This piece was originally published in the LA Review of Books on June 7, 2021.
You who remove me from my house
are blind to your past
which never leaves you,
yet you’re no mole
to smell and sense what’s being done
to me now by you.
Now, dilatory, attritional so that the past
is climate change and not a massacre,
so that the present never ends.
But I’m closer to you than you are to yourself
and this, my enemy friend,
is the definition of distance.
Oh don’t be indignant,
watch the video, I’ll send you the link
in which you cleanse me item after limb
thrown into the street to march where
my catastrophe in the present
is still not the size of your past:
is this the wall
you throw your dice against?
I’m speaking etymologically, I’m okay
with the scales tipping your way,
I’m not into that, I have a heart that rots,
resists, and hopes, I have genes,
like yours, that don’t subscribe
to the damage pyramid.
You who remove me from my house
have also evicted my parents
and their parents from theirs.
How is the view from my window?
How does my salt taste?
Shall I condemn myself a little
for you to forgive yourself
in my body? Oh how you love my body,
my body, my house.
In May 2021, during yet another round of Palestinian uprising against Israeli apartheid and its colonial war machine, the days felt more like years. Their energy carried in them an all-too-familiar, recurrent collective trauma that Palestinians have lived and passed down since the dispossessing creation of Israel in 1948. During the recent revolt, the intensity of survival again sharpened in Palestinians, a hyperacute awareness of a world at wits’ end. The ecstasy of being alive grew immense with grief, horror, and also moral clarity in the form of love for the world, its possibilities of justice, of coexistence and empathy. In my 50 years of life, I have experienced these tumultuous traumas too many times. They are one shape that the collective gathering of Palestinians takes, and through which we experience our impending dissolution — to see what pieces of us we can salvage, shelve in memory, store in soul, lest there be less of us the next time we get together for another round of trauma. We sit at the shore of an acid sea lapping our being. The air we breathe is toxic. Even the wet sand corrodes our flesh. And yet we love, and love is, in the first place, common decency, and common decency is hard work. We carve light through impenetrable darkness. We, in the words of Gazan poet Hosam Maarouf, “manufacture spare hearts/ in case we lose the hearts each of us has.”
Three days into this Palestinian uprising I realized I had not spoken with my parents. I was avoidant, concerned that they were reliving anguish in ways I can’t fully know, even if throughout my life I’d witnessed and continue to share numerous Palestinian tragedies alongside them. I did not grow up in a refugee camp nor did I experience war or occupation. My world was not cleansed out of me quite as theirs was. My world is not in perpetual unraveling and maiming as that of millions of Palestinians within historic Palestine (Gaza, the West Bank, Israel) and other places. My father was born in Isdud/Ashdod in 1934, a village then. In 1948 my mother was in her mother’s belly as the latter marched on foot to a refugee camp in Gaza. My parents’ childhood was torn. And they watched their parents die broken, expelled. The cycle repeats for an inordinate number of Palestinians, in the flesh.
For the past few years I have rarely “submitted” my work to publications and mostly responded to editors who solicited my work. I live Palestine in English. But in my heart Palestine is Arabic. And Palestine in Arabic does not need to explain itself. Despite setbacks, disasters, revolving conspiracies against it, Palestine in Arabic is self-possessed. It is exterior to English yet born internationalist and shall remain so — neither thinking it is the center of the world nor surrendering to the imperial center as the primary source of its future liberation. Palestine in Arabic is where the overwhelming sacrifice is made. Palestine in Arabic dreams, lives in and with more than 15 hundred years of literary, intellectual, and ecumenical traditions, belongs to 10 thousand years before that. History does not end for Palestine in Arabic.
