Amaan Hyder – At Hajj

Disclosure: Have not met Hyder. The book discusses several aspects of Islam including the eponymous pilgrimage, and the experiences of moving to a hostile new country, of which I have no experience, and many nuances of which I’ve probably missed. Review copy provided by Penned in the Margins. Huge thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for editing this review.

The old man has fallen over. He runs over to him and lifts him and the old man holds onto his arm and takes hold of his stick and he tries to sit the old man down but in his position it is more comfortable for him to lean on the cane. It is easier standing up. Sitting down, the man would be dependent on him completely.’ (‘At Hajj’)

Review: At Hajj is Amaan Hyder’s first collection. It’s comprised of a series of narrative scenes from the eponymous pilgrimage to Mecca woven among more traditionally lyric pieces, most, if not all, of which are set in an unspecified British space. The book’s twin threads are not connected explicitly (bar one poem which discusses trans-generational attitudes to religious traditions), and it’s reasonable to believe they may be enacted by different characters, the various scenes at Mecca told from the point of view of at least one man and at least one woman, and all in third person. Certainly the self at the heart of the book’s lyric poems is notable by their relative absence, performing fascinating acts of narrative positioning to keep the poem’s focus on the lives of others; the speaker’s parents, brother, friends, neighbours and neighbourhood:

‘You’re going to look back and

I’m going to look back and
there’s been this van up and down
past the shop really slow.’

The first instalment of the ‘At Hajj’ sequence, meanwhile, introduces a book-long quiet attentiveness to the thoughts and actions of others:

He sees people standing to pray, putting their hands on their knees and drawing up and going down to touch their foreheads to the ground. These are the movements his thoughts make. […] They sit long after the prayers are over and ask what they have to ask for.’

The ‘At Hajj’ poems are all printed in italics, a typographic convention that usually indicates quotation, emphasis, or voices-off. Here, it seems to act as the introduction to a special world, or an alternate form of address, a different frame of mind. The language is plain and spare and methodical. Its painstaking, precise description of the body and its motions feel strange on a first read; it is unusual to be asked to spend so much thought on so ordinary a motion. The passage of time in this scene is key: the ‘he’ doing the watching has clearly been doing so for a substantial span of time, watching the prayers without praying himself. There’s a kind of mirroring between how carefully Hyder has crafted the passage, in its precise ambiguity, and the attention the figure in the poem gives to the worshippers; there is more than one level in ‘the movements his thoughts make’. The last line pushed me gently off-balance too: are they asking for advice on what to ask for, or is this an elegant way of describing the manifold things people request in prayer? Perhaps this careful observation of the everyday, this dedicated, time-consuming attentiveness to the bodies and thoughts of others is the poet’s own act of worship.

The spiritual and the profane are blended and combined throughout the book. In two poems, ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ and ‘Calling Mohammed’ Hyder imagines the prophet as a contemporary, partly filtered through the speaker’s brother of the same name. The former begins:

‘I think Mohammed peace be upon him would have had one of those phones that aren’t big or black like you sometimes get in old TV programmes. […] I feel that he would have written his name on the back of his phone because he was a good man. […] I am certain that he would have kept his phone switched off so that he would not disturb other people.’

As in ‘At Hajj’, the most prominent note in both the poems’ atmosphere and its subject matter is this openness, this willingness to speak simply and invite understanding. The opening lines of ‘Mohammed’s Mobile’ enthusiastically inhabit this sincere subjectivity (‘I think…’, ‘I feel…’), lending the speaker a kind of moral certitude  which compliments the casual confidence of their imaginative leaps. The whole poem might well be in a child’s voice, the way children, faced with difficult and alien ideas, attempt to draw them nearer to their own experiences, like asking why there are no dinosaurs in the Bible. The second half of the poem expresses this tone formally, as the prose gives way to ballad meter, with its rumbling, uncomplicated rhythms:

‘My brother’s called Mohammed.
He’s always in our room.
He’s stopped watching TV
and he hates middle school. […]

‘To make my brother happy
we go out on our bikes.
We stay away from others,
eat Bountys in the night.’

The poem’s objects are beautiful in their specificity, ‘The [phone] I mean is the one Faraan my cousin has’, the Bounty bars, their very singularity giving them radiance. The final stanza becomes its own sacred space for the two brothers, safe with the explicit treasure of sweets and the unspoken one of familial solidarity. Where, exactly, the historical-religious figure of Mohammed fits in this scene is hazy, as the poem is definitively rooted in earthly concerns, contemporary consumer society and family politics. The speaker’s imaginative lens provides space for what might be a deeply personal, immediately present interpretation of the prophet, somewhat at odds with the book’s frank, straightforwardly realist presentation of religious acts in its central sequence.

Few of the collection’s lyrics are so readily unpacked, however, and Hyder’s ability to convey meaning tonally and atmospherically is truly remarkable (presuming that I’m picking it up as intended). Many of these short poems create a sensory space for the reader to inhabit, by way of brief snatches of conventional syntax among ostensibly disconnected ideas or images. Here’s the opening section, Alif, from ‘The Clot’:

‘What is a fit?
A holy thing is a fit.
A life is a fit.

I hear fifty machines stitching,
inking a grip.
Someone came to the door.

Someone was listening to us.
When I wake I am told what happened.
I pressed eject, mouths my father.

I pressed enough, mouths my mother.
She leaves in a car that shoots light.’

