Caught by the River

The Promised Land

Robert Selby | 5th October 2017

The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life by André Naffs-Sahely
(Penguin, paperback, 80 pages. Out now)

Review by Robert Selby

‘All my life, I’ve felt like a Jew, or a Gipsy, or some hapless scion of a lost wandering tribe’, writes André Naffis-Sahely in his poem ‘This Most Serene Republic’, ‘But they, at least, have Bar Mitzvahs, music…’ What Naffis-Sahely has is a pin-sharp and uncompromising poetic eye, a not inconsiderable compensation – at least for us, his readers – for the hole in his soul where a rootedness might otherwise be.

Born in that Most Serene Republic, Venice, to an Iranian father and Italian mother, Naffis-Sahely grew up in Abu Dhabi, received a higher education in the UK, and married in the US, where he now resides. His dispatches from the three Uniteds – Kingdom, States, and Arab Emirates – make up the bulk of his debut collection, The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life. While the first of these places – in the form of domesticated North London, of the postman on his rounds, of beer and soup on Hampstead Heath – provides a semblance of Old World stolidity and gets off lightly (‘It’s comfortable here’), the latter two come in for an excoriating deconstruction.

‘We were trapped in a town called Liberty’, he writes in ‘In the Catskills’, the irony highlighting how something has gone awry in America, like the hamlet of Neversink, ‘which of course / had been drowned by a reservoir’. The collection’s opening poem, a prose meditation on ‘Disposable Cities’, short-term frontier towns built the world over on the promise of riches from some freshly-divined resource – usually ‘gold, silver, uranium, coltan or oil’ – is a foreword for what’s to follow: and so in the Catskills ‘it was hard / to think of anything human around us as serious; / all men had built reeked of failure and rust’, as provincial America slides into post-industrial dereliction, its only potential rescue the very mixed blessing of
‘casinos / or fracking’: ‘The rich second home-owners / fought the oilmen and won, so casinos it was’.

This area, then – like a seemingly ever-growing percentage of the world’s surface – has its fate decided by outside forces, by capital’s invisible hand, though not the benign one Adam Smith envisaged, more Mammon’s claw. This is where the leftist and the bourgeois conservative find affinity: the fear of a desiccated, disorientating hyper-capitalist future rapidly becoming the present. ‘New money is spreading like moss // while the locals are losing their homes’, Naffis-Sahely reports from ‘In the Shadow of Monadnock’: at his hosts’ place, the TV and radio are left off, ‘the news upsets Walter’.

So what better target for Naffis-Sahely’s ire than the hyper-capitalist edifice of his upbringing, Abu Dhabi, a ‘Disposable City’ if ever there was one? ‘An entire country / [..] being built from scratch’; ‘a single mud brick fort’ just sixty years ago that now ‘accommodates one and half million people from just about anywhere on Earth and hosts a Formula 1 Grand Prix’; where ‘anything over twenty years old / is a historical landmark, or gone – mostly gone’. With its economic apartheid, its parlous workers’ rights, job security and residency status, and its alienating lack of a shared cultural memory, could this nowhere-place scarily be an ‘inscrutable prototype of the future’?

…Outside, the city spills past the contours of reality. Each time I blink, an island surges out of the sea: some mad oligarch’s wet dream,   or luxury villas for sun-seeking Russian gangsters… At dusk, I stroll along the sliver of beach spared by the quicksilver illness we call cement. (‘Home After Five Years’)

Naffis-Sahely’s anger towards the emirate he portrays as stretching his family – particularly his father – to breaking point through negligence, exploitation, or even outright violence (‘the old industrious Iranian lion, / his mane reduced to baldness, squats and empties / one bladder of blood after another’) is deep enough to manifest itself 7,000 miles away as a general souring: ‘I hate my life; sometimes I hate my wife.’ His portrait of Abu Dhabi is educational, unforgettable: a nowhere-place that could be anywhere; it could be the moon. His passing ‘a rusty bus crammed with skinny men in blue jumpsuits’ – what Naffis-Sahely memorably calls ‘almost-nothings’, labourers on slave wages being driven to work – chillingly recalls dystopias out of science fiction, like the ‘free-trade zones’ of M. John Harrison’s New Venusport, pulling in migrant labour from across the universe to work themselves to death while falling prey to the ‘usual portfolio’ of gangsters, zealots and police.

And we come full-circle to ‘Disposable Cities’: in them, ‘no one is under any illusions. They are ephemeral guests, non-citizens; belonging is a dream best forgotten or deferred’. Abu Dhabi’s transient population is ‘at home everywhere / and nowhere’. In 2017 this resonates, which is why The Promised Land is such a timely and important read. The current nationalism versus internationalism debate (exemplified by Theresa May’s comment that a citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere) is redundant: thanks to globalisation’s homogenising effect, where will be left for us to be citizens of? Nowhere, and thus everywhere, whether we like it or not.


Robert Selby reads at our upcoming evening of poetry, film, and music at The Social, London, on 18 October. More info/tickets here.

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