‘Words are quite sticky…’ trails off Afra Atiq mid-conversation, conjuring up an image of treacly letters that coat our perspectives, lodge in the crevices of memory and like all good adhesives, is the glue that holds together the universal experience of human emotions.
The loaded silence that ensues lasts only a few seconds, but it’s suggestive of the power of words to trap and freeze experiences in time, like bugs in amber. They can morph from honeyed encouragement to acidic taunts on the turn of a dime, like the time a little boy’s declaration of never being able to love 12-year-old Afra because she wasn’t pretty enough corroded her self-belief for the next 20 years. She skirts around this deeply personal incident that she’s discussed on stage at TEDxFujairah 2017 when we talk, saying, ‘Words are never just words. There are things that people say to you that stick with you and that was a realisation for me about the power of words.’
For the award-winning Emirati spoken-word poet, the middle child of an Emirati father and Japanese-American mother, words have stuck with her ever since she’s been old enough to remember, and she’s always harboured a desire to be heard. Her favourite book is a dictionary, a ‘Webster’s Dictionary from the eighties that I discovered as a nine-year-old. Then there was that moment in eighth grade where I stood up in class with no prior warning and just read out a poem. I think it was just a sign of what was to come down the line,’ she tells me, her rich laughter booming across Nadi Al Quoz where we’re sat talking. In the past, this same multipurpose venue at Alserkal Avenue has hosted Afra’s performance as part of slam poetry sessions and spoken word events, and her voice has reverberated across these walls.
Afra is to poetry what rock stars are to music. I witnessed the hypnotic allure of her performance first-hand last year at the Dubai Opera as she held a more than 1,900-strong audience in thrall, spitting words like fire — poignant metaphors laced with a quicksilver wit that you could miss in the blink of an eye if you weren’t plugged into the tidal pull of her verses that drag you into a universe of their own. She shared the stage with traditional and contemporary luminaries of poetry such as poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, and Imitiaz Dharker, World slam-poet champion Harry Baker and Simon Armitage and Lemm Sissay — but Afra’s star shone bright and bold.
Whether it was the moving, frenetic fury of A Letter to Cancer that won her the 2017 Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation Award (making her the first poet to win the award since it was launched in 1996), or the nostalgic ode to her grandfather — a pearl diver — and the pearling tradition of the UAE, the audience couldn’t stop snapping (the genteel version of applause that wouldn’t interrupt a spoken word performance) in appreciation and fevered requests for encores. For some of the audience like my mother, who were new to the experience of a spoken-word performance, Afra’s recital was a revelation that left them with goosebumps and a newfound appreciation for an age-old art form they didn’t know existed.
‘But that’s the thing, you know,’ she says smiling, ‘spoken-word has always existed, especially in the UAE. We have been poets for centuries, presenting our work and reciting in public, so it’s not a new art form that we’ve suddenly made cool. The internet and new mediums have just made it more accessible.’
Afra’s brand of oral rendition is a direct descendant of the Western tradition of spoken-word poetry that was born in the sixties, fed by artistic movements such as Harlem Renaissance, literary movements such as Beat Generation (think poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) and musical forms such as the blues and jazz. Spoken-word is emotionally charged and is written primarily to be recited, with the focus being on rhythm, rhyme, sound and syntax and semantics fizzing with an immediacy and accessibility that a layered piece such as Robert Frost’s page-bound The Road Not Taken might be unable to offer in a single reading. And a poetry slam is a competition where poets perform spoken-word poetry.
Afra, who describes herself as a ‘stage poet not a page poet’, believes that one of the beauties and horrors of being on stage is the ability to improvise. ‘I’ve forgotten words and made up words on the spot or jumped from section to section of the poem. [Stage] gives you that kind of flexibility.’
‘And not much of what you’re saying is lost in translation like it might on a page as you’re literally standing there using your voice.’
Preventing a loss of meaning in translation is also why she blends Arabic and English in her pieces. ‘For a very long time I was under the impression that poetry and different languages don’t meet and that Arabic poetry is its own thing and English poetry is its own thing.’ All that changed during one of her performances at The Emirates Literature Festival’s annual Desert Stanzas event, when she was exposed to poetry in a babble of languages — ‘you didn’t have to understand the language. You felt their pain and knew their triumphs and victories just by listening.’
Afra is once again part of the line-up of this year’s edition of Desert Stanzas on March 5.
Poetry has for eons been cast in the image of the literary ice princess — aloof, lofty, high-brow and placed on a pedestal unreachable to the masses in a way that novels, short stories or plays were. But the rising popularity of more unconventional formats such as spoken word and Instagram poetry, which aims for haiku-like pithy content but receives pushback from traditionalists for over-simplicity, has revived poetry’s popularity.
