The street is empty
as a monk’s memory,
and faces explode in the flames
like acorns –
and the dead crowd the horizon
No vein can bleed
more than it already has,
no scream will rise
higher than it has already risen.
We will not leave!
- Exodus, Taha Muhammad Ali
Among the cascading levels of destruction in the ongoing onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza lies the flattened house of Palestinian poet Othman Hussein and his family in Rafah in southern Gaza. On July 17, the poet’s home was completely destroyed, although Hussein and his relatives were fortunate enough to escape harm. This incident follows the demolition of the Palestinian artist Raed Issa’s home in an airstrike on July 15. Are these what Israel loosely terms “militant targets”? Why would they intend to demoralise and obliterate culture? What threat does a poet pose?
Throughout the history of the colonised world, the role of the intellectual and literary luminary has been to engage in a struggle to ‘write back’ reality. The work of poets, novelists and persons of pen has been crucial to the attainment of political liberation as they seek to craft a sense of collective identity, producing common myths, symbols and social vision by interpreting material conditions and constructing the meaning of the independent existence for the community . For the poet to take on a leadership role in her community is an essential part of Arab cultural history. Poets are considered persons of visions and prophecy, and have, since pre-Islamic times, played a critical role in their society. Bassam Frangieh, specialist in Arab literature and culture, is of the opinion that Adb al-Rahim Mahmoud was the first notable Palestinian poet-defender of the modern era in Palestine who is known to have carried his “soul in the palm of his hand”, as he expressed his sentiment in verse and action, fatally defending his village in a siege by Haganah, an Israeli terrorist organisation of the time, in 1948.
But writers in this context go beyond reflection and evocation of society; they become active agents in the production of community. German literary critic Walter Benjamin, in his essay ‘The Author as Producer’, argues that the intellectual’s impact as a cultural producer extends to the articulation, through the language of culture, the feelings and experiences which the masses cannot express for themselves. Benjamin conceives of an organic translation of meaning between intellectual, society and nation in a similar vein to that of Frantz Fanon, who saw intellectuals as the artisans of “national culture”, a concept Fanon defines as a “whole body of efforts made by people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence”. In the context of a liberation struggle – like that of Palestinians against the settler-colonialist Israeli state that established itself on Palestinian land in 1948, expelling the indigenous populous in the first of a continuing wave of ethnic cleansing – Fanon terms the scripting of this national culture “combat literature”.
Thus, Palestinian poetry, as the voice of self-expression under Israeli occupation, is a form of figurative reply in the face of actual and cultural domination. Alongside the military occupation and the political and economic stranglehold – Gaza is widely considered an open-air prison – Israel has waged a merciless war on Palestinian history, identity and culture. Archaeological excavations throughout Israel are infamous for the destruction of entire layers of ancient evidence of Islamic and Arab presence. Israeli historians have engaged in a classic tale of selective colonial narration in which the past of the indigenous population has been erased in parts and selected in others as fitting to the national ideology of the colonial state. It is still widely claimed in Israel and among its Zionist supporters elsewhere that Palestinians as a unique ethnic entity never existed independent of Zionist proximity, and/or that a Palestinian history and identity is a pure fabrication by neighbouring Arab states in order to delegitimise Israel. Artisanal and artistic symbols and skills have been reappropriated as ‘Israeli’ and part of ‘Hebrew style’ art and regional Arab delicacies such as humus, falafel, tabbouleh and labneh have all been rebranded. The Palestinian flag and other symbols of their collective identity, such as the kheffiyeh (a headdress worn by men), are met with direct hostility and confiscation once one crosses over a checkpoint from the occupied territories into Israel. I was apprehended for two hours in Tel Aviv airport upon leaving Israel in late 2012 for having Palestinian cultural artefacts and literature in my backpack. My Hebron ceramics were shattered, my external hard drive confiscated and my luggage strewn all over the floor. I am not even Palestinian.
Palestinian cultural producers have consistently been under fire from Israel in a similar fashion to the intellectual leadership and the press. Many of the leading voices of poetry have tales of exile, imprisonment and a perpetual search for awda – return. As Edward Said has warned, “if you need a thought police to champion a cause, something is wrong”. It is precisely because it has been under literal and figurative siege from Israel that Palestinian cultural and literary identity is perhaps more defined and distinct than that of neighbouring Arab states.
Poets have become the leading producers of a Palestinian collective ethos, exemplifying the resistance movement as their poems are inflamed in song and leading to the designation of Palestinians as the “poets of resistance”. The works of Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Zayyad, Samih al-Qasim, Ghassan Zaqtan and Othman Hussein, among numerous others, have been translated and distributed widely. Indeed, Darwish is considered one of the greatest poets of the second half of the 20th century.
Fittingly, Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist political party that governs the Gaza Strip, regularly publishes poetry on its website, through various media outlets, and in published collections. Hamas does this to harness the widespread consumption of the literary form, which unlike in many other communities transcends class barriers. In Gaza, poetry is a medium of political mobilisation and ideological consolidation, and Hamas is intensively engaged in producing and promoting literature on all levels of society. The Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has published several novels and his work is well received throughout the Arabic literary world. Fathi al-Shiqaqi, the founding leader of another Palestinian Islamist party, Islamic Jihad, wrote poetry extensively and at times incorporated it in diplomatic letter to convey the intensity of his concern and emotions over affairs.
A further poet-leader of Hamas, Ibrahim al-Maqadmah, has come to mind often in the past few weeks as I hear the barrage of racism from liberal and mainstream global media, regurgitating the loathsome Israeli term of “human shield”. To claim that an entire people do not love their children enough to reflexively protect them in danger, that the same poetry-writing leadership are such barbarous individuals that they offer up their children, wives and elderly to be bombed by Israeli soldiers is a claim of such hate and explicit racism that I simply cannot comprehend the dark void of its origin and intended usage.
Al-Maqadmah wrote many of his verses from an Israeli prison before he was assassinated in 2003. In this painful poem, he recalls the memory of his child’s death and the funeral he could not attend:
O, the mother of Ahmad: this is a wedding for Ahmad
the dream gets bigger, as Ahmad gets older
the more he hurls stones at the soldiers
whenever he is wounded
when he screams in the faces of the soldiers:
‘the army of Muhammad will return, will return
Here, the grief expressed is diffused with what political communication critic Atef Alshaer calls the “promise of the divine”. The temporal chronology in this poetic excerpt is entirely jumbled. It begins in the past dreams of a father – his dead son’s future wedding. Time progresses from there, then jumps back to the near past of his son’s fatal confrontation with Israeli soldiers, and then transcends to an eternal present: the prophesised future return of a past divine figure. The collapse of time and chronology is common to the recollections of the traumatised, as is the turn to religion for solace, hope and reason in that face of incomprehensible destruction and disorder, in every minute of Gazan life. To some extent this view is a product of Israel, but it is not a borrowed and refigured brand – it is entirely unprecedented in its desperation and despair. Whatever the reader may draw from the future imaginations or role of the poet as a political leader of Hamas, one cannot deny the love of a father for his child. Nor can one dismiss the context in which he writes.
Fanon writes that it is the settler’s work to “make even dreams of liberty impossible for the native”. But despite Israeli efforts to this end, Palestinian poetry and culture is resistant. This is the engine room in the factory of dreams, where the mind of the Palestinian oppressed is the most powerful weapon she holds against permanent erasure. It is the responsibility of humanity to take note, and keep listening.
Pic Credit: Mohamed Jabaly