In those times of calamity and war, I find myself turning to poetry for comfort. A sentiment echoed by many people, with the rise of the popularity of Palestinian poets. Their words of courage and hope live on, despite the attempts to snuff it. However, now more than ever we see the incessant attempt to kill them, to silence the voices of Palestine completely. No more storytellers to weave poetry of their people, gashing tears at the cultural fabric of Palestine.
As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon’s food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you liberate yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: “If only I were a candle in the dark”).
The above verses of poetry are from the writings of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), the quintessential Palestinian poet and the most oft-quoted of them all. Titled Think of Others, it pleads the reader to think of others, those less fortunate. Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry reflected the strife the Palestinians have been going through for the past century.
On The Brink Of Extinction
International Court of Justice has ruled that it is “plausible” that Israel has committed genocide, even though experts like Raz Segal have outright said that Israel is committing textbook genocide with the three genocidal acts, including, “killing, causing serious bodily harm, and measures calculated to bring about the destruction of the group.”
We are all aware of that but have you heard of the term memoricide? You might think it’s similar to damnatio memoriae where a person suffers a ‘condemnation of memory’, erased from the pages of history. Memoricide is the same thing but on a bigger scale: an entire nation, its history buried in rubble and ruins.
Historian Ilan Pappe highlighted the cultural memoricide Palestinians have been subject to since the 1948 Nakba in his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. He wrote about the erasure of a culture’s history in favour of another, the reduction of many layers to one.
When was the last time you saw a photo of Palestinians during a joyful celebration? A photo of a peaceful town, not rubbles of granite flattened by the bombs? Lately, all we saw was Palestinians crying over their dead families and loved ones. Heart-wrenching, gutting images. Have you ever thought about their history? The olive trees of Gaza, their dances and songs? The silencing of their past is deliberate, that is the act of memoricide. The erasure of their history, their culture and subsequently, their survival.
A Tool of Resistance
The Palestinian poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Najwan Darwish, Lisa Suhair, and Mosab Abu Toha to name a few, saw poetry as a tool of resistance. By amplifying marginalised voices, to serve as a historical record of the horrors they saw and experienced firsthand and to inspire those who sympathise to take part to actively resist, these are the ways that poetry affects people to take action. Those poems have to speak from the heart, a sincere plea for the homeland. For all the love and lives lost in the war.
Atef Alshaer, as quoted in this interview from Time, says that poetry is compensation for their lack of physical power. And it’s true. Their words live on, even if they are no longer in this mortal plane. When Dr Refaat Alareer was killed in an Israeli airstrike, people flew white kites in his honour, as he wished in his poem, If I Must Die.
Palestinian literature is filled with longing, for their land to know peace. Immortalised in their verses is the hope for a free Palestine. Their poetry is a tapestry weaving art, culture and history together. It’s not only a tool of resistance, but a historical record of Palestinian struggles, lest we forget the horrors they endured. A defence against Israel’s propaganda that aims to dehumanise Palestinians.
If words had no power to influence people’s feelings about the bombing of hospitals or the military detention of children, then Israeli forces would not be arresting poets and other writers.
Those are the words Priscilla Wathington, a Palestinian-American author and writer uttered when she was asked the burning question “ What is the role of poetry in genocide?”
Like so many other diaspora Palestinians, poetry is how she reconnects to her motherland. And it is through poetry itself that she hopes to mobilise action to free her homeland. Her call is echoed by Laura Albast, a Palestinian-American journalist.
“Poetry combats erasure. It immortalises Palestinian memory and history. Poetry also promotes change and mobilises against Israeli attempts at brutalising our identity. It is an art form used to articulate our reality to the world,” Laura Albast told Doha News in this interview. Her grandmother was forced out of Palestine and Laura herself grew up in a refugee camp in Yarmouk, Syria where she listened to stories about Palestine from her grandmother.
Of course, poetry is not the be-all, end-all of the war. It can’t shield the defenceless, fill the hunger in the belly and warm their bones. Mahmoud Darwish said it best in his quote, “Against barbarity, poetry can resist only by confirming its attachment to human fragility like a blade of grass growing on a wall while armies march by.”
Just like the blade of grass, we have to latch on. Growing despite adversities. Holding on, even if the hope was as fragile and we were as weak as the singular blade of grass swaying in the wind. For armies marching by will eventually disappear into the horizon, and we can bloom once more.