My Mother is Crying: a multilingual poem
Professor Rajinder Dudrah, Strand 4 Lead, ‘Languages in the Creative Economy’ introduces a multilingual poem written especially for Creative Multilingualism by Amerah Saleh and Bohdan Piasecki from Free Radical.
Free Radical, part of the Beatfreeks collective based in Birmingham, use poetry and different languages in some of their performances to bring to life stories crafted through the written word. They work primarily with youth groups and describe themselves as ‘… an art activism platform giving young people space, mentally, digitally and physically, to tell stories about themselves and the world’.
Meeting with Amerah Saleh and Bohdan Piasecki, two Free Radical poets, was an opportunity to discuss and understand each other’s work ‒ our project of Creative Multilingualism and their own art activism. The importance of different languages in and through artistic expression and a commitment to understanding how artistic practices work ‒ in this case the genre of spoken word ‒ was the basis of our working partnership. We were keen to explore identities, the telling of human stories, and how art and multi-languages together can create shared moments of understanding and feeling between the performing poet and his or her audience.
Their poem, titled ‘My Mother is Crying’, was especially created for our Creative Multilingual Identities conference at the University of Reading. They began by reading a series of their individual poems, ending with the joint performance of this piece, followed by a question and answer session. ‘My Mother is Crying’ was co-developed by Amerah and Bohdan. It brings together two performing artists, three different languages, different voices and creates an intimate connection with the audience. The poem encourages close listening due to its multilingualism, and in the written form presented here, reading carefully the written words, as it invites a response of at least shared empathy and an attempt to understand each other through its themes.
‘My Mother is Crying’ encompasses human emotions and responses to crying, loss, suffering, fear and the comforting of one another through the presence of loved ones, and from speaking in mother tongues and newly created hybrid sounds in the context of the British diaspora. Bohdan and Amerah perform their poem, alternating between each stanza, and the languages they use and draw together are English, Polish and Arabic. The emphasis given to certain phrases and sections in the poem are accentuated both through an intonation of drama in the spoken word and through the accents of the different languages that shift between each other. As such, we are invited to consider what are the things that we don’t say in English all the time, and who are the people that we say them to?
Languages and creativity are inter-related in the skilful act of performing spoken word poetry and we are able to witness the stories on offer and imagine our own place within them.
Watch Amerah and Bohdan perform their poem, or read the full poem below.
‘My Mother is Crying’ (2018)
My son is crying. Co się stało, I ask.
He says his socks are ignoring his feet.
Ale jak to, I ask him. He can’t explain.
Nie martw się, na pewno się pogodzą,
I say, but I know I’m out of my depth.
Chodź synku, przytulimy się. We do, and his nose
is a wet mouse trying to hide behind my clavicle.
Nie martw się, synku. Mam dni
kiedy uwiera mnie cały świat, i nie wiem,
jak prosić, żeby ktoś go poprawił.
My mother is crying
“What’s the damage?”
“Yishtoo 15 alf ba3d bukra”
I stumble over tea stained nimbly opened letters
“15? that’s in two days”
“Ba bee3 al hisam hak akhook”
The letters have tear stains now
She looks at me for answers
“We’ll fix this”
The call for prayer is echoing through both our mobile phones
“Inshallah” she mumbles as she puts her headscarf on to pray
My daughter is crying in front of a screen.
Co się stało, I ask. She is worried that Merida
will never get her mom back.
It’s the first time she’s cried
because someone she doesn’t know
is in distress; me, I have not cried at a film in years.
I breathe in the story, make my lungs
big enough for her to curl up in.
Nie martw się, I say, na pewno się dobrze skończy
zobaczysz, I promise, już zresztą wstaje słońce
Inaczej co by to była za historia, prędzej czy później zaczną
żyć długo i szczęśliwie, zobaczysz, will they really,
she wants to know, will they actually, I say popatrz,
popatrz, popatrz, już zmieniła się z powrotem
and now she’s laughing, I was right, now
she’s forgotten, she’s gone, she’s left me to check
if I can fit through the door with these life-raft lungs.
My niece is crying
“I can’t say that Amerah”
“It’s easy - Ani Hilwa” I am googling how the arabic language breaks syllables
“It hurts my throat”
I laugh “slow it down baba say ani”
“Now altogether Ani Hilwa”
“I don’t want to do this anymore” she picks up her IPAD and starts playing the arabic alphabet song.
I laugh - “Ok ok, how beautiful are you 1-10?”
“10” she doesn’t sound convinced
I am convinced if she learns to say ‘I am beautiful’ in Arabic eventually she will believe it.
My son is crying. He asks
If he is going to die. He says, am I going to die,
am I going to die, daddy, I don’t want to die,
am I going to die. Am I going to die.
I don’t want to lie. Tak synku, ale jeszcze bardzo, bardzo długo.
He wants me to kiss death away like a scraped knee.
Am I going to die. I don’t want to die.
He holds me as tight as he can and doesn’t understand
why it’s not helping. Synku, I want to shout,
kiedy byłem mały chodziłem na roraty
co rano ze świeczką owiniętą w papier
w kościele Świętego Michała dowodzili mi dobitnie
że historie takie jak moja zawsze kończą się szczęśliwie.
Teraz nerwowo wertuję nasze życia, zaginam rogi na kartkach,
sklejam fragmenty, które pokażą mi jak ci odpowiedzieć.
My brother is crying
“Alhamdililah” he is holding the corpse of his son
“Ina lila wa ina lay raj3oon”
I have only ever seen Arab men cry at funerals
He places Ibrahim down, starts rolling a cigarette and mumbles
“Alhamdililah ala kulahal - rabbi yageeblana ash ma nihtag.
Ya rab arham-ibny
Khalee yishfa3 lee
Yashoof Abdulrab wa Mohammed, yashoof gidaty”
“At least he’ll be with his cousins and grandma”
Alhamdililah cigarette in mouth
My daughter is crying. I spoke without looking up,
she was closer than I thought, and my slammed-door voice
sent her running straight to me. She hugs
my leg, trembling - imagine. Like embracing a spider,
or asking a wolf to hide you from itself.
I stroke her hair. I think of Warsaw and how it’s taken to
dressing in black and red. From afar, I watch my city
clench its streets and wave the crowded fist
at people it doesn’t know. I blink quickly; it’s not my turn.
You console children by distracting them. Opowiedz mi bajkę,
I tell her. I don’t know any, she says. Wymyśl coś. She smiles.
Dawno dawno temu byłam sobie ja.
My sister is crying
She is holding her 6th child whilst praying to God that he lets her keep this one
"That’s not how it works Nedal” I laugh
“Sakta bass, khaleeli hali”
She has started to pray more recently
Everytime a doctor sighs - I hear her say
“Ya rab khaleeli ibny.”
Amerah Saleh and Bohdan Piasecki, Free Radical as part of the Beatfreeks Collective.