Freedom Book Fair: Farah Barqawi

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“Women usually hesitate to call themselves a writer, or a translator. They would rather say: I write, I translate.” Farah Barqawi has passed that stage, and is a self-proclaimed and acknowledged writer of poetry and prose, a performer, translator, and editor. Born in Yarmouk Camp, Damascus, she now lives in Cairo, where she is known for her work as a publishing feminist activist and one of the driving forces behind the Arabic, open-access information platform WikiGender. She was also one of the co-founders of The Uprising of Women in the Arab World initiative in 2011. The Palestinian writer will join the Freedom Book Fair with her one-woman play Baba, Come to me.

The performance sprouted from thoughts, memories, and mostly images that had been floating through her mind until a workshop-imposed deadline forced them onto paper, and later into spoken words. She writes at airports, where the temporality of the in-between, and a simultaneous sense of detachment and attachment brought upon by traveling, mold her feelings of confusion into a need of expression. “I notice things. People waiting, the excessive number of employees of whom you don’t know what they are doing. A delay. I connect that with what’s going on in my life, or the general environment I’m in. Nothing is actually happening in Cairo Airport, but everything is happening at the same time. Or I write to the cities I lived in. I write in between cities.”

A seminar about audio publishing, organised at Cairo’s Contemporary Image Collective, led to the existence of Baba, Come to me. “The workshop was not exactly what I thought it would be. Initially I thought it would have something to do with podcasts. Then I found out it was mostly about creating performances from texts, or using audio,” Barqawi laughs. “I gathered real audio files, with my voice reading a text. I have always liked to read, and I have a good voice for it. Specifically in Standard Arabic I have that ability. I mixed all of that into this performance: my recordings, my voice, my emotions, and my text.”

Not her current timbre, but the voice of a much younger Farah can be heard through the recordings used in Baba, come to me. The tapes were originally recorded by her mother for her exiled father, who would thus stay informed about the little girl’s comings and goings. “I heard these recordings all my life. I’m an only child, so there is an over-celebration of ‘me’. I used to listen to them and play them back to my friends. Briefly though, because we’d get bored after a minute or two. The original tapes are with my mother in Gaza, and it was difficult to edit the parts I’m using. She digitized the tapes a few years ago and handed them to me.”

Photo by Amal Kaawash

Photo by Amal Kaawash

She did not pay much heed to the MP3s at first, and stored them in a separate folder gathering digital dust on her laptop, for the mere sake of memory. “It’s like those recordings of weddings. You watch them once and that’s it. Yet the more I listened to them, the more insights they would bring forth. A nagging feeling came over me, in addition to other aspects regarding my relationship with my family that were unraveling through a number of writing workshops where I mapped out my parents’ life—their activism, their relationship, ending with my birth.”

Barqawi wrote along the singing of her infant self, creating a dialogue out of parallel monologues. Her father never sent any tapes back—or so she thinks. “He is in one of the recordings, but it was my cassette. We were together. I don’t have any tapes containing only his voice. It was mostly for him. It was all done for him. To let him know about me, and my developments. It was a one-sided love affair.”

The play takes the shape of a letter to a friend. Was this a real letter? “My best friend is the one I’m writing the letter to,” Barqawi says. “She told me that her mother started her PhD by writing it as if it was a letter, because it was too difficult to start from a blank page. It’s the second time I used this method, thinking: it’s not a performance, it’s just a letter to someone. Sarah is American and doesn’t understand Arabic at all, but I address it to her. She appears and disappears in the performance itself. It’s not about her nor about our friendship. But I didn’t want to remove her because she is one reason why this came to life.”

Baba, Come to me is about father-daughter relationships, reconciliation, and reflection. “About a process every daughter goes through with her father,” she thinks. “It’s not a surprising performance at all. But it’s out there. This is something unusual. People don’t confront. They process on their own. Family issues are usually taboo, and this is where it hits you in the face. It hits me in the face. Every single time.”

