In a Day and a Night: Review of 3arabi Song and a Conversation with Zeina Hashem Beck
“As I read and re-read 3arabi Song, I found it to be so many things simultaneously. I wondered about the collection’s origin story, its idiosyncrasies, its original reception, and its relevance several years after publication. I had a chance to sit down with Zeina Hashem Beck virtually to exchange on some of these questions.” —Issam Zineh
Issam Zineh: 3arabi Song is a work of deep relevance. There is an authority that derives from lived experience. Can you talk about your experience in originally putting this collection together?
Zeina Hashem Beck: Most of these poems came to me after August 2013, when two mosques exploded in my hometown of Tripoli, Lebanon, and my cousin was shot on the street. He didn’t survive. I was also watching what was happening in Syria, Iraq, and Palestine. So first came some poems of grief, but I didn’t want the collection to be just about that. I find a lot of joy in Arabic music, and back then I listened to it as a kind of balm, and that’s how the music poems originated.
IZ: One of the noteworthy aspects of this collection is that there are multiple points of entry for the reader. I feel like you might have very different relationships with these poems depending on, for example, whether or not you grew up with Arabic culture. Can you comment on this generally – how you think the work might be deferentially experienced based on the presence or absence of cultural points of reference the reader brings to the poems?
ZHB: This wasn’t really something I thought about as I wrote 3arabi Song—I just followed the poems which came in waves, if I recall correctly. I simply needed to write these poems, so I wrote. Once I was closer to publication, I chose to include a “Notes” section in the end, to give a little bit of context to some of the pieces, as well as explain some words/expressions in Arabic for the reader who might not be familiar with the culture. I assume this was helpful, but I wonder now whether this was necessary; I think readers should be able to experience the poems regardless, and that they should also be able to google to know more. I’ve certainly done this for poems where the context or some references weren’t familiar to me.
Regarding reception, yes, I imagine the poems would resonate differently with different audiences. An Arab audience at a poetry reading, for example, would smile and nod in recognition, though this doesn’t mean that an audience not familiar with Arab culture wouldn’t be able to tap into the language of the poems.
IZ: There are aspects of these poems that seem like they have to be experienced to be fully appreciated. On the one hand, this book feels very local. It seems very particular to the “Arab experience”, to maybe even the expatriate or immigrant experience. On the other hand, it was selected from over 1700 manuscripts [editor’s note: 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner] , so it clearly has a universality to it. Can you talk about this balance between the “local” and the “global”? Did you have a sense that despite the specificity of the subject matter, the poems would appeal to a broad readership and resonance?
ZHB: As I’ve mentioned, I wasn’t thinking about all this at the time of writing. I believe that when poems come from a true place, they resonate. Also, I’m not a big fan of universality because it usually means white; do people consider Paris, for example, a more “universal” city than Tripoli? And if so, then what assumptions lie under this? The universal is in the local.
IZ: And even then, it strikes me we have a problem of translation. I find Arabic figures of speech in particular nearly impossible to translate. There is gravity, drama, soulfulness, multiplicity to the language that is challenging to precisely capture in another language. And yet you do this in remarkable ways through context and poem notes. Talk about this linguistic challenge. Did you find it a challenge at all?
ZHB: A poem is always about some kind of translation for me, and I don’t see that as a problem, but rather a searching. And I’ve always existed between languages, so I was writing was felt real to me.
IZ: There is a video of you reading “Naming Things” during the Split This Rock Poetry Festival (2016), which completely opened this poem up for me, and by extension the entire collection. Specifically, there’s a kind of sacredness and implicit spirituality even in the common dialogue of the people that I think in some ways I took for granted growing up in an Arabic-speaking household. Then in hearing you perform, this really sort of unleashed the divine lexicon of Arabic expression. Can you talk about the importance of the spoken word in these poems? Do you think they gain something in particular from being read aloud?
ZHB: I don’t believe in divine languages. If I were to think of Arabic as divine, I wouldn’t be able to work with it. As for performing poetry, this is something I genuinely enjoy doing as a way of sharing and connecting. I also start reading a poem out loud the minute I start writing it, because I like to fill the room around me with the sounds of it. Reading it out loud is writing it.
IZ: I’m thinking of how even in conversational Arabic, there is common reference to the divine even in completely secular conversations. For example, the customary response to “How are you?” being “Thank God”. It strikes me that there is something built into the language that lends itself to certain explorations. You mentioned you have “always existed between languages.” Can you say more about how this has shaped your poetics?
ZHB: My mother language is Arabic, then comes French, then English at the age of 12. And even within the Arabic, there’s the spoken Lebanese dialect and the official Modern Standard Arabic (which was what we learnt at school, what we read in books, and even what we heard on TV in Arabic cartoons at the time). So to a certain extent, there’s always more than one language in my head and my sentences, and that’s not uncommon in Lebanon. English definitely became the language that’s easiest for me in terms of writing, and that’s probably because my university education was in English, though I think the spirit of my poems lies in how I personally use English and at times 3arabize it.
I keep wavering between almost-regret and oh-well when I think that I don’t write in Arabic, and I’ve recently been thinking about audience. Perhaps what’s important is the language of poetry, no matter what tool you’re using to reach it.
