Naming
Thursday, 13 June 2024 04:24

Naming

Published in Poetry

Naming

by Chris Norris

Pray tell us, you wise men and scholars all,
Pray tell us by what law you take it ill,
This usage of what we see fit to call
Our Holocaust, we whose life’s-blood you spill.
How should we name it as the missiles fall,
As your IDF snipers aim and kill,
As children cower by the shattered wall,
Fear-frozen there to be picked off at will,
As smart bombs smash lives like a wrecking-ball
And the pretence of ‘peace-talks’ goes on still,
Though their ‘negotiators’ stick and stall
While thirty thousand victims pay the bill,
And the corpse-chewing ghouls of capital,
US-directed, wait to gorge their fill?

What name should we deploy when ‘genocide’
Is likewise one its agents won’t excuse,
Or when they so persistently elide
Those overlapping sets, ‘Israelis’/‘Jews’,
So that the ‘anti-semite’ charge can ride
The global airwaves and ensure the news
Gets round so fresh atrocities may hide
From such a charge as ‘genocide’, or use
That sacrosanct word, ‘holocaust’, applied
To one case only lest its usage lose
The needful force and have the case re-tried,
New victims this time rising to accuse
Those who’d have their past victimage provide
Full cover when they wear the victor’s shoes?

‘Nakba’: a word so singular, unique,
So non-transferable that it might stand
As our equivalent: a word we speak
With awe, with sorrow for the lives and land
So brutally denied us, yet don’t seek
To set up, by some God-endorsed command,
A shibboleth that then requires we wreak
Such vengeance in its name as now they’ve planned,
Those Israelites who think it shows them weak
Or faithless if they fail to have it banned,
All usage of that word, and force oblique,
Evasive ways around on those they’d brand
As cursed Amalekites who’d dare critique
Their sacred land-grab as its bounds expand.

On one point above all let’s be quite clear:
It’s to the State of Israel they’re addressed,
These bitter words long bred of anger, fear,
Survivor-guilt, and need to speak out lest
Our witness-bearing voices disappear
And leave us – final insult! – dispossessed
Of freedom, land, and any future ear
Inclined to listen and to make its test
Of truth that stark reproof to every smear
Laid on us by their allies in the West,
The US and its satellites, whose sphere
Has long resounded to the wish expressed
By Netanyahu in his holding dear
Those tales of war, civilian slaughter stressed.

The State of Israel, then, a ‘Jewish State’
But how so? culture, history, language, creed,
Or (spare us!) gene-pool – anyway some trait
Or mix thereof that’s commonly agreed,
Amongst the faithful, somehow to create
Such bonds of comity as meet their need,
No matter how all tribes miscegenate,
Creed notwithstanding. Still we must concede
It shapes whole lifetimes, weighs on them like fate
Or lifts them like a future fit to feed
Millennial hopes with dreams that long await
The promised outcome – never guaranteed –
Yet rarely, as at present, compensate
Hopes lost by taking Saul’s atrocious lead.

Some there’ve been, Holocaust survivors, those
Like Primo Levi, who were quick to see
How it would go, how it so often goes,
With words made sacrosanct by state decree,
Or names whose unique resonance bestows
Full rights of use to holders of a key
Possessed exclusively by one who owes
Allegiance to that sole catastrophe
That seals its utterance. Then it’s friends or foes,
The rightful users, those presumed to be
Its true custodians, licensed to disclose
Which creeds or tribes have bent the suppliant knee
And which new spawn of Amalek oppose
God’s edict and invite calamity.

We Palestinians suffer it, your ban,
Each time you or your US sponsors draw
That line again, so crucial to their plan
For ‘Middle East’ dominion that the law
Of usage be upheld, that nothing can
Henceforth be suffered to approach the awe
Its naming must evoke. Yet what began
At Amalek when raging Saul first swore
To God he’d spare no member of that clan,
Man, woman or child, is what we see once more
In this our ghetto, this our Bantustan,
As your Apartheid state makes total war
On us last proxies of the Musselman,
That victim of all victims, to ignore
Whose mute appeal’s to spurn the plea that ran
In blood down every shibboleth-bolted door.

