Review by Ayesha Desai
The Arabic word Zikr literally means ‘remembrance’ and when used in a religious context it means ‘to remember God‘ It is also the title for Saaleha Bamjee’s new poetry anthology, and I can think of no other alternative that is more fitting.
When asked to review, I usually read through the book at least twice- once to simply enjoy it and then the second (and third) time to analyse and critique. With this collection however I wasn’t able to do that, simply because it was such an enjoyable read each time. Just skimming through the contents at first glance I was already intrigued by the titles of the poems…My grandmother breaks her hip, Morning, Women on beaches, What am I to do, Birds of Prey. The simplicity of the titles are a wondrous contrast to the complexity of the content. There was so much that struck home and with every poem I found myself left in awe at the poet’s ability to transfuse so much depth and emotion in such a beautiful manner. Zikr is a nostalgic yet brutally honest and realistic anthology, and at times the poems left me gasping in surprise and at other times left me smiling broadly.
Saaleha Bamjee is clearly a poet who has very precisely honed her craft. The nuances, metaphors, and diction of the poems are deliberate. She has employed an almost anti-climatic technique in many of her poems, where she leads you down one path and then suddenly jerks you in a different direction in the last line or two. I first noticed this in the poem entitled ‘My father finds a tumour’ which ends with ‘In an unrelated event, my father died from complications of his cancer’. There was no way to anticipate this end, or the raw emotion it produced.
Whilst there is no set format to the poems, and the stanzas and style and even physical layout differ from poem to poem, they work well together. They remind me of the charm of a group of friends gathered in a place of acceptance, walking down memory lane. The entire collection offers striking and vivid imagery, as well as interesting juxtapositions of life’s challenges and celebrations. Saaleha explores a wide variety of themes including anxiety, relationships, fear, family, culture, faith, yearning, grief and belonging. The poet’s voice ranges from childhood optimism to teenage angst, from young adult preparations to womanly heartbreak. Through every season of life, this voice is founded in honesty. A distinctive thread of culture and belief and faith holds it all together.
When reading poetry collections, there are usually a few poems that instantly resonate and become favourites. It is very difficult to narrow it down this time simply because so many of the poems are relatable. It’s real! The poem entitled ‘My grandmother leaves a voicemail‘ had me reaching for my phone to call my own grandmother. ‘By heart’ made me more conscious of the words I pronounce when reciting Quran. One of the poems that left me with a sense of hope and freedom and defiance of convention was entitled ‘Plaits’ It speaks of little girls having to suffer through perfectly plaited braids when ‘God handed down to us the knowledge of scissors‘. ‘Breakdown’ made me infinitely more grateful for the eventual realisation of my own yearning, whilst ‘Secret’ made me furiously angry at society, but also incredibly sad. ‘Every single one of us‘ was a poem that I had read on Social media years ago, but never remembered the name of the writer. I was thrilled to find it included in this collection, and being able to finally identify the poet, simply because it is one that will absolutely resonate with every woman!
Saleeha does not shy away from exploring difficult subjects or even societal taboos yet she does so with a charm and grace that keeps the reader interested. When a poem causes one to flinch in pain or discomfort or even recognition of yourself, you know that the poet has bled her emotion into words, let down her defences and revealed her truths. Such vulnerability is powerful. Saaleha is also a well established photographer and her keen eye for detail is well expressed in this anthology. You relate to the poet, and these feelings of connectivity are what make us best as humans. More so such poetry needs to be applauded.
This collection is a wonderful celebration of the poet’s life, and memories, but also of the South African Muslim experience and all its intricacies and contrasts. This is beautiful anthology which will easily climb into your heart and leave you with your own sense of Zikr.