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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
The poem is called "End of a Talk With a Jailer." So, even in this situation, you wanted to communicate.
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.
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.
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.
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