Zeina Hashem Beck’s 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, is a whirlwind of cultural and personal storytelling. It taps into the anxieties of state violence, exile, and the refugee experience, and at the same time it demonstrates that human stories and hope can be salvaged from even the most daunting cultural and political wreckage.
“3arabi,” as Hashem Beck notes at the end of this collection, is “the Arabizi way of writing ‘Arabic.’” And, in turn, “‘Arabizi’ comes from the combination of the words ‘Arabic’ and ‘Englizi’ (English); it uses numbers to represent sounds that are specifically Arabi, and has become well-known among Arabic speakers (especially online and in texting).” The title of the collection, therefore, straddles the border between Arabic and English, in the same way that the poems themselves straddle worlds and perspectives.
Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet who currently lives in Dubai, where she founded PUNCH, an open-mic and poetry collective. She frequently performs her poems, and even on the page they have a strong vocal and performative quality. Rattle describes the chapbook as “a tribute to the Arab world and Arab singers, to refugees and refusal, to hope and home, to sorrow and song.” Indeed, it is a book at the interstices of everything lost and everything found.
Hashem Beck said in an interview with Al-Jazeera that part of her job as a writer “is to witness, to tell stories, to disrupt. This doesn't mean my poetry is only about displacement and war. Actually, within 3arabi Song, the poems also offer some sort of celebration, resistance, beauty, song, and even humour.”
The poems in this collection are about finding and creating home, and about an ever-changing notion of what home is and where it can be found. Ultimately, the poems suggest that home can be found most reliably in poetry itself, and that writing is a way to create a lost home. It’s a collection about loss, but also about what it takes to rebuild, to recreate.
The first poem, “You Fixed It,” is about fixing all the endlessly broken things in a life, and the way that these repairs are a necessary and yet maddening part of staying sane. It starts seemingly small:
And if the compass broke you fixed it, fastened
the pencil to it with a rubber band,
and if there was no hot water you fixed it, learnt
to sit on that plastic stool in the bathroom
The poem is about a world continually coming undone, and the attempts to remake it. There’s a breathless quality to the poem’s lines, to the way they list and catalogue everything that can and does go wrong, and all of the ways that broken things might or might not be fixed. As the poem progresses, the things that must be fixed increase in importance and difficulty, becoming more political and cultural, fanning out from broken faucets and heaters. The poem becomes a story about fixing all the fissures that originate beyond the personal realm, and yet deeply affect that realm. And it’s also about how telling stories and singing songs can fix what’s broken:
if someone died you fixed it by telling stories
about how crusty their lahm bi ajeen was,
and if the lahm bi ajeen was too crusty
you fixed it by dipping it in the tahini,
and if your sorrow hardened you fixed it
by dipping it in sea water, and if your country
hardened, if your country hardened you fixed it
by dipping it in song.
This is a poem about the power of poetry to fix the world. I read this poem as Hashem Beck’s exploration of her own role, as a poet, in an ongoing political and cultural crisis. It’s an opening salvo in a collection that is, at its heart, about the power of poetry and song. This is the “3arabi Song”—an attempt to remake the world through words and music.
In the collection’s second poem, “Listen,” there’s also a second-person speaker, this time with personal worries about a brother who might or might not have been caught in a mosque bombing. The poem takes the shape of an hourglass ticking away time as it worries over the fate of the brother. It opens with this line: “You’re telling yourself he’s fine. He didn’t go to the mosque today.” The poem walks between denial and hope, and traffics in realism, as well. It details the sounds of explosions, the panic in the household. It has both a breathless and a restrained attitude common to Hashem Beck’s poems, which always seem to be aware of the necessity to stay sane in the face of chaos. And the poem ends with a simultaneous sense of certainty and uncertainty, a recognition of the way the poet must straddle both of those. As a result, it’s left open for the reader to try to make sense out of what happened during and after the bombing: “you’re telling yourself he’s fine. He didn’t go to the mosque today.”
