“I Write an Attempt”: On Mohammed El-Kurd’s “Rifqa”

December 4, 2021   •   By Summer Farah

Rifqa

Mohammed El-Kurd

IN MOHAMMED EL-KURD’S remarkable debut, Rifqa, the Jerusalem-based poet writes of longing: for a childhood uninterrupted, for home, for laughter. These longings are, of course, wrapped up in that ever-present burn for liberation that settles in the stomachs of Palestinians, both in the region and across the globe. Rifqa beautifully explores the ways colonialism alters our navigation of time and space — a few miles of travel can take a lifetime, an event that occurred 73 years ago is happening for the first time tomorrow, and the city from which you fled can be recreated where you land. In El-Kurd’s work, there are reverberations of Palestinian visionaries that came before him. Suheir Hammad’s cadence, in particular, is resonant. It appears both textually in subtitles marked “after Suheir Hammad,” and in the body of poems, but her influence is present even when she goes unmentioned. In her poem “post Zionism” as it appears in ZaatarDiva, she writes: “This is nothing new / I have always we have / always been,” with the refrain of “we have always been” repeating continuously throughout the stanzas. The poem is an assertion and a rejection; the title is both the acknowledgment of a current era, the state after Zionism, but also a wish — the state after Zionism. El-Kurd, too, holds this simultaneity — in the title poem, “Rifqa,” El-Kurd writes of his grandmother, “Rifqa left Haifa to go to Haifa / to go to Haifa.” In the poem “1998/1948,” he writes, “It is the same killing / they do it in whispers,” “It’s the same killing / everywhere. Seventy-some years later / we haven’t lived a day.” This recursiveness is apt, perhaps the most appropriate form in order to capture the Nakba.

“Born on Nakba Day” appears as “My Nakba Birthday” in El-Kurd’s spoken word album from 2019, Bellydancing on Wounds. On his album, El-Kurd performs his work alongside ‘ud accompaniment by Clarissa Bitar, resulting in an intimate, immersive experience. The ‘ud begins after El-Kurd says, “look, / listen,” a stunning transition, an expert draw. Here, it feels like there is just the listener who receives El-Kurd’s voice and the music. On the page, however, the audience functions differently; in the absence of sound, there is a stronger attention to the particularities of language. In “Born on Nakba Day,” this “look, / listen” marks a transition, too — this time, instead, it sets the scaffolding for an audience within an audience. El-Kurd begins, “Your unkindness rewrote my autobiography […] Your unkindness told me to push / through, // look, / listen.” This is the only time the poem addresses a “you” — the rest is focused on the “I” and those “[o]utside the hospital room.” The event of the speaker’s birth is to be perceived by the reader and by his people — it is spectacle. El-Kurd writes, “Birth lasts longer than death / In Palestine death is sudden, / instant / constant.”

Like the Nakba, Palestinian death is ongoing, but also like the Nakba, Palestinian resistance is, too. I think of Hammad’s poem “post Zionism,” with its repetition of “always been” as a manifestation of Palestinian existence. El-Kurd produces an origin story that is aware of the world into which it is awakening — he is not a “main character,” as origin stories can often imply. Instead, he elegantly folds his personal narrative into the collective. The poem ends, the people “told my mother / to push” — labor, life, is a revolution, too. The creation of audience in this poem is deliberate and careful. A mark of this collection is absolutely its self-awareness of the act of writing — it is necessary to be hyper-attuned to who is reading and how they are watching when your occupier has the strongest military in the world on its side.

This attunement to and investment in the act of writing manifests playfully in some places, mournfully sharp in others. In “Autobiography,” El-Kurd writes, “I’m bored with the metaphors Children threw stones Sirens were lullabies / fireworks; bombs    and we were sick of it.” Through this blunt refusal of “metaphor,” El-Kurd reiterates that colonialism is not a theoretical concept nor a thing of the past. The violences he writes about are not hypothetical. I love the moments of grounded declaration in “Autobiography”: “Zoloft makes my face swell up a choice between sanity and slimness”: children throw stones and people are on antidepressants. There is mundanity among the rubble.

