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A poetess caught between modernity and tradition

Dina Ibrahim, guest contributor
January 3, 1997, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
This article appeared in Arab News, for which the author is a columnist

She is one of a kind. A soft-spoken, attractive, enlightened and philosophical woman, Badia Kashghari, a Saudi poetess, is a master of words. Since the publication of her first diwan (collection of poetry) in 1994, she has been in the spotlight in many of the Kingdom's literary circles.

Born and brought up in Taif, Kashghari came to Jeddah to study English Literature at King Abdul Aziz University. For her, this was a major step that influenced her life and shaped her already unconventional thoughts. "Even at a young age, I was considered an outcast because I was always so idealistic and rebellious," she says.

Since her graduation in 1977, Kashghari has worked as a teacher, writer, journalist and also in the fields of academic and industrial training. In 1989 she became the first woman writer to be appointed to the staff of the oldest magazine in the Kingdom, Saudi Aramco's Al Qafila (The Caravan). She is now in addition a frequent contributor of articles and poetry to local and foreign Arabic magazines and newspapers.

Her first diwan, When the Sand Blossoms, is a collection of poetry written over the course of 20 years and composed both in Saudi Arabia and during her frequent travels abroad.

"We Saudi women have struggled a great deal to get where we are today." she says. "I have always had two challenges as a female and a poet. The first was to define my female role and the second to convey my message to society... I have a responsibility to educate and better myself as well as to do the same for other women."

Kashghari has fought to have an active role in society. She frequently attends and gives poetry recitals. As she puts it, sharing her creativity with others is part of the process of self-expression. "Sometimes I write out of purely personal experience or I reflect upon a particular state of mind. Or sometimes, I find myself writing about my gender as a whole."

Many recognized members of the Arab intellectual community, including the well-known Iraqi poet, Nizar Kabbani, have written of womens' experiences. Kabbani, among others, has been a great influence on Kashghari -- which she admits -- but she always insists on using her own words to convey her emotions and observations.

Her modern-style poetry is simple, refreshing and full of soul-searching. It represents, in her words, "part of the development of poetry from classical to contemporary". It also reflects part of the literary reaction to the sudden jump in technological advancement of Saudi society. The modern Arabic poetry movement which began in the '60s and peaked in the '70s was seen as an indirect response to the rapid modernization of society. "We were looking for new forms of expression and we needed new tools", she said.

In Kashghari's opinion, she is one of many intellectuals in this country who have postponed their creative writing until they have proved themselves worthy of the challenge posed to them by rapid modernization. In her writings, Kashghari mostly vents her feelings as a woman and in her exploration of the relationships between males and females, she provides a uniquely feminine Arab insight. She sees men and women as complementing each other. "Writing is the driving force of my existence. It is an intense moment when there is a calling from within to express something that has touched me deeply, whether out of pain or pleasure."

The struggle between modernity and tradition, characteristic of the Saudi intellectual movement, is evident in her emotional prose. She uses traditional metaphors to convey her feelings and makes many references to indigenous nature, such as the desert. "I am the product of my Islamic and traditional heritage as well as of our modern industrial society. Times are changing. We cannot uproot ourselves from our culture and we might witness a return to our 'real' selves after we have dealt with the shock of technological invasion."

When asked about the general decline in the quality of culture and intellect witnessed in the Arab world as a result of the imbalance of two civilizations and obsession with the material manifestations of technology, Kashghari says, "We are not the creators of modern civilization; we are merely consumers. Some contemporary writers, musicians and film producers are trying to modernize our culture through imitation, but why are we trying to deform ourselves?"

I Have Decided to Sail

I have hoisted my sail
To triumph over the tempest
And to contend with unpredictable gales.
My destiny is the quest for the unknown.
I will never again fear ghost or ghoul
For I am empowered with a zeal to explore the unfathomed.

I press forward
With the fresh power of tenacity and determination.
I will not fear those gory thorns.
I will not shrink from the battle
Though teeming with phobia and death
So long as this battle will restore me to life.
These are my oars.

I begin to row in the midst of the sea
And to find my direction.
There beyond the unfathomable depths
The inner voice is calling to me:
"Why be afraid?
You have a compass in your confidence and faith."

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Mohammed Ali Alkhlfan, Eastern Kentucky University, USA
Please transmit my warm regards to our great poetess Badia Kashghari. I was moved with her beautiful poem. I am proud of her and her talent, and I am proud of her PRIDE about her identity as a Muslim. Congratulations to you and to us; these are the type of successful female scholars we need in our Arab and Islamic world. I will seek permission and ask your permission to forward your poem to all the female students who study in my university to tell them: this is the type of female that we are raising in my country. Congratulations to you, to us, and to the Arab and the Islamic world. I found in your poem an expression of the deepest impulse of honorable female feeling, which touched my heart and my mind. Congratulations again and again.

Badia Kashgari,
Thank you, Mohammad, for your kind comments regarding my writings. Yes, you are welcome to forward the review. The poem that appeared in the review is a part of a poem I have translated into English. Best regards.

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