I’ve never been to Palestine though I write about it all the time. I don’t always know the difference between ع and غ in Arabic. I don’t know how to wrap a keffiyeh around my neck. I don’t like hummus. I’d rather read George Abraham or Lena Khalaf Tuffaha than canonical writers like Darwish. I am still trying to reconcile my identities. My multiple displacements. The difficulty of seeing (and unseeing); the desire to be seen (and unseen). The profound privilege of living in America, where a drone is a bird in the sky I look at while walking through the park. It is not a bomb, not a symbol of fear, not a cue to panic and duck. The loneliness of living in America, paying for the bombs that kill my people. My language a sound I reach for with my tongue, heavy and imprecise.
There is a photo I can’t stop looking at. In it, a 35-year-old Dareen Tatour waves at a crowd of camera men. It’s sunny. It’s September. Tatour is smiling. This is an act of resistance.
The photo was taken hours after she was released from prison. Israeli authorities claimed her poem, “Resist, My People, Resist Them,” incited violence. She posted the poem on YouTube. In the video, Tatour reads her poem against a backdrop of photos of Palestinians resisting Israeli occupation. A week after posting her poem, Tatour was arrested and jailed for three months. In prison, guards denied her writing material, so Tatour used the broken slider of a zipper and carved poems on the wall. After being released from prison, she was placed on house arrest and denied internet access. She served an additional forty-two days in prison. Upon release on September 20, 2018, the photo was taken. Tatour is smiling. She says, “I regret being sent to prison for a poem, but it will be impossible to stop my writing.”
Tatour and I are worlds apart. What binds us is an allegiance to a land colonized by a country determined to erase Palestinians from existence. What separates us is a politics that refused reentry to my father for 15 years for working with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. But I am here and Tatour is there. When Tatour writes, the Israeli Defense Force is right outside her door, seconds away from bulldozing her home. When I write, the consequences are less tangible and inexact. I cannot name them.
Tatour writes in Arabic. I cannot read her poems in Arabic. I write in English. Tatour and I may never reach each other. The only reason I was able to understand “Resist My People, Resist Them” is because Tatour recites the poem. It was also translated to English thanks to translator Tariq al Haydar and ArabLit.org.
Tatour understands the political implications of her words and how her writing is inextricably linked to her identity as a Palestinian. She says, “The case was political from the start because I am Palestinian . . .” Tatour knows her words are enough to inspire people, make them weep, remind them of home, and spur them to action. This is exactly the reason why her video of the poem has over 17,000 views on YouTube, and why it was enough to imprison her in a country that claims freedom of speech.
Even if one doesn’t understand Arabic, one can quickly understand why the poem was widely circulated. It’s multi-model, using a combination of music, image, video and voice over. The poem is roughly 31 lines and relies on strong language: “In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows,” then later “Resist the settler’s robbery / And follow the caravan of martyrs.” It has an effective use of repetition, with “resist, my people, resist then” recurring throughout the poem.
In the video, the music in the background is both dramatic and moving, building to a crescendo. And then there’s Tatour’s soft yet firm voice urging viewers to “resist,” with ample silence between her words. While viewers reflect on Tatour’s poem, a compilation of videos repeat. There’s a Palestinian flag dancing in the wind, children throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers, a tire burning, and the gruesome image of Israeli soldiers running after Palestinian protesters.
The first time I heard the poem, I couldn’t stop crying. It’s repetition, the music, Tatour’s voice. It made me want to do something. But what? After the initial excitement wore off, I spent months following Tatour’s case, which I caught wind of in 2018, though Tatour had been imprisoned in 2015, and then again in 2018 (her case did not officially close until September 2019). I also spent months trying to reconcile my own freedom and privilege as a poet and writer in the U.S, though I do understand the political situation that has placed me here and makes me American, so perhaps freedom and privilege are not the right words. But maybe they are? I don’t know.
I’ve been writing my entire life. About small things: Breakups, fights with my parents, flowers. And big things: Being Palestinian, being an immigrant, being queer. These things blend into my work in ways I control and don’t. I do believe poems come from somewhere else, somewhere beyond. I try to be brave in my writing, but I have my doubts and fears.
When I first started writing, I didn’t think about politics. Or identity. Not as strongly as Tatour, at least. And probably not as consciously. Yes, I wrote about displacement, about being Palestinian. But I didn’t see these things as “political.” They were just the reality of my life. And I didn’t view poems as acts of resistance or protest.
