The Gaza Poetry Roundtable: Part III
DURING THE RECENT EVENTS in Gaza, I was struck by how many more questions I had than answers. As poets, we spend our days thinking about specificity and detail. We attempt to make sense of the world, or at least, illuminate the ways comprehension eludes us. If poetry is news that stays news, then what can poets help us understand about seemingly incomprehensible situations?
In true 21st century fashion I issued a call on Facebook asking if anyone could put me in touch with poets and critics who were in Israel or the West Bank, Palestine. Within moments I had so many suggestions and offers of help. This in itself says something about the world of poetry. How small it is. And how varied.
It has been my privilege over the last 10 days to work with some very brave and thoughtful poets on the following dispatches on the situation in Gaza. Some of the poets are American citizens. All have a deep connection to the region. Three of our four correspondents are currently living in Israel or the West Bank. All of our correspondents wrote their pieces amidst sirens and fears for the safety of their families. Which also says something about the world of poetry.
We welcome letters and thoughts about these pieces. We welcome you to the conversation.
— Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Poetry Editor
— Joshua Rivkin, Assistant Poetry Editor
— Elizabeth Metzger, Assistant Poetry Editor
Teaching Walt Whitman in Tel Aviv
By Dara Barnat
ANY MOMENT A PIERCING siren may go off, one that hustles people into bomb shelters, stairwells, protected rooms. I announce that if this happens, we’ll head to the shelter in the building, wait for the danger to pass, then return to our classroom. I am teaching a course on Walt Whitman at Tel Aviv University, which I’ve taught for the past several years in the Department of English and American Studies. In many cases, the students’ first languages aren’t actually English, but Hebrew, Arabic, or Russian. We are very far from where Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, not just geographically, but linguistically and culturally. Two students have emailed me to say they were sorry to miss class, but they’d been called up to the army. The students who are in class have a questioning expression on their faces: Who can study Whitman at a time like this? I have a ready response to this question, which I say aloud: Now is the time we must study Whitman.
At best, such a statement probably sounds naïve, at worst, absurd. Why would reading Whitman — the 19th-century American, bombastic, arrogant, sensual poet — be relevant, let alone urgent, during a crisis in the Middle East? Not to mention there is a pervading doubt among students, society, and frequently poets themselves, as to poetry’s importance. Poetry doesn’t make anything “happen”; rather, it is a vague and suspicious “way of happening,” to evoke Auden’s elegy for Yeats. A poem can’t break down a wall or protect us from missiles. A poem can’t rush to the scene of a bus bombing with blankets and stretchers. Whitman himself volunteered in the Civil War, bringing comfort to the sick and dying soldiers from the North and South. But Whitman — the man — is no longer living.
Walt Whitman, by Matthew Brady
But to me, studying Whitman while under threat of psychological and physical violence is in fact crucial. I’ve lived in Tel Aviv for 11 years, since I was 22. I have experienced first hand how the wounds in this region refuse to heal. They fester and flare up, most recently in a barrage of rockets and air strikes. Sadly, any faith I once held in the possibility of a lasting peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples is almost nonexistent. Solutions certainly don’t come from leaders or politicians, who exploit these conflicts for their own interests. There are no saviors, only suffering. Yet, I don’t blame any particular party for this cycle of violence. Long ago I lost track of who inflicted what upon whom. I am on the side of Israelis. I am on the side of Palestinians. I believe each group deserves a peaceful, sovereign state in which to govern themselves freely and fairly.
So why Whitman? Because Whitman is not on anyone’s side, he is on everyone’s side. He is on the side of humanity. He is on my side and he is on your side. For Whitman, the individual — every individual — is sacred. I exist as I am, that is enough. Whitman was in love with himself, simply for being human. Divine am I inside and out. Whitman rejoiced in our bodies and souls, forsaking neither, taking neither for granted. Welcome is every organ and attribute of me. Whitman’s celebration of the “I” was really a celebration of the collective “we.” It takes students a while to grasp this concept. When they do, it’s an epiphany. A love of the self can be a love of everyone and vice versa.
From this basic sanctity of human life, Whitman believed a democratic, pluralistic society could emerge. Great is liberty! Great is equality! Whitman respected people for their differences, but never let us forget that we, the inhabitants of the earth, are bound inextricably to one another. I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. In Whitman’s world we are united not just abstractly, but in a tangible, physical sense, down to the exchanging of our atoms. We cannot but “assume” (that is, take on) whatever anyone else — comrade or enemy — is facing.
And for whatever we are facing, Whitman provides an infinite amount of empathy and compassion for others and ourselves. He does not judge his readers (us) for our inherent flaws and limitations. Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded. He forgives us for our failings, whatever they may be. Whitman admits to having had failings himself. I too knotted the old knot of contrariety, / Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d, / Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak. Whitman wants only for humanity to strive to become better, to give the optimum of what we are capable. Give me the best you possess.
