Sunday, January 27, 2013

Palestinian poets Marwan Makhoul and Asma'a Azaizeh appear in London

(L to R) Stephen Watts, Marwan Makhoul, Asma's Azaizeh, Agnes Reeve 
'Hebrew is not my enemy and nor are Jews my enemies' 

The appearance of Palestinian poets Marwan Makhoul and Asma'a Azaizeh at the A M Qattan Foundation's Mosaic Rooms in London last Thursday evening provided a rare opportunity for a UK  audience to hear from the younger generation of  '1948 Palestinians', born in Israel where Palestinians are one in five of the population.

The packed-out event was organised by Banipal, the magazine of modern Arab literature in English translation. The latest issue of the magazine,  Banipal 45 , celebrates its 15th anniversary with a special 148-page section - Writers from Palestine - showcasing the work of 24 Palestinian authors including Makhoul and Azaizeh.

During the evening Makhoul and Azaizeh gave insights into the situation of being a Palestinian poet in Israel. When a member of the audience asked Makhoul whether he has read his poems in Hebrew to an Israeli audience, the poet said: "Not only have I read in Hebrew but I insist on reading in Hebrew. First of all because Hebrew is not my enemy, and nor are Jews my enemies, but the occupation is my enemy, and Zionism in all its forms.
"When I read it wasn't out of a desire to normalise relations in a banal way, but on the contrary: while my own people may know my experience, I was very keen to introduce this experience to an Israeli audience, which is I feel, as a poet living inside Israel, to be one of my duties. And for sure the poems I read in Tel Aviv are not love poems - I read the poem I just read to you [An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport] I read about Gaza and so on."

Makhoul's poems are powerful, searing and ironic testaments to the experiences of Palestinian Israelis He is in the tradition of other Palestinian writers who have highlighted the surreal aspects of being a Palestinian in Israel. He read poems including On the Tel Aviv Train; Hello Beit Hanoun; Portrait of the People of Gaza. His long poem An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport  is a tour de force. 

Makhoul believes that the role of the Palestinians inside Israel is "to struggle through culture .. to convince the other of the justice of our cause". Palestinians in other situations may have different roles, "but for me the Palestinian Arab inside Israel has that role of cultural struggle." This requires treading a very fine line: "It does not mean that you normalise and work with official institutions of the state, nor do you go and represent Israel overseas." 
Azaizeh agreed that "Hebrew is not our enemy, and I think Israelis have to know and read Palestinian poetry and literature." But she added that the term  "normalisation" is complicated: it is not black and white, does not have "measurements". Palestinian writers in Israel have to operate in a dangerous context, and tend not to be presented as Palestinian.  "Unfortunately, we are presented as Israeli Arabs in many Israeli events, or Israeli-Arab events  - not considering us as an integral part of the Palestinian nation.

"So yes, it's complicated and each one of us, each poet and intellectual, has his own measurements. We  believe in this exchange of knowledge but we don't agree to be put and pushed into blocs or boxes where we are considered this minority of this Israeli nation.." 

During the evening the two poets read their poetry in Arabic. Sitting alongside them on the platform were the readers of their poems in the English translations done for Banipal 45. The renowned poet and translator Stephen Watts  read Makhoul's poems in translation by Raphael Cohen. Agnes Reeve, who is Banipal publishing assistant and also administrative assistant of the Banipal Trust for Arabic Literature, read  Khaled al-Masri's translations of Azaizeh's poems.

'in the West and even in Arab countries we always talk about the same Palestinian writers'

Banipal's co-founder and editor, the Iraqi novelist Samuel Shimon, introduced the event. Shimon said he had first met Asma'a at the Frankfurt Book Fair some five years ago and had met Marwan last year. Prior to their work appearing in translation in Banipal 45 he published the two poets in Arabic on his cultural website

In order to show how the Palestinian literary landscape has changed in a decade Shimon flourished two issues of the magazine: Banipal 45 containing Writers from Palestine, and Banipal 15/16 , published almost exactly 10 years ago, which includes a  130-page special feature Contemporary Palestinian Literature. A comparison of the names of the authors published in the two issues shows that very few are the same: nearly all the Palestinian authors in Banipal 45 are new.

Samuel Shimon with Banipal issues 45 and 15/16

Shimon said some people have asked him why Banipal has published its Writers from Palestine special section.  "I told them I spoke with the Qattan Foundation two years ago and told them I wanted to bring new writers to our magazine in the English language. I read a lot in newspapers and on websites about the new names on the literary scene in Palestine, but here in the West and even in Arab countries we always talk about the same names of Palestinian writers".  

