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Fucking Obsessed - Nia Davies on translating Mariam Alatar

18th January 2016

Allen-Prowle

Mariam Alatar


Fury drew me in to Mariam Alatar's poetry. At the Reel Iraq translation workshop, where these translations were made, I leafed through poem upon poem of defiance at social and gendered constraints, at abuse of religious faith, violence, oppressive family power dynamics, de-humanising technology, estrangement and war. Mariam is from a Moaved community - Iraqis of Iranian ancestry who were expelled by Saddam Hussein at the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war. She grew up in a border town. This is the liminal and displaced fate her speaker rages against in her poem, ‘Letter to My Mother in 1980’.

Another poem included in this issue of MPT I picked out for its title - literally ‘masturbation’ in the bridge translation. This initial title led me and others in the workshop to wonder briefly whether the poet had placed self-pleasure on an equivalent moral level to the violence of a suicide bomber. But this didn’t quite fit the person of Mariam I had just met or read in her other poems. I couldn’t quite understand so I had to talk it through with her. This is precisely why face-to-face translation is so valuable; our further discussion revealed that of course she didn’t have an abhorrence of masturbation as murderous violence. To have assumed there was a sexual conservatism in Mariam’s poem-world, a conservatism that seemed so alien to me, would be to fall into damaging misunderstanding.

Too often we assume a title is the key to a poem, its explanation. ‘Masturbation’ was not the key to this poem. Mariam chose the most extreme language she could find in Arabic for the most extreme motivations of the bomber. Her subject is a drive towards selfish gratification and a fixation on destruction, a solipsistic rapaciousness. She dares to understand the mindset of the man. Rather than make him alienated monster, he is a selfish, ignorant and rather gross human being. We discussed alternative titles and I arrived at ‘Fucking Obsessed’. I’m grateful to interpreters at the workshop and Highlight Arts for allowing this communication to open up a channel of understanding.

Building understanding across cultures and languages seems absolutely crucial in this particular context and moment when too often the language of mass instant media muddies understanding of other cultures and further alienates ourselves from each other, taking us farther away from the possibility of peace. Even if it is on a poem-sized scale like this, language and context are critical.

The way Mariam harnesses intensity fearlessly in her poetry makes me excited to find out where she will take her work next. She strikes me as a poet working in solidarity with the most recent wave of global feminism yet dealing with (and critical of) a contemporary world she knows intimately. Young, angry and brave. Very brave considering the criticism from conservative quarters she has at times faced. Her unfiltered love of language, of life in fact, may be what provides some of her ferociousness. It is certainly an inspiration to me.


NIA DAVIES’s pamphlet of poems is Then Spree (Salt, 2012). She has worked extensively on international literary projects with Literature Across Frontiers and Wales Literature Exchange. She became editor of Poetry Wales in 2014.

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