Sukoon: The Arab Literary Salon Opens Its Virtual Doors In English

Eyes may roll at the overused cliché of Beirut as the “Paris of the East,” but in the 60’s the city was truly the fast beating heart of the Arab world’s literary scene, with informal salons breaking out on smoke-filled balconies late into the night and often well past dawn. Poetry was real, and contained urgent political and philosophical messages. Poets and writers were powerful and capable of summoning real social change and self-censorship was not as prevalent in the region as it is today.

The old-fashioned Arabic language literary salon, complete with public intellectuals, painters, and dancers may sadly be a thing of the past, but new poetry nights, literary festivals, and online forums are popping up in Cairo, Dubai, Beirut, and Amman. Sukoon, an online literary journal in English including art, poetry, and prose that “reflects the range and richness of the cultures of the Arab world,” is at the core of this revival. Completely free and accessible to all readers who have entry to the internet, Sukoon came onto the scene in 2013 and has already managed to create a virtual literary salon for a number of poets, fiction writers, artists, and readers.

What follows is a conversation with Sukoon’s Founding Editor Rewa Zeinati, who is herself a poet and the author of ‘Nietzche’s Camel Must Die‘, a book compiled from 115 Facebook Notes, which flippantly, sadly, and oftentimes hilariously reflects on everyday life in the region. Born in Lebanon, educated in Beirut and the US, and currently based in Dubai, Rewa is an example of the multiple overlapping and contradictory identities and uncensored narratives that represent the contemporary Middle East:

Danna Lorch (DL): Choose three words that name what Sukoon is about.

Rewa Zeinati (RZ): Arab narrative (in) English.

DL:Okay. And now choose three words to clarify what Sukoon is not.

RZ: Censored, scholarly, non-literary.

DL: Describe the desk at which you work and your particular editing habits.

RZ: The desk? Well, it’s white. Set against sliding glass doors that open to a balcony (which I hardly ever use, but the light is incredible). My editing process: I read each piece a couple of times before deciding if it works. Often, I’d get an immediate sense of whether it works or not from the first two or three lines of a poem or a story. It’s usually pretty clear from the onset.

Shurooq Amin, All Quiet on the Eastern Front, from the Popcornographic series, mixed media on canvas and wood, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: The painting’s title is based on Eric Maria Remarque’s book by the same title which was banned in Nazi Germany)

Shurooq Amin, All Quiet on the Eastern Front, from the Popcornographic series, mixed media on canvas and wood, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: The painting’s title is based on Eric Maria Remarque’s book by the same title which was banned in Nazi Germany)

DL: Why is Sukoon a literary magazine in English rather than in Arabic and what implication does the choice of language have on the audience you are writing for?

RZ: Sukoon is a reflection of my own literacy, my own duality. I am Arab-themed and in English. I consistently read Arabic poetry and prose (in the Arabic language)—Mahmoud Darwish, Hanan El Sheikh, Nawal Al Saadawi, Nizar Qabbani etc. although my first language is English. Starting an Arab-themed journal in English makes sense to me.

Of course that would mean it reaches a different kind of audience, obviously a Western audience; an audience who, otherwise, may not be familiar with the Arab narrative first hand—the closest would be a translation. Consequently, we (Anglophone Arabs, if you will) would learn about each other through our own view of each other, as well as through the lens of non-Arabs writing about the Arab experience which is why the “motto” for Sukoon is “From the outside in, and from the inside in.”

Majid Alyousef, Dialogue with Mondrian, Acrylic on cardboard.

Majid Alyousef, Dialogue with Mondrian, Acrylic on cardboard.

DL: What one poem from the latest issue is stuck rattling around in your head? Share the lines that refuse to float away.

RZ: Oh, many poems have stayed with me from all four issues! From the latest issue,
Frank Dullaghan’s poem, “Living with Small Disappointments.” Here are a few lines:

“[…] And there is war,

that moronic and continual condition of our species –
as if this is the only way we can limit ourselves.”

A few lines from Elmaz Abinader’s poem “Arsenal”–

“We are our own weapons: waiting hardens the calves, teaches us how to move—
phrases are formed and we mouth ancient stories but nothing

as remarkable as this preservation of life when death lurks.”

Tamer Elsawy, Losing My Virginity, pencil sketch

Tamer Elsawy, Losing My Virginity, pencil sketch

Or a segment from Olivia Ayes’ poem “Fear: a sequence” (from the third issue):

vi. asubuhi صبح morning

“Rage, dear. We understand. We lay our bodies against
the cold cement floor. We believe, as you do—the winds
punching the trees, the rain pummeling horizontally across
our faces, the shores rising to the height of hills. We cannot
prevent disaster—only wait. Tomorrow, the sun and sky
will return to touch us gently, apologizing with a poem.
We’ll thank the wet earth between our toes, the bodies
you’ve given back to us, absolved. We will remember
that we do not belong to ourselves—“

DL: Why have you chosen to make the magazine entirely free and online?

RZ: Sukoon is online for global accessibility.

DL: What is it like to work with Arab writers with a cult following like Shurooq Amin and Naomi Shabib Nye? Were you looking for strong female voices or did that mood just come about organically on your virtual pages?

RZ: It is definitely an honor, but it was not intentional. I wasn’t looking for women’s voices particularly, but I’m hrilled to have included strong women voices of artists like Nathalie Handal, Hedy Habra, Shurooq Amin, Naomi Shihab Nye and many others throughout the issues.

Mohamad Ghamlouch, Istanbul Turkey, photograph, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

Mohamad Ghamlouch, Istanbul Turkey, photograph, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.

DL: Is there still such a thing as a literary salon in the Arab world or do journals, anthologies and magazines like Sukoon replace that physical gathering?

RZ: Yes, I believe that literary salons still exist here. I think online magazines complement those physical gatherings. They enrich and add to those important voices that may not otherwise be accessible if it weren’t for the availability of virtual platforms opening us up to each other. And to quote Naomi Shihab Nye in the interview found in the first issue of Sukoon, she says of literary journals, “they have given us so many ways to find each other.”

Shurooq Amin, The Dates of Wrath, from the Popcornographic series,  Acrylic painting, photography and collage on canvas mounted on wood. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: Title based on John Steinbeck’s book 'The Grapes of Wrath', banned & burned in some American cities in 1939, 1980 & 1982, and in ireland in 1953.

Shurooq Amin, The Dates of Wrath, from the Popcornographic series, Acrylic painting, photography and collage on canvas mounted on wood. Courtesy of the artist and Ayyam Gallery. Note: Title based on John Steinbeck’s book ‘The Grapes of Wrath’, banned & burned in some American cities in 1939, 1980 & 1982, and in ireland in 1953.

Good Ideas: Sukoon is available online to everyone. To read the latest issue or to consider submitting creative art, poetry, or prose for consideration, go here.

Credits: This feature was co-posted with Mashallah News