Had The New Yorker accepted “Remove,” would I have written this essay? In the first place, the odds were stacked against their acceptance. When it comes to Palestine and Palestinian voices, The New Yorker, as a major American magazine of record, follows similar patterns as those of other publications. There are certain clarities that, when articulated by a Palestinian in America, are difficult to swallow in places that disseminate knowledge in the United States. The question above also presumes the need to obey the hand that feeds. The tokenization of Palestinians is not necessarily a new American phenomenon vis-à-vis minorities. In fact, tokenization is considered a step forward on the road to inclusion of suppressed voices. The point here is larger than The New Yorker and me. It addresses an immense history of curtailing and snuffing Palestine in English — through a “disciplinary communications apparatus” that “exists in the West both for overlooking most of the basic things that might present Israel in a bad light, and for punishing those who try to tell the truth” (Edward Said). In the best-case scenario, it is mostly non-Palestinians and, indeed, non-Arab or Muslim Americans, who utter clarities on the Palestinian question, even if Palestinians arrive at those same thoughts in the cradle. This essay has been writing itself way before a poem was rejected or another hellfire singed Palestinian souls.
In May 2021, as a Palestinian living in English, I watched the new horror sequel against Palestinians in historic Palestine. I found myself writing poem after poem — writing in the moment but not for the moment. I’ve long been aware of the crushing weight that reduces Palestine in English to a product with limited features, a perverse irony that revolves around the violence that Israel and the United States, culture and system, launch against Palestinians. This sickening delimitation mimics physical entrapment. The silken compassion toward Palestinians in mainstream English thinks the language of the oppressed is brilliant mostly when it teaches us about surviving massacres and enduring the degradation of checkpoints.
And yet it is undeniable that the condition of Palestinians within historic Palestine is that of a wartime prison. Their writings can’t but write through that prison. Those windows through which Palestinians see the outside world are not only small but also barred. And the Palestinian gaze registers the largeness of the outside — its anemones and garlic, its Instagram and ice cream — through fresh and dried Palestinian blood on those barred windows. Ahlam Bsharat, who lives in Ramallah, begins her recent poem “How I Kill Soldiers” as follows:
what have they been doing
to my poetry all these years
when I could have easily killed them
in my poems
as they have killed my family
Poetry was my chance
to settle the score with killers,
but I let them age outdoors,
and I want them to know decay
in their lives, their faces to wrinkle,
their smiles to thin out,
and their weapons to hunch over.
Like so many Palestinian writers, Ahlam Bsharat is writing to herself in the future, not just to herself now. Her now is responding to letters that have reached her from a human past. Think of the compassionate yet resolute language of many survivors of great suffering in history, their dignified reconciliation with their oppressors. And decades from now, those of us who will reread her words will think again. But my choice of excerpt does disservice to her work. To reach English, Palestine passes through a corrupting prism, and is often received as ethnography. For some readers this positionality mobilizes solidarity. For others it confines Palestinians to the framework of benevolence toward the pulverized. We watch, as we’ve been watching for decades, Palestinian lives and culture being liquidated and choked, in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank, then argue about the ethics of our tolerance, certain that we can control the nuclear button that might activate Palestinian annihilation. “It happened gradually,” some genocide survivors have taught us, “before it happened all at once.” And yet, if it happens, we’ll have what to remember Palestinians by.
Enter Palestine in “original” English. The overlap zone with Palestine in Arabic is not small, but the empathy field in English is malnourished. Questions of audience further dilute Palestine in the domestic affairs of empire. As subject of foreign policy and as local newcomer, not yet a bona fide American, Palestine in English is doubly distanced. Still, many Palestinian Americans forge ahead and expand our moral and political imagination. “I tried / confessing the number / of days I have / wanted love more // than history,” says Zaina Alsous in her astonishing book A Theory of Birds. And what is love if not an echo. Alsous communes with justice in America. Her unforgettable art reclaims land from real estate, nature from nation state: “Could you understand love as a wooded absence,” she asks and clarifies: “When I say home, I mean origin as a transitive verb”: “He who kills bees kills public housing.”
Palestine in English navigates the gatekeeping English imposes on Palestine, and on itself with regards to Palestine. Gatekeeping is not just for poetry, memoirs, or novels. It affects op-eds all over the United States. The bullying surveillance in academia is endemic. Holding anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab sentiments that range between subtlety and flagrance is a career move. And since hunting Palestinians in the open is seemingly vicious in a democracy like the United States, a whispering campaign is the next best option, and ghosting them is often the honorable choice. Not infrequently the ghosting is internalized by Anglophone Arabs and Muslims who simply stop trying to keep Palestine visible, expressible. But if anyone wants to come out into the light a little, they must comply with normalized stipulations that placate hierarchical structures, editorial controls, and fact-checking rigor, which may or may not apply equally to all writers on Palestine. No wonder Bartleby killed himself.
