Samih Al Qasim and the Arab Men of LettersJul 11 2013 / 3:15 pm
By Talal Alyan
Arab poetry has, in some circles, become regarded as being synonymous with political resistance. The role of the written word has been fundamental in reinforcing our commitment to assorted causes and marginalized groups. It has also been irreplaceable in emboldening our cultural links, a political act to be sure in the context of the region. However, there seem to be aspects of Arab political verse that tend to be eclipsed by the more traditional slogans of resistance. By that I mean that sometimes the most commanding works are not those that espouse unwavering nationalism, but instead those that reflect the uncertainty and grief of the landscape. And much akin to the subject of their work, these poets are commonly fated to the same devastation and end.
It is hard to find Arab writers whose perspectives remained linear throughout their literary careers. There lie in the writing of even the most renowned political poets an evolution of ideology, a fluctuation of faith. It stands as testament to the veracity of Arab poetry that we find in it such a heavy presence of doubt, skepticism, and disillusion. “We wear the masks of living people,” proclaims Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati, the wandering Iraqi poet, after the 1967 war “We are half men/In the garbage dump of history.”
Indeed, one of the more protruding reasons behind the strength of Arab verse is its insistence in coinciding with the general sentiment among the people, even when it entails the sacrifice of nationalistic pride. The value of Arab poetics is precisely in its capacity to transcend mere political mantras and, in its place, projects a distinctly human account. It permits the writer the ability to navigate across ideological boundaries and offer to the audience a medium for collectivity, asylum to reflect and lament and rejoice.
The poetry of Samih Al Qasim enveloped this multiplicity of perspectives; the evolution of his work concurrently provides a window into the evolution of Palestinian outlook. Although Al Qasim’s poetry is not as prominent as, say, Mahmoud Darwish, mentioning his name to older Palestinians will often elicit a recital of one of his poems from memory. Cultural, locational, and generational separations amongst Arabs have rendered his work at once both renowned and relatively obscure. His is a story that emphasizes the diversity of Palestinian narratives. Al Qasim hails from a Druze family that remained on their land after 1948, he continues to live there today. Although Druze were generally integrated into Israeli armed forces, he rejected conscription and in doing so became the first member of the Druze sect to refuse to serve in the Israeli military.
Qasim’s reflections on Palestinian strife were what garnered him acclaim early on. Ghassan Kanafani wrote of Al Qasim’s poem Kafr Qasim that it was “memorized throughout the entire Galilee.” The poem itself is titled after the village in which a massacre of Palestinian took place in 1956. An excerpt from the poem reads:
“There is no blood-stained shred
of a shirt our upright brothers wore.
No stone to bear their names.
Nothing. Only the shame.
Their spirits are hovering still,
Digging graves in the rubble of Kafr Qasim.”
These commemorations in poetry highlight an important aspect of Arab culture, the reliance on lyricism, poetry, and words to insist on the memory of that which has been taken: life, land and otherwise. It may very well be a sense of powerlessness that has frequently driven modern Arab writers to hone their relationship with words. “If he dies in exile,” he writes, “let him lie there naked/ to share his horror with you.”
Samih Al Qasim is regarded as one of the forefathers of Palestinian political poetry. Under the restrictions on non-Jewish citizens during Israel’s early years, the poet composed lyrics of resistance that provided Palestinians with one of the few outlets for political expression. “I will not give in,” he writes in Address From The Unemployment Bureau, “I’ll resist/ to the final pulse in my veins!” He would go on to spend time in Israeli prisons for his relentless political writings and work.
But again, it is evident that Al Qasim did not maintain an identical narrative throughout his career. It is hard not to notice a transformation in his later works into a poet who is less quixotic. In his 1984 masterwork The Tragedy of Houdini The Miraculous, Al Qasim showcases a parallel between his life and that of the magician Houdini:
“Samih al Qasim-a maker of miracles, is able to slip out of deadly predicaments: handcuffs and detention camps. Exile and slaughter. The United (Mother of) Nations hid his country in a cell, under lock and key, and returned home to discover that he’d removed its corpse from the cell and the locks had not been picked.”
The excerpt is itself an affirmation of the Palestinian writers ability to access his homeland, as though a magician, despite all attempts of concealment. But more striking is the imagery of the homeland being a corpse, a grim meditation on what might actually be left of historic Palestine. The comparison does not signal Al Qasim’s surrender. However, it does echo the unavoidable cynicism that comes with years of political defeat.
It is a consequence of our own regional uncertainties that many Arab writers were unable to entirely remove themselves from politics. Even writers whose works traditionally were not centered on these themes were eventually conscripted into the poetics of political despair. “Ah my country,” wrote Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, known primarily for writings on love and the erotic, “you have transformed me from poet of love and yearning to a poet writing with a knife.” Qabbani’s life itself serves as a potent reminder of how inescapable politics and strife are for Arab writers. In a tragic end fit for fiction itself, Nizar Qabbani, the poet of love, would go on to lose the love of his life, his wife Balqis, in a bombing in Beirut. “It’s the fate of Arabs,” he grieved, “to be assassinated by Arabs.”
It is odd that for all the cathartic importance the work of these poets has for us, the reader, the toll it takes on them is often cataclysmic. The death of the celebrated writer Ghassan Kanafani, from a car bomb while with his niece, is well known throughout the Arab world. Less known is the final chapter of Rashid Hussein’s life, the Palestinian poet whose writings continue to be criminally overlooked. Political discord about his strong belief in fostering dialogue between Arabs and Jews would result in his exile in New York. Hussein’s poetry always stands out when compared to other Palestinian writers at the time. “Against the revolutionaries of my country injuring a sapling,” he declares, “Against a child, any child, carrying a grenade.”
Amidst criticism from his peers, and his own disenchantment, the brilliant poet spent his final hours drinking in his apartment before his lit cigarette set fire to the room. It would be the smoke from his collection of cassette tapes, filled with recitals of poetry, that would finally suffocate him.
The emphasis on the tragedies that beset these men is not to dwell on their peculiarity. It is to underline the affinity between these writers and their cities. Like walking incarnations, they too felt every destruction and every loss and every disappointment. Despite the aesthetic appeal of regarding them solely as resistance poets, it seems imperative to acknowledge that their work mirrored more than just our political aspiration. And in doing so provided more solace.
Our men of letters are unlike the Gore Vidals or John Updikes of the West. The distinction is not made to claim some kind of literary superiority. Instead, it is to point out that Arab writers very commonly absorb and embody the subjects of writing to such an extent that it often instigates their own decline. I am always reminded of Khalil Hawi, that great Lebanese poet who took his own life in response to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. And although it comes at such personal cost to the poets themselves, it is also unmistakably beautiful.
– Talal Alyan is a Palestinian-American freelance writer currently living in New York. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.