The drama conveyed in a few dozen words is incredible. The haiku-like opening stanza is a formula one could spend hours exploring, the vital qualities of ‘holy’ and ‘life’ left tantalisingly undefined. The following stanzas’ combination of autonomous machines with human listeners creates a kind of dread that could not have been rationally expressed; the fact that the father and mother cannot physically speak, and communicate only in the low-tech language of magnetic tape, is deeply unsettling. That last line makes my hair stand on end, the passive verb, the supernatural vehicle.

Using similar techniques for near-opposite purposes, the opening lines from ‘Wet Collected’:

‘Dancers stamp
Earth! Earth!

Coy Beau, not gym,
don’t bury him in muscle.

The way of flightless birds.
Emerging first,

a drip diving hairs in a beard.’

Who the dancers are, whether they are vocalising ‘earth’ or whether this is the message their dancing bodies convey, is less important than the atmosphere those lines suggest, their notes of physical action, communal movement, joy in the sensory. Whether ‘Beau’ moves like a flightless bird, is a flightless bird, or the moisture in his beard is redolent of flightless birds is less important than the sensation of thinking all these things (probably more) at once. It’s a unique poem in At Hajj, a dreamy interlude in a book in which sensual pleasures are rare.

Bodies, as noted already, are in focus throughout the collection. ‘Sleeves’ is a gorgeous, playful poem about gift-giving and emotional labour. The poem closes as the speaker and his friend share a secret, intimate moment: ‘I put my hands in the pockets with his and our fingers overlapping go in and press and circle and out like zigzags snug-tight hot and the heat is another layer around us too’. The precision, again, is part of the way the poem expresses love. Even ‘What Were Giraffes?’, with its weird, catastrophically suggestive opening line, ‘Remember horses? They were like horses’, keeps the animal’s body at the centre of its thinking: ‘a tough skin / patterned like baked earth’, ‘They had thick eyelashes, Mohawk mane hair’. ‘What Were Giraffes?’ is partly, I think, an attempt to reconcile an unusual body with the human observer’s impulse to impose on the body the category ‘comic / gold’. The poem defends giraffes’ innate worth in a world where they are gone for good, closing on a note both defiant and accusatory, ‘Those were giraffes.’ However ludic its terms, the poem asks the reader how one considers the living worthy or unworthy of respect and survival, what it is about giraffes’ outlandishness that makes their destruction acceptable.

To return to the book’s central sequence, ‘At Hajj’, it’s remarkable how ordinary it often feels. These passages, as noted above, are at times both highly specific – in terms of the physical movement of bodies, the interpersonal dynamics of the pilgrims, the behaviour of a dog – and notably unfixed – there are at most a handful of proper nouns, and although it is heavily suggested that a multitude of peoples and tongues are present, the text denotes them only as speaking ‘in his/her language’. There is no attempt, in other words, to provide ‘local colour’, the market-friendly mangoes demanded by Western publishers and editors, as critiqued in Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation. Perhaps, then, this is one meaning of the italics; a typographical note that readers such as myself have been provided only conditional access to these scenes by narrators who themselves may be working by interpretation. Body language, as in ‘The old man motions that he will wait and gives him stones and tells him to throw them for him’, seems to operate on an equal footing to the spoken.

The poems also seem reserved, if not somewhat sceptical, about one’s access to the spiritual plane. Among their accounts of pilgrims’ struggles to move safely through a crowd, journeying in the desert with only a dog for company, and campsite politics, there is only one short section that even mentions divine immanence, and that with heavy irony:

Some onlookers believed that such a spirit was in the mall now, guiding the insiders round, giving them the energy. Yes, and some had their servants carry them the whole Hajj. There was no ghost in the mall but corporate spectre.’

What’s more visible in these narratives than spiritual uplift are physical sacrifices made on the behalf of others. Two separate sections note that their protagonists have hurt their shoulders: a man holds back a crowd to let an elderly man safely use the public toilet; a woman guides an elderly woman get through a bottleneck in the crowd. The narrative voice remains neutral throughout, their suffering simply another fact in an accumulation of facts: ‘What she knows very keenly now is the pain in her shoulder.’, ‘He thinks on what he had done. He puts a hand to his shoulder which aches.

Although these italicised passages in Mecca are more obviously disconnected to the lyrics set in the West, they are strongly connected by their characterisation of society as a great, unfeeling and irresistible threat punctuated by moments of kindness, ‘Save announcements / of change, it has made a mockery of / all of us’ (‘Inheritable Landscape’). The pilgrims risk their bodies to help those who need it, a man hides the flaws in his friend’s gift, or, in one of the most remarkable poems in the book, ‘Grain’, the weary repetitions of the pantoum form converts the opening stanza:

‘We will look back on our time
as ruined lives and think doing
good work will bear some reward,
but it gives only false impression.’

into a final, hopeful, if to some degree ironised, assertion:

‘Good work will bear some reward.’

It only takes the faintest gesture toward the great evils at work in the world to remember how important, and radical, a thought this is, how substantial change begins with kindness for the vulnerable and contempt for the powerful, how one’s body may be a tool for fighting oppression. At Hajj is intelligent, kind and resolute in its politics, curious, precise and inventive in its aesthetics. It’s a book worth spending time over, worth keeping in mind.

Further Reading: “Coats” by Amaan Hyder in The Guardian

Review of At Hajj by Jeremy Noel-Tod in The Times

Review of At Hajj by Richie McCaffery in The Poetry School

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