He gave as examples the names of  Ghassan Kanafani, and Palestinian women writers  Sahar Khalifeh, Liana Badr, or Samira Azzam . "But in the  last 10 or 15 years there are new writers in Palestine, and their writing  is completely different from that of the old generation." 

He noted that in her editorial for Banipal 15/16 Obank had written that that issue celebrated Palestinian literature not primarily out of solidarity but out of "admiration because we love their literature. We love their writing, and then we have solidarity with their case."

In the 1970s Shimon was a member of the PLO in Lebanon. In preparing Writers from Palestine  he was happy to have been invited to Ramallah, where he met many friends. It had been "like a dream" to walk around  Ramallah. He had also gone to Haifa and Acre. "I really can write a book about my love for Palestine and how proud I feel to be engaged in this case, this literature." 

He recalled telling Obank after the launch of Banipal that it was his dream to one day publish a magazine devoted only to Palestinian literature. "I said at least we have to take care of the Palestinian writers in our magazine." After Banipal launched its book publishing arm Banipal Books in 2004, it published books by Palestinian authors. "I published stories by one of the masters of the short story Mahmoud Shukair  and we published also half-Dutch half-Palestinian  Ramsey Nasr , and Issa Boullata.

"And always I mentioned in our magazine the contribution of Palestinian writers in Arab literature. It is immense from Jabra Ibrahim Jabra to Emile Habibi to Mahmoud Darwish, to Taufiq Ziad to Tawfiq Sayegh and Fadwa Touqan."

'a new and refreshing literary map of that forsaken country'

The introductory article to Writers from Palestine, is  by acclaimed Palestinian poet, author and translator Anton Shammas who was born in Israel in 1950. He describes the section as "a very special amalgam of young Palestinian voices, whose writing offers a new and refreshing literary map of that forsaken country, and whose almost unprecedented collective presence realises a long overdue literary dream." 

The main drive behind this initiative was "to open up the English gates for some new waves, some new and young and uncompromising voices from all regions of Palestine (totally ignoring what is euphemistically referred to as the Green Line)." The voices are young and new "not necessarily because of age but, rather, because of a fresh and ingenious look at Palestinian realities, which the older generation was probably unprepared to fathom."

  Anton Shammas

The Mosaic Rooms event was compered by Omar Qattan (pictured left), secretary of the board of the Qattan Foundation. Introducing Azaizeh he said "I am very honoured to say she is one of the laureates of the Qattan Foundation's Young Writer Award, in 2010 for her collection Liwa now published by Dar Al-Ahliya in Amman." Her poetry has been translated into English, German, Farsi, Swedish, Italian and Hebrew."
Azaizeh was born in 1985 in the village of Daborieh, Lower Galilee, and graduated in English Literature and Journalism from the University of Haifa in 2006. A journalist since 2004, she writes for a number of Palestinian and Arab newspapers. She is currently presenter of a Palestinian television programme on culture and art, a lecturer in creative writing and editor of the poetry section of  

Marwan Makhoul was born to a Palestinian father and a Lebanese mother in 1979 in the village of Boquai'a in Upper Galilee. His first book of poetry Ard al-Bassiflora al-Hazinah (Land of the Sad Passiflora) was published in 2007 by Al-Jamal Publishers. In the same year a second edition was published in Haifa by Maktabat Kul Shai'. A third edition appeared in Cairo in 2012. Makhoul's poetry has been translated into English, Turkish, Italian, German, French, Hebrew and Serbian. In 2009 he won prize for best playwright in the Acre Theatre Festival for his first play.

Makhoul has a degree in Civil Engineering from Al-Mustaqbal College, and is a a civil engineer and director of a construction company.. He lives in the city of Ma'alot-Tarshiha, in Galilee. (In an October 2012 interview with Haaretz he spoke frankly of the difficulties he and his wife have had living in the  mixed Arab-Jewish city of Ma'alot-Tarshiha where they moved in 2004).

Asma'a Azaizeh (L) and Agnes Reeve

'I'm breaking stereotypes, I'm breaking terms, I'm breaking language'

Azaizeh read in a steady, assured voice several poems from her Liwa collection: Mail; I Don't Belong to this Light; Wagner and my Grandmother; A Corpse in Ramallah; Revival. (the last two poems can be read on the Banipal website). She also read two poems that are not yet translated into English: Mustawtanat (Settlements) and Jundiyun min Qassioun.  