I don’t wish to suggest that Whitman was purely an idealist or romantic. On the contrary, he writes of profound pessimism and doubt. It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, / The dark threw its patches down upon me also. Whitman witnessed the horrors of the Civil War and slavery. He witnessed a tearing apart of his beloved America. Leaves of Grass was his offering, his attempt to counteract evil. He appealed to his readers directly, with the longing that they would enact the vision he laid out in his lifelong project. Whitman believed poetry made things happen. He believed poetry could heal the fractures of his nation.
Perhaps he was naïve. Perhaps teaching Whitman’s poems won’t bring peace to this tumultuous land. Perhaps the fractures are just too deep. With sorrow I say there will likely be more, even worse, battles fought. However, in the years I’ve taught Whitman in Tel Aviv, I’ve had students of radically different backgrounds reading and, one hopes, absorbing his notions of equality, respect, and empathy. When I walk into class, the students are chattering in English, Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. This scene does not get on the news. No one films or photographs. But I’ve watched them agree, disagree, and agree to disagree. If I have any optimism left, it’s in the possibility of dialogue like ours. Once in a while, Whitman appears to me in the back of the classroom, with his long, white beard. The sun streams through the window, onto his poems, illuminating us all.
A Poet From Gaza Will Rise...And Win The Nobel Prize
By Fady Joudah
NO ONE CAME
only the dead arrived early
sat down in their blurred countenance.
In the air of the grand auditorium the smoke
the ashes of burned beds
swirled and stormed like black snow.
The smoke kept coming through
the carefully shut windows and doors
and out of the swept-clean floor, rushing out
of designs on Persian rugs, clinging
to curtains and starched tablecloths
and mineral water bottles.
Then someone, we couldn’t tell who, said:
No one came
only the dead arrived early
without carefully prepared files
and with only one mute
piece of evidence
More than 10 years ago, in a refugee camp near Bethlehem, during the second Intifada when a whole people were terrorized into hiding inside their homes, during one of the countless Israeli incursions of tanks, soldiers and American-made helicopters — a good friend of mine and his older brother crouched, paralytic for hours, in a corner of their house they deemed safest. A long time passed. A desire for life, for coffee, crept into the older brother who then asked his younger brother to make them some coffee. The younger brother refused to move. He could still hear bullets and mortar shells outside. The older brother admonished him: “Shame on you, don’t you remember Darwish making coffee in the middle of hell in Beirut?” This was a reference to perhaps one of the best pieces of writing of our time, Darwish’s prose memoir Memory for Forgetfulness. Mahmoud Darwish’s insistence on making (or imagining) his morning coffee during one of the worst days of the Israeli destruction of Beirut in 1982 is legendary. He refused to let death and devastation rob him of one of life’s basic and essential pleasures. This invocation dissipated my friend’s fear. Not only did he make that pot of coffee, but he also pulled out an old cassette, a recording of Darwish reading from his long documentary epic of that war, Praise of the High Shadow. My friend and his brother drank their coffee while listening to Darwish recite his poetry on a tape player. The taste of coffee triumphed over the taste of smoke and ashes, the sound of poetry drowned the sounds of war. My friend told me this story with a faint chuckle, joy and love of life in his voice.
I was recently on tour with the Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan, for his book Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me. In one of the readings an audience member asked us what we thought of Denise Levertov’s statement, in a letter to Robert Duncan, that she believes, in retrospect, her worst poems are the political ones. The question was really about Palestinian poetry, which is still generally defined in English as a political poetry: “Palestinian poetry does not have the luxury not to be engaged with the political, not when its entire people have been under siege, occupation, dispossession, and war for decades,” Ghassan Zaqtan replied, “and as for quality, quality speaks for itself.” Levertov, I also added, was a conscientious citizen of empire. Who exactly determines what a political poetry is, when it comes to Palestinians, for example? It is in no small part a construct imposed on the oppressed from within the halls of power. In other words, we continue to limit Palestinian poetry to a political frame constructed by an America that has not been able to fully and equally embrace the humanity of the Palestinian. The American government’s policy of humiliation and dehumanization of Palestinians goes beyond weaponry at many levels. The recent episode of Kafkaesque banality that delayed the promised issuance of Ghassan Zaqtan’s visa to the US is only an example. It was not a political decision against his person. It is an administrative policy against Palestinians, “part of Palestinian folklore,” as Zaqtan quipped. Does an Israeli author suffer any delay in obtaining a visa to the US? Instead, our national literary psyche is immediately aware and sympathetic (as one should be) to the personal tragedy of David Grossman’s loss of his soldier son in the war of 2006.