Review of 'Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry', edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison
Thursday, 13 June 2024 04:24

Review of 'Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry', edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison

Published in Poetry

Nick Moss reviews Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry, edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, Smokestack Books 2024 

“Palestinian poetry, including from within Gaza and outside it, but engaging with the plight of Gaza and the Palestinians more widely, stands as voices of resistance , remembrance and commemoration of lives lost and humanity repeatedly targeted.” 

In his introduction to this extraordinary collection, Atef Alshaer reminds us of what ought to be an almost banal point. However, the simple humanity of Palestinians appears still to be a matter of dispute.

When in October 2023 Israel stated that it intended to cut off water, food, fuel and medicines to Gaza, its right to do so was not immediately challenged, despite Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant stating that he had ordered the complete siege of Gaza because Palestinians are “human animals and we are acting accordingly.” At the time of writing, the death toll of ‘human animals’ in Gaza following Israel’s incursion stands at 31,988, with 74,188 injured.

This volume of responses by fifteen Palestinian poets to the current crisis is thus necessary, because it seems we still need to be told what it feels like to live under the constant threat of death, to live in a set of circumstances where your sovereignty is curtailed by the brutality of those who control the borders of your pseudo-state, and your personhood is equally curtailed by their bullets, gun butts and the bombing of your hospitals, mosques, churches and schools. All of the poems here speak urgently of the existential experience of watching your homeland become a graveyard, of how that feels, what it does to you.

It is not possible in the space of a short review to do justice to the work of all the poets assembled in this collection. What I want to do here is simply draw out some of the themes common to most of the poems and try to let them give voice to the suffering that is the essence now of the Palestinian experience.

Two of the poets anthologised – Refaat Alareer and Hiba Abu Nada-have been killed in the Fifth Gaza War. Refat Alareer was killed on 6 December 2023 in a targeted bomb attack by the IDF. As Alan Morrison notes in his Introduction, this is part of an ongoing cultural genocide. As a result, most of the poets are of the Palestinian diaspora.

Ali Abukhattab gets to the heart of it when he writes of being “bigger than an illusion/And smaller than a fact.” That is, essentially, the crux of Palestinian existence – to be Palestinian, to desire the restoration of statehood, is not an illusion – but Palestine is not either any longer a fact, and “facts” are written now only with the pen of the powerful.

Refaat Alareer said that he would “throw my pen in the faces of the soldiers”. At issue here always is whether art can be resistance enough – can it overcome, or help in the overcoming of, the facts on the ground that are written by tanks and bombs? A further question is whether art produced in solidarity can serve a purpose beyond the self-sanctification of those who produce it.

Abukhattab tells us that the Palestinian experience is the building of “the kingdom of crying.” Hala Alyan, in Heirloom, captures the relentless sense of insecurity and dread that comes from knowing that the simple fact of a home is always contested space: “The abandoned buildings had black graffiti in Hebrew I couldn't read . Shoshanna asked what it meant, memorised we will come back you cannot keep us out we will return this is ours.”  

Vengeance is their calling

The obvious reading is that this is graffiti left by IDF soldiers in the ruins of someone’s trashed home. The opening lines of the poem though tell us that “My grandfather learned Hebrew because they learn Arabic.” The possibility that the graffiti might have been authored by a Palestinian in Hebrew as a message to those who would deny the right to return is left open –the possibility then of language as a means of resistance alongside  other  means of resistance.

Learning Hebrew as a learning of the language of the occupier also opens a possibility of hospitality in a different set of circumstances, a meeting of equals, however lost to the future that might seem to be. The optimism that runs through all these pages, at a time which feels to an onlooker as a time of utmost despair, is in the flicker of ambiguities that pass through the pages, that there is always another possibility, a way forward, another reading, albeit a barbed one: “The newspaper says truce and C-Mart /is selling pomegranate seeds again. Dumb metaphor./I’ve ruined the dinner party. I was given a life. Is it frivolous?” (Naturalised - Hala Alyan.) 

