Friday, January 20, 2012

Book 87, Bahrain: "Voices: an Annotated Anthology of Contemporary Bahraini Poetry" ed. Hasan Marhamah

Yo! So I’m writing this on the plane to New Zealand, where I’m spending a week’s holiday with my parents. (They’re evidently non-traditional enough to want to escape the comfort of relatives during Chinese New Year, which surprises me.) I’ve spent the flight watching a Chinese martial arts movie and a Danish documentary on a Japanese inventor, while occasionally dipping into my e-book of Bahraini poetry:

Yeah, it’s a dowdy cover, but as it turns out, the contents aren’t half bad. There’s a timeless, infinite, declarative air to Bahraini poetry – which may well be a feature of Arabic poetry in general, though I can’t tell, having only read Mahmud Darwish and bits of the Sufi mystics in the past.

Certainly it’s very different from a Singaporean poetry anthology, which would be full of minute descriptions of circumstance, society, geography, autobiography – the influence of Western traditions, surely. The Bahrainis are from a tiny, recently developed island nation like ourselves, and yet when they write, it feels like they’re calling out to the desert, it feels like they’re calling out to the sea.

The translator/editor spends a lot of time in his intro guiding us through the different eras of Bahraini poetry: 1) the Classical Movement, composed by princes and influenced by Nabatean; 2) the Neo-Classical Movement, which fused that style with the emergent anti-colonial Nationalism of the early 20th century; 3) the Romantic Movement, obsessed with P. B. Shelley as the epitome of passion, patriotism and rebellion; 4) the Neo-Realists and Modernists, now comprising many middle-class intellectuals, including many women, inspired by late 20th century Arab politics, byzantine imagery, and oddly enough, T.S. Eliot. (There’s even a reference to Hollow Men in one of the poems.)

The actual collection is all 20th century stuff, and we only hear a couple of poems per poet, so it’s a comfortable, jaunty survey, unified by the voice of the translator despite variations in subject matter and structure. Footnotes point out references to Palestine, to imprisonment, to Bahraini symbology of the palm tree and wine, to various tales of the Quran (e.g. Balqis, the Queen of Sheba who took on Solomon’s religion; e.g. Iqlima and Luza; ugly and beautiful; the wives of Cain and Abel respectively; the sisters of Abel and Cain also respectively. Surprisingly, there’s also a fair bit of referencing to Sumerian history and legend (Bahrain, then Delmon, was the source of the Epic of Gilgamesh, says the translator), and even a feminist piece called the Wanderings of Scheherezade. What a culture, no?

Quite beautiful, and unexpectedly so. Hurrah for the talents of tiny nations.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map
Representative quote:

An Invitation to a Forbidden Party
-Ahmad al-Shamlan

My apology to you my good friends:
My party is poor
For I spent what I earned on my future journeys.
Exhausted, I arrived carrying my drowned guitar
With a melody you have heard before.
When it was captive
And you were the lyrics in the depressing jails,
While the thug gurgled his anger;
His crushed nails tortured my guitar and continued in a small party.


I fetched you tonight palm wine,
Do you like dates?
I possess nothing but the vintage liquor;
I stole it,
It is condensed but genuine;
Those who sold its tree never became intoxicated,
But I was intoxicated by an infant.
What shall I say?
In my eye there was an impossible question,
Wandering through long nights but never fulfilled…
A candle in a beautiful one-time party.
But they have changed my home address;
My home is a melody tonight,
A distracted in a small dream
And I fear the street guards.

The street guards have plotted against me,
They have changed my home address.
My friends,
Come in,
I have for you
And joy.

Next book: Dandera’s The Chronicles of Dathra, a Dowdy Girl from Kuwait, from Kuwait.

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