Wednesday, 03 April 2024 19:07

'Poetry is the Last Stand of the Soul': Out of Gaza, New Palestinian Poetry

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'Poetry is the Last Stand of the Soul': Out of Gaza, New Palestinian Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews the new antholgy from Smokestack Books, edited by Alan Morrison and Atef Alshaer 

‘Poetry is a duty because it records the last stand of the soul.’
- Atef Alshaer

Smokestack Books, together with editors Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, have produced not only an anthology of new Palestinian Poetry, they have produced both a living testimony and a memorial to the siege of Gaza which began in October 2023 and is continuing at this moment. The publication of Out of Gaza is a major achievement that deserves justifiable praise for bringing together fifteen Palestinian poets from Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora.

Tragically two of the poets in this collection died in the siege. Refaat Alareer, prior to an Israeli airstrike, had said that if the Israeli Defence Force attacked his house he would ‘throw my pen in the faces of the soldiers.’ Alan Morrison relays that according to Euro-Med Monitor (and other reliable sources) Professor Alareer was deliberately targeted with a so called ‘surgical bomb’ like so many other writers, intellectuals, doctors, academics and journalists.

The Palestinian poet and novelist Hiba Abu Nada was also killed by an Israeli airstrike while in her home in Khan Yunis. Grief-stricken at the onslaught against her people, and the rising levels of death and destruction, she said in the poem 'We are in the heights now

There is a new Gaza in heaven
without siege
taking shape now.

Understandably, the level of grief at what has – and is – being done to the people of Gaza is palpable. This is expressed in this collection with deep emotion and a moving sincerity. While we may be horrified at what we see on our TV screens, the people of Gaza are undergoing something deeply traumatic that we can only barely imagine.

The sense of grief and sadness and of desolation at what has been done causes Hala Alyan to suggest in her poem 'Naturalised' that ‘When this is over there is no over but quiet.’ Her sense of grief is so over-powering that in another poem called I don’t hate sparrows she movingly affirms –

We bear what we bear until we can’t anymore.
We invent what we can’t stand grieving
.

This is the human response to what is going on by those on the receiving end of such horror. Ali Abukhattab in his poem 'Discourse of I/You' tells us ‘I build the kingdom of crying’ while Mohammed Mousa laments ‘there are no playgrounds for Gaza children/and cemeteries are always available.’ Mousa also states in I can’t keep up with the rhythm of war that ‘We wash in the rubble, we breathe under the rubble, we fight death as we gasp and fight for a life that’s ready to go.’

In Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem 'Moon Over Gaza' she writes of ‘A landscape of grieving ’and Farid Bitar in 'Unexplained Misery' tells us ‘The wars of Palestine are never ending… millions of olive trees uprooted… I keep thinking this is a bad dream/ And when I awake/ Everything/ From the previous day/ Is just the same.’

You have to experience the trauma of Gaza by being there to write such lines. While grief and sadness are clearly the likely sentiments to be expressed in such a collection, it was noticeable that there was nothing expletive or lines of invective directed against the Israelis or against Jews either. However, there were lines that compared the Siege of Gaza to what once happened to Jews. Refaat Alareer in his poem 'I am You' addresses Israel by saying: ‘The victim has evolved, backward, / Into a victimiser… I want you to stop hating.’

This insight comes close to what psychologists would describe as the once abused becoming the abuser. Alareer does not deny the Holocaust, he acknowledges it and is saddened that the Israeli government has learned nothing from it. He goes on to say at the end of this poem:

I am you.
I am your past.
And killing me,
You kill you.

These are powerfully succinct sentiments being expressed. Similarly, Farid Bitar in 'The Journalist' says ‘This enemy is insisting to relive/ Days of Warsaw ghettoes of WW11/ Vengeance is their calling.’ And Tariq Luthan shares such a view in his poem 'We Already Know This' when he writes ‘Genocide… did not start, and did not end at the Holocaust… everyone needs a place on the planet.’

What is so interesting about these lines is the tempered restraint that they have. There is no obvious hatred, no foul-mouthed rants at oppressors and no racism. When Alareer said 'I am You' he implies that not only is the suffering of the Palestinian people comparable to the suffering historically of Jews, but that both Arab and Jew are fellow Semites. This is rarely said. Hatred of Arabs is also anti-Semitism.

Mohammed Mousa in the poem 'Three military vehicles drive by' raises the question of identity, of being a Palestinian under occupation and attack when he tells us ‘I refuse to hand my body to a white soldier who has no identity and asks me to leave for having one.’

Palestinians know that they are Palestinian, and that is the same whether they are living in the horror of Palestine today or are part of her burgeoning diaspora. The restraint of the lines in this collection would still inevitably be deemed anti-Semitic since, it seems, no-one is entitled to compare the Holocaust to any other atrocity. As Pankaj Mishra said recently in his essay in The London Review of Books (21 March) called 'The Shoah after Gaza', the Israeli government ‘weaponises’ the Holocaust to justify all that it does:

Memories of Jewish suffering at the hands of Nazis are the foundation on which most descriptions of extreme ideology and atrocity have been built. But these universalist reference points are in danger of disappearing as the Israeli military massacres and starves Palestinians.

