Meet Amina Atiq: British-Yemeni activist and poet

Meet Amina Atiq: British-Yemeni activist and poet
Amina Atiq’s reaction to growing up in a completely different culture was to reject her own. (Supplied)
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Updated 30 March 2020

Meet Amina Atiq: British-Yemeni activist and poet

Meet Amina Atiq: British-Yemeni activist and poet
  • The 24-year-old discusses rejecting and re-embracing her Arab roots, and dealing with her growing fame

LONDON: It’s not easy to hold a crowd spellbound with spoken-word poetry, but when 24-year-old British-Yemeni poet Amina Atiq performed at the Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) festival in London recently, it’s fair to say she had the audience in the palm of her hand. You could have heard a pin drop as she read a selection of her work. It was an extraordinary and emotive performance.

Atiq left Yemen at the age of four when her parents emigrated to Liverpool in the north of England. Yemenis are the longest established Arab community in the UK, settling there from the 1860s.

Atiq’s reaction to growing up in a completely different culture was to reject her own. One manifestation of her wish to ‘fit in’ at secondary school was her decision — aged 14 — to chop off and straighten her long, black, wavy hair, an act that she says hurt her mother deeply. 

“My mum dedicated a lot of her time every single day to looking after my hair, which I now see was her way of trying to bond with me,” Atiq tells Arab News in her Liverpudlian accent. “She grew up in Yemen and was trying to keep the routines that reminded her of home. But at school everyone looked different to me. Looking back I didn’t see cutting my hair as related to that difference at the time — it was more like I was rebelling against my mother and my Arab community who I felt didn’t understand me and never would.”




Amina Atiq left Yemen at the age of four when her parents emigrated to Liverpool in the north of England.

Atiq addresses her mother directly in her poem “A Letter To My Mother,” which she performed at AWAN: “When a thousand voices cheer me on from the audience/Perhaps the only voice I really want to hear is always you/‘You’ll never understand me,’ I slam the door/Breaking your heart over and over again/But my mother, she waits up all night/Waiting for the key to turn through the door.”

Having rejected so much of her Arab culture in her adolescence, Atiq acknowledges that she is now racing to regain what she lost.

“Over the past four years I have dedicated my time to relearning my language. It’s so strange, because I grew up speaking Arabic as a young child. Language is part of who you are and losing it represents, in some sense, a loss of cultural identity,” she says.

She describes an incident on a London-Liverpool train packed with football fans when she was aggressively challenged by a passenger after she briefly switched from English to Arabic in a phone call to her mother. In the midst of this upsetting altercation she began to record the exchanges on her phone camera and when she uploaded the video she was amazed at the reaction. 

“The next morning there were 180,000 viewers and it just kept getting bigger. There was a huge response — it was salutary,” she says. “I had people from all over the world supporting me.” 




Amina Atiq and her brother outside St George's Hall Liverpool. (Supplied)

However, as the story was repeatedly retold she saw that it was becoming distorted and that she had, to some extent, lost control of the narrative. For this reason she decided in future to communicate important issues through her art.

Her poem “Shamin’ on the Train” came from this incident: “You will hear a voice right behind you and it is muttering hate/…when she practices her freedom of speech she is told to leave this country/…why choose hate if you are unsure/And if you are unsure why don’t you ask?”

Atiq graduated from Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) last year with a degree in English and creative writing. Her public profile is growing rapidly. In addition to participating in festivals, and being featured in the media — including the BBC and British Muslim TV — she has been awarded the Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) Citizenship award for her community engagement work, and was recognized as the best volunteer in the North West by Human Appeal, a British international development and relief charity. Last year she was a finalist in the BBC’s “Words First” talent-development scheme set up to discover the best spoken-word artists in the UK.

She has participated in special discussions in the British Parliament focusing on the plight of Yemen. That hasn’t always been a positive experience, she explains, as she felt that many of the statistics the politicians were reeling off about casualties and victims of famine obscured the individual human suffering beneath the numbers.




Grandad and Grandmother Hayla in Liverpool with two eldest kids Abdullah and Jamal. (Supplied)

“I felt lives were just being tossed around the room,” she says. “There should be a lot more empathy and compassion when we are speaking about people.” 

She is passionate in calling for peace to put an end to the suffering of civilians caught up in the horror of war, and would like to see the arms trade more carefully governed according to moral principles. (“I thought the purpose of war was to defend — not to attack,” she says.)  It has been six years since her family have been back to Yemen — a trip they used to take annually.

She has written a play — “Broken Biscuits” — about her visits to her grandmother’s 1970s Yemeni-British household in Liverpool. Her granddad sold broken biscuits (a common practice during rationing in World War II). 

“I chose the title in connection to him and also because the words bring to mind the idea of being broken,” she explains.

When she was researching the play, she had photographs from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties strewn all over her bedroom, she says. Her career as a writer hasn’t come easily — school was a challenge for her due to dyslexia.




Having rejected so much of her Arab culture in her adolescence, Atiq acknowledges that she is now racing to regain what she lost. (Photo credit: Wesley Storey)

“I was a storyteller from a very young age. In Yemen, as a small child, I used to get books and copy all the words because I was fascinated by language.” she says. “Writing is not just about pen and paper. I liked telling stories and sharing my experiences to inspire others. But because I am dyslexic I only started speaking at the age of five. My mum thought I had a learning difficulty, but it was slow development due to being hard of hearing and other factors.”

