Latin and Linguistics As the Gateway to Friendship and Poetry About Palestine

What, but Serendipity, paved the way for launching a life-long friendship between a Helena, Montana academician, and a Gaza Palestinian foreign student? The chance encounter between Kevin Hadduck and Doaa Mohaisen, a hijabi-clad  female student from Gaza, began in 2016. Hadduck states that “In the fall of 2016, a hijabi walked into my office, asking for help securing tutors for her linguistics and Latin classes. I found in Doaa a brilliant mind, a beautiful heart, and a playful spirit.”

Kevin Hadduck states that he and his wife, Linda, took Doaa “on road trips and hikes here in Montana, where the sparse population and enormous expanses of nearly empty land contrasted sharply  with the desperately crowded  and constrained Gaza Strip.” Further, Kevin highlights the irony: “I love this irony, that while I live in a huge, wide-open space in a wealthy country and you in such a small, cramped, and impoverished place, you have made my world so much larger and my heart so much richer.”

And out of this fateful encounter between a young woman who, like a bird set free, left the Israeli-Egyptian imposed largest open-air prison in the world in search of knowledge in the Land of the Shining Mountains whose Big Skies granted her the freedom to quench her thirst for knowledge and to soar, freely, without the confines of  the Israeli Apartheid walls and barbed wires of separation.

What started as a unique chance encounter between Kevin Hadduck and  Doaa morphed into many friendships; and three years later the many friendships culminated in a 2019 book penned by Hadduck. Under the title Beloved Brother, Beloved Sister, Poems For Palestine (Blue Heron Poetry, 2019), the poetry collection is a treasured autographed book that has been read, over and over again because, as Kevin puts it, “Poetry and beauty are always making peace. When you read something beautiful; you find coexistence; it breaks walls down.”

What follows in an interview with Kevin Hadduck who wrote the following dedication: “For Raouf and a free Palestine.” From your heart and pen, Kevin,  a Doaa (earnest plea) to heaven’s gates. Kevin is a  friend to many around the world; he is a poet, a dedicated husband,  father, and grandfather, an academician, and a peacemaker.

Beautifully illustrated, this book is highly recommended for those who wish to trace the evolution of lasting friendships across the miles, friendships that are memorialized in rhyme. Kevin Hadduck’s friendship with Duaa, Ghada, Haneen, Hassan, Hubba, Rana, and Ahmad, to name but a few, is what this world needs.

Raouf:  What is your official title and what is the name of the university? And, how long have you been there?

Kevin:  For approximately 8 years, I served as Director of the Academic Resource Center at Carroll College, in Helena, Montana.  In that role, I administered the tutoring and testing programs, and also directed the disability services office. I also carried the title of ADA Coordinator for the college.  I loved the job, especially enjoying the disability services work. As of this past June, I am retired from my academic work, but I still work part-time at the college as a groundskeeper. For me, this is a perfect retirement job, as I love the hard physical work outdoors, pulling weeds and trimming bushes and trees.

Raouf: Will you please tell me a few things about yourself, biographical background such as place of birth, education, family status?

Kevin: I was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on September 9, 1957. I earned an M. A. in English literature from Baylor University and completed coursework for the PhD as well, although I never finished that degree.  My wife is Linda. My two sons are Lewis, 35, and Perry, 31.  We have one granddaughter, Bonnie, now a year old.

Raouf:  You live in remote Montana, how did you meet all the Palestinian students  with whom you’ve established strong bonds?

Kevin:  My first Palestinian friend was Doaa, from Gaza. In the fall of 2016, a hijabi walked into my office, asking for help securing tutors for her linguistics and Latin classes. I had never met or seen her before, but I was delighted to learn that we had a Muslim student attending the college. Doaa came to Carroll on an international student scholarship. I asked her to tell me about herself, and we had a long and delightful conversation. We got a good laugh at the seeming implausibility of an Arab Muslim student from Gaza finding her way to a small Catholic college in such a remote (and very “white”) part of the United States. About a week later, I encountered Doaa on a sidewalk near the library. We stopped and talked again, speaking mostly about her astonishment at Montana, the sparse population, the vast open spaces, the mountains and forests and rivers, etc. She had never experienced such country before. In fact, before traveling to the United States, Doaa had never been outside of Gaza, except once in her very early childhood. I asked her if she would like to go hiking in the mountains with Linda and me, and I invited her to dinner with us in our home. Through that fall semester, her only semester at the college, we met often in my office for conversation. She had dinner with Linda and me a few times and went hiking and road-tripping through central Montana with us three or four times.

