Konya Shamsrumi: What is the process of writing a poem like for you? Is it a lot of hard work or easy?
Nehal El-Hadi: Some poems come easy, some poems require a lot of hard work, and some poems are just very hard. It depends on whether what I want the poem to do is also what the poem came to do. Right now, I’m working with my grandfather’s poetry and he wrote in Arabic; the poetry comes easy, but what is challenging is reading and writing in two languages at the same time, and what is difficult is reckoning with familial histories and legacies.
Konya Shamsrumi: Please describe your sense of identity in this or any possible world in imagery or metaphor?
Nehal El-Hadi: A haboob. These sandstorms feature in some of my strongest childhood memories from Khartoum. When a haboob hits, it’s like the wind picks up the desert and drops it on top of the city. You can see them coming, and everything shuts down right before, and then as soon as it’s done, city life—in all its chaos and beauty—resumes almost instantaneously.
Konya Shamsrumi: If any of your poems could literarily save a person’s life, which poem would it be and can you describe the person whose life you think it would have saved?
Nehal El-Hadi: I don’t know if my poetry can save a person’s life, but if someone’s life needed saving and one of my poems did that, it would be incredible. Poetry saves my life over and over and over again. I always carry with me a very short poem called “organ donor” that was published in The Pulchritudinous Review. Another poem is called “city slashed my heart so i slashed this poem” that was published in Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space & Resistance—this one was a reduction of an older poem called “city/heart” that I guess I was mad at. And then there’s a poem that’s never been published called “Photographs of Dead Friends, No. 2” that I wrote after a wave of suicides affected my friend group—that poem was part of trying to make sense of it all. I don’t have that poem anymore, but I still have the photographs.
Konya Shamsrumi: What does Africa mean to you, as potential or reality?
Nehal El-Hadi: This is a question I’m working through on an intimate basis right now. I have two children and as they develop their personhood, I wonder about the connection they have to Africa, as an idea, concept, possibility, homeland, entitlement, destination. A literal motherland. I know that my own current disorientation is partially caused by my absence—here, I don’t know how to ground myself. Going back to my grandfather’s poetry again, in his poems that sing clear his love for his country, the ligatures in his words echo the ties that bind me. And on a larger, continental scale, I find inspiration, hope, joy, and beauty in what my peers are producing.
Konya Shamsrumi: Could you share with us one poem you’ve been most impressed or fascinated by? Tell us why and share favorite lines from it.
Nehal El-Hadi: The geographer and poet in me love Lucille Clifton’s “What the Mirror Said” in conversation with Nizar Qabbani’s “Your body is my map.”
Lucille Clifton’s “What the Mirror Said”
listen, you a wonder.
you a city of a woman.
you got a geography
of your own.
Nizar Qabbani’s “Your body is my map”:
“Raise me more death
For death, if it kills me, brings me to life
Your body is my map… no longer
Does the map of the world concern me
I am the oldest capital for love
And my wounds are hieroglyphs.”
عل الموت، إذا يقتلني، يحييني
جسمك خارطتي.. ما عادت
خارطة العالم تعنيني
أنا أقدم عاصمةٍ للحب
وجرحي نقشٌ فرعوني
Nehal El-Hadi is a journalist, researcher, and producer whose work explores the relationships between the body, place, and technology. She also writes fiction and poetry that explore similar themes to her academic and journalism work. Her writing has appeared in academic journals, general scholarship publications, literary magazines, and is forthcoming in several anthologies and edited collections. Born in Khartoum and raised in London and Muscat, she currently lives in Toronto.