There are so many gates to unlock that each time one gate is opened or abandoned so that Palestine can speak in English, it feels like a humanist triumph or a revolutionary breakthrough. Some Jewish Americans, softly Zionist or avowedly non-Zionist, struggle to come to terms with their privileged positions. The power dynamic they hold over Palestinian narration and presence in English is staggering. A Jewish American writer or editor who starts out with pro-Palestinian sentiments may go on to secure a powerful career through which they dominate Palestinian voices in English, no matter how progressive and fortified their pro-Palestinian stance may be. The conversation is, by and large, about American Jewry and Zionism, an internal debate in which Palestinians are most often represented, if at all, by a non-Palestinian representative.
In May 2021 the poems I wrote came to me, and I received them — in Bergsonian durée, between ruptured continuity and continuous rupture, similar to the replication of two DNA strands running in opposite directions. I was reproducing life. I chose to publish the first of those poems on Twitter. It would’ve been a wasted breath to seek an American publication with reasonable readership that would publish the poem instantly, what with all the procedural rigidity and time constraints in place. “If Rockets Didn’t Fly” was in conversation with the language oppressors of any creed, anywhere, at any time weave to blame their victims. Victims, Palestinian or not, should not seek to attain the moral high ground in order to be granted their rights. “If Rockets Didn’t Fly” speaks in a child’s tongue, punctuated with sharp departures into the carnage of “balance.” One function of “surplus repression” (in Herbert Marcuse’s sense) is to ruin its victims then demand their conformity to their ruin as condition to grant them more rights, more pleasure. I even considered “And the Rockets’ Red Glare” as a title for my poem.
But if the Palestinian question in particular raises another issue, that of “the victim’s victim,” then another question arises: what is the statute of limitations on the status of victimhood, especially for a victim turned victimizer? Palestinians are not on this earth to atone for the centuries-long unspeakable crimes against the Jewish people in the West. Palestinians also refuse to be erased as victim and, in turn, metamorphosed as indefinite monster lying in wait to replicate those Western crimes. Fear has become sacred, an article in a constitution that seems heartbreakingly intent on turning the persecuted into executioner or, at least, testing those limits. To what end? What will it be evidence of or justification for? In a recent poem, Palestinian writer Maya Abu-Alhayyat, who lives in Jerusalem, expands on this. “Fear” personified speaks. “I am therefore /they point their rifles at me.” Here’s part of the poem:
straight into my eyes so that I may
dispatch teenagers to the army
and shape their future.
Here I am armed on street corners,
inside tanks, on the roofs,
staring into space, omnipresent, constantly working,
dispossessing slumber from its lids,
causing panic, caprice, unintended murder.
Can you address me
with reason, without it all falling apart,
your adages, myths, and creeds?
Who among us does not know fear as a tyrannical, domineering, destructive force in self and others? Maya Abu-Alhayyat’s poem is compassionate, generous in portraying state violence as “unintended,” and offers guidance, mostly to the powerful: to reduce their stare into fear’s eyes, to re-examine their sense of exclusivity, to refuse eternity or singularity in fear. Palestinians would rather not risk their own lives to affirm their life. Israelis and Zionist Americans don’t need to dominate Palestinian lives to affirm Israeli lives.
The Rwandan genocide of 1994 can’t be uncoupled from the barbaric trauma that European colonialism inflicted throughout Africa, a colonialism that imposed political identity on others through invented racial, ethnic, and cultural demarcations. In fact, European colonialism could not conceive of others in the world as anything but divisible, severable, or erasable (into a new cohesion), since this was the primary mode by which nation states in Europe were founded. To see Hutus in Rwanda as victims (of savage European practices) who turned killers against Tutsis (who were also colonized) is crucial and inescapable. To see Tutsi reprisals (against Hutus after the genocide) erupt into large scale atrocities in the Congo neither diminishes the original genocide nor absolves Tutsi perpetrators of war crimes. And neither event consigns European responsibility to a remote past, especially since their pernicious meddling in Africa continues.
