Poetry from Ian Copestick

White man with glasses and a striped button shirt lying down next to a dog

So Young

A drunken night, remembering the times
both good and bad. When we were young,
and excitement came so easily.
The nights
we spent sleeping together in fields, with
only our passion to keep us warm. I’d
give anything to have those times
again. But, no, like youth they have
gone. The times when you felt sure that
you were about to explode, just through
the power of your emotions. The times
when despite inarticulacy, you somehow
blurted out everything you needed to say.
The times when you were young.
Those times when you were o so young.

Diminishing Returns

The hands of

my body clock

creak as they

turn. I seem

to be getting

older before

my time. The

day before

yesterday I

did some

gardening for

my father, he is

unfortunately

receiving chemo

therapy, and this

makes it far too

difficult for him

to keep his

usually beautiful

garden up to the

standard it normally

holds. So I strapped

on a strimmer to

do his front lawn,

then hedge clippers

to thin out his

conifers.

I woke yesterday

in utter agony,

my arms felt

as if I’d been

attacked with a

baseball bat.

It’s hard for me

to believe that

I’m still the same

guy who held down

all of those factory

and warehouse

jobs, working up

to 12 hours each

night, carrying and

throwing all of

those heavy boxes around.

I suppose this must

be how it happens.

You don’t realise

just how much you

are diminished

until you are totally

finished

Of course, by then

it’s already

far

too late.

                Traps

Life can be so tough

we all fall into different

traps, but the pain is

always going to

 be the same.

Be careful as you

scamper along the

pathways of life.

There are dangerous

traps lying in wait.

Some simple holes

dug in the dirt, with

sticks, grass and weeds

feebly covering them.

Others vicious steel

beasts with razor sharp

teeth. Some traps are

 nastier than others,

but we all eventually

get caught.

The ones who thought

they had escaped are

the ones that get hurt

the most

Nobody ever escapes

all of the traps.

That’s the only victory

that death can achieve.

Ian Lewis Copestick is a 47 year old writer from Stoke On Trent, England.He started writing poetry in the early 2000’s, but due to a lack of confidence, and the lack of a clue of where to send them, he first sent his work out for publication in 2018.Since then he has had over 250 poems published in various ezines.His first collection of poetry, ” Detritus Of The Drunken Night”, was published by Cajun Mutt Press in 2019.He has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Essay from Chimezie Ihekuna

Chimezie Ihekuna (Mr. Ben)
Chimezie Ihekuna

‘’You’re a dirty-looking and unkempt person, Ben. You need to learn how to look at yourself!’’ Esther said to me, laughing together with her friends who witnessed my humiliation, when I attempted to answer an important question in class. Throughout that day, I felt the earth to open and swallow me completely! It was a sad day for me.

I go by the names Ihekuna Chimezie Benedict. People seldom call me ‘’Mr. Ben’’. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, my birth history has always been a miracle to all and sundry who knew what really happened. There were birth complications surrounding the putting to bed of the baby who would be later christened ‘’Chimezie Ihekuna’’. Unlike the ‘turning’ orientation of babies that would have them come through the head as they are being brought to the world, I came to Mother Earth with my face! It was a topsy-turvy challenge to the mid-wives and obstetrician who handled my case. According to what my mother who told me what happened, the doctor improvised by skillfully avoiding any contact of the fluid from the umbilical cord to my face; for if it had, it would have resulted in permanent blindness.  The ‘weight’ of the fluid did affect the left part of my cheek. My journey into the world of surgical operations would begin three years later.

Having completed my first surgical operations at age three, I was scheduled to go for yet another major one the following year. All the while, according to what my mother told me, it’s been from one drug prescription to the other, special infant foods as recommended by the same doctor who handled my case (He was based in Saudi Arabia at the time. My parents paid for all expenses to have the operations carried out in Nigeria). When I turned four, I went under the knife. After the operation was successfully completed, the doctor told my parents that as I grow in age, the swelling on the left side of my cheek would experience a shrinking; it wouldn’t be pronounced as it was at the time I turned a year old. My parents had to be patient to see me grow and watch the state of my swollen cheek. But for me, it would mean me having to endure torture and brace up myself for the harsh realities ahead.

At age six, I started experiencing rejections from my colleagues. Though I was given the best of material attention, the emotional connection positioned me as a loner. My parents were rarely available as they were occupied with demanding work schedules in order to meet up with pressing needs of the home. Rather, what they did was to place me under the watchful eyes of a house-help.  Togolese by nationality, she really did not know how to connect with my emotional needs; she was there to just ensure that I was comfortable: Being for me when I am hungry, pick me up from school, change my uniforms to my casual clothes and wash my dirty clothes.  I faced a hard nut to crack challenge trying to communicate my emotional needs to my parents who would come late at nights, only to leave early for work.  My only consolation was to be a loner, since I felt the world does not understand my predicament. This habit of theirs and my inability to communicate with them would linger for years.