Because of her own learning difficulties she is very sympathetic to children who have similar challenges. She works as a facilitator in schools and encourages the children to use their creativity to express their feelings. 

While Atiq has been able to use her growing profile as a writer and activist to highlight issues close to her heart, she says she has found the attention “a bit overwhelming.”

“People have thrown a lot of opportunities at me, which have helped me to develop as an artist and make money. However, I want to take a step back,” she says. “I have got fragments of work everywhere on different themes and I want to weave these together to make a more coherent presentation. I want to develop as an artist and tour my work.”


The Saudi startup that's taking a creative approach to humanitarian work

Updated 02 December 2020

The Saudi startup that's taking a creative approach to humanitarian work

The Saudi startup that's taking a creative approach to humanitarian work
  • Bab Boutique is helping refugees one stitch at a time

JEDDAH: Women refugees and others facing hardship on the margins are developing their creative talents with the help of a Saudi fashion startup.

Bab Boutique was established in 2016 to give marginalized communities the space and resources to invest in their creativity, and to encourage female refugees and others to celebrate their identity and culture.

The boutique describes itself as a “platform to celebrate stories of survival, striving and invisible success through handcrafted pieces created with care and love.”

Bab Boutique was initially set up by Rafah Sahab, Asma Aljifri, Hessa Alrubian, Mariam Alrubian and Fajer Burhamah as a therapeutic activity to support and help Syrian women who had fled their war-torn homeland.

Sahab, a psychotherapist, said that the boutique’s founders were driven by the belief that mental health is just as important as physical well-being.

“The plan was to provide traditional one-to-one therapy sessions during my visits to refugee camps or by securing funds for local therapists in hosting communities like Lebanon and Jordan,” said Sahab.

However, after a few visits, Sahab realized that many refugees were looking for a job, not mental health support.

“I was humbled by their grit and determination to find ways to provide for their children,” she said. “So we joined with local partners to give them a chance to express their creativity.”

Sahab decided to replace the therapy sessions with handicraft work since it was clear that lack of employment was affecting the refugees’ sense of dignity and self-respect.

In collaboration with the Thekra Organization in Jordan, Bab launched its first collection, “Stories of Syria,” which featured hand-embroidered bags in different sizes that celebrated aspects of Syrian culture, including weddings, and the wheat and olive harvests.

“We asked the refugees what we could learn from Syrian culture, and the women began sharing stories that they loved, and these were converted into drawings which the women then embroidered,” said Sahab.

“We took care of selling the collection in the GCC market.”

The market for Bab Boutique’s hand-embroidered products is bigger than many might think, and includes devotees of slow fashion, sustainability, handicraft and environmentally friendly products.

As their efforts began to bear fruit, the boutique’s co-founders discovered that far from being helpers and the refugees victims, the relationship was more cooperative, educational and insightful for both parties.

“We learned that these people have a lot that they can teach us; they have culture, art and creativity that we can benefit from,” said Sahab.

“They are not just refugees, they are people with dreams, potential, capacity, ideas and skills, as well as pain and disappointments. They’re just normal human beings.”

Sahab said that her work with refugees has taught her that “inside every one of us there is a divine power; there is flexibility, and the ability to be creative and overcome hardship.”

In collaboration with Jeddah-based artist Doa Bugis, Bab Boutique recently introduced “Migrating Birds,” a new collection of finely embroidered bags by Syrian refugees in Lebanon based on art pieces created by Bugis, whose works focus on exploring grief, loss, migration and hybrid identities.

“I have been an admirer of Bab for years. The Stories of Syria collection caught my eye and have drawn me into Bab’s own narrative, values and ethics,” said Bugis. “Knowing what they stand for, I said yes without giving it a second thought.

“Migrating Birds has been brewing in my head for years. I’ve always been interested in hybrid identities and spent about six years researching the subject,” Doa Bugis told Arab News.

“One of the main factors behind mixed identities is migration. It has been a phenomenon rooted in history. People have always relocated for better jobs, opportunities and living conditions. Whether the reasons were religious, economical or educational, uprooting yourself and your family is not an easy journey.”

Bugis sketched this narrative with words and then translated it visually. After many attempts she finally created an eye-catching miniature painting that combined Islamic art and calligraphy.

The finely embroidered bags feature images of birds, and phrases such as “In migration, there is loss and existence.”

Bab now hopes refugees can be valued for the cultural richness they bring with them.

“We want to change the fact that money and property is the judge for someone’s richness. You can be financially poor, but rich in culture and art; we want to make this shift,” Sahab said.

She said that the startup hopes to foster a new approach to humanitarian work that will give people the capacity to build for themselves and sustain their lives.

Bab plans to continue working with refugees on special lines and collections, but is also working on building communities both inside and outside the Kingdom.

“We believe that Bab is an imperfect project, an ever-evolving process of trial and error,” said Sahab.

“We have a growth mindset. We try to have patience and work slowly against societal and business industry expectations.”
 
Although social entrepreneurship is a new concept in the Saudi market, Sahab is optimistic about the future.

“Social businesses were not popular in the past. However, recently new regulations were set to support them. I expect a better future for social startups and social entrepreneurship.”  

Bab Boutique products are available online and at concept stores in Saudi Arabia. They can be found at https://babboutique.store and Instagram account @babboutique.me.