It was at an anti-war event on a half-sunny summer day last year when I first heard her voice, quiet but determined, equally filled with pain and rage as with resistance and hope.
Her words have echoed in my head since: My name is not Irak / And I don’t need your help / I’m not a threat to you / You’re a threat to yourself… I’m not sure if it was the words themselves or the fact that it was oral poetry so powerfully performed on a tiny stage that day, but I saw tears in the audience.
That voice belongs to Sanasino, a young Yemeni poet living in London, UK. Born in Aden, south Yemen in 1991, she came to Britain with her family at the age of five. She has performed at various public events, and posts recordings of her poetry on social media platforms. Her critical yet honest approach (I don’t preach cos / I am still learning.. and trust me / This hijab on my head / Doesn’t make me perfect – “Statemeant Sessions”) and strong sentiments regarding identity (They ask me how I resist / I say I wave my flag / They ask how I still exist / I say I wave my flag – “Wave My Flag”) combined with her fierce stance against western nations making the Arab World their violent playground (“My name is not Irak”).
Here, Sanasino reflects on political poetry, its contemporary expressions, and her own road to self-discovery.
As a poet and activist, how do you approach writing politically engaging poetry?
I wouldn’t like to label myself an activist for a couple reasons: firstly, I fully believe one who spends time raising awareness for those less fortunate can and should only by labelled a human and nothing more. It is our duty as human beings to care for those screaming across the world, thus there shouldn’t be a special label for those who do this. And secondly, I may seem like I am “active” on certain issues but I cannot be compared to those who genuinely dedicate their life and soul into defending the weak. For this reason, I do not deserve to be grouped with these inspirational people.
How did poetry come to you in the first place?
I’ve always been a very introvert and confined individual who did not do much speaking. To counter that, I would write all my feelings and thoughts on paper. I don’t actually remember the first time I sat down and wrote a poem or what pushed me to do so, but since the age of 12 or so it’s all I’ve been doing. Over the years my writing obviously – and thankfully – evolved from topics to perspective to style and quality. I first started writing from a more political angle in 2008, when I became much more politically aware. I guess I would have to source this back to all the Palestine protests I attended and, more specifically, an artist named Lowkey who showed me how to politicise poetry. Seeing this form of art and the effect it had on people absolutely blew me away and inspired me to incorporate a more meaningful and beneficial message into my work.
What role does poetry play in the everyday lives of Arab people today and how does it differ from before?
Poetry has always been flowing in the veins of the Arabs and I’m lucky I caught it and worked on developing it a few years ago. I don’t think there has been an obvious change in our poetry and if there was one change, it would probably be the addition of spoken word and rap poetry. Throughout time the Arabs have always been involved in conflicts so this motif of resistance, war and thirst for freedom we see in today’s poetry also existed then.
Would you agree the importance of poetry in the Arab world has been declining in recent years?
I would say there is a global decline in poetry, and the reason for that is the excessive time spent on social media. We are living in a world where we live and breathe Facebook, Twitter and other websites to the extent that we don’t actually have time to pause and contemplate on the wonders of the world or sympathise with the poor and hungry. At times I, too, fall into the trap and leave myself no time to contemplate, let alone write, but I would definitely say this is a global issue. The importance of poetry, however, is still and will always be at its utmost peak. I believe the deeper we fall into chaos and mayhem, the more we need words of poetry to heal and guide us through.
You are a Yemeni woman. What additional dimensions does this add to your work?
I am indeed! If I was asked this question pre-2011 revolution I would have had a completely different answer, but I’ll mix it up to convey my thoughts clearly. As a Yemeni, male or female, we have always been in the depths of social hierarchy. By that, of course, I mean in comparison to the “Western” and “forward-thinking, first world”, but I also mean in comparison to our neighbouring Arab brothers and sisters. As the poorest country in the Middle East, we have always been perceived as the most barbaric and have faced years of racism and discrimination. In fact, up until very recently I have also come face-to-face with racist anti-Yemeni remarks from individuals in my social sphere. My poem “History Lesson” was a response to this racism. Being a Yemeni and being a woman have most definitely added dimensions to my work. Not only do I have to break the ignorance of Muslim woman being oppressed and chained to the kitchen so to speak, but it is also my duty to change the views of Yemenis to the world.
You use social media to spread your message. How does technology affect your poetry and poetry in general?
Technology is the reason why I receive messages of support from people I have never met in countries across the world. When I started out I only had the confidence to share my work with a select few, but after receiving positive comments I decided to share my work in public. I did this by recording my poems by voice and uploading them onto a YouTube channel. There are a few reasons why I took this approach. Firstly, I was self-conscious of extreme or strict Muslims who would attack me for showing my face and secondly, because I wanted to, in a sense, print my name onto these words using my own voice. Of course since then I have grown in myself and built up confidence – thus no longer fear the attacks I do at times receive from these extremists. Since publishing and broadcasting my work on a more public platform I have been invited to speak and recite at a number of events across the country and have been very positively welcomed by different audiences. I could safely say that without technology my words would still be hovering alone on my page.
How do you approach the creative process of writing poetry?
I write about anything and everything which has the power to keep me up at night. Whether this is something fairly silly at times or a serious issue, if I lay in bed thinking about it I would most probably write something about it. The issues dear to me most are oppression and justice. This can be as huge as war and massacre and as minute as being unfairly treated by someone. Over the past few months I’ve also been attracted to writing more spiritually, so religion is also a huge topic for me at present.
Which poems are you most proud of?
My most well-received poem would have to be “My Name Is Not Irak” which I had the honour of reciting at many events, including the Mass Anti-War Assembly in Trafalgar Square. To hear my work echo through the streets of London was definitely one of the most defining moments so far. However, although this is the most popular, it’s not my number one. I would say my favourite one is a piece I wrote a few months ago entitled “Take Me Home” which I have a very strong connection with. I’m also very proud of my latest piece which is the first one written in collaboration with another poet, Ibrahim Sincere, entitled “Sands of Time”.