Poetry, Palestine and the Language of Resistance
Samah Sabawi is the honored guest in this, the fourth installment in my Political Poetry series at Counterpunch.
Previously, I interviewed Sowetan Lesego Rampolokeng, whose hard-hitting poetry, including “bantu ghost”, expresses the outrage black South Africans still feel over the horrors of apartheid forced upon them by white supremacists.
Samah Sabawi, a poet and political activist, has likened Gaza to an “Israeli-controlled Bantustan.” She has known the alienation and despair of a refugee since the Israelis forced her parents (and thousands of other Palestinians) to flee their homes in Gaza in 1967.
Now a Palestinian-Australian with Canadian citizenship, Sabawi is the author of three plays — Cries from the Land, Three Wishes, and Tales of a City by the Sea. She has also co-written the book The Journey to Peace in Palestine: From the Song of Deborah to the Simpsons.
Sabawi’s poems deal with Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, often from the empathetic perspective of someone not directly on the scene with her comrades. She expresses the plight of nearly two million people in the concentration camp called Gaza, as well as the millions of lost souls in the Palestinian diaspora. In her poem, “Defying the Universe”, dedicated to her husband Monir, she asks:
Are your loved ones trapped behind the wall
Do they need the army’s permission
For their prayers to reach the sky
For their love to cross the ocean
And touch your thirsty heart
Are your loved ones trapped
Do you yearn to be in your family home
And when you call, do they always say
“we are fine, alhamdollelah”
Does it surprise you that they are whole
While you… are broken
Must they always worry about you
Urge you to have faith in your exile
Must they always pity you
For not breathing the air
Of your ancestors’ land
Must they always comfort you
Even when the bombs are falling
Do you ever wonder who is walled in
Is it you…or is it them
And when it finally dawns upon you
That their dignity sets them free
Do you feel ashamed of your liberty
Israeli oppression of the Palestinians takes many forms. As Sabawi recently explained in an interview with Joe Catron, “The currency used here (in Gaza) is the new Israeli shekel, the IDs all the residents carry are issued by the Israeli interior ministry, all births go through the Israeli national registry, the essential products are all Israeli in this captive market” (“Israel’s Gaza Bantustan,” 5 January 2013).”
Sabawi is part of a new generation of Palestinian thinkers who insist on reclaiming the discourse and reframing the language used to assert Palestinian rights. For her and many others of her generation, language is an essential tool in the struggle for liberation. She writes in her poem “Liberation Anthem” “I’ll craft new words of expression/ outside of this suffocating language/ that has occupied me/ Your words/ are like your walls/ They encroach on my humanity.”
Sabawi rebels in her poetry against adopting a language she sees as complicit and dictated by the occupier. She insists on using words such as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” to describe the reality of life in Palestine. When a newspaper editor recently deleted these words from an op-ed she submitted saying they were “too strong,” she responded with this:
I stand dispossessed
No congress behind me
No statesmen surround me
No lobby to breathe hellfire
No media eager to appease
No three-ring circus
Of intellectual jesters
And policy experts
Who truly do not see
the big elephant in the room
No legal acrobats
Dance for me
On a thin rope of decency
And human rights
On my behalf
No trips to boost careers
For MPs and their wives
No propaganda movies
No radio broadcasts
Not even one leader
To believe in
All I have are my words
To tell my story
To demand justice
But you tell me
My language is too strong
These are the words
That lay the foundation
Of the language of my liberation
While speaking and writing forthrightly about the horrors of Israeli oppression, Sabawi maintains strong connections with anti-apartheid Israelis, and she advocates reconciliation and understanding. But she believes that reconciliation can only begin once the oppression ends. Consider the following lines from her poem “Liberation Anthem”:
To the people of Israel who fear our freedom: Don’t be afraid, we will liberate you too.
This is my rendition
Of an anthem to be sung
That day you and I
Will stand side by side
Shoulder to shoulder
Watching a new dawn
Decades of hate and savagery
The day I rise
From the ruins of your oppression
I promise you I will not rise alone
You too will rise with me
You will be liberated
From your tyranny
And my freedom
Will bring your salvation
Given the total support of the US Government for Israel, there seems to be no other rational alternative. And yet, Palestinians politics is marked by deep divisions, not least between Hamas and Fatah. Sabawi’s goal is to overcome the divisions between Israel and Palestine, and among Palestinians, not by proselytizing or demonizing people, not by humiliating or obliterating, but by discovering a common human bond. As Sabawi says:
I am more than demography
I’m neither your collaborator
Nor your enemy
I am not your moderate
Not your terrorist
Not your fundamentalist
I am more than adjectives
Letters and syllables
I will construct my own language
And will defeat your words of power
With the power of my words
In her poem “Against the Tide” she pledges “I will not delight/ In the suffering/ Even of those/ Who oppress me.”