Many of our conversations focused, in part, on life in Gaza and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but we talked about all sorts of things: music and movies, books, food, family, faith, career hopes–about everything.

Shortly before leaving Montana in December of 2016, Doaa introduced me to We Are Not Numbers (WANN). Through that organization, I began meeting, online, other Palestinians. Throughout the spring semester, Doaa and I communicated via Messenger and email, and I communicated with more Palestinian members of WANN. In June 2017, I traveled to Lebanon with the international director of WANN, in order to conduct recruitment and writing workshops for aspiring young Palestinian writers.

Raouf:  What did you learn (that you didn’t know before) from your trip to Lebanon and the affiliation with We Are Not Numbers, including your first hand observations and experiences in Palestinian Refugee camps?

Kevin:  As I mentioned before, I grew up in an intensely pro-Israel home and “Christian-Zionist” church. Many in my family still hold those sentiments. Sadly, it took me many years to think and learn my way out of that culture of ideas. I do not recall ever feeling antagonistic towards Islam or Arabs, but I do recall being infatuated with the Israeli narrative of “God’s chosen people” returning to their homeland, fulfilling Christian prophecy, “a people without a land re-inhabiting a land without a people.” I knew nothing, as a boy, of what a perverse fiction that Zionists had begun creating, even in the late 19th century, and which the new Israelis brought to a climax in 1948. I did not know the real intentions behind Golda Meir’s now famous/infamous declaration about Jews coming to the empty land of ancient Israel. At perhaps the age eight or ten, I watched  the movie “Exodus” (based upon the Leon Uris novel), and felt exhilarated. The movie presented the leaders of Haganah and Irgun as heroic freedom fighters, rather than the brutal terrorists that they were. At home, I listened to the record album of the movie soundtrack; in fact, I listened to it many, many times in my childhood. The grandiose music thrilled me. In church and at home, I learned that modern Israel was the fulfillment of both Old and New Testament prophecies, signaling the approach of the end times. I learned that as Christians, we were commanded by God to support Israel, as modern Jews/Israelis were “the seed of Abraham.” None of that makes any sense any more.

Writing this part of my personal history is difficult, painful now, and embarrassing. I began asking uncomfortable questions (about all sorts of things) in late high school and early college, but it was not until 1982, after the Sabra-Shatila massacre, that news from Israel broke into my consciousness in such a way that I felt compelled to question much more deeply. Not long after that, in early graduate school at Baylor, I met a Lebanese student who, like me, was a Christian and studying English Literature. We became close friends and spent a lot of time together (he and his wife with me and my wife). His perspective on Israel posed a radical challenge to my own. I recall him saying once that the Israeli regime was among the most “devilish” in the world. His claim shocked me and yet I could not dismiss it. I listened long and intently to him and knew that I had to learn more. He and I have been friends for about 40 years now. It would take too long to narrate all of the influences on my thinking about “Israel” and Palestine–my work with two Muslim students at a small college during the 9-11 attacks, my long, slow, but growing awareness of highly questionable behavior by the Israeli government, the aggressive settler enterprise, on and on.

I changed my mind begrudgingly, settling for some time into an understanding of Israel as a corrupt and abusive, yet legitimate country trapped in a lose-lose proposition of dealing with enemies within and surrounded by enemies far larger than itself. In other words, I settled into a new misunderstanding, a new and in some ways more dangerous ignorance. I knew very little about   Palestinians, their history or their plight as an oppressed and dispossessed people. I continued questioning, learning, and agonizingly shifting my perspective. I can hardly pin down to a single year or even five-year period when I could say definitively that I had become pro-Palestinian. I remember that during my second stint in graduate school (late 80’s into the early 90’s), I had dispensed with the idea that modern Israel was a miraculous fulfillment of biblical prophecy. That “Christian-Zionist” theology no longer made any sense to me as a valid interpretation of New Testament prophecy or even of Old Testament prophecy taken by itself. It also too closely (and suspiciously) reflected the narrative of “manifest destiny,” of God giving this land to “us” (our Christian forefathers). Even by very early college, I had rejected that obnoxious American Christian-nationalist narrative as profoundly un-Christian, indeed, historically indefensible, as well as morally and theologically perverse. Many years later, I learned about the “doctrine of discovery,” first articulated by a pope in 1452(?) and confirmed by the US Supreme Court early in our national history as a justification for our theft and rape of a continent. I cannot imagine a more un-Christian, arrogant, immoral, and blood-and-money-thirsty proclamation.