“Anti-Biography,” by contrast, is more indulgent in its poetry; “Autobiography” is a prose poem, lines running into each other and sentences meshing and muddling in an overwhelming breath, while “Anti-Biography” spans several pages, some lines lounging in white space. It’s meandering, in a way — both poems feel like heavy processing, but the performance is different. “Autobiography” is a rush of interiority, while the latter is a refutation on perception and performance in a careful play of the sarcastic versus the earnest. El-Kurd, reflecting on artists’ bios, writes, “I think identity is corny. / That would have enraged me at seventeen.” And later, “I am but the institution, the prestige, the watermelon” — the state, the state, and the resistance flag. What happens to a resistance symbol if it is uttered in the same breath as the state it opposes? As in “Autobiography,” the treatment of mental illness is grounding. “A cluttered bed- / room isn’t poetic,” he writes, breaking the earlier lush syntax. El-Kurd continually refuses to romanticize. These poems respond to the construction and commodification of the poet, perpetuated by the self and the reader under the institution.

El-Kurd’s work also draws attention to the way language is manipulated under occupation. The poem “‘Fifteen-Year-Old Girls Killed for Attempting to Kill a Soldier,’ or ‘Context’” takes that head-on. He writes,

Violence is not children
taking on dragons.

For me, it has always been apologies.
Running to catastrophe    with    context,   commissioning
compassion, turning
heroes into humans. This is a refuted revolution.

The refusal present in “Anti-Biography” appears again; El-Kurd is careful to depict the phenomena that keep Palestinians villainized. With poetry comes the potential for obstruction, and so El-Kurd’s gives context: “Context: they want cats / declawed, they want knocked doors / unanswered.” As the discourse cycle goes, each time there is a spotlight on uprisings by oppressed peoples, the matter of violent resistance is reduced to a disciplinary frown by the loudest liberals. El-Kurd resists that; this poem begins with an epigraph by Fanon: “In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives.” To declaw a cat is to disable it. To tell a colonized people how to resist is to give them a death sentence. To compare their resistance to the violence that encompasses them is to perform deliberate ignorance.

In “Laugh,” the poet synthesizes the geographies where he cut his teeth, “Atlanta taught me that people will / still applaud the bullets puncturing them if they have / the right rhythm. This taught me how to look. There are / many ways of looking.” I am reminded of the opening words of Solmaz Sharif’s Look: “It matters what you call a thing.” El-Kurd is looking at what looks at him, what constructs his people, and repeating it back. Often, repeating the absurdity that grows from the growing paranoia of a colonial power is all that is needed to make a point. It makes sense that his segments on CNN and other American news channels went viral at the peak of the uprisings in Palestine in May. When asked, do you support the violent protests that have erupted, he asks right back, “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?” Context: The declawed cat is unnatural. An indigenous people with no sovereignty is, too, unnatural.

And so, what is the function of poetry? What are we meant to glean from this collection, beautifully crafted but questioning of its very medium? “Laugh” tells us bluntly, “Poems won’t build a house.” On first read, I thought that was the thesis of the poem: the direct action El-Kurd learned from his communities in Atlanta, in Jerusalem — a reflection on what movements look like and what distracts us from them. Poems are not a distraction, though. He guides us throughout the collection with these moments that tell us the value of telling. A quote from his grandmother: “[I]f we don’t laugh, we cry.” This, instead, might be the balm of it all: “In Jerusalem,” the opening poem of the collection, ends with a quote from the poet’s mother: “The most tragic of disasters / are those which cause laughter.” Although contradictory on first look, I see these lines as continuations of each other — in the face of tragedy, if we don’t let ourselves laugh, we can only cry. In “Autobiography,” El-Kurd tells us plainly, “Laughter was the motive      less revolution and more liberty more child play.” In “Rifqa,” he writes, “What I write     is an almost. /    I write      an attempt.” In eulogizing his grandmother, he writes, “Relentless, she worked until survival became a funny story to tell with what remains of the family.” Poetry, then, cannot build a house, cannot stop a bomb. It can, however, communicate. El-Kurd’s flourishes come from repetition and breaks — his language is uncomplicated. This clarity, though, is necessary. How often are Palestinians dead by a word misheard? How often are Palestinians taken out of context? There is reiteration of intent so often in these poems, and there almost has to be. El-Kurd pours so much into this collection, in search of that opportunity for laughter, in celebration of those he documents.

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Summer Farah is a Palestinian American poet and editor. She is currently the outreach coordinator for the Radius of Arab American Writers and co-writes the biweekly newsletter Letters to Summer.