The village of Rama sits high on a hill in the northern Galilee and, Samih al-Qasim tells me as we look out over the valley below, is about 3,000 years old. We are standing on his patio looking out over the town and beyond to miles of olive groves stretching into the distance. If Taha Muhammad Ali was the humble shopkeeper, Samih al-Qasim is the cultured aristocrat. His family has lived here for many generations, producing numerous men of letters and the arts. Al-Qasim himself is considered one of the most important Palestinian poets and a leading figure in Arabic literature worldwide. He is worldly, refined, mannered but not at all cold.
He directs our time with him and the hospitality flows. We must all sit, talk and have coffee and sweets first – it wouldn’t be right for our crew to begin working straight away. We must be ‘welcomed’ into his house properly. When it is time to get to work, al-Qasim lets us know. After the interview we are all treated to a luncheon feast of meats, chicken, stuffed peppers, rice, various salads, olives and much more. Al-Qasim pours scotch and arak. Water and soda are available for the weak at heart. Fruits, cakes and coffee follow.
Al-Qasim’s family decided to stay in its village after 1948. As a young boy amid so much change he remembers singing nursery rhymes in school: first British, then Arabic, then Hebrew. He thought of leaving for Lebanon in the late 50s, but “my father said to me something I have never forgotten: ‘I thought I raised brave sons. Brave men do not run from trouble.” In the 60s he and other poets, including Mahmoud Darwish, traveled from village to village reading their poetry to crowds of people – performance poetry that gained fame as a kind of resistance movement. I have been told that from that time on he’s been enormously popular and respected, by several generations. But it is complicated and more interesting than even that. As a Druze, al-Samih has to some extent found a place in Israeli society, even while being claimed by the Palestinians as one of their leading poets. He has known many important Israeli leaders, including the current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. “I wouldn’t say we are friends. But I’ve known him a long time,” al-Samih says.
He seems to have found a new friend in King Abdullah of Jordan, whom he’ll visit with next week. Al-Qasim tells us that Abdullah sought his advice on what writers and intellectuals could do to address current problems in the Arabic world, including rising extremism. The King was attracted to al-Qasim’s suggestion of putting together a gathering of prominent thinkers in Amman. I tell al-Qasim that this seems like a good idea, because the world rarely hears these people. Al-Qasim says it is a very good idea, but also a dangerous idea. He is very worried about the spread of extremism. “In earlier times,” he says, “a book would be responded to by another book – one writer disagrees with another and writes a book in response. Today, a book is answered by a gun. It’s not a fair fight.”