The AVBOB Poetry Competition | Blog


Freedom day, 27 April 2021    
Thu, 15 April 2021

Hold it up to the air – the freedom to write, to grieve, and to emerge through tough times
A profile brought to you by the AVBOB Poetry Project, featuring South African poets from all walks of life.
The topic of freedom is never more relevant than on Freedom Day (27 April). As the nation commemorates those who laid down their lives for a new South Africa, we remember, too, the lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. The freedoms we cherish form the core of our humanity. 
Nearly 30 years after the first non-racial election in 1994, we explore the freedom to express oneself through the lens of poetry with prize-winning poet and photographer, Saaleha Idrees Bamjee. This Johannesburg-based writer and photographer won the 2020 Ingrid Jonker Prize for her debut poetry collection, Zikr (uHlanga, 2018). 
The pandemic, personal and poetical
Our constricted personal interactions in the various stages of lockdown showed how precious freedom to congregate truly is. Prohibitions against communal grieving during lockdown became a significant stress and additional source of loss for many. 
Burial rituals are powerful tools that give people a meaningful way to meditate, and to mediate the experience of grief. Her poem, ‘I cannot eat dates without wondering’, details the communal encounter pre-pandemic:
I usually feel warm at a funeral, watching
the black cloaks of the mourning women
enveloping their embraces on the thin grey blankets
spread around the coffin, their febrile tears dissolving
tightly-fisted wads of pink and white tissue.
Bamjee reflects on the changes since March 2020: “I come from a community who gathers. But, in this time of distance, there are only solitary rituals to mourn those who pass. We can't sit next to each other, pass supaarahs from hand to hand. In each of our spaces, we can only hold our own grief up to the air,” she says. 
The denial of community in our darkest hour is a particular torment. However, poetry can become a sacred ritual in its own right, both the reading and the writing of it. Poetry can help us find a measure of closure as we process the losses, as we “hold our own grief up to the air”.

Tradition as a liberating framework
Bamjee’s poetic sensibilities are grounded in her Muslim culture and spirituality, which itself derives from an ancient poetic tradition. “My first experience of poetry was reading the Quran with its rhyming verses. Arabic’s rich poetic oral tradition has been passed down through the ages. Growing up reading the Quran, I fell in love with the words,” she says.
Many poems in Zikr are expressions of grief and reflections on loss, including pregnancy loss, loss of freedoms as a female, as well as the loss of innocence in childhood.
Karina Szczurek reviewed this exquisite collection, identifying the central aspects of the work: “Infertility, death, devotion and what it means to be an independent woman in a world of traditions are the major themes of this delicately woven volume. Its fabric is durable enough to hold the heaviest of struggles.”
Perhaps that is the healing magic that poetry offers the world this Freedom Day – a container for the things that are most painful.
Writing advice
Bamjee studied under veteran poet and publisher, Robert Berold, while doing her MA in creative writing at Rhodes University. He urged her to familiarise herself with other writers in the canon to better know her poetic lineage. 
To new poets she says: “Vary your reading. Don’t limit yourself to what you know. Go to contemporary poets, and people writing in your time. Read the journals you hope will publish your work. Be critical of your own work. Join or start a writing circle to bounce ideas off other writers. Writing is a lonely activity, but you are not in a silo. You are part of a greater whole, a community of writers, so make community and keep trying to learn from others. My top tip is: Read, read, read. Write, write, write!”
Write what you like
“In South Africa your rights are protected,” says Saaleha, who has spent time in Egypt, where poet Gala El-Behairy remains imprisoned. “Here you can write what you want. Nobody will issue a fatwa. The right to freedom of expression is not universally enjoyed, but, in this country, poets can write what they like. This personal freedom is to be cherished and protected. It is also to be practised! 
You’ll find more delicious crumbs of cake, pearls of poetry, and writing advice to enrich your world on Saaleha's blog. Take her advice to heart as you practise your craft in anticipation of the annual AVBOB Poetry Competition, opening for the fifth time in August this year. 
The AVBOB Poetry Competition encourages poets from every language group to express their hopes for freedom and to record their individual experiences, thus promoting our collective wellbeing. Visit the AVBOBPoetry website to register for notifications about the competition, here: