Interview with Abeer Ameer
Abeer Ameer is a dentist, born in Sunderland, who lives in Cardiff. Her first collection of poems, Inhale/Exile, reviewed here , focuses on her family’s Iraqi background and was published by Seren in 2021.
SHEENAGH PUGH: Did you grow up bilingual? If so, what effect do you think it has had on your writing? If not, did you feel you were missing something? (Philip Gross the poet and novelist, who was a colleague of mine at Glamorgan Uni, is half Estonian but his father decided not to teach him the language in case it confused him. He describes himself as having grown up “bilingual in English and silence”).
ABEER AMEER: “Bilingual in English and silence”. Gosh, what a marvellous expression.
I grew up speaking Arabic with the Iraqi dialect, and when I started nursery my parents were told to speak to me in English so I wouldn’t get confused. I then spoke English with an Iraqi accent and now speak Arabic in a Cardiff accent.
I was apparently the first of the new generation in my family to coin Arabish words, where I split Arabic and English words in half and joined them together. My earliest recollection of this was when I was about five years old and an Iraqi auntie phoned from London. I answered the phone as my mum was praying.. The Arabic for prayer is “Salat”, so when asked where my mum was, I answered with the phrase “she is sallying”. That was in the early eighties and I have never lived it down. Random strangers quote it back to me even now. Perhaps, to rephrase the term by Philip Gross, I grew up bilingually in Arabish.
I’ve always loved language, especially the etymology of words, both in English and Arabic. Unfortunately my Arabic, specifically writing and reading, isn’t great and I’ve always felt deficient in this regard. I can grasp the gist of things but want much more. I’ve been studying Arabic for the past year going back to basics with grammar, case endings and the like. Ultimately, I’d love to be able to read, write and translate from Arabic, and even write poetry. On the other hand, I think learning English initially from my parents has contributed to a lack of confidence sometimes and I do second-guess myself often. But I think I’m very lucky to have exposure to these two worlds, left to right and right to left. Having access to both is quite wonderful.
SP: I nearly laughed aloud on reading “Arabish”, because of course it made me think of Wenglish, that fascinating South Walian melange of English words and Welsh idiom: “talk tidy”, “over by there”, “now in a minute”. I agree that having two languages is an incalculable benefit; it’s like seeing things in 3-D rather than 2-D. And I’ve found translation a great way to keep working when not in the mood for writing my own stuff. Which authors would you like to translate from Arabic?
AA: The discipline of tafseer is about trying to comprehend the meaning, whereas tarjama is ‘translation’. With over a dozen words for love, and it has been said there are over seventy words for dog, translation will inevitably lose something. Having said that, it’s still very valuable to translate something and bring it to different audiences. So before coming to translation, I’d really like to just get to grips with the Arabic language and the poems in the original forms. Though there would be an inevitable loss of meter and rhyme, I’d really like to read Al-Jawhiri’s poetry in English. And I’d love to work on a translation of my grandfather’s poetry collection, which was put together and published after he passed away.
SP: Dentist-poets are a bit more unusual than doctor-poets! How does someone whose studies must have been so science-based get into writing, and does it involve finding a whole different peer group to do it with?
AA: Ah, this is quite a long story! I always say I came to writing through the back door. As I said, I’ve always loved language, but being born to Iraqi parents in the late seventies, it was usually sciences that we were geared for when considering university degree. I was lucky to study dentistry in London at Queen Mary and Westfield College, in the first two years we studied with medical students.
I completed a masters degree in Conscious Sedation in Dentistry at Cardiff University, so I was very much involved in the treatment of anxious patients. One module I loved involved non-pharmacological treatment of anxious patients. I took up some extra courses in hypnosis. I find it fascinating that language one uses to frame things can result in reducing a person’s anxiety levels, even increase their pain threshold to a certain extent.
SP: Tell me more! That sounds really interesting, and with possible applications to writing poetry, though there we’re often trying to ratchet up pain rather than alleviate it….
AA: A simple example would be in comparing the following phrases before administering local anaesthetic (needle):
This needle will be painful
This needle will not be painful
This pinch might feel uncomfortable
This will feel cold and spongy
I’m referring to the same needle, but these differences in the use of language can have a direct impact on the thinking and perceptions of pain and anxiety in the patient. Since pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling being associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.” (IASP), it’s not always associated with actual damage. Add to the mix the patient’s fear of dentistry, and this too will affect the pain threshold. So the language we use, as it can affect a person emotionally, can also affect their pain threshold.
