I guess it is distinctive. I think it was probably what took me the longest to decide! I think that the idea of skin as a portal and organ of receiving, giving, and exchange in both the literal and figurative sense, influences a lot of my poetry. It inspires me to look a little closer; look at the way two people are hugging or how someone holds the rails on a bus. I think there’s a lot to be said about our bodies, the way they become one with our minds and soul, executing our desires and thoughts. So the scent of my skin I suppose refers to the release of whims, thoughts, fears. There’s a self-actualisation that only comes from trusting your thoughts. Even if nobody else has those same thoughts, they’re still valid because they’re yours. Your scent is what you carry with you across space and time, and so the title refers to all the things that make me myself; working in unison and oftentimes overpowering or fleeting; like a scent.
I think the poems illuminate the worlds I write about by believing that they exist in the way that they do. The biggest liberty that poetry offers isn’t form or style or structure, but poetry in and of itself. Poetry tells you that whatever you say is beautiful as long as you really mean it. When you look around and wonder why things are the way that they are, it can be hard to describe or explain in a way that replicates the world you are experiencing. To explain a world I lived in, in both the subjective and objective sense, in a truthful and raw way is achieved through searching for different interpretations of situations; different ways of saying things. More than that, poetry makes me want to interpret things as clearly as I can. It makes me want to be understood by others, as scary as that can be. Poetry is a restitution of meaning, and those worlds all carry meaning that I want to return to the people living in it. Libya, Tunisia, London; all of those worlds are dim until you talk about them, drag them into conversation, into honest conversation; and forgive them. Poetry illuminates the worlds I write about by giving them another meaning; another interpretation to add to their reservoir. The more stories you tell about something the less confusing it gets, and I think that’s how my poetry illuminates the worlds I write about. It makes some sense of them.
Hmm, I think that trends such as “meche” can demonstrate a duality between feminism and femininity; where the two co-exist in harmony. I mean, one of the biggest misconceptions about women is often that grooming and putting effort into making yourself look more attractive negates everything that feminism stands for, but that’s not true. Even if you wanted to look attractive for the admiration of a man, there is a power in giving yourself that power. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from hair colouring or makeup or you name it. But the sad thing is that within some societies, grooming is often solely for the man’s admiration; often through trends that are governed by what people deem as pleasing to a man. I think that’s where it breaks off from femininity. And I think that’s what so often happens in Libyan society. Women do place an emphasis on looking great; and they do, but so often it is because they are told that they must look great or else they won’t be able to secure a man. Moreover, trends such as “meche” represent a lust for western ideals and standards of beauty such as fairness and blue eyes. The position of “meche” in Libyan society is that of attack and not defence; “meche” tells women your dark eyes and dark curly hair isn’t good enough. By expansion, it tells them that they’re not good enough, and that one of the ways that they can be good enough is by changing themselves. This transfers the blame away from society and irrational ideals of beauty, and transfers power away from women. Instead of telling men, or other women that they should change the way they think, they tell women that they should change how they look. That is exactly what happens in Libyan society; and like I said at the end of the poem, “meche” is seen as a right of passage before marriage. The woman has already secured the man; but there’s another force at play—what society will think of her appearance on her wedding day and beyond. I guess “meche” demonstrates how difficult it can be for feminism and femininity to coexist in harmony in a society that doesn’t quite fully embrace feminism.
Yes, that’s very true. I guess through snapshots and their negatives; what life is like and how it should be for women. And because I’m talking about women in both poems I give the power to the woman to decide her own fate, as well as myself. When I say, “May I know women,” I guess what I mean is, may my contribution to the liberation of women in this world be pronounced; may it help many women and may it be enough to turn the scenarios I hope for into a reality. More than that, I hope that women themselves acknowledge this duality more and more; because I guess in the same way that day and night can’t happen at the same time, neither can liberation or oppression. Mandela once said, “There is no such thing as part freedom”. You can’t be sexually liberated and oppressed at the same time; you can’t be oppressed and free at the same time, and you can’t try to be. You need to recognise oppression for what it is; and stand in the face of it. It’s brainwash. That’s why the poem about it is called “Rallying cry”.
To explain a world I lived in, in both the subjective and objective sense, in a truthful and raw way is achieved through searching for different interpretations of situations; different ways of saying things. More than that, poetry makes me want to interpret things as clearly as I can. It makes me want to be understood by others, as scary as that can be.