By the time I met Doaa, in September of 2016, my heart was wide open to learning. I had become very critical of the state of Israel and much more aware of the Palestinian plight. I do not know when I first learned of the Nakba, but I understood long before meeting Doaa what a terrible crime against humanity had been committed–in the name of what, democracy? freedom? biblical prophecy? I continue to read journal articles, news articles, histories, whatever I can find–both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli–and I know propaganda when I smell it. I keep reading. In the summer of 2017, I visited Lebanon and helped conduct writing workshops in Beirut for aspiring, young Palestinian writers. I also visited Shatila camp. That experience broke my heart.  [The Shatila Palestinian Refugee Camp was one of three 1982 sites where Lebanese Phalange militia, with full Israeli support and blessings and US acquiescence, murdered hundreds of Palestinians whose bodies were hauled off in bulldozer front end loaders and buried in a soccer field.]

Raouf:  The graphics in the book, why? And who created them?

Kevin: The mandalas in the book are the work of Aya Zaqout, a young Gazan artist. I wanted somehow to highlight her work, and so I chose four of her pieces as section dividers–although the divisions are somewhat random. Aya’s work also reminds me of how attuned many of my Palestinian friends are to beauty and how many of them turn to art for self-expression and cultural assertion in a context where their enemies are aggressively trying to erase them. Art has therapeutic value also, as a way of distracting oneself and one’s readers/viewers from the brutal realities that Gazans face. Aya displays and dedicates and amazing focus, patience, and energy through her artwork.

Raouf: I love the book’s cover; please tell me about its conception, and what about it that reminds you of your association With Palestinian students?

Kevin: The cover is a painting by another young Gazan friend, Malak Matar. The theme of the painting seems especially appropriate for my book, while also being a profound and beautiful reflection of how many Palestinians feel about education, reading, the hope for peace and freedom in the world outside of the tight, suffocating boundaries of Gaza. Having seen many of Malak’s paintings, which I love, I chose this one and got permission from her to use it for my book.

Raouf:  Why did you choose Beloved Brother, Beloved Sister Poems forPalestine for your title? (And I love it)

Kevin: I believe this question can have only one, simple answer: I love my friends. They express a humbling and powerful love for me. They are like brothers and sisters, and they are also like sons and daughters to me.

Raouf:  From where do you get the inspiration to compose your poems? 

Kevin: My inspiration came first from one friend in particular, Doaa.  I talk about her in my forward. She was my first Palestinian friend and remains a very dear friend. I wrote a few poems for her and then, after getting to know more Palestinians through We Are Not Numbers, I began writing poems for them also. Perhaps the frustrating distances between us was also a source of inspiration. I wanted to somehow capture a sense of who these friends were to me. I did not intend for the poems to be overtly “political,” but friendship is inescapably political and sometimes radically so, as it bridges chasms that some in power do not want bridged. So, of course, given the political realities that weigh so heavily and dangerously on Palestinians, day in and day out, some of my poems have a strong political dimension.

It pains me to confess, as I must, that some of my inspiration comes from a desire to make amends. I grew up in an intensely pro-Israel, “Christian-Zionist” home and church. I find that aspect of my past culture to be horrifying now. The theology underwriting it is perverse and unbiblical, and it has contributed very directly to so much injustice and violence. I want to do what I can to reeducate myself and others, to contribute in whatever small way that I am able toward setting things right. My voice is small and mostly unknown, but I feel morally compelled to use it – nonetheless. My journey from one perspective to the opposite is another story.

Raouf:  What have you learned from your Palestinian (and Syrian and Jordanian) friends?

