A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.
Bonnie Bolling’s The Red Hijab (BkMk Press, 2016, and winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry) is set in Bahrain, a kingdom of more than 30 islands in the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. According to H. L. Hix’s “Foreword,” “Of what happens in the Middle East, most North Americans receive little word except from what news media present. Consequently, the readily available image of the Middle East is biased toward conflict and violence” (7). Bolling who lived there for several years provides a unique view of Bahraini culture, an insider’s view, a journalistic view but with empathy.
The first image of empathy occurs in the opening poem, “The Red Hijab.” After describing an ancient area in the Persian Gulf (perhaps Diraz) with an “abandoned double-wide” trailer, a “tangle of razor wire,” stray cats, dirty windows, and a man “wrapped in a potato sack” picking through the trash, a woman appears walking in the rain with a laundry basket and an umbrella. Images like this of people trying to go about their daily business and tasks occurs throughout the book, but here, in the poem “The Red Hijab,” a housemaid wears a “red hijab.” It immediately, at least for me, conjures images of the girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List. In that movie, the girl in the red coat who enables Schindler to fully understand that the holocaust is happening around him, and she inspires him to do everything he can to stop it and to save as many Jews as possible. Bolling, who I assume is the speaker in these poems, however, does not act as a savior. She also does not try to simplify or generalize the Bahraini culture, as western news media might. Bolling’s observation of this housemaid allows us to see a side of life we may not hear about in North American media. In effect, Bolling becomes something like a journalistic embed, who “stand[s] on the corner, leaning next to the sign / that says in three languages: no uncovered women allowed / adjusting and re-adjusting my black hijab, me [a white, female, United States citizen] / on this narrow, broken footpath keeping my silence and distance” (“In Diraz” 7). The woman wearing the red hijab is the reader’s entrance point into the book and Bahrain.
As part of her journalistic acclimation, Bolling uses cultural signifiers, such as Bahraini foods and words like hijab, azan (a call to prayer five times a day by the muezzin), muezzin (the crier who calls for azan from a high part of a mosque at stated hours), Shahada (the Islamic profession of faith), Shamaal (a northwesterly wind blowing over Iraq and the Persian Gulf, which is often strong during the day but weaker in the night), among others, as points of cultural exchange, or at least points of cultural encounter. The encounter for the reader is the disorientation he/she feels when experiencing the unfamiliar and looking for a translation (as I did above with Dictionary.com). This defamiliarization helps the reader shake off the stereotypes of those who live in the Middle East. The speaker must have experienced something like this, too, but now these signifiers are familiar to her. With all this said, one may wonder if Bolling is just wearing a comfortable mask – trying to act like Bahraini while holding on to the security of her white, American privilege. In part I, this may seem the case, but later we realize, part I was just a tour inside the walls of Diraz, and an intimate tour as we sometimes feel the “Oh, we want it all, don’t we?” (“Above the Azan” 28) judgmental disdain some Bahraini have of American tourists.
Perhaps the thematic thesis of part II is best stated in “Gathering Plumeria,” the last poem of section I, when the speaker says, “I am taking / it all in, every side because stories / from the heart don’t lie” (32). By taking the reader behind the walls, deeper into the community where she lives, Bolling introduces us to a few of its citizens and tries to get inside their hearts, such as a woman at home, a young man who will suicide-bomb a coffee shop, “young boys wearing black” harassing an older man because they are bored, and a family whose father’s tongue was cut our and the people who cut it, among others. In “Stars, Moon Rooster” (37), one of the poems I return to most, Bolling, referring to herself in the third person, walks at night and looks into a “house with linoleum,” where she sees a woman and imagines what the woman is feeling and thinking. Using the same third-person “she” to describe herself, Bolling shifts into the woman thinking about hope and how a new born baby is “the embodiment of hope,” until the baby is “thrust / into the arms of another,” and how over the years of life hope “doesn’t matter so much.” Eventually, the wind wakes her from trance, and she returns to her own night journey.
One might consider this presumptuous to assume what someone else is thinking. Perhaps, they would be correct. However, she lived in the community for quite some time and observed and listened to the people. She was a poetic embed, unlike the disembodied “they” providing commentary and generalizations. Frequent phrases in section II are “they say,” “they are saying,” “someone says,” and other variations, and this “they” often makes statements about the Bahraini. Because we don’t know who the “they” is, the statements become almost Orwellian. For instance, in “A Silencing” (49-50), the poem opens with an active voice describing the speaker cooking a meal, then there is the volta “Deep in the village / the blind rooster’s / crowing.” This volta hinges on the apostrophe in “rooster’s.” Do we read “rooster’s” as subject and verb, “rooster is,” or as possessive, “the crowing of the rooster”? Perhaps both as the poem then segues into “This village / is said to be ancient.” This sentence is in the passive voice, as we don’t know the subject, or who is doing the saying. It’s just stated, and the reader wonders if that voice is the same as the next sentence’s voice, “Been the same for centuries, / they say, except for air conditioning.” The community’s character, personality, and culture are anonymously inscribed. This unknown speaks for its citizens. Even the local news realizes that “Someone from outside is fooling them / into going up against each other,” where the “someone” is the unknown voice and the “other”s are at times the young and the old. That “someone” is so strong, it can command young people to cut out the tongues of old people:
Then, they were on him. Do it, someone said, do it now. So they did it with scissors. They cut-out his tongue –
In essence, the unknown “they” and “someone” are performing a type of erasure on its citizens by telling them what they are and not allowing the citizens to have an ability speak back, while at the same time also erasing their religion, as evidenced by cutting out the tongue of a man who memorized the Qu’ran.
What Bolling does in section II’s other poems and throughout the book’s poems is to give voice to the people who have been erased or overwritten. Through her journalistic end-paused and end-stopped lines (there is very little enjambment in these poems), and her movements between physical and psychological realism, she allows us to read below this anonymously created palimpsest to reveal more than “conflict and violence” and to show how
so many stories separate us. So many nations. We search our tongues, desperate for a phrase, some scrap of language or utterance that will allow our worlds to come together for a moment (“Only Bread, Only Water” 51-3),
Perhaps this is why we hear a rooster announcing morning so often in The Red Hijab. It’s a language we all understand, as well as the food and love that persist throughout this collection of poems.//