It’s funny you should ask- it took me a while to put pen to paper and say, I’m going to write about my father. I wrote “Father” 6 years later. But once I began, it did write itself. I remember it took me a short amount of time to edit because it was already just how I wanted it. Perhaps it was because I’d harboured all of my thoughts about it for so long, but also because I felt that out of all the things I could say or write; out of all the conversations I’d have with my sisters about how much I miss him, this was what he would see. I don’t know, I thought, if God could bring him down to me, I’d want him to read my poems. He always told me I’d be a writer but I never thought I’d write about missing him. I’m glad that I wrote that poem, though.
Yes, particularly Tunisia. I think it definitely influences my poetry for the better, growing up it was always sort of like Oh, London is different to Libya, west is different to east, the difference is like day and night. But the more you travel the more you realise that different countries have more similarities and differences than you could ever put into words. The fact that I’ve travelled a lot makes my poetry less doubtful and skeptical, it sort of makes me believe any and every story, you know, write about London and place it next door to a poem about Libya. I think it’s all definitely made my poetry more connected; more open, more understanding and less judgmental.
I think that the one that definitely was written over a long period of time, with some breaks in between was “Bridges”. I guess I’d have to say because the poem itself doesn’t mark a tangible milestone in getting over somebody. It sort of lingers between longing and trying to shake that longing off; something which I wasn’t ready to do in my life whilst writing it. I was in limbo; and so the words just didn’t come out the way that I wanted to. I was sad that in reality, yes, so much of my time at university, in what would have been some of the happiest years of my life, were spent just spacing out, wondering about things, thinking over and over again about certain things, and someone. Although I was living it, I couldn’t handle the sadness of the thought. The poem also admits that what I felt towards that person was love, and that I was possibly trying to decide if it existed or not. With overthinking came an all-or-nothing policy; either love existed so overwhelmingly, or it just didn’t. I thought that that person was the love of my life and so the poem sees me tally through the most painful of realisations. It was sort of like listing symptoms with no prognosis; leaving that voice in your head to claim your future. On top of that, there was the wanting to forget the things that had happened with this person; an intrinsic juxtaposition as the poem remembers this person gives them an epilogue. All those thoughts together, and the desire to think and forget certain things, all inextricably part of the same thought, made it hard to write down. And it ends with that, with trying.
If you can write about how you feel, you can publish it. No dream is too big and no story too small. History is not influenced by those who do nothing; so as scary as it may sound, leap. Be fearless in your pursuit, and believe that your message is important.
I began when I was 15, but stopped for a couple of years after the uprising in Libya. After my father passed away I was unable to write, but later on I began writing again in London. I couldn’t possibly follow a daily schedule! I’d have to say I just let inspiration take over. I carry a notepad with me and whenever I see something or think of a sentence or phrase I want to use I write it down. It does mean that sometimes it takes me longer to write poetry, but sometimes I look at all my notes and then the inspiration comes from that, too.
That’s a great question. Teachers, mentors, friends, even strangers have had a remarkable influence on poetry. The very first time I returned to London after the uprising in Libya, in 2011, my English teacher, Mr. Griffiths, spoke about trauma and war in a way that resonated with me. He spoke about losing his father, about the reality of grief, and how writing can overcome that. I believed him; and began to get back into writing. Although it was just short, unfinished poems here and there, he would tell me what he thought and show me other authors’ works. I think that must have been the first time that I thought, “Wow, other people have really been through similar things”. And that gave me the inspiration to keep going. He’s mentioned in one of my poems, “Trauma”.
When it comes to friends, I have been blessed by God with many who I consider family. My best friend, Marwa, gave me honesty and taught me how to be honest with myself, no matter how much it hurt. Coming from quite an emotionally reserved family, I grew up thinking that talking about things was the absolute maximum that you could do to fix them. But it isn’t; and there’s so much work you need to do to accept and reject different narratives that goes beyond just acknowledging them. Somehow words can lose their permanence if you don’t do anything about what you’ve just realised. That translated quite badly onto interpersonal relationships; I’d ruminate a lot, wallow in overwhelming sadness; and I suppose I didn’t feel like I had the control to change things. But I do, and I owe much of that to Marwa.
