A Poetry Collection in Arabic and English About the Divine and the Profane

Zeina Hashem Beck’s "O" explores the many ways in which the failure of language can open new possibilities

Photo by Leyre on Unsplash

Words can, and often do, fail. For Zeina Hashem Beck, a poet and polyglot of three languages, words can, and often do, fail—threefold. This, she says, isn’t a dead end. It’s an invitation. “The words will come when it’s time. And I trust that,” she tells me via an email from Dubai.

Hashem Beck’s newest volume of poetry, O, liaises with language in a way that strays from her previous works. Collections like Louder than Hearts (2017) focus on externality and setting, while O, which she calls “quieter,” preoccupies itself with the body as it oscillates between continents and cultures. Raised in Lebanon, Hashem Beck was educated at a French school before matriculating to American University of Beirut, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English Literature. After living in the United Arab Emirates for a decade, Hashem Beck and her family moved to Northern California in the final weeks of 2021. The poet’s myriad experiences are apparent in both her quotidian exchanges—Arabic (“the Lebanese dialect”), with some English thrown in for good measure, is spoken with friends and family—and in her poems. “Bulbul,” for example, elaborates on multi-ethnicity: “I forget the order of your alphabet though I know all the old Egyptian plays by heart.” “I dream in Lebanese. I count in French.” “The students turned their umbrellas to a Sinatra song in Beirut & here I am writing to you about pining for New York City.”

Like many of her contemporaries, Hashem Beck’s poetry mingles with memoir, as well as with more essayistic and less staggered forms. Through multiple emails and direct messages, she spoke with me not only about how language affects her writing and personal life, but also about how the amalgamations become one.

Arya Roshanian: Where in California did you move to? I was born and raised in a suburb of Los Angeles, so I love talking about California.

Zeina Hashem Beck: Ah, then we need to speak after this; I want to learn more! You’re not the first Californian who tells me they like to talk about it. We moved to the eastern Bay Area in December 2021, and though I didn’t expect to like California, I think it’s quickly growing on me. It’s only been six months, so I don’t know much about it, but it instantly helped that the landscape and the weather reminded me of Lebanon. I hate to admit that I love staring at the mountains and trees, since I’ve always defined myself as a city girl. This afternoon, I picked peaches from our front yard; I’ve never had this kind of relationship with nature before (I’m still scared of spiders, bees, and the squirrels who beat me to the peaches). Perhaps California’s distance and quiet helps, on some level; so much has happened in the past two years both in my personal life and back home in Lebanon (the October 2019 revolution, the economic collapse, the August 2020 Beirut explosion) that part of me needed to be at the other end of the earth. The other part wakes up some days and wonders, “What the hell am I doing here?” I was already “away” from Lebanon while in Dubai of course, but California is a totally different kind of away.

AR: New cities can bring out sides of ourselves that we may not have known existed. Was there something you thought would change for you that’s been more or less the same?

By the time the decision was made to move to California, I was so exhausted I didn’t even have the energy to think about what might or might not change. And that’s very out-of-character for me, because I plan and I like control, but I think that transition period forced me into surrender. I was taking it day by day, hour by hour even. It was the only way; it would have been too scary for me otherwise.  

AR: You moved to California from Dubai, and I’m hesitant to ask how you plan to “establish your roots,” because that idea seems like a fallacy—I feel like we plant seeds of ourselves everywhere we go, rather than setting firm roots. In what ways are California, Dubai, and Lebanon in harmony when you think about yourself?

ZHB: When you’re in Dubai, you’re still pretty close to Lebanon and you’re surrounded by Arab friends, so you somehow feel “rooted.” On the other hand, since you can’t become a citizen, you’re always aware there’s no permanence for you there. Here in California, it’s a much deeper degree of separation, and this time I felt I had really left. When we were kids, my mom always said, “Those who go to America never come back.” My brother left to study in the US when he was seventeen. At the time, I was twelve, and I resented the US for taking him away from me—it felt like a kind of theft, and I promised myself I’d never live there. I recognized a very similar anger, the anger at a place taking your people away from you, in my daughters and their friends as they said goodbye in Dubai. I never thought I’d end up here, but here I am, staring at beautiful maple tree leaves and cursing at squirrels. As for Lebanon, what can I say? It’s home, and it’s a home I seem to constantly be estranged from. To go back to your question: not only is there no harmony, but more importantly, the discord is necessary.

AR: Speaking of harmonies, many of the poems in O are bilingual, which you classify as “Duets.” You do this cool thing where both languages are utilized separately in a single poem, yet they form their own poem when read together. From a craft perspective, how did that come together?

