I met a Yemeni hipster at a party in south east London and we chatted easily over cigarettes, switching between the two languages. I was a little more clumsy than usual because I have spoken to so few Arab women, that I kept on using the masculine instead of the feminine when speaking to her.
It was a beautiful moment because, despite eight years working and studying in the Middle East, I have rarely met women from there who are part of the same artistic sort of scene I love in London. And whereas she would have to wear the traditional burka in her country, all too often, I was hidden behind the mask of the Army’s uniform. We would both have been shielded from each other by layers and layers of culture and clothing.
This poem is about how much better it is now.
I know you
I know you
On the dust coloured streets and in the bazaars as you hurried past
Your eyes the only part of you that I could see,
We both caught up in the insanity of that time and place.
Whilst I could not see your face hidden as it was by a piece of tradition
Misunderstood by practically everyone,
You couldn’t see past the helmet and the gun
The sunglasses reflecting a difference so much more than skin deep,
Occupier and occupied,
Both caught by our sides behind veils that hid our true selves from each other
But now we stand together
Outside a white washed room in Bermondsey and
Are able to talk in a way
We never could in those streets.
Maybe you aren’t her
Maybe I wasn’t that soldier
But we’ve met each other’s mirror sides
Time enough before.
I light your cigarette and you smile at
My greeting in your native tongue
A little rusty perhaps but still unusual enough to warrant
Perhaps now we have stripped off
Our cultural cocoons
We might find some common ground
Here, on the edge, away from all that nonsense.