Last Thursday, Banipal magazine and the Mosaic Rooms in London hosted an evening of Palestinian poetry with readings by Asma’a Azaizeh and Marwan Makhoul in Arabic and English followed by a discussion, where the poets were asked about reading their work in Israel, their relationship to their work, and more. ArabLit’s Amira Abd El-Khalek was there:
Asma’a Azaizeh read poems from her collection, Liwa, in Arabic, and the English versions, translated by Khaled al-Masri, were read by Banipal’s Agnes Reeve. Makhoul’s poems, from his collection Land of the Sad Passiflora, trans. Raphael Cohen, were read by Stephen Watts. Some of the English poems are available in Banipal’s latest issue: Writers from Palestine. (More from Banipal.)
Azaizeh’s poems are potent yet delicate renderings of seemingly simple everyday things. Poems such as “I Don’t Belong to This Light,” or “Wagner and my Grandmother,” are poems that reveal their images’ simple beauty. My personal favourites were “Mail” and “Revival.”
What shall we do with the addresses of our friends who’ve passed away?
Perhaps if we send them blank e-mails,
combat zones and armies would be returned to us.
Those who disappeared into computer drives
now battle their gods and friends.
Perhaps the letters will never arrive.
On their way, they’ll stumble over trees that, watered
with apple juice, always grow
Then we will read a message:
“It was impossible to deliver the message;
there was something in the wind’s way.
The sender must cut down his trees.”
That was some raven tonight, cawing
at the window
to snatch the laughter from my little death!
And in the morning,
the explosion of dawn woke me
and a feather fell from my ear.
Marwan’s Makhoul’s poems were longer and more dramatic — the images were striking and the endings abrupt. You could almost see the carriages and the passengers sitting there “On the Tel Aviv Train” and you could hear him trying to connect with the people from Beit Hanoun in “Hello, Beit Hanoun.” In “Portrait of the People of Gaza,” the poem is dominated by the powerful image of the mother who died in a rush to save a place in the graveyard for the little ones.
These are all stories you can see and hear and smell and feel. You live in the poem, you hear the voices of the people talking and you see their faces, their boredom, their agitation, their frustration.
HELLO, BEIT HANOUN
I heard on the news/that an artisan baker has come/to distribute bread/on the back of fresh artillery,/and I also heard/that one of his loaves feeds/at least twenty children/and is so warm it burns, and is solid/like a randomly targeted shell.
I never imagined, Beit Hanoun,/that you’d mean anything to me/what with all the fun I’m having/like being busy with friends discussing/whether wine in the bottle/ferments or not./I never knew you’d mean anything to me,/even something small,/something small, Beit Hanoun.
Beit Hanoun?/Can you hear me?/I think the phone’s not working,/or is perhaps asleep./It is very late after all./Never mind, let it go./I’ve nothing better to do/than catch up with my brothers shading themselves/by the axed trunk of Arab solidarity.
Goodbye, Beit Hanoun.
Reading Poetry in Israel
Makhoul said that he insists on doing so. Hebrew is not the enemy and Jews are not the enemy. The enemy is the occupation and Zionism in all its forms. The poems he reads are not love poems and he does not read them out of a desire to normalize relations or work with the official institutions. “Each Palestinian has a role,” he said, “the role of the true Palestinian is to go out there and get involved in the reality of the situation. In Gaza, it is more of an armed conflict, but inside Israel, the struggle is cultural. It is a thin line and one must tread carefully.”
Azaizeh had a similar point of view. She acknowledges that the term “normalization” is not clear. It is important for the Israelis to read and listen to Palestinian poetry. However, the contexts are dangerous, and Palestinians residing in Israel are represented as Israeli Arabs. They are not considered part of the Palestinian nation.
On Writing Poetry
Azaizeh was asked to read her poem, “Liwa.” When she refused with a laugh on the grounds that she didn’t like it, the question was asked how, from a writing perspective, could a writer reject or dislike a poem to which they chose the title of their collection.
“Poetry to me is a place; a dark place, or a sub-place in my life. If I start thinking or acting as a poet, planning to be a poet or planning to write poetry, I will destroy my project,” Azaizeh said. “Poetry is a place where you fight poetry… I always feel that I’m breaking something, not building something. I’m breaking stereotypes, or language… I feel it is my enemy. That’s why I don’t write a lot. It’s in me – but it’s not in my head. It’s not something that I do a lot. I’m not searching for it and I’m not trying to bring it into my daily life. That is why I keep writing. If I’m satisfied about everything I write, I would stop writing.”
Irony and Drama when Reading Poetry
Makhoul was approached by a member of the audience who noticed that when he read his poems in Arabic, there was a sense of irony, but in English, when read by Stephen Watts, it was serious and dramatic. Makhoul responded saying that Watts read it in a much more dramatic way because he didn’t write the poem, because that was his style, and because the nature of poetry is that every person who reads it, reads it the way they feel it. A single poem could be read in many different ways, whether dramatic or ironic. Makhoul’s style is ironic because that is how he is by nature.
“We have been lamenting for years and years,” he says, “and the enemy is very obstinate. We’ve passed the era of lamentation, so I’m trying a new style which is more ironic.” He added that “36 million people were killed in World War II. As a result, there was a lot of absurdity in art, literature and culture. The value of human life was shattered.” In cases such as this, only irony can be expressed.
Poetry in Schools
In response to a query on the position of poetry in Israeli and Palestinian education, especially secondary education, Makhoul stated that with regards to Israel, Palestinian political poetry is not allowed in the curriculum. In the early days of Oslo, there was an attempt to introduce Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry, but the state turned against it.
“Any occupation starts culturally and then through the militarily,” he said. Omar Al-Qattan added that in terms of the Palestinian curriculum, Palestinian poetry is still taught in a traditional way, but there are efforts to change that.
The last point of discussion revolved around the forms of Palestinian poetry and how Palestinian poetry is essentially Arabic poetry. Just as there is a long tradition of classical Arabic poetry, there is also modern contemporary poetry, which is mostly written in free verse. Makhoul added that some classical poets such as Abu Tammam and Al-Mutanabbi were more enterprising than a lot of poets today.
The evening was followed by a book-signing of the poetry collections by both poets and a reception with delicious mezzas from the region.
Amira Abd El-Khalek studied English literature and anthropology in Egypt and the UK. She has held academic positions at Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo and has worked in national and international NGOs. She is an avid reader in English and Arabic, enjoys writing and is passionate about films.