I recently asked Sabawi about her poetry, the poetry of Palestinians, and the political situation in Gaza. I noted that perhaps the most frustrating form of psychological oppression Palestinians suffer is the total antipathy of the United States Government. The US blocks every vote to condemn Israel at the UN, it provides Israel with the weapons and means of its oppression, while the mainstream American media suppresses and distorts the facts, even rationalizing the mass murder of 1400 Palestinians in Gaza in 2009 as necessary for Israel’s security.
DV Gaza is a Bantustan, but the many nations seem to have turned their backs on the Palestinians, although, in contrast, much of the world joined in the boycott of South Africa. This is largely due to the fact that Palestinians have been thoroughly dehumanized by the Israeli-AIPAC propaganda machine. Can poetry help to overcome the prejudice that many Americans have? Is translating from Arabic to English part of the problem?
SS Humanity doesn’t always respond instantly. The world community is often slow to react in the face of oppression and injustice especially when it is being perpetrated by powerful state actors and driven by corporate greed. But history has taught us that no tyranny can last forever and that the people will always overcome oppression. To use your example of South Africa, it actually took a long time for the world to take a stand against the apartheid regime. Think about it: white supremacy over South Africa began with the arrival of the early Dutch settlers as far back as the mid 1600s and institutional discrimination against the indigenous population began in the early 1900s. The Boycott movement against South African Apartheid didn’t start till the late 1950s and it took world governments years and for some even decades before they made a stand. So, when you’re looking at the timeline of the Palestine/Israel conflict in comparison and especially in the last two decades you will see that Palestinians are in fact gaining the support of the world community at a much faster pace perhaps this is so because we have more direct and instant modes of communication at our fingertips.
So yes, the world may have initially turned its back on Palestinians and even adopted the Zionist discourse of blaming and dehumanizing the victims but times have changed and we have come a long way. Palestinian solidarity is growing and the overwhelming show of support at the UN for an observer seat for the state of Palestine last year if anything has illustrated the isolation of Israel and its allies in the face of a world community that is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
Now you ask if poetry might contribute to this in any way. I guess I would say that art in all its forms can have an important role to play in humanizing people and conveying their story. Art can serve to inspire and instigate change.
Who can deny that the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish for example offered many in the west a window into the lives of Palestinians; their pain, their aspirations and their yearnings? Although Darwish’s poems were written in Arabic, they were translated into many languages and served as a bridge between Palestine and the rest of the world.
Of course language can be an obstacle but I think that the Palestinian experience is a universal one and so is easily translated. We are a people disposed standing up against tyranny and oppression, fighting for a just cause. This resonates with people in any language. Here are a few lines from one of my favorite Darwish poems: “Who Am I, Without Exile?” (translated by Fady Joudah)[i]:
A stranger on the riverbank, like the river … water
binds me to your name. Nothing brings me back from my faraway
to my palm tree: not peace and not war. Nothing
makes me enter the gospels. Not a thing … nothing sparkles from the shore of ebb
and flow between the Euphrates and the Nile. Nothing
makes me descend from the pharaoh’s boats. Nothing
carries me or makes me carry an idea: not longing
and not promise. What will I do? What
will I do without exile, and a long night
that stares at the water?
DV Palestinians have no power over their oppressors. They are powerless to stop the settlements. At the slightest hint of uprising, the Israelis come down like a storm troopers. But Palestinians do write poetry – or have the Israelis tried to stop them from writing poetry too?
SS For the Israeli Zionist project to succeed in asserting legitimacy and presence on the ruins of Palestinian homes and lives, it needed to do two things: make the Palestinians invisible to the world by denying their existence (‘a land without a people for a people without a land’), and/or in the event that they become visible, demonize them by manipulating the discourse – for example, by emphasizing Palestinian violence and terror while undermining and ignoring Palestinian non-violent resistance and the reality of occupied vs. occupier. This is why Israel views Palestinian culture with great contempt. After all, Palestinian artists and cultural figures tell the stories of their people and by that they reflect a reality through their art that Israel would rather conceal.
