Ali Al-Jamri is a Bahraini writer and poet based in the UK who is passionate about Bahraini history, the Baharna experience, human rights and decolonising education. His poetry and translations have been published in ArabLit Quarterly, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Harana, Bahr Magazine, Zindabad, Consilience, Modern Poetry in Translation and anthologies.
Ali has a colourful and varied career history, having worked on numerous creative projects. He is one of three inaugural Manchester Multilingual City Poets, 2022. A member of Young Identity with The Contact Theatre and mentored by Commonword. Ali was a BBC Words First 2020 semi-finalist, New Writing North Arabic Translation mentee, 2021 and Creative Producer and Editor of Between Two Islands project and anthology, funded by Arts Council England (2021). Guest Editor of ArabLit Quarterly: FOLK (2021).
We talk to Ali about how his Bahraini heritage inspires his creativity, the representation of Islam in the mainstream literary world and his aspirations for his new appointment as on of three inaugural Manchester Multilingual City Poets.
Can you tell us about your background and your journey into poetry?
I’m Bahraini and British. My father came to the UK to study in the 1980s and my mum travelled over with him. By the time he completed his education, the political situation at home was such that he could not return. As a result, my sisters and I were born in the UK. In 2001, there were political reforms in Bahrain including an amnesty for political exiles, and we moved back there. I was 10 at the time, so I grew up in both countries before finally settling in the UK as an adult.
I feel that my life and art was really shaped by the Arab Uprisings in 2011. Bahrain was one of the six countries that experienced that first revolutionary wave, along with Yemen, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. (This hasn’t ended, as shown by continued and new movements in Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere). I was 20 and it was the formative political event of my life. The uprisings completely redrew the possibilities of expression, and unfortunately they became very restricted. If state censorship doesn’t affect you, then you are under the influence of self-censorship. You second-guess yourself, you
poems helped heal
the mind’s wound of silence.
Once tapped into, it could not be
Does your heritage and faith influence your creative practice?
Certainly. It took a long time to fully understand where my faith and heritage stand in relation to my identity as a whole, and in relation to my poetics. I think a lot of poetry by minorities is an effort to announce ‘here I am, here is how I am different to the mainstream, take it or leave it!’ I feel that’s a necessary step in personal growth as an artist, it’s a declaration we need to make. But the more interesting poetry is what you write when you don’t have anything to prove, neither to yourself or to an audience.
For me, my Bahraini and Bahrani identities (which are two distinct things) are often at the fore of my poetry. The Baharna are a particular Arab community, the oldest continuously settled Arab community in the region of Bahrain. One of the markers of the Baharna is that we are Shia, and this Shia worldview is expressed across our culture.
Growing up, I was surrounded by the poetry of love and grief, the mourning of martyrs, azza and mawakeb. There are many famous ones by my great-great-grandfather Mulla Atiyya bin Ali which are still popularly recited today. I don’t consciously tap into this stuff often, but when reflecting on my work I can often see the tell-tale signs of my upbringing across my work.
At some points of my life, I’ve felt that Shia Islam is too obsessed with past grief, tragedy and martyrdom. At other times, I’ve found exceptional beauty in our memorialisation of past heroes and our refusal to forget those who stood against tyranny and injustice, from Imam Hussain’s stand against Yazid in Kerbala to present day heroes across the globe. Both reactions are valid and exist alongside each other within me and emerge in my poetics – what is expressed may depend on how I feel on a given day!
I enjoy exploring these things in my poetry. In the past year, I’ve enjoyed translating more Hussayni poetry. I recently translated the opening lines of a famous praise poem to Imam Ali, “Are you the moon itself?” by the late Ghazi Al-Haddad in time for the mawlid of the Imam.
How do your poems develop? Please guide us through the stages and how you find inspiration?
I find this difficult to answer because I don’t have one process. Rather, I have a toolkit of techniques that I use for different poems. Some poems need to be written in one impassioned moment. Others are best drafted slowly. Some require pen and paper, others must be tapped out on a phone. My longest poem, still unpublished, I wrote over the course of a month in 2020’s first lockdown, writing in the final 10 minutes of consciousness each night, and editing the surrealist drafts the next morning. With some poems, I’ll map out and analyse the metrical feet. I try to be open-minded, working for the poem rather than making the poem work for me.