Textuality is ours; contextuality is theirs. When will we be able to think of Palestinian poetry beyond war, cold or hot? Even these words I write seem, paradoxically, to cement the notion that Palestinian literature is only about politics, catastrophe, and survival. When will we embrace Palestinian literature for its vision of exile, not as nostalgia but (as Judith Butler says of Darwish’s poetry) as a signpost for the future, for the strangers we are, the stranger within and without us? When will we “memorize some poetry to halt the slaughter,” as Darwish’s “Red Indian” asked in his “Penultimate Speech to the White Man”? Palestinian poetry asks us several important questions that shake up the ultra-hygienic compartmentalization within the academy of poetry. During the carnage of Gaza in 2008, a major decorated American poet circulated a vehement response against those poets who supported the people of Gaza. Indignant that the Palestinian tragedy should rank high in the hierarchy of suffering, the poet accused others of anti-Semitism and explained how Palestinians brought it upon themselves.
Here is Ghassan Zaqtan again:
Is there time left
for me to say to her
Good evening Mom
with a bullet in my heart
and that’s my pillow
I want to rest?
And Mom, if war
he’s taking a rest
Recently, in London, at breakfast time at the hotel, I could hear the voice of a chatty little boy talking non-stop with his father as they approached the breakfast room. The boy’s voice reminded me of my own son. They were speaking in Hebrew. In the middle of the conversation the boy blurted out an emphatic command to his father in Arabic: “Khalas!” Enough! In his four year-old voice it was adorable. It warmed my heart with a smile. But soon darkness began to descend on me. It was a family of five. The daughter looked about 12 years old, the son about 15. The mother and father sat caringly, patiently, and exhausted by the ceaseless energy of the adorable little boy. It dawned on me that the father and mother had most certainly served as soldiers at checkpoints whose main purpose is to control Palestinian life as if herding cattle. It dawned on me that their son and daughter, in such a militarized society as Israel, with its mandatory service, would soon serve as well, and I began to be filled with horror at the thought that I would ever send any of my children to join any army. It also became achingly clear that the Arabic word the boy used, “Khalas,” is also one that is used, if not learned, at the checkpoint.
Some of the most telling responses to the second Intifada, in American letters, can be found published in prestigious American medical journals, studies of the war’s traumatic psychological impact on Israeli civilians. No such study exists for the torn apart and crushed Palestinian population. Maybe if a humanitarian NGO performed one — and where would that get published? Last week, an article in the Jerusalem Post discussed how Israeli dogs suffer from the sound of sirens during war. Even psychology belongs to the victors. I have so many family members in Gaza. During each Israeli destruction I hear about the night terrors of their children, their urinary incontinence when hearing sudden loud sounds, their tremors at rest when all is quiet, and the recurrence and progression of all this and more as the years roll on one air strike at a time, affecting hundreds of thousands of children. Will there be a scientific medical study on the effects of horror on Palestinian children published in the best American medical journals? Will the caloric restriction that Israel imposes on Palestinians in Gaza as part of the siege be publicized? Or must the world wait for a child from Gaza to rise from the ashes and write miraculous poetry against the weapons of proportionality, the ethics of triage, and the compassion of dogs, a poetry that may short-list her for the Nobel prize 30 or 40 years from now, when all is better? And she might even win it. If this is the best of our solidarity with the Palestinian people, especially those in Gaza, then as Ghassan Zaqtan once said to an Israeli soldier (who boasted in a conference of his change of heart against his government’s policies once he had seen the barbarity with which Palestinian children were treated at checkpoints): If a Palestinian child has to die for each heart to be changed in Israeli society, then this kind of solidarity is too costly. Thank you, but no thank you. To good effect, the audience laughed at his Palestinian humor.
It’s hard for me not to think of George Oppen’s poem, “Semite,” when he says: “Think// think also of the children/ the guards laughing// the one pride the pride/ of the warrior laughing so the hangman/ comes to all dinners.” War not only kills children but also destroys childhood. It’s hard for me to believe that Oppen had only one narrative, one ethnicity, in mind when he wrote those words. His famous “and one is I” at the poem’s end is an emphatic sorrow that honors the dignity of each life, of “never again” for all humankind. Yes, we can agree, at least in poetry, that the narrative of balance that wants a victim to be superhuman is absurd, especially when the victimizer is free to rain down hell while begging their victims to save them from their horrible selves. Equally, we should hope and demand that victims seek more humanity than that of supreme victim and sufferer, more than revenge. This is the bond, as Oppen says in “Semite”:
this is the bond
sung to all distances
my distances neither Roman
nor barbarian the sky the low sky
of poems precise
as the low sky
that women have sung from the windows
of cities sun's light
on the sills a poetry
of the narrow
end of the funnel proximity's salt gales in the narrow
end of the funnel the proofs
are the images the images
It’s also a beautiful harmony to wed Oppen’s “low sky of the poem” to Darwish’s love poem “Low Sky” where Darwish asks: “Which exile do you want?/ Will you come with me, or walk alone/ in your name as an exile that adorns exile/ with its glitter?” And later in the poem: “There’s a poor love” that says to us: “You are in need of a lower sky,/ be my friend and the sky will expand/ for the selfishness of two who do not know/ to whom they should give their flowers…/ Maybe it meant me, maybe/ it meant us and we didn’t notice// There is a love…”
“So what,” then, “if there is a land,” as Samuel Beckett says, “where forgetfulness where forgetfulness weighs/ sweetly on the unnamed worlds/ there the head is silenced the head is mute/ and you know no you know nothing/ the song of dead mouths dies/ on the shore it ends its journey/ there is not cause to mourn.” There are so many interlocutors in the world of literature with Zaqtan’s mute dead and Darwish’s dance of memory and forgetfulness. Darwish echoes Beckett:
I’ll say: I am not a citizen
or a refugee
and I want only one thing, nothing else,
a quiet simple death
on a day like today,
in the hidden corner of irises,
which might compensate me a lot or a little
for a life I used to measure
and I want a death in the garden
no more and no less!
