For Palestinians, Identity Is Regained Through Poetry

March 22, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Poets in the Arab world have historically been important cultural figures, and this tradition continues among Palestinians. In the second of his reports on Middle East poetry, Jeffrey Brown discusses poetry's role in Arab society with three leading Palestinian poets.

SAMIH AL-QASIM, Poet: The populations are mixed, Muslims, Christians, Jews.

JEFFREY BROWN: The home of Samih al-Qasim sits high on a hill in the ancient Galilean village of Rama, famous for its abundant olive groves. His family has lived in the village for centuries.

Al-Qasim was born in 1939 and was 9 when this region became part of the new state of Israel, following a bloody war. Around the same time, he learned of his calling in life.

SAMIH AL-QASIM: In the elementary school one day, the teacher of Arabic came and he said, in a dramatic way: We have a poet in this class.

And everybody looked at — we looked at each other. Who is the poet here? And he wrote a few lines on the black board. And I discovered, I’m the poet.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a role he would grow to play in a very public way. As a young man living in an Arab village under Israeli military law in the 1950s and ’60s, he recited his verses throughout the region, and was jailed several times for his writing.

Later, recognized as a leading poet and intellectual, he would get to know many political leaders, Palestinian and Israeli. Words, he says, are his tools.

SAMIH AL-QASIM: At the very beginning, it was a matter of surviving, just to stay in your homeland. And then you discover that you deserve more, not only to stay in your homeland, but to live free and equal in your homeland. So, language became an instrument.

JEFFREY BROWN: English readers can now read his words in a volume titled “Sadder Than Water.” Here, there are poems that mix anger and sorrow, longing and love, and ancient land and modern life.

SAMIH AL-QASIM: I hope I could have more time to write love poems only, because I feel it, and I want it, and I need it. But you can’t be concentrated in love poems when your life is threatened. You have, first of all, to defend your life, your existence.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the early poems is called “End of a Talk With a Jailer.”

SAMIH AL QASIM: “From the narrow window of my small cell, I see trees that are smiling at me and rooftops crowded with my family, and windows weeping and praying for me. From the narrow window of my small cell, I can see your big cell, your big cell.”

JEFFREY BROWN: The poem is called “End of a Talk With a Jailer.” So, even in this situation, you wanted to communicate.

SAMIH AL-QASIM: Yes, of course. I never considered the struggle of my people with the Israeli people as a struggle, a hopeless case. I always believed — and I still believe that we can overcome this struggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Samih al-Qasim is an optimistic man, and, as we learned, a gracious host. But he is also realistic, especially about the dangers of being a writer amid the rising extremism of the Middle East.

SAMIH AL-QASIM: There’s a lot of violence. And in the medieval — even in the medieval times, there was an argument between books. A philosopher wrote a book. Another one faced him with another book.

Now the — the confrontation is between the book and the pistol, the poem and the — the bomb. So, it’s not fair. It’s not a fair confrontation.

Poet protects 'personal history'

Ghassan Zaqtan
A complete people has lost its future, has lost the location, has lost its place. And, obviously, poetry is one of the most expressive forms in order to reach the people. This is why the poets were the first to remind these people of their identity.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were no olive groves on our drive from Jerusalem into the West Bank, only a high concrete barrier, the new reality of this old conflict. For Israelis, this is a security fence, built to keep out suicide bombers. To Palestinians, this is a punitive wall to divide and control, a barrier, a fence, a wall.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN, Poet and Journalist: (through translator): There is here a struggle over the language. There are two narratives in this land, and each one has its own terms, and it has its ground rules.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ghassan Zaqtan is a poet and journalist who works in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and lives in a new home in a nearby village. From his balcony, he can see a Jewish settlement on a nearby hill, another fact of life in the West Bank.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN: But you have to start from the details.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where do the details come from in -- for your poetry?



GHASSAN ZAQTAN: Memory is very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: As always on our trip, we were offered coffee. Here, it turned out to be a good way into talking about poetry.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN: For this uncertain place, for uncertain life, which we have in this area, we have to -- to protect our personal history.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Ramallah, where Zaqtan writes a newspaper column, people we talked with spoke of an often tense and tenuous life. The Palestinian Authority police patrol the streets. Within the Palestinian community, tensions between Hamas -- which won last year's election -- and Fatah, the longtime ruling party, have often resulted in violence.

