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Inhale/Exile

Abeer Ameer
ISBN-13: 
9781781726105
Publication Date: 
Monday, February 22, 2021
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“A moving and humane collection... The poems remind us poignantly of the importance of hope and love in bleak times and pay tribute to inspiring acts of courage.” – Mslexia

Inhale/Exile is the debut poetry collection by Abeer Ameer, a rising poet of Iraqi heritage, who lives in Cardiff, Wales. Inspired by the many stories she heard as a child and visiting family in Iraq as an adult, Ameer has written a book that celebrates the resilience of her forebears and extended family in Baghdad and around the world. The book presents a range of characters in a mixture of political and personal poems; ordinary people living in extraordinary circumstances. Formally diverse, using both traditional and experimental methods, these poems are also full of empathy and suffused with a quietly persistent faith.

 

“This remarkable debut offers us a treasure-chest of 50 stories that lift the wraps from the personal and the public, the domestic and the political, revealing a hoard of complex tales, deftly, powerfully told. Abeer Ameer’s poems weave a series of mesmerising journeys back and forth between Iraq and the UK, exploring the interstices and convergences between cultures, between atrocity and hope, faith and dogma, language, silence and love. Ameer tells it bluntly, sometimes wryly, but with surgical precision and composure: each poem vibrant with the smells, tastes, textures, muscles and heartbeat of authentic experience, ‘in the search for home between two rivers’.”  – Robert Walton

“This debut collection by Abeer Ameer is a moving, impassioned exploration of human resilience in the face of political upheaval, state persecution, the violence of war and the pain of exile. Intimate and personal, rooted in history that is at once ancient and contemporary, individual and international, these poems remind us that even in the darkest times, there is light, and there is love. Inhale/Exile insists that the reader doesn’t turn away from suffering, like the photographer who must ‘share what the world needs to see’, and in return we learn the stories of lives lost and lives saved, witness tremendous acts of courage, and understand how faith ensures survival.” ­– Katherine Stansfield

 

Abeer Ameer reads ‘The Reed Flute and I’

 

REVIEWS

Review by Billy Mills, Elliptical Moments

Monday, July 26, 2021

The pun in the title of Abeer Ameer’s Inhale/Exile is key to the entire book; exile and displacement are the air these poems breathe. Ameer is a recorder, a rememberer, a story-teller in an ancient tradition of story-tellers, and her stories are, for the most part, of those who flee because they must and, for the most part, survive the potential consequences of their small acts of resistance to the brutality of Saddam and his machinery of power.

He once saved a life

by a movement of his head:

a nod to his student

on the for execution list

to usher the fugitive

out of the window.

[from ‘The Teacher’]

Technically, her range is wide, from sestinas and villanelles through ghazal and free verse to erasure poetry. The constant is the centrality of the individual human being, scarred by experience but enduring. Not that survival comes without a cost, there is a constant suspicion, a fear of betrayal, which is recognised in the sequence called ‘The Fugitive’ Wife’, eight poems that are interspersed through the book like a loose spine:

Do not trust

other exiles.

Safety and Freedom

are not real.

and again in the image of a man who digs for water to save his children’s lives, and retains the well long years after running water is installed. All too often exile leads to a land of hostile strangers, or worse, return to a home that is no longer home, and equally full of hostile strangers.

Ameer brings us tales that are both ours and not ours, written in a language that is English with an Arabic inflection. Based on my recent reading, an admittedly limited sample, her work appears to be part of an interesting growth of poetry in English by poets of Arabic descent.

Review by Neil Leadbeater, Write Out Loud

Monday, March 22, 2021

Abeer Ameer is of Iraqi heritage, was born in Sunderland and grew up in Wales. She trained as a dentist in London and completed an MSc, developing an interest in the treatment of anxious patients and mindfulness. Her poems have been published widely in journals and anthologies. Inhale/Exile is her debut collection.

For days I misread the title of this book as ‘Inhale/Exhale’ – the kind of thing practitioners of mindfulness suggest you should focus on when concentrating on your breathing, which is one of the things we automatically do in order to survive. For some, exile is another means of survival.

From an historical perspective, Ameer’s subject matter is the legacy of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and, in our own times, the US-led invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

The first person pronoun is absent from this collection. How refreshing that is for a change. Ameer concentrates on the lives of other people and how they have been impacted by political events beyond their control. She gives us glimpses of what life is like for individuals living under siege, fleeing civil strife or trying to forge a new identity in exile. We are introduced to the postman who lays his life on the line for the sake of saving others, the teacher who saves his student from an interrogation with the secret police, a prisoner whose only hope is that there is a god, an army doctor who "finds himself caught / between / captive and executioner" and a mechanic trying to come to terms with the trauma of everything he has seen and experienced in the war. Throughout all this, a seven-part series entitled ‘The Fugitive’s Wife’ runs through the text acting like a recurring theme to ground us in the present moment.

