A Travel Guide for the Exiled
An Interview with Zein El-Amine, by Leeya Mehta
In April, we were lucky to spend time at the Annapolis Book Festival with Zein El-Amine. El-Amine grew up in Lebanon and now teaches and writes in Washington D.C., bringing his heart and words to our local literary community. With tenderness and irony El-Amine tells us stories of family and loss, while this beautiful and brutal world plays on.
LM: These evocative poems you share with us at Plume are part of A Travel Guide for the Exiled recently shortlisted for the Bergman Prize, judged by Louise Glück. Can you talk to us about this collection?
ZE: This collection is a series of poems that are geographically based. They are inspired by my travels since leaving my home of Lebanon due to the civil war. At the core of this collection is a long poem (29 pages) that is structured according to a therapeutic treatment referred to as EMDR. The poem tells of a journey made by four boys and their father across four countries to locate their mother who had passed away during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. EMDR is a therapy that is conducted in the form of call-and-response, designed to deal with post-traumatic stress. The patient in this case is also trying to locate the root of his trauma, something which he thought he had located on his own. But the reality is, as the therapy progresses, he realizes that what he had identified as the root was actually a twig on the trauma tree.
LM: A few years ago, we met for the first time at a reading for Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. I wonder how you came to be a part of that, and whether you would like to say a little more about the social movement around Al-Mutanabbi with reference to its significance to you.
ZE: I believe it was DC poet Sarah Browning that had recommended me for the DC debut reading of Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here at the Corcoran Museum. The Corcoran exhibited art dedicated to that iconic booksellers’ street in Baghdad. This was held on July 7 in 2011. I read a poem with three other poets, along with the Iraqi ambassador. I was so honored to be part of this event that celebrated this important literary street that had been destroyed in 2007 by a car bomb after the American invasion of Iraq.
LM: Sarah Browning was part of the social movement that created the book DC Poets against the War. She is also founder of Split This Rock – a literary platform and festival around poetry of provocation, witness and social change. Zein, many of your poems talk about the spaces you grew up in and continue to visit in Southern Lebanon. Tell us about those borderlands in the Middle East and how they physically and emotionally find their way into your poems.
ZE: When I write about those spaces I am writing about a place and traditions that have all but disappeared. More importantly, it is a place that now belongs to a time that is so removed from the 21st century, a village that seems to belong to the 19th century rather than the 20th. There are so many rituals that were practiced by my grandmother and carried on by my aunts that have vanished with their passing. Those times are such fertile grounds for stories and poetry and are charged with so much emotion for me. The love that I received from the women that raised me in that place still charges me to this day.
LM: You have a poem in Ghost Fishing Melissa Tuckey’s meaningful eco-justice anthology – tell us, do you write often about eco-justice, about climate change?
ZE: What is unique about Melissa Tuckey’s anthology Ghost Fishing is that it dedicates a large portion to poems about war. This is something that is always missing from writings about climate change. This omission in those writings is especially egregious when one is reminded that the military-industrial complex and the wars it provokes has the largest carbon footprint of any nation on earth.
LM: When you think about eco-justice is it related also to justice for those whose voices are less heard in the Middle East?
ZE: When I think of eco-justice as related to those voices that are less heard in the Middle East, I think of the fact that the Middle East and Africa will be the first victims of climate change. Those regions are experiencing a double whammy: they will be the first victims of catastrophic global warming and they are being subjected to wars initiated by western nations, wars motivated by the exploitation
LM: Is Glück one of your influences? And who are your greatest influences?
ZE: I was introduced to Glück when I was working on my MFA and I loved her poetry. I found it such a beautiful relief from the obscure stuff that was being published by major magazines and journals of the day. There are poets that one holds in high regard but you don’t count them as an influence, and Glück is one of those poets for me. I think the work that influenced me most was The Book of Nightmares by Galway Kinnell. I like most of his work but that one especially as I keep returning to it again and again. Another poet that influenced me greatly, in the sense of opening possibilities for me, is Carolyn Forché, especially The Country Between Us and Gathering the Tribe. Those two works go over the same ground that I return to in my memories and in my poetry, emotionally and geographically. Other poets that I love are Philip Levine with his class-conscious verse and Sherry Fairchok (specifically her The Palace of Ashes about life in the mining town of her birth). Lastly I would be remiss not to mention my adoration of the poetry of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali. I think that whimsy is a necessary weapon in the arsenal of oppressed people and Ali wields it well.
