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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Review: Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation by Amal Al-Jubouri

Alice James Books, 2011.
Translated by Rebecca Gayle Howell with Husam Qaisi.
Reviewed by Debrah Lechner

From Poetry After the Occupation:

Weighted with shame, you became
too weak to hold my grief

So heavy my death
could not hold you,

a slaver trading my memories
bidding my papers to strangers

These lines come from the last poem in Al-Jubouri’s collection, in the section Farewell, Poetry. They happened to be the first lines I read, before I had read any of the background provided by the translator Rebecca Howell or in the foreword by Alicia Ostriker. My response was emotional, immediate. I didn’t entirely understand the second stanza, but the could certainly feel the broken heart of the poet mourning the loss of faith in her art.

The best of poetry paired with the best of translations achieve this immediate bridge between cultures. It is a double gift.

The person speaking in these poems is Hagar; her name is pronounced with a soft g sound, and is directly related to the word and act of hajj, “pilgrimage.” Learning Hagar’s story helped in understanding the second stanza of Poetry Before the Occupation. Learning a little about the structure of Arabic, which finds its meaning in inflection rather than word order as English does, was similarly enlightening. The translation process, as usual, was fascinating to read about: the poet and translators drew charts of the various meanings of all words before attempting to find a way to do justice to the highly compressed Arabic when rendered into wordy English.

In this tragic piece, Al-Jubouri uses both the term Abu Ghraib, the prison that shamed America, and the nearly rhyming abu gharib, literally meaning “father of strangers,” to describe poetry. This information brought me back to this poem several times, and as understanding began to sink in, deepened my own grief for this world of wars.

Grief is a good thing; it recognizes a lack and stretches a hand across a void to fill it. It has no biological or cultural imperative to exist; grief is a pure act of hope where it cannot be justified. I have nothing much I can do for a world of war, but I hope my grief may be a sort of prayer.

I loved the structure Al-Jubouri used for this volume. It is not used as a Part One and Part Two of the entire experience of the occupation of Iraq, but is applied to each particular subject, such as: Men Before the Occupation, Men After the Occupation; My Soul Before the Occupation, My Soul After the Occupation; My Mouth Before the Occupation, My Mouth After the Occupation; Freedom Before the Occupation, Freedom After the Occupation; Regret Before the Occupation, Regret After the Occupation. This is very effective, bringing to life in strong vignettes some of what Al-Jubouri experienced and felt, avoiding a structure that would produce a narrative effect in English that would cause readers to expect resolution.

As a result, this poetry inhales and exhales; breathes, thrives. I don’t expect that Al-Jubouri really will be able to say goodbye to poetry, but if she does, she should know that this work will live on. I hope it will have a life of its own for decades to come.

Hagar Before the Occupation, Hagar After the Occupation is a part of the Alice James Books Translation Series, the first volume of the series. Alice James Books is to be congratulated on this very important undertaking. Long live this translation series! Buy this book and study it; support the author and this press.

Amal Al-Jubouri is the author of several books of poetry in Arabic, and is also the founder of East-West Publishing, a press dedicated to international literature.

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