Her mother has seen the performance, yet her father has not. Barqawi is not ready. “We call more often now, and are connected on Facebook. But I didn’t tell him about the performance. He never asked, and I never said anything. This is the essence of our relationship… Opinions differ on whether he will appreciate it or not.”

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Farah Barqawi mainly hopes to reach Syrians and Palestinians living in the Netherlands through her involvement in the festival. “I talk about Palestine and Syria in a way that will matter to those watching: about Palestine, about the struggle of families moving countries and moving borders. About separating. My memories of displacement began long before the recent separations started happening; I wasn’t trying to show geographies on purpose. But my life is and has been about this diasporic living all along.” Performing feels different from city to city and from audience to audience, she adds. “In Cairo, it wasn’t received the same as in Beirut. I was terrified to perform in Beirut, because many people there have lived through wars and separation. It was more challenging. It could have been triggeringor actually not important, because this history of conflict appears to be neutralized in their memory.”

“By exposing yourself completely, you reclaim your space. The private is the public. The personal is political,” Farah states. “Many women don’t tell their stories, either because of fear or embarrassment. Overcalculation. For a long time, I wasn’t even exposing myself as an artist, nor performing something that is so sensitive and therefore scary. I usually write very expressively, but taking it to the stage and in addition bringing my writing to life, revealing my gestures… That’s something else.”

عروض الحديقة (The Garden’s Offers) by Inaya Jaber conquered a spot on my bedside table,” Barqawi names the book of poems as the literary work that has offered her comfort when needed most. “It’s modern Arabic poetry. The author is Lebanese, and visits a lot of cities. I find her experience very similar to mine. When I’m not feeling settled, not confident or in a tremendous amount of pain, I reread her writings. And each time I reread a poem, I write the date next to it. I also deeply admire Iman Mersal, the Egyptian poet. Her poetry and texts portray this mix of motherhood, diaspora, and a boiling pot of feelings that I have. She also tackles difficult relationships, her father, her motherhood, her ways of love, and her ways of loss.”

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“I inherited my love for poetry from my father,” she continues. “He doesn’t write himself, but he’s obsessed with it. I learned poetry because of him, and for him, in a way. As a child I was consumed by Mahmoud Darwish’s poems, like any standard Palestinian from this generation of educated, Palestinian revolutionaries. I used to recite poetry at events and write, taking from Mahmoud Darwish and adding layers of change by reading others, until I found my own language.”

Although it was her father’s fondness of poetry that urged hers, her mother stayed in the picture. “She is always there. She seems to be in the background, even though she is actually at the forefront. Since I was a child, my parents were separated and were living in different countries. As I grew older, I understood my father’s love for poetry, but before that it was my mother teaching me the things that he would like to see in me. Or that would make him proud, that he would value. He wasn’t living with us when I was very young, so who would teach me this? It was her.”

“She is a very good ex partner,” Barqawi nods with a smile. “Honestly, I don’t know how she did it. In general, she has been the exact opposite of what is displayed about separated couples on TV. She raised me with full respect and love towards my father. She maintained this relationship, even if it didn’t suit her. And it wasn’t like she was negotiating or giving in either, she did it in a mature way I really respect her for. She’s not any woman. She’s also a feminist, a women’s rights defender. She lived by her values and never failed them.”


On her relationship with her mother, Farah wrote On Awkwardness and Acceptance: Me, My Mother, and the Rafah Crossing. Some of her texts are gathered on her blog, and she is currently working on a collection of poems, titled ماذا تفعل الصبيّة؟ (What Would She Do?). Her other writings can be found on online platforms like Romman, Mada Masr, and Jeem. In addition, she published in collective print editions such as Closet Writers (Ikhtyar), If Not for That Wall (Contemporary Image Collective), and And We Chose Everything (Turning Point Books, Beirut).


Farah Barqawi @ Freedom Book Fair

Freedom Book Fair — 2,3,4 May 2019 — Migratie Museum (Hoge Zand 42, The Hague)

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