Having said that, there are a few constants. First, I always try to share my work and go to workshops. I believe writing to be a communal activity and engaging with others is always inspiring. Second, I always, always edit, sometimes for days, sometimes for years. I never treat it as a final product. And third, I read my poetry out loud and listen to the rhythm. If something feels off, it’s usually because the rhythm of the words is poor!
I try to find inspiration everywhere, and to see it wherever I look. But I find it most of all in reading about history and mythology, both from Bahrain and around the world. When I’m stuck, I turn to reading and translating.
without a map —
Maps draw themselves with words,
knitting common humanity,
Do you show your work in progress to anyone?
Always! I used to hide my work from the world, and who knows how many years of potential art I wasted by doing that. The first time I ever shared my poems with another, I was shaking with nerves. Sharing a poem can still be nerve-racking, but I seek it out now. Art is only complete when it reaches an audience. Sometimes, you are your own audience, sometimes it is only two people, sometimes it is the whole world. I try not to send anything out into the wild without at least one friend reading over it first.
What was the intention behind your multilingual poetry anthology Between Two Islands, showcasing the talents of thirteen British Bahraini poets?
The idea came out of the 2020 lockdown. I felt isolated and desperately wanted to be with my family in Bahrain. I also felt very worn down by the arts sphere. Very often, I felt the need to justify myself and I was tired of having to explain myself, sometimes even in minority circles. I had ambitions to do a project in 2021, to mark the decade of uprisings. But Between Two Islands only started to come together after I met Taher Adel, another British Bahraini poet. Here I’d thought I was the only one, and yet we were two. Taher and I are our own poets, yet we draw from the same pool of cultural experiences.
It was from there that I really started to develop the idea of a community project, exploring this identity of ‘British Bahraini’ or ‘Bahraini in Britain’ with others. The response was wonderful. Few of us were poets at the start of the project, but all of us had contributed a piece to the anthology by the end.
Ultimately, I wanted to express something culturally and specifically Bahraini in the English language. In the UK, I believe it is the first of its kind.
the two islands:
My sea is poetry.
I choose to be a dolphin here,
How did people respond to the Between Two Islands project?
It was very enthusiastic – we had a lot of people sign up (many were in Bahrain in fact and unfortunately ineligible). We had two events, one digital in March and one live in October 2021, and they were both very well received – some people telling me it was one of the best digital events they went to months after the event. And I believe it helped participants feel better connected with each other, and supercharged their creative impulses. I also think it’s had an impact on our understanding of what it means to be ‘British Arab’, though that is still developing!
Who are your favourite poets?
Gosh, how to pick! My all-time favourite is probably Abu Al-Qassim Al-Shabbi (1909-1934), the Tunisian national poet, whose ‘The Desire of Life’ I’m proud to have translated. He lived a tragically short life and wrangled constantly with ill-health, depressive bouts and unlucky turns. You have this almost terrified and angry youth trying to figure out life, and he died before he could work all the answers out. I am as drawn to the possibilities of his work that never was, as I am to the work that he produced.
In English, Zaffar Kunial’s Us brought me to my knees when I read it. It was the right book for me at the right time but I still return often to his The Word. He seemed to express and explore everything I wanted to, with so much skill!
Another two are Tolu Agbelusi and Shirley May. Occasionally I find myself feeling that English-language poetry no longer moves me, and their books (Locating Strongwoman; She Wrote Her Own Eulogy) snap me out of that. A current favourite I’ve only recently read is Leo Boix, whose book Ballad of a Happy Immigrant has me hooked. Like Kunial’s it’s a book that makes me go this is what I want to achieve.
Within Bahrain, I’ve been very influenced by the extreme locality of some of our poetry. My grandmother can recall folk poems from our village stretching back into the 19th century. Her grandfather, Mulla Atiyya, was a prolific writer of dialect poetry and I often have one of his poems rattling in my head.
Iraqi poets have also had a great impact on me. Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab, Nazik Al-Mala’ika, but also Fawzi Karim, all of whom I initially met through translation, have left a very lasting impact.
Of contemporary Arab poets, I frequently return to the works of Najwan Darwish and Nouri Al-Jarrah.
Long dead, unborn
We are all in conversation,
Can you share one of the works you have written you are most proud of? Why did you choose this piece?
