Karim Wafa, also known as Karim Wafa Al-Hussaini, is a poet, historian, author, speaker, model, educator and linguist who lives between his country of Bahrain and London in England. He has grown to prominence for his poetry pieces which incorporate elements of Arabic literature and linguistics within the English language, as well as due to his multidimensional approach to historical research, through the analysis of Afro-Arab history across the Arab World and the Indian Ocean, as well as Atlantic history with a special focus mainly on African-American as well as Afro-Latin history.
Aside from Afro-Arab and Afro-Diasporic history, his wider area of specialization also includes Islamic history and art. He has currently finalised the completion of his first poetry collection as well as a history book on the lost history of the Afro-Arab diaspora found across Arabia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, both in the process of being published. He has also started his podcast called ‘Gahwa with Karim’ this year, which aims to educate and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds. Karim’s work revolves around the intersection between history, language, diaspora communities, art, and oral traditions, which intersect through poetry and cultural heritage.
We talk to Karim about his unique approach to history and creativity and making heritage and culture accessible to wide audiences.
You identify as a polymath, can you explain what it means to be a polymath in today's world?
Being a polymath refers to one’s knowledge and expertise of various fields of study and subjects. In all honesty, growing up as a polymath in today’s world is not as easy as one may think, and that - I believe - is due to society’s core obsession with over-specialization, which to me was always something I was unable to follow through with. Essentially, in this day and age, we are encouraged to find one passion or area of interest that we are fond of, and stick to it for the rest of our professional lives. To me, I found social media to be the main tool that would allow me to share and partake in the specialization of my different areas of interest. For example, I tend to post my poetry and motivational quotes on Instagram, while my academic and historic interests show up on my Twitter through detailed archive-filled threads, and my public speaking pops up on TikTok and YouTube. If there’s one thing to be said about being a polymath in today’s world, is that no matter how much people may try and make you doubt your interests, take advantage of the internet and of social media as key tools to expand and deepen your passions.
Can you tell us what sparked your interest in Afro-Arab history?
Well, I come from a diverse background. My dad is Bahraini-Palestinian with deeper roots from across the Arabian Peninsula from countries such as Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Morocco in North Africa, while my mom is Lebanese-Italian-Bahraini with Syrian, Armenian, Bosnian, and Jordanian heritage. Essentially, I’m from the Middle East as one might have guessed, and my interest in Afro-Arab history began as a journey of self-discovery, as I questioned my roots and identity from a very young age, never feeling quite satisfied with what I was told. I began digging deeper and analyzing the family tree that was hanging in my living room, which led me to discovering the Arab and African blood that I possess as a descendant of one of the earliest clans in the Western Arabian Peninsula, on the shore of the Red Sea, facing Sudan, Egypt and Eritrea on the one hand, and Arabia on the other: the Banu Hashem. For example, my dad received his ancestry DNA test results a couple of months back, and the data managed to showcase the deeply mixed heritage within our family, with the results being exactly 50% African and 50% Asian. This was even more fascinating when I examined the different regions, ethnicities, and tribes related to these areas, being tied to the history of migration across the Afro-Arab world for millennia, illustrated with the example of our family.
Essentially, if my background could be summarized with one word, it would be ‘migration’ as that is one concept that has been the existential truth of almost every generation within my family, fleeing wars, conflicts, revolutions, and other traumatic events that have plagued our region of the Middle East for over a century since colonialism, which explains by specialization in history of the colonial and imperial era, as well as how those legacies manifest through post-colonialism and ethno-racial discourses. Growing up in my country of Bahrain, I could see traces of African culture, music, and dance wherever I went, especially when it came to traditional and folk arts, which were engrained in our culture, but whenever I asked people about it, they simply did not know much about our history which is why I was always left with a question mark. I decided to stop relying on others and to instead take matters into my own hands by diving into the archives, questioning history, interviewing tribal elders, and most importantly, looking back at the history of my own family, for answers. This is how my Afro-Arab educational project was born, which is going to come into further fruition in the near future, which will give anyone the ability to finally understand the complex history behind the region of Afro-Arabia, also known as both Africa and the Arab World.
Your poetry integrates Arabic into the English text. Can you walk us through the journey of developing your poetic style?
