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

  • 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.”

‘Hamilton’ makes a successful transition to the big screen

Updated 04 July 2020

‘Hamilton’ makes a successful transition to the big screen

CHENNAI: Cinema sometimes looks to go back to its roots. Some years ago, European auteurs like Lars Von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg and others introduced “Dogme 95” as a new form of moviemaking, which meant using no props, no artificial lighting and no makeup. It did not last long. However, Thomas Kail’s “Hamilton” — released to coincide with the Fourth of July and streaming on Disney Plus — is another experiment that reminded me of the very early days of motion pictures when some directors in India captured a stage play with a static camera and then screened it in remote regions, where it was not feasible to cart the entire cast.

Kail used six cameras to shoot what was originally a theatrical production. Over two nights in 2016, he filmed the play with most of the actors, including Tony Award winners, who were in the stage version. Every attempt has been made to make it look cinematic, with impeccable camerawork and editing. There is a bonus here. The movie enables you to be a front-bencher at Richard Rogers’ stage production. This closeness that allows you to see clearly the expressions of the actors establishes an intimacy between the audience and the cast.

Inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton, the 160-minute show makes a fabulous musical. The release of the film with its intentionally diverse cast comes at a critical time when race relations in the USA have hit the rock bottom. When Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr) sings that he wants to be in “the room where it happens”, the lyrics are sung by a black man.

Alexander Hamilton (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, also the creator of the piece) is the least well known of the American founding fathers. An immigrant and orphan, he was George Washington’s right-hand man. Credited as being responsible for setting up the country’s banking system, Hamilton was killed in a duel by Burr.

The musical is inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of Alexander Hamilton. Courtesy of Disney

The story is narrated through hip-hop beats. Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs) sings his speech to Congression, and the debates he has with Alexander Hamilton are verbalized through lyrics. Hamilton also has a lot to say about America’s immigrant past. In one scene French aristocrat Marquis de Lafayette tells Alexander, “Immigrants, we get the job done!”

Performances are top notch. Miranda is superb, and evokes an immediate connection between the film and the viewer. King George III is brilliantly portrayed by Jonathan Groff, and Hamilton’s wife, Eliza (Philippa Soo), is an endearing presence who has a calming effect on her often ruffled and troubled husband.

“Hamilton” is a great, if subjective, account of early American political history for those not familiar with that period. It must be said, however, the musical makes a long movie, which might be a trifle tiring for those not used to this format.