Hope, resistance and the value of Palestinian poetry

I would like to preface this article by admitting that I am by no means qualified to write on the actual events occurring in the Middle East at the moment, and have therefore chosen to let some of the affected people speak for themselves, through poetry. At the same time, I recognise that poetry is not created in a vacuum, so I will still try to frame the discussed works in context where necessary.  

The poem ‘Dawn’ by Rawan Hussin opens, quite appropriately, with the line ‘Dawn broke on our heads’. At first glance, this could not be a more conventional image; Hussin invokes the typical turn of phrase of ‘Dawn br[eaking]’ to construct a beautiful image of hope, renewal and beginning.

However, when put into context by the dashed signoff ‘—Gaza’ at the poem’s end, the peaceful assumptions and stereotypes of the first line become entirely subverted. The description of day-break is no longer idiomatic, but rather embodies a material, top-down violence, and the resulting fragility of the victimised ‘heads’; instead of natural rays from the rising sun, the light of ‘Dawn’ calls to mind the fires from the 29,000 bombs, munitions and shells dropped upon the Gaza strip since the poem’s composition date—June 1, 2021. In just five lines, Hussin crafts a seemingly peaceful image that may be reinterpreted and overturned entirely when placed into the context of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war in the Middle East. 

Subverting the normative connotations of the overused English idiom ‘daybreak’ may not have been what Hussin herself intended—most of the world’s interactions with Palestinian literature, including my own here, are filtered through translation. Regardless of Hussin’s intentions, or even awareness of the idiom, however, her translator Fady Joudah clearly thought the connection was interesting or important enough to make. The opening line of ‘Dawn’ therefore serves as a perfect example of the value of Palestinian poetry, and its translations, in our current society. By bearing witness to the ‘terror’ and ‘tumbl[ing]’ ‘ceilings’ in Gaza, these poems testify to the enduring impact of language as a medium of documentation and communication; but, more importantly, the ‘language’ of anglophone narratives surrounding the Middle East has become increasingly dominated by American- or Western-centric perspectives, such as that of the New York Times, which sometimes elide or do not represent in full the horrors occurring. As translated poems like ‘Dawn’ embed local Palestinian experiences of death and destruction within English linguistic convention, or even simply enter such testimonies into the anglophone literary corpus, they undercut the dominant voices of Western media and scream for us, global readers, to pay attention to their experiences on their own terms. 

At the same time, although Hussin’s opening image is arguably destabilised, it introduces a potential coexistence of beauty and hope alongside prevailing death and desperation—a coexistence that becomes affirmed in the other Palestinian poems archived on The Baffler. In ‘A Small Eternity’, Mourid Barghouti acknowledges the dehumanising totality of the casualties in Gaza, depicting ‘losses’ ‘arranged / like dictionaries on the shelves’; the entire poem pivots on the opening word, ‘Alone’, which clearly locates the speaker in the isolating experience of surviving destroyed homes and murdered loved ones. Yet the poem does not focus on loss itself, instead choosing to centre beautiful images of greenery, ‘forests’ and ‘flowers’, with their associations of rebirth and flourishing growth. The natural landscape takes on an anthropogenic meaning as well, as the mountains are described as ‘ancestral’, ‘the body of time itself’; they embody the cultural memory of the community that inhabits them, including all of the people’s history, traditions and ties of belonging. The speaker recognises that these images of a prelapsarian homeland, untouched by the later reality of Gaza’s bombing and destruction, are suspended in a transient moment of imagination—‘learn[ing] the names of these trees, / plants, blooms, and birds’ alone would ‘need a year’ he does not have. Yet in precisely this moment, the land’s beauty and its ties to the speaker’s people are affirmed, rather than overcome by despair. Poetry from the Palestinian people therefore serves a further purpose of nuancing media portrayal of their experiences: yes, there is a genocide with concrete suffering occurring; yes, material aid is very much needed; but there also exists culture, and tradition, and a sense of vibrant humanity that cannot be flattened into unidimensional narratives of destruction, and that deserves recognition.   

In his acknowledgement of the losses occurring around him, Barghouti’s speaker also asserts that the dead never truly leave—they are embodied in the memories of those who live on, ‘under the buttons of [their] light shirt[s]’; as well as in artefacts of memorialisation, such as the ‘photo’ ‘Tamim is about to take’ in the poem. The title of ‘A Small Eternity’ is apt, then: although the idyllic world envisioned by the speaker must dissolve, and those who have died must remain dead, such transient moments of beauty and connection remain captured forever in the speaker’s ‘photo’, which in turn parallels the metatextual role of the poem itself. By envisioning a scene where he ‘fix[es] Radwa’s collar, / draw[s] Munif and [his] mother closer to [him], / and move the tallest, [his] father and Majid, to the center’, the speaker writes his very phantoms into being, and preserves their memory in an archival language that resists the decay of time. 

