BEIRUT: At a local cafe, a young woman shares her most intimate feelings about death and politics with a roomful of strangers.
“This is dedicated to Zahed Zoughaib, who committed suicide due to unemployment,” says American University of Beirut student Zainab Olleik, as she begins reading her poem, “No One Will Call.”
“Anonymous. Abandoned like an illegal child. No father acknowledged you. No leader. No family adopted you. No country. Only cold water calls. For anonymous ribs…”
Amateur poets have a lot to say about love, life, war, politics and society. At Beirut cafes, and particularly those in Hamra, they rhapsodize about their joys and vent their frustration in rhythmic prose.
“Words, when they’re spoken in a rhythmic way, become illuminated,” says Crystal Hoffman.
“Humans are naturally attracted to rhythms and sounds.”
Hoffman teaches creative writing at AUB and leads monthly poetry readings at Hamra’s Café Younes.
“Poetry is our oldest form of communication,” Hoffman continues. “It has always been an oral art. That’s why there’s rhythm and repetition – to memorize. That’s why reciting is important, and that’s why we read aloud.
“The artistry on the page is important,” she adds, “but not as important as how it sounds.”
Oral transmission of literature is deeply entrenched in Arab culture, with the tradition of Arabic poetry salons dating back at least a thousand years. Although most of the poetry readings in Hamra are in English, and organized by American university professors, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the revered place of poetry in Arab culture has helped these events gain a loyal following among locals and foreigners alike.
For budding poets, articulating their innermost thoughts before an audience is no small feat. If they are to flourish, an encouraging and nonjudgmental environment is crucial.
“There’s a deliberate attempt to have a noncritical atmosphere,” explains Michael Dennison, an assistant professor of English literature at AUB. These poetry evenings were launched in 2005 by AUB professor Jayson Iwen and sponsored by the AUB English department.
Dennison took the helm of the initiative in 2008. Since then, he has watched several regular participants blossom, in both their versification and self-confidence.
“One of the pleasures of seeing people read their poetry aloud for the first time,” he reflects, “is that you see people who never imagined themselves reading in front of even a small crowd.
“There’s a sense there’s something important going on with them. They’re making themselves vulnerable in a way they never did before, and they move past their fear. I think it matters that a person feel there’s an audience for their emotions so that they feel they’re not solitary.”
He acknowledges that some of the poetry he’s heard is not high quality, but he appreciates the effort nonetheless, and never criticizes those willing to come forward and express themselves.
“Sometimes someone will read something awful like that Hallmark stuff for Valentine’s Day, he remarks. “But this person is sincere, and we should be grateful someone shared that much of themselves.”
Dennison insists criticizing the writers’ work would detract from the sheltered environment necessary to nurture aspiring poets.
“Some people have suggested critiques and contests, but I’m against that,” he says. “I want everyone to come, read and express themselves where they will find a supportive group of people.”
In fact, as the poets grow more comfortable with semipublic speaking, some have ventured beyond the cozy confines of Café Younes to other venues, where they have read poems to the accompaniment of music.
Down the street at the Democratic Republic of Music – a spacious performance venue that opened earlier this year – poets from the Younes group have co-organized events where they deliver their poems to musical accompaniment.
“We’ve been practicing reading our poems with music,” says Boushra Batlouni, a graduate student in English literature at AUB. “This is making me love my words even more.”
These more formal performances demand that the poets practice more than they would for the cafe readings, but what might appear to be daunting at first often turns out to be an unexpectedly warm experience.
“It’s actually a lot easier,” Batlouni muses. “Music gives a back story to the poem. The words become smoother and have more energy. Poems are based on moments, and music gives them more meaning.”
AUB’s poetry readings take place the first Wednesday of every month at Café Younes.