On identity and poetic form: Ahmad Almallah’s ‘Bitter English’

Ahmad Almallah says that “Bitter English,” his debut poetry collection, was five years in the making. But in many ways, the book is the result of a decades-long journey.

Ahmad Almallah stands in a bookstore holding a book.
Ahmad Almallah, lecturer in English and Arabic. (Image: Brooke Sietinsons/Omnia

Almallah, a lecturer in English and Arabic, came to the U.S. from Palestine in 2000 intending to study engineering as an undergraduate. His plans changed and he went in a more creative direction, studying communications and film, only to change course again and pursue a doctorate in Arabic literature. He secured a tenure-track position as a professor at Vermont’s Middlebury College, but he found that academia didn’t allow him the time to pursue the writing that was increasingly important to him. “I was just stuck on this idea of wanting to become a poet,” he says.

Coming to Penn provided an opportunity. Almallah moved to Philadelphia with his wife, Huda Fakhreddine, assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and their young daughter. “It was a strange time for me because I felt like I really needed to write,” he remembers. “And I decided that whatever writing I was doing in Arabic was not reaching its potential.” 

He decided to pursue yet another change—writing in English. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to exile myself into English,’” he says. “The title is Bitter English because it wasn’t an easy decision. I felt a sense of loss and guilt. But the tensions between the languages played out in a very generative way.” 

“Bitter English” is full of poems that explore how different aspects of Almallah’s experiences—as a son, father, husband, immigrant, scholar, and witness to his mother’s Alzheimer’s and contemporary events—relate to and complicate one another. He considers the collection “an act of extreme translation,” where the Arabic poetic tradition plays out in relation to the English tradition. 

This story is by Lauren Rebecca Thacker. Read more at Omnia.