Poetry for Justice

Susie Abulhawa, Palestinian poet, author of Mornings in Jenin, founder of Playgrounds for Palestine, exile, mother, lover, friend, stands naked in My Voice Sought the Wind (Just World Books); her collection of trenchant and beautiful poems replete with honesties and literary seductions.

Reading her poems is akin to being in conversation with a lyrically intelligent and passionate woman; a conversation that is at once intimate and universal shifting vividly in place and time, in emotion and insight, in self and the people of her poetic landscape.

voice_DVThere’s something so right, so apt that her first poem for this book is “The Gift of Olive Oil” for like the essence of the olive, her poetry is ‘A token/ Something from the soil of things shared‘ and the ‘heritage,’ ‘longing,’ and ‘a wound‘ are its recurring song lines. And each poem, when you linger and ‘Press it between your tongue and palate‘ will yield unexpected revelations into the darkness and radiance of human experience.

The first section under the heading of “Palestinian, Black & Blue,” speaks from the  bruising wound of the oppressed within Palestine and in exile. In “Black”‘s fierce indictment of western racism,

I am the wrong kind of human
and Israel’s colonial supremacy, 

A European took my grandma’s house
Painted my country white

the refugee child- Abulhawa- journeys along the vicious via dolorosa of exile, racist abuse and desperate conformity,

It is where I believed I was ugly
When I tried to be white
When I put down my flat bread and picked up a fork
And Mrs. Wall said I was “white enough” to
Stop being a “nigger-lover”

to adulthood and the rediscovering of  the integrity of her self,

I am Palestinian
And in the blue and bruise of my heart,
I am become Black
Because Black is beautiful
And the beautiful in me
Is Black

Yet, Abulhawa reveals that owning a Palestinian-self-in-exile comes with painful cultural loneliness;

Most don’t even know it’s Ramadan
Or that I’m fasting
There is no solidarity in el ghorba 
— “Ramadan in  el Ghorba”

Abulhawa doesn’t shirk from truth about the toll of physical and emotional violence on women resulting directly from the emasculation of exile, ‘When they pulled the land from under your feet,’

The first time your husband hit you
It nearly knocked the country off your back

Then comes a second abandonment,

You loved him
And he left five months
After your second daughter was born

culminating in the disintegration of identity and family,

The girls you raised were not Palestinian
The house you built was not yours 

— “Sister Palestinian I”

In Palestine, different forms of violence torture living and breathing Palestinians. To  bring us close to the horror of Palestinian life, in “Awake on memories in Gaza,” Abulhawa zooms from the  objectivity and distance of reports on Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza into the  terrified thoughts of a young Gazan man under bombardment,

Was it the spider web in the sky, the
White phosphorous death?
Or the sonic booms?

My eyes bulge
The better to see should
My heart break free
And make a run for it  

— “Awake on Memories in Gaza”

who clings to the useless calm of memories of a first love with Sameera that will be dead before it was born — typical of the loss within the inhuman Palestinian condition under the cruelest occupation:

Might there be mercy for us?
Perchance ten more will not lose a limb today
thousands will not leave school to scrounge for food.
Perchance Lena will marry, instead of committing suicide
and Ahmed will dream tonight, instead of shivering in his own piss. 

— “Sister Palestinian II”

“Wala” and “Picture of a Family Man” echo across oceans the stark contrast between life for Palestinian families and the petty-by-comparison modern western malaise of urban angst. “Wala” is a searingly poignant poem and Abulhawa asserts the power of the personal pronoun to connect or not; with the use of ‘you’ we are not only drawn into, but walk in the vulnerability of the Palestinian father while the ‘he’ distances us from the Family Man.

Both are loving fathers deprived of a fulfilling fatherhood;
You kiss the faces of your sleeping babies
You haven’t seen them awake in months
and you wonder
Has Walid’s voice begun to crack yet?
Have Wijdad’s hips begun to flare?
How big was Suraya’s smile when she came home with her report card? 

— “Wala”


He works impossible hours
Until the last moment before his children sleep
Then rushes to catch them
And as he carries them to bed
An ache of love overflows in him 

— “Picture of a Family Man”

Both men are trapped, one in a meaningless box of existential angst and the other, imprisoned in an Israeli cattle cage, struggles for existence. The former has choices, but the Palestinian has none behind the bars of daily humiliation:

the zionist settler boss-man yells
Wala, mish hon el yom!
Not there today, boy!

And all you can do is thank Allah that your
wife and your babies are not there to hear them call you wala

In the sections “Love and Neruda” and “History of Love,” Abulhawa the lover bares her ardour and wounds. Her passion, be it for a beloved or for a country, seethes images that makes your head turn and turn again;

Swim into my flesh
And taste the fever that burns my body

Feel the tempest in my breasts 
— “Earth’s First Story”

There are a thousand ways to love
And I loved him ten thousand ways 

— “Untitled and Unfinished”

I’d put my lips to his and close my eyes
And at the cusp of summer
We would know how truly gentle
Are these defiant hearts  

— “Seasons of a Sapling”

I peeled our shadows from the street
And made of them a dress
To wear to his birthday party 

— “What I Did Today, for Tomorrow”

I slip from my flesh
And wander Arabia
To gather the poetry
You plant in the sand  

— “Qais, Your Layla Speaks”

Perhaps questions have no place in love
For questions demean the risks taken
The conveniences tossed
The fears abandoned
The courage
The beauty and greatness
Of heeding the urgency of the heart  

— “Godly Lovelessness”

As mother, Abulhawa evokes the magnificent archetypal act of love of a mother for her child,

In my chest there is a last beat I’d take from my heart for you
In my lungs a last breath I’d give to you  

— “How You’ve Grown”

This natural generosity of self overflows in “Lexi” while massaging her dying friend,

I tried to move life from my core
Through my hands
Into your feet
To your core

Grief inevitably passes through anger which rails in “Cancer” against the obscene ravaging of the disease in her friend, “Death is fisting her’ and the moments never to be cherished again,

Fireflies lighting the night
Freshly brewed coffee and the morning light
Good fitting blue jeans
Springtime and random smiles

Once the anger is spent, girlish humour,
Remember Faherty’s?
No, it was “Farty’s”  

— “Lexi”

and unrequited hope weave a life-filled lament for her beloved Lexi,

Maybe enough that we could make it to Spain
Take that trip to Oxford
Eat lobster until we burst
Drink until the world was healed
Build a playground Just enough for you to be a mom
Your hair to flow long and golden again
And the shine to climb back into your eyes

There are 36 poems in this small volume that burst from the bindings to bind your heart and mind in a lyrical kinship with a poet who soars from ‘the precipice of history‘ bravely and with grace.

Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Aceh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 and then withdrew on principle. Vacy was coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001. Read other articles by Vacy.