Review of 'Out of Gaza - New Palestinian Poetry', edited by Atef Alshaer and Alan Morrison
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:20

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

Words
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:20

Words

Published in Poetry

Words

by Anne Irwin

If the undead populated the world
would there be no poetry
no blue stream binding words
no soft flow of dreams
connecting.

Would words be hollow
unable to capture the twist and turns
of experience.
Would words only justify intent.

Could the undead commandeer
human land and homes
could they justify by saying
we’re fighting human animals
let’s see how they survive
without fuel, electricity or food.
they’ll get what they deserve.

if the undead bombed human cities
watched the buildings crumble
mothers and babies crying in the rubble,
famine spreading
and then called it self defense
would we as humans accept their story?

That is not what it is to be human.
Would we not reach deep into the cauldron
of our experience
and haul those words from the underworld to the surface
because our hearts revolts against the corruption of words

Our heart seeks truth in words.

Gaze on Gaza
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:20

Gaze on Gaza

Published in Poetry

Gaze on Gaza

by Stuart McFarlane, with image above by Martin Gollan

Gaze on Gaza; and weep. See the child in A and E,
the child, alone, in A and E.
See the man who stares,
the man who only stares.
See the woman who screams,
the woman who only screams.

The bloody bandage, discarded limb, the blasted street, all rubble.
Thick smoke billowing; low down
a tepid sun that strains to shine.

See another bloodied child,
the mother who still screams, and a father who only stares.
See what may not be unseen.
Try, if you can, to avert you eyes. Gaze on Gaza.
Gaze on Gaza. And weep.

Poetry for Palestine: Testament / Sajél, by Farid Bitar
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:20

Poetry for Palestine: Testament / Sajél, by Farid Bitar

Published in Poetry

Farid Bitar's Testament / Sajél, as its title suggests, is a testament to our tempestuous times, taking in the seismic events and vicissitudes of the past few years, including the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020-22, and the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the death of George Floyd. But perhaps unsurprisingly, the current and agonisingly ongoing Israeli seige of Gaza, and mass displacement of Gazans, which some term the second Palestinian catastrophe or Nakba, dominates this collection.

Farid Bitar is one of many contemporary Palestinian poets who are bearing witness through their poetries to a second Nakba, and quite apart from artistic qualities the sheer emotional courage of such output at this time must be applauded. Bitar is a poet who has spoken out before in his work on the Palestinian plight, in collections such as Screaming Olives (Smokestack Books, 2021), and in Testament / Sajél there is a further cementing of this polemical resolve, but interweaving all is a verse of deliverance. Farid has also illustrated the book with 34 beautiful images, like this one:

FB image resized 

This is the poetry of trauma. But in spite of the bitterest of experiences, Bitar's is a spirited poetry, a poetry of hope, which Culture Matters is proud to publish, particularly at this catastrophic time for all Palestinians. 50% of sales proceeds will go to Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Testament / Sajél by Farid Bitar, ISBN 978-1-912710-68-3, £12 inc. p. and p. in UK, £12 plus £5 p. and p. elsewhere. Please pay via the Donations button here, and send your name and address to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Credit: Oxfam
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:20

Comrades in Alms

Published in Poetry

Comrades in Alms

by Chrissie Roberts

Relentless live-streamed death
Revulsion at the West’s collusion
And we stand
And we march
And we post
And we share
In our powerlessness.

What ordnance do we have
To assuage our nausea
Our impotence
As bystanders
Held hostage by our Governments

Become quick on the draw with our plastic
Swipe away the sorrow
Chip and pin away the pain
ApplePay our way to absolution
In this dark atrocious game

Solidarity expressed with
A wrist flick
A finger touch
A phone flash

But the bombs keep falling

And our tears keep flowing.

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