Book Review: About a Lover from Tunisia

Ouafa and Thawra: About a Lover From Tunisia, by Arturo Desimone, tells the story of a five year love affair between the part-Jewish narrator and a beautiful Arab woman. They lived in an apartment by a mosque, the calls to prayer marking their days and bookending their love-making. Structured as a poetry collection interspersed with line drawings there is an element of myth to what is the tale of a modern relationship.

The edition sent to me for review was bilingual – original Spanish alongside English translation (by Lucas Brockenshire). The prologue was not translated. The English edition linked to above includes an essay by the author that, as the publisher explains, adds context. Interesting though this would be to read, I was fully able to enjoy each of the poems standalone.

The collection opens with a poem in homage to a girl once loved. The narrator muses on her beauty, how much he enjoyed her naked body and the dark raven curls of her hair. In leaving her country he lost her. There is regret but also acceptance – pleasure in the memory.

The setting – Tunisia – is evocatively portrayed. Mentioned are: the minarets, latticework, encroachment of modern accoutrements, suspicion of locals towards camera wielding tourists. Referenced are virulent opinions separating Europeans and Arabs. The woman, though, is regarded by her lover as an equal.

“That din, that din I was forced to hear
for five years –
But the only inequality between us
was in height: when we stood I had to bend
over her
like beaten up crescent from a molten minaret
to thank her for translation.”

Their are musings on their differing heritages – on forbidden love and forbidden desire, religions attempting to police behaviour. The narrator is aware that women are neither powerless nor incapable.

“All those secret cops,
work for the great Stellar pimp”

“she barely needs me,
to drown her enemies.
She doesn’t depend
only on me,
to tighten the pink scarf
of her enemy –
but it’s the gesture that resonates.”

Although this is a modern love affair, the writing has tones of earth and fire. There is history, myth and tradition that predate the origins of current conflicts. There is so much beauty to be savoured in people and place whatever their daily trials.

When the man leaves Tunisia he takes with him regrets that linger.

“I want to speak to you again,
and that our voices are not dead in each other’s souls.”

She, however, has drawn a line under their affair.

“my Arab girl
across the ocean in Tunisia,
no longer thinks of me,
no longer waiting,
no longer”

The gorgeous imagery of the text is enhanced by the line drawings which offer much to unpack and are well worth making time for.

The language employed is reminiscent of a more ancient appreciation. The woman is depicted as more than beautiful – as powerful and independent. Unexpected juxtapositions add force and flavour to poems expressing love for a person and place.

That both parties have moved on reminds the reader that passion may be enjoyed and fondly remembered without it overriding what comes next.

A paean to a relationship that transcended the petty rules of religion and nationalism. Poems to savour for the many pleasures shared that are still valued though their time has now passed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Poems of the Mare Nostrum / Costa Nostra

Having recently read a number of crowd pleasing novels it felt good to sink my teeth into this challenging poetry collection. Subtitled, ‘Poems for the twilight of the shipwrecked’, the author opens by explaining the main title.

Places go by many names over time. What we now call the Mediterranean, the Romans referred to as Mare Nostrum, meaning Our Sea. Today, Costa Nostra refers to

“beaches, and the Pan-European defence of coastlines and borders: a machinery which only intensified in recent years.”

Desimone looks to ancient Greece for heroes and beasts

“all of whom seem to have enjoyed significantly more freedom to wander, especially in the light of today’s more clearly defined barriers”

This theme of borders and beasts, ancient and modern, along with the plight of immigrants and refugees and how this compares to the treatment of tourists, permeates a collection alive with anger and contempt for those who dehumanise others in order to protect their privileged existence, despite having more than enough available to share.

Set largely in and around the Mediterranean there are musings on who is allowed in and who must sneak across borders and the sea. The history of the area is referenced along with the many sites over which wars have been waged. There is mention of religious zealots who indulge in alcohol and harlots, against the texts they demand others adhere to. Tourists are mentioned – plugged into headphones rather than listening and engaging, who capture photographs rather than absorbing and dissolving their being into that moment’s experience.

When looking at art – illustrations by the author are included – there is consternation amongst the Muslim brotherhood over depictions of female nudes. Imposition does not just come from the capitalist west.

The poems explore freedom and what this means. They look at walls, borders and prescribed behaviour, at (in)tolerance of non conformity.

“there is nothing remote about control”

Man, with his war machines and war mentality, his striving for capitalist or religious ideals that he then wishes to protect against rebels and invaders, is compared to earlier societies in the area. The author asks if education is the eradication of tradition, and what is lost following polish and cleansing – of the masks donned in so called modernisation.

“erecting new office buildings,
jagged edifices of stress, vomitous,
against the sea”

“They expect to live forever;
they want to sleep with the famous
and to vote for absolute evil,
in the elections
of the continent of good ideas”

Several poems refer to the death of a gypsy woman on a French street, and the attitudes of those going to work in their smart suits who ponder when the body will be tidied away.

I particularly enjoyed Welfare Rat which explores the resentment felt by the well fed when asked to provide a means for the hungry to acquire food. This is followed by Poem Against Switzerland which rails against the country’s expense and values.

“Fear Swiss static: its glaciers birthed
streams of expensive water,
and echoed the birth
of the anti-dream

To the Swiss lands
of Evian for downing Prozac,
I by far prefer Greece:
Onira Gleekee they say before
sending you to bed, “Sugar on your dreams””

The striving for eradication of dirt and smell, for the spread of order and convention and distaste for anything else, is a repeated theme. Also tourists taking, then talking as if knowledgeable of a culture they briefly experience but have not inherited and had ingrained.

Later poems look at fear and how it is generated. How, over time, it has become hidden – a school of sharks transformed into submarines and torpedoes.

“The game of mongering dread, aversion:
today our masters call it “deterrence””

In amongst the anger were mentions I baulked at – the prostitutes, a reference to ‘bestseller housewife novels’, the ‘sexiness of fake blond’ – I disagreed.

I cannot say I got all the references, and nor could I make sense of many of the author’s line drawings. And yet, I understood the passion and resentment that a way of living was being imposed – striving for acquisition a driving force over acceptance.

The poems are best read as though being listened to – as urgent, spoken word poetry. The powerful collection gives more on each rereading.

“In the end,
Sun and Moon can destroy
and recreate like no human can.”

 

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Prote(s)xt.