Rewa Zeinati: Unsanctioned Writing from the Middle East

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Nowhere Near a Damn Rainbow: Unsanctioned Writing from the Middle East is an anthology of work from 31 poets who are part of the poetry collective known as the Poeticians. Sampsonia Way asked Hind Shoufani, founder of the Poeticians and curator of the book, to pick eight writers to be interviewed via email. In this series we present those poets’ voices and publish a poem from each. The writer profiled in our sixth installment is Rewa Zeinati, a writer currently based in Dubai who grew up in Saudi Arabia, and allowed us to publish her poem “Office Hours.”

Rewa Zeinati is a writer who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia, Beirut, St. Louis and Dubai. She is a member of the Poeticians, a collective of uncensored writers. Photo courtesy of Rewa Zeinati.

  1. Rewa Zeinati
  2. Rewa Zeinati was born in Saudi Arabia and lived and worked in Beirut and St. Louis, Missouri before settling in Dubai, where she currently works in advertising as a copywriter and conceptualizer. She has also started an online journal, Sukoon Magazine, which focuses on Arab issues. Her work has been published online, in anthologies, and literary journals, such as Quiddity, Blood Lotus, The Bicycle Review, Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, Poets Against War, and the English PEN Online World Atlas. She also maintains a blog.

What is the importance of the Poeticians to you?

The Poeticians provides a much-needed platform that was not available in the city, or the region. It provides a space where spoken word, friendships, artistic passions, and the courage to be whoever you wanted to be were appreciated, welcomed, and nurtured. It combines writers who are published and established, as well as those who are just beginning to discover their passion for writing and spoken word.

The Poeticians has made poetry and spoken word more accessible to a region that might be a bit suspicious or indifferent to these activities—perhaps more out of inexperience or bad marketing than anything else.

Also, as a culture, we are not used to hearing poetry read in English, and people tend to think of it as homework; they perceive it a form that contains rigid rhyme schemes and inaccessible language. When they think of poetry in English they think of Shakespeare, rainbows, and love. In this part of the world I think there’s a misconception about what poetry really is, what it can provide, what it can achieve, and how it’s much, much more than love and rainbows.

Nowhere Near A Damn Rainbow highlights that it’s an uncensored book of “unsanctioned” writing. How have you benefited from being in an uncensored collection?

Being part of a book of unsanctioned writing—especially from the “Middle East”—is not very common. The book is political, humorous, offensive, lyrical, painful, and honest. It’s bi-lingual and has a lot to offer.

It doesn’t just combine voices from the region, but also the voices that care very deeply about the region. That’s why it’s a special book. It’s uncensored on every level—content-wise, stylistically, thematically—nothing is aborted or held back.

Can you talk about freedom of speech in Lebanon? Which topics are not allowed?

In Lebanon we like to think that we can exercise what the world calls “freedom of speech.” We boast that we are more “liberal” than our neighboring countries and, to an extent, we really are. Many Arab writers who were exiled from their homelands sought refuge in Lebanon. The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, for example, was one of them.

Lebanon is a contradictory place, though. Censorship is a funny thing. The Lebanese movie Beirut Hotel was banned, for example, for its supposedly explicit sexual scenes, but probably more for its references to the Hariri assassination. Also, the Lebanese movie Tannoura Maxi, horrified the church and its Lebanese followers for its “love” scene inside a church.

Some foreign movies and literature have also been banned; the movie Waltz with Bashir was banned, for example, because it was Israeli-produced. That is standard, but no one bothered to check the content of the movie at all. The books The Da Vinci Code and The Satanic Verses were also banned due to religious sensitivities.

On the other hand, the highly controversial Arabic magazine Jasad was never banned in Lebanon—the only Arab country where it was allowed to be sold. It was founded by Lebanese writer and women’s rights activist Joumana Haddad.

Many people regard Jasad’s content as pornographic and shocking, but it simply tackles the issues that Arab women face, such as eroticism, hymen reconstructive surgery, and homosexuality. It’s a feminist publication that addresses sexual health and virginity, topics usually considered taboo and culturally sensitive. It’s an attempt at reconciliation with one’s own body in a culture that is still tied down by society’s restrictions and taboos—where the woman’s body is never hers. Sadly enough, a lot of women believe that if they wear bikinis and drink vodka at beach parties, or dance on tables in the middle of the day, they are more “free” and “liberated” than women in the rest of the region. They don’t know how oppressed they really are.

So you think that religion is the most sensitive subject?

Yes. Unfortunately, we live in a highly sectarian, politically religious system that is governed by confessionalism. This isn’t changing as fast as it should, although many Lebanese writers, journalists, artists, thinkers, and professors are doing their best to change the rhetoric. Still, it doesn’t seem very optimistic.

I think for the most part Lebanon has been known for its free press and its now increasingly dynamic online landscape. The art scene is also very rich with shows and projects that practice this level of freedom. Though a lot is left to be desired when it comes to issues like women’s rights.