Poetry has always been my escape route since I was a kid. I grew up as an only child, an introvert and being picked on by my peers for being different, which led me to writing whenever I was happy, sad, lost, bored, or whenever I had a pen in my hand. My dad is a poet who writes in Arabic, while I mostly write in English through the integration of aspects of Arab culture and language. Simply put, poetry, and writing at large, is a way for me to understand and comprehend my emotions through the sublimation of whatever I’m going through and transforming it into art. If my poetic style could be explained, I believe it would be that I try to keep things simple but meaningful, through the creation a bridge connecting vintage literary styles from Indigenous cultures, including the Middle East, Africa, and various parts of Asia, as well as the wider Islamic world, with the modern reader of the 21st century.
How does your experience as a historian impact your creative process?
As a historian, my experience through the historical field of study essentially fuels my creativity, because it gives me the chance to bring historical matters, figures, and ideas, into the modern age through poems, stories, and audio-visual work. Many of my longer version poems which have not been posted on my socials yet tend to be centered around deeper topics and historical subjects such as race, colonialism, oppression, slavery, emancipation, freedom, religion, language, and identity. In other words, whereas many people might think that my background and specialization in history might block my creative ideas – they on the contrary fuel my creative side as I think of ways of bringing history into the modern age through art and giving voices to those who for long have been denied any.
Can you give us an example of how you use academic knowledge to serve the community at large?
I deeply believe that the best way to serve and show love to the community, especially with the background that I have, is through education, and providing information to people who have until prior not had access to such resources. This is one of the reasons that I do the work that I do, as whenever I’m in a public space, whether a meeting, a gallery opening, a public speaking event, or even a lecture, I get told by people – both young and old – that the knowledge that I have is special for someone in this day and age, which essentially motivates me to put it out there and share it with the world. It started off with me posting historical videos on TikTok and educational carousel posts on Instagram before I got the confidence to post my poetry, which fueled my desire to do more for the community at large, and at a much bigger scale, with both art in the form of poetry and academia through history and culture.
What do you hope to deliver through your podcast “Gahwa with Karim”?
What is interesting is that I had the idea of starting a podcast for around two years, but I never really put much thought as to how I should bring it into reality, until this year, when I made it a priority on my New Year’s Resolution list and started recording on January 1st. My podcast ‘Gahwa with Karim’ is centered around the concept of the Arab and Islamic ‘diwaniya’ or ‘majlis’ which is essentially an ancient and tribal concept which relates to the bringing together of people for conversations around coffee, or ‘Gahwa’ as we call it traditionally. While most of the episodes I have posted until now are focused on history, identity, race, language, colonialism, migration, and the power of storytelling within diaspora communities, I am also starting to expand by recording a couple of episodes around mental health and art such as poetry, which I believe tie into the realm of history as many of the issues present within our Brown and Black communities can be tied back to history. The beauty of the ‘Gahwa with Karim’ podcast is that it simplifies complex topics and subjects within the realm of history, race, migration, and identity, and compresses them into short information-filled chapters. In this sense, as my episodes tend to be between 10 to 15 minutes – much shorter than the usual hour-long podcasts most people are used to – I want my podcast to be a comfortable and short opportunity for the modern listener to learn something new wherever they may be, whether on the bus, at a work break, relaxing on the couch, or anywhere else for that matter.
How does having a cross-disciplinary experience enrich or challenge your work?
My cross-disciplinary experience shows up across my work, and in different ways, from my poetry and historical, academic and educational content to other areas, which essentially manage to showcase the interconnectedness of our modern world through various methods and ways. As I explained in a previous question, my poetry, which is an artistic means of expression, tends to also combine aspects of my historical areas of specialization and insert itself in the world of linguistics. By doing so I believe that my work can help encourage higher levels of understanding through the enriching experience of connecting the dots between culture, art, and history. What this manages to do is push us to look for the bigger picture when it comes to different fields of study within our world, looking for answers in sometimes unconventional ways. The beauty of this type of work is that I get to showcase the different ways in which culture, as well as historical trajectories and moments of struggle, manifest in various ways ranging from poetry, to academia, as well as the arts, and more.
In the past, you started a skincare business that rebrands indigenous practices. How do identity and heritage often impact your work?
