Monday, January 21, 2013

Unholyland: Aidan Andrew Dun's 264-sonnet Palestinian-Israeli love story

A Palestinian-Israeli love story in 264 sonnets
Susannah Tarbush

On Wednesday 23rd January, at 7pm, London’s oldest radical bookshop Housmans - at 5 Caledonian Road, King's Cross, N1 9DX - hosts poet and psychogeographer Aidan Andrew Dun who will read from and talk about his new book Unholyland –  a Palestinian-Israeli love story in the form of 264 sonnets. The book, published recently in London by Hesperus, is the first part of a trilogy: its full title is Unholyland: Rambam. The sonnets are arranged in 12 chapters on 153 pages and are followed by 20 pages of detailed notes.

Unholyland chronicles the love between Jalilah, a 16-year-old Palestinian rapper from Shatila camp in Beirut, and Moss  (pronounced Mosh, a diminutive of Moshe) Rambam, a Galilee-based Israeli Jewish DJ who is totally alienated by Israel's past and present policies towards the Palestinians.

Aidan Andrew Dun

Moss and Jalilah first meet after Jalilah smuggles herself over the border into Israel in order to perform at an underground Palestinian night club, Transworld. Rap and 'Slingshot' Hiphop are central elements of  Unholyland , woven through the text in its story, characters, rhythms and language. Slingshot was developed by Palestinian rappers, some such as DAM in Israel, others elsewhere such as The Palestinian Rapperz (P.R.) of Gaza. Slingshot derives its name from the biblical story of David fighting Goliath with a sling. In his notes to the sonnets Dun writes: "In spite of the vehemence of the name the fundamental philosophy of Slingshot Hiphop is non-violent, proposing that the way forward for Palestinian freedom-fighters is to "put down the gun and pick up the mic." Part of Dun's creative impetus in writing Unholyland came form learning of the popularity of Slingshot among young Israeli Jews.

The story opens just as Moss turns 18. He was conceived in 1992 on a beach in Goa, where his Israeli parents had like number of other young Israelis gone to get away from Israel and its "state terrorism" and the obligation to serve in the army. Moss was reared in Goa to a background of reggae music until when he was 14 his father became Hasidic and took his family back to Israel. Moss rebelled against his father and "became a DJ in Galilee, / 'MC Rambam' his main tag / sometimes also 'DJ Scallywag'; / struggled from his old man to be free"  . In Moss's view "Israel was not legit;  / Palestine was stolen bit by bit". Moss is a blue-eyed Rastaman with blond dreads.

Moss drives to Nazareth to see his Palestinian friend and hash supplier Rayyan, but an  Israeli attack on Gaza has triggered riots in Nazareth and the city is aflame.  Rayyan's sister Shaza and his mother rescue Moss from his car. Rayyan manages to smuggle a disguised Moss into Transworld to hear Jalilah, and Moss is dragged on stage to join this "half angel, half hot coquette".  Among the other characters in the story  are Jalilah's bodyguard brother Aziz (who gets together with Shaza), non-Israeli entrepreneur Sajjid and African hand-drummer  Laurence. Hashish, with its various origins and forms, is part of the subculture for some. There are references to Romeo and Juliet, and to Leila and Majnoun, in the poetry: "Let's remember that the way to truth / begins with the story of doomed youth."

The sonnets have pacey rhythms and a sense of  urgency. There is much humour and word play. The text is rich with the evocations of the landscape, history, Biblical references, art, mixed in with the contemporary storyline, of modern youth and transgressive love. There are scenes of brutality, and passages of lyrical tenderness and soft sensuality. Two centrepieces are Jalilah's rap on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, and the rap Moss gives in answer after she challenges him to do so. A lot of spliffs and hash, haze. This first part of the Unholyland trilogy ends on a cliffhanger. Moss has told Jalilah that having turned 18 he has soon to enter the army, while Jalilah faces a dangerous journey trying to cross back into Lebanon.

The Northern Irish poet and critic Tom Paulin, Emeritus Fellow at Hertford College, Oxford University, says: "I was deeply moved by Unholyland - it has extraordinary energy, wit, knowledge, and beautifully marries the vernacular with rhyme. It reads beautifully and is like nothing else I've read."

The Palestinian-British writer, journalist and TV producer Karl Sabbagh, former managing director of Hesperus, has championed the work. He describes Dun's verses as "a  mixture of classical structures and free-ranging rap. They are earthy and immediate, and as well as appealing to regular poetry readers, Unholyland will attract a wider range of people who will be drawn along by the rapidly developing story."

