Zeina Hashem Beck: Unsanctioned Writing from the Middle East
Nowhere Near a Damn Rainbow: Unsanctioned Writing from the Middle East is an anthology of work from 31 poets who are part of the poetry collective known as the Poeticians.
Sampsonia Way asked Hind Shoufani, founder of the Poeticians and curator of the book, to pick eight writers to be interviewed via email. In this series we present those poets’ voices and publish a poem from each.
The writer profiled in our first installment is Zeina Hashem Beck, a poet originally from Tripoli, Lebanon who now lives in Dubai, and allowed us to publish her poem “The Lost City,” as it appeared in the book.
- Zeina Hashem Beck
- Zeina Hashem Beck, originally from Tripoli, Lebanon, has been writing for as long as she can remember. Now living in Dubai as a stay-at-home mom and poet, Hashem believes the profession chose her—she “can’t not write,” she says. After her second daughter was born, Beck began regularly submitting her work and has been published in various literary magazines, such as The Arabesques Review, BAP Quarterly, Quiddity, Autumn Sky, and Crosstimbers. She was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize by Crosstimbers magazine.
Your poem “The Lost City” evokes feelings of nostalgia and loss, centering on the relationship between a city and the speaker, who perceives the city as inhabiting her. Can you tell us more about this perception?
I spent my childhood in Tripoli, Lebanon, and moved to Beirut in 1999 to study English Literature at the American University of Beirut. Beirut proved to be a very inspiring city for me. The buzz of the nightlife, of the theaters and the literary scene inhabited me. So did the poverty, the bombings, and the instability.
Beirut is a charming city, charming in its graffiti, in its crowded streets, in its bullet holes. Charming in its sometimes unbearable heat and in its rain. Charming in the characters that roam its streets. Charming in the friendships that you make over a cup of coffee.
I left Beirut in 2006 and found myself filled with longing and nostalgia for it. From this separation came poems like “The Lost City,” as well as others that try to recapture the essence of Beirut in writing. “The Lost City” is one of the poems where the speaker feels that she can’t completely summon the city that she misses in words, that it’s starting to slip away from her.
Even though you are living in Dubai you define yourself as Lebanese. What does it mean to be Lebanese?
It’s difficult to say what that means, but being Lebanese is in itself a mixture of many and sometimes contradictory identities. French, Arabic, and English intersect. Many religions intersect. War and peace, too. We jump at the sound of firecrackers thinking they might be gunshots. But we also dance. We are used to dealing with the lack of water and electricity. This makes us stress but somehow gives us perspective. We curse this country that doesn’t offer enough work for its young graduates, and yet we romanticize it once we leave it. I am Lebanese like that.
But in terms of political rallying I am not. There aren’t any Lebanese political parties that I feel represent me, and I’m sure a lot of Lebanese feel the same way. I’m also sure that a lot of Lebanese blindly follow whatever their political/sectarian leaders tell them. No, I am not Lebanese like that. I’m the kind of Lebanese who still dreams of a non-sectarian, better Lebanon. One where, for example, civil marriage might finally be legalized.
What is the importance of the Poeticians to you?
The Poeticians is an amazing platform. I look forward to it every month. It is a space to read in Dubai. A space to be heard, to discuss your writing and others’ with fellow poets, with people who are interested in what you do. It energizes, touches, and inspires me. I’ve made some good friends and I’ve received some good encouragement and advice through the Poeticians.
Nowhere Near A Damn Rainbow highlights that it’s an uncensored book of “unsanctioned” writing. How have you benefited from being in an uncensored collection?
Nowhere Near A Damn Rainbow gave me the opportunity to get published alongside some strong voices and offered me good exposure. But I would not say that I have particularly benefited from it being “uncensored,” since my work is not as “controversial” as other pieces in the anthology, and since Lebanon is not a country that would censor my writing.
Can you talk about freedom of speech Lebanon? Which topics are not allowed?
I would say that compared to other Arab countries, Lebanon has the highest level of freedom of speech. We can raise topics such as sex and politics without getting in trouble. Religion, on the other hand, can be a sensitive theme. I’m not an expert on what does eventually get into print and what doesn’t, but there are a lot of underground platforms that allow the discussion of taboo topics. I’ve personally never felt that there was something I couldn’t say or write in Lebanon, and Beirut has been a very inspiring city for me.
What misunderstandings does the West have about Middle Eastern literature?
I’m not sure about the way the West might view Middle Eastern literature, but I can tell you how I wouldn’t want to be viewed. I do not want to be stereotyped as “oppressed” or “emancipated.” I wouldn’t want “Western” readers to have polarized views of the Arab world, and I wouldn’t want them to judge a certain work based on the themes it tackles, but rather on the quality of the writing.
What are you working on now?
I’m almost finished working on a manuscript tentatively titled “Re-Membering Beirut.” As the title suggests, the manuscript tries to remember (and in this process re-member) the city of Beirut. The poems reflect the experiences of someone who, trying to recall Beirut, is lost in the labyrinthine ways of memory: The city is sometimes recaptured or even reinvented, and sometimes lost, forgotten. The voice in the poems wavers between feelings of belonging and alienation, nostalgia and indifference, remembering and forgetting. She is haunted by the city as well as the idea of losing it to time and distance.
THE LOST CITY
I knew a city,
and I did not need to summon it,
for it inhabited me.
This is where cities live you know,
inside the minds of people,
and this is where they begin
What is the essence of a city?
Coffee? Rain? Voices? Lights?
I knew the essence of the city I knew.
Had you flung the day in anger,
it would have hit the wall and bounced
back. This is a place that knows how to
rise, how to re-
I knew the essence of the city I knew.
In it I felt
space had finally conquered time,
in it I realized
what autumn meant,
a cold light breeze
disperses me now
among the letters
of a lost line.