Saved by the pen: An interview with British-Lebanese poet Omar Hamaoui

London-based poet Omar Hamaoui talks about growing up split between Lebanon and the UK, and how writing poetry saved his life.

Omar Hamaoui arrives at the hip Bethnal Green café dressed in an Iron Maiden t-shirt, well-fitting jeans and a Keffiyeh draped over his head. His muscled former-rugby-playing-arms are covered in tattoos.

He’s a spoken word poet who, despite his dyslexia, has been reciting his poems in spoken word performances throughout London and has just recently published his first book called “Saved by the pen”. The book contains poems about overcoming his drug addiction and alcoholism, about the loss of his father three years prior, and how he overcame the struggle of being a third culture child, torn between two nations that could not be more different.

Being split between two places both mentally and physically, as he spent roughly equal amounts of time between the UK and Lebanon, lead to an identity crisis in Hamaoui. “I think whenever I’m in one place,” he says, “I feel like I belong in the other place more. It’s like always wanting what you don’t have.”

Hamaoui was born in France in 1994 to a British mother and a Lebanese father, although one year later, they moved to Beirut, Lebanon. Hamaoui was 12 years old when the Israel-Lebanese war broke out in 2006, after which his parents sent him to a boarding school in Somerset, UK. His parents stayed in Lebanon, and he frequently visited for holidays.

As a teenager living in the UK, Hamaoui had just wanted to fit in. “I didn’t want to be different,” he says, “so I really let go of my of Arab identity. I wanted to forget the language. I didn’t care for it.”

Six years later, after graduating high school, he moved to Los Angeles to study film like his father. He grew to despise the city. “[I hated] how vapid people were,” he says, “how everyone wanted to be a film star, no one really cared about you.” It was the first time he realized how community based he really was. Los Angeles and the lack of community he experienced there caused him to become severely depressed, until the situation escalated: “I ended up in a psychiatric ward after trying to commit suicide for the first time.”

That’s when he met his therapist, who would be key to his recovery. “Do you have anything that allows you to express yourself?”, she had asked him. Hamaoui first suggested sports: “Oh yeah, I play rugby,” he had told her, “I run into people,” but they quickly found a more fitting emotional outlet: writing poetry.

Omar Hamaoui at his favourite Café in Bethnal Green. Photo: Pius Bentgens

Hamaoui grew up with dyslexia and ADHD, so writing didn’t come to mind at first. “I’ve always enjoyed writing. I just didn’t think I was particularly any good.” But he grew to love it and continued writing after moving back to Lebanon, where he initially kept his poetry to himself.

Over the following years his sense of identity took a sharp turn: instead of rejecting his Lebanese side as he had done as a teenager, this time, he says, “I fell in love with being an Arab.

“I started speaking the language, and, I mean, the food…,” he says, longingly, “the lifestyle, the stories, the humour. But it was the emphasis on community which most drove me towards my Arab side.”

There’s this guilt of just winning the passport lottery. I should be there, helping, and picking up the pieces.

Despite this, he never left his British side behind, and found an advantage to being a third culture child. “What’s beautiful is I’ve been able to cherry pick things from being Lebanese and from being British. I love being both.” His time in Lebanon once again came to an end after eight years, when the 17th of October revolution happened in 2019, which resulted in a change of government. He proceeded to move to London, and since then, a part of him has been struggling with the decision.

“There’s this guilt of just winning the passport lottery,” he says, “being able to get out … and then after the explosion … I should be there, helping, and picking up the pieces. It’s also seeing how strong people are in the face of adversity. It has this weird pull. I just miss it. I miss being around my fatherland.”

When he moved back to London after eight years, he kept with him a piece of home, in the form of community. “I’ve got a lot of Arab friends here,” he says, “ranging from Lebanon to Egypt, Syria, Palestine.”  He also formed a collective called “Azkadinya” together with his friends, which organizes events and offers a platform to empower artisans and cultural practices from Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA).

He began to be more public with his poetry, after his girlfriend at the time had found some of his poems on his laptop and encouraged him to start sharing them. He soon started posting his poems on a blog page, where one poem about his father started getting quite a lot of attention.

“I had a few messages from people,” he said, “being like, ‘what you talk about is really poignant and it really spoke to me’. [Poetry] has always been a form of expression for myself. I’ve never really written with anyone else in mind.”

Arabic is inherently a very poetic language and English can seem relatively unimaginative in comparison

Soon, at 24 years old, he performed spoken word poetry for the first time, “and it went really well,” he says, “I was so nervous, but they asked me to read again.

“It really just snowballed from there.”

His poems are in English but paint a picture of his Lebanese heritage with Arabic words and phrases. Most of the poets that inspire him are from the SWANA region: Mahmoud Darwish, Gebran Khalil Gebran, Suhair Hammad, Mosab Abu Toha to name a few. “The Arab language is inherently very poetic,” he says.

The English language, he says, can seem relatively unimaginative in comparison. “There’s some words in Arabic that are insane and so expressive. There’s this one word, ‘te’eburnee’, which translates to: ‘I want to die before you so that I don’t have to bury you.’

Poetry plays a powerful role in Lebanon and neighbouring Palestine, he says, especially in the ongoing war in Gaza. “Poetry will be the voice for the voiceless, and social media definitely has its negatives, but I think during what’s been going on in Gaza, it’s really powered the voices of the Palestinians. It’s allowed people to move away from mainstream media, and it’s allowed poets and writers to express themselves and instantly, people (from all over the world) are able to connect.”

Some of the poetry that’s being shared all over social media was written many years ago and what’s so sad, he says, is that it’s still relevant about the situation now. “Poetry is timeless when it comes to that,” Hamaoui says, “because nothing’s really changed.”

When asked where he stands in the long line of Arab poets, Hamaoui refuses to compare himself to his idols, “right at the bottom,” he says, although as a poet of the ever growing diaspora, it’s likely many will identify with his words. 

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