The title of the book is taken from the sonnet ‘The Reed Flute and I’:

     As the reed flute sings you weep your sorrow;

     your heart still beats in the place you left. The weight

     of your yesterdays that were once your tomorrows

     halves you, just like the day the reed was cut

     pulled from its bed, carved to carry the breath

     of the carver to ears held far. Its inhale

     is your exhale; as if straight from your own chest.

     Its wails redden your eyes. Its larynx speaks your exile.

The cover painting ‘The day the reed was cut’ by Grischa Goldbeck, illustrates the point.  Inhale/Exile is also about inhaling the scents of the past and the memories they evoke in exile. Such moments come to the surface in poems such as ‘Learning to Make Iraqi Pickle’, ‘Green Ink’ and ‘The Interpreter (Alif to Thaa)’.

Despite the subject matter, Ameer writes at times with a wry sense of humour. But the overwhelming sense that comes across is her honesty and compassion. Like a war correspondent, she reports the facts as she finds them, does not point the finger of blame at anyone in particular, but reaches to the heart of the matter which is always the “search for home between two rivers”.

Ameer’s poems are powerful. They punch our conscience hard. In ‘Kurdish’ we are reminded of a race whom Sykes and Picot had forgotten about:

     It hadn’t crossed their minds

     that the Kurdish people

     have language, food, customs

     and a circle dance of their own.

‘Price Tag’ is based on a television interview Madeleine Albright gave on 12 May 1996 about US sanctions against Iraq. When asked by Leslie Stahl if the price was worth it, Ameer writes:

     She didn’t twitch, deny or confirm it

     that half a million children had died.

     But the price, we think, the price is worth it.

‘Photographer in Halabja, 17th March 1988’, raises the ethical issue that all photographers must face when working in a war zone: how to tread that fine line between the need to bear witness to injustice while at the same time avoiding a charge of voyeurism:

     The photographer

     holds his camera tight

     to capture this perfect still life

     of the just-dead.

 

     Hands shake as he takes the parting shot:

     newborn face towards the camera.

     This exposure burns

     his right index finger, his retina.

Stylistically, Ameer makes use of both traditional and experimental forms. Sestinas, sonnets, ghazals and villanelles sit side by side with inventive free verse forms. In ‘The Journey’ and certain sections of ‘The Fugitive’s Wife’ the spaced out text which departs from the margin effectively conveys memory gaps and the geographical trajectories of flight.

This is a very fine debut collection. Highly recommended.

Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Meeting the cheerful Razur was an object lesson in blunt resistance, gallows humour and a suggestion of imminent unravelment. Razur was Iranian, from a middle class family who’d thrived under the Shah’s regime, but by 1982 was persona non grata beneath the baleful gaze of the Ayatollah Khomeini. A student at Leeds of unlimited tenure, he was in no hurry to return; the authorities, he said, would execute him if he set foot in Teheran again.

He was a kind of exile, much as ‘The Student’ in Abeer Ameer’s fine poem is about to become, his future mapped out partly by misfortune and partly by virtue of youthful exuberance. A poem of re-imagined fate, the Iraqi boy who has a ‘swagger like James Dean’ and transgresses brutally restrictive boundaries by telling the truth to excess – as children do - is rescued from punishment by a sympathetic teacher. His subsequent wandering is peripatetic and carefree, except when it is not: like Razur, the tentacular threat of an antagonistic homeland reaches over water and into the double-edged present of another kind of intolerance. Ameer’s unblinking quintains yield little space for self-delusion – the Billy Liar of Najaf senses danger in otherwise unlikely places:

‘sing Quando ? Quando ? Quando ? in a Bradford pub,
work in a dairy in Halifax drinking all the gold-top he can
and learn very quickly
never to give his real name.’

Ameer’s earnest vision serves her wider purpose well; an untrammelled, in places deeply disturbing, view, is a precondition of poetic conviction – endurance, the struggle to exist, and to forge an identity, are rendered the more convincing in the vernacular of internecine survival. And her images of an Iraq torn to pieces are brutally frank, even shocking, to an audience not schooled in the consequences of unending civil war. A ‘Mackem’ by birth, but Iraqi by heredity, Abeer Ameer’s exposure to the reality of Middle Eastern conflict is fed both by the testimony of friends and family, and by personal observation.

Her two lives are both distinct and indivisible – the enabled British poet who is the conduit to her audience’s understanding is counterpointed by the witness whose horrific ‘statement’ is, in turn, ironised to oblivion; acts of random, unspeakable violence explode in inconsequential, entirely unexpected, settings, like a bomb going off on a languid afternoon. And it is to this sense of shattered ordinariness that Ameer returns throughout Inhale / Exile, an astonishing odyssey across familiar and unfamiliar terrain, in search of a unified language of understanding.