Kevin:  I suppose that I could spend several hours answering this question. It is hard to be brief. First, and I think most importantly, I learned of Palestinians what, by the time I met Doaa, I already knew to learn when I met someone “new,” from a culture I had never before encountered. People are people. Regardless of our religious, cultural, or philosophical differences, we have far more in common than what separates us. We gain much by exploring our commonalities. My subsequent conversations with an increasing number of Palestinian friends focused on faith, food, music, books, Nature, pets, weather, childhood, family, marriage, romance, travel, hopes and dreams, professional aspirations, art and writing, mental and emotional health (or the lack thereof), illnesses and recoveries, movies, jokes, and sometimes politics. We talked often about the political and social ills that infect our societies, those ills that we have in common and those that seem somewhat to define each society in distinction from the other. I have told several of my young Palestinian friends who wish to live in America, who understandably covet our freedoms, “We have our own deep sicknesses here, Left and Right. Don’t imitate us too much.” We talked often about how we longed to meet each other, again or for the first time. Our wide-ranging conversations continue.

Of course, I learned much more directly of how Palestinians live, in Lebanon, in Gaza, and in the diaspora. In the past nearly six years of getting to know Palestinians as friends (and yes, a few as not friends at all), my friends from Gaza have spread to England, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, Italy, Turkey, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Canada, United States, Australia, and Bangladesh.

One of my greatest joys has been getting to know some whole families. I communicate with multiple members of one family, for instance, who currently live in Gaza, Qatar, and Turkey. They tell me about their day-to-day lives, their stresses, sorrows, joys, even their squabbles with each other. It has been a great joy to celebrate–painfully remotely–graduations, weddings, new jobs, and births of children. I now count several Palestinian babies among my friends. Inshaallah  [God willing]I will live long enough to know them at least several years into their childhood.

I love learning about where my friends live–what cities, neighborhoods, streets, homes. I love pictures, as they help me build a sense of place for my remote friends. Through pictures, I have been “inside” many of their homes. I love this.

I learn through my friends about their sufferings under the heavy oppression of the Israeli occupiers–the relentless dehumanizing and humiliation, the frequent violence, the deprivations. I tell them that my heart aches to be with them.

Something I began sort of yelling about many years ago is our typical misuse of the pronouns “they, them, their.” I don’t want to veer off into the weeds here, but as I read back over my answers to your questions, I see how often I employ those pronouns. Unavoidably, of course, but I feel compelled to clarify two things here:  While I recognize among my Palestinian friends a set of cultural and sub-cultural identities and a political cause that unites them, “they” are diverse, religiously, ideologically, and politically. The political divisions among Palestinians in Palestine and internationally are many and often deep and contentious. Of course. Most of my friends are Muslim, but even that designation carries a great diversity that we in the West tend ignorantly to deny or defiantly to ignore. “They” are immeasurably diverse personally as well as individually. After a mere six years of getting to know Palestinians, what can I tell you about “them”? Can I have another six, thirty, sixty years to formulate the beginning of my answer?

Raouf: Out of this collection of poems, please list the top five, in order, and why?

Kevin:  You know, of course, that poets have a reputation for thinking that their best poems are not the ones that others would choose.

Oh my! You just had to ask this question. Ha, ha!  As have other poets, I often find that the poems (of my own) which I love most are poems that leave my closest readers feeling indifferent or even baffled. Nonetheless, I will list my “top five,” with very brief explanations for why I chose them.

As I wrote these poems, I shared at least one draft, and sometimes several drafts of each poem with the friend on whom the poem focused. I asked the friend to let me know three things:  1. Does the poem make sense to you?  2) Does the poem say something true about you, in simple factual terms?  3) Does the poem say something meaningful, important, and true of you, your sense of who you are, your Self and circumstance? If my friend said no to any one or more of those questions, I revised the poem until we both felt satisfied. In some cases, as one might expect, a friend was shy about saying, “No, I have no idea what you are trying to say about me.” On the other hand, some bolder friends have indeed graced me with exactly that response! One response I have cherished came from a friend a few years after my book was published. She said, “For a long time, I didn’t fully understand that poem you wrote for me. Now, I understand it clearly. I love it. It does speak very well to my heart and my situation.”  Yet again, I take it for granted that some one or more friends might someday confess that “Sorry, I never did understand what your poem for me is trying to say.”