IZ: Some of the greatest musical icons of the Arab world show up in this book (Umm Kulthuum, Fairuz, Samira Tawfiq). These names are very familiar from my childhood and, I suspect, the childhoods of many but not all (perhaps not even most) of your readers. Can you talk about this construct and what you were hoping to accomplish by coming at the themes of this work from the angle of Arabic music?
ZHB: Arabic music gave me joy in a difficult time, and I found myself writing these tributes to singers I love. I don’t recall the first one I wrote, but it might have been the Umm Kulthum one. After that, I decided to continue with these tributes more deliberately, considering the singers’ lives, what their music invokes in me, and the current political moment. There’s always been a close relationship between poetry and music as art forms for me: they both sing, and they both have the capacity to move us almost immediately.
IZ: I came to engage with this remarkable collection reluctantly. I carried it with me throughout my house for days, assuring myself I would start reading it “today” – until today became a series of past events. In hindsight, I was nervous about what I would be asked to contend with. What would this work reveal about me – about my relationship to culture, to country, to family? Can you talk a bit about these themes in your work?
ZHB: Grief and joy. Loss and music. Exile and home.
I appreciate you describing what you went through before you started reading, and struggling with these thoughts can be a good interrogation.
IZ: Earlier this year, I came across an article in which Aarushi Punia contemplates the role of memory in Palestinian literature. Among its many functions, she writes of memory as “an act of protest and resistance.” She asserts that literature, then, “extends the resistive act of remembering and creates a sense of community through the narration of memory.” “Remembering,” she writes, “is an ethical act.” It is against this backdrop – memory (and by extension “song” as arguably the most poetic and defiant form of memory) as the difference between cultural (sometimes literal) life and death – that I entered 3arabi Song. A lot has happened in the world since the 2016 debut of 3arabi Song. Can you talk a bit about what you see as the role poetry has to play in this particular moment with respect to resistance, and even perhaps self-preservation?
ZHB: Memory is indeed important in 3arabi Song, but I would argue that in the case of Palestinian literature, it’s even more important. As a Lebanese, when I write about Tripoli, my hometown, I’m writing to remember my childhood and perhaps to mourn and celebrate certain events. But I can and I do go back to my Tripoli every year, whereas Palestinians are either incapable of going back to their stolen land or living under apartheid. Here, writing/remembering becomes even more of an act of survival and resistance, as Punia mentions, because there are forces literally conspiring to erase you. Many of the poems in 3arabi Song go beyond Lebanon, of course, so I understand where your analysis comes from, and I was certainly writing for Syria, Palestine, and Iraq to remember and resist.
As for the role of poetry, yes, I believe, in my heart of hearts, that poetry is subversive just by asking you to slow down and reconsider, reimagine. However, I’m afraid you’re catching me at a time where I’m struggling to tap into poetry. This has to do with what’s been happening in Lebanon for the past few months (a revolution started in October 2019, a major economic crisis now, attempts to crack down on free speech); I found myself overwhelmed by the news and unable to process anything through poems. I feel a little bit estranged, though I know that I’d eventually return.
IZ: Shortly after we initially connected, controversy emerged around the publisher of 3arabi Song which raised, among many issues, questions about reconciling the art itself and the platform that makes that art accessible. Would you care to comment?
ZHB: I thought a lot about whether or not to comment on this here. Shortly after you’d asked me for an interview, I learnt things about Rattle that don’t align with my values. I canceled a reading that was scheduled with the magazine and decided not to submit to it anymore. I wondered whether I should refrain from talking about my own chapbook. I wondered whether I should talk about it and not mention this at all: why shift the energy in this space that’s meant to celebrate my work, which shouldn’t be associated with Rattle’s moral failures? Weren’t many literary institutions problematic? I’m proud of my poems and shouldn’t be doing such mental labor (especially as an Arab woman living abroad) because of an editor’s decisions that I wasn’t aware of until recently. I also struggled with the fact that 3arabi Song was well-supported by Rattle when it was released. But what does it mean, when a magazine supports your work and the work of people you admire while at the same time gives space to pieces you find harmful? When it praises a poem written “for” a gay man from the perspective of the Pulse shooter, for example? I was angry I had to spend so much time troubled by this instead of writing poems or being with my kids or trying to process the goddamn collapse happening in my home country. Sadly, it seems this is a luxury that writers from marginalized communities writing in this language (or perhaps any official language) do not have. I’m not interested in idealizing or demonizing, but I ultimately decided to mention this so that other poets who don’t know, who perhaps like me come to poetry from outside the academia and the US, could consider, learn more, and decide.
Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her second full-length collection is Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, 2017). She’s also the author of two chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Academy of American Poets, Poetry, Southeast Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Dubai. www.zeinahashembeck.com
Issam Zineh is a Los Angeles-born, Palestinian-American poet and scientist. He is author of the forthcoming chapbook “The Moment of Greatest Alienation” (Ethel Press, Spring 2021). His poems appear or are forthcoming in Clockhouse, Fjords Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry (Poets Resist), Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. He also reviews for The Poetry Café (https://thepoetrycafe.online). Find him on Twitter @izineh.
Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.