A memorable day for me was when I celebrated my sixth birthday: July 6, 1990. My then class captain, Elsey Farrington, Caucasian American, was on hand to help celebrate my birthday with me. Back then, it was the tradition for the birthday celebrant to depict benevolence by letting the entire class know about it and sharing food and drinks to each member of  the class he or she belonged to. Every pupil looks forward to his or her birthday. Yes, it was always a day we, children, would challenge our parents to celebrate our birthdays in schools! She knew I was a loner but chose to treat me on that day, as her very-own brother, friend and ‘little’ kid lover (I could imagined how lost in that desire I was). She took me round the length and breadth of the spacious school premises, letting the world know that that day was my birthday.  Life returned to me through the radiating smile emitted from the puerile face of my innocence. I was very happy throughout that very day. Since then, we became friends until her sudden departure back to the United States, a year later. I was saddened to hear she was no more in the country. I asked of her whereabouts but was not able to see her…again. I just had my loner-to-bright moments cut short! She was the only girl who knew how to spark that light of liveliness in me. ‘’She’s no more!’’  I said, looking up and down and walking aimlessly in my home. I just have to accept the fact that I am on my own…

For over a decade, I have to take solace in being a loner while I look forward to a focus that would earn me a life-long career. Throughout my post-primary education, I endured all manner of humiliation, insults and certain abuses because of my facial deformity (The left side of my cheek is still swollen). However, what kept me going was the core attention to my academics. I have always aspired to be the best in my class. That, I was able to accomplish! That gave me the inspiration to forge ahead!

From the age of seventeen till when I turned twenty –seven, I was in the business of asking ladies out for a serious relationship. I did not care about the age, race, tribe or size. What mattered most to me was if she (any girl whom I come across) would say ‘’yes’ to my request to be my ‘’girlfriend’’. I was used to being humiliated by both sexes. Unfortunately, I asked out a total of eighteen women and none of them said ‘’yes’’! What shocked me the more was that most their responses resonated with all manner of physical intimidations like sending people to threaten me in my house!

At some point in my life, in my late twenties, I turned to the other side of life—seeking a drastic measure—-suicide! I had already ventured into full-time writing at age 22 and having endured all rejections, coupled with the ‘’hates’’ coming from people around me, I thought about taking my life suddenly.  My life began to make a U-Turn when I read an anonymous sticker:

‘’There comes a point in your life where you have to stand tall amidst challenging circumstances and show the strength of character. Don’t look down on yourself, don’t give up and don’t give in to anything that would pull you down’’

I read it severally and it had a subconscious impact in my life. It made me realize discouragement is a part of success, there is an inner-beauty and wealth awaiting the environment, time and person to attract them. All the discouragements, insults, humiliations and disgrace that were thrown at me were all the energies I would need to become who I am today….

Having gone through the life lessons and motivation, I am now a published author, poet, writer, voice-over artiste and speaker. See my works at amazon.com/author/mrben. It was really, like, in the words of Late Nelson Mandela, ‘’A Long Walk To Freedom of [self-realization]’. But it was worth it.

 I am still living with the swollen cheek but I have learned to outgrow the psychology of being let down. My successes are speaking for me, as I look forward to when a re-constructive facial surgery would be completely done to restore the originality of my face! I have been, still am and will remain very optimistic!

Chimezie Ihekuna writes on faith, relationships, and philosophy and has also published science fiction and a collection of poetry. His work is available here and he’s published through Pen It! Publications in Indiana, USA.

Poetry from Joan Beebe

Joan Beebe and fellow contributor Michael Robinson, older white woman in a blue dress hugging a middle aged Black man. Both have necklaces.
Joan Beebe (left) and fellow contributor Michael Robinson

A rose has beauty

and sending it to someone

has a message so caring.

A thank you for friendship,

and being always there.

What more could one ask.

So I leave with a prayer

And may blessings pour down

That we will share the roads of life

And remember the rose that will

Help us through strife.

Blessed Mother, you are the Patroness and Guardian Of this country.  We are the fruit of His Spirit.

Please be our advocate and ask your Son to help His suffering world. May He give the research and scientific people that sudden extra gift of reasoning that will help them find the way to stop this horrible virus.

You are with the Lamb of God and together you may bring Peace, Health and loss of fear to God’s people.

A Time of Stillness


Neat nice homes standing side by side –Where there used to be neighbors mowing the lawn,

Resting quietly in the shade of an old maple tree,

Waving to neighbors who are also in their yard and some taking walks through the neighborhood.


The area now seems like a ghost town.  A few cars sit idle in driveways and no one visible through windows of the homes.  Arising in the middle of the Night and looking through your window is sad and disturbing.  The quiet of the night seems like you are alone in a field of grass with the light from a shadowy moon enveloping you in a time of yesteryear. It is taking you back to a time of youth, laughter and living a family life of love.


The present is now when we hope and pray that the dangerous and fearful virus of COVID19 will be erased from every part of this world.
The present is now when we hope and pray that the dangerous and fearful virus of COVID19 will be erased from every part of this world.

Poetry from Ahmad Al-Khatat

Layla’s Disappointment

Ahmad Al-khatat

Layla, I do not laugh effortlessly
Layla, I do not weep skillfully
Layla does not your name mean
-the night, or blues?

We no longer have the possibilities
Our story made the entire universe
-rain, as well as the students in the
classroom, I weep as I read it today

When I visit your tomb in the graveyard
I remember how the war forced the
-survivors, to transform our memories
into gray clouds of ash

Layla’s disappointment is everyone tale
It is touching and sad to realize she
got married at a young age, then she
became widow, before she died in the refugee
camps.

Rest

When will I rest well from overthinking
I have blinded the daylight in my sights
I even paralyzed all steps to my objective
because I have been the blues in my deafness

When will I rest in peace from awful mouths
I ceased to exist between everyone I know it
I started to support the fight against poverty
unexpected death, and money with bloodstains

When will I learn myself to nothing but to rest
My wordless spirit is an immensely tragic story
It made my heart wonder what I would’ve done
-if I will have the strength to ignore my longing to

Before everywhere I go, I hear continuous outcries
But presently I see the sunshine with birds singing
This quarantine makes me think as we are all given
another bet, to heal what we have ruined before…

Choose Your Own Poem

Choose your own poem
If you can’t reach the moon
Regulate your life journey
and never say that ”You can’t.”

