Sunday, 24 September 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Graffiti, Gems and Holidaymaking

Listen here to Ghalia Benali collaborating with Belgian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Indian musicians to produce a uniquely Arab-Indian-International blend of music that’s beyond mind blowing. The album is called Al Palna (Palna is a Hindi word meaning ‘Cradle’) and she is singing a track titled Hayyamatni.  (you can listen to Ghalia and Dina al Wedidi singing the same track but without the Indian instruments live in Cairo in 2013 here)

Ghalia Benali is a Tunisian singer, songwriter, dancer, design artist and performer, born in Brussels in the late sixties. She grew up in Zarzis in southern Tunisia, and returned to Brussels to study graphic design after completing high school. She embarked on her musical career in the nineties and soon climbed to fame abroad. She has this hypnotic voice, nuanced, deep and passionate. I remember reading somewhere that a soprano is not the natural range of most Arab female singers, they tend towards the alto. I haven't been able to discover why that should be so, but I am happy that it is, if it is. Just a personal preference, nothing to do with the quality of their, or anyone else's, music.

Ghalia is a self taught musician, influenced by not just the Middle Eastern greats, but the cross currents of world music that ebbed and flowed all around her in her formative years. Her mother listened to Indian and Arab music, her father favoured Western classical, she herself was exposed to Middle Eastern folk traditions and other musical ones rooted deep in the cultural fabric of her native land. As a result both the East and the West and the Middle meet in her art.

Holidays. A certain, sudden spring. And the making of both.

The Arab Spring came to Egypt in January 2011, on a day that my child returned from a school trip to Luxor. A handful of parents, just those of that particular year group, went to pick the children up at nightfall and waited and waited in the dimly lit school grounds. An empty school devoid of the happy bustle of learning and light is one of the most forlorn places to be. We rattled around, tired, impatient, bored and fed up already. The teachers texted almost continuously and conscientiously about the snarls and the protests blocking the main highways. I was probably not at my patient best.

They finally came in at around ten, three hours late. We thought nothing of it at the time, Cairo traffic has a formidable reputation in the congested department. And the airport was 50 km away from us. Then things took a scary-beautiful turn a few days later. The anger escalated, the protests continued, we were evacuated, the President fell. And returning, I saw graffiti for the first time in Cairo streets. The Revolution ultimately failed, but not before it created a lava explosion of art – visual, audio, written, performed. Watching a revolution unfold is a concentrated life lesson, whether you are a part of it or just a bystander. Two personal milestones happened unobtrusively during that time, my child spent his first night away from his mum, he and I both grew up a little, and my book of Bengali shorts was published during the Kolkata Book Fair in January 2011.

That whole year was a concentrated learning opportunity in ways more than one. Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary was being celebrated and the Indian Embassy in Cairo organised a yearlong fiesta of his works, documentaries, poetry readings, seminars analysing his life and times. I went along for as many of them as I could, obviously. One particular literary event stands out – a seminar on the poetry of ‘Tagore and Shawky’ – not only did I get to know about the correspondence between the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawky and Tagore, I heard living, established Arab poets recite from Tagore’s works, their own works, past Arab greats, a veritable bonanza of poetry. All that year my newsfeed had translated snippets from Gitanjali posted by Egyptian friends; an Egyptian who had lived in Bangladesh stood up and declaimed a Tagore verse, impromptu, at one of the events, complete with the Bengali accent; someone sent me cuttings of past articles in Cairo newspapers on Tagore - ordinary people, not poets and intellectuals superkeen on the arts or anything. I had no idea the following Tagore had among Egyptians and I was blown away.

That year was the first time I heard of Prof Galal Amin too. He was the main speaker in one of these events.

Galal Amin is a well known economist, and has taught at both Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo. He has also been visiting faculty at US universities. He is a serious social commentator but his essays are threaded through with a dry wit, quite delightful, while being informative and intimate.

Socially speaking, summer holidaying in Egypt has been characterized, like many other aspects of social life, by a striking dualism reflecting an obvious contrast in the way of life of the upper and lower classes. No wonder that Egyptians have coined several words based on the noun for summer season, sayf. Thus, where an English- or Frenchman would speak of "taking his holiday," the Egyptian speaks of tasyif, "summer holidaymaking," which means specifically, spending the summer at the seaside. Egyptians even have a special noun for people who spend the summer this way: mustafin or musayifin, as well as a word for the summer breeze, meaning, literally, the "breeze that comes from the direction of the sea," bahari, whose praises are continually being sung. Egyptians attribute to it the power of restoring the soul and of healing the sick, they may even entrust it with carrying messages to and from a beloved person.

~ Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin

As a non-Arab and a Desi, I can tell you I am into waterscapes (I was born on the East bank of a river, not far from the seas) and so I get this - Egyptians are inordinately fond of waterbodies. Most Arabs are, considering much of their lands are arid and inhospitable. So that's no surprise, all humans probably have this affinity for water, given that perish without the sweet version of that commodity. But extolling a particular kind of breeze? and assigning it a postman role for  love notes? So totally charming, so Egyptian! And also - Indian.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Nothing's lost...

Le Morne by Mira Boolell Khushiram

The light falls aslant on the slope where
folded between the silence of stone,
a hundred footfalls of restless men
mill in fear. Not a trace remains
save the spill of that sand coloured tongue,
and a sudden shadow of a cave;
the crisscrossed trails of hurried escape;
a persistent keening of the waves
a lament formed of sea, rock, terrain
an untamed yen in a twinge of air
a squeeze of breath, and a freefall plunge,
just for a flash and then they are gone.
Yet nothing’s lost in the universe -
the yearnings for freedom. Silence.  Words.

Today I'm writing to another watercolour from Mira's Mountains of Mauritius series, featuring a different, dramatic perspective of Le Morne Brabant, thank you Mira! I have written about it before in this on-going artistic collaboration of ours. Read about it here. And about the legends of the escaped slaves, or maroons, on this site.

Sunday, 10 September 2017


I’m torn between two poems, two oceans,
five countries, half a dozen rivers, two
dozen houses, forks in desert roads, motions
in parliament. Between the forks of due
processes. Between me being me, and you
being you. Between emotional quotients.

From wingtip to wingtip, from limb to limb
I’m easy to tear, separate into
segments along my perforated rim;
steel’s superfluous, a flicker will do –
of fabric, winds, porcelain grin, an eye through
a fanlight, a word, a long drawn out whim.

Torn between two stanzas, just now, and thrust
into matryoshka dolls, nested disputes,
between assets and titles, diamonds and dust,
isms and schisms and their hydra-headed fruits
and it’s easy to throw me, blind on the routes
of zigzag lightning between duty and trust.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Remembering Zeinabu


At dawn I woke to a translucent dream,
and Zeinabu was bending over me -
her eyes tender unfolding hibiscus,
her smile the sharp edge of a naked blade.

You recall Zeinabu, don't you? She comes
often, to my bedside, banyan, angst, verse,
she is the rose that goes by many names -
Zenobia sometimes, Janhavi, Jean -

as per the moods of the seasons and stars.
Today she handed me a light console,
smiled her sharpest smile, most mysterious,
whispered, “no walls. Water, everywhere. Still.”

She used to stop by the golden windows -
calabash with endless rafts of butter
in a buttermilk sea - and ask strangely
pointed questions. She was the old, cracked pane

refracting rainbows off her own edges,
shattered raindrops on her limbs and torso
collected into rivulets, into
the fluid breadth of language as they fell.

The roofs were archived in her, the broken
brick arches, the crumbling sphinxes that spoke
with the mouths of kings. Two mourning doves played
with her left shoulder, she gently set them

down on my balcony, “these might bring you
something.” They didn’t stay long, pecked the rattan
of the seat, kissed her hands for the last time,
and took flight, invisible in seconds.

“They can be,” she sighed, “a bit annoying
really, why I can’t fathom.” She came with
dawnlit tombs hidden in her braided hair,
the forks of wide boulevards on her forehead.

She brought baskets of fruits - figs, guavas,
split them open to flesh-pink, offered me
an uneven quarter, and asked after
my mothers, my children, the dusty bloom

on the innards of my wine kegs and cups,
inscribed rice grains, and bullets, flattened by
ricochet, collected at my feet in
poison pools of metal. Where street children

played at hopscotch and tag in the debris -
there was nowhere else to go. “How’s that one?”
She asked after the gun-fingered, ten-armed
members of our furthest clans, our peoples.

India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan are reeling from the worst flooding in South Asia for decades. The losses are staggering. More than 40 million people are affected, and 1400+ people have been killed. Please click on this link here, and/or here if you wish to help. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Malfuf wa Malik: Collaborations, Displacements, Exiles, and Fleas*

Talking about collaborations, take a listen to an uber famous one – in the Arab world, and right round the globe -

Marcel Khalife is a Lebanese musician, composer and oud-maestro who in the 1960's set to music and sang this hugely popular rendition of Rita...whose love story is cut short by the political exigencies of her times. "Between Rita and my eyes there is a rifle...Rita's name was a feast in my mouth, her body was a wedding in my blood" - some of the most exquisite use of language I have had the good fortune to come across, even after whatever must have been lost in translation! Written by Mahmoud Darwish, who else?

