Thursday, January 29, 2015

Write Down! Poems From The Heart Of Palestine

Dear friends,
you may have already seen this wonderful post from the Institute for Palestine Studies on Buzzfeed.  The post features some of Palestinian's incredible poets, including Mahmoud Darwish who is recognised as Palestine's national poet, died in 2008. I wrote the following account of his life at the time: 

All the hearts of the people are my identity: the life and death of a poet  (Click on title to read)

In solidarity, Kim 


Write Down! Poems From The Heart Of Palestine

Write Down!

Mahmoud Darwish, 
the preeminent Palestinian poet of his time.
Write Down!
A Palestinian within Israel (so-called “Arab Israeli” in Israeli parlance in reference to those Palestinians who came under Israeli rule after the 1947-1949 war; Palestinian citizens of Israel prefer to call themselves “1948 Palestinians”), Darwish’s poetry antagonized the Israeli state from day one. 

As a young child he was instructed by his teacher to present a poem celebrating Israel’s Independence Day (what Palestinians call the “Nakba” or Catastrophe). He wrote it in the form of a letter addressed to a Jewish boy relating that for a Palestinian this was a day of tragedy for it marks the loss of their homeland. 

The seven year old Darwish was hauled to a police station and threatened with loss of his father’s work permit. In the early years of Israeli rule, Palestinian citizens lived under martial law and public references to Palestine and the Palestinian connection to the land were severely circumscribed by the Israeli state.

Darwish’s rebellious and nationalist prose, including his membership in the Israeli Communist Party, eventually landed him under house arrest and later in life the common Palestinian fate of exile. Darwish returned to historic Palestine with the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. Throughout his life, no one poet or leader or writer or intellectual of any kind evoked the Palestinian experience of dispossession, exile, occupation, tragedy, and, above all, hope for redemption more than Mahmoud Darwish. 

His most celebrated poem, “Identity Card,” was a cry of dignity and pride that stirred the hearts of a people who had suffered the loss of a homeland and were told to keep their heads down. The crowd shouted, “Encore!” 

Mahmoud Darwish passed away 9 August 2008 in Houston, Texas, where he was undergoing heart bypass surgery. He was 67. 

“Identity Card”
Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks …
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Write down!
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew

My father … descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather … was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title!

Write down!
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors
And the land which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks …
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware …
Beware …
Of my hunger
And my anger!

One of Darwish’s most famous poems, “Passport,” was adapted by the Lebanese artist Marcel Khalife. English lyrics are in the video: 

“Probably one of the best lyrical retakes of the the 1948 Palestinian refugee exodus yet it’s still applicable to anyone who feels detached from a literal or figurative home. Marcel tells of how deep his connection is to the land and yet how he is denied the sense of belonging because of his passport. He ends the song with a declaration that his nationality is now dependent on the kindness of others and that his passport is meaningless.

This song illustrates how for many Palestinians their passports no longer reflect who they are. Despite how rooted in the land the song describes the refugee he is still removed from it by the passport. He appeals to his superiors “gentlemen” but ends the song with no resolution, just like refugee situation remains today.” 

Read a landmark 1996 interview with Darwish: “Exile Is So Strong Within Me, I May Bring It to the Land.”

Journal for Palestine Studies editor Rashid Khalidi reflects on the life of Darwish: Remembering Mahmud Darwish.

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

 Taha Muhammad Ali - Photo via:

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness
 Born in the Galilee village of Saffuriyya, Muhammad Ali was exiled and a refugee in Lebanon after the 1947-1949 war. He surreptitiously snuck back into what was now Israel and settled in the city of Nazareth after his village, like hundreds of Palestinian villages, was razed by Israeli authorities who subsequently planted a forest over the ruins. 

Self-taught (he never finished primary school), he dedicated his life to mastering the art of the poem and cultivated the friendship of many men of letters. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Muhammad Ali entered the word of poetry much later in life - he published his first collection in his 50s. 

And reflected on that long journey in his poem “Twigs”: 

And, so
it has taken me
all of sixty years
to understand
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people’s hearts.

His poetry was accessible and subtle: “aim over here to strike over there,” in his words.
The street is empty
as a monk’s memory,
and faces explode in the flames
like acorns—
and the dead crowd the horizon
and doorways.
No vein can bleed
more than it already has,
no scream will rise
higher than it’s already risen.
We will not leave!

