Poetry evokes pain, horror of complicated Middle East conflict

Suheir Hammad’s poem was read in a moving presentation by SJP last Thursday. Photo courtesy of hedge brook.org
Suheir Hammad’s poem was read in a moving presentation by SJP last Thursday. Photo courtesy of hedge brook.org

Poetry (and art in general) belongs to a long and wonderful tradition of employment as a vehicle for social justice and protest. Consider Langston Hughes’s beautiful poem “I too, Sing America” in which he celebrates his identity as an African-American man and condemns discrimination and racism. The Poetry Foundation recently compiled a collection of poetry in celebration of LGBTQ pride, with poems by Audre Lorde, Allen Ginsburg and many other renowned poets. The art form has a unique ability to communicate a political and emotional message to an audience. Last week’s Night of Palestinian Poetry, presented by Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) honored this history of poetry protests, sharing beautiful poems and songs that illustrated the violence and displacement suffered by people living through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Behind this backdrop of pain, the poetry performed by SJP takes on a huge emotional weight. One poem that was read, “Letter to Anthony/Critical Resistance” by Suheir Hammad, focuses on the revisionist history that the Israeli government promotes. Jebreal writes, “According to Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a Hebrew University professor of sociology who has produced the most comprehensive survey of Israeli public school curricula, not one positive reference to Palestinians exists in Israeli high school textbooks,” and none that refers to Palestinians as having a national identity, culture or home, and portray Palestinian governments and individuals as terrorists. In her poem, Hammad writes about “a history based on the absence of a people – Israel made itself holy and chosen and my existence a crime.”

This narrative of remembrance and documentation of extreme loss and erasure (of country, of family, of home, of life) was a theme in all of the poetry. But it was coupled with a powerful and ultimately hopeful message of love, hope and survival. Hammad ends her poem (a letter to an imprisoned friend) with a message of resistance and determined life, “I will share these words with them and I will in your name and in the names of all who imagine. Stay well, and safe, resist and love, Suheir.” She repeats “names” and her name is the last name of the poem: It is a promise of her survival, her signature left on the world, not erased, and contained within it is a promise of survival for Palestine – its people, culture and nation.

It is incredibly painful and horrifying for me as a Jewish person, that in its desperation to protect its culture and people, Israel has acted to destroy another culture and people. This poetry reaches out for understanding and empathy and has convinced me that it is art, the ultimate universal human joy, in which exists the last bastion of hope and peace. One of my favorite poems of the reading was “To Love a Palestinian Woman” by Ehab Lotayef – especially the line “When you love a Palestinian woman you love… every olive tree in Galilee.” This love for the olive trees – the silver branches, the green sea breaking on the hills of northern Israel, strikes me as a very hopeful love – and ultimately I think that is poetry’s great gift to us: An act of poetry, an act of expression, seems to me by its very definition to be an act of defiance, an act of love, an act of hope.