful anthology which includes many SWANA voices.
For a brief elucidation of the term SWANA, readers can go here.
And for a solid reading list that extends beyond poetry alone, over here (to which I’d add anything by the authors and artists quoted above)!
He rises & I rise
with Him He’s resting now He’s resting
in that rising
from "Let Him Rest"
by George Abraham in Poetry
I love this poem for how it fits its own form so perfectly, the caesuras within its lines functioning as moments for pause & breath-taking. I’m a big believer in the necessity of intentional approaches when it comes to breaks that happen within lines themselves, and here Abraham achieves this so well; the oppressive aspects of the reality the poem depicts are enhanced by the caesuras that split it from itself. As the piece reaches its end, it is the expansion of these breaks that allows us to move towards something more, a sanctuary less and less bound to language, but still held,”In the possibility of syntax / in a tense of laughter.”
A seminar of moon and sun
At the cusp of dawn.
from "Eight Poems"
by Abbas Kiarostami (trans. Kaveh Akbar & Arman Saleh) in Kenyon Review
It was a long time after watching Kiarostami’s 1992 masterpiece “And Life Goes On“, a documentary set in the aftermath of the 1990 earthquake in Iran that left tens of thousands dead, that I learned of the filmmaker’s work in other forms as well — poetry and photography in particular. Flitting through selections of his photos as I read these translated poems, one jumps out at me; his Untitled, 2008. There’s a sense of immense structural forethought woven throughout all of Kiarostami’s oeuvre, and this image condenses this effect for me. All things present are tied to their past, subjects, objects, and symbols alike; there is the window he grants us into his world, and the frame that supports that window, as well.
A moment of silence
for the bandit who loots music.
from "Mona Kareem"
by Mona Kareem (trans. Sara Elkamel) in Poetry Northwest
“A moment of silence / to honor the soul of Mr. Juan Miró,” the poem opens, memento mori from its very beginning, first identified in the death of another, in this case the famed painter from Barcelona. Kareem moves from here into the collective and the cosmic — “We will be buried in memory’s corpse, / reconfiguring the cosmos,” and at last alighting on a lonelier place — the transience of selfhood, and the idea of one’s own impermanence — where does the I go? “Where has she run off to, / after she had shaped the cosmos / exactly the way she wanted?” When I arrive here in the poem I’m never quite sure if Kareem is referring to the embodied or imagined “I”, the one ushered into existence by the poem itself. Both readings delight.
the way our shadows
come back for more solitude
from "Téssera (excerpt)"
by Nathalie Handal in Poetry Daily
The couplets in this poem excerpt sing, and in their singing I am reminded of Kareem’s poem above. Both lean heavily into themes of mortality, though in Handal’s case the contemplation — the destination — remains a collective one throughout. Where wonder and bewilderment seem foundational to Kareem’s poem, there’s a hopefulness underlying Téssera, earned not through specificity, but rather multiplicity, the piece employing the very uncertainty that fills mortality to move readers into a place of possibility. “Maybe we need / to empty our souls / to find those / thinking of us…or maybe we will fall into the sea.”
The notion that a gleaming stone sat
in someone’s mouth made me happy.
from "People's Teeth"
by Ahlam Bsharat (trans. Fady Joudah) in Guernica
I was first drawn to this poem by the delight I found in its imagery, but what stayed with me was something else. It is the way this poem moves outside of the context in which it frames itself, just for a flicker, a moment passed then gone — “And my hands were always ready / to grab a gold tooth if an awesome force / snatched it from its owner’s jaws,” the kind of line that sticks out or can stay hidden. It depends on its reader, trusting you to know what you know. The piece capable of being enjoyed as a tribute to teeth, or a political text, always being both.