Ayah, a very close friend from Libya, we would always hang out; just skip lessons; and not worry. Growing up in a very academically strict family, she helped me to break out of my shell. Even in day-to-day conversations, we could talk about anything, no matter how crude. If you felt it, you said it. And that translated onto my poetry. It gave me the confidence to talk about certain things because I always thought, well, if we joked about this in turbulent Libya, I can sure as hell do it here, anywhere. And you know what, I don’t care what people think. Much of my style I owe to the conversations we’d had back then.
I also couldn’t possibly mention Ayah, Marwa, and Mr Griffiths without mentioning my ex-boss, Debbie. One of the most important chapters of my poetic journey started with her. Debbie was a manager at a local charity shop that I’d volunteered at during a rough time in my personal life. I’d volunteered mostly to distract myself from it, but I guess she sensed that I was just really sad and angry at myself. We would have conversations about people and their shortcomings; and most importantly, about loving yourself. She was living proof that you can overcome whatever obstacle is in your way; and that you should cut toxic people from your life.
Growing up I read quite a lot of Roald Dahl, and a lot of Jacqueline Wilson. Roald Dahl was probably one of the first authors I’d ever read, and Double Act by Jacqueline Wilson is what first made me think, “I’m going to be a writer”. I was obsessed with Harry Potter, too. I remember saving up to get the latest book every year. My older brother and I would always save up together and on the front of the book we’d write both of our names. Those three authors marked the pinnacles of my childhood. Although I don’t write about fantasy, I have a lot of faith in it. Fantasy allows you to imagine something that isn’t part of your reality, and I don’t think we would make it if we didn’t have that luxury.
E.E Cummings would probably be the most influential. “Spring is like a hand” is an absolutely beautiful poem; and I remember reading it in the airport in Tunis in 2011 and thinking, wow, I want to go back and experience Spring in Libya having read this. Poems like “I have found what you are like” really influenced a lot of my poetry about Autumn and winter, my favourite times of the year. Even his style; so distinctive and so clever; so hard-hitting yet so delicate—it inspires how I write a lot of my poetry. I learned how to say more by writing less from him, and am forever indebted to his gorgeous work.
Another poet who influences my work is Saadi Yousef, an Iraqi poet and political activist. His poetry is fearless, but shares a lot of the delicacy of E.E Cumming’s work. He has one poem; “A Woman” which made me begin writing more poetry about men in a lustful way. The fact that he had translated that poem from Arabic to English, and despite the topics raised directed it towards a Middle Eastern audience is fantastic. I see him as a man who writes about what he knows, no matter how the audience may react; and that’s what I hope to do. Much of the poetry in Section 1 and Section 3 (in The Scent of My Skin) is influenced by him. Making human anatomy political and personal; fingers, legs, hands, doors swung open; longing and loss—all these are addressed in my poetry, and the courage to write about that comes from him, too.
Right now I’m reading Adventures in Modern Marriage by William Nicholson. It’s about relationships and what keeps them going beyond the honeymoon phase. It’s different to what I’ve been reading recently in the sense that it’s a very British book; but I’ve been enjoying it thoroughly. I think being a Libyan living in London, there’s always an emphasis on clinging onto what makes you Libyan, when the truth is, you can’t get all the answers you want by exploring one culture. I like how this book looks back on life from middle age; it feels like I’m getting at least some glimpse of how different or similar things could be in future. It’s comforting; sort of the equivalent of Jacqueline Wilson’s books while growing up. The book itself focuses on male midlife crisis, female sexual desire, death and the fear of it, children and the trouble with them, and the day-to-day struggles of life. It’s wonderful.
Yes. I’d say to those women, You can do it. If you can write about how you feel, you can publish it. No dream is too big and no story too small. History is not influenced by those who do nothing; so as scary as it may sound, leap. Be fearless in your pursuit, and believe that your message is important. I know that so often it can feel like you’re not normal, or that people don’t want to listen to what you have to say, but they do. Remember that most writers, artists, and creatives have thought at one point or the other that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. But they made it and so can you.
To women, remember that “Anonymous” in history has often meant women, and that we can change that. And to young women in the Middle East, nothing will change unless we speak about it. Here is my favourite quote from Mona El Tahawy“ …Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free”.
Thank you for this interview.