” You can’t be concentrated in love poems when your life is threatened. You have, first of all, to defend your life, your existence. ” -Samih al-Qasim
“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.” -Agi Mishol
The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine has been fraught with conflict that reverberates not only in politics, but in poetry and literature. This video report showcases the work of two celebrated poets, both Israeli citizens since 1948, one a native Palestinian and the other a European Jewish immigrant. Both poets embrace the power of words to enlarge our understanding of the world and its beauty, but both (reluctantly) can not ignore the deadly violence being visited by both sides on each other.
Agi Mishol’s “Woman Martyr” refers to a recent Palestinian suicide bomber who, feigning pregnancy, blew up herself and 6 Israelis in a bagel shop.
“You are only 20
and your first pregnancy is a bomb.
Under your broad skirt, you are pregnant with dynamite
and metal shavings. This is how you walk in the market,
ticking among the people.
Someone loosened the screws in your head
and launched you toward the city;
even though you come from Bethlehem,
the Home 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.”
A passage from Samih al-Qasim’s book “Sadder than Water” commemorates the 1956 killing of 48 Palestinian villagers by Israelis:
“There is no monument, no rose, no memorial-
neither a line of poetry to delight the murdered
Nor any curtain for the unveiling.”
In the title poem of this same collection, al-Qasim reflects on his own decision to remain within Israel:
“Sadder than water,
in death’s wonder
you’ve distanced yourself from this land.
You distanced yourself from yourself.
So that you might remain
on the land.”
Poetry can remind of us of the humanity on both sides of a bitter conflict, of the courage it takes to face difficult realities but not give up hope. The NewsHour correspondent Jeffrey Brown notes that neither poet believe “beautiful words alone would change the world,” but, quoting Samih al-Qasim, “poetry can keep the language from becoming insane. It is my salvation and I think it is the salvation of many other people.”
Additional web links to this story are given below.
Transcript: Words in Conflict: Israeli, Palestinian Poetry
Poetry Series: Samih al-Qasim
Poetry Series: Agi Mishol
Report: Israel’s Poetry Reflects Story of a Nation
Report: For Palestinians, Identity Is Regained Through Poetry
In-Depth Coverage Poetry of the Middle East
Teacher Center Blog Entry: Unleash Our Poetry Series on Your Class!
Poetry International Web: Agi Mishol
Lisa Katz Interview of Agi Mishol
John Paletta, The Nation: Review of Samih al-Quasim’s: Lines of Resistance