Telling a Palestinian story through poetry: Hind Shoufani

Hind Shoufani's life is an inspiring story of strength and nonconformity. The Palestinian poet wants to act as a rallying figure for a new generation confronting society's expectations.

“Whether I am possessed by a thought or a feeling or a spirit that takes over my body, I’m not sure,” says Hind Shoufani. “But I have to write.”

The first time Hind Shoufani published a book of poetry, she spent almost a year afterwards taking four or five copies to bookshops in Beirut and persuading them to stock her work.

She was a young, enthusiastic woman with a mop of bright red hair and a taste for eccentric clothes. Usually accompanied by Zena al Khalil, her best friend and publisher who insisted on carrying a small white dog with her, the pair made unusual literary distributors.

As neither knew how to draw up invoices they still have no idea how many copies of the book - More Light Than Death Could Bear - they sold, but Shoufani still calls the venture a success. Almost three years later she has published her second compilation, Inkstains on the Edge of Light, which recently went on sale in Virgin Megastores UAE and Kinokuniya in Dubai Mall.

"I had no idea it would snowball the way it did," says Shoufani, 32. "Zena and I made the book as a personal project and distributed it purely out of love. Now I am more well-known for my poetry than filmmaking, which is what I set out to achieve in my career."

Inkstains is a 300-page volume divided into four chapters - death, life, home and lust. It is a frank and personal journey through the loss of her beloved mother to cancer, the distance from and simultaneous bond she feels with her activist father, the struggle and plight of being a Palestinian refugee and the the sadness of unrequited love.

Her language is uncensored, vivid and at times painful to read. Whether she tackles war, love or family, her passion shines through the pages.

"It is a form of possession," Shoufani says of her work. "Whether I am possessed by a thought or a feeling or a spirit that takes over my body, I'm not sure, but I have to write. When something moves me, poetry comes out and it is not in my control. I know it can be tiring to read, but it is meant to be easily understood and accessible."

She says her character as a poet is parallel to her character in life - strong, independent, nonconformist and non-conservative. One of her aims is to convey her situation to other Arab women in order to empower them.

"I wish mine was the experience of all Arab women," she says, "and one of the reasons I still live in the Arab world is because I want to rally people around me and influence young people not to be confined by society or relationships or family or gender roles. I can only do this through film and poetry."

Born in Lebanon and raised in Damascus and Amman, Shoufani says she belongs "nowhere and everywhere".

Her mother, an English Literature major, teacher and avid reader, was the biggest influence in her artistic life, but her father, Elias Shoufani, one of the founding members of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1968, has also been an inspiration.

She began her higher education studying communicative arts in Beirut at the Lebanese American University, and completed it at New York University, where she was a Fulbright Scholar in 2002.

She returned to Beirut to teach film and scriptwriting at her old college, but fled her home twice in two years as a result of the conflicts. In 2008, she moved to Dubai.

"In the end Beirut was too confining for me and too stressful," Shoufani says. "I visited my sister in Dubai earlier that year and was enamoured by the multicultural elements of the city so I decided to move. It was a great decision. I don't see myself moving back."

One of her most significant contributions in Dubai is the poetry night she hosts once a month. Poeticians, which began in Shoufani's front room in Beirut in 2007 and is now held at Citymax Hotel in Al Barsha, draws an audience of about 50, a handful of whom present their poems- a welcome outlet for expression.

For the reader new to her work Shoufani has a humble aim.

"I hope it helps them mourn and I hope it helps them appreciate lovers and friends," she says. "And, of course, I hope it helps tell a Palestinian story."

Hind Shoufani will appear at the Berlin Poetry Festival on June 18. Inkstains on the Edge of Light, published by Xanadu, is Dh51 in Virgin Megastores and Kinokuniya. More Light Than Death Could Bear, also by Xanadu, is Dh43 in the same outlets.