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The Funambulists. Women poets of the Arab Diaspora

by Lisa Marchi

31 marzo 2023
Versione stampabile

The Funambulists brings together the diverse poetry collections of six contemporary Arab diasporic women poets. Spanning multiple languages and regions, this volume illuminates the distinct artistic voice of each poet, yet also highlights the aesthetic and political relevance that unites their work.
Marchi explores the work of Naomi Shihab Nye, a celebrated American poet of Palestinian descent; Iman Mersal, an Egyptian poet living in Edmonton, Canada, who writes in Arabic; Nadine Ltaif, a Lebanese poet who lives in Quebec and has adopted French as her language; Maram al-Massri, a Syrian poet writing in Arabic and living in France; Suheir Hammad, an American poet of Palestinian origin; and Mina Boulhanna, a Moroccan poet living in Italy and writing in Italian. Despite their varying geographical and political backgrounds, these poets find common ground in themes of injustice, spirituality, gender, race, and class. Drawing upon the concept of tension, Marchi examines both the breaking points and the creative energies that traverse the poetic works of these writers.
These celebrated funambulists use their art of balance and flexibility bolstered by their courage and transgression to walk a tightrope stretched out across cultures, faiths, and nations.

Lisa Marchi is an assistant professor at the Department of Humanities of the University of Trento. 

From Conclusion: The Stunning Vistas of Funambolic Art ( pp. 159-161)

Since high-wire walking is not only about clandestine acts but also about movements in space, the funambulists included in this book break the myth of universal mobility and of the arrival of the migrant in the new country as essentially good and thriving. They further oppose an almost purely academic version of nomadism, which refuses to see the innumerable barriers, obstructions, and blockades that many people in the real world encounter, as soon as they decide to leave their home. Since they promote both a radical re-vision and a political change, these poets-funambulists develop a new aesthetics aimed at changing standardized views and global imaginaries. From the heights of their wire, the Mediterranean Sea is not the sun-drenched and clear blue water advertised in touristic depliants but the burning front line of an undeclared global war, while Europe’s southern border has stretched into the Sahara, a desert that has been forcefully pushed into the line of fire. Not only the Mediterranean basin but also the planet at large look from the standpoint of these funambulists unfamiliar and bizarre: Egypt and Alberta have become adjacent lands, while “Europe’s veritable centre,” to borrow Menocal’s expression, has shifted from Mittleuropa to the peripheral province of al-Andalus and even to that burdening South so often blamed by Europe’s northern countries.  From Hammad’s wire, in particular, America comes into view as an annex of the West Bank, while the Gaza Strip with the refugee camp of Khan Younis rubs shoulders with the similarly populous yet otherwise largely opulent cities of New York and Houston. If Mersal bemoans Europe’s recent metamorphosis into an entrenched citadel, she simultaneously bows her head to, salutes, and rejoices at the survival of a tiny village that has the size of a dot. 

In Globalectics, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o underlines the crucial role played by orality in anticolonial struggle, explaining the following: “In the anticolonial resistance, song and dance played a pivotal role in recruiting, rallying, and cooling the social vision. The colonial authorities feared orature more than they did literature". By being receptive to and giving prominence to the oral tales that a bunch of newcomers tell each other in a tiny map store in the heart of Manhattan, Mersal joins their struggle for recognition, self-determination, and liberation, implicating readers in her own anticolonial and decolonial practice. 

In opposition to the exclusionary policies and violent acts  carried out by neocolonial and neoliberal powers, who have erected walls, set up detention camps, and adopted deportation policies aimed at keeping out “undesirables,” these funambulists take illegal walks and voluntarily depart from the familiar to reach its far end. With their trespassing, they circulate and endorse a vision of the world based on love for (absolute) alterity, thereby performing a public, nonviolent breach of the law that prescribes separation, confinement, and isolation.
[…. ]

Far from feeding fantasies of self-sufficiency, complacency, and insularity, the poets discussed in this book emphasize human precariousness and interdependence, advocate shared actions in the name of individual and collective well-being, demand accountability for the material destructions, human rights violations, and horrible atrocities carried out by political authorities who most of the time reject responsibility. They also illuminate the privileges of the few and the frustrations of the many, warning readers against the violent reactions of those who feel dispossessed. 

Through their unlicensed art, the poets-funambulists included in this book develop a harsh critique of apparatuses of the state, particularly of ruling elites, armed forces, and authoritarian leaders. They further invoke a renewal of existing democracies, showing, for instance, that neoliberal democracies have failed to live up to the expectations of the people they rule, since the lures of finance capitalism and the erosion of public goods, spaces, and services together with the encroachment of fundamental democratic principles such as equality, solidarity, non-discrimination, and justice have almost neutralized not only the state’s commitment to the people’s welfare but also the citizens’ belief that politcs serves precisely to improve individual and collective lives.  

These funambulists do not simply hold up the mirror to reflect a political in crisis but poetically imagine an alternative political, inclusive, just, and participatory, in order for readers not to lose sight of the possibilities that are at hand. Theirs is a political that passionately enagages in a set of considerate actions inspired by the principles of equality, justice, and sustainability; a political that does not monopolize the scene and darken the street, but patiently prepares the ground so that citizens can trustfully walk towards personal fulfillment and collective amelioration. The one imagined by these poets-funambulists is a “democracy to come,” in Derrida’s famous formulation—one that takes on responsibility for the actions it adopts and is not immune from prosecution; a political that foresees, anticipates, and cleverly governs the negative consequences of neoliberalism, globalization, climate change, global pandemics and wars, not one that is taken by surprise, held hostage, and runs at its best after them. Ltaif, among others, invokes a political that, instead of commodifying and marketing a people’s historical and cultural heritage, cares for and safeguards it, considering it a fundamental brick to build a constructive sense of “we.” The one imagined by Ltaif is, moreover, a political that engages in urban planning choices that do not exacerbate preexisting divisions increasing social tensions, but one that collaborates with the civil society to realize more sustainable and livable urban environments. Overall, the political imagined by the selected poets envisages future scenarios and, quoting Mahmoud Darwish’s famous lines, “invent[s] a hope, invent[s] a direction, a mirage to extend hope".

Courtesy by Syracuse University Press.