Many things to write about
Just always read more books
Never lose hope on your ink
Just adopt an optimistic effect

Study hard and work fairly
Be smarter than you think
Don’t expend your time in
an unethical background

Choose your own poem
and find the honest lady
to share her scent, eyes,
and her desire for your poem.

My Bio

Ahmad Al-Khatat was born in Baghdad, Iraq. His work has appeared in print and online journals globally and has poems translated into several languages. He has been nominated for Best of the Net 2018. He is the author of The Bleeding Heart Poet, Love On The War’s Frontline, Gas Chamber, Wounds from Iraq, Roofs of Dreams, The Grey Revolution, and Noemi & Lips of Sweetness.  He lives in Montreal, Canada.

Essay from Abigail George

The relationship between mother and gifted child

By Abigail George

Vertigo inside of me. Burnt oats. Mother burnt the oats again. The bottom of the pot burnt. The oats tasted like ash, smelled like coals on the fire. Oats like cinders. “Eat. Eat everything.” She said. “Go on with yourself. That’s your food. That’s your breakfast.” I have often blamed Christ God for my unique set of circumstances, but I don’t anymore. My father’s sad that I lost the plot. Nobody understands. Nobody understands me. I’m alone, all alone in this world. Nobody to call my own. And the entire house smells like marijuana. My brother smokes his weed in the house now. The parental units don’t care. I’m ripe for the taking. It’s asking for the taking. I’m slave, and cook. I clean the house like a madwoman. Richard, my father’s close friend, speaks of ‘mental wellness’. Going on holiday. Listening to music. Being happy is a choice, he says. You can be happy. But I feel like Heidi in the Swiss mountains with her grandfather, blissfully unaware of the outside world, how dangerous it is to be a woman on your own.

I think of the Duchess of Sussex, how elated, how happy she looks with her prince, how beautiful she looks every time she’s photographed. Her skin is flawless. Radiant. There are pools of grandeur, and admirers wherever she walks. She walks tall. Head above water. Surfing London, England’s ‘swampland’. Compared to her, I’m nobody. Nobody special. And the day is like cocaine. And the night is marked by sadness, and after winter, comes winning, winning spring. It’s beautiful supposedly, but I am not impressed by the wonders of the flora around me, by the environment marked by pollution, and global warming.

And the economic downturn of the recession, and climate change. We’re normal people. Their eyes tell me that. Tell me that I don’t belong. What’s normal anyway? I’m anti-normal. Smiling when I look at this photograph of you, from memory and desire. Oh, how I desired you. Still desire you, but you belong to someone else. Other people, who are kinder, and more understanding than my own people. They say that I’m mad, and call me mental patient. Oh, I was in high care. Oh, I was in a locked-up ward. Oh, I did try to take my own life, but could I be the most beautiful woman in the world, on your arm at a social function, or a family gathering just for a few hours, please, please. There’s a wasteland for you. Wasted potential. Wasted youth. To live normally, that means exactly what. The only goal that I have in my life is to write.

I think of Charlie Chaplin’s mother in the asylum, a young Anne Sexton full of brio, and bold life modelling her Bostonian-heart out, (I don’t have that kind verve, don’t live according to that velocity). Oh, I’m sad, and lonely, but don’t worry for me. I’m proud to be a ghost nation. I’m governed by patience and virtue, patients and their psychological framework. Their philosophy of life in hospital, shielded away from the gaze of the world. I’m poet. I’m John Updike’s Bulgarian poetess. I must have courage. A woman’s guide to courage, but can someone help with the survival-kit. Men have always laughed at my sexual inexperience, and inadequacy. It was like a storm inside my head, you know. There’s a tangled web for you.

A spider’s web of deceit and lies, deception and self-sabotage, the pattern of self-destructive behaviour, and because of you, as if you didn’t know, I will never marry another. I don’t want to be anywhere near you. You are dead to me like stimulus, capacity, and impulse. Once, your hands were my hands. Once, your heart belonged to me. All I see now is your silhouette. You’re showman, I’m interloper in your relationships. You’ve travelled, made sense of the world around you, and now that you have a wife, you want nothing to do me with me. You don’t want to love me anymore. And I know it would have made a difference if I could have given you a child, to live and to breathe, but all I seem to get out of the day is meditative haiku this,  and you have the shadow of a fisherman in my bedroom in the early hours of the morning. Just like, for the rest of my life I will remain childlike.

You gave me up. The spark, the love, the beautiful reflection of me, was there for the taking. You refused. You refused me. Walked away from me in a parking garage. In childhood, it will always be childhood for me, nothing is beyond reach. Everything is within limits. I wait. I’m left waiting. The poor girl, waiting in poverty, living in poverty, spiritual-poverty, the green dragons of men say. No man’s hands will write on my body now. My body is no longer a canvas. The youth is gone. Oh, youth is fleeting, but not the homesick feeling. Growing up, I always sought out introverts like myself, only finding that aspect of personality in older males. And as soon as I got older, they all faded away into the background. Excitement is like a store for me.