Afra, who is completing a PhD dissertation (she’s pursuing Mass Communication at Al Ain’s UAE University) on how Arab writers are using Instagram to put their work out there, doesn’t agree that contemporary mediums of poetry sacrifice content at the altar of relatability: ‘Art and culture are fluid, they change and mould and adapt. In every field, there are going to be people who insist things shouldn’t change because they’ve been done a certain way for ages. But poetry is the preservation of how there’s thousands and thousands of ways to do it.’
Think about it — Emily Dickinson and John Keats are traditional enough to be prescribed school curriculum now, but back in their day, they were disruptors who subverted literary norms. Afra is leading a vanguard of modern poets (in the West, Lang Leav and Rupi Kaur and spoken-word poets such as Hollie McNish and Kate Tempest are leading the charge) who are using poetry to capture the realities of the 21st-century multicultural world they live in.
And education, says Afra, who comes from a family of teachers — ‘my aunts and father were all teachers and my mother also really emphasised on education’ — truly shapes the way we approach poetry and literature. When I walk into schools and tell kids I’m a poet I get these blank stares. By the end of our session, they’ve realised it doesn’t have to be boring and I love showing that poetry isn’t boring or irrelevant.’
Growing up, storytelling and books were part of the very air Afra and her two siblings breathed — their mother would read to them every day, and books were an integral part of the household — ‘Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables and One Odd Old Owl are books I vividly remember from my childhood’ — because of which she didn’t need a degree in literature to unlock her passion for words and can’t pinpoint a specific event or time when she realised she wanted to become a poet. This lack of a formal literary background, suggests Afra, is perhaps why she tends to write poetry that isn’t straitjacketed by literary devices: ‘I try not to overthink it.’ But it in no way detracts from the expressiveness of her content, which is rife with clever wordplay and allegory and moulds to popular literary forms such as the Elfchen, a short poem of five lines. And one such content succinctly sums up the personal nature of the themes:
‘Poetry/Is showing/Your neck to/The ones wielding the/Sword.’
She laughs as she breaks down how performing pieces about bullying, body image issues, the struggles to achieve a dream when naysayers tell you ‘it’s just a phase’ (Afra quit a cushy job in events to become a full-time poet), a relationship with food — all based on personal experiences — are ‘exactly like baring your soul to the audience!
‘Especially with the poem about bullying, people tell me it’s helped them and given them strength. Writing is therapeutic and healing and knowing that telling my story out loud is encouraging people to find their voices feels like a blessing.’
Contrary to popular notion, poetry isn’t always a spontaneous overflow of emotions (although it sounds on stage like that) for Afra and her fellow writers whom she frequently meets with and bounces ideas off at Untitled Chapters, a writing group of female Emirati writers.
The creative process is often agony, the quest for perfection sharpened through a personalised mathematical formula unique to Afra. ‘I count syllables, I have a probability formula I use for finding synonyms. There is this idea that art and science don’t interact. I think they’re best friends. Both fields inform each other and my writing process is quite mathematical.’
Such is Afra’s dedication to honing her craft, she learned French simply to be able to write a poem that the Louvre Abu Dhabi commissioned her to for their Japanese Connections exhibition. ‘I wanted to write a poem befitting of the work and the venue and my piece Cher Moi, which means dear me, was a letter to my younger self that switched between English, Arabic and French.’
Afra is grateful to cultural institutions such as the Louvre and NYUAD Arts Centre (she’s part of their artist-in-residence programme and working on a project with Joanna Settle, associate arts professor of theatre), Sheraa, Sharjah Entrepreneur Centre that commissions pieces and open mic venues such as Rooftop Rhythms, Blank Space and the Emirates Literature Festival that provide platforms to perform, as these opportunities are especially significant for a spoken-word artist whose work isn’t saved in a book or anthology that audiences can resort to. ‘I have all my poems written down,’ explains Afra. ‘Someday I might publish them. I do post them online or on Instagram but because I love being on stage I prefer doing them live. I leave them, a little piece of my heart, on stage with the audience.'
Despite having performed at international venues such as the legendary Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe in New York, it’s the performances at the Louvre that Afra holds dear. ‘And with the Lit Fest, you’re performing for the public as well as a group of your peers.’ Peers who have all, she says, struggled to make their dreams a reality. ‘We’re fed this idea that chasing your dream is going to be a picnic, but it’s not always a pleasant experience. You’re going to work harder that you ever have, you’re going to probably lose friends who think you’ve jumped off the deep end, and there’s going to be a lot of self-doubt.’
But this gruelling journey was made worthwhile for Afra because of the intrinsic beauty of words: ‘one sentence can be said in so many different ways with so many different tones and mean so many different things to people. I don’t think any other medium can do that.’