Though the poets in Out of Gaza show a commendable restraint in their language toward their oppressors, the same cannot be said about some former Israeli Prime Ministers towards the Palestinians. In 1969 Golda Meir said ‘There are no Palestinians’ and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Menachem Begin, described Palestinians as ‘two-legged beasts’. Yitzhak Shamir referred to Palestinians as ‘grasshoppers who could be crushed’. At the outset of the Rwandan genocide, leading Hutu politicians described the Tutsi population as ‘cockroaches’.

This is the dehumanising language of racism that implies others are less human than you are. It brings to mind the Nazi persecution of Jews as ‘vermin’ and ‘lice.’

On 7 October 2023, after Hamas launched its lethal incursion into Israel, the Israeli Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, said of Hamas 'We are fighting human animals'. And Benjamin Netanyahu went on to cite a biblical reference in the context of Hamas by referring to the ancient Amalek, to ‘eradicate this evil from the world.’ Of course, such a reference was designed to appeal both to ultra- right religious forces that support him, and to the Christian Zionists within the USA. The ‘annihilate Amalek’ theme brought favour from some 60 conservative evangelical leaders in the USA who all sent a letter of support for Netanyahu to the White House.

Rather than the endless smiting of others, it was humbling to read that the poets in this collection do not wish for more vengeance and bloodshed – but nonetheless, they do show their resistance to a brutal oppression. Marwan Makhoul, aware that writing poetry does not stop the devastation of Gaza, acknowledges ‘we may not change the world with what we write/ but we may shame it’. That is undeniably the case. Later in this poem he contemplates the idea of having to write politically and concludes:

in order for me to write poetry that isn’t
political, I must listen to the birds
and in order to hear the birds
the warplanes must be silent.

These fitting lines adorn the cover of the collection. In a perfect world there would be no need of political poetry but in a world of deepening injustices Atef Alshaer tells us ‘poetry is a duty because it records the last stand of the soul’. While it may well be the last stand as experienced by those in Palestine, it has to be the first stand everywhere else, especially in the Western countries complicit in this horror.

For Sara M. Saleh, in her poem 'Say Free Palestine', she includes an array of everyday comments we may make to one another, but for her we should dispense with such frivolities set against what is happening to Gaza, and just say ‘free Palestine’ instead:

don’t say ‘rush hour’ say free Palestine
don’t say ‘Happy Birthday’ say free Palestine
don’t say ‘humanitarian pause’ say free Palestine
say no justice, no peace,
from the river to the sea, then say free Palestine.

Resistance can clearly take many forms. Dareen Tatour tells us in 'The General, my brother and me': ‘I resist with the letter and with the poem’. Also, in the poem 'I will not die', Tatour states ‘the dead are those who do not dream… I will not stop my dreams’. This too is resistance. And in the poem 'Grisaille', Lena Khalef Tuffaha informs us that in the rubble of Gaza ‘Our children learn the maps of homeland in war time’.

The October 7 attack by Hamas is neither celebrated nor even mentioned by any of the poets in the anthology. This is because as Marwan Makhoul seems to imply in 'Lines Without a Home':

to be a ’48 Palestinian means
being the strangest citizen in the world:
you beg the world’s states to protect you
from your state.

Since the Nakba of 1948 Palestinians have only known displacement, death and occupation. Their plight is remarkably similar to what once happened to native Americans and native Australians. These people were similarly dehumanised and labelled ‘savage’ but they would rebel and fight back. Their actions were predictably ghastly. This also went on in Ireland for over seven hundred years. The actions by Hamas must surely be seen in the same light. Subjugated people, history tells us, will find the means to fight back. Unless, of course, you annihilate them – and this is why we use the word ‘genocide’ in relation to the Israeli response to the October 7 attack.

The absence of any mention in this anthology to the Hamas attack nonetheless speaks loudly. It does so because what is going on in Gaza just now is simply more ferocious than what has been happening before. Despite what the people of Palestine have gone through and have to endure, their tenacity, determination and resilience is incredibly uplifting. This is how they resist. While some will fight back with guns, the rest will fight back with a profound inner dissent, affirming their right to exist and exist in Palestine. This is what we see in these poems. They are all powerful testimonies of endurance, of resistance and of a belief in a better world.

Mohammed Mousa in 'They ask me who I am' describes Gaza as the ‘largest open-air prison’ but this does not prevent him from holding on to hope:

nothing I want more than a homeland,
unrestricted birthplace,
no fences of tyranny,
no walls of oppression,
no checkpoints to undress my fears,
with clouds heavy enough to carry my soul.

These are not only moving lines they are phenomenally brave lines. Dareen Tatour seems to encapsulate the existential condition of being a Palestinian when she says in 'When Gaza was killed':

my people still say: either martyrdom or steadfastness,
freedom then life.

Dareen was imprisoned for publishing a poem on YouTube and Facebook entitled ‘Qawem Ya Shaabi Qawemahum (Resist my people, resist them)'.

This anthology is a living testimony to resistance. The harrowing situation in Gaza also reminds us that without justice there will never be any peace and this is the call from Sara M Saleh to us all, to all those who believe in both Palestine and in a better world – say no justice, no peace.

Read 765 times Last modified on Thursday, 04 April 2024 12:59
Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.