In one of his last interviews before he died of cancer this week, renowned Arab Druze poet Samih al-Qasim talked about the role poetry has played in the region’s fractious history.
By Liam Brown
I’ve gone to meet renowned Palestinian Arab Druze poet Samih al-Qasim in his home in the Galilee village of Rama. Perched on a hillside, his home overlooks the valley below, which is known by locals as the “sea of olives”.
When I walk into his room, Qasim, dressed in a dressing gown and familiar red scarf, stands and greets me. “Ahlan wa Sahlan,” (“You are welcome”) he says to me in Arabic. My previous meeting with the poet was cancelled; he was diagnosed with cancer some time ago and often needs time to recover after rounds of treatment. Today Qasim is feeling in improved health and I’m in luck; I have been accompanied to the poet’s home by Dr Nazih Kassis, a translator and lexicographer, and long-time friend of Qasim.
Qasim grins mischievously as he brandishes a copy of one of his books newly translated from Arabic to Romanian, several copies of which are sitting on his coffee table atop a collection of newspapers. “Unfortunately, I do not know what is written in it as I do not read Romanian,” he says. “Maybe you do?” he adds with a chuckle. The book is a collection of his writings entitled Poeme, translated recently by George Grigore and Gabriel Bituna, two experienced Romanian scholars.
Though revered as a poet throughout the Arabic-speaking world, Al Qasim is less well-known outside of it, as only one of his works, Sadder than Water, has been translated into English. My companion Dr Kassis was the translator.
The resistance poet
Qasim was born in 1939 in what was known as Transjordan, in the city of Zarqa, where his father was stationed as an officer in the Arab Legion. His family boarded a train and returned home to Rama following the onset of the second world war, and he has has lived there ever since. Although he was nine years old when the 1948 war broke out, he regards that year as his real year of birth because the first images he remembers are those from that year.
Al Qasim took an interest in poetry from an early age and by the age of 18 had published his first collection of poems, Mawakib al-Shams (Processions of the Sun). It was imbued with nationalist sentiment; in the early days after Israel’s establishment, a state of military rule was forced upon its Arab population. Battling against the strict decrees of a military governor, Qasim became heavily involved in political activism, which was reflected in his poetry.
Subsequently, the young poet became known as one of the famed “resistance poets”, a group of Palestinian poets that included the late Mahmoud Darwish and Tawfiq Zayyad whose poetry was widely celebrated as part of the Palestinian national movement. Asked about the label “resistance poet”, Qasim says: “It was put upon me but I am proud of it. I am a resistance poet, and not only Arab and Palestinian resistance. I am a poet of international resistance.”
Indeed his huge written output, including poems, plays, novels and political essays, spans topics such as the Vietnamese war, Latin America and the civil rights movement in the US. Furthermore, his poetry has been combined with his own activism. He very publicly became the first Druze in Israel to refuse military service when he wrote a letter to the then prime minister David Ben-Gurion, declaring that he was in fact born for poetry and not for the gun.
Switching focus to the struggles of today, he is adamant that the revolutions throughout the Middle East region were inevitable.”The situation in the Arab world was supposed to be upturned because the rule of military dictatorship and corruption couldn’t continue forever,” he says. His poetry, along with other political poets, has been seen throughout the Arab world as carrying a message of change. He was always optimistic that change would come: “I used to say dictatorship and corruption can’t rule the Arab world in general and the Islamic world, in particular, forever. It is not logical and it is not normal …I said once that when there will be a revolution in Tunisia, I will go there and I will dance barefoot in the Habib Bourguiba Avenue.” (When the revolution did break out in Tunisia,Qasim was indeed personally invited by Tunisian activists to come and dance barefoot in Tunis’s main throughfare.)
With a body of work that has been translated into many languages, Qasim has been invited to meet poets in Asia, Europe, North Africa, America and Russia. He says he may be the only holder of an Israeli passport to be personally invited to Iran since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
Language of Revolution
He describes poetry as “real revolutionary work” and believes firmly in its capacity to reach people. “I can be proud to say that I participated in the change,” he remarks, though he doesn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. “All my friends, my colleagues, the revolutionaries, who suffered a lot, deserve the credit of making history”
He was saddened by the recent passing of revolutionary Egyptian colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Najm, who he performed with at poetry readings in Cairo and throughout the Gulf states. “He was a real poet, a real freedom fighter. He was imprisoned several times.” Though Al Qasim appreciates vernacular (popular) spoken poetry, he prefers poetry written in standard Arabic. “As an Arab, I am a supporter of Arab unity in the Arab world, of the Arab nation, which should be united in one way or another, not through tanks or airplanes or power.” He says that language and identity play a more vital role: “It should be united by the Arabic language. One nation, one culture, one language, one history.”
This is the answer to the “Sykes-Picot crime” as he calls it, the agreement signed between British and French diplomats during the first world war that would lay the foundations for carving up the Middle East to serve Western interests. “I believe it is the biggest tragedy in the whole Arab history.”
The resolution of such historical crimes is a theme that recurs throughout Qasim’s poetry. His poem The End of a Talk with a Jailer is among his most well known, and speaks of the need to find a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict that brings justice to all parties. In the poem, Qasim tells the jailer who guards his cell that from “the window of my small cell, I can see your big cell”. The poet explains: “Since this struggle continues, he can put me in a small cell in his jail, but at the same time he is imprisoned. He is imprisoned in my problem. The whole country for him is a cell. It is not only I in prison.” This theme runs throughout much of the poet’s work, as he searches for the human values that exist within the conflict.
