The journey to becoming accomplished in any field is not an easy one. Halima Ibrahim knows that better than most.
Ibrahim is Rhode Island’s Junior Poet Laureate. Her road to that honor went mostly through her bedroom, which she was confined to for five months due to a condition called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy, or CIDP.
CIDP is an autoimmune disease that causes the body to attack its own tissues. The illness took over Ibrahim’s life in 2017, forcing her to drop out of East Greenwich High School in her freshman year. She couldn’t move her legs, experienced extreme fatigue, and suffered from seizures.
Bedridden, she started writing poetry to pass the time and never stopped.
“Poetry really became my salvation,” said Ibrahim, now a second year student at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick.
Life started improving for the 18-year-old poet about three years ago. She first shared her poetry publicly at a March For Our Lives protest at the State House in 2018. The event led to a TEDx Talk at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence later that year.
Still, it wasn’t easy for Ibrahim to go public with her poetry. In the talk, she told the audience that she likely would be too tired to walk the next day due to her condition, despite some progress with the illness.
“The entire experience was kind of nerve wracking,” Ibrahim said. “I never really thought that I was ever going to do it.”
It turns out she was able to walk the next day, despite heavy fatigue.
While she still has to take medicine weekly to keep her immune system from attacking her nervous system, Ibrahim has recovered a great deal from the days when she couldn’t even move her legs.
“My neurologist says that I’m the fastest recovery that he’s ever seen, which is great for me,” she said.
Ibrahim learned she was named Junior Poet Laureate last January. She said the designation is an affirmation of her as a poet, and means a lot to her.
Tina Cane, the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island, calls Ibrahim tenacious and hardworking, and says that her potential is limitless.
“I was very impressed with her self-possession and her ability to self-advocate and advocate for what she believes in,” Cane said. “She has a lot of potential to advocate for poetry.”
Ibrahim’s topics in her poems have broadened during college. In high school, she focused on national issues, such as gun control and racism. Now, while she still writes about those, she’s also writing about issues at her school — a fitting pivot since she is CCRI’s student government president.
“I basically switched from doing stuff statewide to doing stuff college- and community-wide, which has been much more manageable,” she said.
Her achievements have been noticed nationally. She is a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship — the only Rhode Islander to qualify for the prestigious award.
Should she win, she will receive a college scholarship of up to $40,000 annually for three years, something that will certainly help as she explores transfer options to other colleges and universities. At this point, she’s looking at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Harvard University, Stanford University and other colleges throughout the country.
Ibrahim’s rise coincides with greater national interest in poetry following the performance of National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at President Joseph Biden’s inauguration. Ibrahim said that Gorman’s performance was a moving moment for her and for young poets, particularly young poets of color.
“I was constantly hearing things like, ‘(Gorman’s reading) was the same energy you had at the State House in 2018,’ ” Ibrahim said. “It was reaffirming on both ends seeing Amanda up there as a woman of color and as someone with a speech impediment at such a grand occasion.”
Ibrahim describes herself as “mostly fluent” in Arabic, having lived in Egypt for two years as a child, although she said that she does struggle speaking the language. Her father is from Cairo, and her mother graduated from Pilgrim High School. They met when her mother was teaching English in Cairo during the late 1990s, and eventually moved to the United States.
As Ibrahim focuses more on Middle Eastern Studies at CCRI, she has begun improving her Arabic language skills and incorporating the language into her poetry.
Ibrahim started wearing a hijab last January. Around that time, she said people became more aggressive toward her, and she also experienced overt prejudice, which, as she noted, was no coincidence.
Prejudice has become a central theme of her poetry, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people, regardless of religion, to cover their faces.
“Not only was I covering my hair, but now we’re also having to cover our faces,” Ibrahim said. “There was this kind of level of uncomfortability people around me had, and associating me with how they perceived niqabis, or Muslim women who cover their face. It’s this increased Islamophobia that I didn’t realize was going to happen at the start of the pandemic.”
As she moves forward in college, she’s looking forward to setting new challenges and goals for herself. One thing is certain: she’ll continue writing her poetry, and look to inspire others as she does it.
“Being able to share poetry with other people gives me hope that I could offer inspiration up to other people as well,” Ibrahim said.
Editor’s note: Adam Zangari is a sophomore at the University of Rhode Island and News Editor of the URI newspaper, the Good Five Cent Cigar. He enjoys writing, watching basketball, and hanging out with friends here at school.
Dance along to the rhythm of my heartbreak
Sing along to the song of my exile
When I can’t pronounce the lyrics
When I can’t name this song
What makes a poet if it is not a broken language
Shakespeare made up his own and it was art
Poe creates a new dialect and it was mourning
Can’t translate this feeling into any language you understand
When my teacher corrects my English incorrectly
I hold my tongue
Because I don’t know how to respond in Arabic
When my classmates tell the teacher that I don’t speak their language
I hold my tongue
Because I don’t know how to tell them I understand every syllable in every message
I am still learning what to call my first language
When all I know how to speak is from a broken tongue
Is rivers of pain and sorrow
Is lost hope
Is midnight prayers
Apologies to my ancestors
When you speak the tongue of your oppressors,
You are an outsider to both songs
My home is of the language only I comprehend
I am still learning what to call my first language
when neither accepts this broken tongue
What is a poem if the writer is illiterate
if poetry is their only song
In Arabic class,
When I couldn’t respond to the teacher's questions
She asked why I even called myself Arab at all
And just like that
Without a language
I become a shadow of both countries
What is poetry
If it is not the dialect to those who never learned
My family listens to my poems without understanding a single word
And they applaud
“ ????? ( smart)
????? " (beautiful)
And all I can do is nod and smile
And thank god
“???? ( thank you)
Is a word I know how to say.
With this veil wrapped around my head
I stand ethereal
I am a Woman full of old magic
Born of golden sands and Nile flood water
Mixed with blood spilled in the Tiber River
untouchable by man
aren’t I Medusa?
Wasn’t she goddess turned monster
Beauty too powerful men claimed her hideous
White men claimed her dangerous
Wasn’t she Queen of North Africa
Scales Rooted in Saharan sands
I call this Queen Cobra
Aren’t I snake charmer?
Aren’t I of vipers and mambas and cobras
Aren’t I of the same venom
Aren’t I Neith?
Of war and weaving
Aren’t I the sun and moon
Water of ever river
And mother to all
Aren’t I Wadjet?
Aren’t I heavenly wisdom?
Aren’t I saintly beauty?
Aren’t I divine?
Don’t my eyes hold the pride of a country,
And the greatest river?
Don’t my eyes carry the weight of wars?
Haven’t they witnessed bloodshed?
Haven’t I witnessed destruction?
they hold the power to turn you to stone
And Weren’t you taught to lower your gaze?
Medusa needs no bombs or blades
Medusa needs no guns or tanks
Am weapon enough
Isn’t this scarf my shield?
Or is it your protection?
Aren’t I the calm in all the storm?
Aren’t I heavenly strength?
Aren’t I saintly beauty ?
For the veil that covers my head
For the scales and claws, I hide
For the serpents, I tame
For the snakes, I charm
For the stone, you have yet to become
And don’t test me,
Said the “Mussie”
Said don’t test me
Said the towelhead
don’t you test me
Said the moose lamb
Said the Mudslum
Said the Muhammadest
Said the extremist
Said the Islamist
Said the jihadist
Said shiver down your spine
Said the monster in your closet
Said your waking nightmare
For The next time, you ask me what is under my scarf
I will answer
Aren’t I Medusa?
Wasn’t she goddess turned monster too
Men claimed her hideous
Anger too powerful
Men claimed her dangerous
And they call me