For his part, Ghassan Zaqtan lived abroad for many years, returning after the hopeful days of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Now those days seem far away.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): A complete people has lost its future, has lost the location, has lost its place. And, obviously, poetry is one of the most expressive forms in order to reach the people. This is why the poets were the first to remind these people of their identity.

This is yours.

JEFFREY BROWN: Zaqtan does this by writing about the small details of life.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): I am not the kind of person who will walk in front of the demonstration. I feel that's not my place. I walk behind the demonstration in order to collect the small things that may fall, whether it's the handkerchief or a child's backpack or a purse. That's my attitude.

JEFFREY BROWN: Only a few of Ghassan Zaqtan's poems have been translated into English. One, called "The Habit of Exiles," ends this way.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): "My heart is suspicious, brother. My stance is final. No one will guess the storms in my head. I no longer have confidence in those who pass through at night."

JEFFREY BROWN: "No one will guess at the storms in my head."

Are their there storms? What are they?

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): Of course there are, but the storms in my head are questions, questions concerning everything. I believe that part of my role, as a poet, is to generate questions, to create a place for them. It is not our job to provide answers, but to be an incubator that produces questions.

Poet's work protects language

Taha Muhammad Ali
In my poetry, there is no Palestine, no Israel. But, in my poetry, suffering, sadness, longing, fear, and this is, together, make the results: Palestine and Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Amid the inescapable politics, perhaps the most personal poetic voice we found belongs to this man, Taha Muhammad Ali, a self-described half-shopkeeper/half-poet.

For decades, Muhammad Ali has run a small souvenir shops just steps from the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, selling religious trinkets and other items to the pilgrims, who come to this town by the busload.

Nazareth, where the church bells compete with the calls to prayer from the mosques, is a predominantly Arab city of Muslims and Christians within Israel. Taha Muhammad Ali came here as a boy, after his family's home in a nearby village was destroyed in the 1948 war.

With just a fourth-grade education, he is a self-taught man, a voracious reader who quotes Steinbeck and Shakespeare, as well as classical Arabic poetry. He decided to be a writer as a boy, and worked daily to make it happen.

TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI: I thought that, if I want to express myself, I have to know what is poetry and what is good poetry. And this went together, reading and trying to write.

JEFFREY BROWN: In one short poem translated as "Where," he writes that poetry hides.

So, poetry hides. How do you find it?

TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI: You have to take the pen and to take a paper, and to be ready to wait for him. Otherwise, he will come and you are not there. As a writer, you have to train yourself to write. Write anything, but every day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Muhammad Ali's work has been translated and made available to an English-speaking audience by Peter Cole, an American poet and publisher who's lived in Jerusalem for 20 years.

Cole's wife, Adina Hoffman, is now writing a biography of the poet. A new selection of poetry, "So What," was published last year. While Ghassan Zaqtan spoke to us about two competing narratives in the Mideast, one Palestinian and the other Israeli, Muhammad Ali breaks down the world of words in a different way.

TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI: I think there is two kinds of language, one for the news, for the politicians, and this is broad, and one for poetry. And this is beautiful and descriptive. And they are different, very different languages.

JEFFREY BROWN: Muhammad Ali insists that his poetry does speak to the conflict around him, but indirectly.

TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI: In my poetry, there is no Palestine, no Israel. But, in my poetry, suffering, sadness, longing, fear, and this is, together, make the results: Palestine and Israel. The art is to take from life something real, then to build it anew with your imagination.

JEFFREY BROWN: He illustrated how this works with a short passage from his poem "Twigs."

TAHA MUHAMMAD ALI (through translator): "And, so, it has taken me all of 60 years to understand that water is the finest drink and bread the most delicious food, and that art is worthless unless it plants a measure of splendor in people's hearts."

JEFFREY BROWN: Poets have no tanks or guns, Taha Muhammad Ali told us; they have only beautiful words.

No one we met believed that beautiful words alone would change the world, but Samih Al-Qasim told us poetry can keep the language from becoming insane.

"It is my salvation," he says, "and I think it is the salvation of many other people."