LM: Zein, your writing and your activism interrogate power, status, difference, and the relationship these have to violence. I would love to hear more about how you talk to yourself about this interrogation.
ZE: I grew up in a community that, for a large part of the 20th century, was mired in poverty and considered to be the lowest caste in my country of Lebanon, the Shiite of southern Lebanon. For much of that history we were under the thumb of feudal lords and looked down upon by the northern Lebanese who were associated with western culture and politics rather than with traditional Arab culture. As Palestinians were exiled into our rural lands we became the victims of a war of liberation that resulted in retributory and provocatory invasions by Israel, which was not satisfied with the expulsion of Palestinians but wanted to follow through with their ethnic cleansing. The 22-year Israeli occupation of a significant portion of south Lebanon turned those farmers, mechanics and impoverished people into a powerful resistance that resulted in multiple military defeats of the Israeli IDF. In those years of occupation opinions changed in that area from seeing the Palestinians as a burden to standing in solid solidarity with them. Our lives before those times, before we had any way to defend ourselves, were precarious. We were living with the constant threat of death from the skies. We were living with the threat of violence every day and there was no recourse for us.
What I have witnessed, in terms of the plight of both Palestinians and my own people, was instructive when it came to confronting capitalism and imperialism as a US citizen living in the Capital of the most violent country in the world. On a smaller scale it was also instructive in how to organize against racism and gentrification in my own community in the US.
LM: When you write about war, do you feel you need to smuggle in critiques of power into your work or do you address them more directly? I find you are doing both, but would you talk about this act of smuggling more if you feel it relevant to you? The way a writer presents in the court of the king he is critiquing. In your case, which court are we in?
ZE: I find that addressing critiques of power directly results in didactic poetry. I always tell my students that if the reader or the listener senses that you are imposing an opinion on them then they would shut down. Another thing that I tell students is that metaphor is not just an ornament of poetry. For many Arab writers metaphor was a way to “smuggle critiques of power” past the censors and authorities. This is a tradition that goes back centuries where Arab poets who had to earn their living by reading in the courts of sultans and kings, would smuggle their critiques under the cover of praise. That sharpened their verse as they had to utilize all the essential elements of poetry to pull off that magic trick. Obviously, we are in the courts of the most powerful country in the world and, in my case, I am in the court of an antagonistic academia. More importantly I am in the court of a government that keeps trying to pass laws, to muzzle those who speak the truth about what is happening in the Arab world, under the guise of combatting terrorism. Again, I think whimsy is the best smuggler of truth and influencer of conscience.
LM: Do you see yourself as an activist writer? Or how do you see yourself? What do you say to those who say writing and activism are meant to be separate, that you agree? What about those who say good writing cannot be political?
ZE: I never set my intentions as an activist writer, that would not yield compelling writing and it would be constantly shaking the reader out of their fictive dream. I am a storyteller that is not wed to a specific genre or medium of writing. I just feel that some stories are better told in prose and some are better told in verse. But since the pursuit of justice is instinctive to me, then my work does have a political undercurrent. This helps me drive the narration (and it might raise consciousness to some degree) but I do not care whether the reader finds the politics in my work. So, in essence, I do not separate writing from activism. In general, my goal is not to necessarily write political poetry or such but to write compelling works.
One last thing that I would say about this is another piece of advice that I used to give young poets: there is political poetry and there is protest poetry. In my mind the first is effective and engaging poetry that plants a measure of splendor in people’s hearts, and the latter is a shrill telling that repulses the reader. Having said that, I would say that these are not the only categories that exist, and the human condition cannot be confined to that duality.
Walking to Rabab’s House
Huda stops by
as all visits were
when life ran
shirt and a long
worn in all
for a November
day. You knew
she was going
as she tells
me where we
that we call
and go up
a narrow steep
and side doors
where you can
to sunlit courtyards.
Once we turn
at the maroon
with the fig
of the corner
I guess that
we are going
beauty, and her
But most known
for her voice –
that could not
had to have
with her first
with its reach.
When she used
to sing in harvest
season in the field
her song would
not drift as much
as fill the valley
all at once.
reading the paper,
and move to
to take in
shade of her
arbor, her scent
I don’t anticipate
from her gate.