Tariq Alarabi continues Barghouti’s focus on the intimate connections between Palestinians in his poem ‘Carob Tree’, but roots his timescale entirely in the present, rather than in an irretrievable past that can only be conjured through memorialisation. As he filters mentions of war through its impact on the speaker’s daily routines of grocery shopping (‘Tomatoes are cheap this season / and the farmers are sad’), Alarabi testifies to the ongoing lives in Palestine and their mundane, quiet humanity; while the speaker is affected by the loss of a ‘you’ who is ‘not here’, he chooses to manifest their continued existence by conversationally addressing all his thoughts and experiences towards them, thereby refusing to consign them to past memory. In the offhand confession ‘I’ve saved the best tomatoes for you’, the speaker even reveals a determined, unthinking belief that takes a future of sustenance and reunion for granted. By centring the Palestinians’ careful maintenance of seemingly hopeless relationships through ongoing acts of care and love, Alarabi reveals how they collectively manifest a hopeful vision of a better tomorrow.  

Ultimately, poems and literary works are what they are—words on a page, unable to effect concrete, material change in a world dominated by flying bullets and flashing bombs. Last December, The Guardian even reported on the tragic deaths of Palestinian poets Hiba Abu Nada and Refaat Alareer in the airstrikes on Gaza; it is unbearably ironic how these people who wrote ‘tale[s]’ of ‘hope’ themselves came to such hopeless ends. As Barghouti’s ‘A Small Eternity’ has shown, acts of memorialisation, no matter how effective, are only retrospective in nature and cannot truly liberate the deceased from their fate; no matter how strongly Ahlam Bsharat asserts in ‘How I Kill Soldiers’ that she ‘could have easily killed [colonial soldiers] / in [her] poems / as they’ve killed [her] family / outside poetry’, readers understand, just as firmly, that these so-called literary deaths remain hypothetical. Placed against the backdrop of the mass deaths occurring in Gaza right now, the creation of poetry seems useless, or even privileged in comparison. Najwan Darwish’s ‘I Write the Land’ goes as far as to draw a connection between his own creation of poetry and the ‘colonizers st[ealing] [his] severed hand / and st[icking] it in a museum’, self-consciously mocking the tendencies of artistic representation to beautify Palestinian experience and create a watered-down, yet still voyeuristic exhibition of their pain. 

The difference between Darwish’s writing and the colonisers’ behaviour, however, or the persisting value of Palestinian poetry—regardless of its physical powerlessness and euphemistic tendencies—lies in the projection of the authentic voices of those actually affected by the Middle Eastern conflict. While the ability of ‘Dawn’ to undercut dominant media depiction from the USA and other Western countries was discussed earlier, perhaps these poems also unsettle the narratives that Bsharat’s ‘Colonial soldiers’ desire to impose upon the Palestinian people through acts of genocide. Bsharat recognises this by the end of ‘How I Kill Soldiers’ as she finally makes a strong and significant assertion: ‘you’, she says to the soldiers, ‘will not / produce more / than a dead sound’. Here, she capitalises on the countless casualties caused by military bullets to show that ‘dea[th]’ is precisely the only thing these soldiers are capable of producing—endings, the termination of life, the shutting in of themselves within dead-end labels of murderer and genocide enforcer. In contrast, Bsharat’s poem, along with all the other poems mentioned above, provide testimonies to Palestinian life that humanise the people beneath the generalised, faceless statistics and resound in perpetuation within empathetic, humane hearts around the world. Slight as their power may be, these poems can and will survive past the current conflict, until the voices of victimised civilians become the dominant narrative in the ‘many remaining years’ to come, and the soldiers’ guilty ‘ears’ finally ‘execute’ themselves.  

‘& so it is written’, parrots George Abraham in his poem ‘ars poetica in which every pronoun is a Free Palestine’, regurgitating the Biblical statement of absolute authority that has been misappropriated to justify destruction and genocide. But it isn’t written. Not the Palestinians’ predicaments, not by Western media or by the power of Israeli soldiers. As Barghouti impels in ‘A Small Eternity’, ‘write as you desire’; as Darwish’s title asserts, he—and other Palestinian people—’Write the Land’; as Abraham himself shows, the self-constructed importance of colonisers, as well as the discriminatory narratives they perpetrate surrounding Palestinians, can be literally overwritten by replacing every single signifier of identity with ‘FREE PALESTINE’. 

It is through these acts of writing and rewriting that Palestinian poets bear witness to their people’s experiences, memorialise deceased family and friends, assert the continued beauty of those who live on, and express their beliefs in a hopeful future. And by doing so, they reclaim agency, propagating counter-narratives that ‘write back’ to and replace inaccurate or unjust accounts of their people. 

If you are interested in reading more Palestinian poetry, the ‘Poems from Palestine’ series on The Baffler is beautiful. My personal favourite is Ahlam Bsharat’s ‘Obeidah the Cow’.


Featured image: Emad El Byed on Unsplash

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