‘The War Is Everywhere’, Sana Goyal on three debuts that explore terror, hunger and belonging across the Arab world

Threa Almontaser

The Wild Fox of Yemen

Picador £10.99

lisa luxx

fetch your mother’s heart

Out-Spoken £10

Nidhi Zak / Aria Eipe

Auguries of a Minor God

Faber £10.99

Outside, the news is always breaking. For Middle Eastern witnesses, the news this century has been especially traumatic, detonating shocks and aftershocks that continue to reverberate through the present moment. Look to Christchurch, there’s a mass shooting in a mosque. Beirut is exploding. Yorkshire is flooding. Look back again, and Australia is on fire. Framing all these disasters, the Twin Towers are falling, with effects still felt across the world. Inside these three debut collections, the threads that unite these various disasters are rigorously pursued. Throughout, three dazzling female poets of the Arab diaspora depict themselves hungering, hunting and being hunted in return.

Terror is everywhere: on the tip of the tongue, inside a shuddering body, inside a fading memory, inside a burning country.

Here is the kind of breaking news that, from the very first page, makes the Yemeni American poet Threa Almontaser wear ‘the city’s hatred as hijab’ in the third grade, in the opening poem of her collection, ‘Hunting Girliness’, which is held together by a tripartite structure. She is at war, she declares, a few verses later. By the close of the collection, the war is everywhere; and every little thing triggers it:

The war is on your hips.
Your hands.
You wear it all over.
You wrap your hair in it.
Pluck it from your eyebrows
[…]

[‘And That Fast, You’re Thinking about Their Bodies’]

And as a survival mechanism, she must

touch
myself find the panic
button of my body
& press hard

[‘Hidden Bombs in My Coochie’]

Here is the kind of breaking news and personal loss (the latter encapsulated in the suicide of ‘our warmest sister of the sisterHudd’, Cheryl) that pushes the activist and queer poet lisa luxx to pen her first full-length collection. It lingers through the four weeks of October ‘when violence came to me like a firefly illuminating semi-circles of skin’; when ‘the leaders of our father-cultures force citizens into starvation’. British and Syrian, she comes from a country of ‘misfired apologies / where smoking is a sin & wishes / are weapons that leave no evidence’. No matter her coordinates, she learns to live with the ‘eternal heartbreak of being Arab’. There are other breaks, too – across corporal and continental borders – as she writes in ‘speak out loud’:

tell me how this body felt home explode on the edge of Damascus
while I was in bed in Yorkshire
this half-carved monument
is where geography stops pretending

Halfway through a powerful poem titled ‘circles’, luxx speaks of the ‘stateless nation’ of sisterhood and sharing [home, hunger, hurt]:

& we chant gossip to call in our dead, ancestors
clicking tongues
every voicenote a spell
[swearing incantations so our countries may
stop terrorising themselves
so our minds may stop terrorising themselves]

Here, too, is the kind of internal and national conflict that sets off the second half of Nidhi Zak/Aria Eipe’s Auguries of a Minor God. A long narrative poem, ‘A is for [Arabs]’ – unspooled in an abecedarian structure – imagines the new life of a grieving family of refugees who have fled from an unnamed Middle Eastern country to the West, culminating in the Christchurch massacre, which is eulogised and memorialised by an immersive invocation of Qur’anic texts. The narrator is mourning his wife, wishing he could see her ‘for a tiny / measure of time, no – for a thousand / million / measures of time’, but finds that he can’t. Not now, not this moment. For it is, again, another

morning; your turn on the news and something is breaking, all
over the
media –
our correspondent is at the scene bringing you the latest
on this
morning’s massacre at a
mosque in the city of Christchurch in New Zealand: a
man entered the
mosque while
muslim worshippers prayed – and
murdered them, en
masse, it was being called the country’s worst

mass shooting.

The ‘m’ words swiftly stack up: ‘multiple deaths’, ‘more details emerging’, ‘manifesto’, ‘motives’, ‘migrants’, ‘multiculturalism in Europe’, ‘marksman’, ‘mastermind’, ‘machine gun’… until he hears of the ‘massacre at the Al Noor / mosque’. Suddenly, he can’t bear to listen anymore ‘because someone else has breathed her / name’ – the name of his dead wife, that is, who was also called Noor. Suddenly, no one – nothing, nowhere – is safe anymore, and nor will it ever be. Never again.