I go in there, anxiety and fear disappear, the anguish of not having a man. The ache is still there, but I’m too old for that life, that kind of time, to spend hours, or an entire afternoon in the company of a man, too tired for the games of the sexual transaction. You’re a parenthesis. I’m beginner, on repeat. With the thin needle of desire on repeat. Blood gives, blood takes. You have your career, your wife has her household and family to take care of, you’re both inter-dependants, take care of each other, wife and husband (you each have your duties), taking care to take care of each other in the good times, and sad times. There’s nobody to take care of my heartbreak. All I have is eccentric. My fondness for rubbish television, and J.M. Coetzee novels, (the greatest writer alive today).

Films that only cost about a million to make. I remember when I stopped running. I mean running away. It was about the time you left me, and we said our goodbyes. There was finality for you. There was closure for you. You closed the door on the past, on our past. But it wasn’t completely over for me. Nowhere is the longest distance to traverse, and often there is no end in sight on that pilgrimage. Our end meant the rare appearance of a new world for me. Sickness came and went in my life. You were a non-supportive prop. It wasn’t over by a longshot for me. Not for me. Not for me. Awake, I am tidal, and pure. I feel the cold. Nobody feels the cold like I do. I’m dying. I’m dying to belong to a world, this planet, but you see, I could never fit, adjust, meet expectations high, or, low, justify. My relationships were always scandalous.

I was naïve, too young; he was old enough to be my father. You’re living your best life now. Yes, I want a connection, to this society, link up with likeminded people, who, like me, find living in poverty disabled disagreeable. I still have goals, plans, and this dream. I will speak at Harvard, Brown, Duke, Smith, Yale, and Princeton. I will attend an ivy league university like a Kennedy- heir. I will attend Columbia. Think with clarity and creativity. Then the world will love me, and that will be enough. I do pray. I pray for happiness for myself (but what is that without a man), and for personal success in all the spheres of my life. I’m forever home for the holidays now, glimpsing taverns in my neighbourhood from the safety of my mother’s car, the life-worlds therein, and I don’t know whether bitterness, or, resentment on the part of my aunt, that relationship, the year I spent at a mental institution, was responsible for the estrangement on my father’s side of the family. The ache is sharp. The knowledge of it was always mysteriously invisible to you.

There’s Missionvale. It is not suburbia. I think of Cobra polish, Sunlight soap, Colgate egg shampoo, and the rich who know, who think nothing of sub-economic housing, families of ten people or more who have to fit into two rooms. A matchbox house is far beyond their understanding. They do not know of the kind of pressures, and stress, and hurting when a man can’t provide for his family. Can’t put food on the table. Can’t be caretaker, his wife, and mother-in-law nurturers to the children in the house, in matchbox housing. All the children are, are orphans anyway.

The absent parents who only have their own neglect into the life of addiction on their minds. Addiction to gun violence, addiction to a heinous promiscuous lifestyle, domestic violence, shocking physical, and sexual assault. They know nothing of the filth and stench of poverty, the stain, the organic language of menstrual blood, of blood, of blood spilled. I think of the prosperous with their Swiss chocolate, bouquets of flowers, gifts wrapped in tissue paper on birthdays. There’s Bethelsdorp. There’s Korsten. There’s Timothy Valley. There’s Schauderville. People there do not live the kind of sheltered paradise life that I live. People shoot in the streets. They shoot to kill. I feel like Krotoa. Only good enough for one man. Called out of native darkness into Dutch light.

Come over the threshold, Krotoa. I give my name, my nationality, my life to you. Death is important. Death is king, for without this earth of things, all of our material possessions how can there be life. We need faith to receive the blessing, in order to obtain Christ’s reward, but without it we can still live, just without the guidebook (to salvation). Lazarus is still sleeping. I want to be the next Antjie Krog, not the next Ingrid Jonker. Arthur Nortje, the poet who won a scholarship to Oxford, he speaks. Arthur Nortje, the poet speaks to me. I feel to live vicariously through him. Through his Oxford. Through his romantic life, if he ever had one. This non-European, who looked like a pale king version of a European. Arthur Nortje, speaks with anticipatory nostalgia to me. He is walking alone; I am walking alone. He has a testimony; I have a testimony.

This is not the end for me. There is still the storytelling to be told of Hitler, Mussolini, Smuts and the Cape Corps. I have this map, you see. A map of the world, my mixed-race world. No telling where I still have to go. But I am Krotoa, relying on the spirit of giving from older Dutch males. There is a mother, or rather was the lack of one n my life. The tomcat is inspiration, magic spell, imagination to me. There is a mother, tarnished like seed, that carries with it, Sunday gravy, pork belly and roast potatoes. Wait a minute. There’s a thaw in the air. Just. Just. In the kitchen there she stands, a Jennifer making my life hell. There she goes again. On fire, this injustice, she screams at the top of her lungs of just how inadequate I am. I’m mute. I’m a mute. I think of the needle. The thin needle of desire from memory. How it left a mosquito bite on my arm playing a seduction game on my arm

. How the words, “you’ll be okay, we’ve given you something to sedate you”, were given to me like communion wine, and the wafer of Jesus Christ’s body. And I think of Dennis Brutus, Arthur Nortje, Brian Walter, Harold Wilson, these men of genius. I think of Calvary. My cross, my cross. My cross. I’m glad I couldn’t see into their, my future. You never grew up in our house. Never smiled for the camera the way that we did. Hiding our grief in our interpersonal relationships in the way that we did. I ask myself all the time am I walking on a dream in being a poet, is he really, this great South African writer who lives in France and Spain in awe in of me, are people really talking about me, or, are they laughing at me.

Poetry from J.D. DeHart

J.D. DeHart

The First Sign of Embarking

Let’s take a journey. 

So, they drove through the night

to strange oceans and dens, past monsters

of present and future, past warnings

and talismans.