The poet of resistance

Now what can I tell you about Mahmoud Darwish? He was born in 1941, the same year incidentally, that Rabindranath Tagore, an iconic Bengali poet, died. Darwish was a much-awarded, much beloved and revered and studied poet throughout the Arab world and way beyond. He was in himself a voice for the Palestinian struggle, the exiles, the dispossessed, his "Record! I am an Arab!" practically became an anthem for the Palestinians. He was identified with the resistance to such a degree by everyone that he once famously complained it would be nice to be able to write a poem about a woman, without the readers immediately loading it with all sorts of political meanings. But these are well-known facts, his work and his life have been studied and presented in much greater depth than I can do in a blogpost. 

Maybe I should start with my journeys -. My first exposure to poetry was early, the first poems I remember were Tagore's, chanted to me at around 4 years old. My mum had many of his long, ballad-like poems perfectly memorised, stanza after stanza, and I got a lot of them all through toddlerhood onwards. The first foreign language poems were obviously in English, there was a Palgrave's Golden Treasury at home, and I read - Spring, the sweet spring, is the years' pleasant king :) and badgered my father's secretary till she typed it out on a sheet I could carry around everywhere because that hardcover book was too uncomfortable for my 7-year-old fingers. The first translated poem I read was from French - Noliwe by Leopold Sedar Senghor, at school as a teenager. Somewhere along the line I remember picking up Neruda's poetry and being mesmerised by him too. What I'm trying to say in my usual waffly way is that I was no stranger to translated poetry. Yet when I came to Bahrain 20 years ago, I knew nil about Arabic poetry or the poets. Zilch. Totally blank. But that has changed, slowly and steadily, though I have a long way to go still...

  "If I were another I would have belonged to the road,
neither you nor I would return. Awaken the guitar
and we might sense the unknown and the route that tempts
the traveler to test gravity. I am only
my steps, and you are both my compass and my chasm..."

There is a lightness, a radiance in Darwish's language that uplifts even as the messages of sorrow and anger and homelessness and dispossession move deeply. The yearning to belong, the longing to stand where your roots are, to feel the earth your forefathers have tilled - these are at once universal and very individual. The bone-deep nostalgia for places lost - hiraeth, the Welsh call it, and Bengalis and Palestinians could probably be the silver and gold medallists in that department! :) 

"I am a woman. No more and no less
I live my life as it is 
thread by thread 
and I spin my wool to wear, not 
to complete Homer’s story, or his sun. 
And I see what I see 
as it is, in its shape,
though I stare every once
in a while in its shade
to sense the pulse of defeat, 
and I write tomorrow
on yesterday’s sheets: there’s no sound
other than echo."

The best poems are those, when you read them for the first time, you feel you've waited forever for those very words to throw a mantle of enchantment around you and make your senses swim. For this one poet, and only him/her, to sum your entire life up, to shake up and reassemble your feelings in wondrous configurations. To lead your heart into a place where it kneels and almost forgets to beat. Beyond magical!


Like many young Palestinians, poet Mourid Barghouti didn't know when he left his hometown Ramallah in 1966 for Cairo, that it would be a while before he saw it again. The following year the Six-day War broke out as he sat his final year exams, and Mourid was denied entry back into Palestine. For 30 years. He travelled back to it in 1996, and I Saw Ramallah is an account of that homecoming. It has won awards, and it is an evocative, lyrical and powerful narrative of the Palestinian displacement, and of the literature of exile generally.

Displacement is like death. One thinks it only happens to other people. From the summer of '67 I became that displaced stranger whom I had always thought was someone else.

The stranger is the person who renews his Residence Permit. He fills out forms and buys stamps for them. He has to constantly come up with evidence and proofs. He is the one who is always asked: "And where are you from, brother?" Or he is asked: "Are summers hot in your country?" He does not care for the details that concern the people of that country where he finds himself, or for their 'domestic' policy. But he is the first to feel its consequences. He may not rejoice in what makes them happy but he is always afraid when they are afraid. He is always the 'infiltrating element' in demonstrations, even if he never left home that day...