Victims anywhere, anytime are capable of becoming killers. And a killer should be called a killer, even if leniency or compassion is extended, though not at the expense of allowing further killings, especially when incessantly directed at the same victim. Mahmoud Darwish says it more simply: “No / victim kills another, / there’s in the story / a victim and a killer.”
Science to date has not demonstrated biological evidence for a hierarchy of suffering. No one should wait for this discovery. At micro and macro levels, we know trauma in the body is real. Collective trauma is no less real. But seeking justice should not lead to supremacy. If our age is bound to a mathematics of ethics, or to an ethics of triage, then let’s do the Palestinian math, lay blame on whomever it falls, and remember, again as Darwish reminds us, that “the house murdered is also mass murder […] In each thing there’s a being that aches.”
In his obituary of Mahmoud Darwish, the late Uri Avnery tells of their first meeting, probably in the late 1960s. The Palestinian poet Rashid Hussain was present. It’s not clear from Avnery’s text which poet spoke this, but Avnery vividly remembers a question in the form of a statement: “The Germans killed six million Jews, and barely six years later you made peace with them. But with us, the Jews refuse to make peace.”
There’s a deep humanism here. It goes to the heart of identity formation as a product of political history. As with Israelis, many Jewish Americans resist opening up to the plain yet stark reality that their identity formation has grown inseparable from Palestinian identity — and many more find it unthinkable or abhorrent. Within the United States, we see how identity relations unfold between Black and white Americans. Many whites can no longer reject that their sense of self is, in no small part, dependent on and informed by the vision and experience of Black Americans (among others). W. E. B. Dubois’s “double consciousness” does not only apply to oppressed minorities who have to contend with the realm and cartography their tormentor imposes on their souls. An oppressor, especially when in effective dialogue with their conscience, must come to terms with their own double consciousness vis-à-vis their victim. It is a common decency that the disproportionately powerful owe to themselves and, above all, to those nearly powerless others within their sphere of devastation. More Jewish Americans should endeavor to see themselves “through the revelation of the other world,” the Palestinian world. Some already do, of course.
To enter this reversal of “double consciousness,” a flipped processing of submission, requires a deliberate effort to abandon certain notions of self, intellectual and spiritual. So far, mention of Palestine and Palestinians in the United States is largely contained within signed petitions and repetitive quotes of a couple of “giant” or relatable hip Palestinians (whose intellect is rarely meaningfully addressed, nor their aesthetic truly encountered as equal). Whenever a new Palestinian name is introduced into mainstream American culture, it feels like a passport has been stamped.
Publishing my poems of May 2021 was not my aspiration. But after their materialization, I stood facing the tone-deaf sea, the “internalized fear of institutional repercussion,” as more than one acclaimed poet told me, and the outright banal regulation of impermissible, undomesticated Palestinian voices in American culture. I reached out to several prominent US and UK publications and did not mince my words. These were Palestinian days, I wrote, and I was sharing my work with request for prompt reply and, if the work is accepted, prompt publication, because it is meaningful to honor common decency as an act free of fear. To a handful of editors I sent a batch of poems. To another set of editors I sent only one poem each. I was not interested in the “submission” process. Besides, in 2008, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books had quickly published my translations of Mahmoud Darwish poems upon his death. Now I was asking major publications to swiftly publish more Palestinian poetry since we were, yet again, in the midst of another Palestinian death, a condition to which they seemed generous in the past.
At The New Yorker, I managed, through the top, to get the poem into the proper hands. The rejection followed.
In 1975, after a visit to Jerusalem, George Oppen wrote his much-talked about poem “Disasters.” It ends with: “The caves / of the hidden / people,” which echo for me the caves that some Palestinians inhabited for centuries, and not an exclusive reference to Hebrew inhabitants of Judean hills. For others the caves might invoke Plato or the Sleepers of Ephesus. To embrace the Palestinian possibility, however, one needs to acknowledge, be open to, Palestinian presence in the land, mindful of Palestinian narratives of “the caves,” and trust that Oppen’s heart was not blind to Palestinians, even if he struggled with that articulation. He may have never written or spoken the words Palestine or Palestinians during his life, but another poem of his, “Semite,” leaves the door ajar for his intention.