All of the fast food places were closed,

so they snacked in the car, listening to the hum

of music from long ago.

They passed political markers

and signs of the times, warnings ahead,

and people holding up cries for help.

These were the days before

a soothing electronic voice, so they

traced the journey by hand, making

marks they hardly knew on a map

they knew even less.

There were sunburns and sharks,

as assembly of photographs, pausing

and posing, lots of candy wrappers.

Small monuments.

She was both giddy and delighted,

rare words in her job of filing documents

and teeth.

At the end, they would remember in pieces,

wondering where the time went, and

if that’s where all of their travels really

began,

revisiting and revisiting again

through shoeboxes of photographs, some

with labels and some devoid of context. 

I Wrap

myself in the magic

of quiet. Why do words find

such fury?

These are voices

that have no faces. I make them

up as I go.

Now, I will silence them for

the moment, a temporary relinquishment

of verbal prerogative.

I will wrap this moment

around myself, my blanket,

throwing off all of the pain

that traces along my heart

like a child coloring inside 

and outside the lines.

I will not worry about tomorrow,

even though I often do.

Giving myself a new name,

I wrap myself in metaphor

so I don’t have to tell the truth

in all its blatant forms.

A Review of Many-Storied House (in Poetry)

Thank you, Ms. George Ella Lyon, for another

fine collection. I relish this floor plan of your memories

and dreams.

I love its beams and edges.

In you I find a voice not far-removed from

many of my experiences, a song that sounds much

like the ones I’ve heard for decades, but recast

in your lyrical cadence.

In the miner’s hat, post hole diggers,

junk drawers, river rising,

alongside so many other elements, figments,

recollections, and voices, I find a poetic voice,

titles I will read over and again,

reminding me of who I am.

Found Poem from People Magazine (May 25, 2020)

After struggling,

First Birthday at Home in Los Angeles,

Families in central Florida

and beyond are getting TP’d.

There’s so many avenues

to success.

Their first Christmas card.

We wanted to

write a road map, a rabbit

named Rue.

I mean, who didn’t watch Tiger King?

She sets out on a righteous

revenge quest to save them, answered

an open casting call, unflinchingly

stares down modern political

and social ills.

satirical romp, vividly absurd,

The Story of Soaps,

Exclude Yourself, Loving

the Way I Am Today.

Love Like This

like two trucks flirting

with disaster,

like the honk of horns,

like pandemic living.

Like a hazy morning where

thoughts are collected

at the kitchen table.

Learning to groom dogs

yourself, and keeping up with the daily

total of cases.

Like slowing your scroll

for a Simon and Garfunkel lyric

that speaks to you now

as it did years ago.

Like making plans to not

plan much.

The Price: Found Poem from the News

More lives

a pandemic now appears

            ready to pay.

A grim plateau

            despite projections.

Shift blame.

Death toll.

You have to be

            careful.

Infections and forecasts,

escalating the push.

Optimistic take

            challenged, point

fingers.

See how your state

            stands.

Essay from Jaylan Salah

The Taste of Artistic Compassion:

Interviewing Egyptian film director Dina Abdelsalam

Director Dina Abdelsalam

It was the end of an abusive friendship.

My abusive relationships share a common theme of ending during summer. To celebrate, my Mom invited me to attend a movie screening at the prestigious Atelier of Alexandria; one of the major hubs for nurturing contemporary culture in the cosmopolitan Egyptian city. Before watching the feature narrative titled Mesteka and Rehan, I looked up more details on Google and found out –to my delight- that the director was a female and this was her third film. Dina Abd Elsalam had more titles attached to her name. A short film titled Rest in Peace, a documentary titled Girls of a Feather, and two published books, one which I have read earlier A Text without Heroes.

Mesteka and Rehan are the two titular protagonists. Mr. Rehan, an elderly Christian man, befriends his elderly Muslim neighbor Mrs. Mesteka and they bond over food, shared memories of the past, and the will to survive despite a constrained life. Audiences laughed throughout the film, where simplicity and dedication to telling tales of normal people overthrew the need to showoff directorial prowess. The experience delighted and fascinated me. I was furthermore intrigued by the female director’s choice of her topics, plots, and subjects.

There aren’t that many Egyptian female directors, especially in the post-millennial world after the glow of controversial director Inas Eldeghedi died out with her last flop “The Princess Fanatic” which featured an impossible, fantasy love story between the late Princess Diana and an Egyptian stoner!

Yes, there are Kamla Abu Zekri, Ayten Amin, Hala Khalil, and Mariam Abo Ouf, but still, the female directorial experience has a long way to go as compared to the ever-evolving relationship between the artistic and the mainstream experience of their male peers.

Dina Abd Elsalam is an award-winning director. She won awards –both nationally and internationally- from prestigious film festivals and associations such as the Egyptian National Film Festival, the Ismailia International Film Festival, Rencontres de L’image Film Festival (French Institute-Egypt), the Alexandria International Film Festival, Shnit Worldwide Short Film Festival and L-Dub Film Festival.

I sought Dr. Abd Elsalam – who holds a Ph.D. in Critical Theory and currently works as an associate professor at the English Department at the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University- on social media and our interview started with the inevitable question:

How can a successful university professor be a prolific director, an auteur with a distinct style, cinematic language, and persistent tone?

