Photo by Bahi Mashat

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An interview to the most famous poet from Saudi Arabia, the first one to be translated in the United States, now on tour to promote her latest book Canvas of the Soul.

At the Brecht Forum in New York, a cultural space in the heart of the West Village, there is a magnetic-faced woman in blue-cream tunic and purple veil on black hair, who recites poems about freedom, the night pilgrimages of the mind, the tolerance for diversity. She gestures with art, gives rhythm to every syllable, drags the aspirate letters. She looks like a professional actress, instead Nimah Ismail Nawwab is a poet from Saudi Arabia, the most popular in her country, and the first one to be translated in the United States.

Her new book Canvas of the Soul (Tughra publisher), composed directly in English, has just been released in America and she’s been on tour in the East Coast to present her verses tha, behind the mystical suggestions, touch the most pressing social issues. She’s translated into six languages, she loves classic poets of Islam like Rumi but also Pablo Neruda and Jane Kenyon, and she’s defined by the U.S. critics as “a character suspended between tradition and modernity, a bridge between the Middle East and West”, as well as an ambassador for women's rights.
"But please do not call me a feminist," she points out "I prefer saying humanist."
Nimah is mysterious. About her, we’re only allowed to know that she lives in Eastern Saudi Arabia and descends from a line of scholars in Mecca, but she does not reveal her age nor how many children she has. "I do not talk about my private life" she politely smiles, "I made an agreement with my family. In Saudi Arabia, if you're a woman, you need the support of your husband, parents and brothers to travel, study, work. And writing, of course."
She caused a stir in the Saudi kingdom when, at the presentation of her book, she started signing copies for the readers: it was the very first time that a woman author performed a so Western gesture.
"I was indicated as revolutionary" she admits, "and that event was considered a big jump in the literary scene of the entire Gulf, not only in my country. But I think that a woman should not censor herself: if you want to do something, you have to act naturally, without thinking about it too much, and the effect can only be positive."
This poet is an optimist. She holds seminars for young people at the World Economic Forum and encourages them to hone their skills in pursuit of freedom. In the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia, she’s been longtime fighting for women's rights, but the vote granted by King Abdullah to women - who’ll go to the polls for the first time in 2015 - is a maimed achievement, in her opinion: "For twenty years we’ve been struggling for gender equality, so this news is not a kind and unexpected concession of the king, as it was written. The turning point for Arab women is different: the abolition of the guardian. "
The “guardian” is the man that in Saudi Arabia is required by law to allow women in any action or decision: a woman can not work, neither marry, nor travel abroad, even undergo medical treatment without the consent of this man, who usually is a family member. "We will not go to the polls to vote accompanied by the guardian: it would not make sense," notes Nimah, listing the many steps still to be taken against tribal traditions: "The abolition of forced marriages and divorces, a law on equal custody for the children, citizenship for women who marry a foreign man... Today these women lose any right in Saudi Arabia, and so their children. "
She also supported the campaign Women2 Drive for the abolition of the ban on driving for women, but she warns: "The promoters were brave to drive risking arrest, but unfortunately in the Western countries has passed the message that our only problem is not to be able to have a driver's license. This is only the surface of our denied rights."

Nimah and I during the interview in New York.


There’s also Sheima Jastaniah, sentenced to flogging in Saudi Arabia (and then pardoned by the king) to have driven a car, in the campaign by Amnesty International Italy "I am the voice" for November 25, the International Day for the elimination of Violence against Women. A solidarity fund raising via text messages to the number 45509 in support of women in the Middle East and North Africa, who are paying a high price for their struggle for human rights. Women as the Arab Sheima and as Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iranian lawyer, imprisoned for defending an opponent. As the Syrian blogger Razan Ghazzawi, persecuted for writing against the government, and the Egyptian Salwa Husseini, tortured for protesting.
Donations will go to Amnesty International and its projects for 2013: the global campaign on human rights in the Middle East and North Africa, through the enhancement of research missions in the countries of the region, the promotion of appeals to save the lives of people at risk of torture or death, the pressures on assemblies responsible for writing the Constitutions and enact laws in order to end sexual violence and to train police to respect women.


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