Yemeni poet uses verses and lines to build cultural understanding for English-speaking audience

Published on 24 September 2013 in Report
Samar Qaed (author)

Samar Qaed


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Left: A first year medical student, poetry is Eman’s hobby. Right: Switching from Arabic to English gave Raghda enough confidence to have her work published.

Left: A first year medical student, poetry is Eman’s hobby. Right: Switching from Arabic to English gave Raghda enough confidence to have her work published.

Yemeni poet uses verses and lines to build cultural understanding for English-speaking audience

 

As Raghda Gamal reads out loud a poem she wrote in English, her slight Arabic accent hints that she is not a native-speaker, but the 28-year-old artfully pronounces each word with precision. It has been over five years since the young Yemeni poet began writing in a language not her own, but she says the decision has paid off. 

Since she embarked on her English writing career, Gamal has been published twice, inspired other young writers to do the same and earned a name as one of Yemen’s most promising talents.

“I have been writing poems in Arabic since I was a child, but I was very shy to show them to others,” Gamal said. Although she cannot exactly pinpoint the reason that writing in English — a skill she picked up in secondary school and university — gave her courage, the switch gave the budding artist what she needed to compose her first published collection two years ago. Her first work consisted of 33 poems in a 66 page book on topics ranging from women’s rights to personal relationships, entitled ‘Lost in a Fairy Tale.’

Gamal credits the English department at Sana’a University for much of her success.  She won a poetry competition there in 2008 and many of her colleagues helped her finance the publication of her first book. She was able to print 1,000 copies of her first collection of poems and distributed 80 percent of them for free at cultural events.

Working as the culture editor at several Yemeni newspapers also helped Gamal develop her artistic craft.

But, the young woman knows there is much to learn and has struggled to find mentors.   

“I usually send my poems to specialized critics to critique them,” said Gamal, but because she writes in English in an Arabic-speaking country and those who would be able to critique in English often live out of the country and rarely reply to Gamal’s requests, she hasn’t had much luck finding an editor to provide her intense training.   

One of the biggest advantages to writing in Englishو Gamal saysو is to reach an audience who wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to Yemen and its culture otherwise.

“I write poems for non-Yemeni English speakers who don’t know about Yemen,” she said. Gamal, like many young Yemenis, says her country is misunderstood and very few of those outside Yemen have any idea about her culture.  

When it came time for her to write a second collection, like the majority of the country, Gamal was deeply affected by Yemen’s 2011 popular uprising.  Out of this monumental and tumultuous time  came her second collection of poems, ‘Once Upon a Revolution, ’published in 2012. 

While the inspiration for her 13 poem collection may have come easily, finding the funds to publish a second collection proved to be a challenge for Gamal.

“I had to pay all printing costs,” she said.  “I distributed most of the copies and sold the rest, but I was unable to cover all expenses.”

In her venture to publish again, Gamal found out one of the realities of the book industry in Yemen — there are very few printers, and those that do exist are unable to help with any sort of marketing.   

The head of the Book General Authority, Abdulbari Tahir, doesn’t find Gamal’s frustrations surprising.  

“There aren’t any projects that support the book industry in Yemen," said Tahir. “People don’t read books written in Arabic, let alone the ones in English.”

Nabeel Obadi, head of the Yemeni Publishers’ Union, an independent body established in 2007 with 27 members, is also aware of the challenges facing his industry. He said sometimes the most a publisher can hope or in terms of book promotion is a good turnout at a book fair. But, he remains hopeful that eventually, with united efforts from book publishers,  they will be able to shape a prolific book culture.

Despite her publishing struggles, Gamal’s work has inspired other young poets to follow in her footsteps. 

Eman Mahdi is preparing to publish her first collection of 20 poems in English after finishing her first semester’s exams in the Medical School of Sana’a University. Poetry is her hobby.

“I contacted Gamal, and she gave me some comments on my collections and now I’m confident to publish,” she said.

Gamal isn’t slowing down either. She expects her third English-language collection to be done by the beginning of 2014, and this time she’s not limiting herself to Yemen. 

“I want a sponsor for my collections [to help] make my poems go international,” she said.