In Palestinian Poetry, the Long Transition from Political to Personal
Recalling the Influence of the Great Exiled Poets
The A.M. Qattan Foundation, a Palestinian cultural center housed in a beautiful old stone mansion, occupies one of Ramallah’s hilltops. Qattan’s managers allowed me to stay in the simple one-room guesthouse they reserve for visiting artists. I once returned to the guesthouse after three days away to find my bathroom crawling with hundreds of fat winged ants. Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, Qattan’s director of culture and arts programming, told me, “It is because of the hot dry wind from the south. It is called khamsin.” Mahmoud was less able to explain the sudden appearance of a tiny black-headed kukri snake next to my toilet a few days earlier. But I didn’t meet with Mahmoud to talk about my bathroom menagerie. I wanted to talk about the poetry scene in Palestine, and in Ramallah in particular, following the death of Mahmoud Darwish.
“The passing of Darwish changed the scene dramatically,” Mahmoud told me. “He used to have a big shadow on the literary scene in Palestine, especially the poetry scene. Writers used to struggle to get out of his shadow.” The entire literary community, in Palestine and throughout the Arab world, focused on every new collection Darwish published, while other writers starved for attention. “Now it is different,” Mahmoud said. “I don’t want to sound as if Darwish’s passing was an advantage, but I try to track how things have changed. It is really great to rediscover the importance of other poets. This gives us a sense of diversity that we could not see before because whenever we talked about the poetry scene, we talked about Darwish, Darwish, Darwish.”
The local poetry community experienced a different shift a decade earlier, in the wake of the Oslo Accords. Poets like Darwish who had been living in exile returned to Palestine and worked with the new cultural institutions. The newly formed House of Poetry committed to seeking out Palestine’s young poets, Mahmoud among them, and introducing them to the world. It was the first such manifesto since Ghassan Kanafani decided to present his “writers of resistance” back in the 1960s. “But we were not resistance writers,” Mahmoud said. “We were, in a sense, calling for the normal presentation of the Palestinian. Not the hero. Not the victim. We’d had enough of these labels. Khalas.”
Until Oslo, most Palestinian writers engaged in a collective national project. They considered writing a political act, part of the effort toward achieving dreams of independence and justice. Their work traded in blunt patriotic symbols like tricolor Palestinian flags, keffiyehs, Kalashnikovs, and the keys to village houses lost in the Nakba. The writing during the First Intifada, in particular, presented Palestine and the resistance as proud, unified, and strong. The literature glorified casualties of war. Every young man was fearless, every child pure, and every poem a stone hurled at the enemy.
But Oslo betrayed the poets’ resistance. Palestinian writers, and artists in general, realized committing their art to the political cause had achieved nothing. They had wasted their time and talents waving the flag, only to have politicians sign away their country. So Mahmoud and his poet friends scrapped the clichés and began to use their work to express their personal lives rather than national aspirations. “The political discourse changed, and in a sense, people’s tastes changed,” Mahmoud said. Any art that traded in old nationalist symbols, whether on the page or canvas, “was not valued under the reality of Oslo.”
I’ve heard people say that this was a new style of Palestinian writing that emerged only in the 1990s, but Mahmoud disagrees. Diaspora Palestinians started writing about their internal lives more than a decade earlier. Darwish, after all, devoted pages and pages of verse to the brewing of coffee in Beirut in 1982. But the poets who remained in Palestine had no idea. Before Oslo and the return of writers like Darwish—and before the internet changed everything—Palestine’s poets had little access to this poetry. They didn’t know what their exiled icons were writing about.“Before Oslo and the return of writers like Darwish—and before the internet changed everything—Palestine’s poets had little access to this poetry. They didn’t know what their exiled icons were writing about.”
The Palestinian poetry scene blossomed when these writers returned, especially in Ramallah. Mahmoud and his fellow poets used to take pages to the Ministry of Culture, Birzeit University, or the House of Poetry to be critiqued by poets like Ghassan Zaqtan, Zakaria Mohammed, and Hussein Barghouti. This was the first time emerging poets could interact with the well-established exiles whose work, and lives, they so admired. “It was a very exciting time,” Mahmoud said. “They were really our mentors. We were very close to them. Sometimes they would invite Darwish to come and speak to us.”
Mahmoud was especially grateful for the tutelage of Hussein Barghouti, an intellectual and writer who studied abroad in Hungary and the United States before returning to Ramallah. Al-Barghouti wrote poems, novels, and essays—and translated Romeo and Juliet into Arabic—but Mahmoud knows him best for his mentoring of the new generation of poets. Al-Barghouti used to hold court for hours with young writers at Birzeit University. Mahmoud remembers bringing him a stack of 15 poems to read. Mahmoud sat in his office as al-Barghouti read each of them. Occasionally al-Barghouti would look up from the text and com- ment, “I will remember you from this poem” or “This is something really new.” “He was the most generous cultural figure,” Mahmoud said. “He would give you whatever knowledge he had and spend as much time with us as he could. He would stay talking for ten hours. He was great.” Al-Barghouti’s death in 2002 dealt a serious blow to the local literary scene.
The cultural supplement in Al-Ayyam newspaper also served as a boon to Ramallah’s young poets. “It was very important for us to find a space to be published in Al-Ayyam because it was one of the only chances to be published locally, the only chance to be able to write a poem or a text and have it be read by people,” Mahmoud said. “Now it is less significant. You can just write on your Facebook page.”
The House of Poetry named this new generation of Palestinian poets, somewhat melodramatically, the Everlasting Guests of Fire and published an anthology of their work in the mid-1990s. They used to gather at Ziryab, a café-restaurant on Ramallah’s main street. The owner let the poets linger until two or three in the morning drinking beer and debating literature. Palestinian poets used to come from as far away as Haifa to spend nights there. But the Everlasting Guests proved to be less than everlasting. Time fractured the group. Some poets moved away. Most stopped writing. Rada Shafeh, a promising poet and a favorite of Darwish, disappeared altogether. “There was a mystery about her,” Mahmoud said. “Some say she became a Sufi mystic. Others say she married a strict Muslim and they moved to Afghanistan. No one knows.”
As for today’s poets, Mahmoud sees a continuation of the post-Oslo mood in which the personal dominates the political. “Everybody wants to figure out his own life,” Mahmoud said. “The writers address the national failure but not in a direct way. They talk about their own failures. Their own supplications. The failure of the national project makes their writing take another direction.”
From Pay No Heed to the Rockets by Marcello Di Cintio, courtesy Counterpoint Press, copyright 2018 by Marcello Di Cintio.