Through her poetry, performance and activism, Amina Atiq has emerged as one of the most essential voices in Liverpool. With a stature continuing to grow through a range of ongoing commissions and projects, Laura Brown speaks to the artist/activist about the expectations of identity and the radicalness of using your own voice.
AMINA ATIQ is in a reflective mood. On a Friday morning, in this strange waiting room between life being open and closed, she pauses and takes a moment before she speaks.
“This is the battle,” she says, her voice calm, measured, the lilt of Scouse in her glottal stop.
“We are a generation born or emigrated to the UK with a strong attachment to our home countries,” she explains. “I’m writing it for myself, for my ancestors, my sisters and my children to say, ‘We do exist’.
To be Arab in Britain in 2020 is complicated. Loving Mohamed Salah doesn’t prove anyone knows a lot about modern Arab culture as much as assuming every woman in the Middle East is oppressed. As a female, Muslim, Yemeni Scouse poet, Amina is an artist, but we also ask her to be a trailblazer. It’s a lot to expect a 25-year-old to be.
As well as being a writer and performance artist, Amina is also a facilitator and an activist. Award-winning for her work on community engagement, she has featured on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio 6 Music, BBC Radio 4, Bitesize, Arab News, The Independent and many more. She has campaigned with Change.org, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) and Oxfam since the war began in Yemen when she was 19. Over the past six years, she has collaborated with artists and writers to connect directly with Yemeni youth creatives to build a global community outside Yemen and on the ground. In 2018 she was involved in a project curated by local Yemeni American social entrepreneur Hanan Ali Yahya in partnership with Arab American National Museum. The project, Stories Never Told was of 24 Yemeni artists across the world sharing their work as part of Yemen’s crises and renaissance.
Her recent work involves a poem commissioned for the Yemen in Conflict project, part of a multimedia exhibition at the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, and a series of newly commissioned ‘poemfilms’ connecting Yemeni poets with filmmakers exploring how the country’s rich tradition of poetry and language can be preserved and passed onto younger generations. Amina is currently developing a spoken word monologue with DadaFest, inviting the audience to a 1970s Yemeni-British household, untangling what it means to belong.
If you have never heard Amina perform, she has the power to spellbind an audience. Personal, honest, unapologetic, she can connect with those listening to her like few can. She is unafraid of speaking her truth. A poem, Shamin’ on the Train, comes from the incident on a train between Liverpool and London when she was abused for speaking Arabic. The video she shared on social media had thousands of likes and made national headlines, but it is through her own poetry that she regains control of the story.
“You will hear a voice right behind you and it is muttering hate/…when she practices her freedom of speech she is told to leave this country/…why choose hate if you are unsure/ And if you are unsure why don’t you ask?” the poem recalls.
There is a responsibility that comes with being a trailblazer of using one’s voice and it can be challenging, she says.
“You’re trying to tell the community, ‘It’s OK, I’ll be the first to do it’, while [asking] the other side, ‘Are you OK to accept me?’ It’s a lot, and I think it’s not just as Arab women, but as Arab artists and creatives,” says Amina. We don’t want to have conversations about identity any more. It’s so apparent that we have very clear identities, we don’t blend in with the crowd, we stick out. Our identity walks with us. We don’t have to claim it, we don’t have to state it, it’s there. Those who are very, very exposed or it’s very apparent where they come from, they’re the ones who have to convince people they belong and that they’re British enough.”
It’s strange, Amina thinks, that, as an Arab woman wearing a hijab, for some audiences it was putting on the Scouse accent in her performances that made her acceptable.
“How much do we have to integrate until we’re accepted?” she replies. “Acceptance isn’t an issue. In human life you don’t have to accept everything, but it’s the idea of trying to convince people that you exist, that your country exists.”
Her accent itself has been shifted in her performance and work. Amina was through to the final of the BBC Words First development scheme and she describes how, during a workshop, she began to perform how she usually did, with an American accent. “What are you doing?” the facilitator asked, “what’s that voice?” When you search for spoken word poetry you’ll often hear this mid-Atlantic, slightly American style performance (let us not forget, plenty of bands have done the same thing, singing in an American accent because they think that’s what the audience wants). Why, he asked, was she writing about Liverpool but not speaking in her own voice? Who was she trying to convince? She was, as you’d imagine, mortified. But it was a turning point. In came her own voice, complete with Scouse accent. Using your own voice can feel like a radical act.
There is a long line and tradition of radical female Arab poets and writers; from Iraq’s Nazik al-Malaika to Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi, women have a unique role in using their voices to articulate societal change, whether it is happening or whether it is needed. When Amina meets other modern Arab women poets, there is something that binds them to each other and their heritage. “We are constantly convincing our readers that we exist,” she outlines.
Poetry is well placed to do this. It conveys the language of protest, activism, emotion, charting change as easily as the artist steps up to speak to a crowd. It demands a vulnerability that has to be embedded with honesty. And proving that you exist, that you have to be seen, means you have to, at some stage, recognise the way you’re seen by others.
Let’s not pretend honesty is anything other than hard. The perception loop of being an Arab in the 21st century is that you can find yourself fulfilling an outside expectation, of being the construct that people expect you to be before you even show up, before you open your mouth, and then that construct begins to inform how you see yourself.