Misery, though, remains the unrelenting norm – whether the misery of war or the turgid misery of poverty, shortages, reliance on UNRWA, a kind of internationally-facilitated beggary. As Farid Bitar puts it “I keep screaming for the bombs to stop dropping...And when I awake/Everything/From the previous day/Is just the same.” (- Unexplained Misery)  

The importance of the poems in this collection is that they do not flinch from using poetry as a means of raising the most uncomfortable questions – the ones we are supposed to avoid raising in polite company for fear of a kind of excommunication .Farid Bitar puts it succinctly:-

Watching hundreds of naked men
Ordered to kneel down blindfolded
In the carnage of destroyed streets
Stripped of their dignity
This enemy is insisting to relive
Days of Warsaw ghettos of WW11
Vengeance is their calling.

(- The Journalist)

And this is what has become unsayable. Because to condemn the Zionist project as a bloody settler-colonialist enterprise stuck on repeat is not to condemn the victims of the Holocaust. It is to say that the people without a land took a land which was already  the homeland of a (Palestinian) people, and sought to wash those people away with blood. That what was done to one people does not give them a permanent excuse to ignore the rights of others. No one would argue that the brutality of German colonialism, or their enrolment of Tutsis to maintain order over the Hutu, gave the Hutu any justification for the genocide of the Tutsi people in 1994.

The world can’t seem to stop this “moral army”
Till they are satisfied of spilling so much blood
Till they keep killing the children of the future.

(- The Journalist.)

Refaat  Alareer (targeted for death) states that

The victim has evolved, backward
Into a victimizer.

(- I Am You.)

There is a terrible irony to this situation – that the army of a people mocked as “rootless cosmopolitans” and “passportless wanderers” has reduced another people to the condition that Zionism sought to overcome.

To quote Alareer again:

I am just you
I am your past haunting
Your present and your future.
I strive like you did
I fight like you did
I resist like you  resisted
And for a moment,
I’d take your tenacity
As a model
Were you not holding
The barrel of the gun
Between my bleeding eyes.

(- ibid)

Dareen Tatour tells us that the essence of the Palestinian experience is this:

We live our lives, our nights and our days, in a prison
And in a graveyard
Weddings die, funerals take place:
There is nothing new in the news
Other than the lack of bread.

(- When Gaza Was Killed.)

Deema K Shehabi despairs that “nothing is ever limned/a baby on top/of the mother’s dried up/corpse in broad daylight.” (- Gaza Renga)

Perhaps these poems are renga with the second stanzas written by the daily brutality of occupation? We should pause and focus on that “limned” though – because all of these poems do in fact illuminate a particular lived horror, and there should be a due recognition of the courage and clear sightedness needed to be able to do that.

For those of us who march and write in solidarity, it is a reminder that such art represents a duty for us to live up to. These are not easy times. The sheer size of the demonstrations in solidarity with the people of Gaza, and their repeated presence on the streets have clearly caught the British establishment by surprise – hence the evermore shrill descriptions of “hate marches”, “extremist disruption”, and calls by the Prime Minister to “not merely manage these protests but police them”.

For the sake of genocide

We are close to the proscription of particular forms of political speech, if a group such as CAGE, which offers support to prisoners of the “war on terror” can be described as “extremist.”

We are equally close to the possibility of a resurgent anti-imperialism.  In such circumstances we have a duty to speak out, to write against, to resist. The poets in Out of Gaza show us how, in far worse circumstances, this can be done. We can choose to follow our bootlicking Poet Laureate in penning purposeless verse, or retreat to obscurantism, or we can follow the lead given here.

Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism that the risk of nationalism is the swallowing up of civil society by political society, whose main form is the state. We should note that the poets here also represent that conflict between homogenization and liberation that is essential to an independent  critical space within any future Palestine and therefore deserve our support all the more.

As Tatour has it:

All the bullets they fire to silence language
To kill our memory, to kill
What is old and what is new
For the sake of genocide
Will stoke our resilience and our will
And therein will be salvation.

(- A Moment Before Death)

For those of us outside Palestine, we should be prepared to use our words to say, truthfully, what is. History will not thank us if we neglect to confront what is being done now because earlier generations failed to challenge what was being done by Europeans to the Jewish people in the name of fascism.

To turn away from what is being done, to bow to Netanyahu when he talks of blood libels, is to allow a moral relativism that means the Palestinian people will be left always to “cultivate life/Every single day/ Inside death’s cradle.” (Samah Sabawi - Questions the Media Should Ask the People of Gaza.)

Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry, edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison, Smokestack Books 2024, is available here. A percentage of sales will be donated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign