Spoken word poetry has taken a foothold in Lebanon, where a growing number of young people are embracing its soul-baring, truth-telling qualities.
Photo by: Nadim Kamel
Under the stars, on Rafik Hariri University’s green, in front of friends and strangers, Dana Seif stepped onto the stage. She felt a tightness in her throat and fluttering in her stomach as she revealed deeply personal thoughts in a poem about her struggle with depression.
Four months later, Seif competed in the first Beirut Poetry Slam at the Art Lounge in Beirut. The top two winners of the slam would represent Lebanon at an international competition in London. In the rarified air of the intimate venue, Seif felt the synergy of the supportive atmosphere. The audience snapped their fingers, as a sign of encouragement, as she bared her soul. Her poem, Tinder Talk, tackled tough questions about God and doubts about her faith.
The Beirut Poetry Slam in October 2016 marked a milestone in the growth of Lebanon’s thriving spoken word poetry scene. Several poetry collectives have developed in Beirut over the past six years and have taken hold. The art form is flourishing, with monthly spoken word events in various venues. At the slam, the collectives came together to compete and to send local poets out into the world – first stop, London.
The Slam was organized by Raw Voices, a Beirut-based spoken word collective, in collaboration with Haven for Artists, an art collective, and El Yafta, a literary circle and a collective of cultural activists, both also in Beirut. It was sponsored and supported by the Roundhouse, a leading arts center in London.
Spoken word’s distinctive style
Spoken word poetry is performance poetry – designed for the stage, not the page. Poets use rhythm, expression and intonation, as well as wordplay and rhyme. Above all, they value open and honest expression.
Spoken word poetry is particularly popular among high school and university students, who use it both for personal expression and political activism.
Ghada Seifeddine, founder of the 101 Poetry Nights collective, said she enjoys spoken word poetry because it gives her space for self-reflection. “Sometimes we go about our lives never fully able to express how we feel and what we experience, and these platforms provide the opportunity to have that.
“The community is brought together for one sole purpose: to listen to one another without judgment and bias. It is an escape from bitter realities.”
Spoken word thrives in Lebanon
“The spoken word scene in Lebanon is growing in breadth and depth,” said Sara Sibai, co-founder of Raw Voices, a collective of spoken word poets, lyricists, musicians, and performing artists. “More events are being hosted by different groups and in different spaces around Beirut. There’s a poetry event at least once a month.”
Some say that spoken word particularly resonates in the Middle East, where poetry has long been highly respected. Others say its freedom of expression is attractive in a part of the world where such freedom is lacking.
“Composing and presenting spoken word poetry challenges us,” said Sibai, “but it’s where I tap into values that I would like to engage more with in my life: courage, honesty, sharing and openness. It makes me feel very alive, present and more deeply connected to humanity.”
Dayna Ash, founder of Haven for Artists in Mar Mikhael, said that spoken word has grown quickly “because a lot of people have a lot to say.
“Poetry is an accessible form of expression. You just need to figure out how to say what you want to say.”