ZHB: With much difficulty, but I like this kind of difficulty. Sometimes the Arabic came first, sometimes the English, and sometimes both of them came together from the start. The most challenging thing was making the poem flow whichever way you read it, whether in English, Arabic, or both, while also keeping some contradiction between the two languages. This took a lot of reading and rereading out loud, a lot of revision.

AR: The irony of being bilingual, or a polyglot, is that words, regardless of the language, can still fail to express our state of mind. How do you navigate the limitations of language in your poetry?

We write poems because we feel there’s something beyond language that we want to reach with language.

ZHB: The urge to write poetry springs from this limitation; we write poems because we feel there’s something beyond language that we want to reach with language. My way of navigating this is to keep writing, to foolishly seek out that impossibility.

AR: What happens if/when you run into a dead end? How do you work around that?

ZHB: It just means you have to slow down and listen. You have to wait. I remind myself that I’m not a machine, that writing is a slow practice, and that I don’t have to prove to myself or others that I’m being “productive.”

AR: Are there times when you feel the “writer” part of yourself speaks its own language? Do you ever have trouble communicating with others outside the written form?

ZHB: Our different selves speak different languages, for sure, while constantly intersecting. That’s part of the beautiful discord, to go back to that! It all depends on context—I definitely don’t walk around speaking lyrically all the time, or speaking in ghazals, though I love intense conversations with friends about the meaning of life, love, friendship, marriage, desire, motherhood. I also love dancing with friends to really bad pop Arabic music and talking about haircuts, nail color, clothes. Any close friend of mine has endless photos of me in different outfits on his/her phone, with questions like, “This one? This size? This color? You like? What do you think? Where are you? Answer!” To return to your beautiful question: no, I don’t think I have trouble communicating with others outside the written form.

AR: What’s your writing style in non-creative outlets? For example, when writing an email or text, how much of your “poet” side are you imbuing into those mediums?

ZHB: I used to read emails a few times before sending them out, and I think that’s the editor in me, but I do that a lot less now, because fuck it, life’s too short. My texting style is super informal, filled with lots of exclamation marks and a wide repertoire of Whatsapp stickers, which are their own genre.  

AR: Tell me about the collection’s title, O. An entire collection reduced to a single letter. Could you explain your decision behind the title?

ZHB: I would first like to apologize to anyone who’s read another interview about O because I’m about to repeat myself. So, the collection was initially titled “Ode to the Afternoon,” after one of the poems, with the afternoon being, for me, a period that’s always made me feel uneasy. But then one day, it made sense to reduce it to just that letter, the “O” of lyricism, surprise, wonder, pause. The “O” of God, body, home, mother, ode, love, and joy. The shape that’s present in the body itself, in its openings.  

AR: There is a line from one of your poems I keep going back to. It’s the opening to “Everything Here is an Absolute”—it’s, “Look at where this nostalgia has brought us.” Nostalgia can be both beautiful and dangerous. Has nostalgia ever failed you, or set you back?

ZHB: As you say, nostalgia can be beautiful (as a teenager, one of my favorite Lebanese radio stations was a French one called “Nostalgie”), but I have to necessarily write against it, even as I write from it. I’m not saying there is zero nostalgia in my poems, but imagine if it were the only lens? My God, it would be disastrous. The poem you mention recognizes, from the first line, that nostalgia has already separated the speaker from the city she’s describing/longing for. Working on the Duets, by the way, it was interesting to notice that the Arabic seemed less nostalgic for me than the English. In one of the Duets, for example, the speaker still “worships” the city in English but swears to stop doing this in Arabic. 

Finally, I want to distinguish between lyricism and nostalgia; I love a lyrical voice, one that’s grounded in the real, the uneasy, the humorous even. As for nostalgia ever failing me, I’m not sure—I don’t think so, because I always had, with whatever nostalgic feelings I’d go through, a simultaneous doubt about those feelings. Perhaps growing up in Lebanon trains you for this.

AR: What are you reading these days? And who are the writers you return to the most? 

ZHB: I co-host, with Palestinian poet and friend Farah Chamma, a podcast in Arabic about Arabic poetry, titled “Maqsouda.” In preparation for season 2, we’ve been reading Dalia Taha, Golan Haji, Qassem Haddad, and Riad al-Saleh al-Hussein, among others. I just finished Noor Naga’s If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English, am finishing bell hook’s All About Love, and want to start Hayan Charara’s These Trees, Those Leaves, This Flower, That Fruit. I return to Mahmoud Darwish, Badr Shaker as-Sayyab, Wislawa Szymborska, Audre Lorde, and many more. 

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