My first proper conversation with Omar Sakr was an exchange over Twitter (where many a long-lasting and beautiful relationship has begun) almost four years ago. Omar, whose Twitter bio at the time read ‘Queer Arab-Australian Poet’ slid into my DMs with an urgency: ‘Who are the contemporary Arab page poets in Australia? Where are they?’
It wasn’t a difficult question. The answer was a short one: ‘You know Candy?’
I was of course referring to one of Australia’s trail blazing page/stage poets of Arab heritage, the late Candy Royalle, who very sadly passed away one year ago.
As I sit here reading Omar’s sophomore poetry collection, The Lost Arabs, I think to myself it’s only fitting that a mere few years later he would be one of the main people filling the gap in his own question.
The book arrived in the mail only days after the Christchurch terror attack—and I couldn’t look at it, or much else, for weeks. We can walk in broad daylight, armed, and massacre your people in mosques. A global reaffirmation of what we Muslims already knew and felt, you are hated. We were, and still are, in collective grief and mourning.
The truth is, as an Arab-Australian Muslim woman living on stolen land, I haven’t felt hopeful in a long time. To be a subject of empire, to be a politically conscious, unwilling subject of empire, is to have constantly competing pockets of pessimism and despair, and faith and optimism—against your better judgment.
The truth is, we spend so much dismantling, undoing, destroying—it often leaves us with very little to be able to imagine and build and create. And hope. This is exactly why now, more than ever, is the time for our voices to not only be heard, but listened to, and honoured—through our art, film, literature and story-telling.
So the truth is, The Lost Arabs arrived exactly when I needed it, a tender reminder that we are here, and we are healing.
Omar’s second poetry collection is supposed to feel like ‘growing up’ and ‘growth’—this is more rebirth.
Making love to whatever I consider holy:
the exiled light, the opening in everything,
what came before: spring, poets, Praise
be to God, Lord of all the worlds, even one
in which I am loved and let go
The moments in these lines held me for what felt like eternity. They were a map carrying clarity and the capricious contours of language. They traced my own similar aches of displacement from self, and from country as a daughter of Nakba, of Palestine, a homeland and its people that have spent the last seventy-plus years struggling for self-determination.
Language can often be trapped in its own limitations. That is exactly the power of the simplistic narratives and slogans we are saturated with. The spectre of the White Australia Policy has its modern-day manifestations in motions, ‘It’s OK to be white’, maiden speeches, ‘The Final Solution’ 2.0, and anti-Muslim comments. Omar finds new ways beyond the binaries and the predictable, as he weaves layers of words in a tribute to the inevitable heartbreak of histories and testimonies of loss, oppression, and otherness:
I am supposed to begin
with a prayer. A snippet
of tongue. Bismillah. If
I am feeling Arab
I extend it further
Into r-rahmani r-rahim.
There is little comfort to be found, even in such cadence. As someone living as hyphenated, Arab-Australian, Omar laments Arabic in all its complexities, from Quranic verse to the lost language of diaspora. Like so many of us, Omar seeks to claim language, even in its absence. These words become our divine prayers in diaspora, an invocation located between confession and curiosity.
You are not as tired of diaspora
poetry as I am of the diaspora. Sometimes
I thank God that I was born inside an American
One of the most important lessons any POC/migrant poet/writer learns early on is that there is ‘no true understanding of Englishness without understanding its colonial dimensions’, as Stuart Hall once wrote.
Omar punctuates lines with spaces, pauses, points, and points again. He tumbles and takes us through an unflinching awareness of his identities, a reality of the between-ness. To exist in diaspora, is to exist in an ambivalent space of a self that is not fixed, but rather an ongoing navigation of languages and aspects of Arab identity—one that it is often more push than pull against the parameters that have been set for us in today’s world.
…Language is their least favourite daughter…
my certainty collapses. That I am lost. Or can be found.
That there is such a thing as Arab.
Last week, at a panel on art and identity, an exasperated woman, in an attempt not to confront her own biases and responsibilities, approached me and said, ‘stop making everything about race’.
In recent times we have seen a steadily growing body of Arab-Australian poetry and literature, works of fiction, memoirs, and anthologies by authors like Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Randa Abdel Fattah, Sarah Ayoub, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Osamah Sami, and Amal Awad. However, several factors including the consolidation of the mainstream publishing industry and the focus on profitability, embedded structural racism including anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, as well as the inaccessibility of many of these platforms and a lack of genuine understanding of varying cultures—a preference for box-ticking exercise or performative progressiveness, have worked to continue to limit the number and range of works that are being published.
In Australia, the cyclical, dominant discourses on minorities have long operated by constructing seemingly impenetrable, binary boundaries that define and demarcate the difference between belonging and otherness. This racism has been informed not only by the construction of Arabs as inferior, as primitive, as threat, but also by their positioning as victim and exotic. Our Otherness is dictated depending on which way the pendulum has been made to swing. And in this swinging, fear and desire complicate and reinforce the racist politics of this Other.
I left and have returned-the prodigal ‘burb
boy, son of alleys, child of salat, & haram
riding in the back of a paddy wagon
I look up the word
Arab and I’m unsurprised
to find it has many meanings: desert,
nomad, merchant, raven, comprehensible
Omar reminds us that there is only one way this story ends for us—that we must get comfortable in perennial discomfort as Australians, that being found is a betrayal of self if it means loving a country that does not love us back.
The Lost Arabs resists the reduction of its author into a half-space, an unsatisfying in-between, a product of trauma. In Omar’s world, these very acts of erasure are the source of his poetic act of emancipation.
I have made braille of the stars and divined
a message there for the reviled, a whispered
no, not for you.
Omar has left me questioning, who, in fact, are the insiders and who are the outsiders in today’s world. His words are a pure and powerful testimony to human intimacy, and the radical, altering act of creating, despite immense communal and individual loss, oppression, and otherness. Poetry has long been a site for this struggle, and it is time for a vibrant new genre of Arab- Australian poets to emerge in this arena, claim our long-standing tradition, and keep building a strong, dignified community of Arab-Australian literary production.