To do what poets might hope to prolong the pain in a poem, I guess one would do the opposite of softening the blow. A great line in a poem is often a devastating one!
Likewise, language and reasoning used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be very effective in anxiety management. In 2013, I had to retire early due to ill health, but I was able to complete my masters dissertation as there wasn’t clinical work involved in the final year. This brought me to mindfulness.
Then the Karrada bombing in Baghdad in 2016 happened. Probably, to date, one of the most devastating personally. So close to home for us. The poem Detail was a way just to get all the awful images out of my head. It just so happened that I achieved this by putting it all onto the page. It’s at this point that mindfulness and writing came together and was the first poem I wrote of the book, though I had no idea at the time that I would write a book. Once I had overcome the ‘turning away’ from pain, something I had been doing for a long time, the poems came quite naturally. In the book, much of the original poem Detail is redacted.
See what I mean about ‘back door’?
SP: It’s an appalling admission, but I don’t think I knew anyone at uni who wasn’t doing arts subjects, and if it works the same way in reverse it must lead to some isolation for a writer.
AA: I didn’t really have a peer group in my early days of writing, but was lucky to join a couple of courses with some very supportive tutors. Much of my writing was done alone. It wasn’t really until I attended open mic events regularly that I made poetry friends. I think poetry appeals to me most because, in a way, it is quite scientific and precise. So much can be communicated in few words.
In terms of isolation, I think I feel this most when I have written something that few from those from outside my cultural or religious background will understand, and balancing the need to explain, with the tendency to overexplain. It reminds me of the feeling one might have when they make a joke, and then have to explain it because no-one understands. It feels lost. But I’ve found that it’s in such times I really benefit from my peers reading the piece and letting me know what they have understood. I can then adjust accordingly. It isn’t always easy, because one starts to doubt their own gut, but I’ve found this is one of the most useful things about workshopping poems. Something I came to quite late, but I’m very happy I did.
SP: Following on from that, how, these days, does a new writer find a publisher? It’s a question that exercises many; how did it come about for you?
AA: The first time I had writing published was when I took part in a community project “Writing Our Lives” with Butetown History and Arts, where I first met two supportive and wonderful creative writing tutors Christina Thatcher and Emma Beynon. They were very helpful and continued to encourage me well after the writing course ended. I was introduced to different poetry collections there, and many were from Wales-based publishers, Seren. I would often check the back of the collections I liked and see where the poets had submitted their work to. I joined a Poetry class with Amanda Rackstraw at Cardiff University lifelong learning and was encouraged to go to open mic events, but being quite shy, it took me a long time to read my own poems or send work out. It seemed to be the thing that needed to be done to get any further, and though it’s something I do get quite nervous about still, I recognise this is how I progressed with my writing.
After my ego had been bruised a number of times from rejections (I wasn’t used to this system of doing things), I was quite willing to quit the writing lark. I had some success with poetry journals, but none with competitions. After one First Thursday event at Chapter Arts, the attendees gathered downstairs. It was the first conversation I had with Amy Wack. We spoke about many things, one of them being poetry rejections. She said not to take rejections personally. Later, Amy suggested I look into sending a volume of work out to get a pamphlet published. I said I had about fifty poems at the time which is too many for a pamphlet, and Amy said she’d be happy to take a look. I sent the fifty poems to her and the rest is history.
Jammy, I know.
SP: Well, not really. You were doing all the right things, going to events, networking, getting to know people on the scene and putting your poems out there. I see you started off working alone but then went to open mic events and also got involved in a community project. Do you “see” poems on the page rather than “hear” them in your head, or the other way about? We all do both to some extent, but for me at least, working alone tends to make them things I see on the page, and I need to read them aloud to get a feel for how they actually sound. I would think both workshops and open mics would tend to promote hearing over seeing.
AA: Ah this is such an interesting question and I’ve never thought about it this way. Since most of my poems are about people, I start with seeing the person in vivid movie, each scene is a stanza in my mind. Before the words, the soundtrack of the movie is a rhythm, like the beat of a drum. Movie comes first, so I guess that would be scene and music well before the details of language or words on a page.
