Raw and impassioned: writing multilingual poetry in an Oxford school

Arabic script
Samuel Moss

Shortly before the students of Oxford Spires Academy in East Oxford broke up for their Christmas holidays, the renowned Iraqi poet, Adnan al-Sayegh, paid them a visit. As part of Strand 6 (Prismatic Translation) of the ongoing Creative Multilingualism research project, two groups of students were given poetry workshops by al-Sayegh, who left Iraq in 1993, following a regime crackdown on artistic dissent and who now lives in the UK. While the first group (aged between 9 and 14) were predominantly Arabic-speaking students from Syria, Sudan and Algeria, the second (aged between 16-18) was more varied, and contained a large contingent for whom Arabic was either not their first language, or whose written and spoken Arabic were minimal.

Al-Sayegh opened the workshops with the grand declaration that poetry can talk about anything, but when the students of the younger group had a go at composing their own poems, a few themes rapidly emerged. Given the particular backgrounds of the students assembled for the workshop, it was probably suspected that the composition exercise would naturally develop into one of recollection and reminiscence, but perhaps the emotional and philosophical intensity of what followed was not expected. I arrived at Oxford Spires expecting a fun communally creative experience, but for the younger group, the session quickly became an outpouring of anger and disappointment.

As one who has seen the immense reluctance, indeed inability, of my friends (and myself) to be creative when it was demanded of us in a school literature class, it was striking just how easily and quickly the students produced their poems and how powerful many of them were. Their poetic creations often related personal experiences of terror, violence, refugeehood and rejection, and even in the poems where personal experience was absent, the inner uncertainty of the student poets was conveyed through their meandering and somewhat surreal style. For the students participating, it seemed that poetic composition was synonymous with the recollection and recording of emotional experiences, or the general evocation of emotional intensity. While the youthful bravado of many of the participants appeared to bolster them when reciting their sometimes angry, sometimes mournful poems of reminiscence, the poetic reliving of the past was a bit too much for a few of them, who left the room crying.

When asked to think of their favourite words, they required even less thinking time, and two words immediately emerged: دجاج (djaj) meaning ‘chicken’ and أم (um) meaning ‘mother’. While the former might have merely betrayed the hunger of some of the more boisterous male participants, the second was more revealing. While أم literally means ‘mother’, when asked to explain their choice, many of the children referred to ideas of community and homeland (rendered in Arabic by the closely related word أمة or ummah). In the students’ minds, أم was associated with home, family, structure, order, and, of course, food. The difficulty posed by translating أم into English frustrated both the students and the attending researchers, but perhaps it confirmed just how hard it is to transpose certain ideas from one linguistic and cultural realm to another.

In the older group, the tone of the poetry produced was more varied and less war-focused. Although some of the results were expectedly adolescent in content - discussion of insecurity, parents, violence, the feelings of societal limitation etc. - it was often conveyed in excitingly lyrical, effective and thoughtful language. There were, of course, poems which dealt with the Middle East, and some showed considerable artistry and subtlety in their composition. One such poem was an emotive address to a personified Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, where the joyous occasion was placed in stark contrast to the grotesque reality of the time at which it is being celebrated.

For much for the second session, I was working with a Syrian Kurd who could neither speak English nor write Arabic. With him dealing very well with my stilted classical Arabic, we managed to compose a poetic response to his experiences coming to Oxford from Syria. It ended in a mournful cry for an end to war and for the rebirth of Syria and the jasmine flower with which he associated it. A girl sitting nearby was struggling with a different linguistic challenge, for as a young Algerian girl born in Marseille, her vocabulary was half-French, half Algerian Arabic often with little overlap. Indeed, it seemed that the creative process was particularly rewarding for those who had to overcome the linguistic challenge of an incomplete grasp of the language they were using, and often the resulting poems were especially compelling.

This second group was as passionate as the first group when it came to reciting their compositions, and critiquing those of the other students. While it might be excessive to describe the experience as therapeutic, it certainly felt like it may have been a cathartic one for many of the students, most of whose poetic creations were raw and impassioned. It was a remarkable morning at which I felt very privileged to be present.

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