Palestinian poetry as a form of struggle – Mondoweiss


In 1992, just after Palestinian Liberation Organization officials shook hands with Israeli representatives in Madrid, paving the way to Oslo, Mahmoud Darwish would publish his series of poems, Eleven Planets in the Last Andalusian Sky.  

Darwish could not get over the fact that, 500 years after Muhammad XII of Granada signed the treaty surrendering Granada to the masters of European colonialism, Palestinian leaders would be likewise selling their land to the Zionist colonial project — and in the very same country.

Like a prophecy that unveiled what those accords would end up provoking, Darwish saw in the history of al-Andalus a way of warning Palestinians of what would soon happen next.

For I’ve accepted the “peace accord” and there is no longer a present left
to let me pass, tomorrow, close to yesterday. Castile will raise
its crown above God’s minaret. I hear the rattling of keys
in the door of our golden history. Farewell to our history! 
Will I be the one to close the last door of the sky, I, the last sigh of the Arab?

A warning against peace accords

That last line in Darwish’s poem is a reference to the “The Sigh of the Moor,” a common orientalist trope in Spanish historiography detailing the cry of Muhammad XII as he let go of Granada, the last piece of Muslim territory in Spain. The history goes that while Muhammad XII thought the agreement would make the Catholic Kings respect the rights of Muslims under fully Christian rule, ten years later, all of them would be forced to flee by royal decree. 

In Darwish’s poem, “Kings of the End,” Yasser Arafat stood in for Muhammad XII.

“Mahmoud Darwish predicted that the Oslo Accords would not be respected and that the Palestinian Authority would not get anything out of them as it happened with the Capitulation of Granada” Abdelkhalak Najmi, a Moroccan expert on Arabic and Spanish literature based in the Andalusian city, told Mondoweiss. “His poem was a warning.” 

The warning, in one sense, was that Palestine would soon be forgotten:

Soon we will search in the margins of your history, in distant countries, 
for what was once our history. And in the end we will ask ourselves: 
Was Andalusia here or there? On the land … or in the poem? 

Many other Palestinian poets seem to have internalized this warning, using al-Andalus much in the same way — Muhammad Al-Qaisi’s poems about longing for Granada, Khaled Abu Khaled’s Falcon of Quraysh on Cordoba, and Ez Eldine Manasra’s parallel to the land that leaders fail to protect. 

Two lost Edens

Parallels with al-Andalus are not exclusive to Palestine. Many Arab poets have used it more broadly to express feelings of loss and grief. Iraqi poet and writer Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati would use the figure of Granada to convey the feelings he experienced through exile — like the Moors in Spain, he was now a stranger in his own land. Nizar Qabbani would invoke the captivating city to talk about the glorious times of Muslim civilization that once were, a way of coping with an ever-worsening present he did not wish to see. 

“Al-Andalus is ingrained in the popular consciousness of Arabs in general,” says Samar Abdel Jaber, a Palestinian poet now based in the UAE. “It is considered a golden age of Arabic and Islamic civilization, it is a symbol,” she tells Mondoweiss

But Samar also explains why the link between al-Andalus and Palestine gains particular purchase among Palestinians. “It presents a time of diversity and people living together in harmony, and that is something that maybe resonates more with the Palestinian experience.”

Cities like Toledo or Granada were considered an example of peaceful coexistence of three important religions and cultural communities: Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The parallels with Palestine before Zionism are stark: a land of prosperity and richness marked by its diversity.

The memory of al-Andalus, in this sense, illustrates how ingrained cultural coexistence and diversity were in Muslim-majority civilizations — an element going as far back as 622 CE with the Charter of Medina, which Zionist figures have attempted to deny in order to present their movement as a religious conflict rather than a colonial project.

For poets like Darwish, al-Andalus and Palestine represented a model of greatness for a civilization that was lost: 

I am the Adam of two Edens, and I lost them twice.
So expel me slowly,
and kill me quickly,
beneath my olive tree,
with Lorca.

New poetry documents a generation‘s history

With these poems, Palestinians dared to warn and give a strong message to those deciding the future of their people: poetry became an arena of struggle. Decades later, it continues to be so, but new generations have decided to use it in a different way.

“Most Palestinian poets now write more personally and are less political,” Samar affirms. “It is obviously still political, but we focus more on telling our own story, we focus more on the daily personal struggle of a Palestinian, whether in Palestine or the occupied land, or outside in exile.” 

She points out how the situation of Palestinians has changed so drastically that one cannot compare the struggle of a child that is born in Gaza to someone who is living in the West Bank, in Jerusalem, or in exile. Nor can they compare it to a Palestinian refugee who does not have any place to go back to and who feels like a stranger everywhere they go. 

“Poetry now may not have the same political significance that it had before, but it is important because it documents the history of our generation,” Samar continues, believing that while historical analogies like the one with al-Andalus played an important role in the past, now it is time to document the present through poetry.

Like Samar, young Palestinian poets like Asmaa Azaizeh, Farah Chamma, or Mosab Abu Toha also opt for writing experience-based poems, telling their childhood stories of war and life to make the current history of their people transcend — while healing themselves at the same time.  

“Poetry helps me understand my life, it makes me cast a macro gaze at the world,” poet Asmaa Azaizeh told The Federal, whose poetry performance, “Don’t Believe Me If I Talk to You of War,” was the major highlight of the International Theater Festival of Kerala. “Every day, I make a continuous effort to make my life more liveable, and poetry is the major force for me that makes my life liveable”. 

After all, the word “poetry” in Arabic — shi’ir —shares the same root as the word for “feelings.” And what is able to be felt, remains alive. 

Perhaps this new generation of Palestinian poets sees that writing of Palestine as a living memory, rather than writing about it as if it is in the past, is precisely the key to rendering its erasure impossible. Perhaps, while old poets are pessimistic about their land following the same fate of the lost al-Andalus, young Palestinians remain hopeful that, sooner or later, the occupation will fall on its feet, because they will never forget their roots.

In the words of Farah Chamma in ‘Falastini Ana‘: 

My Palestine keeps on growing
Because I see it in the sesame seed in zaatar
Because I see it in the sumac that we sprinkle on sunny side up eggs […]
I see it in the dark night over the Dead Sea
And in everything dead that remains living in us 

Palestine might not be the exact parallel of al-Andalus. But even for Mahmoud Darwish, “Palestine is the aesthetic beauty of al-Andalus, it is the Andalus of the possible”. 

In other words, this Eden might not be lost this time, and if the recent crisis in the Israeli state is any indication, it might be close to returning. 

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