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War and Love: Poetry that goes beyond the death toll of Yemen's war Open in fullscreen

Diana Alghoul

War and Love: Poetry that goes beyond the death toll of Yemen's war

Thousands of people, including children, have been killed in the war in Yemen [Getty]

Date of publication: 30 October, 2018

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Book Club: Sana Uqba's collection of striking poems returns humanity to the thousands of Yemenis who became nothing but a death toll, writes Diana Alghoul.
For the past three years, war has shattered the very fabric of Yemen.

The Saudi-led coalition began its military operation in Yemen on March 2015 following a coup by the Houthi rebels, resulting in the country known as "the land of the original Arabs" to fall into an abyss of bloodshed and chaos.

According to the United Nations, the war has cost the lives of a startling 10,000 people, although Yemenis are adamant that the count is much higher. Meanwhile, famine, disease and yet more war plagues the country.

Sana Uqba, a Yemeni poet and journalist at The New Arab, wanted to make it clear that even just one life taken is a life too many. Her latest poetry book, War and Love, which releases on November 1, gives a stinging insight to life as a Yemeni experiencing war.

"I began writing poetry at a very young age. I've always been quite introverted and silent as a person, so writing was the only avenue I knew to release any sort of emotions or thoughts I had growing up," Uqba tells The New Arab. 

"I was very protective and secretive of my initial writing because it was all so personal, but as I matured as a person I began to focus more on humanitarian and political issues.

It is easy to just read '10,000 killed' without feeling any sort of emotion, because 10,000 is just a really large number. As humans, we cannot connect with numbers, we connect with people, faces, names, stories

"Eventually I found the confidence to share my work with the world and it was picked up by a few event organisers in London who invited me to perform. There were fewer than 50 people at the first event I performed at, but eventually I found myself standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square listening to the echoes of my words bouncing off the historic central London buildings in front of 500,000 protesters."

War and Love is Sana Uqba's debut book [Amazon]

Her poetry grew more popular, landing Uqba the opportunity to write lyrics for musicians such as Lowkey and Sami Yusuf, who was once famously dubbed as Islam's biggest Rock star.  

Withdraw to write

Much of the reporting in today's media focuses on the numbers and statistics from the Yemen conflict. While this is important, it dilutes the real tragedy of war - the people.

"It is easy to just read '10,000 killed' without feeling any sort of emotion, because 10,000 is just a really large number. As humans, we cannot connect with numbers, we connect with people, faces, names, stories," Uqba says.

This was perfectly demonstrated with the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death sparked round-the-clock global news coverage and an international outcry.

"People connected with the story of that one man," Uqba explains.

"For me, the aim was to do the same with Yemen - to familiarise the world with civilians in Yemen without involving any politics. The Yemen conflict is not as black and white as other issues in the region and this caused a lot of pain and fracture among family and friends," she continues. 

"I'm also a journalist so I found myself being thrown into the details of the war which was overwhelming, eventually I just shut down and stopped voicing opinions and concerns. For that reason, I found myself being forced to write privately."

After the devastating realisation that she found herself desensitised to an article she read on her homeland, it dawned upon her how the humanitarian impact of the war is severely overlooked, leading to her first poem of the book Dandeni.

"From there something took over me and I think I spent most of the day writing 60-70 pieces in one sitting. So I decided to compile them into a book."

War and Love is a compilation of poems, each telling a story about Yemen, its culture, history and people. While unnamed, the characters in the poem provide an intimate insight of loving at the time of war. The poems are short, succinct moments in day to day life that have become diluted and forgotten.

"To trigger a similar international uproar for Yemen, we must first feel like Yemen is home and its people are our family members," Sana says. 

Romance is also heavily featured. In just a few lines, Uqba encapsulates tiny moments between two lovers, leaving a deep stain on the reader's heart. In her poem War Was Over, she describes the intimate moment of a kiss. The closeness of the pair almost makes it seem like the war is over.

In the poem Hand Print, she explores the grief of a woman who has lost her husband. The words describe the heart-wrenching moment the wife finds blood where she would usually place her hand before kissing her husband every morning.

In the poem Hand Print, she explores the grief of a woman who has lost her husband. The words describe the heart-wrenching moment the wife finds blood where she would usually place her hand before kissing her husband every morning

Real Yemen

Some of the characters have been based on real life stories, Uqba tells The New Arab. The poem Mountain Top features someone wanting to speak to God at the top of a mountain to tell Him everything. What first came to mind was a child killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike who vowed to tell God everything as he lay dying, she explains. 

Yemeni culture and history is beautifully displayed, giving the reader a taste of its diversity and richness. The Yemeni flag itself is featured twice as a symbol of loyalty to the country, including when a Yemeni's body turns into the colours of red, white and black, depicting the country's flag.

While Uqba's poetry is written in English, she also manages to mix Arabic words into the text in a lyrical display of literary technique, honouring her culture and its language.

The throne of Allah

Throughout her poetry, Uqba makes subtle Islamic references. From quoting the Quran in Lose Not Heart, to gentle reminders that the Prophet Muhammed had repeatedly graced the people of Yemen in his Ahadith.

"Faith is from Yemen and unbelief is from the east" reads Sahih Muslim 52, the very Hadith that inspired Sana to write the poem Prophet Never Lies, which nudges the reader into remembering that Yemen has a strong Islamic significance.

God's throne is emphasised throughout the book. In the Quran, Ayat al-Kursi, known in English known as the Verse of the Throne, is believed the most powerful verse in the holy book, and one that Muslims recite when they seek protection from God.

"Unfortunately and ironically, all political factions involved in the Yemen war have an unhealthy obsession with the throne," Uqba explains.

"For this reason, I mention the throne of God in numerous and various ways as a subtle reminder to both the people of Yemen and those fighting, that there is a higher, more powerful throne above."

For this reason, I mention the throne of God in numerous and various ways as a subtle reminder to both the people of Yemen and those fighting, that there is a higher, more powerful throne above

Unfinished business

Towards the end of the book, the structure of the poems change, with three long pieces.

"The final three poems are spoken word pieces I wrote years ago, one of which - What do you know about Yemen - went viral among Yemenis in the diaspora and in Yemen itself. Unfortunately, audio from the poem was taken and placed into an edited clip by someone in America who did not credit me for the work, so nobody really knew it was my work," says Sana.

"Even my mum sent me the video telling me 'I would like it' and was surprised when I told her it was my voice she was listening to!"

Overall, the book covers a range of topics while staying loyal to a small group of themes including war, humanity, hope, love and the sanctity of human life. 

Uqba helps us to remember the people behind the overused statistic of "10,000 killed", using the perfect balance of sharp words and a gentle approach.

The book reminds its readers that no matter what, love revolves around everything and no matter what the circumstance, people stand by their loved ones and stay firm in the omnipresence power of love.

"When a mother protects her child, she is able to access superpower abilities to make sure her baby is unharmed - that comes from love," says Uqba.

"Love is a catalyst that brings change and I hope this book lands on the desk of someone that loves Yemen enough to make a real and substantial change."


Order your copy of War and Love here. A portion of the profits made from the book will go to Yemeni charities.


Diana Alghoul is a British/Palestinian journalist at The New Arab and lifestyle blogger. 

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh


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