Everyone outside is waiting
for the trucks and the cars
loaded with honey and hostages.
We will not leave!
The shields of light are breaking apart
before the rout and the siege;
outside, everyone wants us to leave.
But we will not leave!

Ivory white brides
behind their veils
slowly walk in captivity’s glare, waiting,
and everyone outside wants us to leave,
but we will not leave!

The big guns pound the jujube groves,
destroying the dreams of the violets,
extinguishing bread, killing the salt,
unleashing thirst
and parching lips and souls.
And everyone outside is saying:
“What are we waiting for?
Warmth we’re denied,
the air itself has been seized!
Why aren’t we leaving?”
Masks fill the pulpits and brothels,
the places of ablution.
Masks cross-eyed with utter amazement;
they do not believe what is now so clear,
and fall, astonished,
writhing like worms, or tongues.
We will not leave!

Are we in the inside only to leave?
Leaving is just for the masks,
for pulpits and conventions.
Leaving is just
for the siege-that-comes-from-within,
the siege that comes from the Bedouin’s loins,
the siege of the brethren
tarnished by the taste of the blade
and the stink of crows.
We will not leave!

Outside they’re blocking the exits
and offering their blessings to the impostor,
praying, petitioning
Almighty God for our deaths.

Perhaps his most famous collection was Fooling the Killers that opened up with a “Warning.” “It was now four decades since Taha had set foot in Saffuriyya, and Fooling the Killers stood as a tribute both to the memory of the village and to the poet’s own present-tense resiliency: the title poem is one of those classic Taha creations that both refers to something (and someone) specific even as it opens out into other, more enigmatic and all-inclusive realms. It takes shape as a ruminative speculation on the fate of his childhood best friend,” Adina Hoffman writes in her biography of Muhammad Ali, My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century.

Lovers of hunting,
and beginners seeking your prey:
Don’t aim your rifles
at my happiness,
which isn’t worth
the price of the bullet
(you’d waste on it)
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn’t happiness.
Trust me:
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness.

I wonder now
where you are…
I haven’t forgotten you
after all these years,
long as the graveyard
wall is long.

But even if they did it,
if, shamelessly,
they killed you,
I’m certain
you fooled your killers
just as you managed
to fool the years.
For they never discovered
your body at the edge of the road,
and didn’t find it
where the rivers spill,
or on the shelves
at the morgue,
and not on the way to Mecca,
and not beneath the rubble. 

“Although Taha himself had not vanished as Qasim did in 1948, his friend’s disappearing act seems to have offered a model for how to wiggle out of all kinds of torments, how to live (and eve die) on one’s own terms - without leaving tracks.” 

Taha Muhammad Ali passed away on 2 October 2011

A Picture of the House at Beit Jala

Ghassan Zaqtan
Born in the hilly Palestinian Christian village of Beit Jala near Bethlehem, Zaqtan’s early life was interrupted by the 1967 Six-Day War. At the dawn of his teen years, Beit Jala came under Israeli occupation and the cultivated and pristine lands of his hometown were slowly expropriated by Israeli settlements and the Separation Barrier. Upon completion of the Barrier, Beit Jala “will have lost about 46 percent of its land in the course of the last four decades of the prolonged Israeli occupation.” 

Later in life, Zaqtan was active with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and edited their literary publication “Bayader.” Like many Palestinians, he lived abroad and returned in the hopeful Oslo days. 

Although Zaqtan has been involved, as a writer, in the Palestinian resistance struggle against Israeli occupation and self-determination, he has spoken often about his avoidance of politicized poetry and eschewing any vanguard role.

“I am not the kind of person who will walk in front of the demonstration. I feel that’s not my place. I walk behind the demonstration in order to collect the small things that may fall, whether it’s the handkerchief or a child’s backpack or a purse. That’s my attitude,” he once said in an interview with broadcaster PBS. 

For Zaqtan, this represents a new trend in Palestinian poetry. Poets had long been called up to convey nationalist imagery and slogans, to be the voice of the resistance, and many Palestinian poets served that role during the days of armed resistance in the 1970s and ’80s. 

In recent years, Palestinian poets have moved away from grand narratives and have refocused their eye on the more intimate, mundane, and small realities of life. And Zaqtan has been a pioneer in that effort.