Hunger is everywhere, too.
In fetch your mother’s heart, punctuated by the sound of bullets and bombs, the meaning of hunger modulates for martyrs and lovers alike. In the poem of the same name, luxx lays out the ‘definitions of hunger’: in her vocabulary, silence(/ing) becomes the opposite of eating and eating becomes the act of singing. It’s not just food that strengthens and sustains these bodies, but a deeper, shared hunger:

on the edge of thunder, our mates nosedive into
steak, first meal of the week, ravenous bodies living
on adrenaline and snacks, the revolution a diet
plan

(‘and’)

And again, in ‘circles’, where ‘sisters’, ‘babes’, ‘bitches’ watch each other eat,

taking it in turns
to savour a bite,
spit it out
pass it on,

my feast is your feast, your hunger cadavers me

Two poems – ‘dinner during the week of rage’ and ‘how it tastes to arrive from very far away: a broken ghazal’ – sit side by side and sing love songs that are also war songs. In the former, in the midst of cooking, the poet gets the Arabic words for ‘lemon’ and ‘will die’ mixed up. In the latter, the poet makes an argument in praise of the onion, which teaches the ‘safe body to grieve / before we eat / mouth full with empty’. In the former, she communicates, ‘let’s eat / and I’ll follow you / to martyr’s square.’ In the latter, she clarifies, ‘when you hear eat more / it means belong here’. Terror is everywhere. But the act of eating – breaking bread together – becomes a revolutionary act of love in the time of war.

Almontaser’s relationship with food, on the other hand, is often fraught with political implication. Code-switching between the Middle East and the United States, Arabic and English, right and left alignments of lines, Nicki Minaj lyrics and translations of Abdullah Al-Baradouni, starving and gorging, Almontaser navigates the boundaries of a restlessly hybrid identity. Food, here, is never just for food’s sake. While the scents of tuna sandwiches and tea leaves, lambskin and cinnamon, suffuse these pages, the poet also asks ‘How does one unlearn gorging?’ (‘Feast, Beginning w/ a Kissed Blade’) and explores what happens:

We show love through our appetite.

Famine happens when we can’t remember our
name, the village we come from. I want to deserve

eating. An Arab who can’t eat has lost control
of their heart. What can a girl learn from her cravings

once the begging gut goes quiet?

[‘Hunger Wraps Himself’]

The water here, too, is weaponised. The water here

is full of parasites and pirates. If you swim too long,
either one can steal you. The politicians that dug themselves

into our fields were bad seeds. They sprouted only
the poisonous parts, left the best of Allah somewhere else.

[‘Yemen Rising as Poorest Country in the World’]

Alternating between taming and satiating her appetite for food in times of hunger and terror, she instead fills her stomach with old words – hopeful for the taste of some semblance of self, or home:

Where did my old words go, my first words?
[…]
I try calling Arabic back like wild horses.
If I find them roaming a jilted road, sitting on an ancient turtle’s back, dancing naked in the desert, I swear I’ll fishnet pronouns so fast, swallow adjectives whole, knock verbs back with a burp.

[…]

Languages slip into our mouth like secondhand
smoke. But English grinds Arabic to white sand.

[‘Recognized Language’]

Consuming Eipe’s collection involves alternating between acts of slowly chewing and quickly swallowing: stringing together Sanskrit and Malayalam scripts, her poems feature words that are frequently faded-out, struck- through, and smooshed together (paperparchedthroats; sadseeminglettuce; fatfriedfalafel). The first half of the book, made up of five sections, mimics the experience of falling in love in stages, as per the five arrows of Kama, the Hindu God of Love, Desire and Memory – with the gamut running from paralysing to killing. In the third, mesmerising phase, the speaker spends whole nights doing nothing except eating ‘gone-soft nuts’ and listening ‘for a sound that would / indicate you had written me’ (‘Ode to day’). ‘A history in stone’ is a standout poem from the collection.

Notwithstanding these earlier poems, which expose varying levels of vulnerability and violence in the idea of love, it is in the second half of the book, and ‘A is for [Arabs]’, where innocent hunger overshadows terror. Providing, not just sharing, food – that spitting out, passing on – is also an expression of love. And so, love, here, is to get your kids ready for school, fill their bellies:

gobbling down generic milkshake breakfasts,
gathering up your collective courage
[…]

Love is to remember your wife’s face the last time you saw
her alive, the –

glow of youth like rosehip, like pomegranate, like
sumacscatteredfreckles

Love is to force yourself to –

head out to get some comfort food for the kids who will be only too
happy to stage a mini-mutiny if they are made to eat macaroni again

Further on, nibbling through the alphabetic structure as far as the letter ‘k’, for kombucha, the narrator’s daughter Jehan is making the titular drink in the kitchen. Her sister teases her (‘oooh – are you making that for Kenji?’):

Kenji and Jehan sitting in a tree
K – I – S – S – I – N – G ! And you can almost feel your daughter’s
keen embarrassment, the hot flush on her face, the way she
betrays nothing,
keeping her
kohlcoatedeyes
trained on the temperature of the tea so as not to
inadvertently
kill the good bacteria fermenting in the culture, and you feel a
strange sense of
kinship in this conspiracy, so you do the
kindest thing you
know how to, in that moment – you leave her to it
[…]

In a world where hunger is political, no longer merely personal, a young girl puts her soul into saving the good bacteria. In its brute biological manifestation, hunger kills; yet across these collections, it is also – figuratively, mysteriously – the force that keeps their respective authors alive.

Sana Goyal is a writer and editor based between Birmingham and Bombay.