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Women poets write of love behind veil of anonymity in Emirates

March 18, 1997

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) _ Fatat al-Dubai feels she talks too openly of love and desire in her poems to sign them with her real name. She fears arousing the wrath of conservative Persian Gulf society.

The poet _ her pen name means ``young woman of Dubai″ _ has even hidden her poetry from her family. But she has a wide audience among the young people of the tiny states of the United Arab Emirates.

``I have to remain anonymous; otherwise I won’t be able to write how I feel,″ she said in an interview. ``My poems are more reflections of how women feel. Our parents and families ... disagree with poetry, especially written by a woman. They consider it a shame.″

Fatat Dubai is not alone in her fears. Her poems were published in ``The Female Poets of the Emirates,″ which includes 46 writers _ all anonymous even though Arabs have traditionally used poetry to express the strongest emotions.

The women use colorful pseudonyms, often incorporating names of the tiny sheikdoms along the Gulf, among them ``Smile of Sharjah,″ ``Daughter of the Desert,″ ``Dubai Princess″ and ``Abu Dhabi Nights.″

For all the romantic names, the poems are hardly scandalous. They speak only figuratively of love and desire, their restraint reflecting social and religious pressures, especially when it concerns women.

In one of her more evocative poems, Fatat Dubai compares her dream love to a falcon, a bird prized for its speed and hunting skills:

``I have a partner whose pride I feel in my heart of hearts

``And whose flirtation is hidden from everyone’s eyes.

``He has a free spirit and is proud like a falcon

``And comes from an ancestry that is noble.″

Another poem is a little more daring by Persian Gulf standards:

``I wish I were alone with him

``And there was not a soul around.″

That’s as racy as she gets.

Others whose work is in the ``Female Poets of the Emirates″ also speak in platonic terms. A poem by Layla al-Amiriya reads:

``The day you left

``My tears poured like rain.

``But however it turns out

``You’ll always be locked in my chest.″

Tahera al-Hashemi, whose short stories appear under the pen name ``Sara al-Nawaf,″ says that even though Emirates women write anonymously, they still apply self-censorship because of the restrained nature of Arab society.

``We convey our true feelings by using symbolism. It’s up to the reader to interpret them,″ she said, wearing a loose thin black veil over her dark hair and a black robe with glittering gold-colored hems.

Salha Ghabesh, a 36-year-old poet from the emirate of Sharjah, said writers censor their own work out of respect for social norms in which women are supposed to be self-effacing. But she noted those who want to write more freely sometimes use male pseudonyms.

Ghabesh uses her real name, but that is perhaps because most of her writings are about how women’s lives are better for the ``abaya″ _ the traditional head-to-toe cloak _ or the ``hijab″ head scarf that Gulf women wear in public to reflect Islamic modesty.

``I deal with emotional issues that involve the Gulf woman and the wearing of the abaya. The abaya is an inherent part of our culture ... our heritage and civilization,″ said Ghabesh.

But she made clear a woman’s dress should not be mistaken for her whole being.

``When we cover our heads with hijab, it doesn’t mean we are covering our brains, our intelligence or feelings and thoughts,″ she said.

As for Fatat Dubai, she is happy to have poems published, even if readers don’t know her name. She recalls shy friends who would jot a few lines of poetry on a piece of paper, then tear it up for fear of being discovered.

While retaining public anonymity, she recently revealed her real name to fellow poets. She’s Fatima al-Hajj, 31, and unmarried, and has been writing poetry since high school. The revelation came at a writers convention in Abu Dhabi, the Emirates capital.

``They were all men,″ she said. ``For the first time, they saw who Fatat Dubai was.″

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