Refugees bleeding and weeping poetry

The Indian poet and writer Tishani Doshi talks to Palestinian poet Asmaa Azaizeh overlooking the sea, and the waves come in verses.

Published in Thehindu

Tishani Doshi
Asmaa Azaizeh was born in a village in Lower Galilee called Daburiyya in 1985. When she was 18 she moved to the nearby port city of Haifa. She missed her parents, the mountains and valleys and fields, the almond and olive trees in her village, but in Haifa she found herself. She became a poet and journalist. She discovered a place called Fattoush, a café founded in the late '90s, where intellectuals and artists gathered. Asmaa is now a curator at Fattoush. She organises music, poetry and lectures and, since last year, has started a book shop and a gallery — one of the few places where Palestinian artists can exhibit their work.
“You can’t talk about a city like Haifa, which used to be a Palestinian city, without talking about 1948,” she tells me. “Apart from the whole destruction and occupation and the diaspora, we have witnessed a real fall of a civilized city. Of Jaffa, of Haifa, and Jerusalem, of course. They were an integral part of the cultural scene in the Arab world, so if you talk about cinema halls, publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, radio stations… stars of Egypt and Lebanon used to come to Haifa to record a song, so it was the centre, you know? And suddenly, there is a killing of the real city. The social life, the places to hang out, the cafés. Suddenly, it’s not there, and you are responsible for building it up from zero, and it’s not easy to do this especially with the circumstances now — if you’re a minority, if you’re dismissed, if you’re oppressed.”

Contemporary Arab poetry, she says, has largely broken free from classical form, shape and rhyme structures.

Asmaa Azaizeh | © Bianca Sistermans
Asmaa has been visiting me at my home in Cheyyur for a few days. We have walked around the stone carvings of Mamallapuram and the temples of Mylapore. She has introduced me to the pleasures of arak (a cloudy alcoholic spirit of the anise family) and taught me how to make maqluba (an upside-down layered rice dish that induces kinglike sleep). In return, I have plied her with masala dosas. Mostly, we’ve been sitting across a table listening to the sea, talking about poetry.
Asmaa writes in Arabic, a language she believes is privileged and full of richness. “One day, in the studio,” she says, “I was looking for a word for sand, and I was encountered by a huge lexicon. I discovered 30 to 40 words to talk about sand. It’s just amazing. I don’t know if you have this in other languages. We have 70 words for water. And for fire — I don’t know how many. We even have a word for the female horse, when it stands on three legs with the fourth slightly raised, in the morning time. We have a word for this! Assafinat. So there's a magical thing about this language, and even if I don’t use all these words I feel they are in me.”

While she has lived most of her life in Palestine, Asmaa has travelled the world with her poems. We talk about what it means to be a young woman in an ancient land. About collective memory. She tells me that she struggles with the gap between her beliefs and the real, that she wishes they were closer to each other. “Suddenly you find that you believe in things but you don’t practically do them because you’re disgusted by the fact that the values are used for a kind of personal interest or ideology. You try to create this relationship with the past in a very individual way. But I can’t tell that I’m satisfied with it. I don’t think I will end with a clear understanding of my relationship to the collective and my relationship to my values and beliefs. There’s a real gap.
“I will give you a very simple example. I believe in a one-state solution. I don’t believe in the state, actually, but the first solution is the whole historical Palestine, and I still use this term. I say historical Palestine because 60 years ago it was Palestine. That is the human voice of me saying, I want it all back. What does it mean, how is it translated? I don’t know. That’s another thing, but it’s an ideology, it’s a belief. On the value level of using this ideology — political activism as a value, political action as a value — these values are haunting me. I find myself in a situation where I start to think that my ideology is against me, as if I fight for her and fight her, so I don’t know if I’m fighting for it, or fighting it. I always feel that I must take care that it’s okay, that I’m not destroying it, that I’m not disregarding my origins, all this — but that is the gap I’m talking about.”
Asmaa believes this difference between ideology and life is a problem many poets writing in Arabic face, because while they are linked by language and literature, their experiences are vastly different. “I can give examples of poetry that have been written in Bahrain and Algiers, which is affected by what’s happening in Libya and Syria. It’s because we have one language. If something happens in Gaza, certainly a demonstration will come out of Morocco. You feel this same collective life, so even if you’re not encountering the event itself, you’re influenced by what’s happening in other countries.”
Historically, there has been a strand of Arabic poetry, that Asmaa describes as “screaming” or “bleeding” — political manifestos and slogans that are passed off as poems. “It can still be like this, but it’s more universal now, calmer, but it still bleeds. And you find yourself out of this bleeding river of Arab poetry that comes from everywhere. But I was born in a peaceful village. I have never seen shooting in my life. I've never seen a dead body or a killing, but my memory and my collective consciousness has seen all this. If I see it on TV, if I hear about it, if someone close to me tells me something about their father or mother in Syria, in Egypt, my conscious is bleeding, but what I live in my real life is really peaceful. So it’s as if you lose your legitimacy to write about war, but you live this, you know it.”
Contemporary Arab poetry, she says, has largely broken free from classical form, shape and rhyme structures. This generation of poets have also learned from the past to avoid purely rhetorical poems, because they know they will just fade away. Asmaa jokes that in the '60s, '70s and '80s if you were an Arab poet you were a kind of correspondent. If a bomb exploded in Baghdad in the morning you had to write a poem about it. She tells me there is a Syrian poet whose work she used to love, but since the events that have been unfolding in Syria, “he became so much, I don’t know — as if the poem is vomiting only emotion, and weeping. It doesn't work at all. It’s as if he lost his mind because it cannot be natural. It is a poetry of emergency.”

One day, in the kitchen, she used a term I’d never heard before — “Refugee Poetry”. She talks of Syria, the millions displaced, the strange and sometimes complicated responses of European institutions to try and understand what it means to be a refugee.

When asked to place herself in the map of Arabic poetry she talks about the difficulty of being raised in a kind of isolation, about the inability to separate herself from being a minority that was sieged. Things have changed now because of the Internet, so the grasp of geopolitical facts is clearer, books are coming to her from Iraq, Morocco, Lebanon, but she says what her parents inherited from the Arab region in terms of culture was nothing. “There was a siege in 1948 and that’s it. You are one-and-a-half million people and you know nothing about the Arab world and they know nothing about you.” The knowledge she had as a child, as a teenager, was very local and limited. The understanding that certain bridges were lost has formed a large part of her vision.
“It has to do with building something. If you live all this in your memory and subconscious and you don’t live this blood physically, it’s as if something goes inside you which is not really connected to your age or your experience. I didn't live through 1948. I didn't live the memory of my parents or grandfathers, but the memory of my grandfathers is also coming up in my poetry, and I don’t know what happened, but lately I really feel them — both my grandfathers, whom I didn't meet.”
One day, in the kitchen, she used a term I’d never heard before — “Refugee Poetry”. She talks of Syria, the millions displaced, the strange and sometimes complicated responses of European institutions to try and understand what it means to be a refugee. “Many of the cultural events in Germany and other places are happening under the title of refugee cinema, refugee poetry. It’s so funny, it’s almost a brand to be a refugee.
“It’s problematic because it means if you’re a refugee you have a higher legitimacy to do whatever you want, and taken with the historical background of Germany, who are used to feeling that things are their fault, it creates a dangerous situation. This Syrian cultural refugee scene in cool Berlin — that whatever comes from it must be good. So, what I mean is that I can’t judge this period because there’s a lot of positive things happening, but it’s also dangerous, and the role of intelligent society is to be aware of it, to start writing about it, so it will be on the shelves of what we will read later, in the years to come.” 

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