Mona Kareem’s poetry reading on Saturday felt like a gathering of old friends. The homey atmosphere of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts, which hosted the event, as well as the elaborate spread of cheese, crackers and wine in the entryway and the small-but-attentive crowd created an intimate, friendly environment. This friendly mood became even more apparent at the beginning of the reading, which was sponsored by the Tufts Arabic Program and other campus departments, when Kareem smiled and cracked a joke about taking down the patriarchy.
Kareem, a poet-writer-translator based in New York, read poems from her latest collection, “What I Sleep for Today.” A doctoral candidate in the comparative literature program at Binghamton University, Kareem has translated works such as Ashraf Fayadh’s “Instructions Within” (2016) and a selection of Alejandra Pizarnik’s poems. Kareem’s poems have also been translated into a wide array of languages, including French, English, Spanish, Farsi and Kurdish.
A major theme of the reading was the limitations of language. All of the poems in “What I Sleep for Today” are written in Arabic. Kareem explained that whenever she attempts to write poetry in English, “something isn’t there.” She has, however, found better success writing memoirs and fiction in English.
Kareem read eight of her poems aloud in Arabic. After each poem, she read the English versions, which had been translated by another student at Binghamton. During the discussion after the reading, Kareem explained that the English versions never live up to the original poems because certain meanings are always lost in translation.
Kareem did not have an English translation on hand for the final poem she read, but an audience member offered to take her book and translate the poem on the spot. The audience eagerly listened to this act of great mental dexterity.
During the discussion session, an audience member asked Kareem about her choice of using modern standard Arabic instead of spoken Arabic. Kareem explained that she never grew up feeling attached to a dialect of Arabic. While growing up in Kuwait, her family spoke an Iraqi dialect of Arabic at home, but she had to mask this dialect in public to avoid discrimination. While responding to this question, Kareem also spoke of the immense beauty that she finds in Arabic literature.
Several of the poems that Kareem read addressed the concept of identity. She explained that she likes to construct and destruct identities at the same time in her poems, especially feminine identity. For example, the second poem she read, “Kumari,” tells the story of a female servant who is mistreated by the family she works for. One stanza of the poem echoed Kareem’s ideas toward patriarchy expressed at the beginning of the reading: “You might have to help the son / discover his sexual desires, / Or even sacrifice / for the father’s bodily failures. / In both cases, do not run to the police station, / From there all fathers and sons come.”
Money is another prominent symbol in Kareem’s poems. In “Dying like a Statue,” she writes of a university paying her less than minimum wage to teach. In “The Devil’s Bakery,” the description of money jingling in the pockets of a passerby engages the auditory senses of her listeners. During the discussion, Kareem also discussed how nostalgia for one’s home country can be a negative, capitalist device.
For listeners who do not speak Arabic, the English translations of Kareem’s poems were just as beautiful. Certain elements, such as repetition, rose above the barrier of language. Kareem’s demeanor also demonstrated her close emotional connection to her writing, as her pursed lips and the occasional catches in her voice proved that she was truly inhabiting the world of her words.
To borrow the words of an organizer of the reading, Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies Alexandra Chreiteh, poetry is something “deeply, deeply above language.” Kareem demonstrated this fact perfectly.