I came to Palestine by way of poetry.
The place, the conflict and its exuberant outflow of expression was revealed to me in the wake of 9/11 in New York. It was a divisive, belligerent time. Grief and shock mingled with hurtful quarrels and irreconcilable political positions.
But poetry provided the most precise understanding of events as they were unfolding and as they connected to the long history of US and European imperialism and its unrelenting aftermaths. With Iraq and Afghanistan soon invaded, poetry also became a refuge.
Poets like Nathalie Handal, Etel Adnan, Abdellatif Laâbi, Suheir Hammad, Ammiel Alcalay and several others whose names now escape me gave voice to the constantly unfolding violence in the world. These poets read in various venues across the US over the next few years. They offered clear perspectives on the history of our earth’s most wretched, misrepresented and neglected people and places. Palestine figured centrally in these, the struggle there so hopeless and the conflict so saturated that it became symbol, metaphor, epithet, image, life force, death knell and raison d’être. In fact, as the mainstream space of political debate and historical accuracy shrank rapidly, poetry offered a sense of expansion; it opened up language, histories, ideas, emotions.
Over time, I lost touch with that world and submitted to the icy environment of academia. But over a decade later, when I found myself in Ramallah’s Ottoman Court for the Palestine Festival of Literature listening to poet Jehan Bseiso read her quartet for Gaza, I remembered yet again just how important a role poetry plays. I was vividly aware of what made me want to come here in the first place.
Palfest is a unique, traveling festival that brings an international literary scene to Palestinians who have severe restrictions on their movement. Participants travel on a bus all week, stopping at various West Bank locations to perform events that are free and open to the public. These events are always packed to the max, and participants find themselves performing to nurturing and enthusiastic crowds. Every night, the programming is in a mix of Arabic and English, with simultaneous translation in both languages.
In its ninth year, the festival attracted a pretty famous cast of characters that included Nobel winner J.M Coetzee, Irish writer of international acclaim Colum McCann and National Book Award winner Barry Lopez, who has garnered praise for works that are remarkable for understanding connections between nature and culture. But perfectly compatible with these heavyweight literary figures were young, emerging poets who were seamlessly fusing the world into Palestine and Palestine into the world. Two poets in particular struck me as being engaged in a powerful intellectual and emotional labor: Jehan Bseiso and Ghiath Al Madhoun, writing in English and Arabic respectively.
I first encountered Bseiso’s work online. She frequently insists on tackling world events with poetry and pushes digital magazines to publish her work as urgently as they would publish news. By doing this, she has succeeded in carving out a lyrical language of indignation, accusation and grief around unspeakable events like drowning refugees in the Mediterranean and Israel’s cruel siege on Gaza. I met Bseiso on the Palfest bus when we tried to cross into the West Bank from Jordan. I found her effervescent and cheerful in a way that felt worlds away from her stern and unsparing poetry. Bseiso had a difficult time entering Palestine and was grilled extensively by Israeli security. She has an American passport, but that does not hide the fact her family comes from Gaza.
But her excitement of finally being able to enter surpassed the unpleasantness, and she was more than ready to read that same evening in Ramallah’s peach pink ampitheatre. In her poems, perpetrators of violence and armchair sympathizers alike are treated with uncompromising scrutiny. Numbers, headlines, statistics, tweets and titles come together to paint a picture of a desensitized world. NGOs, news outlets and social media spin story after story of suffering that seem to make no difference to children dying and thousands wounded.
In “Gaza from the Diaspora 1,” she read:
Twitter feeds and facebook timelines and
10 reasons why you should boycott Israel Now, and
5 Ways Children Die in Gaza today or
How to Lose 18 members of Your Family in One Minute
(@Bibi54 stop saying the rockets are in the damn hospitals, in the school rooms, under the beds of four year olds)
Maybe it helps that 8 Celebrities Expressed Their Outrage.
tweeted and deleted.