Andrew Aidan Dun spent "a fantastical childhood" in the West Indies, and says he knew his calling for poetry from an early age. He returned to London as a teenager to live with his grandmother, the great ballerina and dance teacher Dame Marie Rambert, born Maryam Rambam in Poland. Marie Rambert, known as Mim, founded the Rambert Dance Company in 1926 and was a huge influence on dance in Britain and internationally.

Marie Rambert

In his introduction to Unholyland Dun writes that although his grandmother's ballet company toured the world she would never take the company to Israel, and would not set foot in that country. An older sister had settled in Israel after fleeing Warsaw and the Holocaust, but the sisters did not remain in touch. Even in the middle decades of the 20th century "when the new state of Israel was still riding a wave of world sympathy because of the Nazi scourge, Mim felt for the Palestinian people, dispossessed, cruelly treated. To my certain knowledge Rambert felt about the situation in the Middle East exactly as those courageous men, Daniel Barenboim, Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe feel today."
And "as a direct descendant of Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as The Rambam) Marie Rambert would have doubtless concurred with that philosopher's advice to his people when he asked them not to allow the sufferings of exile to drive a return to the land of memory."

Dun  writes of the profound effect his wise and spiritual grandmother had on his life. At a time when he was almost totally estranged from his father, she became "my guiding-light, my teacher, my guru, my friend."It was from his grandmother that he first heard, in Russian, "the magnificant sonnets of Pushkin, witty, heartbreaking, cynical and tender; the voice of Byron raised to a higher power." Unholyland takes as its model the Onegin sonnet form of Pushkin.

Dun is renowned for his long poetic and psychogeographical works published over the past two decades. After being drawn  back to London after years travelling abroad he explored the psychogeography of the King's Cross area of London, an area which has long attracted visionaries and which is in a process of regeneration. His first published epic poem Vale Royal (Goldmark Books), which took  him 23 years to write, was launched at the Royal Albert Hall in 1995. This led to his being called The Poet of Kings Cross.

In this video 'Kings Cross Mysteries' Dun speaks at the British Library about “the psychogeography of mysterious Kings Cross referencing William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud and the Old Church of the Pan Cross.” The talk was part of the Library’s event 'Unreal city? London in Writing'.

Vale Royal was followed by a string of Dun's poetry books published by Goldmark, starting with  Universal in 2002. Then came The Uninhabitable City (2005) and Salvia Divinorum (2007). His 283-page verse-novel McCool : A love-triangle set against conflict in the Middle-East appeared in 2010. His poems have also appeared a variety of publications.

Q and As with Aidan Andrew Dun

What inspired you to write Unholyland

I suppose the bottom line about all this, the reason why I came up with the title Unholyland, is because I feel that in Israel the Jews are being untrue to themselves, betraying the fundamental principles of Judaism, which replaces sacrificial mind-sets with ethical codes - and which does not as Abraham sacrifice Palestine as Isaac, which does not return evil for evil, violence for violence, which does not subscribe to a racist ideology, which holds out the hope of the redemption of the whole human family, Jewish, non-Jewish, alike.

As a friend of Jalilah's says in Unholyland 2 ............ "Zion is a state of mind, not a state in the Middle East."

I feel it is the work of artists not only to inoculate the world with disillusion but to remind humanity of the possibility of the Golden Age of cultural unity mediated by visionary art. The conflict in Palestine being certainly the most intractable on the planet seemed the place to engage. I also note that Britain has two outstanding connections with Palestine/Israel, one recent and historical, one 'legendary'. The first is the Mandate/Balfour political complex, and the second is the vast subject of 'The Matter of Britain', where Jesus, in his 'lost years', comes to Britain with his rich uncle Joseph of Arimathea - who trades in Phoenician ships for Cornish silver and tin - and sets up the Celtic Church himself in Glastonbury - and Kings Cross. William Blake believed the truth of this  - 'And did those feet...' -  and so do I. It is central to my philosophy.

I believe, as Blake did, that work is prayer, and without wanting to sound precious I see my work as a long sustained meditation for peace. Everywhere I hear artists these days saying war is ineradicable and that to believe otherwise is fanatical. For me these statements are simply a confession that such art is too frail to face the existential challenge of replacing 'corporeal war' with 'mental fight' and I shall not cease... Insh'allah. Being, through my grandmother Marie Rambert a lineal descendant of Maimonides, I feel the responsibility of this connection very deeply, specially because, as I point out in the preface, a thousand years ago he recommended strongly to his fellow-Jews that they not attempt to return to Palestine.