What misunderstandings does the West have about Middle Eastern literature?

This question can be a bit misleading. The term “Middle East” is a tricky term to use, as it is primarily Eurocentric, and has become loosely used and abused. Turkey and Cyprus are considered part of the Middle East, so is Iran. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Armenia are also considered part of the greater Middle East. These are very different cultures—religiously, ethnically, and politically—and they include Arabs and non-Arabs. I can’t lump them together or claim to speak on behalf of those countries. I can only attempt to speak for the region closest to mine, the Levant region—and even that is not very accurate, as it includes Cyprus and part of Turkey. What is the common, connecting point? Geography? Language? Religion? Food?

If we are going to use the term “Middle East,” then I have my own misunderstandings of Middle Eastern literature! When I read The Kite Runner I was surprised by what I learned. I imagined a very oppressed Afghanistan, and was surprised at the pre-Taliban reality that existed, however briefly. On another note, I just read about Queen Soraya in Afghanistan, the feminist leader from the 1920s who pushed for women’s education and active participation in the building of the nation.

To answer your question, I think the West has a very biased perception of the “Middle East” as being entirely Muslim; that all of the women wear veils and burqas, and that it’s a place where tyranny and women’s repression is the norm. The media loves it. What they don’t know is that, for example, a lot of the women who wear skimpy outfits in Lebanon are just as oppressed as the ones covered up from head to toe. The understanding of what it means for Middle Eastern women to be liberated is misrepresented. There’s a lot of misinformation involved.

How do you define yourself in terms of nationality?

I don’t. Am I a Westernized Arab? An Arabized Westerner? A Lebanese-American? An Americanized-Lebanese?

What are you working on now?

I’m working on three manuscripts: Two of poetry and one of non-fiction writing.

Abu Dhabi, December 2011

It’s 6 something a.m.
You wake up to go to work.

It’s still dark out
so you drag your feet because
somehow it’s freezing but
the AC’s off and you can’t seem
to get yourself away
from underneath the warmth and the sleep.

Apparently it’s a season and it’s called winter,
but the malls here are all flip flops and boots,
bikinis and coats, stockings,
and Christmas and suntan lotion.

You shower and throw something on
and maybe a scarf
just to add color or frankly
just because.

You step into the car
not yours, you’re carpooling,
not because it’s greener necessarily,
but because the drive’s long
and you’d rather read or talk or
continue the sleep you
interrupted at home, where it’s warm
and familiar and you
get to decide about things in general.

Finally you get to the office,
you wave your hellos, you turn on
the laptop but
you’re already planning to go downstairs
for a smoke
although you quit two months ago
but the smokers are going
and not much is waiting
to be done, you see, not much is
waiting really, but you.

You wait. You’ve all been waiting. The
rumors are already getting old.
It’s been that long. So you don’t do
much after the morning break,
from what, you’re not so sure, but
you make another cup of coffee anyway
and wonder- you’re human after all and
you find yourself just wondering
a long non fleeting wonder, how you got
to this point, and what’s the best
way frankly to lose weight since it’s
already 2011, and you already forgot
about your professional dilemma
and suddenly the size of your hips becomes
your focus.

You check your email, your Facebook,
you check the photos; drum your
fingers on the desk,
you make your daily comments
like they’re a chore, only they’re
not, but you do it anyway
because you want to and because

routines are hard to lose. You feel you
should want to read the news
online or something, so much is going on, but really you’d rather just continue looking through more photos, and places to travel, because you don’t want to hear more about Egypt, you’re disgusted, and the dead fetus found in the aircraft bathroom, or the woman in Sudan who wore pants, and the limbo Beirut is in, and you lazily search
the net for a different
future and you look at your watch,
it must be lunch time,

but really it’s still 10:15.

Somehow you reach noon or so, and you
have a two-hour lunch.
You have Turkish coffee afterwards
to digest the pasta
and the four different types of cooked chicken.
You yawn a couple of times, although you
just had coffee for God’s sake,
but you yawn anyway.
You walk back to
your desk, check your BBM,
and everyone’s status updates,
because that’s how silly you get when you’re bored.

Suddenly you find yourself in the
midst of an argument or
debate in the afternoon hours about religion
or spirituality and how they are not

and how you think god is like love,
not because it sounds romantic,
but because everyone has a different
understanding of it.

At some point you’re daydreaming about
how life is elsewhere, a car ride away,
a plane ride away.
Life is elsewhere, Kundera wrote a whole
book about it
and now it’s 4 p.m.

The longest hour of the day is here. But
you wait. You drum your fingers
some more on the desk. You receive
a rose, you crack a joke, and you do
you’ve been doing this for months and
you wonder mostly of all why you
chose at this particular phase of your life,
of all times and stages and periods,
to finally quit your smoking-

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