Azazieh's poems are enigmatic, mysterious, thoughtful. They are witty and pose riddles, are broad in scope, and intimate. Mail begins: "What shall we do with the addresses of our friends who've passed away? // Perhaps if we send them blank emails, / combat zones and armies would be returned to us." There is a female sensibility: in A Corpse in Ramallah we find the lines: "If only I were a man! // How beautiful it would be, before I go to bed, / to piss on my emotions standing up,"

Azaizeh declined to recite the title poem of  Liwa when requested to do so by a member of the audience, laughing "I don't like it!" Asked to explain how a writer could dislike the poem she had chosen as the title poem, she said:  "My theories in general about poetry are a little bit complicated, and I can't really explain them, especially in English, my third language." She added: "Writing poetry for me is actually an action of creating unpoetic creation." And there was audience laughter when she added jokingly: "Nonsense!"

She continued: "Seriously, poetry in my life is a place: until now I see it as a dark place, a sub-place in my life. I think if I start thinking as a poet, acting as a poet or planning to be a poet, or planning to write poetry, I would destroy my project. That's  why I always feel that poetry is something where you fight poetry where you fight this term, where you fight this stigma of poetry. 

"I don't know what it is, I don't know also what I'm doing but the thing is that I'm breaking something, I'm not really building something. I'm breaking stereotypes, I'm breaking terms, I'm breaking language, I'm breaking things, so that's why I sometimes feel it's  really my enemy and that's why I also don't write a lot. I don't really like it a lot and it's not really in my head, it's not a custom, it's not a regular thing I do in my daily life but it's existing in some place and I'm not searching a lot for it, I'm not trying to bring it from inside .. It's complicated, that's why I really feel sometimes I hate things  that's why I keep writing. If I'm satisfied with everything I write I think I would stop writing."

Makhoul recited the poems On the Tel Aviv Train; Hello Beit Hanoun; Portrait of the People of Gaza; An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport (Hello Beit Hanoun and Daily Poems are on the Banipal website). He read in an engagingly warm, husky voice, accompanying his words with expressive gestures. 

His long poem An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport (English translation below) is a tour de force. Its beginning  "I’m an Arab! / I shouted, at the doorway to departures, / short-cutting the woman soldier’s path to me."
resonates with the opening of Mahmoud Darwish's 1964 poem Identity Card "Write Down! /  I am an Arab". 

The poem alludes also to another late 1948 Palestinian writer, Emile Habibi, whose famous 1974 novel The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist examines the condition of being a Palestinian who remained in Israel. The Arabic term translated as Pessoptimist - al-Mutasha'il - combines mutasha'im (pessimist) and mutafa'il (optimist). An Arab at Ben Gurion Airport includes: "Pess-optimistic I was in the seventies / but I’m optimistic about the roars of disobedience / right now being raised to you in Gilboa gaol...." (a reference to Palestinian hunger strikes).

In the Q and A session an audience member said when Makhoul read this poem in Arabic "I thought it was kind of surreal the way you were reading it and it made me laugh although you are writing about a bad experience and very sad subject. There was sukhriya [irony]. Whereas when it was read in English it was completely serious and very heart wrenching. How did you write it, what were you trying to portray when you were writing it? Did you want it to be sukhriya?"

'we've surpassed the era of lamentation which I felt was more like a general hysteria'

Makhoul said: "Stephen's read in a much more dramatic way because that is his style. It is also the nature of poetry: whoever reads it will interpret it in his own way. The reason I write ironically is that we have been lamenting for years and years but this enemy seems to be very obstinate and therefore I feel that we've surpassed the era of lamentation which I felt was more like a general hysteria and I'm now trying to capture a new voice which is more ironic. This is my character ,this is my personality." To audience hilarity he said: "For example a man walked in just now looking like Jesus Christ and I said, 'what made him get up?'"

Stephen Watts and Marwan Makhoul

Makhoul added: "If I were to step back a little bit, in the Second World War 36 million people were killed and art and literature and all expressive arts were deeply affected by this, we went into a phase of total arbitrariness, the theatre of the absurd, and so on. And so if you imagine a guy who's in his Phantom jet above Gaza playing Play Station and killing 1444 ... there is really nothing one can say except to be deeply ironic and sarcastic."