From End of a Talk with a Jailer:
From the narrow window of my small cell,
I see trees that are smiling at me
and rooftops crowded with my family.
And windows weeping and praying for me.
From the narrow window of my small cell
I can see your big cell!
In his poem Travel Tickets, which takes the form of a letter to the person who will have killed him, Al Qasim wishes that his killer should take a ticket from his pocket, and travel in search of peace and freedom. Some may be surprised at his humanism even after the years of oppression he has lived through.
From Travel Tickets:
The Day I die
my killer will find
tickets in my pocket:
One to peace,
one to the fields and the rain,
and one to humanity’s conscience.
I beg you – please don’t waste them
I beg you, you who killed me: go
Qasim’s poetry has been banned, he has been thrown in and out of jail cells, and hounded by the Shin Bet, Israel’s secret service, a theme that he explores in his haunting poem Bats. But he remains committed to his values, “I always say racism, Zionism, imperialism – they will beat us only in one condition: that they make us give up our humanity. I will not allow anybody to take from me my humanity…that is my trench. It is there I fight and nobody can ever take from me this barricade.”
The Next Generation
It is at this stage of the interview that he stops to light a cigarette. He smiles coyly as he mentioned that he’s been advised to stop by his doctor. Our conversation turns to advice for young poets. “We have many new voices, boys and girls, who write beautiful poetry.”
During his days in the Israeli Communist Party, which he joined in 1967 during a term in Haifa’s al-Damoun prison, Qasim edited its major journals, al-Ittihad and al-Jadid, and he recounts to me his experiences as a newspaper editor receiving contributions from young poets: “Young poets used to bring me poems” he says “I would read the poem and say ‘look, this poem looks like me. Go away and bring me a poem that looks like you. I don’t want you to be a copy of me. I want your face, your language’.” He is adamant about this: “This is my policy always. I don’t want a new generation that looks like me.”
Although his own poetry has influenced young poets today, he is adamant that the current generation of poets must find their own way. “I want a new generation that looks like itself – to be original. To be influenced, yes, but to like, to love, to read, to study, and to learn, but at the same time to be original.” Qasim currently edits the Kul al-Arab newspaper, which is widely read amongst Israel’s Arab population.
Qasim was diagnosed with cancer about two years ago, and has been receiving treatment since then. He is supported and receives visits from guests, which boost his spirits. I asked him about his thoughts on writing poetry while coming to terms with death. “A poet is a human being and is part of nature … I’m influenced by changes in nature and my body is a part of this nature. And so any change in my body will influence my writings.”
He continues, “I am less noisy of course. I am less sure about things. I have doubts here and there. But I didn’t give up my optimism.” He takes a sip of coffee and recites to me a poem he wrote on the subject:
I don’t like you, death
But I’m not afraid of you
And I know that my body is your bed
And my soul or spirit is your bed cover
I know that your banks are narrow for me
I don’t love you death
But I’m not afraid of you.
Qasim’s life in politics has stretched over eras that have seen tremendous upheavals, revolts, defeats and global changes. Impressed by Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism and radicalism as a young man, he now takes the longer view of change: “As a young man, and you are a young man,” he says, as he points his cigarette at me, “You think that anything you think about must be done now … tomorrow. Must be done. Has to be and will be.”
He pauses to think. “I don’t think this way now” he begins again, contemplatively. “I’m 75 years old. Time and experience and life, I learn from all these things not to be in a rush, to respect time, to give time to do things with you and not without you. To expect changes in the world.” He describes the feeling of being outraged in his youth: “For many years I thought I was alone. I am the one who speaks and the world should listen. This bad world should listen.”
This was the message of many of his early poems. “The world should listen or else I will whip you with my horsewhip,” he chuckles. He says the change began around 2001 and he cites his poem Sadder than Water as the first where he began to have his doubts. The poem is a work of sarbiyya, a form of poetry that Qasim himself developed and which is built around changes of mood and feeling, in which the poet laments the toll that making sense of the chaos of oppression and despair has taken upon those it reaches.
Despite Qasim’s poetry even being memorised by people throughout the region, he doesn’t spare time for thinking of how he will be remembered. “Believe me,” he says, “I never ask myself how they will remember me in the future.
“If the Palestinian people will be free, if the Arab world will be united, if social justice will be victorious in all the world, if there will be international peace. I don’t care who will remember me or my poems. I don’t care.”
His poetry is intended to have a longer vision than specifically the Arab world. “When I write about intifada, for example, what I write about Intifada is not a documentary … no, I write about the sense of intifada, the meaning of Intifada. It becomes more human and more international than a specific local action.”
In general, Qasim does remain optimistic about the world. “If I am not optimistic, I will not write one single word. The change will not be tomorrow morning; we change it not today but after tomorrow.” He draws upon a metaphor and continues: “I used to use the basalt stone. If there is a single drop of water dropping on this basalt stone then not today, not next month, not next year but there will be a small hole by this drop of water.”
– Liam Brown is a student and freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia, with an interest in the Middle East. He has travelled throughout the region on a number of occasions and the main focus of his writing is the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He has written for publications including OpenDemocracy, the Palestine News Network, and New Matilda. (This article was originally published in Middle East Eye – www.middleeasteye.net)