014 - Arabian Psalm Trees

My last letter, about Fahr El Nissa Zeid, came about in a serendipitous manner. I had no idea about her genius and her legacy and her life’s many conflicted identities till I looked up her name recently. It reminded me of another little accident that happened in Amman. It happened the same day we visited the gallery.

Every guide, forum post and local we met elsewhere in Jordan said Lweibdeh is the place to be after Rainbow street in Amman. Lweibdeh is a beautiful part of the city; at its centre is a huge roundabout called Paris square that seven streets around it lead up to. We decided to walk through all of them.

Late in the evening, we were on the last of the streets when we noticed a ceramic shop. Now the ceramic shops of Amman everywhere were beautiful and we wanted to take a look at this one. We approached it but were not sure if it was open or not, and we couldn’t see anyone. So we just stood at outside the door not knowing what to do next. Just then a loud voice boomed from behind us. In that moment I was probably convinced I had, without knowing it, shoplifted the place and now I’m going to be caught for it. I might have even put my hands up but I’m not sure of that, it I did feel like I will be impounded. Nobody shouts the way those men did otherwise.

Turned out, I was wrong.

The shop (safe and sound) was a little away from the square (that’s a circle), and the three men were just exchanging pleasantries with a friend who they just saw standing near the square.


Our startled faces caught their attention and they came over to us fearing something bad had happened. Are you okay, are you okay echoed all three. When the confusion was cleared and the non existent tension resolved they laughed and patted our backs, and then invited us to a place down the street where they were headed.

And that’s how I ended up at an Arabic poetry festival.

There we were introduced as Bollywood, I suspect the names of Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini did rounds (yes they were old ) and soon were surrounded by enthusiastic Indophiles in this crowd of Arabic poets. One of them who knew a few words in Hindi decided that’s a good reason to be our translator for the evening. A little after half an hour the readings began. Arabic poems surrounded me in the plain but crowded room. My translator friend, his plate shining in the light, cheeks flushed around a proud moustache, did his best to help me with words in a language he knew but wasn’t fluent in. In some cases, he began to analyse the verses critically instead of translating, in others he skipped whole stanzas while trying to get the right words to explain a metaphor from a line went by. I nodded through it all. In between he took his phone out to show his Facebook following; turned out our man was a big deal in the Jordanian poetry scene. I asked him why he wasn’t performing, and he said his style is a little naughty. I asked him how, curious, and he replied thoughtfully - yes.

That was that then.

In between all the missed translations and misunderstandings however were some riveting lines and some beautiful stories. Unfortunately I don’t remember anybody’s names, not even my most admirable friend’s.

A name to not forget though, is of the most famous of all modern Arabic poets Nizar Qabbani. I may or may not have heard Qabbani’s work that day. But you shouldn’t miss out on his work. I came to know of him last week through this thread on Twitter.

This is my favourite so far - Bread, Hashish and Moon.

Beyond, yet From

I read another poem yesterday. It is called Remedies for Cross Atlantic Dispersion. It speaks of the poet Melissa Davidson’s family, a diaspora rooted in the Middle East but that bloomed in the Carribean. An introduction that comes as an afterword says, tracing family lines from the Middle East to Jamaica through natural remedies, this poem finds its healing power in the cultural patterns which spiral from generation to generation.

A part that I loved in it -

meaning            a call to prayer
meaning            olive groves
or picking         or betting
on boats to the Caribbean
rosary baggage and rosewater
boil and steep bush mint for nausea
we lost our Arabic            when we traded coastlines
we make do hummus with
lime juice                        mint country pepper

You have seen it already, but I am yet to know the name of this letter. I have called it just Arabia as I write this. But that won’t do.

In Davidson’s poem they bring in the Azan. Back in Jordan, before the evening’s readings began, an Azan had ran through Amman’s blue skies. Qabbani’s oeuvre, a poet of love and romance, turned political in his later days. But all his poems, well, the ones I’ve read till now at the least, have a quality of a prayer. It rings of a poet pleading the world to see what he sees.

And I wonder, aren’t all poems prayers. A call to take note, to see, some to God, some to people. Aren’t all poems psalms.

Before we go

Hey, I don’t know how your day is going, I hope it’s great, but in case being moved by poetry isn’t quite the scene you want, then you can always read Greame Wood’s trip to Disney World amid the pandemic to lift your spirits.

But on another matter entirely, an editor spoke of the missing white male novelist in the Booker longlist; since 2011. And it went in a direction where he eventually deactivated his Twitter. This piece talks of that whole episode. What do you think of it?

On the topic of white male novelist, a peerless one passed away. MO Walsh paints a beautiful portrait of Brad Watson and his writing. A solemn read.

A statue outside Darat al Funun in Lweibdeh.

I missed talking about Darat al Funun in my last letter. It is the biggest sponsor and platform of art and culture in Jordan, at least in Amman. It’s at the outer edge of Lweibdeh and is a beautiful place born out restored buildings. Read more about the foundation here. The curious thing is, its patron and founder Suha Shoman was a student of Fahr el Nissa Zeid.