Healing with verse

June 20, 2021

Zahra Hameed, in her debut anthology of poetry, shares her most intimate thoughts about mental health, love and relationships

Mental health is no longer a taboo subject amongst educated people in Pakistan who have the ability to recognise issues that hinder personal growth and life satisfaction. What in the past was considered troublesome, is now talked about with candour for the sake of overall health and wellbeing – following the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, this subject is considered all the more important, therefore writers of all kinds who address mental health issues are automatically in the spotlight. What strikes one first about The Burning Champa – an anthology of poetry by Zahra Hameed – is the simplicity with which she shares her thoughts with her readers. There is bravery there that must be commended.

The poetess begins her work with a foreword that details her journey from her identity as Zahra Hameed to DewaneZahra – the title she gives herself now that she is a verse-maker. Attempting to discard all previous labels she feels she attained in her life, including Disorder Zahra and Bi-Polar Zahra, she embraces the Urdu sobriquet with a panache. She also anoints herself as a nature lover. It is nice to see that the flowers that she chooses as her floral identity are none other than beautiful South Asian motia and champa – there is no cliche there. Oscillating between calling herself Prozac Teen to Cipralex Queen the poetess announces fearlessly, “poetry has been my medication, my salvation and is my destiny.”

The poetess is a bit of a generalist in describing the knowledge base that she taps into for her poetic inspiration; ancient wisdom practices, exercise, meditation, positive nutrition, a fakeer in love with God and nature – in today’s world it is much more particular than that; what kind of positive nutrition, which exercise? “I’m a warrior poetess, sufiana fakeerni,” says Zahra as she introduces herself – again, too broad a definition; warrior poetess from where? Sufiana fakeerni of which order? Editorially, DewaneZahra’s identity could have been developed around the champa since the poem, The Burning Champa, provides the central thrust and title for DewaneZahra’s anthology. The champa (plumeria rubra) is a well-known flower that has many connotations associated with it. In Bengali culture it is considered a flower for funerals and is associated with death; in other cultures it represents birth, love and new beginnings. DewaneZahra’s poem The Burning Champa, I found, is a tale of love and fulfillment, a woman’s consummation which is unique in South Asian literature. In the poem one can almost sense the champa flower that creates the fragrance in the atmosphere as bodies and souls meet.

In a similar vein, several of DewaneZahra’s poems in this anthology allude to the trepidations and joys of a relationship between a man and a woman. Zahra may be talking about herself but the emotions are universal.

To whisper stories/

Of what we are going to do/

Our silhouettes move in the rainy window/

I’m burning slowly and fast/

I’m so, so lost/

Inside of you.

In a similar vein, several of DewaneZahra’s poems in this anthology allude to the trepidations and joys of a relationship between a man and a woman. Zahra may be talking about herself but the emotions are universal. In Synchronicity she puts her finger on a burning issue: what does a man needs to do to make a woman feel loved.

When a man notices the tiniest things/

Like the un-fallen tear in my eye…

She goes on to list out all the wonderful things a woman would want a man to do for her. Really nice to see it listed out in the form of a poem. One charming aspect of her poems is that they get to the point immediately. Am I Bipolar addresses the poetess’s questions of what makes her personality unique, as well as “the confusion, cravings and crashes of thoughts that run a mile a minute” – we can almost feel her anxiety. Some of her poems talk directly to Pakistani women without any pretension, like in the one aptly titled A Pakistani Woman:

No matter what we wear/

How educated we are/

Which class we belong to/

A Pakistani woman is safe nowhere

Given the amount of social media bashing and trolling many Pakistani women are getting these days, this poem struck a chord. DewaneZahra’s poems, though coming from a personal space, are the voice of Pakistani women who are now poised for a flight – away from the regressive clutches of patriarchy. They are speaking out. They are a plea to the kindness at the heart of humanity – for men and women – to see the world in a gentler light and to understand the overall female experience, from mental health to female agency, in this part of the world, in a gentler light.

The Burning Champa

Author: Zahra Hameed

Edited by: Zebunnisa Burki and Nadia Jamil

Publisher: Zuka Books, Lahore, 2021

Pages: 84

The writer was most recently the editor at HELLO! Pakistan magazine. Previously she was an assistant editor at Newline Magazine. You can find her at amnarali.com and @amnarali_official

Healing with verse