“I graduated in 1998 and started my career as a TA in 1999. After I got my Ph.D. in 2010, I pursued further studies and was promoted to an associate professor. I have been teaching for 21 years. It has been a long academic journey. Academia is nurturing and fulfilling of course, but the need to engage in creativity has been lurking underneath for years and I knew it would surface one day. I still teach at the university, in addition to directing films and writing. As for writing, I wrote a novel [which you read] and lately managed to publish a short story collection titled Recycling, in addition to publishing articles on varied cultural themes every now and then. I also write or co-write the scripts of my movies. Lately, I have collaborated with Ashraf Mahdy on a number of scripts; the idea is usually mine, then we develop the script together. That was the case with Mesteka and Rehan as well as my latest movie Wesh El Afas – Cream of the Crop.”

Behind the scene photo from Abdelsalam’s film Wesh El Afas – Cream of the Crop

It’s obvious that Abd Elsalam’s films belong to the auteur cinema; she has the original idea, writes the script, and directs. She has a distinct style, tone, choice of topics and camera work, I wondered who had an influence on her as an artist,

“My films belong to what is known as auteur cinema, in which case the director is also the writer of the film, has the main vision of the work and is in full control of the script either by writing it or taking an active part in the scriptwriting process.

I have always known about Abbas Kiarostami [the great Iranian director] and have watched “The Taste of Cherry” early on in my life. When I started my directing career in 2010, I had not watched the full corpus of Kiarostami’s films. Three years ago, I watched them all and was struck by the affinity I had with his movies. This guy did everything I’d love to do with my art. His low-budget films profess a great deal of authenticity, sincerity, and truth. I instantly felt we shared the same vocation. Despite the lack of funding and resources, I strive to document authentic, real moments of life without forced directorial intervention. My target is to capture humane, precious moments as they unfold without unnecessary artistic preparation and intervention.”

Abd Elsalam–to my joyful surprise- retains the curiosity of a young teaching assistant stepping into her career with wide eyes and an openness that is usually reserved for younger artists. I had to ask her how she was able to juggle a demanding, well-respected career such as a univesity professor in the Egyptian society with the liberated, evolving artistic ventures of an auteur; to be specific an independent film director,

“To be able to answer this question I have to go back in time. But let me start with an analysis of how people perceive me as a unviersity professor.

Many people think that the prestigious position of a university professor is more than enough and I have often encountered many people wondering why I ever need to make movies or write. But my answer is simple. Academia would have consumed me totally had I not given way to my passion for creativity. Early in my childhood, I discovered that I had an artistic side in me. I used to play the piano and I still remember my Italian teacher, Ms. Pappo, very vividly. She was around 80 and I was a teenager but we hung out as friends, and not just as mentor and pupil. She taught me a lot about art and life. I also used to draw, sew, act in front of the mirror and read avidly whatever I could lay my hands on.

Graduating from high school is the defining moment for any Egyptian, since it’s at this point that one has to make up one’s mind about the career one wants to pursue. Unfortuanely most Egyptians let their grades decide for them, and most of them are pushed by their parents to join the so-called “top-ranking” faculties, namely Medicine and Engineering. When the time came, my grades were very high. I could have easily joined the Faculty of Medicine. The pressure was even greater because my father is a physician and he has a clinic. Everybody was pushing me towards taking this road, except my parents, who were amazingly understanding. My journey would have been completely different had I chosen to study Medicine and practice with my Dad. But I didn’t find it in myself to become a doctor. I dreamt of applying to the High Cinema Institute. But back then it was in Cairo –which was a major hindrance- as at that point, it would have been very difficult for me to leave Alexandria and settle in Cairo all by myself. I was a young, sheltered, family-oriented girl, like most girls my age. The closest thing to nourish my thirsty artistic self was to join the English department at the Faculty of Arts at Alexandria University where I would be able to read a lot of novels and study drama. I was already passionate about English literature and there is no denying that the cinema and literature are inter-connected in so many ways. I never regretted joining the English department. It helped formulate my ideas, gave me substance and a solid literary background which enhanced my writing abilities. It also enabled me to develop a fine taste and appreciation of good art. We also did philosophy and civilization which broadened my knowledge and opened up my senses to the world.

But I never for once forgot about my old dream. My passion for cinema came back in my early thirties, which I think is a very rich age for people in Egypt, for this is when they start to bloom and know exactly what they want to do with their lives. It was then that I pursued my artistic drive and fulfilled my urge to make movies. I made my very first film in 2010 This is not a Pipe which I consider a graduation project more than an actual film. In making it, I was trying to find out what it was like to make a film. It was not until my second film Rest in Peace that I started to find my feet, and to formulate my own artistic voice and language.”

It has not been an easy road. A lot of Egyptian middle-class families discourage their kids from going down the “true artist” bumpy road, whether because of societal and religious restrictions or because of the lack of financial stability and societal security which this road incurs. Abd Elsalam faced that sort of astonishment and incredulous reactions when her acquaintances and friends learned that she did not make money out of her movies, and actually had to pay from her own pockets to finance them,

“People don’t understand that I have something inside me that craves creating these stories and characters and delivering them in film form. They think my head is in the clouds. People weigh everything in terms of financial gains. The fact that critics wrote about my films and that I won awards doesn’t count for them.

Sometimes I do ask myself why am I doing this? I have an established career. I could have easily resorted to writing instead of making movies, since it is much easier. Of course writing is demanding; you think a lot; you put a lot of your feelings into what you are doing; you are preoccupied with your work day and night. But making a film is a completely different story. You handle the film throughout all three stages – pre-production, production, and postproduction. What makes it worse is that as an indie filmmaker, you are the writer, director, producer, editor, and sound mixer if need be. You also have to look for a harmonious team, pull all the threads together, pay a lot of money and rent equipment and hire technicians.

