Since the birth of Islam in ancient Arabia, poetry has been an integral part of Islamic literature. It is taught to us by many scholars that Allah revealed the Quran in the Arabic language because of its affinity for poetry. Its words are useful in creating double meanings, drawing metaphors and connections and explaining concepts with the most beautifully descriptive words. This linguistic tradition has paved the way for the genre, from the works of Rumi to the Qawwalis in South Asia and modern poetry, written in every language of the world. Because of this, I wanted to explore the realm of poetry, to understand the nuances in language and the way poets use the words to explain emotions that are otherwise unexplainable by us common folk.
I started this journey by reading “The Wild Fox of Yemen” by Threa Almontaser. Winner of the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of Poets, “The Wild Fox of Yemen” highlights the various intersections between race, religion, gender, culture and ethnicity.
In Islamic belief, one of the first creations was the pen, which was commanded to write down all existence. Even the smallest water droplet doesn’t drop without being in accordance with what was written by the pen. Thus, from the beginning of existence, language and writing held omnipotent power. When we, as individuals, take pen to paper, we are witness to this immense power.
To me, “The Wild Fox of Yemen” embodies this idea. The collection is divided into three sections, headed by Arabic numbers 1 (wāḥid), 2 (ithnān) and 3 (thālatha). Despite these three distinctions, it was difficult to pinpoint a singular theme in each section. At times, the language and the structure seemed to intentionally confuse the reader, though that might’ve been Almontaser’s purpose. By allowing her thoughts to flow freely, she challenges the reader to look beyond traditional writing styles and reiterates the power of the pen by demonstrating that language cannot be restricted. Complexity is in its nature, with multitudes of meanings and interpretations. Essentially, this poetry collection is an ode to the Arabic language, whereby the author divulges what it means to be a Yemeni-American Muslim woman.
It was interesting to see how Almontaser balanced the duality of the narrator’s identity, the push and pull between Yemen and America, through the lens of language. In “Heritage Emissary,” she writes that “The mushkila (difficulty) is I am a surging current feared language. Words have stopped arriving easily … I can’t properly translate myself (…).”
This verse reminds me of a saying used to describe Pakistani-Americans: “ABCD,” or American-born confused Desi (Desi being anyone from South Asia). Although this is meant to be taken as a joke, this statement has an almost scary truth.
As children of immigrants, we don’t have the same patriotism for our country that a Pakistani born or a Yemeni born would have for their motherland. We are forced to determine for ourselves what the two components of our nationality mean to us. Unlike our elders, we don’t have a deep-rooted connection to our ancestral homeland. We live in limbo — not quite American, not quite anything else.
Almontaser adds a layer of depth to this class of identity by referencing the turmoil and conflict in Yemen: “I imagine Allah as ever-shifting. As the light that keeps dazzling. Like a low hum in the throat of a boy soldier, his mother’s lullaby a solace as he toes around the landmines, still humming to himself when the fragments hit.”
For the narrator of these poems, the tug of war between their Yemeni-American identity is exacerbated by the fact that their people are in the middle of an ongoing war and are, essentially, being wiped out. Their culture is at risk, their people dying of starvation, their livelihoods being turned upside down. What do you do when a part of your identity is being annihilated? How do you find yourself amid the chaos?
The answer lies within the ebb and flow of the Arabic language: “Baba tells a story of his childhood in Yemen. About catching a wild fox with his cousin — Arabic. The medium through which his body can return home.”
Arabic is what lifts the father out of the darkness; Arabic is what can lift the narrator as well. In response to the father’s story of the fox, the narrator mentions how they think that the “lost, sly animal” might also refer to themselves as either hope for their father or as despair, a reminder of his lost homeland.
Almontaser ends her collection with the poem “When White Boys Ask to See My Hair.” One of the last stanzas of the poem pays homage to the “Yemeni women who come after. Who visit my grave with bundles of nutmeat for their great auntie with immortal hips, that myth says, broke high facility fences.”
The author continues to describe the strength she gets from these women and how she “can’t forget those women who clapped back.” The collection ends on a confident and self-aware tone, returning to where it began by questioning and navigating the different aspects of identity.
Threa Almontaser’s poetry collection, “The Wild Fox of Yemen,” highlights the power of language and the endless worlds contained in its words and discussions of the internal struggles to define identity. From Almontaser’s original style to the usage of two different mediums, Arabic and English, I was overwhelmed by the intrinsic complexity and flexibility that language entails. Almontaser’s love for the Arabic language is apparent in each poem.
“The Wild Fox of Yemen” brings out the sly, shy, lost fox in all of us, giving us all a chance to embrace every aspect of our identity and being, thus, embodied in language.
Daily Arts Writer Zoha Khan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org