And Beckett continues in his poem: “I cannot come out I am in a trackless land/ yes yes it's a fine thing you have there a very fine thing/ what is that you ask me no more questions/ spiral dust of instants what is this the same/ calm love hate calm calm"
The pattern of dehumanization in Gaza mimics Beckett’s “spiral dust of instants” with its “love hate calm” cycle, which in a nutshell, summarizes the parody of the ceasefire as “de-escalation.” And what of other word games, like the poetic and messianic names these Israeli operations of destruction are given: Cast Lead, Pillar of Cloud? One need only look at the recent history of Israel’s attacks on Gaza to discern that they often occur around the time of Israeli elections and other major political agendas, whose effect persists to condition the populations Israel rules and dominates. Perhaps these operations are also an excuse for military exercise, especially with new American weapons. Whatever the case, the frequency of attacks tempts one to think they are, in part, a desire for arbitrary violence. The recurrent pummeling of Gaza has become one embodiment of a growing totalitarianism in Israeli politics and society, which is made clearer when one considers the situation of Arabs inside Israel who are ghettoized and deprived of so many civil rights. What of the unnamed ethnic cleansing that has been taking place in Jerusalem — is it a “holy” place, or a “gentrification”? What ceasefire when Palestinians continue to live a life within walls, a life of checkpoints and land confiscation and expropriation, subject to the dogs of war? “It’s a fine thing you have there, a very fine thing” indeed.
Many slogans of peace resemble spiritual poetry. Both have their necessary place, for sure. Yet there’s something facile about a poetry (and a peace) in which we do not examine the torrid torrent right under our noses. Regarding the architecture of violence as the architecture of law, Darwish writes in a late poem: “The house murdered is also mass murder.” Whole private histories of families — with their photo albums, vaccination papers, birth certificates, toothbrushes, earrings, toys, coffee cups — are annihilated.
Or as Darwish writes at the close of his “Red Indian” poem:
There are dead who sleep in rooms you will build
there are dead who visit their past in places you demolish
there are dead who pass over bridges you will construct
there are dead who illuminate the night of butterflies, dead
who come by dawn to drink their tea with you, as peaceful
as your rifles left them, so leave, you guests of the place,
some vacant seats for your hosts…they will read you
the terms of peace…with the dead!
As long as Palestine is not a “state,” then its people will have no rights which are afforded to states, while Israel, the state, has the right to defend itself against those stateless people, “the Jews of the Israelis” as Primo Levi called them, who don’t comply with Israel’s tyranny. Palestinian rights fall under international and humanitarian laws which are constantly being constructed, manipulated, and rejected by those who wield power against them. A poem is not policy, but it isn’t an NGO either, coming in again and again to pitch new tents for Gaza, for the benefit and convenience of power narratives and the status quo.
Still, as Darwish writes, the Palestinians will persist to resist and “etch on the final rocks: Long live life, long live life!” And they will continue to “tell life,” as Ghassan Zaqtan also writes, “to slow down/ our girls are still at the barricades/ we haven’t written our names on trees yet, or run/ except from shelling./ Wait up a bit, another moment,/ here’s our generation bent down under fire:/ blessed be the ones who sprinkle the poem with water/ and leave the heart as a lantern for a fractured horizon.”
The Best Almond Cake I Ever Made: From Ramallah and Tel Aviv
By Marcela Sulak & Tala Abu Rahmeh
During eight days in which the Israeli Defense Force strategically targeted Gaza, in retaliation for the rocket attacks from Southern Israel to Tel Aviv, I felt isolated and attacked, both physically and metaphysically. I felt, to my surprise, the temptation to fall into the safety of ideologies I do not wholly accept, but that are expedient to defend, even if, in other circumstances, I would not do so. Somehow, Gabrielle Calvocoressi found me in Tel Aviv, and asked if I’d not like to “write something up.” I contacted Tala Rahmeh, in Ramallah, and we decided it was an important thing to do — a dialogue between us, as individuals. Tala and I had met in Washington, DC, in 2006, where I had been teaching and Tala was a graduate student. We were together three years there, and then I immigrated to Israel and Tala returned to her home. We left at the same time — our books even traveled together in my shipping container. The friendship that had been born in DC grew in the last years, despite our moves to opposite sides of the wall that divides Israel and Palestine (West Bank).
We decided we did not want — and were unequipped — to speak on behalf of anyone: “the Palestinian people,” Israelis, the liberal left, the center. We could only speak for ourselves. We felt it important to resist the current atmosphere in which ideologies replace dialogue, and so we decided to create a sort of epistolary essay. It was difficult — honesty is difficult and leaves us painfully vulnerable. I discovered that speaking for myself is more difficult than speaking on behalf of anyone.
This essay is not chronological, in the sense that we arranged the essay as a whole after we had written the individual parts. We could have continued this dialogue for weeks and months, and it would have changed — and changed us — in the process. But we stopped, somewhat arbitrarily for the purposes of this publication, on the second day of the ceasefire. The conversation began on the third day of the conflict.
We understand that, just as peace is a process, and an imperfect one, so is our dialogue. We have only just begun.
Dear Marcela, The first image I remember of you is what hung on the board at American University where we met. There were announcements about lectures and poetry readings and then a picture of you at the hospital, probably minutes after giving birth to Amalia, holding her while she slept. You were beautiful. A few weeks later, I was sitting in your translation class feeling incredibly grateful for Arabic poetry and my ability to fully grasp it, then translate it without having to resort to dusty dictionaries. You reminded me of how beautiful my language is.
Dear Tala, It is because language is so important that I want to write you. And I don’t want to write you. Writing you makes me feel like I am writing from a side. You don’t make me feel like I am on a side. When we met we were just people, living in Washington, DC together for three years.
Today I biked my daughter to kindergarten in the rain (it’s the second day after the bus bomb) and some guy starts snapping photos of us with his big lens. I put my hand out to signal “stop,” yet he shot again. I covered my face with my arm. He shot again. I rode up to him, got off the bike and asked him to erase the images. Because I couldn’t believe he would keep going after I’d asked him to stop. “Why? What do you think I’m going to do with them?” he demanded. “You’re in Israel now. Get used to having people take pictures.”
Symbols are so much more powerful at times than the things they represent.
Having someone aim at me — a gun or rocket — will kill me immediately; a camera will, potentially, make me immortal. But both will take me out of context. Both will make me examples of something;, both erase my voice.
Choice A: Until Hamas loves its children more than it hates Israel, there will not be peace.
Choice B: Israel is an apartheid State and the citizens of Gaza have no choice but to resist by all means necessary. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians can be likened to the American treatment of the Native Americans — reservations and annihilation.
Is this all I have to choose from?
Isn’t the real “Native American” correlation here the Bedouins — or, as they were once called, the Nabateans? But no, it seems the Nabateans came into the area during the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews to fill the power void left by Hebrews. Maybe a more fitting analogy is the Jews in their medieval ghettos? The Jews of the Russian pale? Not exactly …
Why does it matter? It’s inhumane no matter what we call it, I’ll be answered. But yes, I think it is inhuman, the way you are systematically treated, Tala, and I do think it matters what we call it. It matters very much.
Why do we use metaphors and analogies? Because they allow us to stop further investigation. We hear the analogy and think, “Okay, got it. Next!” But we don’t have it at all. And it is really dangerous — to Gaza, to Israel, to the West Bank, to America, to Libya, and to everyone who believes this region is a “key” to something important — if we keep doing this.
You know what would be more helpful? If people said, “Israel has to stop treating the Palestinians of Gaza like the Palestinians of Gaza under Israeli occupation.”
But yet, the rockets make me feel like I am on a side. People are firing rockets into Israel, hoping to kill my daughter and me. So that the world will notice that the people of Gaza exist, and that they are tired of blockades and tunnels and not being able to leave the tiny swath of land that is the Gaza strip.
I have to say: it was hard for me to grasp writing about the bombing and the sirens. I felt like I had to explain what Palestinians think, say, feel, and so on, but I can’t and I don’t want to. I’m Tala. I’m 28 years old. I love pumpkin pie and books with comforting endings. And I cried when I saw pictures of dead children in Gaza. Rinan Arafat, the first child who was killed, had blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. She looks like my cousins. She looks like Amalia. She looks like Nada and Laila, my friend’s daughters who make me believe in magic.
Your stepping out of the frame is graceful and hard-earned. You’ve been figuring this out. You’ve been dealing with this most of your life. I still feel framed.
I just realized it’s because of your geographical frame — a big concrete wall (with a great picture on it — thank you for the art, Banksy).
Whoever says you get used to it is lying. In my 28th year of life I have seen the Gulf War, two intifadas, and two Gaza wars. Two of the houses I lived in were shelled from the settlement near Ramallah. A whole unit of Israeli soldiers invaded my house twice in April of 2002. I was shot at and teargassed on my way to and from University, and on my first-date-ever, a bomb interrupted a very delayed screening of American Beauty. My body twitches at loud noises and sirens, I carry my I.D. everywhere because of the possibility of a flying Israeli army checkpoint (I also carried it on my first trip from DC to New York City, just in case), and every time I enter a place, I subconsciously look for places to hide in case of an airstrike.
