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Book review: ‘Poets for Palestine’

In his introduction to the book he edits, Remi Kanazi describes the moment in his own life when he “realised that Palestinians were not so ‘other’ after all,” that “there exists a substantial ‘we’ of people alienated from our own lands across the globe”. Poets for Palestine, whose publisher – Al Jisser Group – means ‘the bridge’ – is a beautiful celebration of the creativity and defiance of the Palestinian people, and a testimony to the spirit of resistance found in many different human struggles for justice.

Poets for Palestine, in Kanazi’s own words, brings together “a younger generation of poets, spoken word artists, and hip hop artists with those who, for decades, have used their words to elevate the consciousness of humanity”. The collection runs to almost 50 poems, covering not just Palestine, but also “issues as varied as the ongoing occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as poetry on the Sudan and Lebanon”. The book also includes 30 images – paintings, drawings, of different kinds – by Palestinian artists from over the decades.

It would be possible to assume from the title that the works collected in this volume would all be didactically political, but in fact, there is a real variety on display – from bitterly sarcastic commentary to deeply personal reflections on identity and memory. This is certainly the book’s main strength, though readers should sit down expecting to make substantial leaps in tone, style and subject matter from poem to poem.

Inevitably, personal favourites amongst the poems will be a subjective affair – though the collection begins with the most famous Palestinian poet of them all, Mahmoud Darwish, who passed away in August 2008, and his wonderful meditation on Palestinian identity and dislocation, ‘Who Am I, Without Exile?’ But I found myself drawn to quite a wide range of poems, reflecting the diversity of the volume.

In Nathalie Handal’s ‘Wall Against Our Breath’, there is a wonderfully evocative sense of the way in which Palestinians must confront an occupation which threatens to invade every part of their being:

and everyday as we brew our coffee
we greet each other properly
and chase the wall from our breath

While Lisa Suhair Majaj, writing in the context of Israel’s assault on South Lebanon in 2006, shares the voice of the carpenter faced with a macabre workload, in ‘The Coffin Maker Speaks’. The man hopes that “one day”, he will return “to woodwork for the living”, building “doors for every home in town”; but for now, he cannot bear to even know the names and ages of the dead:

Let me not wake splintered from my sleep
crying for Fatima, Rafik, Soha, Hassan, Dalia…

…if you wish me
to house the homeless dead,
let me keep my nightmares nameless.

A very different kind of poem was contributed by Laila Halaby, as she writes of a past love in ‘a moonlit visit’. A story of “eastern love in the west”, the poem is the recounting of a relationship at a US university with a man who lived a double life:

drinking, sex, and parties
with them
politics, stories, night time walks
with each other

Although the woman’s retrospective assessment of the relationship is mixed (“it took years to break free/untangle myself”), the final note is poignant and almost mournful:

or have you always been here
with me
my other self
my lost majnoon

As previously mentioned, Poets for Palestine is enriched by the excellent idea to include artwork produced by Palestinians from the Diaspora as well as living under occupation. Here, there is far more of a tendency towards the overtly political, with titles such as ‘Battle of Karameh’ (Mustafa Hallaj), ‘Intifada: Against Fascism’ (Abdal Rahman Mozayen), and ‘Day of the Prisoner’ (Zuhdie Adawi). Perhaps my own favourite was Samia A. Halaby’s ‘Ninth Wave of the Kafr Qasem Massacre: Embrace in Death’. The hauntingly – and deceptively – simple pencil drawing of a dozen or so kneeling figures holding each other, some gazing skyward, draws you in to an awful, intimate moment of destruction, and humanity.

It is this overwhelming sense of humanity that shines through the collection, as well as, perhaps surprisingly for some, gritted-teeth optimism. Naomi Shihab Nye, in ‘Kindness’, reminds us that to “learn the tender gravity of kindness”

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

That plea for empathy obviously goes far beyond Palestine, a sense of perspective typical of the poetry in the book. The final page strikes a similarly inclusive, realistic-yet-hopeful note:

Our creativity binds us together,
our vision catapults us forward,
we may suffer setbacks,
but our horizon is near.

Poets for Palestine is full of both creativity and vision, and the reader is left encouraged – even inspired – by this reminder that there are many voices and hands out there working to realise this ‘horizon’.

First published in Al-Aqsa Journal.

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