Some of the poems in this chapbook feature food as one of the ways daily life can be celebrated even in the face of war and violence and exile. Food is a constant, a way that generations can be linked, and a way to move forward into the future. In the poem “Naming Things,” for instance, which is dedicated to refugees, there’s a section entitled Hunger:
That fish you grilled last night,
did it laugh? Did it say, I have been feeding
on your children? It tasted good
with olive oil and lemon and garlic.
My mother always said everything
(even the dead) tastes good
with olive oil and lemon and garlic.
It’s a horrific image of a fish feeding on dead children and then being eaten by desperately hungry refugees. There’s a kind of dark humor in the image as well, the fact that even the dead taste good with olive oil and lemon and garlic. And in a way, it’s also a kind of recipe—a list of ingredients that can make everything more palatable and bearable.
The collection also has a number of ghazals, an Arabic poetic form composed of couplets traditionally focused on both loss and love. All of the ghazals in this collection do just that, serving as various glimpses into inevitabilities of loss and love in exile. In “Ghazal: Back Home,” for instance, which is dedicated to Syria, there’s a focus on home, and a repetition, with various changing meanings, of the phrase “back home.” It opens with an image illustrating the impossibility of returning home: “Tonight a little boy couldn’t walk on water or row back home. / The sea turned its old face away. Again, there was a no, no, back home.” Refugees can’t go back home, and even the ocean turns against them. Food, too, is a way to measure both the loss of and the love for home: “My friend who hates cooking has made that eggplant dish, / says nothing was better than yogurt and garlic and tomato, back home.” And there are memories of all that’s been lost, as in this image that comes at the end of the poem: “On our honeymoon we kissed by the sea, watched it / rock the lights, the fishing boats to and fro, back home.” There’s a simultaneous longing for and recognition of the loss of home, as well as the understanding that the only home now will be the one recreated from shards, remnants, and memories.
The collection’s last poem, “Adhan,” is named for the Muslim call to prayer, and it serves as both an ending and an opening into the future. It begins with the image of the call to prayer as it spreads throughout a community at the beginning of a day:
There is something about the adhan at dawn, how it lifts
your head from your pillow; how it pulls
you from sleep like a bucket from a dark
well, heavy with the same wish to fall.
Adhan is a way of communicating culture and belief, and it’s also a constant in an unpredictable world. It gives a sense of consistency, and in its brilliant cacophony, it creates a sense of togetherness, even among the diaspora of exiled refugees:
how the voices rise now
from different speakers in different mosques—
Alluhu Akbar, Alluhu Akbar, an unsynchronized
Greek chorus that glazes the city, reaches
the gutters, the babies in their cots, the thieves.
And ultimately, the poem ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that this call to prayer might, in fact, be what saves the world: “The world is beautiful and full of sunrises, prayer / is better than sleep.” And the poet, hearing the call, grips her lover’s arm and the book on the bedside table, as if to say, as the poem’s last line does, “Yes, I heard you. Hallelujah. Amen. Amen.” The call to prayer is answered with hearing, with recognition, with an amen.
Hashem Beck’s message in this collection is ultimately hopeful, with its deep faith in the power of song and poetry and art. It understands the deep power of promise and optimism. Even when everything in exile seems to be lost, there are always fragments, and from these fragments the world can be reconstructed. This collection has faith in that rebuilding and in the power of poetry to facilitate it. These poems promise that no matter how broken the world seems, no matter how beyond fixing it might appear, it can always be reimagined, through love and beauty, food and family, remembrance and song.
Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Narratively, Eyedrum Periodically, Silk Road Review, Stoneboat, and other publications. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel) and a poetry chapbook, The Village (forthcoming from Aldrich Press). Visit her website at www.vivianwagner.net
Zeina Hashem Beck’s first book, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Her second book, Louder than Hearts, won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in April 2017. She's also the author of two poetry chapbooks: 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and There Was and How Much There Was, a 2016 smith|doorstop Laureate's Choice, selected by UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.