I didn’t even think I was writing about identity and politics until someone pointed it out. In undergraduate workshops, my wilted flowers became metaphors for a disappearing country whether I wanted them to or not. My birds became drones. My home a displacement. Even today, in my MFA program, a white classmate thought I used a specific image because of my “Indian heritage.” Constantly, I am read. Unread. Misread. And when I was applying to MFA programs, I was urged to write poems about my identity so it could seem like I had a “purpose.”
And now I have a purpose? I’m a Palestinian-American poet. I’ve read Darwish. I’ve studied Kanafani. Sometimes I use Arabic in my writing, but I struggle with the letters. I write about Palestine and hummus and America and my queerness and everything in between. I’m in an MFA program for poetry where I sit in predominately white classrooms and pretend to know answers to questions. I try to take up space as a Muslim woman. As a queer Muslim woman. As a queer Palestinian American Muslim Woman.
The first time I wrote about Palestine was after meeting Naomi Shihab Nye, after she gave me permission, after I asked her a very complicated question about being Palestinian at the end of her reading. And yes, I asked for permission. Because I needed someone to tell me it was okay to write about my Palestinian father, whose trauma and anger and guilt took up so much of my childhood. Because I was trying to understand colonization and its effect on my family, but I did not have the language. Because my Arabic is still graceless. Because I didn’t know living poets existed, much less Palestinian American poets, much less Palestinian American woman poets. Because these identities and their intersections and accumulations mattered to me because I wanted to be seen. Because being seen by someone, somewhere, who I felt was writing to me and for me showed me it was possible to exist in a world that I often felt I didn’t belong to.
I don’t mean to grieve my ignorance. I think I mean to try to answer the question of what it means to be labeled a “political poet,” or an “identity poet” in a country that has not reconciled its own identity. Where my poems are labeled “politically charged” as if I ever had a choice. I mean to understand what Tatour is saying when she says, “The case was political from the start because I am Palestinian . . .”
I think when we talk about politics on the page, we’re asking what’s at stake. For Tatour, those stakes are high because a poem could have ended her life, could have taken away her ability to write. My friend Kevin Latimer says non-marginalized poets write with bombs in their hands and marginalized poets write after the bombs have been dropped and everyone is bleeding. He’s trying to make the case that all art is political, whether you’re a cishet white person, or anyone else. You’re either holding the bomb or picking up the pieces. And saying poetry isn’t political is catering to indifference, which is writing with a bomb in your hand.
And anyway, how could poetry not be political? There is not one moment in my day where I don’t think about being Palestinian. How could I? From the food I consume, to the language I speak, to my entire existence in America. It’s all political. And if the non-marginalized poet writing with bombs in their hands does not see their art as political, that’s because they believe their whiteness and heteronormativity to be the default. They do not have to think so strongly about these topics (though they should) precisely because of their position of power in society.
The difference is simple. The grass in one poet’s poem may just be grass, but the grass in Layli Long Soldier’s poem, “38,” comes to represent the starving Dakota people and the violence inflicted on them by colonial powers. In “38,” she quotes trader Andrew Myrick who responds to the starvation of the Dakota people by saying “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.” In this way, the grass comes to represent and mourn the 38 Dakota men executed by President Abraham Lincoln, and the aforementioned cruelty. Either way, the grass is political. This is not the question. The question is whether the poet would like to acknowledge the political implications of the grass (or any image/motif/metaphor), what land it’s on, who owns it, who has died there, who has been erased and how they have been erased. Layli Long Soldier’s identity as a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation prevents her from ever seeing the grass as just grass. What I’m talking about is power. Who owns the grass? Who must reclaim the grass through their poems? Is this reclamation purely a tribute, grief, song, burial, or desperate reach?
I don’t know if I would continue writing if I were in Tatour’s position. I don’t know if it would be “impossible to stop my writing.” I don’t know if I believe in the power of writing that much. Despite it having saved me, despite it continuing to save me.
A few months ago, at a panel I was asked to moderate in Youngstown, Ohio about cultural identity in writing and publishing, an audience member said, “The more you marginalize yourself the less political power you have.” Someone said something about coming home to ourselves. About “grappling” with our identities. About feeling exploited in a publishing industry that tokenizes us. About intersections of race and sexuality, false freedoms, about our identities being politicized.
As the moderator, I asked questions with the confidence of someone who has answers to the questions she was asking. I nodded my head. I mmhmmed into the mic. I listened. Philip Metres mentioned that authors all over the world are being stripped of their awards and recognition for publicly supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I thought about my bio, which reads, “Noor Hindi is a Palestinian-American poet.” I considered the consequences. I mmhmmed into the mic.