I am a lover of his “Semite.” I remain mesmerized by how it includes me, a Palestinian, even if I don’t wholeheartedly subscribe to scriptural constructions of identity. And Oppen was certainly aware that identity on the whole is a mutable construction. Are Canaanites sons of Ham? Are they disappeared? Are Philistines Indo-Europeans? As I said, I hail from Isdud/Ashdod, which was ruled by Philistines, a people whom Milton mentions in his Paradise Lost. But according to a flexible Abrahamic monotheism, my trinity is complete when I am also a Semite.
In Oppen’s “Semite” I quickly lose myself, open to Oppen’s heart seeing and speaking with me through numerous mirrors: “what art and anti-art to lead us by the sharpness / of its definitions […] my distances neither Roman / nor barbarian.” And later when he says, “think also of the children/ the guards laughing […] the pride/ of the warrior laughing so the hangman / comes to all dinners.” Many may dismiss my reading and keep theirs centered on Jewish history and suffering, but my heart kisses Oppen’s heart and presses on so that by the end of the poem we are one, “and one / is I.”
Reading “Remove” through pre-fixed modes of reception limits the experience of many readers. “Remove” does not name names because names sometimes come with canned responses that leave little room for an expansive engagement with the world. It is indecent that a Palestinian has to prove their capacity to love Jewish people or vice versa. It is indecent that Palestinians must show their identification cards of good will. This manipulative aggression is all the worse since countless Americans have to prove nothing of the sort toward Palestinians. How unimaginable it is for so many of us in the West, in 2021, to know the suffering that millions of Palestinians know on a daily basis and have known for generations? And yet each human heart is always one beat away from embracing empathy.
Again, my point isn’t about The New Yorker. I doubt, for example, that The Atlantic would have behaved differently. Nor should anyone be fooled by the recent incremental generosity of The New York Times in including Palestinian voices that are still drowning in Zionist waters on its pages (a visual metaphor the Palestinian-British filmmaker Farah Nabulsi captures brilliantly in her short poetic piece Oceans of Injustice).
A parallel story occurred with The Guardian. I sent the poem below, “If Stones Were Slingshots,” and got a quick rejection. The poem was my continued conversation with “If Rockets Didn’t Fly.” A Yemeni or Syrian civilian in active resistance to tyranny, in pursuit of survival, might identify with “Slingshots,” its pained sculpture of myth and negative mysticism, an ekphrasis of an authorless visual document “where God is to be found in a world abandoned by God” (György Lukács). Perhaps if the poem had been written by a Syrian American, let’s say, it might have been more instantly taken up. It might suddenly read clearer in English. To include Arabs in the list of monsters against humanity is much easier than to include them as equals in great suffering with other people across time and place. It is unimaginable that Israel is a perpetrator of state violence in the same league as, or worse than, that of the Syrian regime against its people or of the Saudi brutalization of Yemen with US and UK approval and weapons. As a moral imperative, Palestine in English is fiercely resisted. It is effaced by ethnoreligious, racial, and nationalist politics that obfuscate its clarity. But for people who return their minds to their hearts, after a grueling, probing odyssey, Palestine in English communicates, in its many styles, the human condition within the civilizational brand of the nation state.
If Stones Were Slingshots
I have seen the brimstones of the crushed,
besieged, and mutilated rise up in the air,
there on the left bottom corner of your screen,
you might miss their meagre illumination,
like fireflies, their sluggish altitude,
since on the right side
the hand of God has already lit up the sky
with giant fireballs
to swallow the embers
released by the denizens
of the hell he keeps them in. God,
it’s not your fault, your right hand
does not comprehend what your left doeth,
and you don’t like to be bothered
in your eternal big bang.
Goliath has not left the building
alone. I’m not waiting for David
or Ulysses. My light is not for jarring.
The Times Literary Supplement declined to look at my poems before two months. Other editors did not respond. Yet others were more accommodating. Not all is lost. However, a sweeping majority of Palestinian American writers were not approached for texts (or unmanacled op-ed pieces) by editors. And hardly an editor asked the writers about their loved ones during the painful days of May 2021. Instead, Palestinians watched as Trevor Noah fumbled his lucidity, as John Oliver uttered “war crimes,” and as everyone tossed disclaimers like confetti as if the audience needed reminding that in our best moments we do not wish death or suffering even for our tormentors. And then Raoul Peck’s Exterminate All the Brutes fails to mention Palestine except when he tells us, “It’s complicated.”