During the second Intifada, my aunt jumped on top of her son to protect him from flying shrapnel and glass. He was four years old. He still thanks her for saving his life.
But I am glad that on these pages we don’t have to be representatives of “the conflict.” Because after we eliminate all the misleading analogies and metaphors, we have to figure out what exactly is “the conflict.” Is there just one conflict? And I don’t know the answer to that yet.
I asked an Israeli friend who has been through this before — his family is sixth generation here — what the “reality of this situation” is, and he said: Your question is a difficult one to ask someone who believes that reality is always the outcome of a socially constructed process. So the only “real” facts are numbers (number of dead, number of rockets, and so forth), as numbers are always expected to be, though even then we know it is not always true. Everyone is trying to quantify the conflict (like in sports — it is all statistics, right? It also answers the same social needs). But at some point, does it really make a difference?
I agree with what he says.
If reality is a socially constructed process, then what is the society we are trying to construct with our stories, with the facts our stories contextualize? Let’s focus on that first.
Remember that time when I had dinner at your house in DC? I remember pasta, kale, and soup. I remember Amalia asking me to read her a story. I remember feeling like I was home in a house I’ve never been in before. I’ve never been to your house in Tel Aviv. We’ve been in the same country for two years and I haven’t gotten a permit to get to you. The absurdity of it all makes me snicker. This morning I woke up thinking, Marcela and I could make a Thanksgiving dinner if there were no checkpoints. This place robs what little sanity I have left, but then I remember that my mother died here. My mother loved it here. This country holds my mothers body.
Also the checkpoints frame. When you asked me and my daughter to come see you in Ramallah, it took a few attempts and two journalists with press passes to chaperone us through. Our American passports had aliyah stamps in them.
Tala, you won the Eliav Satawi Award for your essay, “Rifkah and My Mother.” In the acceptance speech you gave in Jerusalem, you talked about climbing barriers to sneak into Jerusalem:
The danger was worth a chance to get into the town for the day, walk through the Old City, and be in the world on the other side of the wall.
It was also important for me to see Israelis, to be able to interact with them and see them stripped of the army uniform; it was important for my sanity, a necessary need to destroy the image of a collective nation of green-uniformed monsters.
I want a round world, too. How do you get a round world?
I always believed that the one true purpose of the apartheid wall was to make sure we all don’t see each other. We don’t buy vegetables and talk about the rising prices of tomatoes; we don’t drink pomegranate juice with crushed ice in the summer; and we don’t love next to each other or love each other.
I always wonder what it would feel like to live in Jerusalem. Walk around the old city like it’s nothing, just a daily ritual. Then my mind drifts farther, and I wonder what it would be like to live in Yaffa and wake up to the sight of the sea, then move on effortlessly to make my morning coffee and read the paper. When I think of these places, I can’t breathe. It’s very hard for a lot of Israelis to believe me when I say that I have never felt more at home than I do in Yaffa, although I’ve never lived a day there. It smells like my grandparents and oranges. I just want to rent a studio apartment in Yaffa overlooking the beach and write — is that too much to ask?
I will admit I felt guilty when I moved here, four kilometers from Yaffa. I knew it was your father’s birthplace, and I knew you cannot visit it without a permit. But I can. It reminded me of the Langston Hughes poem about segregation, in which the speaker notes that every new immigrant can move around, buy things, and vote. But he, who was born in America, cannot.
Is it an illusion that you and I can be “people” and not “sides” here?
Obviously, I won’t be able to speak without being a representative of a “side” until you are free to move around the country.
Otherwise, how do you speak as a person and not as a “side”? Every word, every syllable, is political. Is every word political? Does each word ripen on one side of a fence or another? Does it change in each mouth to mean something else?
I understand that even if the Israeli government were to withdraw completely from Palestine and even dismantle all settlements, a couple thousand years of anti-Semitism is not going to go away with the stroke of a pen. But we should do the right thing by you for ourselves, not to make people like us more. Because the society we are constructing with stories needs to be true to its stories.
In your acceptance speech you also said:
Literature and journalism are two of the few mediums that demand writers’ sincerity with readers and the bravery to step into new territory. This sincerity is vital in opening people's eyes to their surroundings, and compelling them to take a much closer look at themselves.
I am not here to use terms like “peace” or “coexistence” because they are empty words to me. I am here to say that it is necessary for us to start being honest, to start bleeding on the surface and showing each other and ourselves how angry, hurt, and disappointed we are.
It is going to take a long time for us to heal, but until we are willing to tell each other exactly what we think, all of our agreements will be nothing but ink on paper.
I was so glad you said that. I will admit that I am disappointed when so many self-appointed “pro-Palestinian spokespersons” refuse to talk to me now that I am here. They talk about me. They talk at me. But they don’t listen. The purpose is outshouting, not understanding and resolution. It is a weird thing to go from being a politically liberal American to being an Israeli.
When my mom died, in an Israeli hospital in Jerusalem, only an Arab doctor was allowed to sign her body out, although all of her doctors and nurses were Israeli. I remember Rifka, the nurse who cried when my mother died. She emailed me a year after to tell me that she still thinks of my mother. Once when I was in the US, my mom called me to tell me that she had to have a blood transfusion before chemotherapy, and now she has Jewish blood. I laughed so hard that I wanted to cry. When my mother got sick, my greatest enemy became cancer, not soldiers invading my house at 4 A.M.
Even though my mother had to pass the Qalandia checkpoint on foot to get to her chemotherapy session, Sha’ar Tzedek hospital felt like home. In that cancer ward people were equal, no victims and no soldiers, no Palestinians and no Israelis, just people gathering what is left of their hair and trying to eat crappy cafeteria sandwiches, while secretly wondering about the afterlife.
I feel as if I have known your amazing mother for a long time.
Yesterday I told someone I didn’t want to discuss “the conflict,” this incarnation of the conflict, on Facebook. I only wanted to post so people knew we were okay after five sirens in Tel Aviv, a city not outfitted for this kind of thing. I said I was too depleted and exhausted, mentally and emotionally, for public political debates. I wanted to save my writing for work. She responded “yes, save yourself for poetry.”
By “work,” I meant grading papers, preparing lectures, trying to get a student registered. I had not meant poetry.
When I was at AU, I took a class on African-American poetry. I remember reading a poem by Michael Harper that ends with “America needs a killing / America needs a killing / survivors will be human.” I was stunned. What I realize now is that I understood what he meant. I wonder sometimes if Israelis think of me as human, or think that Palestinians have different eyes and bodies and different tastes in food and books. I wonder if they know we fall in love and feel broken just the same. I wonder if an Israeli man could love me, exactly the way I am, and not need me to explain myself. I wonder if I wouldn’t need him to explain himself.
I imagine if I could lie in bed with someone and compare the similarities between languages, words like Kabir and Laila.
One does not “save oneself for poetry.” Real poetry first takes you apart, pummels you around, then puts you back together and saves you. By “Poetry” I mean here, radical thinking. Seeing something for the first time, recognizing what you have seen on the outside, and that it exists inside of you.
I don’t know a single great poet that has not had her convictions completely shaken, the floor pulled from under her, and has then had to reconstruct herself, if not her world, so that the poem could enter the world. God forbid, it doesn’t have to be war. It can be giving birth. It can be digesting a fact that changes you as a person. It can be accepting that you are gay or realizing that you don’t believe in God, or realizing that you do. A great poem, even a good poem, even a real poem, is going to change your life.
I want to believe this is going to make me a better, stronger, more compassionate, wiser person. But it might not.
Just a couple of hours ago, an 11-month-old child named Najib (like the writer) choked to death when a tear gas bomb fell over his house in the Qalandia refugee camp. Tomorrow morning, as I travel through it, I will smell smoke and death.
Sunday, we had two air raid sirens in one day in Tel Aviv. During the first one, my daughter was in kindergarten. Her classroom is on the top floor and they didn’t have time to get into the shelter, so they went one floor down into a room behind the stairwell. She couldn’t believe her teachers let her talk during the siren. She kept asking me why they let her talk. After the second siren, my daughter asked me, “Why are we getting sirens today?” Today is not a holiday.
Then I realized my five-year-old had been thinking that, for the last four days, it has been Memorial Day — when the siren sounds and there is absolute stillness and silence for two minutes while we remember the dead.
I wish Najib had a shelter to go to. Maybe he’d still be here. Maybe they’d all still be here.
I told her there were two kinds of sirens. One in which you have to stand still and be quiet. One in which you can talk and there are bombs.
She asked me on the first day if any children were killed. I told her about the seven-year-old girl in Gaza. That was Thursday.
A few weeks ago Nada asked me where my mother was, and I had no idea how to explain death to a three-year-old. I Googled that question on my iPhone and learned that you can’t tell children about death until they are six years old because before then, they don’t have an understanding of anything abstract, so I would basically have to tell her that my mother stopped breathing and is now underground. How do I explain to her why we are watching news about kids whose limbs and hearts are now under the rubble?
My daughter is washing black markers from an art project off her hands. She takes the soap and rubs it in her hands. Then she starts to yell, a nasal yell, starting in her throat and going louder and louder. It is a soap siren.
She is trying to make her own metaphors because the reason we use analogies and metaphors, as harmful as they sometimes are, is that we cannot reinvent language and experience every second of every day. It is exhausting.
Gregory Orr called poetry the ordering of chaos. Amalia was trying to order the chaos.
