TOPICS > Politics

Words in Conflict: Israeli, Palestinian Poetry

May 8, 2008 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Poets in the Middle East are often held in high regard, and many achieve a level of celebrity and authority not common in the West. Tonight, in recognition of Israel's 60th anniversary, Jeffrey Brown has an encore report on the lives of Israeli and Palestinian poets.
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, Israel’s 60th anniversary.

The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine has been filled with conflict that reverberates not only in politics, but in poetry and literature.

Jeffrey Brown spoke to an Israeli and a Palestinian poet last year.

Here are some excerpts from those interviews.

AGI MISHOL, Israeli Poet: This is a small baby peach.

JEFFREY BROWN: Agi Mishol, one of Israel’s best-known poets, was born just a year before Israel itself was born. She was the only child of Hungarian Holocaust survivors.

AGI MISHOL: My personal history, it is like the history of Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: What is that like? What does that feel like?

AGI MISHOL: It means starting something new, coming from somewhere and starting something new, reconnecting to the roots of the story of Israelis.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mishol lives on an orchard farm south of Tel Aviv, just about a half-hour north of Gaza. She writes about the geese on her farm and the small moments of life, but always there in the background, and sometimes up close, is the political conflict she’s lived amid her entire life.

The very first line of this book, your book, translated into English: “In the beginning were the words. After that, I heard the boom.

AGI MISHOL: Every time that something happened, like an explosion or suicide bombers, when we watch television, somebody always says, “And then I heard the boom.” So, being a poet, I must put it in a poem. Poets are seismographs of the language, because never mind what poetry is about. It is always about language, first of all.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is it also about the events around you?

AGI MISHOL: Well, of course. I don’t consider myself as a political poet. I don’t even want to be a political poet. But I could not avoid it. I could not avoid it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mishol says that people in Israel have learned to live with the violence, but the fear of another suicide bombing can never be far away.

Mishol read for us the beginning of her poem about one such incident involving a young Palestinian woman who blew up herself and six others in a bakery.

AGI MISHOL: “You are only 20, and your first pregnancy is a bomb. Under your broad skirt, you are pregnant with dynamite and metal shavings. Someone loosened the screws in your head and launched you toward the city. Even though you come from Bethlehem, the house of bread, you chose a bakery. And there, you pulled the trigger out of yourself. And, together, with the sabbath loaves, sesame and poppy seed, you flung yourself into the sky.”

JEFFREY BROWN: High on a hill above the ancient Galilean village of Rama, Samih al-Qasim has a very different view of Israel.

Al-Qasim, whose Palestinian family has lived in this area for centuries, was 9 when it became part of the new state of Israel, following a bloody war. 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.

SAMIH AL-QASIM, Palestinian Poet: 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Al-Qasim’s poems mix anger and sorrow, longing and love, an 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 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: 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: Al-Qasim said words were his salvation and the salvation of many other people.