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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.”