But I think poetry is not just a comfort. Sometimes it is extremely uncomfortable. Sometimes, and ideally, it is a radical reinvention of the way we see and perceive. A breaking open that is different than breaking apart.
Poetry saved my life. During the invasion of Ramallah in 2002, I read old Arab poets who wrote about lost love. I was hiding in my mother’s makeshift bedroom and listening to the rattling of enormous Israeli tanks right outside of my window. I thought I was never going to leave my house. Never going to graduate high school or go to prom, so I read poem about people who had time to write under palm trees while smelling desert-stricken air. I thought it would be romantic if they found me hugging a poetry book under the rubble of my house. On my tombstone they’d write, “She learned to read at three, and she expected miracles.”
Tala, a world ago in America, you translated Mahmoud Darwish in my translation class. I said literature is always a national narrative. I said translators were ambassadors.
Darwish was someone about whom you had a lot to say. You said that he’d been a national poet for a long time, ever since the poem “Identity Card,” maybe even earlier. In “Identity Card,” he gave voice to the rage and helplessness of his community, and they loved him for that.
You said later people were furious about his turn to lyrical love poetry, to individual poetry. They called him a traitor. He said he didn’t want to be a mouthpiece. He wanted to be a person. I think he was very brave to realize that you can’t stay stuck on a single idea.
Single ideas, unexamined slogans, first iterations of very real social injustices do not solve problems. Ideas and iterations are important, but they have to be dynamic. When they are not, they gather too much weight, and then you stick them in launchers and fire them at one another. They’re called bombs.
Why does everyone quote slogans and sing poems while they bomb each other? Everyone in the world does it — “God Bless America.” I was astonished that you championed Darwish as a lyrical poet of individual love.
The problem with Darwish’s switch, I think, the reason he was called a traitor, I am guessing, is that it feels nearly impossible to step out of our narratives. We accept them or we reject them, but to make new ones is the most difficult and courageous act there is. He was modeling how to do it. You are modeling how to do it.
Yehuda Amichai has a poem called “Tourists” that describes a speaker shopping in the Old City of Jerusalem who becomes a reference point for a tour guide. This section ends with the line, “I said to myself: Redemption will come only when they are told, ‘Do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”
I wish it were possible for me to drive to your house and rest on the couch while watching Amalia do her ballet routine. I wish my biggest problem today was traffic; not watching 22 members of the same family lying in a morgue after a missile hit their building.
The first night of the first air raid siren in Tel Aviv, I was so shocked I didn’t know what it was. I knew Beer Sheva and Sderot and Ashdod and Ashkelon and the kibbutzim and moshavim had been attacked with rockets, sometimes every hour on the hour, for months. But I never thought it would hit Tel Aviv, and I didn’t know how powerful or how many or what would happen. I took my daughter into the hallway and we slept on a cot in the hallway that night.
My friends said, “Oh, it’s your first time with the bomb thing, isn’t it?” They said they could tell by the way I was reacting. They said it was sick that they were used to it.
This is what makes everything so unreal. There is a deep-seated feeling that nothing will really change. Now in the ceasefire, we are exactly as we were before we started.
Today at school, the Israeli army entered my campus and threw gas bombs. I ran out to gather students and lock them into our main building; I didn’t realized how much of it I’d inhaled until all my kids were inside. I keep dreaming that I’m hiding them, dragging them away from bullets, hugging them when they’re scared, and then I cry because I want someone to do that to me too.
I feel responsible for 250 students like they are my children. I can't imagine how you feel every time a siren goes off and you hug Amalia.
You once wrote a poem about being under curfew during the Intifada and baking a cake during the air raids and curfews. The first night of my first siren, I didn’t know what to do. Then I thought of you and I baked a cake.
One day, we will be able to bake cake for no reason, borrow books from the same library and roll grape leaves together. One day we will talk about the weather, and only wish each other safety from a coming storm. One day, we will forget the route to shelters and hallways with no windows. One day, love will win.
I'm thinking of you and sending you love,
I am thinking of you and sending my love,
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Dara Barnat's poetry appears widely in journals in the United States and Israel. She is the author of the chapbook Headwind Migration (2009), as well as translations and essays. Dara holds a PhD from the School of Cultural Studies at Tel Aviv University, and her research explores Walt Whitman's influence on Jewish American Poetry. Dara teaches poetry and creative writing. She lives in Tel Aviv and New York City. http://darabarnat.com/
Marcela Sulak is the author of the poetry collection, Immigrant and a chapbook. She has translated 3 collections of poetry from the Czech Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (such as it is still called, though the Rebel forces are still conquering cities and headed to Kinshasha....) She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan where she also teaches American literature.
Tala Abu Rahmeh graduated from the American University in 2009 with an MFA in Poetry. Her work has been published by several magazines and anthologies, the first of which was “25 Under 25″, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye for Harper Collins. She is currently working as an instructor at Bard College’s chapter in Jerusalem.
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