So yes, certainly Palestinian culture, like all other facets of Palestinian life, faces tremendous challenges under Israeli occupation. Palestinian cultural figures were first targeted by British and later by the Israeli authorities. Some were assassinated, others were imprisoned or banished into exile. Amongst the artists and intellectuals assassinated by Israel are writer Ghassan Kanafani (Abukhalil 2012) and poet and intellectual Wael Zuaiter (Jacir 2007).
The attempt at erasing Palestinian culture was clear during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, when Israeli forces looted and confiscated the accumulated national archives of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which included valuable and rare collections of films and other Palestinian cultural artifacts (IMEU 2012).
Today, Palestinian cultural figures under Israel’s occupation are caught in an intricate and multi layered system of oppression. For example, Human Rights Watch issued a report (27 July 2012) accusing Israel and its security arm the Palestinian Authority of “trampling on the rights of Freedom Theater’s staff,” adding “[a] theater should be able to offer critical and provocative work without fearing that its staff will be arrested and abused.” The HRW statement referred to Israel’s ongoing system of arbitrary arrests and detention.
Of course it is important to recognize that repression does not always ride on a military tank. The worst kind of repression is one that manifests itself inside colonized minds desperate to present their craft to the world and aware that their success hinges on their ability to be on the good side of their political masters. I mean artists find it challenging enough in rich societies to make a living out of their art, so imagine when you are stuck in a Bantustan where most people struggle to feed their families. That’s where the role of the PA and international donors raises some questions about which artistic projects receive funding and which ones don’t; which artists are given a platform and which ones aren’t. For the most part, Palestinian resistance has through the years overcome such challenges and Palestinian artists both inside Palestine and in Diaspora continue their effort to liberate Palestine one poem, one painting, one novel and one song at a time.
DD In your poem “Verses and Spices” you talk about how “Growing up/ My father’s poems/ Ran through my veins/ Like blood/ A necessary life ingredient/ A rhythm that kept my heart pumping.” Your poems stress the crucial importance of language in resolving problems. In this poem you speak specifically about your father’s poems. Please tell me a little about traditional Palestinians poetry and which Palestinians poets American should, or can read today to get a better understanding of the situation in Gaza.
SS Your question asks specifically about “traditional Palestinian poetry” but I actually grew up with a wide range of Arab poetry. We weren’t raised to see “Palestinianism” as distinct from Arab nationalism. We the Palestinians were part of the Arab world and took pride in that. Our definition of Palestine back then was also based on nationalism: one secular state for all three religions. That was the mantra of the PLO in the early 1970s. Much has changed since and we have become factionalized and sectarianized beyond recognition.
It is true I grew up in a house of verses and spices. Poetry was always present at every meal and every gathering. My father, Abdul Karim Sabawi, a distinguished Palestinian novelist and poet, tried to introduce me to classical Arabic poetry such as Al Mutanaby and Omar Alkhayam but apart from sounding lyrical to my ears, that type of poetry didn’t really capture my heart. The language was too formal, too clever and too distant in time to feel real. It also reflected a ‘male’ view of the world, which as a young girl and later a woman not only alienated me but at times even offended me. It was when my father recited modern Arab poetry like that of Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian), Nizar Qabbani (Syrian), Amal Donkol (Egyptian) and especially Salah Jahin (Egyptian) that I would tune in and pay attention. My father encouraged me to navigate my way through his large collection of poetry books. Modern Arab poetry varies in style but I found myself gravitating toward poetry that conveyed ideas and not just showcased linguistic prowess. For example Egyptian giant Salah Jahin ‘s quatrains made use of colloquial everyday simple Egyptian dialect to communicate complex philosophical ideas:
The rich man was buried in a marble tomb
The beggar was buried in a hole with no coffin
I passed them by and marveled to myself
Both graves emanate the same stench
My father’s own poetry also ranged in style. Some of his poems were in colloquial Gazan dialect while others in sophisticated classic Arabic. His poetry reflects the quintessential Palestinian experience, which at its core is a universal human experience of loss, dispossession and exile. To give you an idea of the spirit of my father’s poetry, here is one he wrote that first morning he woke up in 1967 to find himself a refugee in Jordan.
When you were parched
We quenched your thirst
With our blood
We carry your burden
We cry in shame when asked
Where do you come from?
