Nawwab, an internationally published poet and photographer, a Young Global Leader and keynote speaker, descends from a long line of scholars from Mecca, Saudi Arabia. She was the first female Saudi Arabian poet to be published in the US and is heavily engaged in critical and emerging issues involving women and youth empowerment, seeking to build bridges of understanding to establish global peace and rapport.
“Canvas of the Soul,” which comes eight years after Nawwab’s pioneering work “The Unfurling,” features Islamic art and calligraphy and is a spiritual volume similar to the works of Rumi and other mystic poets.
Speaking in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman during her recent book tour here, Nawwab noted that her poetry does not aim to convey one certain meaning or give a specific message; it urges the reader to find their own meaning. “I am an artist; not just a poet, writer or photographer. And the beauty of art for an artist is to convey meanings through different layers of meanings. Whether you are a writer or a photographer, the mission of an artist is to convey deep meanings through short, brief works. Every time you look at a work, you should get another meaning. I can write a lot of works. I am a writer — I can write 500 works. But the hard thing is to carefully put the meaning in a short but precise and concise work.”
When asked if her book was a painting what the canvas would be, Nawwab said: “I prefer to leave it to the reader to discover. The main idea is really peace, tranquility and the connection with the One, our Beloved. And a lot of things [in the book] are dream-like attempts of seeking, questioning, looking for something. So the messages in the poems vary on the thing the reader seeks.”
Nawwab’s poems have been reviewed many times by prominent Muslim figures, including Seyyed Hossein Nasr, writer and professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University; singer Sami Yusuf; writer Shems Friedlander; and Professor James Morris of the department of theology at Boston College and president of the Rumi Institute’s international advisory council. Nasr described Nawwab as “a female Saudi Arabian poet expressing her deep spiritual yearnings in Sufi-inspired poetry that is indeed a rare but also precious experience amidst all the din of strife and anger that surrounds so many Muslims today. This voice recalls that Islam emphasizes not only Divine Justice but also Divine Mercy and that the Blessed Prophet reflected not only Divine Majesty (Jalal) but also Divine Beauty (Jamal), the latter possessing a female dimension that is so evident in classical Sufi poetry.” Friedlander wrote: “Nimah Nawwab was born into the lineage of a family of scholars in Makkah [Mecca]. Her poems unfold the living landscapes, the horizons that hold the signs spoken of in the Quran, the calligraphy of the mountains dipping into the desert, the inkwell of God’s words, reflecting the signs before us into the secrets within the Book of Man.”
Nawwab says it is a blessing to be able to get these reviews. “All of these artists are of different fields, different segments of society, and they are people having different interests in life. Yet they are all spiritual people; that’s what brings them all together. This is what makes it special. Each reviewer noticed something. That’s what is great about different reviewers. Each one noticed something else and hooked on to it.”
Regarding her sources of inspiration, Nawwab has underlined her interest in world religions and the significance of knowing more about other cultures and religions. “Knowing more about other cultures is one of the things I want to have in my life, but it is not easy to have in Saudi Arabia. We can’t have it in our schools or system. We need to study the Bible, the Torah in order to understand because there are similarities and there are differences. Every time I am in a hotel in the US or in other countries, there is always a Bible at the hotel and I always take it up and read. I also get inspired by them. I have some poems in ‘Unfurling’ that refer to the Bible. Also, what I enjoy doing is to talk with people from other religions and exchanging ideas with them. This makes you think more of your own religion and appreciate the depth of it. But you also appreciate others’. And we shouldn’t think of those as others, though. I don’t like the word … ‘others.’ And I don’t like the word … ‘tolerance.’ The word ‘tolerance’ itself means that you don’t like it but you are tolerating, there is no dignity to it. It should be respecting, accepting, instead. These are the words we should use.”
Nawwab’s poetry mostly focuses on Sufism, a mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God.
We think we do, but we don’t actually know much about Sufism, Nawwab said. “I learned Sufism through Shems. [A] few years ago, I met him in Cairo and he gave me some books: a book he wrote about Mevlana [Rumi] and a DVD of him called ‘The Circles of Remembrance.’ He did not say anything about Sufism or that he is a Sufi. He did not want me to have any positive or negative ideas beforehand and he just gave me the books. When I read them I got interested in Mevlana’s works so much. And last year I went to Konya [where Rumi’s tomb is located]. I felt like I was at home.”
Nawwab’s poems, which are written in English, have been translated into Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Arabic and will soon be translated into French, German and Urdu. We need someone who is good with poetry to translate them into Turkish, too, she said.