By Manar Al Hinai
You may have come across her writings while you were browsing through social media, or a friend may have shared an extract of one of her poems with you. Amal Al Sahlawi is an Emirati poet and writer whose Arabic writings and poems touch something in the soul of every reader. Sometimes I could almost swear that I was the subject of her poems, or that she had felt a feeling inside of me and put it on paper. Often, the young poet translates, with the beauty of her words, the emotions and feelings many of us cannot easily express. So, it was not surprising that when she published her collection of Arabic poetry, Kan Alaya An Oajilak (I Had to Postpone You) at the Sharjah International Book Fair in late 2020, that her book was immediately popular with young readers in particular.
Amal’s writing career was not something she had planned. She began writing poetry at the age of 16 as a way of expressing herself, but she never meant to continue down the writing path. Growing up, Amal had always loved poetry and even began reading it at a very early age, but it was only ten years ago when she took writing more seriously and began to see it as a journey to discover herself more, and describes how beautifully it got out of her control.
I speak with the young poet and writer about her love for poetry, her writing routine and her recent book. Amal also reveals what love means to her, and discusses the responsibility that rests on the shoulders of female Arab poets, such as herself, today.
Amal Al Sahlawi: Because it is the way to be, because it is a true and sincere way of expression. I cannot not write. I write all the time, and when I am not writing poetry I read poetry. Poetry is the music of life, its rhythm, its drums, its lament, its celebration … How can a person live without poetry?
What inspires you to write?
Amal Al Sahlawi: I can get inspired by a word someone says unconsciously, or from a long walk that revitalizes me or gives me the ability to observe life. I can get inspired from a song, movie or story. Often, I get inspired because I live inside my mind most of the time, where a loud world exists.
What is your writing routine like?
Amal Al Sahlawi: I set aside 3 to 4 hours a day for writing and reading. This is sometimes cut short due to my commitments, and when that happens, I make up for it at the end of the week. But, generally, I am committed to the hours and divide them over the day. The longest period I write in is at dawn, that’s when I can best enjoy the calm I need. However, I am used to writing in worse and more busy conditions. No matter how loud the noise around me is, I can forget everything and write.
Which of your poems is the closest to your heart?
Amal Al Sahlawi: Each poem embodies a certain feeling that is still present in it when I re-read it. I don’t know if I have a favorite poem of mine. My poems are my secrets; all of them are incredibly urgent and important.
Tell us about your book, I Had to Postpone You? How and when did you start working on it, and what is it about?
Amal Al Sahlawi: This book has been a long postponed project of mine, and although I worked on it for years, its production in the current form took place over a short period of time thanks to the cooperation of Rawashen Publishing. I think it is a book that glorifies the individual, their anxieties, thoughts and the feeling of being lost that envelopes the modern person. Perhaps it would be appropriate for many people to read, regardless of their cultural backgrounds and occupations. After all, we all need a book on our nightstand to postpone reading, right?
Tell us a little bit about the title of the book.
Amal Al-Sahlawi: The title was taken from a poem that begins with the same sentence, and that seemed appropriate because it was a work that I had postponed for a long time.
Some of your poems, including the poem that begins with “I had to postpone you,” center on love that does not flourish because of one’s preoccupations. Tell us about that more. What is the story behind these poems?
Amal Al Sahlawi: The poem may be perceived as a call for postponement, or a call for a person to be courageous and express their love in this fast-paced world, in which we do not have the time to express our feelings or even explore them. But the issue is greater than that. It is a metaphor for the act of human postponement that is practiced by individuals in all areas of life in order to achieve the goals or forms of success that are considered acceptable by society. And the price of doing that is abandoning all the small things that mean the most to them.
We noticed that your poems, both inside and outside your book, are titleless. Is there a reason for this?
Amal Al Sahlawi: I really wanted this to be an opportunity for my readers to share their own titles with me, and the interaction was great and I published some of their suggested titles. I believe that different readings of each poem will produce different titles for every reader, and I consider that to be a work of art in and of itself.
A number of your poems revolve around comforting strangers / others, and getting to know them more. What was the inspiration behind them?
Amal Al Sahlawi: I am curious when I walk; I like to watch life as it happens to others, and I find great consolation in that. The strangers that we do not know are us in other situations, strangers are the other, and they are the other side, and they are the horizon to which we extend our hands to to escape , or share our stories or to achieve any kind of human intersection.
At the end of the book, you say that you present contemporary feminist, philosophical and existential issues through your poetry, and that you try to touch upon the concerns of contemporary person and tell their story. Tell us about that more. What are some of the concerns of modern person, and why is it necessary for us to tell their story?
Amal Al Sahlawi: What is the use of writing if one does not address the concerns of their time? We live in a fast-paced world, and things may seem fine on the outside, but the insides of us are being eroded by various factors, the most important of which is the acceleration of the pace of everything in such a way that a person cannot stop a little and take a deep breath to analyze their motives or feelings .. I want to write about the little things that concern all of us, the fears that no one talks about, about being a woman and being a person who leans on their isolation in a world that is geared towards communication; a world that glorifies positivity no matter how much pressure it places on us. I need to talk about anxiety, sadness and the ups and downs of the journey. We need to express our human weaknesses even if it is just on paper.
Since the theme of Sekka’s issue is love, what is love to you?
Amal Al Sahlawi: Love, in its broadest sense, is finding acceptance in the other, which creates the feeling of reassurance, which is the ultimate hope of every human being. Love is what a person works toward, changes himself for, strives for and fights for.
In your opinion, are there challenges that Arab women face when writing poetry about love, that their male counterparts do not face?
Amal Al Sahlawi: Love poems are not a pressing genre of poetry for me to write in. However, I think that our society has overcome these challenges. Many wonderful female poets I know write about love in a beautiful and captivating way, but I find it to be a very expendable genre.
Why is it important to have more female Arab poets, especially today?
Amal Al Sahlawi: Arab women’s identity is subject to specific challenges that are ignored or neglected due to the multitude of other pressing issues. An Arab woman must write constantly in order to pave the path for others, because when she paves a path she not only allows for her own self-expression, but she encourages many other women to have the courage to hold the pen and move the world with their words. Nothing is more powerful than the written word. The Arab woman needs the written word, and the written word needs her voice.
What do you think are the topics that are of most interest to your readers?
Amal Al Sahlawi: I like to write about what occupies my mind, and I do not usually focus on topics that would interest a reader in order to preserve the sincerity of my writings. But I have observed a recurring pattern, which is readers’ attraction to love poems or poems that depict sadness and anxiety.
Have social media platforms affected readers’ taste and consumption, in your opinion?
Amal Al Sahlawi: I think that social media platforms are fire and ash at the same time. On the one hand, social media platforms have awakened a poetic sense in many. But on the other hand they have flattened the level and depth of what is written. In any case, it is an enriching experience nonetheless.
What is the responsibility that falls on female Arab poets today?
Amal Al Sahlawi: Continuing to write, writing with heartbreaking honesty and writing loudly.
Who are the poets that inspire you?
Amal Al Sahlawi: Oh gosh, there are so many! I read the poetry of al-Mutanabbi, Ibn Zaidoun, Wallada, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, al-Hallaj, Mahmoud Darwish, Ahmed Abdel Muti Hijazi, Fadwa Tuqan, Nazik al-Malaika, Lamia Abbas Amara, and many other contemporary poets.
What are your future plans?
Amal Al Sahlawi: I am currently working on new poetic publications. I am also experimenting with other literary forms as well as collaborating on a joint literary work with other writers.
Manar Al Hinai is the co-founder and storyteller in chief of Sekka.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.