Language, diaspora and suffering: In conversation with poet and aid worker Jehan Bseiso

Jehan Bseiso’s poems are a medley of beauty and brutality. Conjuring images from Syria, Palestine, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region, the 34-year-old Palestinian poet pours her frustration into verses, alongside her job managing communications for the international humanitarian aid organization Doctors Without Borders. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Jordan, Bseiso studied English literature at the American University of Beirut, where she is currently based.

Her poems, several of which have been published on Mada Masr, strip away politics to reveal a bare-boned humanity often overlooked in news headlines: Celebratory fireworks sit alongside deadly phosphorous, saltwater stings the lashes of those fleeing war, a child remembers her father counting dead bodies, and the displaced drown their nostalgia in cups of sugary Turkish coffee on a distant European shore.

On July 4, Bseiso held an intimate reading of some of her poems at the Netherlands Flemish Institute in Cairo (NVIC). The cosy library was packed as Bseiso performed her work with meticulous pacing and a wide emotional range, embodying each of her poems’ characters with subtle changes in tone. The reading was followed by a lively discussion about language, diaspora, and the tension between being directly involved with and writing about suffering in the Arab world.

This interview is a continuation of that discussion.

At your poetry reading at the NVIC, you mentioned you were only in Cairo very briefly. Were you here specifically for the event, or does your other persona as a spokesperson for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) bring you here? Do you often speak publicly and give readings?

I’ve been working with MSF for nine years and I am currently heading a regional MSF communications team based between Beirut and Cairo. My work is very demanding, and I’m constantly creating space for reading, writing, performing or even just thinking about poetry. I try to hold readings whenever possible. Last April, I read in New York and it was an incredible experience, but nothing compares to reading in all “my” cities: Beirut, Amman, Cairo and Jerusalem. It’s been at least a year since I started talking with NVIC about holding a poetry reading and discussion there. I think of these evenings as conversations, as a chance to share and read, but also listen.

You said you felt ashamed when you first began to write poetry, like you needed to hide it from people. Why was that, and when did you begin to read your poetry publicly, and to publish?

The truth is I’ve been writing for years, but when I started working with MSF, I kept it a secret from my colleagues. I thought I had to choose between poetry and press releases, and it took me a few years to realize that was a false choice. The things I work on — refugee camps, blood, wars — they started to show up in my poetry, and it became impossible to hide that from my colleagues. At the same time, the poetry also started to take a different direction and become bigger than my attempt to hide it. So I had to reconcile my two lives together.

I am working with an international medical humanitarian organization that saves lives on the ground, but in so many ways, it’s poetry that has saved my life. Today, my two professional identities, poet and aid worker, are seamless. I don’t know where one begins and the other ends.

You said you choose to write in English because it allows you to be “a stranger in language.” Could you tell me a bit more about how your chosen language affects how you write?

I wrote my thesis on Samuel Beckett, and although he is an Irish writer, he taught himself French in order to be a “stranger in language.” Writing in French gave him a view on a language that was not his mother tongue but could take him further in some cases. I feel the same way about English. In some sense I feel like — especially with the history of colonialism and the legacy of empire in the Arab world — we’re occupying English when we use it, and in that way I feel very good about it. But I have a lot of dilemmas about not losing my Arabic, about not sacrificing the Arabic language at the altar of English. A theorist I really relate to is  Chilean writer Gloria Anzaldua, and she speaks about this “orphan tongue,” the tongue that is for her between borderlines. She talks about speaking many tongues and not wanting to choose between them. That’s how I feel about language, about Arabic and English.

Some of your work is currently being translated into Arabic. How has that process been for you? Do you feel like you’re rediscovering your work when you read it in other languages?

A volunteer translator reached out to me, Marwa Mechref from Alexandria, and we’ve been working on some translations together. To be honest, I don’t feel complete ownership over the work in Arabic, and that’s something I would like to improve. Being naturally bilingual, you already inhabit this in-between kind of space. And hearing my poetry in my mother tongue, it feels very different.

My poems have also been translated into other languages; it’s been beautiful to read them in French. And each time it feels very different. When a piece is translated, it has a life of its own. Languages have chambers within them, and I still haven’t mastered the chambers of creative writing in the Arabic language. But that’s what it feels like for me, like a house with so many rooms that you can go in and out of. Definitely, in my house, there are all these rooms and I’m still exploring them.

Because you write in English it’s inevitable that your audience will be English speakers, and because of the topics you write about, it feels as though you’re addressing the Arab diaspora, which you do explicitly in several poems. Having been born in the US and having lived in Jordan and Lebanon, do you consider yourself part of a diaspora?

I definitely do, as a Palestinian who has never lived in her country of origin, and as someone who has traveled and worked throughout the region. I feel very much at home in Beirut, in Cairo, in Amman. I’ve had family in Cairo for the past 30 years. I think diaspora is definitely at the heart of who we are and our generation.

I use a lot of transliterated Arabic words in my English. I’ve been told recently that its difficult to read my poems if you don’t speak Arabic, which I take as a compliment, but it was very puzzling. It shows how many different kinds of readers there are.

So I am maybe writing for the diaspora, who are maybe slowly losing touch with the depravity, the loneliness, the misery, the war in the Arab world. At the same time the use of English opens up what I write about to people who speak English. In the one sense, yes, I am writing for people like me, outsiders, or I’ll call them outsider-insiders.