The horror, when it comes, shreds our mental tendency to evasion, fills the ideated space between the pilot finding the target in his digital cross-hairs, and the human obliteration, somewhere out of sight thousands of feet below. Facing it square on, as the early Greeks advocated, is the most efficient means of inculcating meaning and empathy. And Ameer charges her lines with visceral immediacy, does not allow the reader to look away, in order to disclose the brutal, organic truth of death in three dimensions, since ‘no image can show the pungent air / thick with sweet apple and bile.’ (‘Photographer in Halabja, 17th March 1988’)

Ameer has a nose for contrapuntal sensory awareness; the triggers of presence layer carnage and its aftermath in profoundly affecting oxymorons. ‘The Mechanic’, who every Thursday ‘carries watermelons for his uncle’, is besieged by a potency of oppositions:

‘At night when others sleep
he steps out into the darkness

feels the fallen bodies under his feet
hears gunfire and dogs barking,

He smells the burning hair and flesh
through the jasmine-scented air of the garden.’

A dialectic of oppositions is, in any case, one way of capturing the essence of this bravely realised collection: conflict and resolution, the dispassionate mechanics of guerilla warfare, the fragrant, often colourful landscapes in which terror unfolds, the ‘Bullet rounds and birdsong’, and the forensic examination of cycles of violence crystallized without sentiment. Ameer’s training as a dentist seems to inform a preoccupation with physiological detail: severed heads and limbs, evisceration and necrosis, layer her narrative like charnel house walls, and accrete to invest the tableau with a kind of pictorial symbolism, like Bosch’s vision of Hell. And especially teeth, which endure long after the decay of soft tissue. In the footage of Saddam’s capture, Ameer nails the flimsy Allied pretext for invasion in one moment of televised ignominy:

‘Saddam opens his mouth as they search
his hair, beard and molars
for weapons of mass destruction.’ (‘Video Capture I’)

The stretching of Saddam’s neck on a makeshift gallows was rehearsed in Firdous Square by baying crowds on 9th April, 2003. In a methodical, closely observed triptych of three protagonists – the sculptor of the dictator’s bronze image, a Marine at the statue, and an animated citizen determined to bring the sculpture to ground – Ameer locates a savage irony in the determined double-entendre of the titular ‘Lost Heads’. Not least because the assumption of moral rectitude and a new Iraqi dawn – ‘100% justified’; ‘Free at last’ – turn out to be specious (‘Lost Heads at Firdous Square, Baghdad, 9th April 2003’). The inherently unstable structural foundations of this country would replace Saddam’s ‘execution list’, which terrified some into hiding for decades (‘Ya Allah, I only have you’ - ‘Interview with the Hermit’), with the torture, mayhem and lost heads of his successors, whose good offices will continue to separate heads from bodies in perpetuity. Instead of pearls, the Tigris ‘Diver’ finds the decapitated torso of one more victim, for burial ‘tomorrow in an unmarked grave’.

The descent into violence and chaos, and the relentless, often random enervation of social and cultural energy, tears the enfeebled, changeful body politic to shreds. Nowhere is the disordered landscape better illustrated than in the imperial bungling of the ‘forgetful’ Sykes and Picot, the diplomats whose ‘agreement’ carved up a large swathe of the Middle East between the British and French in 1916. The drawing of arbitrary lines in the sand wholly overlooked the interests of the Kurds and with them, a claim to collective identity. That these persecuted people continue to struggle for recognition is the driver of the devastating poem, ‘Kurdish’; hiding from Saddam’s forces in a water tank, the sixteen-year-old boy whose misfortune it is to be a Kurd, can only hope that the soldiers will similarly be overtaken by amnesia, and ‘be so kind / as to forget about him too’. The personal is the resolutely political here; what brings the foreshortened quatrains into almost unbearably ironic focus is the insinuation of good manners.

We may be certain that Abeer Ameer’s astonishing and deeply affecting collection will not induce amnesia in the reader; her images will remain long in the memory. And most of all when they describe the ubiquitous, enduring plight of women in strife-torn zones – the widow, the grieving mother or sister, the orphan. A yearning for a kind of home is intrinsic to the condition of the refugee, and perhaps also to the writer whose home is England yet whose spirit cleaves, in remote reflection, to Iraq. But central to a definition of displacement, of statelessness, is the universal figure of suffering womanhood. The grieving Hecuba, abject on the plains of Troy, continues to be replicated in every war-blighted corner of the globe; the world, as Tony Harrison found, is full of Hecubas – we see them almost daily on our television screens. Ameer’s envisioning of grief in her poem ‘Passing’ distils pain through a desperate clinging to tokens of remembrance:

‘She holds her son’s shirt, her mother’s prayer shawl,
finds faces in shadows; she’s clothed in black sheets.
Derelict sands and remains of walls

echo ululations and smacks from footballs.’