The question of Palestine is integral to any progressive conversation about American (and Western) valuation of self. Palestine keeps us honest and is a vital cog in our compass toward greater liberation from surplus repression. When Nelson Mandela said, “South Africa will not be free until Palestine is free” (echoing other Black thinkers and activists), he wasn’t consigning Palestine to the status of metaphor. Leaders of Black Lives Matter, with their magnificent embrace of Palestine, are not in it for sloganeering. Native activists in the mainland and Hawaii do not ask Palestinians for rites of passage into the world of great suffering. And here I recall another memory. Years ago at a literary festival I shared the stage with a white South African writer who’d been active during the anti-apartheid movement there. Where is Black South African literature after all these years? I later asked in private. The anti-apartheid author’s reply was this: “You won’t like my answer. But the truth is their writing isn’t that good.” Who knows, I might think the same if I’d come across it. But I think I’d examine the possibility that another’s language may free me from some of “me” in marvelous and indispensable ways. For example, encountering the work of the Aboriginal Australian poet, Lionel Fogarty, was a remarkable gift for me. To accept as equal another’s political humanity is inseparable from accepting their imaginative and intellectual one as equal. Or to echo Kafka and Darwish in one breath: there is no people who are smaller than their poem.
Where is the unpoliced reading and critical reception of Palestinian literature and scholarship in English? How might our American imagination grow if and when we’re surrounded by writings on the genius of Ghassan Kanafani, essays on Mahmoud Darwish, Huzama Habayeb, Zaina Alsous, Ahmad Almallah, and others — essays that repeat and repeat just as they do for countless American and European authors who are never quenched by the river of eternal recurrence? Or is this a nationalist question of knowing one’s place and waiting one’s turn? As the critic Hosam Aboul-Ela wrote, “cultural discourse in the United States has engendered a milieu of nationalist sentiment within postnationalist cultural expression.” This morbid contradiction slips into another manifestation of exceptionalism. But for a belief in a different prospect, one need only listen to how Angela Davis speaks of the mutual exchange of heart and mind between Palestinians and Blacks. She has removed herself from the temptation of moral meritocracy and political hierarchy and insists on sharing the same space with Palestinian and other voices. And there’s always the poetry of June Jordan.
London Review of Books, The New Republic, The Nation, and numerous other trendsetter publications, art and literary magazines included, if and when they feature Palestinian or pro-Palestinian writing, do so with a cloak of custodianship and tactical box-checking. Inclusivity in American systems comes with the price of domestication. And if you’re still wondering whether this essay is about increasing “personal access,” then understand that the risks most Palestinians take when they speak this way in 2021 are more serious than apple pie. Let’s not list examples of literary accolades, publication histories, and prizes awarded to Palestinians or Arabs, this stunted marker of representative democracy. The fact remains that an overwhelming number of American writers don’t want to touch Palestine or Palestinians with a 10-foot pole. Can one read what one is afraid to feel? Hands need to be extended with humility — not guilt, pity, or virtue posturing — and chests need to be vulnerable for Palestine in English.
So, how might “Remove” be read in “peacetime”? Or if its author were not Palestinian or did not declare himself one? For it is a poem that speaks of what spares no person or people on earth — from the days of nomadic existence, to the Plebeians, and through ages of conquest, displacement, purging, the heartless gentrification in modern cities, the eviction of the poor during pandemics, economic collapse, eminent domain, or unchecked avarice. There is no I and no you anymore than there is one self in each body. Neuroscience confirms what mystics knew centuries, if not millennia, ago: that the self is multiple in the mind, and that its most wondrous desire is to attain oneness, knowing that this oneness is fleeting. Because to experience it once may just be more than enough for so many to never let go of its truth. Or it is as Maya Abu-Alhayyat says in “You Can’t”:
They will fall in the end,
those who say you can’t.
It’ll be age or boredom that overtakes them,
or lack of imagination.
Sooner or later, all leaves fall to the ground.
You can be the last leaf.
You can convince the universe
that you pose no threat
to the tree’s life.