The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser review – darting between two worlds

The Yemeni American poet’s debut collection is a dazzling exploration of a life caught between different cultures

Who is the wild fox of Yemen? I busied myself with a form of foxhunting as I read on through Threa Almontaser’s extraordinary debut collection. She is a Yemeni born in the US and uses her in-between position to the full. Her poems are written with ambidextrous energy, acknowledging New York, gravitating towards Yemen and employing two languages: English and Arabic. One of the most original things about them is the use of transliterated – untranslated – Arabic words. You might need your mobile at hand to Google vocabulary as you read – from fajr (dawn prayer) to gahwa (brew of coffee) to miswak (twig with which to clean your teeth). Each Arabic word acts like a tiny perforation through which, as you translate, light pours. (At times, she offers Arabic script as well.) What is fascinating about the decision not to supply translation is that it turns the English-speaking reader into a foreigner. We become, at several removes, go-betweens as we learn about life in Yemen, its beauty and its suffering.

There is a fox of sacrifice, a dream creature – perhaps an image of Yemen itself, predicted to be, by 2022, the poorest country in the world. But a fox is also a scavenger, not irrelevant in this context. In her opening salvo, Hunting Girliness, she disdains conventional femininity, her stand brought on by violent global events. She declares that, after the twin towers fell, she “wore/ the city’s hatred as hijab”. The economy of the phrase amplifies its shocking effect. There is a sense, too, in which Almontaser herself is the fox, giving predators the slip in Shaytan Sneaks Bites of My Tuna Sandwich: “I am still afraid to stay out after sundown. They might follow me home/ as an animal.” But it is the fox of language that is wildest of all. In Heritage Emissary, she describes her father reminiscing in Arabic about “catching a wild fox with his cousin”. She observes that Arabic is “the medium through which his body can return home”.

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