Photo Via
Separation Barrier around Beit Jala

“A Picture of the House at Beit Jala”
He has to return to shut that window,
it isn’t entirely clear
whether this is what he must do,
things are no longer clear
since he lost them,
and it seems a hole somewhere within him
has opened up

Filling in the cracks has exhausted him
mending the fences
wiping the glass
cleaning the edges
and watching the dust that seems, since he lost them,
to lure his memories into hoax and ruse.
From here his childhood appears as if it were a trick!
Inspecting the doors has fully exhausted him
the window latches
the condition of the plants
and wiping the dust
that has not ceased flowing
into the rooms, on the beds, sheets, pots
and on the picture frames on the walls

Since he lost them he stays with friends
who become fewer
sleeps in their beds
that become narrower
while the dust gnaws at his memories “there”
… he must return to shut that window
the upper story window which he often forgets
at the end of the stairway that leads to the roof

Since he lost them
he aimlessly walks
and the day’s small
purposes are also no longer clear.

Zaqtan lives in a village close to Ramallah and his tenth and most recent collection is titled Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me.

Read articles, statistics, and maps pertaining to Israeli settlement activities in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.

“Travel Tickets”

 Samih al-Qasim Photo Via

"Travel Tickets"
Born in the Galilee, at age nine al-Qasim’s life came under the control of Israel after the 1947-1949 war. Around that same time, he discovered his calling in life. A teacher announced, “We have a poet in this class.” 

“And everybody looked at - we looked at each other. Who is the poet here? And he wrote a few lines on the black board. And I discovered, I’m the poet.” 

His poetry is identified with the “resistance literature” of Palestinians within Israel. One of his poems conveys the repressive environment these Palestinians faced (In the 1950s and ’60s, as Palestinians lived under martial law until 1967, al-Qasim was repeatedly censored by Israeli officials):
“Slit Lips” 

I would have liked to tell you
The story of a nightingale that died.
I would have liked to tell you
The story…
Had they not slit my lips.

For him, poetry was “real revolutionary work.” 

“At the very beginning, it was a matter of surviving, just to stay in your homeland. And then you discover that you deserve more, not only to stay in your homeland, but to live free and equal in your homeland. So, language became an instrument.” 

al-Qasim was jailed and placed under house arrest several times by Israeli authorities, along with being harassed by the country’s domestic intelligence service, for his poetry and writings. A member of the Druze faith, al-Qasim strongly identified with the Palestinian struggle for equal rights within Israel and self-determination for all Palestinians. While Muslim and Christian Palestinians are exempt from military service in the Israel Defense Forces, Druze are conscripted. al-Qasim was one of the first Druze to refuse to serve. His son was similarly jailed for refusing to serve and his home village of al-Rama “has a proud, decades-long history of activism against the conscription of Druze to Israel’s military.” 

A powerful essayist as well, al-Qasim conveyed a passionate yearning, without being exuberant, for a more decent world. In the last years of his life, he reflected hopefully on the Arab uprisings: “I said once that when there will be a revolution in Tunisia, I will go there and I will dance barefoot in the Habib Bourguiba Avenue.” And was indifferent to how he would be remembered: “If the Palestinian people will be free, if the Arab world will be united, if social justice will be victorious in all the world, if there will be international peace. I don’t care who will remember me or my poems. I don’t care.”

Perhaps nothing captured his unsentimental decency more than an anecdote from his memoir It Is Just an Ashtray:
“One day I was marching in a large protest in Haifa and I was chanting with protesters ‘Jewish-Arab Brotherhood.’ Suddenly a Jewish Israeli challenged me from across the side walk yelling ‘this will never happen. There will be no such brotherhood!’” al-Qasim says, adding, “In a flash…I told that provocative person ‘hell if I care’ and continued on my way marching enthusiastically…”
One of his most beloved poems reflected that hope for humanity’s forward march no matter the tragedy of human beings pitted against human beings: 

“Travel Tickets”
On the day you kill me
You’ll find in my pocket
Travel tickets
To peace,
To the fields and the rain,
To people’s conscience.
Don’t waste the tickets. 

al-Qasim was laid to rest in al-Rama on 21 August 2014.

Read “Redrawing the Boundaries of Citizenship: Israel’s New Hegemony.”
Read To be an Arab in Israel.

To learn more about Palestinian history and culture, and current affairs, visit the Institute for Palestine Studies.

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