As anyone might have guessed, whatever I do is centered around connecting our modern world with ancestral knowledge, indigenous cultures, history, and traditional practices, which manifested when I started my skincare brand a couple of years back. I started the skincare line when I was at university in 2018, which I successfully ran for a year or two, but I then was unable to follow through with it as I was focusing on exams and I began working on another project which was more time consuming. Identity and heritage are central to my work as when I started my brand, I produced only two items – a body butter and a face cream – which were meant to represent the history of the Afro-Arab world and the Indian Ocean, through the integration of natural and organic ingredients from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Essentially, my goal at the time was to give recognition to our ancestral and home-made remedies that we have been using for centuries across Brown and Black households and integrating them into a simple and compact contemporary product by offering it to the modern consumer.
I believe that due to my multidimensional identity which ranges from variety in ethnicity, culture, to tribe, and race, I have always sought to represent the various indigenous cultures and communities which make me who I am. This is not something new as I’ve been doing so for as long as I can remember with one example being me staying in the library during every recess, going through the dusty old bookshelves researching and reading books written on the history of ancient cultures and civilizations, while my peers preferred to go outside and play in the playground. There has always been an element of mystery within the world of history that I always sought to dive into, in order to find answers and be able to present those findings to people in my own way. This all goes to show how identity and heritage manifest in my creative and academic work in multiple different ways.
What are some projects you are working on at the moment?
There are a lot of things that I am currently working on, some being projects I started a year or two ago, while others are newer endeavors I embarked upon recently, just this year. When it comes to poetry, I have completed the writing of my first poetry collection that I am going to publish soon. The Afro-Arab project I began is another one of my main priorities at the moment as that is the first stepping stone to my educational goals, which is tied to another larger plan of mine to provide widespread access to specialized historical and humanities-based education across global communities through harnessing the power of the digital age. My podcast ‘Gahwa with Karim’ is a newer project that I began this year, and which I am excited to continue developing as I have many ideas on various topics that I’d like to bring into reality, and especially offer the modern listener the chance to learn about and discover. Another very exciting project that I have embarked upon is being open to lecturing when it comes to my specialization in Afro-Arab history on the one hand, and performing my poetry publicly on stage on the other hand, as I have been receiving multiple invites and requests to showcase my work.
What advice would you give to emerging artists and creators on how to manage their time effectively between different occupations and interests?
I think that the most important aspect of an artist or creator’s journey relates to their self-expression, and if they feel that they are truly able to express themselves through the work that they create and fitting it into their daily schedule. This may take the form of creating a to-do list and noticing after a set period of time when during the day someone is feeling their most productive. For example, in my case, I tend to be better at writing long pieces of work in the morning as I am a morning person and after a long day of work retreating to my special corner and writing a motivational post after having gone through a stressful day as I notice that the toll of a day’s work makes us introspective, allowing us to comprehend our emotions better. This is why I constantly encourage fellow artists and creators to experiment with their schedule, in order to see what works best for them as no two people have the exact same method of creativity, because everyone is unique in their own way.
Can you share a routine or habit related to your creative work that you make sure to do every day?
One thing that I do every day is that I push myself to write, even if I may not feel motivated nor inspired as I believe that it nourishes and keeps me in the mindset of being creative. This may take the form of poetry, non-fiction historical work, or even my motivational posts, as I see writing something as being better than writing nothing at all. What is interesting is that this technique is quite inspiring as I realize that even if I wrote something that I never planned of writing, I end up realizing after a while - after having taken a step back - that it had meaning as well as a purpose, which is why it was meant to be written. Most of my viral posts that were shared the most on social media were pieces that I didn’t even plan to write but forced myself to, whether on my desk, in the car, or first thing in the morning after waking up. This is what is so fascinating about creativity because sometimes we may not realize that we have it if we aren’t feeling inspired at a specific moment in time, however it manages to take us by surprise.
How do you read the Islamic arts and scholarship landscape at the moment? And how do you think it can evolve?
The beauty of the Islamic arts and scholarship landscape is that it is constantly evolving and making proper use of modern-day materials to express itself, such as through the internet and social media, which opens up spaces for discussion especially for the younger generation who may appear to be losing touch with traditions and cultural aspects as time goes by. I personally have always been a big advocator of communication and discussions, which is why I see online and communal platforms as optimal means for educating people on the realm of Islamic arts and studies. Harnessing the power of contemporary tools is the ideal method of reaching our target audience, when it comes to raising awareness and educating people on the rich legacy of Islamic arts and culture.
For more information check out
LinkedIn: Karim Wafa Al-Hussaini
The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.