Naush Sabah – Litanies (Guillemot Press)
There’s a clue in the title: a litany is a shared petition to God, a call and response, so to speak, so we know from the beginning that this pamphlet intends to involve us all. These are feisty, outraged and outrageous poems, tracing a woman’s path through spiritual uncertainty. The poems are enriched with Arabic and Sufi text to remind us that sometimes the English language alone cannot be sufficient. We were struck by the sheer boldness of the narrative – it’s deliberately confrontational stance, addressing colonial exploitation, anthropocentric religion, the role of women in Islam, and the uncomfortable balance of visceral and spiritual desires. Above all, it was the sheer beauty of the language and the skill with which the individual poems were crafted which impressed us so much. These stunning, apostatic odes bear an importance which will endure far beyond the confines of the pamphlet that holds them.
SESTINA FOR SALAH
Before Bebo can speak or stand
the call to prayer is raised;
her skin, paper-thin, rolls and folds
when father whispers with head bowed:
‘Before your death, you should prostrate.’
The world teaches her to kneel.
Soon she paws at things, crawls and kneels,
stretches arms out to where he stands,
starts to mimic when he prostrates;
climbing upon his back, she’s raised
like speech taught to believe and bow;
to be a thread within the fold.
And as a child it’s fun to fold
those dazzling clothes, get down and kneel
for hands of henna, hair in bows,
and wait for the ehlan, then stand
as rice cooks and laughter raises
happy voices that won’t prostrate.
In teenage gloom she’ll fall prostrate.
At night her secrets fold
into her quiet, no one to raise
her spirits; she’ll turn to God and kneel.
When cuts and cries don’t heal, she’ll stand
in tahajjud keeping her head bowed.
With womanhood her faith begins to bow
before fiqhi flaws and prostrate
minds that refuse to think or stand
against doubt she’s been taught to fold
up inside and ignore. ‘We kneel.
God is Most High so don’t raise
objections. He can hew those He’s raised.’
Now a mother, she commits and bows,
devotes herself, again she kneels
to seek kashf so doubt prostrates
to need and allows her into the fold
where saintly souls and prophets stand.
She bows. Submission enfolds;
now her daughter prostrates and kneels
while Bebo wonders if she might stand, might rise.