I interrogate the media a lot, and stereotypes, especially stereotypes represented through the media. As a communications professional, I think the media has a lot of responsibility to improve the depiction, to improve narration, to stop using words like “humanize” when they’re talking about humans. There’s nothing that annoys me more than that.

Some of your pieces have also been translated across media, from language to music, yes?

Last year I was contacted by the Italian composer, Silvia Borzelli, who found my poem No Search, No Rescue and transformed it into a musical piece sung by six voices, It was broadcast on national French radio in January. When Silvia contacted me, she mentioned that she considers poetry as a kind of music already, so she doesn’t usually work with poems, but something about No Search, No Rescue was very musical to her ears.

Interestingly enough, two other composers in Norway and the UK have since reached out about that same poem, with plans to set it to music and performance. At the risk of cliché, I strongly believe the words don’t belong to me anyway, they just pass through me.

You are a co-author, along with Samah Sabawi and Ramzy Baroud, of I Remember My Name, which received a Palestine Book Award [an initiative of the London-based Middle East Monitor to recognize English-language books about Palestine] in 2016. Was it your first published book?

I publish with several websites, and had previously published my work as part of a poetry anthology, Nowhere Near a Damn Rainbow (2012), but yes, this was the first to be published [by Novum] as a standalone book with 10 poems of mine included. We’ve actually never met, the other writers and I — we wrote this entire book virtually, together. During the writing process we worked with an editor and a publisher, and we were scattered all over the world. One of us was in the Middle East, one in the US, one was in the UK, and two were in Australia. It was very much a diaspora project. You can cross borders in that way too.

In your poems, you often recount conversations. Are those conversations real, imagined, or a mixture of both?

They are a mixture. I’m currently working on a poetry anthology called Conversations Continued, and I describe it as a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Because of my work, there’s a lot of medical symbols, lots of doctors in my poems. I spend a lot of time thinking about hospitals, about disease and death, and I’ve found a method, through alchemy, to turn that into poetry. Unfortunately a lot of that stuff is very real.

This new book has a chapter on love, and I think love is at the heart of everything we do. I can start writing a letter about the Nakba and then it turns into a poem about the broken heart. The book is divided into several chapters about homeland, the “Arab spring,” love, etcetera, and it should be published in mid 2018. I’m also working on another poetry anthology called Making Mirrors with a US professor, Becky Thompson, which is by, for and about refugees. We’ve received a lot of poems and we’re looking to hold workshops around the region to get contributions from different communities in transit.

As both a writer and an aid worker, you’ve said you refuse the choice between being in this world and writing about it. Can you elaborate on that?

I get asked to go and speak at universities about how my degree in literature has helped me be involved with the world. I think learning to read and write and engage and critically think is exactly what makes us part of the world and makes us act as informed citizens.

You’ve used the phrase “dirty poetry” to describe your work. How did you come to that term?

When I studied literature, I was told that the writer needs to remove himself and have distance from his subject. That writing in which there’s a lot of emotions is tainted somehow, that poetry is lofty. A lot of poetry is dismissed for that reason. That’s why I like to call what I do “dirty poetry.” I’m trying to bring some of the reality from the field, some of the pain and suffering into poetry, and at the same time I’m also trying to bring some poetry into MSF. It goes both ways.

In your talk you said we have a responsibility not to create a hierarchy of suffering in the region. What did you mean by that, and who are the “we” that you address?

When I say “we,” I mean citizens in the broadest sense, especially active ones. People who are reading, writing, and working in this world. This hierarchy of suffering is a tendency we really need to avoid, especially in this region where we’ve experienced so many condensed layers of suffering in a short period of time. Just because we come from a highly volatile region, we don’t need to get into this competition and say, oh Iraqis are the most to suffer, no it’s the Syrians, no Egyptians have it worse. This crisis is global and the suffering is shared, and it affects not just us in the region but Europe and elsewhere as well. And it’s those thin threads of our humanity that still tie us together.

You often write about Palestine, although until quite recently you hadn’t managed to actually go there. How did you construct the Palestine that appears in your mind, in your poems?

I think we create our cities, with our memory, our music, food, stories of our parents and grandparents. I was lucky to visit Palestine for the first time in 2012, and with that visit I was able to set the scene, to dot the Is and cross the Ts. I realized that all these years all the characters and scenes I was setting belonged to this place, to that vein of writing. In the four or five times I’ve been to Palestine, two of them were the Palestinian Festival of Literature that Ahdaf Soueif organizes along with her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, and others. There I felt like an insider-outsider, which is always the case. Being from there but also outside of the daily context. The thing about nostalgia is that even after you go somewhere and have access and satisfy that urge, it’s still there. Even Beirut where I live, I’m basically living in nostalgia, I have memories of times past surrounding me on every street. It’s contagious.

You have found this third space for yourself, in language, and as an insider-outsider. Are you getting comfortable in this position? How does it feel from where you stand?

It’s a daily struggle, but I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. I don’t want to sound cheesy but it makes me feel at home everywhere I go, I belong everywhere I go. The other day I was told, by a prominent poet whose name I won’t mention, that unless I write in Arabic I will become irrelevant to the Arab literary scene and to history, I will be appropriated by the English language. That’s not how I see it at all. It’s no longer the case that English writers need to be in the English canon and vice versa. Our world is so global and identities are so versatile now. It’s not that I’m getting more comfortable in this position, it’s that more and more people in the world are becoming like me.

Lara El Gibaly 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism