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Breaking Free

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"No matter how you look at it, with the Internet, cable television and everything our children are taking in, I believe the young ones are going to impose their needs and demands."


By Nora Boustany

Friday, March 25, 2005;

Her poetry is her fuel.

It has carried her across boundaries assumed non-traversable: book signings and readings in mixed company at home in Saudi Arabia and abroad; the first publication in the United States of a collection of poems by a Saudi woman; uncontested exposure in the Saudi and American media.

Nimah Ismail Nawwab's entry into the public domain is a milestone of sorts, perhaps the gentle tipping of an hourglass that Saudi women have awaited for centuries. Her book of poems, "The Unfurling," published in the United States in December 2004, is not only an outlet for political frustrations in the desert kingdom but also is filled with a yearning to break free.

"Thirteen-year-old girls, including my own, know exactly what they want to do: study abroad," she said over lunch in Washington last month. "Just the fact that I became the first woman to appear publicly at a book signing means there is some kind of a thaw in attitudes."

In her favorite poem, "The Longing," she articulates the suppressed desires and ambitions of Saudi women biding their time in a veiled existence.


How her spirit



Entices us all!


Will the time come

For my ideas to roam

Across this vast land's deserts,

Through the caverns of the Empty Quarter?

The story of this writer's success is a confluence of talent, perseverance and inspiration from men and women in her life who nurtured her self-confidence and supported her endeavors.

When she was a child, Nawwab's father read her sonnets by Shakespeare at bedtime. The descendant of a line of scholars from the holy city of Mecca, Ismail Nawwab had studied in Edinburgh, Scotland, specializing in comparative religion. He was eager to keep abreast of new writings and ideas, his daughter said.

Nawwab, 36, remembers that her family's home was open to scholars and students from other countries who came to study in Saudi Arabia. Her parents gave them free room and board, and the household was vibrant with debate and discussion.

Her urge to write was awakened by a travelogue about Saudi customs, and her inspiration to write poetry came from an Arab American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye. Nawwab studied English literature in college and began a career as a translator. She lives in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, with her husband and two children, and edits and writes for Aramco World, a magazine published by Aramco, the state oil company. Among her favorite poets are Pablo Neruda, a Chilean; Mahmoud Darweesh, a Palestinian; Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli; and Amiri Baraka and Lucille Clifton, African Americans.

When she had her first publicized book signing in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Jan. 7, Arab News and other newspapers carried color photographs of the author, her hair slipping out of her purple scarf. To Nawwab's surprise, there was no backlash. She signed onto a chat room on the Web site of al-Arabiya, an Arab satellite TV station, to gauge public reaction. A writer who fretted that "Nimah's hair was showing" was quickly put in his or her place, Nawwab said. "Get over it," read one response. Wrote another, according to Nawwab: "This is a huge leap onto the stage and into the scene."

At a restaurant in Saudi Arabia recently, she said, a veiled woman came up to her, with only her eyes showing. "I have followed your work and all the online discussions about you," she said to the startled poet. "Thank you. You have given us voice. Just keep at it and begin your next project." It turned out the fan was a professor of English literature.

Realizing the trip could provoke a negative reaction from traditionalists and religious extremists, Nawwab conferred with her husband and father before leaving for her U.S. book tour in February. They gave her their blessings for the trip, she said.

Among her appearances in the United States, Nawwab read at bookstores in Washington and Bethesda, and spoke to students at Montgomery College and in Texas.

Though she has appeared in public forums in Jiddah, Bahrain and the United States, she still has not appeared in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, one of the most conservative cities in the kingdom, she said.

"I believe in the pendulum, for me as a writer," she said. "You notice it every five years. Things move forward, then you have a setback or two. No matter how you look at it, with the Internet, cable television and everything our children are taking in, I believe the young ones are going to impose their needs and demands."

Another female poet once asked her: "Who allowed you to do this?" Nawwab's answer reflected the openings being created in Saudi Arabia as it is slowly woven into the tapestry of global communication. "No one."

Created by keza
Last modified 2005-04-15 06:33 AM

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