I sometimes say to myself during moments of extreme exhaustion: why not end it all? I could vent my artistic urge through writing books. It would be much easier. These moments of doubt usually attack me after I wrap up every film of mine (because it is at this that I’m at the peak of exhaustion), then I find myself moving on to a new film project. The calling is too big to be curbed, I guess.”

Still from Abdelsalam’s film Mesteka and Rehan

Abd Elsalam loves to reflect on issues while answering her questions. I find it a common trait while interviewing multiple women, how detail-oriented they are when it comes to talking about anything in their lives from toxic masculinity in the workplace to feminine expression. This is no surprise. To find your voice in a world dominated by men who are constantly trying to silence you is a long, bumpy road. I asked Abd Elsalam when it was that she found recognition for her directing style,

“I guess that happened with my second film Girls of a Feather as that’s when I started hearing the comment “Is this a film by Dina Abd Elsalam? It has her spirit and signature”. People started recognizing my voice. Of course having a distinctive voice is a wonderful thing, but for me, it’s never final. To do the same thing over and over again, means one has stopped trying, and this signals the beginning of the end. I keep working on myself; finding my style [or voice] is a continuous process of self-development at each step of filmmaking. Scriptwriting, rehearsing with my actors, retailoring the scenes according to the characters I have, and editing are all part of my self-evolving artistic journey. I am not one-track minded. I am always open to innovation and the creativity around me, be it in the actors’, the locations, the DOP’s eyes, or the music composer’s ears. I keep talking to my creative collaborators until they become active participants in the filmmaking process.”

Girls of a Feather tells the story of how a group of elderly ladies usually go on trips together. The film starts as they head towards the fishermen’s village at Elmax in Alexandria to spend the day and eat fish, but more importantly, their love, sisterhood, and solidarity shine as the place gradually becomes more beautiful and radiant. The film was shot with small, handheld cameras in the presence of minimal cinematic equipment. One might ask if Abd Elsalam’s documentary shows the reality of Egypt’s aging female population,

“Yes my films belong to what is broadly known as realism, but I personally belive there is no such a thing as a realistic film, rather it’s the artist’s point of view of life. If we ask someone to make a movie about a group of old women, they might choose to film them in a care home, not on a trip as I did. It’s all about one’s angle of vision. Art is not a reflection of reality, rather it’s the point of view of the artist concerning certain issues.

Some people might view my documentary Girls of a Feather as unrealistic. Elderly women do not have fun with all the health complications they suffer from. They spend most of their time in bed needing daily care and monitoring. This could be true. But I chose to focus on the positive side in those women’s lives and their survival techniques. To my mind, this minor population has the ability to enjoy the simplest of things in life, which is becoming increasingly difficult in our modern material-driven world.”

I asked Abd Elsalam for the inspiration behind Girls of a Feather which you can easily watch here:

“One of my aunts used to go on similar trips as the women in the documentary. She visited places in Egypt which I have never been to before. Never had she been an outdoors person. And suddenly in her sixities, she abandoned her sheltered life and started embracing the world afresh. After long years of caring for her children, she finally had time for herself. It was this sociological change in the lives of home-oriented women that I wanted to focus on in my documentary. In the past, similar trips would have been unheard of. This new societal change was something I wanted to document in my film.

For this particular film, I had to befriend these women. I got introduced to them through one of the actresses whom I collaborated with in a previous film. I am still in contact with them to this day. Luckily, and partly due to my skill with the elderly, they liked and trusted me. The two cameramen who were with me then –Ashraf Mahdy and Abdallah Dawestashy- also befriended the ladies to break the ice and make them forget the presence of cameras during the shooting process, which might have made them self-conscious or uncomfortable [which was] the last thing I wanted in this movie.”

One of the things I enjoyed about Abd Elsalam’s cinema is how she views the small, confined lives of sheltered women through a positive lens. She does not condemn them but accepts their existence without passing judgement about how they choose to live their lives,

“In Girls of a Feather we see the old women suffering from signs of senility, and walking with difficulty. But still, I love their solidarity, their survival techniques, their stamina, and strength. They were also very funny which impressed me. I admire their desire to go on and how they manage to bring joy to their lives through the simplest of things such as going on trips to ordinary non-extravagant hotels, or cafes or non-fancy hangout venues. Their meal was a simple, cheap fish meal too; and yet they were so happy enjoying it together. Their satisfaction with their simple lives is definitely one of their survival techniques. This film is a celebration of their ability to enjoy life against all odds, their solidarity, their sisterhood, and their resilience. ”

Stll shot from Girls of a Feather

Still from Abdelsalam’s film Girls of a Feather

There are two kinds of directors; those who allow actors’ input and others who resist it. Abd Elsalam belongs to the latter,

“Some scenes require changes in the script since as we’re shooting, actors sometimes come up with different ways of telling their lines. There are elements in the location that might inspire the actors or me to change the script accordingly. I always encourage actors to be completely immersed in the story and start acting the character in the way they like. That’s why I always receive the compliment that acting in my films is spontaneous. It is spontaneous since I give my actors that scope of freedom.”

Sound is a very recognizable element of the narrative in Abd Elsalam’s films. I asked her how she was able to capture that unique sound to reinforce the mood,

“I believe that cinema is a combination of sound and image, that’s what distinguishes it from silent cinema. Sound is not merely the musical score but every vibrating sound in the surroundings contributes to the atmosphere of the film. It also brings home the feeling that I want to evoke in the viewer. In Rest in Peace, you can hear a recording of the Qur’an to set the mood. When the women turn it off, the mood of the film shifts dramatically. The soundtrack of the film is also of great importance because it has to retain and further the overall spirit of the film. In Girls of a Feather, several sounds were inserted, though they did not originally exist in the actual film environment.”