Lockdown has had another huge impact on Amina for how she sees herself and reflecting on her work. Explore the pictures of her Culture Liverpool project, Lockdown, where she takes a series of pictures capturing different aspects of her life during lockdown. She talks about how it made her reconnect with her faith, her wellbeing and her health. Like those of us who celebrated a birthday in the months of semi-isolation, she captures the sweet melancholy of being apart from people you love – knowing that not marking the occasion feels like surrender. “I wore my birthday outfit and painted my face,” she tells me. “We danced, FaceTiming my mother who is currently stuck in Yemen. A birthday I will not forget.”
Development is all part of being an artist as much as our identity. In Amina’s one woman show, Broken Biscuits, she talks about how, as an immigrant writer, the words themselves that she is using are changing.
“It’s interesting how subconsciously you come to believe the image or perspective of those who tell you who you are, who you look like and where you come from,” she begins. “In my old work there’s so many western clichés in there: ‘I carry my suitcase on my back’. I didn’t carry my suitcase on my back, I came [to Britain] on a first-class plane ticket.”
The title, Broken Biscuits, comes from how she talks about her grandad who came to the UK in the 1960s and set up his corner shop “selling broken biscuits, meat and bread” in the post-war era.
“When my grandad came, people were travelling from the UK to other places, especially after the war, to grow their businesses. That’s celebrated and seen as a good move. When I speak about my grandad,” she continues, “I’ve started to say I’m the granddaughter of an economic migrant and businessman. My grandad was an economic immigrant, he wanted to make more money. If I were to travel to France, to study French to start a business, I’m making certain choices to be successful. But yet, if you’re brown or black, or don’t fit into the white majority, you’re seen as…”
She tails off. Many see the Middle East from the outside. They see it as a red apple, but it isn’t a red apple, Amina says, it’s an onion. It has layers and layers to be unpicked. So many of us are here because of something violent, something unexplainable, something out of our hands that happened in our homelands. Our Arab heritage, our communities are as layered as how we see ourselves.
“What confuses people of Arab identity is very, very complex. I don’t even think the Arab community even knows it yet. I don’t think the Arab community has yet understood the confusion, the trauma, in the 80s, things were transitioning in the Middle East,” says Amina.
The history of Yemen, like the history of many countries, is complicated. It changes generation by generation, so in a single household you can have three generations who were born at a time of revolution. From a Yemen Arab Republic in the 60s, the Yemenite War in the 70s, and unification talks, civil war in the 90s and revolution in the 00s. Even this removes depth, discussion, reflection. History is never a single timeline. In Amina’s family, her mum encountered one political upheaval, different from that of her own mother, Amina’s grandmother. Her father was born in Britain.
“My teenage life was born in the Arab spring and my sisters don’t speak Arabic. Then you’ve got Scouseness. It’s this bowl of Scouse,” she illustrates.
When she recognised those different generations in her British Yemeni household it became a significant shift in the way she writes. Amina writes a lot about her mother and grandmother. She sees herself documenting the small conversations at home that are then reflected in her work. Amina’s A Letter to my Mother encapsulates both the tension of the mother daughter relationship.
“For I do not want to live in regret
and when a thousand voices cheer me on
from the audience, perhaps the only
I really want to hear, is always you.
‘You’ll never understand me,’ I slam the door
breaking your heart over and over again,
but my mother, she waits up all night waiting for the key to turn through the door
for our bones are made from Yemeni mould and when we fight, I sneak back into her chest
when she is not looking”
“What does home look like in a Yemeni household in Britain?” Amina asks. “I’m trying to acknowledge that in different layers. My dad being born here provides a different layer with a strong British identity, but I always look at him and think how surprising it is, how connected he is to Arab culture. It’s taught me about the strength of Yemen and Arab identity. My sisters, I recognise they should speak Arabic so they can connect. I teach them out of love for Yemeni culture, in case they forget it. That’s why we should celebrate it. I strongly believe in Arab culture, with its different dialects, different types of history, whether you speak French, broken Arabic.”
Arab communities, the one I am in, the one Amina is in, struggle frequently to talk about their British identities. I have never described myself as Arab British. My father, who was born in Palestine and came to Britain in 1956, certainly didn’t. Yet our identities were a blend. And in denying this aspect of ourselves, our British side, have we allowed others to step in and define what Britishness is? Crucially, what our Britishness is?
“If you ask Yemeni people, ‘How do you identify?’ they say Yemeni. If you’re Palestinian, it’s Palestinian. Would you ever say Yemeni British? No. But you live here, and you pay taxes here. The Asian Britains I know are much more connected with their British identity. What does your Britishness mean?”
We have a right to talk about our own identities and heritage, allowing them to be fluid and figuring out how we want to talk about them. It is something that many on the left struggle with, especially in Liverpool. How many of us say Scouse not English, for example? We are determined to have the right to define what our identity is, perhaps rejecting one side of it because we don’t like it, or we don’t feel it’s ours. The risk there is that leaves our other identity, the one we don’t like, getting further and further away from us. Our identities are pulled into two different directions. Why can’t we be patriotic too, in our own complicated, mixed heritage, broken Arabic ways?