But I didn’t know a thing. Or, I know a lot of things. I don’t know. I think what I am trying to understand now is how to write. I’ve always known Palestine, its fig trees, its grief. I’ve always known my queerness, the ways its alienated and confused me. But when I first started writing, I did not think about these things so strongly. The flowers in my poems were flowers. And the sky did not have drones. And the house was a home. Not bulldozed. And the people within it not bleeding.
Writing is always asking me to unpack. To say more. To understand lineation. My place in society. And it never feels like a small amount of pressure, which leads me to inevitably think about what’s at stake for me. How my bio might influence a reading of my poems. How my identity influences my writing. How my poems are read. How my queerness could ultimately prevent my poems about being Palestinian from reaching certain audiences. How my feminism and protests against the continued violence against Arab women at the hands of Arab men might place me. I don’t know how to answer any of these questions.
But I know they’re important to ask of myself and of my classmates who I share workshops with, of my professors whose booklists look too much like them, which is to say predominately cisgender and straight and white. And lastly, to the larger community, where of the 15 major print publications in 2017, VIDA found that only two published 50% or more women writers, and only four magazines had published more than 5% of writers who identified as Middle Eastern and/or North African, though the Middle East is a constant obsession of American media.
These are not just numbers. They speak to how we read (or don’t read) poems and work by marginalized identities, and the pressures those identities face when staring at a blank page and when submitting and when that voice is the only voice representing an entire community. And the only way I can answer the question of how we write is by asking how we read. More specifically, how I read and what I look for in a poem or text, and why it’s important for me to read “identity poets” or poems that are labeled “political,” and why I value these voices above the voices of non-marginalized writers who sometimes seemingly have nothing at stake when they write about birds not shot, or grass not red, or lines that sing from empty vessels.
When I read a poem, I want to know who is going to die if the poem does not exist. What’s at stake for the poet? What are they losing? Who are they trying to rescue? Is the poem an act of survival? I’m think of Tarfia Faizullah’s poem, “100 Bells,” which begins, “My sister died. He raped me. They beat me. I fell . . .” The poem begins and ends with such urgency that I didn’t breathe until I’d reached the last line the first time I read it. The short lines pack a punch, with most sentence no more than three or five syllables, giving the poem a staccato sound. The poem is written in one long stanza, offering no reprieve. The line breaks create alternate meanings, with each one jumbling into the next. Take, for example, “He said, Now I’ve seen a Muslim girl / naked,” where the word “naked” cuts the air, a violent surprise. Or how the last line of the poem, which reads, “Until the doorknobs went silent,” works inversely to create the sound of a doorknob being violently shaken without saying it. In Faizullah’s debut collection, Seam, she interviews women from Bangladesh who were raped and tortured during the 1971 Liberation War. At once she’s able to weave the personal and the political together to create poems that are crucial and uplift marginalized voices.
Likewise, I’m thinking about Fatimah Asghar’s poem “If They Should Come for Us,” which is similarly written in one stanza, but the poem employs no punctuation and tumbles into itself before coming to the end. The poem’s brilliance comes from its ability to both mourn “the glass smashing the street” and celebrate “the toddler dangling from stroller / hair a fountain of dandelion seed.” The poem is a protest against colonial erasure and also an anthem for survival. It captures small, beautiful moments of a person’s life, “the muslim man who sips / good whiskey at the start of maghrib” and the “muslim teenager / snapback and high-tops.” I love the poem’s quickness as well as its deceitful ease of movement, the way it sounds on my tongue, and how strongly it declares itself from the first line, jolting you into the poem: “these are my people . . .” I see this poem as an act of joy and survival, but it’s a joy that’s rooted in a deep seeing.
I mention Asghar and Faizullah (and I’d also add Safiya Sinclair, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Morgan Parker, and so many more) because their poems have saved me. These poems, both in content and craft, are brilliant examples of how far a poem can be pushed, the power it can claim and reclaim, the histories it can hold, the heartbreak it maneuvers through and to, and the sacrifices it can make. There is so much to lose and yet the only way to endure is for the poem to exist. Those are the poems I want to read and write. The ones that are “impossible to stop,” to quote Tatour. The “political” ones. The “identity-obsessed” ones.
“It is possible to imprison the body of a poet, an artist or a writer, but their imagination can never be imprisoned,” writes Tatour. This is the kind of persistence and urgency I’m after. The impossibility of stopping. Despite. Despite. Despite. I’ll spend my life chasing it.