SP: . Do you take well to collaborating, as in projects like the Butetown one – is it something you’d like to do more of? Is it very different from working alone?
AA: I haven’t really collaborated in writing poems, as I tend to write them on my own. The Butetown project was a community one introducing members to creative writing. We would have a prompt and write poems individually and the result was an anthology.
Since the movie comes before the words, I’m not sure how I’d find working with someone else. I think I’d find it quite difficult, because for me, poetry is all about getting the movie scene into words, so language comes later. Expression is part of the poem, so I’m not sure how I would convey it to someone else before I’ve written it.
Having said that, workshopping poems after I’ve written them has proven very helpful, especially when the picture in my mind is not what readers understand from it. That’s more like a problem-solving exercise.
SP: . There are several different poetic forms in the collection – sonnet, sestina, villanelle, ghazal, so clearly you’re interested in formal poetry. Can you say what form means to you, how you use it?
AA: I’m very interested in form, perhaps partly because of the precision, but also how the uses can be quite specific too. The two sestina poems I included seemed to fit well with the theme of the poems, that feeling of being locked in, trapped. I used the pentina form for Hameeda’s Prayers to reflect the five daily ritual prayers as a backbone to her life in all its phases. The sonnets and ghazal fit with the themes of love and exile quite well, I think. Sometimes, I have started a poem as free verse and found it only worked as a whole in a specific form, and vice versa. I wrote the villanelle Price Tag after struggling with another poem called The White Goods of Baghdad in free verse about the same subject (sanctions). I thought that the original would make it into the collection, but just needed to get the strong emotions out before I could complete it. The villanelle just seemed to help express what free verse couldn’t, and though I was a bit nervous to include it, Price Tag remained in the book and White Goods was taken out.
I admit I don’t always follow the traditional English language metres, and I find that sometimes poets can find it rather vexing that I don’t follow convention with form. I find the usual metre often doesn’t fit and perhaps this is in part due to the fact the subject is from a different culture entirely. Iambic pentameter doesn’t always match the Iraqi subject for me, but the other aspects of form might well do. Poetic forms in Arabic also have specific patterns related to wazn (weight) or rhythm, and rhyme follows specific patterns. I think my ear is used to a certain way. It’s those Arabish mergings again!
SP: More fools those poets for being “vexed”, then. Form is there to serve the poem, not the other way about! And I love the idea of using forms from another language entirely (after all, the villanelle is French and the sonnet Italian). These weight-related patterns interest me – would that be like syllabics in English, or maybe counting stresses?
AA: In terms of poetry, classical Arabic has sixteen established metres. It seems to be a syllabic pattern, but the length of the vowels combined with the stresses of the consonants are the measure. It's the combination which appeals to my Arabish ears.
One thing I didn’t mention previously is that I grew up listening to different Quranic recitations. Though the text is the same, the tones of the different reciters’ voices, the speed with which they read vary. Quran is neither poetry, nor prose, but its own style, but there is a science to its permitted forms of recitation. I listened to many different Quranic recitations growing up and have only really started enjoying listening to the Arabic poets more recently because of the availability on YouTube and the like. I think hearing those rhythms regularly, and reciting them, helps with imagining patterns which might come next.
SP: In my experience all languages have words for concepts that either don't exist in other languages or need long paraphrases. Eg, Norwegian has "livsløgn" - life-lie: a mistaken belief that colours someone's whole life. And there's an Indian language called Boro, spoken in Assam, that has the verb "onsra" - to fall in love for the last time. Are there concepts in Arabic you find no words for in English, or vice-versa?
AA: This isn’t so much to do with concepts in Arabic but not elsewhere, but in Arabic, as with other Semitic languages, the majority of words are derived from triliteral roots, (generally three consonants). A few are quadrilateral. I find the way these words formed from the same three letters interact fascinating. For example, one of the names of God mentioned in the Quran is al-Rahman, which is taken to mean the source of unconditional compassion. Directly related is the word Al-Raheem which also means most compassionate. These words come from the three letters R, Hh, M. The Arabic word for womb is Rahm. To show someone mercy is to Irham.