I am armored
head to toe:
wool socks, long
on the black
head and pincers
while the stinger
spears the air
foot. It takes
of the scorpion
to kill the thing,
and it takes some
get me to walk
at the gate
On a Brooklyn rooftop someone
talks about the storm. We see the last
of Hugo move in. From a truncated
Manhattan skyline, two beams shoot
up into the September Saturday night.
Someone asks me what I am working on.
I am confused by the question.
I am distracted by the weather.
I ask if we shouldn’t be making our way
Monday night, on a DC rooftop,
a pockmarked Ramadan moon sinks
west instead of its expected arc eastward
and upward, and then I remember: you are gone. Now, and from here, a draped landscape sprinkled with stone houses all Chagall-askew;
donkeys and chickens set up on hilly
pedestals. Nothing of daily life is concealed. Spirits ancient and new: Phoenician, Roman, Greek
and Arab, move between our low-crouching weather and arid land.
Her garden was backfilled with meters of potent soil,
a place where monks kept their cows for decades.
The same soil she used to fill her Nido Milk cans and drop her found seeds. They burst into things of beauty that scared us with their ferocity, flowers within flowers that opened and closed with no allegiance to light.
In that courtyard seat, she would sit knitting with these botanical creatures perched above her shoulders, viridescent leaves bringing out her olive joy.
She would look up when we approached and then came the
anticipated tokburni – a word we spoke every day but could not weigh until that Friday when a nephew and a nephew, a nephew, and a nephew,
carried her for a change, cocooned in the white linen.
Note: Tokburni is an Arabic term of endearment which translates to “may you bury me.”
Rayan keeps clicking away at her,
always missing her by a moment.
Catches her heel in a flip flop,
as she ducks into the kitchen
to grab a chair. A half-blurred
face as she turns from him to me.
She whirls her words around
as she dusts, wipes and curses
flies. Sits for a second but bolts
before he snaps – captures a close-up
of her waist – a cotton dress bunched
up with a rubber band – a makeshift
belt that she hikes up
as she shrinks with age.
The cigarettes uninterrupted –
she has been smoking them for seven
decades, unfiltered for the first three, but
never a cough. Operation “Grapes of Wrath”
didn’t get her, even though she refused to vacate
the village. The Red Cross found her
intact after a hit sprayed her walls with shrapnel.
Operation “Summer Rain” also missed her –
she woke up with her curtains on fire, grains
of glass speckling her bedsheet. She walked
out to find the neighbors’ water tank
smoldering in her courtyard and proceeded
to clean up the mess.
Rayan finally nails it: every wrinkle focused,
mouth still for the moment, face framed
in tattered muslin, left finger fixed on chin,
the right hand already conjuring a ghost.
Have you ever found
yourself in the rain-
scented wake of a woman,
leading you through
a cornfield at dusk, singing
her favorite hobo song? Wilted
leaves in your way brushing
your arms like paupers
putting you on. A waning
sun that beams on the bright
madness of the round brown faces
of sunflowers that stand
guard of the wheat. A barn heard
before seen in the distance,
its ember heart beating,
on their second wind,
after they had biked over
rollercoaster pastures for days.
The woman, reaching back,
without looking, finding your
hand with the first grasp, to pull
you into the dim lights of the barn
and swerve you by the waist, churning
your world into a streak of passing
smiles, wooden rafters, fiddlers,
pickers, and whirling laughter.
Zein El-Amine is a Lebanese-born poet and writer. He has an MFA in Poetry from the University of Maryland. His poems have appeared in Wild River Review, Folio, Beltway Quarterly, Foreign Policy in Focus, CityLit, Graylit, Split This Rock, Penumbra, DC Poets Against the War: An Anthology, and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. His latest poetry manuscript A Travel Guide for the Exiled was recently shortlisted for the Bergman Prize, judged by Louise Glück.
El-Amine was awarded the Megaphone Prize awarded by Radix Media for his collection of short stories titled Is This How You Eat A Watermelon which will be published in October 2022. El-Amine’s short stories have appeared in the Uno Mas, Jadaliyya, Middle East Report, Wild River Review, About Place Journal, and in Bound Off.
El-Amine lives in the Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Cooperative and teaches Arab language and film at Georgetown University. He is also an adjunct professor, teaching Arabic literature and history at American University, and teaches Arabic Media and International Affairs at George Washington University.