By Hatim Kanaaneh
I am no romantic poet. Yet Susan Abulhawa’s first published collection of poems (My Voice Sought The Wind, Just World Books, 2013) slices directly to my heart. Like her, I once wrote poetry in Arabic. A group of us, high school friends in Nazareth some of whom went on to become ‘real poets,’ put out an occasional handwritten pamphlet of poetry. And like Susan, my cultural exile robbed me of the finesse and flare of my mother’s tongue. I must admit though that, unlike her, I don’t suffer any phantom pains where it once sprouted in my heart. It was too long ago.
Susan opens with an ode to olive oil, the cure-all salve for all Palestinian wounds and the explosive charge in our mystical weaponry. I inherited some ancestral olives and a multi-millennial olive stands in my front yard. I drool reading Susan’s recipe:
And without bread or Za’ater, dip your finger in this oil
Press it between your tongue and palate
Do it again
Until you hear the primal calls of an earth packed
beneath boot steps and tank treads
And it will haunt you with an unexpected song
I warble to the song in my heart and tears of joy flood my eyes.
I come to the second poem, ‘Black,’ where Susan addresses a very personal issue. Openly! She names names and recalls pain and humiliation. She looks in the mirror and has a dilemma: Are we white or black? European or African? Palestinians of my age are not used to our national poet, the late Mahmoud Darwish, describing his nose as “fucked up” though it actually was. Have some shame, woman! You must watch your language if you want me to nominate you as Darwish’s rightful heir. But by God, despite her loose tongue, or perhaps because of it, I am drawn to the black side in her conundrum where she doesn’t miss a step. She is up front, powerfully pointing her finger, calling a spade a bloody spade, and hitting the mark every time. It doesn’t pay to be bashful in identifying the European as our collective rapist:
A European took my grandma’s house
Painted my country white
Kicked us out to the cold curb
Killed our neighbors
Cut my brother’s balls off
Motherfuckers fucked my mother
Then dragged me by the hair
and told me I needed liposuction
And a nose job
… dug up my ancestors bones
Built a “Tolerance Museum” over their graves
Moreover, she doesn’t shy away from taking on
“My Arab brethren (who)
Considered me human ONLY
After I got a USA passport.”
Finally Susan declares for Black:
I am Palestinian
And in the blue and bruise of my heart
I am become Black
Because Black is beautiful
And the beautiful in me
It is difficult to skip a line in this slim collection of hard hitting, highly charged poems. They, every one of them, come alive for me as I savor their Palestinian flavor and universal truth. I find myself wrestling, almost physically, with one evoked image after another. None is barren enough not to hold my attention and force my immersion in it. I wipe my tears and struggle across Susan’s Ramadan in exile and her brief homage to Mahmoud Darwish, the other “Voice of Palestine”:
We saw you tear off your limbs
To pass through the narrow passage
Now you know
Where birds fly after the last sky
Next, aroused from a fitful sleep, I come to “The Siege” and shed copious tears again. First I manage to cope with Suraya whose “poetry assembles as dreams” and with Mjahid, the Palestinian gladiator who
… looks upward
And plays his oud to
Hang the stars back in place
After the sky has fallen.
But when I get to Laila and Yousef, the separated Gazan lovers who have their
Eyes upon the same empty moon
And sky devoid of promise
The winds caress her cheeks
And, miles away, wrap around him
Until their fingers find each other
And they hold hands
Across sky and wind and moon and miles
I am vanquished again. I take a cold shower to quell the tears in my red-shot eyes. I manage to recoup my tranquility. I eat breakfast with my foreign wife and get back to Susan’s “Sister Palestinian I” where I find myself taking things personally. The woman knows how to appeal to a Palestinian father’s sensibilities:
When your father, king of his castle,
was forced to sleep on dirt
You served him coffee and scrubbed his feet
to save his pride
That really works for me. But, God damn it, why do you have to be so bitchy? I didn’t have anything to do with all of that
The day you played hopscotch
When they pulled the land from under your feet
I had nothing to do with it
When your mother went mad and died with anguish (when)
Your tears watered a refugee’s garden
I never forced my daughter into an arranged marriage. I never raped or hit my wife nor ever claimed that European women were more “exciting fucks.” I never abandoned my wife to prostitution. And I never forced “the heart break of an empty orgasm” on anybody. You forgot? I am your brother! And they’ve cut my balls off. Take all of your insults back! Right now! Or, by God, I will go back on nominating you!
