Afra Atiq thinks back, she’s always had a way with words, she says, but she didn’t necessarily know it.
A former suit in an increasingly colourless corporate world, Afra left it all behind to pursue her passion for poetry, and soon after, became an instrumental voice in the capital’s growing spoken word arts movement.
“Let’s start at the very beginning, it’s a very good place to start,” she quips, laughingly quoting her favourite movie, The Sound of Music, of which she attributes the wholesome Julie Andrews as her inspiration.
“As a child, I’d always wanted to be a doctor, which is the polar opposite of what I am now,” she says.
“At school, I was never the kid you met and thought that; I never got good grades. But I like to think that words and poetry heal people, and in that respect, I’m doing exactly what I set out to do.”
Those first glimmers of talent may have started young – “I found some [of my] poetry from fifth grade; I cringe looking at it,” she exclaims – but it wasn’t until two years ago that she realised she had something that needed to be said.
And after a few performances with local groups including Rooftop Rhythms and Blank Space, Afra knew she couldn’t go back and craved the stage after each performance. So, she said goodbye to the corporate world.
And now, a PhD candidate by day and poet by night, Afra is an example of someone who has unshackled herself from the status quo to pursue what she loves, rather than what is expected of her.
“People thought I had jumped off the deep end,” she explains. “But I’m here, and I’ve never been happier.”
Being a poet comes with certain misconceptions, and if you think Afra’s poems are long, lyrical odes to love or creaking Shakespearean sonnets you’d need to blow the cobwebs off, you’d be wrong.
This is not an anthology left to gather dust on a bookshelf; this is a live, unfiltered performance.
“I wasn’t taught poetry in school in a way that made me want to be a poet,” Afra comments thoughtfully on the apparent demise of the art.
“We’re taught to think of poetry as old and dusty, that it’s boring and talking about things that aren’t relatable to us.
“But if we don’t tell our stories ourselves in our own voices, then someone else is going to tell it for us, and it’s not going to be authentic. I’m very conscious about telling my story, but I also like to talk about real things.”
‘Real things’ include touching on topics that others may flinch away from, such as cancer, body image and dealing with loss.
“I have a poem that’s about my relationship with food,” Afra laughs. “There’s a really interesting relationship dynamic there that people don’t talk about. It’s something I struggle with myself.
“We need real people who struggle with food, body image, bullying and dealing with loss. We need more authentic human stories and that’s what I’m trying to bring.
“I think that if you have an artistic gift, it needs to be shared,” she adds.
“Use it, share it with people, talk about these issues and do it in a way people respond to.”
Spreading the word
Afra’s punchy performances, as well as those of others, have put her at the forefront in a war to reclaim words in the capital, and it’s one that’s being won.
After becoming the first Emirati poet to scoop the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation Creativity Award earlier this year, Afra has helped poetry gain even more visibility in the capital as an art form in its own right.
And from Abu Dhabi to global destinations including New York’s legendary Bowery Poetry Club and beyond, Afra’s keen to show others what modern Emirati culture can look like through the medium of poetry.
“It’s been rapid growth for spoken word here. I’m so happy to see there are more slams, open mics and platforms for people to perform,” she says, before adding that she’s envious of the arts scene developing here for today’s youth.
But if the art form is gaining in prominence on our shores, Afra questions whether the art form could really be considered ‘new’.
“In the UAE and the region, we have a long legacy of poetry, specifically performance poetry. I don’t think this genre is strange to our culture, it’s more that the way it’s being presented is new,” she explains.
“The idea of the spoken word, the idea of writing a poem that’s meant to be performed for an audience – that’s been around for a very long time. Poetry has always been used as a vehicle to bring out discussions and ideas.”
And yet, whether new or not, the scene is growing, extending its tender young shoots through all strata of society.
“We have people from different faiths, backgrounds, countries, people who think differently and we’re all in this one country, and we’re all at these events for the poetry,” she says, a smile in her voice.
“I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but I’m so excited for the journey.”
But Afra’s not just a poet. Giving talks to young people around the country, she’s also a strong advocate for showing how important the arts can be for youth self-expression and how the arts can be a real career.
“It’s not easy being adolescent; I remember it and I don’t want to go back there,” she laughs.
“You’re forced to decide if you want to go to university, what you want to major in, what your job options are. The crush who doesn’t know you’re alive, the friendships, the fights, the hormones. It’s not an easy time, and self-expression is key.
“More than that, I think it’s important for young people to know that they have options,” Afra adds.
“The world is pushing these more scientific areas of study, yet the creative industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the world and we ignore it because art is seen as a sideline thing.
“I go in there and say, ‘this is my real job’. You have the option of being a writer, a novelist, a creative. If I’ve managed to change one perspective or inspire one person to think differently about the arts, then I’ve succeeded.
“Knowing you have options is especially important with young people, because you struggle with this idea of who you should be versus who they want you to be, and you never grow out of it,” she muses.
“It’s never either/or. You think I can’t be overweight and happy? I’m both. You think I can either be an academic or a poet? Well – why can’t I be both?”