Writing in English, Thinking in Arabic: Lebanese Poet Zeina Hashem Beck

Published June 20th, 2017 - 04:30 GMT
Zeina Hashem Beck. (zeinahashembeck.com)
Zeina Hashem Beck. (zeinahashembeck.com)

Over at Qantara, there is an interview with Dubai-based Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck. Or, if you prefer a podcast, you can listen to her talk about her most recent collections with David Turner on Lunar Poetry Broadcasts.

The interview on Qanatara, with ArabLit’s editor Marcia Lynx Qualey, opens:

You dedicate Louder than Hearts ″to our broken languages & our broken cities.″ Why the brokenness of languages?

ZEINA BECK: I feel personally that all my languages are broken, because I speak and think in three languages: French, English and Arabic. Why do we speak French and English? Because of colonialism, of empire.

Before, I had this feeling of guilt towards Arabic. What I had to realise is that I can embrace the liminal space and find power in embracing it. The same term that could be a slur from someone else—"broken"—I embrace it. My Arabic isn′t perfect and I still search for definitions when I read in English. I continue to learn new words every day.

Why so many poems around experiencing the news? Particularly in the second section of Louder than Hearts, you have ″Terror/Mathematics″, which centres on the beheading of 21 Christian Egyptians in Libya, followed by ″Inside Out″ for Gaza of July 2014 and after that ″Ghazal: This Hijra″, dedicated to Mosul and Sinjar.

ZEINA BECK: We exist in this world and we listen to the news. I don′t listen to it every day, because it depresses me, but I remember, when I was a little girl, whenever we were in my father′s car, he would put on the news. And I hated the language of the news. It was so dull, so unpoetic. My father also read the newspaper and a big part of my childhood was the news on TV.

The news was so central because of Lebanon′s (1975–1990) civil war?

ZEINA BECK: I think people in Arab countries listen to the news all the time. As a poet, I also feel that I have a responsibility to witness and a responsibility to react to whatever is happening in the news. Then you take the language of the news and you subvert it. You have to be careful with that.

Be careful to…?

ZEINA BECK: Careful not to use other people′s suffering for a poem. I identify with the suffering – I have lived through war. Even so, you′ve got to be careful. Unless I′m really feeling shaken, I won′t write the poem. I would never think, "I have to write a poem about Palestine." 

Unless it′s really shaking you to the core, don′t do it. Don′t do it just to write about Syria.

Read the rest of the interview over on Qanatara.

© Copyright 2021 M. Lynx Qualey. All Rights Reserved.

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