There’s a poem of Amina’s called Backbencher that was commissioned by Speaking Volumes.
“I saw my father cry for the first time
he cradled this city
in his arms
waiting to be loved
but all he knew this glory
does not belong
to people like him.”
Patriotism is complicated when you feel like you might not be allowed to belong. And yet it feels as though, if not everything is changing, then the grounds are shifting significantly. And with that it feels like things might be up for grabs. Sometimes, it feels like everything we said 20 years ago has been thrown in the air and we’re waiting for it to fall to the ground. Amina herself is like someone who is plucking those words out of the atmosphere around her and fitting them in a new shape, and a new place. It’s a process and it’s having a profound impact on the work she is writing.
“I am the first person to put my hand up and say the work I used to write in the first five years [were] the most clichéd things,” she admits. “My western perspective sometimes hijacks my identity and the one I want to connect with. I think it’s a process of healing, of getting to know yourself a little bit better every single day.”
This is, she believes, part of the artistic process.
“You need to be reflective in poetry,” she adds, “you need to be in transition all the time. I see poetry as a moment, it’s like taking a photograph. It’s very, very rare you’ll ever get the same photograph. It’s got a different mood, tone, it’s a moment. Tomorrow it’ll be something different. I’ve changed, it’s not drastic but from that poem I wrote yesterday my mood is different today. Writers and artists should do that. Contradicting yourself is about the writer in you, there’s some change going on in your work. Any type of transition can sometimes overwhelm you, you start to ask questions you’ve never asked before and you start to answer them in a way you’ve never done before, so what you try to do is put yourself all together. We’re constantly renewing those questions.”
And we return to activism and identity, of the expectation that we have to be something, representing something, somewhere, someone.
“I used to separate Amina the activist and Amina the poet. What’s happening now is they’re becoming intact. I thought poetry should heal, sing a song, but I’m recognising my poetry should do something, it should move something, it should change minds, it should challenge people,” she asserts. “To do that I should bring topics to people and shouldn’t lie.”
There is a phrase Amina uses frequently: “You can’t separate the writer from the writing”. Writing about your heritage and exploring this battle of who you and where you come from is imperative and there is more interest in it. Yet no battle comes without risk.
“A lot of brown/black activists talk about this, you’re always going to be paranoid, you’re thinking I want to live as a normal human being, but when you confront a situation because you want it to be better and they treat you differently you don’t know whether it’s because they don’t like you or is it because I challenged something? It’s daunting.”
The balance is always how you see yourself, how others perceive you, and in the arts this comes with an added frisson. You want to control how you’re seen, but any whiff of marketing or – shock! – a business plan comes with it the question of authenticity. Artists have to make a living, have to balance the books as much as the next self-employed creative. Artists always used to hide this side of their work – better to be seen as the struggling artist than be accused of being a Tory – but no more, says Amina.
“You are the business, you’re self-employed,” she explains. “I don’t understand why someone who has a shop can call themselves a business, but an artist can’t see themselves as a business. I think people are scared to start seeing themselves as a business because they think it will take away from their authenticity. That work will take over your life. You can still create and do the admin work.”
Enthusiastically, as an 18-year-old, Amina would go to business networking meetings, figuring out how she would have to make being an artist pay. Once, she sat in a workshop listening to a writer who kept apologising for her writing. Why, she asked herself, do we keep apologising for not just what we write, but the fact that we can? It needs to stop, she thought. We can’t keep constantly justifying this. Any artform, writing included, has its part in the world and art seeps into commercial corners all the time. Why should it only be the artist that’s apologising for that?
As a Young Associate for Curious Minds, taking a 12-month intensive training programme, specialising in delivering Arts Awards, strategic development and supporting young artists find their voice has deepened her interest. We need to inspire young people and young artists to think that a career in the arts doesn’t mean apologising for making money or, crucially, asking for it.
“It’s allowed me to think more logically about my two-year goal, five-year goal. The idea is not about giving up on your art, I’ve understood what I want to do with my art and what I want to head towards,” she replies. “The business mind has given me the freedom to do that. I always championed this idea of leadership. The goal is to be an advocate for the creative world, but to do that I have to have experienced the creative world in all formats, why people need it and what its effective to build social cohesion.”
Change is a constant. Amina sees herself as a changemaker. Probably the first Yemeni Muslim woman in the city’s art scene, she knows that many relate to her as a Scouser first and are increasingly curious about her Yemeni heritage. She’s forcing change and a shift. It takes courage to both embrace change and to write about it. It is perhaps easy in the West to look to the East and question how and why things are done from a perceived lofty position, but perhaps it is those who have a foot in both camps to be able to plot a course to the future. Amina Atiq isn’t waiting for you to liberate her; she’s already done it herself.
Images shot at Vessel Studios / @vesselstudios
Amina Atiq is a young associate at Curious Minds and currently a resident artist at Metal Culture UK working on commissions for DaDaFest and Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. Amina continues to work with activists and organisations calling for an end to the war in Yemen and further global conflict.