I don’t like you, death
But I’m not afraid of you
And I know that my body is your bed
And my spirit is your bed cover
I know that your banks are narrow for me
I don’t love you, death
But I’m not afraid of you.
Beloved Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim died Tuesday after a long battle with cancer, following a worsening of his health this past week. He was 75.
Al-Qasim — whose stature in Palestine ranked alongside Mahmoud Darwish’s — will be widely mourned.
Al-Qasim was born in 1939 in the Jordanian city of az-Zarqa, where his father was working at the time. He hailed from a Druze family from the town of Rameh in the Upper Galilee, and attended school there and in Nazareth, as his family did not flee in 1948.
As Dr. Issa Boullata wrote over at World Literature Today:
Together with poets like Mahmoud Darwish, Tawfiq Zayyad, Rashed Hussein, and others in Israel, he expressed Palestinian opposition to Israel in the 1950s in recurrent oral poetic recitations at village gatherings—activities that were celebrated in the Arab world as “resistance poetry” and later published. Al-Qasim was eighteen when his first collection of poems was published, and he was to experience Israeli prisons several times because of his writings, face personal trouble in his livelihood, and publish censored poems.
He was one of the first Druze to refuse to serve in the Israeli army and is credited, along with Darwish, with founding Palestinian resistance literature. As his stature grew, he wrote poems that were recited and sung across the region, often set to music by Marcel Khalife.Ghassan Kanafani wrote of al-Qasim’s poem “Kafr Qasim” that it was “memorized throughout the entire Galilee.”
However, in a recent interview, al-Qasim told Liam Brown that he doesn’t care how he will be remembered:
“If the Palestinian people will be free, if the Arab world will be united, if social justice will be victorious in all the world, if there will be international peace. I don’t care who will remember me or my poems. I don’t care.”
Regardless, al-Qasim will be long remembered, for his poems, his journalism, and his activism. As the editors at Ibis Editions wrote in an email announcing al-Qasim’s death, “His wit wove a signature combination of protest and melancholy; his rhetoric was fierce, but always precise and often tender; and his imagination was at once soaring and scaled to the ordinary person.”
Many other Palestinian poets penned tributes to al-Qasim on Tuesday, including Mourid Barghouti and Majeed al-Barghouthi:
Al-Qasim also recently published a memoir, It Is Just an Ashtray. In Al-Akhbar‘s review, they quote from the wide-ranging book:
“One day I was marching in a large protest in Haifa and I was chanting with protesters ‘Jewish-Arab Brotherhood.’ Suddenly a Jewish Israeli challenged me from across the side walk yelling ‘this will never happen. There will be no such brotherhood!’” al-Qasim says, adding, “In a flash…I told that provocative person ‘hell if I care’ and continued on my way marching enthusiastically…”
Only one collection of al-Qasim’s works, Sadder than Water, trans. Nazih Kassis, has been published in English translation. However, numerous individual poems have also made their way across the language barrier.
One of his most well-known, “Travel Tickets,” trans. A.Z. Foreman:
The day I’m killed,
my killer, rifling through my pockets,
will find travel tickets:
One to peace,
one to the fields and the rain,
and one to the conscience of humankind.
Dear killer of mine, I beg you:
Do not stay and waste them.
Take them, use them.
I beg you to travel.
Selected works by Al-Qasim:
The Guardian: There was a village called Sireen
PoemHunter: Six poems
The ArabArts Blog: From The Qur’an of Death and Jasmine