And because I was born into a Partition family, and heard the stories growing up - of refugees, forced displacement and dispossession due to cataclysmic political events - Bengalis of my generation, born several years after the Partition have also been shaped by their missing homelands and homes somehow.  Therefore I related to Barghouti's story on several levels even without having to get into the ins and outs of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I Saw Ramallah gave me a context for understanding both these poets who write so eloquently and so poignantly.

I will leave you with this reading of "Nothing pleases me" by Darwish. All I am going to say is - his poetry pleases, pleases? what an inadequate word! no, it thrills me exceedingly. 

*According to one interpretation by the author of his family name, Barghouti comes from the word 'flea.'

Sunday, 20 August 2017


Mountains of Mauritius by Mira Boolell Khushiram

Mountains spike the horizon, and I’m still
compelled by those gradients, though I’ve climbed
sudden roadside slopes, sprawling limbs of hills,
the mist enclosed mounds of light and time,
the steep caves in which rivers turn and swill,
churn and chuckle, moult off skins, ice and rime,
and plunge through tight fists of boulders, downhill.
The nests of all change and all paradigms.

Yet they are too far, distance flattens steep
to gentle, and smooths the mist to a thread
of smoke from a dung fired mud stove, that creeps
serpentine into hill roads. And into my head.
Should I turn away? because the seabed’s
less daunting than a scree-sharpened, rougher sweep? 

This is part of a series of on-going collaborations between me and architect-artist Mira. Read more about her and how it all happened here. Thank you Mira, for gracing my walls here with your lovely colours. 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Catching up : Write...Edit...Publish...August 2017

It’s time to get back to Write...Edit...Publish... hosted by authors Denise and YolandaPosting a bit early as per host request :) As always, pleased to be back at WEP after a too hectic home leave, still settling down! 

Home leave is just another phrase for reunions of course, catching up with friends and family, after a year in my case. But that’s not what this post's about. I've repurposed an ancient poem of mine for this entry, a villanelle written years ago. 

Often times the lives and the faces we show at reunions preclude the painful, the sad, the not-so-shiny parts of our lives in the interim and that is what these two characters are doing in this piece, hiding the really painful bits. Words to share them are difficult to come by when a friend meets another suddenly after a long time, both parties assume everything is great, and the appearances on social media reinforce that impression. Contradicting those and dealing with the fall out takes huge amounts of courage. How do you tell your best friend at school - who you haven't seen for a couple decades - that your child is an addict, or perhaps your partner is abusive, or your parent has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, or ... ? How do you find the words?

Sometimes we hide things to spare the other party needless pain, sometimes to forget our own, who knows?  "To divert the heart, O Ghalib, this figment is good enough."

Catching up

You don’t mention you’ve lost someone you love,
I too omit a few of my sorrows -
it takes more than just talk to catch up.

We mouth the trivial, chat the smallest stuff -
the monsoon roads, the political lows,
you don’t mention you’ve lost someone you love.

The intervening years have been too rough
but you make sure not a single thing shows.
It takes more than just talk to catch up.

Once one glance at you would be enough -
but vision rarely sharpens as one grows;
you don’t mention you’ve lost someone you love.

I can only see your pearly, opaque cup -
it’s filled or not the glaze doesn’t expose,
it takes more than just talk to catch up.

We're used to dealing with life’s ruthless snubs,
our grief is ours alone, and no-one knows.
You don’t mention you’ve lost someone you love,
it takes more than just talk to catch up.

WC - 160. All feedback welcome. 

Enjoy the other entries here:

Sunday, 6 August 2017

The Rib

You’re my secret tunnel, and its trapdoor -
the small hollows in the wood polished smooth
by my feet and years on the darkened floor,
my failsafe escape from the harshest of truths.
You’re the last port, and the transit en route,
the compass, the pole, earth’s magnetic core.
You’re my rainshine and sundrop, and my pursuit
of happy and hallowed and evermore.

You’re my inner courtyard, and its crack where
a banyan raises its tentative shoot.
You’re home, and wider world, and city squares,
open café terrace, intimate stairs.
You are stillness, and restless, and uproot.
You’re the art in heart, the rib in tribute.

As I'm travelling through the summer/monsoons, my posts are scheduled but I will be checking in as and when I can buy, beg, borrow or steal a net connection :) Have a great week!

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Cairo to Chicago via the Middle Ground

Listen to Cheb Hasni, a Rai musician from Algeria, popular across North Africa, but as was usual for his time, more popular abroad than at home. He performed at concerts in US, France, Japan, Morocco and Tunisia. He was murdered for his music - fundamentalists disapproved of some of his controversial lyrics on taboo subjects like sex and alcohol. A tragic loss.  He was just 26!