Where did the rap and hip hop elements in Unholyland and the characters of Jalilah and Moss originate? 

Unholyland really began when I saw the documentary Rap Refugees [video here - the film was part of the 2010 BBC series Syrian School] in which two schoolgirls Shaza and Rahab from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus are shown fighting the school authorities for the right to rap. They face profound opposition from their elders and betters but talk charmingly, poignantly, about their love of rap, their passion for expressing their longing for home, their thirst for justice, through this medium. These two captured my imagination completely.  So Jalilah is based on these two lovely girls struggling for the right to speak in a new way. Though she's based in Shatila Camp in Beirut, not in Damascus. How unbearable to think of the situation in Syria and the predicament of young Shaza and Rahab and so many others trapped in all this turmoil.

Shaza from the film Rap Refugees 

Moss has many roots. I have a friend in Israel who organizes a fairly famous transcultural Arab/Israeli storytelling festival near Nazareth. I also became aware early on of the talented American Hasidic rapper/rootsman, Matisyahu, who, I know has collaborated with Arabic artists. I also detected early on the relative scarcity and poverty of Israeli rap, while observing the paradoxical attraction of Israeli kids to Slingshot Hiphop. I also became interested in Israeli right-wing rapper Subliminal, not because he can rap, he can't, but because he and Tamer Nafer of Dam were friends before the Intifada and Subliminal helped Nafer find fame, so he must be OK deep down. A film exists about their friendship and its implosion called Channels of Rage but I have only seen clips.

Another source of the poem was the tour of Israel in the mid-nineties of Jamaican roots-reggae trio Israel Vibration, probably the hippest and coolest music unit ever. All three guys are on crutches and when I first saw them on film perform to an Arabic/Israeli audience that was a big shift in consciousness for me. So they figure in the poem as prophetic unifying symbols of the golden age returning through music as Plato speculates.

How did publication of Unholyland come about and how did you get to know Karl Sabbagh?

A good friend, a leading literary academic at Oxford, put me in touch with Karl, who at that time was heading Hesperus. He took one look at Unholyland and decided to go for it. We met a few times for lunch in a small Lebanese restaurant near his offices and one of Karl's first questions to me was "How many times have you visited Israel?" When I said I had never been there he was astonished and I remember him saying that the poem reads as if I had been there for years, which pleased me, coming from him, enormously. However, I have lived in various Islamic societies including in Morocco - many times - and magnificent Afghanistan - where I stayed in 1976 for 6 weeks while on the road in my world-travels. Karl gave me his book Palestine: a Personal History' in those early days and we became real friends and remain so now, my wife and I have even stayed with Karl and Su at their home. 

Please say something on the structure of the particular sonnet form you choose here and how it may mirror rap in some way. Have you used this form in your previous books? 

I used the sonnet form of Unholyland first in my first verse-novel McCool which, set in London and Lebanon, seems to have predicted the Arab Spring and the Syrian Revolution. I believe this sonnet form, rhyming ababccddeffegg, can be traced back though Pushkin who used it in Onegin, via La Fontaine, to the time of the troubadours, obviously very influenced by Arabic culture. I have made a slight modification to the tetrametric line-structure, allowing myself sometimes a shorter 7-syllable variation to the basic 8-syllable metre. Pushkin allows the 9-syllable line of course and so do I. This 7-syllable variation produces a higher velocity in the poem making it more modern: shorter lines are so in vogue, they are certainly more difficult to write.

Writing Unholyland must have taken a lot of energy. How long did it take to write and how easily did it come or did it vary from day to day? 

 I usually write every day, from early morning until inspiration flags; on a good day this may go on until midnight. I normally don't eat for 4 or 5 hours at first, drinking lots of cold water and breaking for short yoga/breathing sessions to re-center myself physically. Unholyland was written in about 8 months.

Unholyland is the first volume of a trilogy. How far have you got with the subsequent two volumes? 

I have Unholyland: Jalilah very nearly finished. The poem is exactly the same length and format as the first volume: 12 chapters of 22 sonnets each. Unholyland: Jalilah concentrates more on Jalilah's narrative, her feelings, her background in the refugee-camp of Shatila/Beirut. While the first volume sees things through Moshe's eyes, the third volume will bring them together - or possibly tear them apart.

Where have you so far presented Unholyland to audiences, and what was the reaction? 