Please pardon the Arabish thing of the texting age which involves inserting a number to represent a letter, but in this case it’s the number 3 to represent the letter ‘Ayn (ع). It comes from deep down in the throat and there is no letter like it in English and is actually the first letter in the word Arabic ie 3rabi. It also happens to be the first letter of my own name. The word shi3r, meaning poem, has the same root (Sh, 3ayn, Raa) as shu3oor which means emotion or feeling. It can also mean to learn or understand intuitively. A poet is called a Sha3ir, which literally means a person who feels, or a person who perceives. Something I have wondered about and came across the answer more recently is why the word for hair (sha3r) comes from the same Sh, 3ayn, Raa root. The link is that when one feels intense emotion, they get goosebumps and hair standing on end. Then the word for vermicelli in Arabic is sha3riya, linking it to the word for hair. Mind blown. Well, mine, anyway. What’s not to love?
Another example comes from the root letters N, F, S. The meaning of this root is a subtle entity passing through to give a dramatic impact. The words to breathe, to compete, self/soul or mind, essence, newborn, and treasure all come from the same root letters. It is this connection of the origin of words which has kept my interest alive even when I have to study case endings and tables!
SP: Your collection is very celebratory; it chronicles evil and brutality but focuses on the courage, decency and endurance of individuals. Was this a conscious decision when you set out to write, or did it just go that way of its own accord?
AA: There was an open mic event in which I read about seven poems when I first started reading poems to an audience. I had chosen to read a set of poems I considered were well-written and made the mistake of not looking at how the set worked together. When I began reading the fourth poem, I remember feeling very sad, and thinking how depressing it all was. I’m sure the voice and sighs probably gave it away. From then on, I made a conscious decision to have a balance. Life is very rarely only dark moments, even in Iraq. There is joy. When I spend time with my extended family there, as here in Wales, we share in joy and grief. Whenever I think of my family in Iraq, I smile. When I think of aunts and uncles, even of strangers with whom we’ve crossed paths, I’m filled with admiration. I really wanted the book to reflect that.
SP: What do you think your next collection will look like - indeed, what are you working on now?
AA: I have a few long poems on the go, which might become pamphlets or part of the next collection. Another project details the hoops my husband and I went through in Iraq in 2019 to try and sort out Iraqi documents and papers. There are strands about the different government offices in Baghdad, taxi rides, civil servants, and it’s proving to be quite a long poem. Quite soon after we left, there were protests and burning buildings and a change in government too. Then COVID. I think this will take more than one book length as the saga, as ever, continues.
Inhale/ Exile was more about my parents and grandparents and their contemporaries, with very little of my own experiences. I peek in every now and again, usually as one of the five children mentioned in the poems. I am also keen to write something similar to Inhale/ Exile which would be more autobiographical in nature, or perhaps more of my own generation’s concerns. Time will tell. My siblings are petrified.
There was chemistry
under each other’s skin
At it like rabids.
the other way.
On 12th May 1996 Madeleine Allbright gave a television interview. Leslie Stahl, speaking of US sanctions against Iraq, asks if the price is worth it.
She didn’t twitch, deny or confirm it
that half a million children had died.
But the price, we think, the price is worth it.
More than the dead children of Hiroshima: all heard it.
I think this is a very hard choice, said Madeleine Allbright.
She didn’t twitch, deny or confirm it.
A sorry subject. She didn’t skirt it.
Most affected babies and under-fives.
But the price, we think, the price is worth it.
Starving child and mother who birthed it,
nursing mothers’ milk all dried.
She didn’t twitch, deny or confirm it.
I think this is a very hard choice. Far from perfect.
When a miniature grave’s the only place to hide.
She didn’t twitch, deny or confirm it.
But the price, we think, the price is worth it.
When he handed
the brown envelope with typed address
to Abu Shihab, father of five doctors,
he knew it wasn’t good news.
Two were absent from their shifts yesterday.
Forbidden from taking sick days or annual leave
they were summoned by the government
to answer for their crime.
unless they had already died
in which case the lesser punishments
for not informing the state immediately.
Abu Shihab had not slept for days,
knowing two of his sons had already embarked
on a journey to escape Iraq by road to Jordan
with passports stating they were merchants, not doctors.
An unknown fate in another land loyal to Abu Uday.
Abu Shihab read the summons, forehead furrowed,
folded the letter, put it back in the envelope,
returned it to the postman.
The postman understood. For weeks he’d repeat to his superior
Wallah, Wallah, the house was empty again.
He risked his everything
for Abu Shihab and the three sons left.
Forever to be known as
Hero, Man of Honour,
and World’s Worst Postman.