The den of thieves

From the minute we made the move public I heard nothing good about it.

“You’ll get terribly bored,” an expat neighbour said, “very few Indians there, and no desi daal, flour or spices available.” Another guy said that it was a “den of thieves.” The more I heard, the more my mind rebelled against this easy, dismissive scoffing.

To be honest, Cairo wasn’t a completely unknown entity, we had visited shortly after we came to Bahrain. Egypt had been checked off early, long before we reached Dubai, though at the time our entire attention was consumed by the Pharaonic side of things.  Now I knew a bit more. Sure, there were tacky tourist-traps, like in all countries, but looking beyond that it was a deeply rich culture and country to explore – what was not to love? No amount of snidecracks or the lack of Indian spices was going to put me off, phooh!

But visiting a country on vacation and living there are two vastly different things. It’s not my intention to write about that here. Except to relate one incident that happened shortly after we arrived. My husband dropped his wallet on a Thursday afternoon, without any Egyptian IDs in it because his new visiting cards were still at the printers. We spent a horribly anxious weekend. Meanwhile, the gentleman who chanced upon it, rang up the Dubai numbers he found in there and was told we had left for good. Instead of giving up, he then proceeded to track down our current whereabouts on the slimmest lead possible, located and rang my husband at work sharp on Monday. The wallet was restored to him untouched. So much for the “den of thieves!”

Into Yacoubian and on to Chicago

‘Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads’ so goes the old Middle Eastern adage, and I came into Cairo expecting riches. While the bookshops in Dubai were better and broader than Bahrain, they catered largely for a non-Arab expat clientele. I expected Cairo to be different, a deeper and wider well into Arabs and Arabic. What turned out even more important from my POV, Cairo doesn’t just write, she also translates. There is a very active effort by the AUC Press in Cairo to translate Arabic literary works into English and make them available to a non-Arabic readership. Manna from heaven.

The first writer I encountered was Alaa al Aswany, in his second book - The Yacoubian Building, a novel told through a pastiche of the intertwined lives of characters connected to a once-plush building in Downtown Cairo. The Yacoubian Building was published in the early 2000’s and was a runaway best-seller, made subsequently into a film and a TV series.  Set during the 1990 Gulf war it is a scathing commentary of a nation that has squandered its youth and its potential. Here was a very different elegance from Mahfouz, an eminently readable, eloquent page turner that was also a serious, introspective and – given the taboos on sexuality – a very courageous portrait of a declining society. I quickly found some of his other books – Chicago, Friendly Fire, but neither of these had the same weight or charisma as the Yacoubian.

Aswany also wrote about political issues in essays published in the Arabic and international press, some of which have been collected into books. Alaa al Aswany has been the recipient of multiple awards and also been translated world-wide.  A political activist of note, his voice is reckoned to be one of the topmost among influential Arabs.

The map of the middle ground

Somewhere between YB and Chicago, I picked up my first Ahdaf Soueif, Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground – a collection of essays written in English.

We saw ourselves as occupying a ground common to both Arab and Western culture, Russian culture was in there too, and Indian, and a lot of South America. The question of identity as something that needed to be defined and defended did not occupy us. We were not looking inward at ourselves but outward at the world. We knew who we were. Or thought we did… Looking back, I imagine our Sixties identity as a spacious meeting point, a common ground with avenues into the rich hinterland of many traditions.

It is from the excitement and the security of this territory that my first stories and my first articles were written.

This territory, this ground valued precisely for being a meeting point for many cultures and traditions – let’s call it ‘Mezzaterra’ – was not invented or discovered by my generation. But we were the first to be born into it, to inhabit it as of right. It was a territory imagined, created even, by Arab thinkers and reformers starting in the middle of the nineteenth century when Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt first sent students to the West and they came back inspired by the best of what they saw on offer. Generations of Arabs protected it through the dark times of colonialism…My parents’ generation are still around to tell how they held on to their admiration for the thought and discipline of the West, its literature and music, while working for an end to the West’s occupation of their lands…true appreciation and enjoyment of English literature is not possible unless you are free of British colonialism and can engage with the culture on an equal footing.
~ Mezzaterra, Ahdaf Soueif.

And because I grew up straddling two parallel worlds, learning to be my own middle ground, I was hooked from the start. I read her short fiction next – I Think of You and the hook went deeper. Her fiction felt delicate, evocative, fresh and fluid, but also very relatable. By the time I’d arrived at her Booker shortlisted novel The Map of Love, I had totally fallen under her spell.