Abeir Soukieh is an Arab-Australian poet and writer from Canberra who is currently completing her Masters in Anthropology at the Australian National University.
After her last trip to Lebanon, my sister brought me back some old postcards as a gift.
And, strictly speaking, this gift, to me, is fighting for first place with my bass guitar as the greatest gift I’ve ever received, thus far, in my lifetime.
The pictures on these postcards are of loads of different places in Lebanon and range from your standard Lebanon-memorabilia: Beirut, Tripoli, the Temple of Bacchus (Baalbek) and the ruins at Tyre (Sur), to the more random images of the lone bow of a ship at sea and the Tekkiye Mosque in Damascus, to what I believe to be a pretty rare image of a Phoenician Sarcophagus in Byblos (Jbeil).
Each postcard presents to me its own beauty and significance. The pale blue, dusty orange and forest green of Lebanon in stark contrast (in my mind) to the cool blues, pinks and purples of Australia; the heritage and history behind the ruins dating so much further back than the Roman columns would have you believe; and just the memory of it, of Lebanon, of my family and of my place there.
Among the postcards is one that has continued to capture my attention since first I laid eyes upon it; it’s this image of two folk dancers in the cedar forest up in the mountains of Lebanon.
It’s clearly an old image – more like a painting than a photograph. The dancers are dressed in traditional folk dancing garb and are striking this fantastic pose. And those cedars – it still takes me by surprise how extremely familiar they are to me; jagged, crispy, very dark green, with the pale morning light spilling evenly through the leaves, sculpting the bark.
So many thoughts cross my mind when I see this image. It’s one of those pictures that automatically generates all these ideas in your head about what could possibly be happening in and around it. And the story I come up with differs depending upon where my headspace happens to be at the time.
The most recent narrative I have for it was inspired by some classical Arabic poetry I had been re-reading recently. Whilst re-reading, it occurred to me how often women were compared to fauna to describe some admired quality.
This then got me thinking about how literary traditions actually start and, more importantly, how these literary traditions can provide a useful set of guidelines for expression – like a vocabulary for both simple and complex emotions; a foundation of sorts to build upon, either by embellishing in the name of or rebelling against or…perhaps a bit of both.
I suppose that’s why this picture is such a joy for me to behold; it makes me very conscious of my heritage – as in, that there is a place where I have this lineage, this long family history. And that is a relief to know. A relief to know even the smallest fragment of your origin. To be able to see and feel it, to have a people that responds to the same kinds of sounds, tastes and symbols that you do. To look at an image of two folk dancers in a forest and really feel the ground beneath them.
For, it’s this place and its traditions, in disorganised combination with those of good ol’ Australis-nay-Canberra, that make me capable of positioning myself in some way – where I can begin myself, so to speak. It makes it so much easier for me, then, to know and understand myself and, ultimately, for me to express myself more clearly – more truly.
I present to you below my latest ekphrasis of the postcard image – translated into Arabic by my papa – and inspired by some folk dancers in a forest, Arabic poetry retreads, and likely myriad other things.
Folk Dancers in the Forest
He will compare Her to a Gazelle
and She with Nothing to compare Him to
will compare Him to Nothing.
بعض راقصي الفولكلور في الغابة
سوف يشبّهها للغزال
و هي لأنها لا شيء لتشبّهه به
ستشبّهه بلا شيء
© Abeir Soukieh, 2018
* Arabic translation of poem by Atif Soukieh