Attacked by the apartheid hate-language of Israeli generals, surrounded by daily humiliation and daily death, I dream of writing a poem about life.
But as a Palestinian against whom this language is directed, and the poet I happen to be, how gruelling and intricate it is to write the poetry I dream of. For whoever fights monsters, as Nietzsche put it, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.
I was born in 1944 in the mountainous village of Deir Ghassaneh near Ramallah, on the eastern hills of Palestine. In childhood I came to see some Palestinians whose accents were different from that of mine. It was obvious they had arrived from other places. They used to ask for shelter and food. It was then that I heard the word 'refugees' for the first time. I was told that they were expelled out of their homes in hundreds of coastal villages destroyed by the armed Zionist brigades that declared the State of Israel in 1948.
'Refugees?' I used to ask my father, 'Why do we call them refugees when they are Palestinians like us?'
I did not realize what it meant to be a refugee until I became one myself. When the Israeli army occupied Deir Ghassaneh and the whole eastern part of Palestine in 1967, the news bulletins began to speak of the Israeli Defence Force's occupation of the West Bank. The pollution of language can get no more blatant than in the term West Bank. West of what? Bank of what? The reference here is to the west bank of the River Jordan, not to eastern Palestine. The west bank of a river is a geographical location - not a country, not a homeland.
The battle for language becomes the battle for the land. The destruction of one leads to the destruction of the other. When Palestine disappears as a word it disappears as a state, as a country and as a homeland. The name of Palestine itself had to vanish. The occupation wanted it to be forgotten, to become extinct, to die out. The Israeli leaders, practising their conviction that the whole land of Palestine belongs to them, would concretize the myth and give my country yet another biblical name: Judea and Samaria, and give our villages and towns and cities Hebrew names. But call it the West Bank, or call it Judea and Samaria, the fact remains that these territories are occupied. No problem! The Israeli governments, whether Right or Left or a combination of both, simply dropped the term 'occupied' and used The Territories! Brilliant! I am Palestinian but my homeland is The Territories! What's happening here?
By a single word they redefine an entire nation and delete history. The Israeli occupation imposes a double, triple, endless redefinition of the Palestinian. Call him militant, outlaw, criminal, terrorist, irrelevant, cancer, cockroach, serpent, virus - the list becomes endless. Be the one who makes the definitions. Define! Classify! Demonize! Misinform! Simplify! Stick on the label! Then send in the tanks!
Can verbicide lead to genocide? Over-simplification has always been a factor in the failure of poetry and prose - indeed, of any discourse - but when it is the dominant characteristic of the language of politicians it ends in fanaticism and fundamentalism. Coupled with invincible superiority and a sense of sanctity, simplification might be, as history teaches us, a recipe for fascism. That's why the rhetoric of them/we and either with us or with evil is not just irresponsible jargon - but an act of war.
And what about writing and writers in our times? What can I do with my poetry and my own language here and now, in my part of the world? For decades, Palestine has been pushed to the edge of history, the edge of hope and the edge of despair, present and absent, reachable and unreachable, fearful and afraid. This Palestine is my identity, this Palestine is the absence of my identity; my imposed memory and my imposed oblivion. My telephone notebook is almost half-filled with the telephone numbers of my absent friends and neighbours and relatives whom I will not be able to call again, ever. But for reasons not clear to my heart, I won't remove their names and numbers from my notebook. Nature, old age, illness or traffic accidents: these are not the most common causes of Palestinian death.
Death has made us his family. Death has earned a residence permit among us. He haunts us day and night and looks into our faces wherever we go. Death lives normally among us in a country that requires every one of its citizens to remember everything all the time and to forget everything all the time and, what is more cruel and inhuman, to be heroes all the time.
Miserable is a country that requires all kinds of heroism from all its citizens. This is the brink of life, or life at the brink. You want to end the occupation of your homeland. You resist. And the occupation gets more brutal. Your dream of normal life is postponed and you feel that everything is temporary. And when you learn to live in this transitory eternity you will know what it means to be a Palestinian! Prolonged occupation prevents you from managing your affairs in your own way. It interferes in every aspect of life and death; it interferes with longing and anger and desire and walking in the street. It interferes with going anywhere and coming back, with going to the market, the emergency hospital, the school, the beach, the bedroom or a distant capital.
Israel took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land. But our poem's horizon expanded far beyond this confined duality to embrace the universal, the human, as well as the intimate and personal. Most Palestinian writers are aware of this fact: for a fanatic it is always useful to simplify; for a poet it is categorically suicidal. The suffering of a nation should not be used as a pretext to justify the mediocre, the clichéd and the thumbworn, in any form of artistic expression. It is not acceptable that because we are on the tragic edge of history our paintings should be reduced into posters, our lyrics into military anthems, our plays into preaching, our novels into straight ideology, or our poems into slogans.
In a time of crisis people gradually learn to accept the relative and imperfect. In a prison, or a detention camp, prisoners dream of such small miracles as having a bath, a haircut, a letter, a visit or a pen; on the operating table the patient dreams of a drop of water after awakening from anaesthesia; the paralyzed dreams of the slightest motion and the drowned looks for a straw. Is this the age of small dreams? As a Palestinian, with negated history and negated geography, with an occupied will and an occupied homeland, I understand why the oppressed, in general, do not soar up in the eternal gazes but rather they delve deep in the earth in search of the living roots, potential shrubs and trees. Didn't Martin Luther King sum up the aspirations of successive generations of African-American poets in a simple vision of black and white kids boarding the same school bus? Didn't he pay with his life for that down-to-earth dream? Dreams become most tragic and dangerous when they are simple. Many of my poems are built up on dreaming of little things, tiny little things that might seem insignificant. There were times when the poetic imagination worked to escape reality. I claim that the poetic imagination now works to confront it.
Through poetic imagination I construct my own perception of lived experience; a new version of reality, different from the original. Language is a shared element between the world of the market-place and that of poetry. The dissimilar language of poetry is our suggestion of a different language for this world. It is our attempt to restore to each word its specificity and resist the process of collective vulgarization and to establish new relations among words to create a fresh perception of things. Poetry is stepping out of the orchestra to play solo with the single instrument of language. That is why the poetic imagination becomes an act of resistance par excellence. It is a declaration of mutiny on board this world's ship whose course we are never allowed to direct.
The amazing paradox is that while political powers resort to exuberance, zeal, hyperbole and the soaring language of romantic flight, poets resort to physical language, surgical precision, understatement and economy of expression. The 'poetical' is not poetry any more. In my poetry I resort to the concrete rather than the abstract, to the eye's perception rather than to the mind's contemplation. The poet's eye can see the two faces of the coin simultaneously. It sees:
One of its charming miracles is that through its form, poetry can resist the content of authoritarian discourse. It breaks with existing certainties and their official representatives. By resorting to understatement, concrete and physical language, a poet contends against abstraction, generalization, hyperbole and the heroic language of hot-headed generals and bogus lovers alike.
The 21st century has started in a catastrophic way. We are witnessing an international apartheid language; a language that labels and defines, and divides values and virtues, and segregates nations in two categories of good and evil. Individual terrorism and state terrorism, fundamentalism and fanaticism prevail on both sides of the divide. The language, intentions and deeds of terrorists and preachers of globalism, the neo-imperialists and the war-tailors alike, are endangering human life and making our planet a less safe place. However, poetry remains one of the astonishing forms in our hands to resist obscurantism and silence. And since we cannot wash the polluted words of hatred the same way we wash greasy dishes with soap and hot water, we, the poets of the world, continue to write our poems to restore the respect of meaning and to give meaning to our existence.
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7