Asmaa Azaizeh: ‘A Physical Disconnect from the Arab Literary World’

By Essayed Taha

Asmaa Azaizeh is a poet, journalist, and founder of Shahrur, a bookstore and book club for children. The author of four poetry collections, Azaizeh received the Debutant Writer Award from Al Qattan Foundation in 2010 for her Liwa, (2011, Alahlia). Her collection Don’t Believe Me If I Talk About War has been translated into Dutch and Swedish.

In 2012, she was named the first director of the Mahmoud Darwish Museum in Ramallah. She has worked as a cultural editor in several newspapers, a presenter on TV and radio stations, and as the director of the Fattoush bookstore and the book fair in Haifa. 

In response to the first question about the challenges she faced and how she adapted, Azaizeh wrote: 

“When discussing paper publishing in the context of the occupied territories, one cannot help but sense the feeling of confinement experienced by Palestinians while attempting to imagine the outside world. Since the Nakba, the Palestinian publishing experience has been largely isolated from the broader Arab experience. It has been limited to individual connections between Palestinian writers and some Arab publishing houses, as well as discrete channels to bring books into Palestine for deprived readers.

“Though some might think these challenges belong to a bygone era, the reality remains that Israel still imposes a mandate law preventing trade and book imports from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and other countries considered enemy states. I personally experienced the consequences of this law during my time managing a bookstore in Haifa and organizing an annual book fair. We faced the absurdity of having a shipment of books from Beirut detained at the border and returned, denying us access to the knowledge they held.

“This senseless blockade has led to a deprivation of books, leaving us feeling less than fully human. However, we must not succumb to this injustice. Instead, we must confront and resist it with all our strength. Unfortunately, electronic publishing has not entirely solved this problem. While it has brought some liberation and access to diverse content, there are still challenges in the Arab market, influenced by political and economic realities. Additionally, amidst this publishing renaissance, we can’t ignore the dire circumstances faced by some communities struggling for basic necessities, where reading might not be a priority.

“As a poet, I feel a physical disconnect from the Arab literary world. I am rarely able to participate in Arab literary events, while being frequently invited to literary festivals and gatherings in Europe and beyond.

“On the other hand, electronic publishing has brought about significant changes in the last decade. New platforms have illuminated and connected people, attempting to break barriers and bridge gaps.

“Overall, while acknowledging the positive changes in electronic publishing, we must continue to address the challenges and restrictions faced in traditional paper publishing, and strive for a more inclusive and equitable literary landscape.”

As for the second question about what brings her joy, Azaizeh responded: 

“Happiness seems elusive and distant from the daily reality of being a Palestinian poet, mother, and worker. Our lives are marked by hardships, fear, death, and dreams left unfulfilled. I hope not to convey a sense of gloom, but it is evident that happiness appears as fleeting moments that slip through our grasp all too swiftly. At present, I find happiness in the laughter of my son, Sina, who delights in simple joys. Yet, beyond this sphere, happiness feels like someone who demands a price for their company. Perhaps if we stopped actively seeking it, we might experience more of it than we imagine.

“As a poet, I am often uncertain about the driving force behind publishing my work. While I do cherish the idea of others reading and admiring my poetry, like many other writers, I grapple with the question of its relevance. Publishing poetry in the Arab world can be disheartening and dispiriting. Publishers themselves lack belief in its potential, and readers are few, though they do exist.

“The poet, in such circumstances, resembles a solitary football player, playing without an audience and facing numerous balls, hoping to score in the goal of poetry and writing. The real audience, vast and grand, is present in actual football fields.

“Nevertheless, despite the challenges I’ve encountered as a bookseller and writer, I am rekindling hope within myself. I established Shahrur, an online store for children’s and young-adult books, as well as a platform to celebrate reading, less than a year ago–perhaps because I see greater rewards in writing for children, reading to them, and collaborating with them. While there are numerous nonsensical and didactic books in children’s literature, there are also beautiful works, both in text and illustrations. Many Arab mothers and fathers are striving to invest in the literary development of their sons and daughters. I mention fathers, even though the vast majority of Arab fathers do not actively read to their children or select books for them. The interested and engaged readers are often the mothers. Nevertheless, this investment offers a glimmer of optimism. I like to believe that our societies are increasingly recognizing that reading provides the greatest opportunities for our children.

“Lastly, throughout my day, I seek what pushes my writing endeavors forward. Writing is the leading cart, pulling everything else, including publishing, book sales, and other related aspects. And I am convinced that this motivation comes from within the act of writing itself, not from external factors or justifications. Writing itself is a profound force, transcending the need for reasons or arguments.”

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