At the Dragon Cafe, Southwark, at Christmas with an audience of 150, I intro'd with Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry which I played solo on a Spanish guitar, dedicating it to the Palestinian women whose tears have filled the Mediterranean Sea. The room went very quiet. When the audience understood this thing was about reconciliation in the light of truth, non-violence symbolized by romance in the face of war, they got very involved. There is much activist-fatigue about these days: understandably, a 'new' take on the problems of the Middle East is refreshing. I recited about 15 to 20 sonnets from the first half of the poem, little groups of sonnets sometimes, at other times single verses. Lightning intros commented on these so that the audience travelled in a linear way thru the plot with me, most references clear. Then, after a good half an hour, I ended with Jalilah's rap The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine which is very dramatic in performance because I've rapped it myself to my music in the studio and live so many times. But unaccompanied, the effect is devastating. I left it there.

The second reading was at Pentameters, the atmospheric theatre in Hampstead,. at the fest of visionary poetry in late November. My night was called Burning Tyger Revue. I invited Marius Kociejowski author of The Pigeon Wars of Damascus, and a fine poet - and Stephen Watts, another fine poet, to share the stage that night. Same intro, stark moving song from Marley. Then the sonnets marching into rapt silence of a blacked-out auditorium. Same climax, the seven or eight sonnets preceding Jalilah's rap, then the rap itself, authentic, horrifying, lyrical, just like Slingshot.

The third was at Poltroon, a difficult rock-poetry room, very louche and decadent sometimes, very punk-funny often, risky stuff, but always real poets too in an intense house. Here I got deeply into the body-language of performance, miked on a small stage in semi-darkness I let out the whole of Chapter 9 with only the briefest intro, really brief, just explaining what Slingshot is about, truth and non-violence, using my line which goes: Many don't imagine Jewish DJ's falling in love with Palestinian women rappers, but it happens in Unholyland, as in real life.'

This set the whole thing up nicely and it was word-bombs-away. In the first few sonnets I got some cool ad-libs in Arabic from the darkness, I knew and welcomed them, growls of Arabic appreciation from in front. I never saw the guy and can't recall the sayings now, but it was very encouraging. I also got big chuckles at Poltroon; this is a hard-core lit-crowd who get every nuance, light and dark.

I remember near the end at Poltroon climaxing on the sonnets where Jalilah is challenging Moshe to rap in effect: 'He'd spit his wisdom Blam blam blam' I span around in a half-crouch and machine-gunned the audience with that phrase, they loved! Then, after lotsa applause a long silence, most unusual for Poltroon. MC got up well-shaken and said: Can we believe? he said, several times... while making it clear he was quite persuaded himself...

Moved a lot of books on these 3 nights, signed a lot of books. Really hoping for a big one at beloved Housmans.

After your next reading from Unholyland, at Housmans on 23rd January are further gigs planned, and would you hope to have readings in the Middle East at some point?

I'm concentrating this year on launching the poem and the reading at Housmans is part of an ongoing campaign to get the poem noticed and circulated. I have further readings planned; the next is on Feb 14th at Central St Martins in a specially-built wooden theatre. The British Library is interested in a perfomance, and Filthy MacNasty's lit-venue in Islington will be in April on a date to be confirmed. Karl is very keen to help me read in Palestine/Israel at some point this year, I would be so proud to read at Birzeit University, for instance, which is one of the things he has in mind I believe.

How do you view the cultural boycott of Israel? 

I yearn to see Zionism redefined as a cultural movement as proposed by Martin Buber who, as you may know, deeply resented Herzl's political and racial definition of the term. Meanwhile I do support the academic and cultural boycott of Israel, with the proviso that Ilan Pappe, Daniel Barenboim, Avi Shlaim are the real Israeli voices and should be heard loud and clear. I try to avoid buying Israeli goods including music software and support Palestine by buying Palestinian olive-oil.

 That was ‘48, that was then.
 Now - on our feet again - we throw
 mic on mic-stand. Slingshot hiphop’s
 genocide firsthand, Palestine’s
 the pain of people holding inside
 a whole country, while others in their land
 suntan on stolen beaches of white sand
 eating blood-soaked peaches, ripe and red.
 Underneath the flag of fear
 there’s something very wrong here.
 Israel, to the truth awaken.
 I and I can’t get no satisfaction,
 no, no no, not yet,
 no human rights, no drugs, no medicine
 in the Gaza Strip.

Everything’s been taken,
 I and I forsaken,
 in Palestine.

 [from Jalilah's rap in Unholyland]

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