It would be difficult to conclude that Ameer’s sonnet, ‘The Reed Flute and I’, an exquisitely delicate re-imagining of a Thirteenth Century Ghazal, and a paean to exile and loss, does not bear some autobiographical resonance. Although an act of figurative dislocation, the splitting of a reed from its bed enables a connection: the reed flute’s song articulates the predicament of the exiled, gives breath to the pain of separation, and embodies a yearning for return:

‘As the reed flute sings you weep your sorrow;
your heart still beats in the place you left. The weight
of your yesterdays that were once tomorrows
halves you’.

Abeer Ameer’s song of heart, home and longing cuts to the bone, and it is a triumph.

Review by Sheenagh Pugh, Live Journal

Monday, March 1, 2021

             your heart still beats in the place you left

Abeer Ameer was born in Sunderland and brought up in Wales. This isn’t how I would normally begin a review, but it is important to note that this collection focusing on experiences of persecution, emigration, exile, assimilation, is biographical rather than autobiographical; it derives from family stories heard as a child and from travels in adulthood to the country (Iraq) which is part of her heritage but where she had never lived. There’s more than one way of being exiled.

As one might expect, there is a lot of danger, violence, persecution, even death, in these pages. Yet for all the grim moments, they are not grim reading, because the focus is on resistance, survival and human decency in the face of adversity. A teacher tips off a pupil to escape the secret police, at the risk of his own life. A photographer “shoots everything he sees before him”, with a camera rather than a gun, to bear witness to injustice; a postman reports a house empty to protect its inhabitants; a diver searches the Tigris for executed bodies, hoping to restore them to their families:

          The diver’s own family wants to leave Iraq.
          They say he’s a dreamer, tell him there’s no hope left,
          no point in holding his breath hoping for peace. 

           but he knows the Tigris has been black and red,
          seen much worse than this yet forgives.
          Besides, he says, I can hold my breath for a    very    long    time. 

          (The Diver)
 

What also leavens the experience of exile and assimilation is an irrepressible sense of humour. The situation of “Iraqi Bride in Transit” and the groom awaiting her at the airport is tense, but they, and the poet, can still see the wry side of a potentially disastrous linguistic error: 

         Announcement. Groom is summoned to Immigration. 

         Your wife says you do drugs.  

         He realises at that moment he should have taught his bride
        the correct English term for pharmacy student.
 

Unusually in a first collection, this one is formally very varied; there are rhymed quatrains, variant sestinas, sonnets, a ghazal and a villanelle alongside the free verse.  They are well handled, too, though it’s no criticism to say that I think with more experience she will come to use form even more skilfully.

Despite the focus on redemptiveness, there is often an edginess to these poems: promise of political change comes to little, refugees meet hostility, fugitives who should now feel safe remain wary of giving their real names. People hope for the best but prepare prudently for the worst: 

         There has been running water
         for some years now
         but they keep the well
         just in case. 

         (The Well)
 

Abeer Ameer is a dentist by profession, which as far as I know is unusual for a poet – doctor-poets there are in plenty, but dentist-poets are far rarer. At their best, poets from the medical world have both a lot of empathy and a hard edge, an ability to distance, that stops them getting soppy and keeps their vision clear — one thinks of the late Dannie Abse. This certainly seems to be true of this poet.

Review by Mab Jones, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

With empathy and insight, Cardiff poet Abeer Ameer  ‘head hops’ – and, also, heart hops – between a disparate, diverse range of characters who are, for the main part, united by experiences of political threat, unrest, upheaval, and exile. Intimacy and atrocity go hand-in-hand in these poems, the reader of which frequently witnesses the aftermath of terrible events – but also many tender moments.

“As the reed flute sings you weep your sorrow” is the opening line of one of Ameer’s penultimate poems, and it’s this same mix of hope and sadness, resilience and tragedy, which unpins the pieces in this collection, making for a very powerful read indeed. Perhaps my favourite poem in the book, however, is the uplifting 'The Love Letter', which offers up a series of understated yet heartwarming assertions in the style of a blessing: “Beloved stranger, upon your hills be peace”. The universality of this points to the power of hope, of faith, and also in the tenacity of human hearts, which can survive war and displacement and still offer up a kind of benediction; a wish for others’ peace and happiness. It’s this sense of gratitude and of ‘being blessed’ which ultimately shines through, here.

This is a book of terrible revelations, but also of hope and of wonder. An old woman, in the final lines of the book’s final poem, may be blind, but still “her inner eye beholds celebration”. These poems urge us to do the same.

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