Poetry Without Borders

Poet and clinical psychologist Hala Alyan talks to NYCityLens in her office. (Jennifer Doherty / NYCityLens)

When Hala Alyan graduated from college, the question wasn’t whether she would continue her studies to get an advanced degree, but which one would provide the most security. She wanted to pursue literature and poetry, but her parents were thinking in more practical terms. In their experience, education was the surest route to escape political turmoil. After leaving Palestine, Alyan’s family had dodged conflicts in Kuwait and Syria, eventually applying for asylum in the United States and settling in Norman, Oklahoma. While her family supported her creative gifts, they pushed her to pursue a career they deemed would be more secure.

Today, she holds a PhD in clinical psychology from Rutgers University, but she hasn’t abandoned the arts. Alyan is a rising star among contemporary American poets. Her fourth collection, The Twenty-Ninth Year was released on Jan. 30th 

The poems in the book confront the alienation and ambivalence of coming of age between cultures, not a surprising theme given her background.

In the poem “Oklahoma,” for example, Alyan writes about her first home in the United States. “Under a redwood, two men signed away the land and in history class I don’t understand why a boy whispers sand monkey…Heaven is a long weekend. Heaven is a tornado siren canceling school. Heaven is pressed in a pleather booth at the Olive Garden, sipping Pepsi between my gapped teeth, listening to my father mispronounce his meal.…”

At 32, Alyan looks much younger. She is exceptionally petite, with a mass of dark wavy hair and an easy smile. Speaking in her office at NYU’s Counseling and Wellness Services, Alyan says she has learned to embrace her contradictory feelings towards life in the United States.

“You can be grateful for your life and you can also acknowledge the ways in which it’s had its difficulties. There’s nothing unique about that, that’s all of our lives,” she says.

Alyan speaks as an expert. Falling into psychology was one of life’s “happy accidents;” She originally planned to pursue a law degree to satisfy her parents but switched to a psychology master’s program having taken only two classes in it as an undergraduate. 

“They complement each other really nicely, writing and psych. The currency of both is memories and storytelling and making sense of narratives, paying attention, being curious. You sort of need to hone similar skills to be halfway decent at both,” says Alyan.

As a clinical psychologist, she supports patients coping with trauma, substance abuse, anxiety, and “cross-cultural issues.” She also has a “longstanding interest in working with underserved populations, including LGBTQ, immigrant, and marginalized individuals,” according to her profile on Psychology Today.

As a Palestinian-American, Alyan has found herself in the crosshairs of a number of Trump administration policies. The president has fought to uphold his 2017 travel ban targeting Muslim populations and drastically curbed asylum and refugee admittances since his inauguration. The White House officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which was widely viewed as a slap in the face to the two-state solution pushed by previous presidents. Most recently, on Feb. 1st, the administration announced it would no longer provide humanitarian aid to the West Bank and Gaza.

“For me as a therapist, it’s important to be on the lookout for burnout because a lot of the clients that I work with belong to those marginalized communities that are threatened in different ways,” says Alyan. “And then as a writer, it’s definitely brought to the forefront a lot of anger and resentment and a lot fear and a lot of the things that I think pre-this presidency existed, but it was a little bit more muted inside me. Now I’m sort of having to contend with those emotions and those fears in a more visceral way.”

She found an opportunity to do just that at the launch party for The Twenty-Ninth Year last week at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, which also featured the work of two other Arabic-speaking poets.

The evening opened with a reading by Hyderabad-born poet Sham-e-Ali Nayeem, who railed against “the brutal cost of this fiction called borders” to cheers from the audience. Following Nayeem, Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo’s reading wound through civil war and East African kitchens, tracing an experience of womanhood and otherness across continents. Each woman sketched a narrative of beautiful cities scarred by violence and the experience of resettlement in a West that misunderstands. The three poets had never met before the event, but each had long admired the others’ work.

Reflecting on the event, Elhillo emphasized how much she had enjoyed the sense of community the evening inspired. “I think the audience that Hala brought out was really exciting. It’s not often that I get to speak Arabic at a reading,” said Elhillo.

Alyan was the last to read. Taking to the podium in a velvet blazer with her hair piled on top of her head, she looked taller. She serenely commanded the attention of the standing-room-only crowd that had turned out to see her read. Among the Brooklyn hipsters, literati, and Middle East scholars assembled, Alyan shared the best of her creative self with an audience that intimately understood the form and the content of her work that zeroes in what it feels like to live in two cultures simultaneously.  

As the ending of her poem, “The Worst Ghosts,”  reads:  “Palestine, a name that means / The worst ghosts are the ones that don’t come back / The officer at JFK scans me. My body, ghost white, flickering on his screen. / Pretty boy. Blue eyes. / Takes my fingerprint and winks. / Cheer up. You’re home.