Skip to main content
A room of one's own
9 min read

When I entered a poetry competition

“In 1988, a curse fell on my family when I was born: I was a female in a traditional family that was very religious and had Bedouin origins.” This is how the architect and poet Doaa Abou Shaghibeh describes herself. She was born in Gaza, but now lives in Ramallah. She describes in this very personal text her experience of being an outspoken female poet who enters a poetry competition.

Credits Text: Doaa Abou Shaghibeh Translation from Arabic: Ghias Aljundi November 29 2018

He who cannot understand you and finds himself forced to deal with you, it is easy to put you in one of his ready-made formats and then you have to shrink or increase your size to fit this format already prepared for those who are like you.

Those of you who cannot understand me, you do not have to deal with him so you will simply ignore and exclude me.

(Here were we want to focus on)

“Do not imprison me in a picture!
People do not leave photos
I need to dance
I have an African spirit
Naked I go around the room
I dance with the bed
The chairs
The table
The wall
Finally, I finally have a mirror
I dance with the mirror
To masturbate”

In 1988, a curse fell on my family when I was born: I was a female in a traditional family that was very religious and had Bedouin origins. They considered the female to be a disgrace. Then, as I said in one of my poems: “I was born on the shores of the Mediterranean and God presented me a cage”.

Where there is a place in this big world called (Gaza), controlled by Hamas with its oppression and racism and suppression of any voice which disagrees with it, and for a woman like me, this place was a prison inside a prison inside a prison. “The large prison of Gaza, the prison of society, and then the prison of my family, which was the harshest and most difficult of these prisons”.

My poetry writing experience began at a fairly late age, after I finished my studies in architecture and I had a lot of free time that I used to read, watch films and write.

My thoughts began to change little by little, and I became indignant at everything, against the laws of society which suffocate me and the religion that makes me just a vessel for the man and under his command and obedience, and my family who is impatiently waiting to get me married and make me a housewife, and at my headscarf, this piece of cloth which I have to wear wherever I go.

I simply wanted my hair to breathe, to be permeated by the air, I wanted my body to be completely mine, I deal with it the way I want.

In mid-2014, I began publishing my writings on Facebook. What I wrote was shocking for many who started to use words about me like lesbian (or as they say: sexually abnormal), whore, atheist, infidel and much more.

Nevertheless, my writings have been admired by some and through these writings I have made many friendships which still exist. But the negative impact on my life because of what I wrote was greater. When my family read what I wrote, they got angry and they beat me up and locked me up in the house and cut off the Internet and any way I could communicate with the outside world.

This was the moment when I decided to look for a suitable way out of this hell. When I read that the Qattan Foundation had announced the Young Writer Contest 2015, you cannot imagine how happy I was. I finally thought in my mind that I would present my poetry collection to people who can trust their artistic sense who will judge on artistic considerations rather than anything else.

My writings, as I see them, were sufficiently poetic which to prevent the reader from paying too much attention to the sexual or religious levels of writing. Especially if this reader is originally a poet and is in a sensitive place to evaluate a poetry contest, it is supposed to be neutral and evaluate it as a purely artistic work.

On Saturday 20 February 2016, the results of the competition were announced. I was shocked and disappointed not because I did not win the competition but because of the criticism of my poetry collection by those who were judging the competition. The collection received a mere mention but not publication.

(They responded to me as follows: “We believe that this collection is distinguished but we will not even publish it!”)

“The committee noted that a collection of poems “From Thirst to Thirst” by Doaa Abou Shaghibeh (Gaza), “where this collection presented prosaic poems capable of attracting the attention of the reader, revealing a brave voice in its sensitivity, revelation and confession. The collection is an attempt to introspection the daily relationship with the body, and although there is an excessive preoccupation with sex and nihilism, there is also a sense of alternating between irony, indignation and nihilism. The collection shows consistency in its poems, and it has some poetic expression and existential position related to humanitarian issues that haunt our contemporary society.”

My body was trembling while reading what they wrote about me. I did not find any difference between them and my family and Hamas. I felt scared and totally discarded. I was more afraid that someone from my family would read this criticism. I could not imagine how they would respond to a phrase like: “Although there is an excessive preoccupation with sex and nihilism”.

After the competition, something happened which I did not expect. This unexpected thing cannot be neglected or gone through without mentioning it. Days after the announcement of the results, I was contacted by Nidal al-Faqawi, a poet from Gaza who was familiar with my poetry and a person interested in what I write. He had also won the first prize for this competition. He insisted that I shared the money he got from winning the competition. His point of view was that I deserved this award more than anyone else. We shared the prize and this action by Al-Faqawi was the noblest gesture I have ever experienced in my life. Here is someone who believes in me in this beautiful way and tries to help me with what he can.

This was published by Nidal al-Faqawi on 26/2/2016 on his personal Facebook page: “Because the walls of the cell are narrowing on their prisoners, the atmosphere is affected by corruption, because there is no winner in poetry, and what happens to us can only be described as great misery. I would like to point out that I am unsatisfied that some poetry collections win only ‘a mention without publication’ although they are very good and different collections and they deserve much more than this. I would like to stress that this is not an objection to the jury or those who are responsible for the competition but it is an objection to the situation that we have reached, and to the angle in which the creator is pushed to. I also declare my dissatisfaction with the role of institutions in supporting creativity, those institutions that force us to resort to prizes here and there, as if we were mice racing for a piece of cheese that is not enough to feed us. For all of this, and because I am very embarrassed by what has happened and is happening, I will do my part, which I hope will reflect a generation that seeks only free writing and looks only for creativity that eases life. I will do what I can now, announcing my sharing of the first prize with the creative poet Doaa Abou Shaghibeh from Gaza.”

On Sunday 19 June 2016, at 6pm, was the moment I arrived in Ramallah running away from everything. (The big prison which had no limits, family, community and a government). My only sin was that I never expected that my love for writing and poetry would be the cause of all this persecution I suffered.

I arrived in Ramallah with great dreams, as if I were going to the dream place, looking for freedom, justice and fairness, but things did not go that way. I wanted to continue writing, to learn photography and dance, to participate in many artistic activities and to practice everything that I was not allowed to do. I was shocked by a society that is not different from the Gaza society, but even more harsh, especially for a single girl. For them I am just a woman who fled from her family home and thus I am an easy prey that can be exploited in all ways.

Oh my God (I'm a whore again ...)

I worked in all jobs in order to be able to live. I worked as a maid in rich people’s houses, babysitter, cashier and many other jobs. I was exploited, harassed and treated with racism. Employers forced me to work overtime, on holidays and at Eid on the pretext that I did not have a family to spend my time with like my colleagues. A while ago, I was nearly homeless and because I did not have enough money I did not find a place to sleep in and despite that I still believe that I deserve a lot better and that one day I will be treated fairly and my writings will be appreciated and my experience will be considered because it is the experience of a strong young woman who can still stand on her feet and resist. Or as Sylvia Plath says:
“You will have an eternal Monday
And will stand in the moonlight ...”

I tried to communicate with people from within Qattan Foundation to show them what I write for the sake of reading. I was rejected. I tried to show my writings to important publishing houses and people in the cultural milieu and the response each time was as follows: “They don’t want to be in trouble and what I write is more frank than what society accepts, and they offered to publish me on the condition that I adjust what I write or delete what is not appropriate in their opinion, and this can never happen at all!”

Like what you read?

Take action for freedom of expression and donate to PEN/Opp. Our work depends upon funding and donors. Every contribution, big or small, is valuable for us.

Donate on Patreon
More ways to get involved