As a feminist Egyptian writer interviewing a female director who graduated in the Faculty of Arts – English department –which is home to modern Egyptian feminism both intellectually and theoretically- I had to ask Dr. Abd Elsalam whether she considers her artistic expression feminist,

“This is a very difficult question to answer. Typically a feminist is someone who defends and stands up for the rights of women, criticizing the status quo, sending a very strong message about the bad conditions of women which is not what I do. I expose the lives of these women, putting them under the limelight and giving them the chance to express themselves without passing judgment on how they choose to live their lives. These women have the same traditional mindset as the majority of Egyptian women. The film doesn’t urge them to change their lives.

But then again my films document societal changes. My grandmother, for example, hardly ever left home; she spent all her life rearing her kids, sewing, cooking, and drinking coffee with her female neighbours. Going on trips on her own was unthinkable at her time. Now things are different due to the increase in tour companies which target this population. These homemakers are no longer home-bound. They have all joined the workforce in the 60s and are now on pension. They have monetary independence and empowerment.”

Behind the scene photo from Abdelsalam’s film Mesteka and Rehan

One of the scenes which piqued my interest was in Mesteka and Rehan when Mr. Rehan chose to ignore his alarming medical records during his phone call with his distant son. It showed how nonchalant he was about his mortality even though a simple detail showed that it could be sooner than viewers would have expected,

“This is a very smart thing of you to notice. His X-ray result was bad. But he did not mention this to his son. He even asked Mrs. Mesteka to promise to take care of his cat after he passes away. He is at peace with his illness without breaking down or sobbing in a corner. He will go on with his life and enjoy whatever little slice of whatever is given to him. He has this capacity to love and care for those who are around him such as his neighbors and his lazy cat Za’atar, even though he knows he is going to die soon.”

By inspecting Abd Elsalam’s career –until her recent film Cream of the Crop– all her main protagonists come from the elderly population. She is fascinated by telling stories about middle-class aging men and women as they try to navigate modernity, multiple health ailments, and regrets,

“It’s something that I grew up with. Ever since I was a kid, I used to befriend old women. I was so different from girls my age back then. I believe that old people are more willing to open up about their past lives without inhibitions or restrictions. Generally speaking, a person in their 70s or 80s, would look back with maturity to appreciate the good moments and overlook the quarrels and tension. They are more at peace with their past and more tolerant towards their mistakes and those of others. They are willing to freely look back at their past without shame. Moreover, old people are always full of stories and I love the fact that the older you get, the more childish you become. There are tons of contradictions in the elderly; they’are old and wise, but they lose their temper quickly and are difficult to handle. They offer advice and support, but they constantly need our help. Modern technology is a mystery to many of them; handling an ATM, for example, is an arduous venture to most of them.”

As one of the pioneer female independent directors in Egypt, I asked Abd Elsalam to give me an overview of what it is like to direct independent films nowadays,

“I have to be honest, this road’s no picnic. One thing is that I am implicated in all stages of making a film such as location hunting, sending the call for casting, setting appointments, setting the budget, editing, sound mixing, and contacting all the crew members all the time. I don’t have the luxury of hiring assistants to manage this complicated system for me. But again this is the nature of most indie films. The director has to be involved in every single detail of the process.

Another thing is that in the indie scene, most people do not make films for a living. It’s either they have another job to support them financially, or they depend on funds all the time to make their films and earn a living, which is very confining and restricting in so many ways.

Though at times you could get help from fellow indie filmmakers, but I was also let down several times by people from the indie scene and my illusions about solidarity and standing by each other’s side have been dispelled. I am not denouncing any fellow indie filmmaker by any means. I just became more down to earth over the years, that’s all. The indie scene is no different from any other walk of life: there’s no black or white, just the grey area in between.”

I always thought being a female director in a male-dominated field such as filmmaking requires personal and social skills beyond the average female leadership trope that women often come across in modern workplaces. Abd Elsalam had a different opinion altogether,

“When it comes to directing, I don’t think that the way I direct my movies is about bossing people around and throwing orders. My presence onset is usually quiet. I like to make my actors feel at home and befriend them so that they show me the best they’ve got. The atmosphere is usually friendly and lacks the loud, cringey, authoritative voice. I believe that a taut mood in the location does more harm than good. In my film Rest in Peace people asked me whether these actors were acting or did I capture a genuine moment of two women chit-chatting? I believe the mood of the set allowed the actors to be themselves and to be creative. As a director, there are moments when I need to be domineering, and put every individual back on track to get things going, but these are usually rare on my set. Every member of my cast and crew is creative in his/her own way, and had it not been for them, I would have never been able to make my films”.

Abd Elsalam’s words fascinated me. I had to see for myself how art was born, polished and the catacombs were drafted to finalize a product that people would understand and associate with the mind behind creating it. I had the pleasure of visiting the set of Abd Elsalam’s new film Cream of the Crop and watched the magic unfold. It was my second visit to a movie set –the first being on the set of Egyptian medical drama LahazatHarega – Critical Moments-and the experience was so overwhelming that I decided to write about it in detail. Stay tuned for the next essay where Dr. Abd Elsalam answers questions about directing actors, how writing books differs from scripts, and where she sees her movie after the coronavirus pandemic –hopefully- subsides.

Stay safe!