Stephen Watts was "very aware when I was reading the English translation that I was missing a lot of irony, I was really striving ... there is great complexity and irony and also yes, any situation of being asked questions at an airport in whatever circumstances - let alone the circumstances of this poem - there's a surreality about it, but I chose to read it in a particular way." 

A member of the audience quoted the Jalal al Din Rumi aphorism "the wailing of broken hearts is the gateway to God" and said he had often felt, and others had observed, that the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust made many Jewish people turn away from God, turn away from faith,  how could God have allowed this to happen. He asked: "Do you feel that the suffering, the contemporary agony of Palestine is driving .. let's say poetry for want of a better term .. away from spiritual revelation or towards it?"

Azaizeh said she doubted whether this is the case in Palestinian poetry: "On the contrary I think Palestinian people think they are suffering because God is examining them. I think religion doesn't have to do with the Palestinian case regarding to suffering and war experiences and stuff like this. But regarding literature and poetry modernity is more engaged with ...   visions  as ideology, not as a response to suffering, and I think it's more mature, more valuable and remarkable.

"I'm not saying that Palestinian literature and poetry is in its  modernity is fantastic, I have also my reservations on everything that has been written and is being written but still you can't see any unreligious views or points of views by Palestinian poets and writers. I think it comes from a more mature angle and not as a reaction of being under occupation or suffering or stuff like this. Yes we did pass this catastrophe the Nakba but religion is not existed in this .. I think".

The poets were asked about the place of Palestinian poetry as an art form within the Israeli and Palestinian educational systems and its role in critical thinking, especially at the secondary level.

Makhoul said the Israelis will not allow Palestinian poetry - and certain not political poetry - onto the curriculum. "When in the early days of Oslo there was an attempt to introduce a Mahmoud Darwish poem into the Israeli curriculum the whole state stood up against it. Occupation tends to start from the cultural sphere and then into the military .."

Asma'a said it was a question not only of poetry, but of the whole curriculum. When she was helping her 11-year-old niece with her geography homework "she had a lesson on Galilee and how people settled in the Galilee as if it was a desert, nobody was there ...  suddenly people came from the sky and settled in the Galilee" in the 20th century. Everything in the curriculum -- history, geography, politics, and literature -- is geared towards  building this Arab Israeli who is inserted "from the sky into this place" and is not seen as a native of the land, part of a  native nation. 

Omar Qattan added that as regards the Palestinian curriculum Palestinian poetry is intensively taught in a kind of traditional way. There are attempts to change this, but it's a long process.

The poets were aksed whether in modern Palestinian poetry is there as much of a divide between academic poetry, performance poetry, and storytelling, as there is perhaps in the West

Makhoul said  "there is the classical Arabic poetry - a lot of that is being regurgitated now - I tend to fall asleep after the first verse  - and then there is modern poetry:  most poetry today is written in the form of free verse." He added: "Some of our classical  poets are more enterprising and more modernising than many of the poets writing today."
report and photos by Susannah Tarbush

From the poems by Asma'a Azaizeh translated by Khaled al-Masri for Banipal 45:


Ramallah is arid and I am a fish that must transform its space into a womb.

Who am I now?
Is my foolish old voice turning into a woman?

If only I were a man!

How beautiful it would be, before I go to bed,
to piss on my emotions standing up,

There is no wind here to move my face, so I can smile.
It is the sun that burns my lips.

and Wagner’s ghost
are more merciful than Ramallah
and my ghost.


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.


From the poems by Marwan Makhoul translated by Raphael Cohen


I’m an Arab!
 I shouted, at the doorway to departures,
 short-cutting the woman soldier’s path to me.
 I went up to her and said: Interrogate me! But
 quickly, if you don’t mind. I don’t want to miss
 departure time.

She said: Where are you from?

Descended from Ghassassanian kings of Golan is my heroism, I said.
 My neighbour was Rehab the harlot of Jericho
 who gave Joshua the wink on his way to the West Bank
 the day he occupied the land that occupied history after him
 from the very first page.
 My answers are as stony as Hebron granite:
 I was born in the time of the Moabites who came down before you to this submissive ancient land.
 My father a Canaanite
 my mother a Phoenician, from South Lebanon of old.
 My mother, her mother died two months ago
 and she was unable to see her mother off two months ago.
 I wept in her arms so that on-looking from Buqaya might console
 the worst blow of tragedy and fate:
 Lebanon, you see impossible sister,
 and my mother’s mother alone
 to the north!

She asked me: Who packed your bag for you?