When I cool off I move on to “Sister Palestine II” where my detractor takes a well-deserved swipe at our common enemy, the Israelis colonizing our country,
a country siphoned from our veins
where the hills of God are carved and paved
and apartheid metastasizes into the wadis
through the sanasil and precious groves.
But, Susan, you got mixed up: Lena didn’t commit suicide. She was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers. They even confiscated her poster. You must have forgotten; you were only a little child then, a first-grader.
And Ahmad: Do you mean Muhammad Al-Durrah’s surviving baby brother in our every home? He is a fine young man now. He graduated from college. Don’t you go on shaming him with “shivering in his own piss.” He needs your moral support as his older sister. We have to continue dressing each other’s wounds. Don’t remind him of failures. It was only an occasional accident. We all did it at the time.
Was it the spider web in the sky, the
White phosphorus death?
Or the sonic booms?
Whatever! Just sing him some Fairuz songs or one of Rim Banna’s Palestinian lullabies.
Now I come to “Wala” and am totally stumped. What comment can one make about verity itself? I dwell on it once then again and again. I go online and listen to Susan’s rendition of it and watch the accompanying superb video many times. This is the stuff of magic, of addictive poison. All I get from seeing it is the urge to shoot up with it again. It must be the trance the mystic achieves with self-flagellation.
I am that man,
The man you would have been
The man you should have been
Riding the family steed
The thoroughbred mares your grandfather
Raised and nurtured and loved
In a Palestine
I battle the daily routine of insult and injury to access my hard labor camp. How can they do this to me? I haven’t seen my three children awake in months. I don’t have the cash for cigarettes. All that my loving wife can prepare for me is
A jibneh sandwich
In a plastic bag
Clutched in your callused laborer’s hand
And it never survives the five hours in the cattle holding pen where we are reduced to animals stampeding and trampling each other to death before I am allowed to escape.
You are out of the line
Fifteen men between you were pulled aside
And you tried not to look
Not to hear the one begging
Don’t hit me
I make it to where I seek to serve the settler masters. You never knew, of course; I was too ashamed to admit it even to my wife. But my “Zionist settler boss-man” has been putting me to work on “my Jiddo’s farm” where his Jaffa orange grove in Kufr Huj once thrived. As you know, today the boss-man shouted insult at me:
Mish hon el yom
Not here today
And all you can do is thank Allah that your
Wife and your babies are not
There to hear them call you
It is sweet of you Susan to keep that one just between us, not to have them insult me before my wife and children, not to rub my face in the dirt again. And I appreciate letting me keep the faith: I still have it in me to thank God for little favors. Many brothers and sisters have tired of thanking Him, Allathi la yushkaru ala makruhin siwah– no other but him is thanked for hateful matters.
I shall stop here. I am emotionally drained, exhausted. Let others handle your love affair with Neruda and the section where we gain a peek at your vicarious life and family affairs. Others may understand better your controlled anger at “The Way Things Are.” It is enough for me that I tried to answer the accusations you flung against me, your Palestinian brother. I tried to do it without raising your ire. I don’t want to harm our common cause.
It was not politicians or media moguls who first turned the tide against the massacres in Vietnam or who freed South Africa. It was men and woman of conscience who did that: poets, writers, pastors, singers, actors, dancers, comedians and all sorts of artists and intellectuals. This week I saw Annemarie Jacir’s film “Lamma shuftak.” At the MOMA, no less! Believe me, change is in the air. And it is brave people like you and the courage of the likes of those in charge of Just World Books that give us hope.
There is a job to be done. My age group couldn’t have done it. But we are ready to help. We both are fallahin and know the spirit of collective action. Once we knew how to do it in facing nature’s disasters and in dealing with its gifts of plenty in our fields. Let us all join together and kick ass, as you would say.
– Hatim Kanaaneh is a physician who has struggled for over four decades to improve the health of his Palestinian community in Galilee against a culture of anti-Arab discrimination. He is the founder of the NGO The Galilee Society and the author of the book A Doctor in Galilee and of a forthcoming fictional trilogy. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.