Book review: The Flirtation of Girls/Ghazal el-Banat, Sara M Saleh

A debut collection of poetry navigating the lives of Arab-Australian Muslim women.
The Flirtation of Girls. Image is a book cover with a woman sitting in a patterned teacup as if it were a hip bath. On the left is an author head shot of a woman in a brown top and beige head scarf.

The Flirtation of Girls/Ghazal el-Banat is a collection of poems that is also a meditative yet lively conversation, scrutinising the politics of the everyday relationships we may have with food, family, selfhood and violence, while rejecting a false dichotomy between ordinariness and extraordinariness.

Exploring the impositions of othering, occupied territories and colonial-settler narratives, Sara M Saleh creates rich and vibrant complexities while simultaneously standing unapologetically in difference, united with a community of those whom others would prefer silenced.

Varied in tone, form and sometimes even visual structure on the page, the works recognise the complicatedness of selfhood, othering and complicity in the finding of “solace in the global family”. 

‘… there is never
a good time to lose a country’

Saleh’s first full-length poetic collection is seemingly timeless, despite the currency of an Arab Australian voice speaking on loss and sovereignty. The Flirtation of Girls/Ghazal el-Banat demands that the reader locate the reading amid the ongoing ferocity of a world shaped by patriarchal and colonising processes. Saleh’s poetry makes it clear that the legacy of lost lives and lost countries is rarely produced by single discrete acts troubling us from the past. As poems confront particular events, they serve together as an invitational journey towards a different consciousness of those events, both past and unfolding.

The interrogative and poignant observations in this poetic collection refuse to comfort the reader with a pretence for sanitised distance, instead opting to insistently convey the felt and lived knowledge throughout and reminding us that violence doesn’t occur exclusively in other regions, but is entrenched here too. The anthology maps three approaches, or perhaps sisterhoods, from “forgotten girls”, to “flirty girls” to “girls who live forever”.

Saleh’s defiance can be found in subtle nods to giving primacy to the voices that are most impacted, rather than the rulebook of ideologies and empires. References to merbromin, a topical antiseptic, highlight the changeability of roles, arguably dwindling in popularity and mundanity due to shifts in perceptions regarding its content, purpose and safety. This, and other precise imagery, revels in the shared recollections that curated histories and archives have been forcefully edited unless voices and art defy them.

Subversive recollections of vilifying narratives such as the “evil in the suburbs” create an urgent demand to see and hear beyond the communal myths that Saleh prompts us to remember are told intentionally. The implications rest with the reader to navigate and engage with stories and conversations they may not previously encountered.

The poetry conveys the transmissive, transgressive and unbound nature of patriarchal violence and the ongoing navigation of trauma arising from dis- and re-location, conflicts over sovereignty and bodily autonomy. It also thrums with the graciousness of community and solidarity, survival and resistance.

Read: Book review: The Opposite of Success, Eleanor Elliott Thomas

Some poems have been previously published elsewhere as stand-alone pieces, but placed together in this volume, Saleh’s voice is unyielding in its scrutiny and enticing in its lyricism. Although it isn’t written to soothe, it doesn’t require a shared lived experience to feel its impact and it warrants re-reading as our own lens shifts in response.

The Flirtation of Girls/Ghazal el-Banat by Sara M Saleh
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 9780702266287
Pages: 106
Format: Paperback
RRP: $24.99
Publication date: 28 November 2023

Adele Aria’s reviews, poetry, and non-fiction writing has featured in Australian and international publications and literary festivals. A disabled queer person of colour, Adele is an enthusiastic fan of the arts.