Dishonored we die
If only the stray bullets
From the occupier’s guns
That they pierced through our legs
It only they tore through our knees
If only we sunk in your sand
Deep to our necks
If only we got stuck
And became the salt of your earth
The nutrients in your fertile soil
If only we didn’t leave
The gates of our hearts
Are wide open to misery
Don’t ask us where this wind is blowing
Don’t ask us about a house
The Bulldozers were here
The Bulldozers were here
And the houses in our village
Fell…Like a row of decayed teeth
They haven’t colonized Mars yet
And the moon is barren
So carry your children
And follow me
We can live in the books of history
They’ll write about us…
“The wicked Bedouins
Landed in Baghdad
They landed in Yafa
They landed in Grenada
Then they moved on
They packed their belongings
And rode on their camels
They didn’t leave their print on the red clay
And all their artifacts
With the passing of the years”
Does anyone in the world really care?
Does anyone care?
What difference does it make
To be an Arab…
A Native American…
Or a dinosaur
SS So as you can see, poetry was always a part of my life. But I never thought of integrating it into my activism until one day when I saw a YouTube video of Suheir Hammad reciting her poem ‘First Writing Since’ in New York in the aftermath of 9/11. This was a milestone in my life. First of all, I was so happy to hear a captivating articulate Palestinian woman poet at last! But more than that, her poetry was not written in Arabic and translated into English. Hammad’s poetry comes out in English and is effective and authentic and real. This brings me to my next point: Palestinian writers today are a diverse group of people with countless citizenships who speak many languages and who are able to use a variety of mediums to reconstruct their national identity and to communicate their stories of exile. So when we talk about Palestinian literature in the modern sense we must acknowledge that it now transcends linguistic and geographic borders. It was Suheir Hammad who helped me come to terms with my own identity crisis. Yes, I can be Palestinian and I can write my poetry in English.
DV Please tell me a little more about where you live and what you’re doing now.
SS I live in Melbourne Australia and I’m currently working toward the production of my recent play Tales of a City by the Sea. The play was inspired by a collection of poems I wrote during Israel’s assault on Gaza in 2008/2009. It is set to be staged at La Mama’s Courthouse theatre in Melbourne September 2014 and I am so blessed that La Mama has agreed to be our presenting partner for this production. We hope the Arabic version of the play will premiere at the same time in Gaza and in the West Bank. I am also working on a poetry book with Palestinian writers Ramzy Baroud and Jehan Bseiso along with some incredible artists. So next year is looking like a very busy artistic year for me.
I’d like to end with a poem that inspired my recent play. It is dedicated to the Free Gaza Movement and the victims of the Mavi Marmara:
Tales of a city by the sea
The landscape constantly changes
Only the sea remains the same
A consistent presence amid the chaos
Its whooshing waves whisper tales
Of occupiers that have come and gone
Crusaders, tyrants and warlords
Riding on their horses
Riding on their Tanks
Riding on their F16 fighter jets
Always riding through
Leaving their footprints
And part of their history
Leaving their artifacts and ruins
Leaving fire and debris
Only the sea remains
A cure for the trail of broken lives left behind
A landmark untouched by human greed and destruction
Oblivious to war occupation and aggression
Defiant to the rules of man
It embraces the shores of a battered city
It makes a mockery
Of those who try to break its spirit
Those who think they can contain
Its one and a half million beating hearts
It laughs in the face
Of that big iron wall
There is no limit to the sea’s audacity
It breaks the siege every day,
One defiant wave at a time
Connecting Gaza to the rest of the world
And connecting the world with the Shati refugee camp
If you stood with your back to Gaza facing the sea
You can imagine you are some place else
Beirut, Barcelona, Alexandria or Santorini
You can dream of the promise of what lays
Beyond the horizon
Countries, continents the whole world is out there
If only you could ride the sea
If only your body was bullet proof
If only your boat was made of steel
If only your dream was real
The landscape will change once more
Only the sea will remain the same
Its whooshing waves will whisper new tales
Of occupiers that have come and gone
June 2010 Melbourne Australia
DV Thank you very much, Samah Sabawi, for this incredibly informative and moving interview.
Please visit Samah’s website talesofacitybythesea.com to read more about Palestine the culture, the politics and the people, and to get more updates on her play Tales of a City by the Sea.
Samah can also be reached on twitter @gazaheart
One of Samah Sabawi’s poems will appear in the forthcoming anthology With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, March 2014). Please email John Crawford at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about pre-ordering the anthology.
[i] Reprinted from The Butterfly’s Burden (2007) by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press,www.coppercanyonpress.org. Source: The Butterfly’s Burden (Copper Canyon Press, 2007)