The theme of salacious media behavior figures prominently in Bseiso’s work. Here, the tendency to report the conflict through listicles and catchy headlines is juxtaposed with the heart-wrenching reality on the ground:
Anisa, with one child in her arms, and another in her belly (dead).
In the hospital, they put the pregnant women alone, because they’re carrying hope, because they don’t want them to see what can happen to children.
Bseiso’s work brings about a much needed crisis of representation to the reader. What should we do? How should we, the outsiders, write about and engage with the conflict? It pushes readers and listeners to probe their own role and engagement. It also asks what political activism actually looks like in our digital times, when so much is made of concepts like “global village” and “connectedness.”
Yet another poem, “Gaza goes back to school,” turns the usually jubilant and “normal” activity of going back to school into an uncomfortable satire. In this case, school is a heap of smoke and ashes, and the act of teaching is nothing if not ironic: “How do you teach justice in an open-air prison?”
Soon, even poetry fails the poet. “Poetry is: no poetry in this,” Bseiso declares.
Yet another poet folded worlds upon worlds to draw attention to Palestine as well as the war in Syria. Ghayath Al Madhoun arrived at Palfest by way of Syria and Sweden. Born in Yarmouk refugee camp to Palestinian and Syrian parents, he found political asylum in Sweden in 2004.
Al Madhoun read two separate works in Ramallah and Haifa but the connections between the poems were apparent. He also challenges the idea of our interconnectedness to illustrate that our linkages are of the most violent kind. He calls out our complicity in the injustice and mocks our narcissistic global selves hiding behind language and trajectories that actually lead to profound suffering in seemingly forgotten places.
In Haifa, Al Madhoun stunned audiences with a poem that traveled the planet as it followed that most insidious and evil of all objects: the blood diamond. It performed a conversation with a European lover, the sharpness of the poet’s bitter exile grating against the softness of his lover’s racial, class and national privilege.
I too like you live alone in a flat with three windows
two look out onto Antwerp
but the third is my computer screen looking out onto Damascus
– have you visited Damascus?
– ok I’ll try to describe it to you: the temperature in summer is 37°
it’s the city where the summer temperature corresponds to a person’s body temperature
– have you visited Antwerp?
– ok I’ll try to describe it to you: it’s the blood diamond sparkling in the white light of shop windows
its shine reflecting a black man who found it in Kinshasa then was himself found murdered
by a bullet from his friend’s gun
in order that a woman from Montreal could wear a ring with a stone polished in Tel Aviv
given to her by her husband born in Buenos Aires
when they were on a trip to the Arizona desert
so that she would forgive him for cheating on her with her South African friend
when he was laundering his money in Dubai
The above poem entitled “The Capital” moves and meanders and mobilizes. It swallows up the entire world as it goes from Antwerp (which he names the capital of Congo) to the recesses of the ocean where the Syrian migrants die, the insensitive oblivion of the cyber world and the moneyed neighborhoods of Dubai and Montreal. The poem comes, eventually, to rest on that most potent of all powers: western knowledge. “Every shell that falls on Damascus is just a page torn out of Descartes’ book,” Al Madhoun concludes.
For both Al Madhoun and Bseiso, the dynamics of the Palestinian struggle echo and connect with all the other struggles in the world today. They practice a vibrant poetics of intersectionality. Al Madhoun declares: “I have been biased in favor of blacks against racism, in favor of the resistance against the occupiers, of militias against armies. I have taken the side of the Native Americans against the white men, the Jews against the Nazis, the Palestinians against the Israelis…” This intersectionality makes them truly global poets; global in the sense of being capacious enough to compassionately engage with a multitude of our world’s problems.
It is apparent that these worlds are bound to each other not only because of the outrageous injustices they experience, but because of the vast reservoir of strength and resistance they continue to display. And it is to this that these poets bear witness.
(Translations of Ghayath Al Madhoun’s poetry by Catherine Cobham, 2016)