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 desperatel