Voices of Jewish and Muslim Writers at Mercure Hotel Wednesday 9th November
Those of you who read yesterday’s blog may have noticed a slightly wistful tone at the end. This is because, as I was writing it, I was watching the US election results come in. I went to bed expecting four years of mediocrity from Clinton, and woke up to find out that America had instead elected an actual gibbon as their president.
Good job on that, 2016. As years go, you’ve certainly been one.
It was on this sour note that I headed to the night’s event. In light of the hideous rhetoric slung about both during that particular campaign and much closer to home, it felt appropriate that that event be the Voices of Jewish and Muslim writers.
They say poetry is good for the soul, after all, and this is damn good poetry.
The event had four separate poets in all, all with different stories, different styles, and different ideas. It made for an eclectic mix of poetry that was wonderful to listen to. They were Michael Mehrdad Zand Ahanchian, Yvonne Green, Shamim Azad and Shaee Raouf, who stepped in at the last minute.
Ahanchian’s pieces, from his collection Messier Objects, were more esoteric, short little bites of poetry, best read all at once. They made masterful use of silence, with sudden, jarring stopping points. That said, the required a certain level of context to truly appreciate. For example, one section of the poems were inspired by the first Muslim woman to receive a George Cross medal. That extra layer of context will make these poems much more rewarding when read multiple times on one’s own.
Raouf’s poems had a righteousness about them, passion dripped off every purposeful line. Every poem was like a punch in the gut, and I say that with all the appreciation in the world. It is with complete sincerity that I say to describe them in any more detail would be to spoil them, and perhaps diminish that initial impact. Each one read like listening to a friend talk, building and building in anger until they reach a peak then stop as suddenly as they had started. ‘Numbers’ in particular, was a powerful piece, and one I urge you to search for if you can. Tellingly, a poem she wrote on the train on the way to the event stuck with me the hardest, ‘Where do forced lines lead us? What kind of line are you?’
Azad’s poems had a unique sense of musicality to them. Tonight, she focused on the theme of change, particularly in regards to cultural integration, speaking of both as positive and negative forces. Throughout one poem, she slipped elegantly from English to Bengali and back again, in a way that felt utterly natural and melded into the beat of the poem. As she herself put it, ‘speaking in my mother tongue makes me feel strong.’ Language, it was noted by a fellow audience member, has the power to hurt and harm. But it is empowering too. Azad also brought the theme of identity to the forefront, remarking ‘I am not an anomaly, an exception, I am a normal British Bangladeshi Bengali Muslim woman.’
Green’s poem are very much grounded in history. Many of her poems, including what I felt was the highlight of the night ‘The Farhud: Baghdad’s Shabu’ot 1st and 2nd 1941’, are explicitly about real events, real people and real locations, or at least refer to such things. She joked at one point that, with the steady rise of anti-Semitism, it almost felt to her like she had to write back. As with Raouf, there’s a real undercurrent of righteous fury, an anger that is at once harrowing and cathartic. The realism helps there, I think. There’s nowhere for the injustices to hide. There’s a texture to the poems as a result, and it gives some of the darker stanzas much more bite.
Ultimately, the thorny issue of ‘Identity’ wasn’t so much answered tonight as underscored with a big question mark pointing to it. Writing enables the individual to find their own truth, but as Raouf noted, ‘it is not easy to write your truth.’
This isn’t all talk. Dr Jennifer Langer, the discussant for evening, helped establish Exiled Writers Ink, a charity that works to provide a platform for exiles and refugees across the UK. We’re reaching a point in history now where these voices will be more important than ever before. The more we talk, the more we listen, the more we can understand each other and keep moving forward.
That’s a truth that I can get behind.