In the end, my poems are my voice, speaking my perceptions and perspectives, presenting my sense of who this or that friend is and my understanding of that friend’s circumstances. I confess to a sort of deliberate naivete in asking those three questions of each friend. As a writer I can never fully, or perhaps even adequately, escape myself. In writing a poem for and about someone else, I am asking that someone if he or she can agree, more comfortably than not, with my sense of who she is, of what and how he is. I suppose it is a little like asking someone if they will agree to wear the clothes I choose for them, then take a picture and publish it in a book. For all that, I did my best to introduce my friends to whomever will read my book. I want the world to know my friends. All I can do, really, is to introduce. The rest is up to my friends and my readers.

Ali Ali Outs In Free – I name this one first because it is my favorite. I find it difficult to explain why. The other four I list randomly. I am unable to rank them in terms of why they are most meaningful to me. This first poem challenged me technically. I am borrowing heavily from a very old children’s game song. I am also keeping a playful tone, as one expects from such a song. That was difficult because the subject matter is of ultimate seriousness–issues  of life and death, of individual and collective suffering, of oppression and estrangement, etc.  Ali delights me. He is a deeply serious young man, yet joyful and playful. I want this poem to convey what seems to be his sense of exuberant hope. My Palestinian and Syrian friends have taught me much about hope–that most-often heavy and agonizing hope without which they cannot survive.

If Only You Could See the Bright Flower – I love this poem. As I said, I want the world to know my friends, Huda, all of them. I began this poem while standing below a great hilltop statue of St. Mary, overlooking Sidon, Lebanon, with Ein Al-Hilweh [Palestinian Refugee Camp] resting far below and behind Mary. That broke me.  [The irony is that Ein Al-Hilweh translates as Spring of Sweetness]

Ingredients – What I hear from virtually all of my friends is ambivalence, a rather multivalence of emotions. What defines their lives? The same things that define mine. We go about our daily lives with our families. We bake cakes, in other words. The ingredients of our lives are not generally and in themselves special or extraordinary. We cook, eat, clean up. I may arrogate to myself the label of “activist” on behalf of a cause, but unless I can connect meaningfully with the mundane lives–that most meaningful and definitely human part–of those I stand with, then I should probably be silent about the rest of it–the political turmoil, the suffering, the violence that makes the news (or maddeningly fails to make the news). In this poem, I am trying to pull two disparate sets of experiences together, one natural and the other unnatural, trying to understand, trying to keep my own mind from splitting.

Sniper – What can I say? This poem is my attempt to imagine the mind of a sniper–having never been a sniper or sniper’s victim. I read and heard a lot about the Great Return March in Gaza, from both sides of the fence, and read and heard also of the boasting that some IDF (Israel Defense Forces) snipers indulged in after shooting Gazan protesters. I’m angry.

Hurricane – We want to simplify. Everything. We want to make our lives easier, our actions easier to justify. In this poem, I try to capture what I heard and felt through some of my conversations with Doaa. Again, that multivalence. Doaa carries a deep peace in her, along with a profound grief, fierce anger, even a rage, a love of her people, and a wide and deep capacity for compassion and respect for others. I hope this poem says something about how that wild mixture of seemingly irreconcilable emotions can be focused within a single heart.

Epilogue: Ironic it is that Doaa, a principal character in Kevin and Linda Hadduck’s life and Kevin’s writing, is an eponymous nomenclature with deep Koranic overtones. The Doaa is an earnest prayer invoking the Devine Creator to intercede, a heartfelt individual or collective supplication in the face of overwhelming  and insurmountable challenges.

And that is my Doaa to an apathetic and callous world whose support for the most brutal, racist, and xenophobic regimes of modern times: You are complicit in the crimes against humanity perpetrated on innocent Palestinians who’ve been paying heavily for the Christian West’s crimes in the gas chambers, an expiation of guilt the basis of which is a chauvinistic, nationalistic, intolerant, racist, and  nationalistic  mindset – led by Joseph Biden, Democrats and Republicans alike, and their NATO underlings, a greedy lot out to subjugate the world.

For God’s Sake, “Man,” release Palestinians and Palestine from their 74 years of bondage and oppression.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.