How difficult! ‘Comes the sea…’ published in Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal is one. It went through such a long process to get published: I drafted it in January 2020. At the time that I wrote it, it felt like the very best thing I had yet produced, and that made it very difficult to analyse the poem, break it down and improve it.
It took nearly two years of rejections and editing to get it in PBLJ, and the form changed significantly in that time. And there was a lot of mentoring involved. I remember I had a ten-minute mentoring slot with Tolu Agbelusi as part of a rather intensive talent programme (BBC Words First), and her criticisms of the piece took me months to process and be able to act on. It’s a favourite because of the long process I had to take. I learned a lot about myself in the journey this poem took. But I also know I would never write a poem like it today.
As a British Muslim, is the representation of Islam important in the mainstream literary world and why?
Representation is important on two levels. On the first, we need more Muslim identities shown in the media and literature. Too often, we are either victims or perpetrators of violence. As a teacher, I always want to connect my students to literature that represents them and it can be a struggle at times to find something that fits that bill.
But, truth be told, I don’t feel particularly attached to the identify of ‘British Muslim’. I feel that in the UK specifically, ‘British Muslim’ tends to be a shorthand for South Asian and Sunni, which I am neither. Who thinks of a Shia Bahraini Arab when they read the phrase ‘British Muslim’?
I don’t see the plurality of Muslims with all our incredible variety in that phrase. I don’t want a representation of ‘Islam’ in the literary world, I want representations of plural ‘Islams’. I don’t think I’ve ever read a story written in English with a Shia protagonist, for example. But why not? Where’s the plurality? I suspect publishers would say there’d be no readership for it in the UK.
Although it’s not literature, I’ll never forget watching Four Lions in a cinema with a friend. We lived in Surrey at the time and had to take a train to Guildford to watch it, and then had to sit on opposite ends of the theatre as there were no two seats left next to each other. There’s a scene where some of the group come out of a building shaking their heads furiously to avoid being recognisable on CCTV, and Riz Ahmed’s character shouts “You look like a couple of Sufis on speed!” You could tell who were the Muslims in the theatre – only my friend and I laughed in the entire theatre. But it stays with me because one, when had I ever heard the word Sufi said in a film? and two, they didn’t feel the need to explain to the audience what a Sufi was. Riz Ahmed’s character made the joke, and the filmmakers trusted that their intended audience would get it. And we did.
That’s the kind of confident representation I’m after. We shouldn’t have to feel like we need to explain and justify ourselves. When being Muslim recedes into the background, then I think more can be explored in relation to it.
You are one of three inaugural Manchester Multilingual City Poets. Can you tell us what this role entails, what it means for you and the opportunities it might present for creating cultural understanding?
Other cities have City Poets, but Manchester has chosen to celebrate its multiculturalism by recruiting three of us. I represent our Arabic-speaking community, alongside Anjum Malik (Urdu) and Jova Bagioli Reyes (Spanish). Poetry and language is fundamentally about community, so I think this is a beautiful way to have community valued within the post of City Poet. For a start, we'll be writing poetry around set events in Manchester's calendar, including World Poetry Day, the Festival of Libraries and Manchester Day. But we'll each also be taking projects on within the role - as it's the first City Poet role in Manchester, there'll be a lot of trial and hopefully not too much error.
For me, I'm particularly excited to work with young people. Though my parents spoke to me in Arabic in my early years and I grew up in both Britain and Bahrain, I had nearly no Arabic by the time I was 20. The hegemonic force of English, that colonial language, was just so great. I started relearning my language as an adult and could not have imagined that by the end of my 20s I'd be fluent and able to write poetry in Arabic - I am still improving, still growing, still see myself as a learner. And I'm driven to help children and teenagers embrace their mother tongues and keep a hold of their fluency. It's so difficult to do that in the West, and even in many parts of the Arab world where it's possible to be detached of our Arabic. I'm not a position to say what the projects will be yet, but that is a driving force behind what I wish to achieve as City Poet.
What are your future hopes and aspirations as a poet?
I always try to root myself back into my communities. Am I doing right by them? Is my work helping others express themselves? I have two personal ambitions, one two publish my own collection, the second to translation and popularize Bahrani dialect poetry. I try to always hold my community in mind, and give back to my community, so my ambitions will develop along those lines.
For more information check out https://alialjamri.com/
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