I said: Osama Ibn Laden! But hold on,
 take it easy. It’s no more than a joke in poor taste,
 a quip that the realists here like me use professionally
 for the struggle.
 Sixty years I’ve fought with words about peace.
 I don’t attack any settlement
 and I don’t have a tank like you do
 ridden by a soldier to tickle Gaza.
 Dropping a bomb from an Apache isn’t on my CV
 not because I lack qualifications,
  no, but because I see on the horizon a ripple echoing
 enough to the out-of-place revolt of the non-violent
 and to good behaviour.

Did anyone give you something on the way here? she asked.

I said: An exile from Nayrab refugee camp
 gave me memories
 and the key to a house from the fabled past.
 The rust on the key made me edgy, but I’m
 like stainless steel, I compose self with self should I grow nostalgic,
 for the groans of refugees
 spread wings of longing across borders.
 No guard can stop it, nor thousands
 and not you for sure.

She said: Do you have any sharp implements in your possession?

I said: My passion
 my skin, my olive complexion
 my being born here in innocence, but for fate.
 Pess-optimistic I was in the seventies
 but I’m optimistic about the roars of disobedience
 right now being raised to you in Gilboa gaol.
 I’m straight out of the
 tragic novels of history, the end of the story
 a funeral for the past and a wedding
 in the not far-off hall of hope.
 A raisin from the Jordan Valley raised me
 and taught me to speak.
 I have a child whose due date I postponed, so he’ll arrive
 to a morning not made of straw like today, daughter of Ukraine.
 The muezzin’s chanting moves me, even though I’m an atheist.
 I shout to mute the mournful wailing of the flutes,
 to turn pistols into the undying strains of violins.

The soldier took me to search my things
 ordering me to open my bag.
 I do what she wants!
 And from the depths of the bag ooze my heart and my song,
 the meaning of it all slips out eloquently and crudely, within it all that is me.

She asked me: And what’s this?

I said: The sura of the Night Journey ascending the ladder of my veins, the Tafsir of Jalalayn,
 the poetry of Abu Tayyeb al-Mutannabi and my sister Maram,
 as a photograph and real at the same time,
 a silk shawl to enwrap and protect me from the chill exile of relatives,
 tobacco from a kiosk in Arraba that made my head spin until doubts got stoned.
 Inside me a fierce loyalty, the wild thyme of my country,
 the fieriness of pomegranate blossoms, Galilean and sparkling.
 Inside me agate, camphor-wood, incense and my being alive,
 the pearl that is Haifa: scintillating, everlasting, illuminating,
 preposterous, relaxing in the pocket of our return for one reason
 only: we worshipped our good intentions and bound
the nakba to a slip in the past and in me!

The soldier hands me over to a policeman
who pats me down and shouts in surprise:
What’s this!?

The manhood of my nation, I say
 and my progeny, the fold of my family and two dove’s eggs
 to hatch, male and female, from me and for me.
 He searches me
 for anything that could pose a threat
 but this stranger is blind
 forgetting the more destructive and important bombs within:
 my spirit, my defiance, the swoop of the hawk in my breath and my body
 my birthmark and my valour. That is me
 whole and complete in a way this fool
 will never see.

Now, after two hours of psychological grappling
 I lick my wounds for a sufficient five minutes
 then embark on the plane that has taken off. Not to leave
 and not to return
 but to see the soldier below me
 the policeman in the national anthem of my shoes below me
 and below me a big lie of tin-can history
 like Ben Gurion become as always, as always, as always
 below me.


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 solid
like a randomly targeted shell.
They said
the children woke up early that day
not to go to school
but to the local youth club
opposite the town’s playground
that in summer is big enough for two massacres
and a certain hope, the hope to live.
I also heard
that when they were on their way they made light of their wounds
and poured blood on the corners
till blood took the colour of the streets
and feelings.
When I saw what I saw on the screen
I thought I was dreaming
or the TV was dreaming the impossible made real.
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.
Hello . . . ?
Hello . . . ?
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.


The homeland having fallen down a well
and after sixty years, it’s up to us
to raise the rope a little, then let it fall again,
 for only thus will hope learn patience.


There are things I don’t understand,
not being an Israeli
and not being entirely Palestinian.


My country is the rape victim
 I will marry.

My grandfather told me: Palestine is an irregular verb in the past.
 My father said: No, it’s in the present tense.
 I say, and a plane has just landed nearby: My grandfather’s right
and my father too.


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