A Blade of Grass:

New Palestinian Poetry

‘Against barbarity,’ wrote the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008), ‘poetry can resist only by cultivating an attachment to human fragility, like a blade of grass growing on a wall as armies march by.’

A Blade of Grass brings together, in English and in Arabic, new work by poets from the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, from the Palestinian diaspora and from within the disputed borders of Israel. Featuring work by Fady Joudah, Mahmoud Darwish, Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, Deema K. Shehabi, Ashraf Fayadh, Mustafa Abu Sneineh, Naomi Shihab Nye, Marwan Makhoul, Farid Bitar, Fatena Al Ghorra, Dareen Tatour and Sara Saleh, it celebrates the flourishing cultural resistance of the Palestinian people to decades of displacement, occupation, exile and bombardment. Voices fresh and seasoned converse with history, sing to the land, and courageously nurture an attachment to human fragility. Written in free verse and innovative forms, hip-hop rhythms and the Arabic lyric tradition, these poems bear witness both to catastrophe and to the powerful determination to survive it.

Ashraf Fayadh and Dareen Tatour are both currently imprisoned, respectively in Saudi Arabia and Israel, on charges relating to their poetry. A percentage of the receipts of this book will be donated tosupport their legal fees.

Translators: Josh Calvo, Katharine Halls, Anna Murison, Sarah Maguire, Raphael Cohen, Tariq Al Haydar, Andrew Leber, Wejdan Shamala, Waleed Al-Bazoon, Ahmed Taha and Naomi Foyle.

Cover image: Belal Khaled

Sample Poems

Marwan Makhoul

An Arab at Ben-Gurion Airport

I am Arab!
I yell at the entrance to the airport.
To shorten the woman soldier’s path
I go up to her and say: Interrogate me! But
quick, if you don’t mind. I don’t want to miss
departure time.

She says: Where are you from?

From the Ghassassanian kings of Golan comes my chivalry, I reply.
Neighbour of a harlot from Jericho
who gave Judah the wink on his way to the West Bank
the day he occupied the land that the front page of history
occupied after him.
My answers indurate as Hebron granite:
I was born in the time of the Moabites who came before you
to this submissive land of ages.
From Canaan my father
and my mother from South Lebanon, once a Phoenician.
Her mother, my mother’s, died two months ago:
without a final farewell to her mother’s body, my mother,
two months ago.
I wept in her arms so that sympathy in Buqaya might console her
on the foothills of tragedy and fate:
Lebanon, impossible sister, and me,
my mother’s lone mother
in the north!

She asks me: Who packed your bag for you?

I say: Osama bin Laden! But
Easy now – it’s the harmless humour of the hurt,
a joke realists like me use professionally here
in the fight.

I’ve struggled sixty years talking words of peace;
I don’t attack settlements
and I don’t have tanks like you do,
ridden by soldiers to chew up Gaza.
Firing bombs from an Apache isn’t on my CV,
not out of a shortcoming in me,
but because I see on the horizon the echo of frustration
at a misplaced non-violent revolution
and good behaviour.

Did anyone give you something on the way here? she asks.

An exile from Nayrab refugee camp
gave me memories
and the key to a house from the fabled past.
The rust on the key made me edgy, but I’m
like stainless steel, I compose self with self should I grow nostalgic,
for the groans of refugees
spread wings of longing across borders.
No guard can stop it, nor thousands
and not you for sure.

She says: Do you have any sharp implements in your possession?

I answer: My passion
my skin, my olive complexion
my being born here in innocence, but for fate.
Pess-optimistic I was in the seventies
but I’m optimistic about the roars of disobedience
right now being raised to you in Gilboa gaol.
I’m straight out of the tragic
novels of history, the end of the story
a funeral for the past and a wedding
in the not far-off hall of hope.
A date from the Jordan Valley raised me
and taught me to speak.
I have a child whose due date I postpone, so he’ll arrive
to a morning not made of straw like today, Ukrainian girl.
I have the muezzin’s chant to move me, even though I’m an
atheist.
I shout to mute the mournful wailing of the flutes,
to turn pistols into the undying refrain of violins.

The soldier leads me off to search my things
ordering me to open my bag.
I do what she wants!
And from the depths of the bag bubble up my heart and my song,
the meaning of it all slips out eloquently and crudely, within it all
that is me.

She asks me: And what’s this?

I say: The sura of the Night Journey ascending the ladder of my
veins,
the Tafsir of Jalalayn, the poetry of Abu Tayyeb al-Mutannabi
and my sister Maram,as a photograph and real at the same time,
a silk shawl to enwrap and protect me from the chilling exile of
relatives,
tobacco from a kiosk in Arraba that made my head spin until
doubts got stoned.
Inside me a fierce loyalty, the wild thyme of my country,
the flame of pomegranate blossoms, Galilean and sparkling.
Inside me agate, camphor-wood, incense and my vitality,
the pearl that is Haifa: scintillating, everlasting, illuminating,
transforming, resting in the pocket of our return for one reason
only: we worshipped our good intentions and bound
the Nakba to a mistake in the past and in me!

The soldier hands me over to a policeman
who pats me down and shouts in surprise:
What’s this!?

The manhood of my nation, I say
and my progeny, the fold of my family and two dove’s eggs
to hatch, male and female, from me and for me.
He searches me
for anything that could pose a threat
but this stranger is blind
forgetting the more grievous and important devices within:
my spirit, my defiance, the swoop of the eagle in my breath and my
body
my birthmark and my valour. That is me
whole and complete in a way this fool
will never see.

Now, after two hours of psychological grappling
I lick my wounds for a sufficient five minutes
then embark on the plane that has taken off. Not to leave
and not to return
but to see the woman soldier below me,
the policeman in the national anthem of my shoes below me,
and below me a big lie of tin-can history
like Ben-Gurion become as always, as always, as always
below me.

Translated by Raphael Cohen

Dareen Tatour

A Poet Behind Bars

Jelemeh Prison, 2 November 2015 (the day I was indicted)

In prison, I met people
too numerous to count:
Killer and criminal,
thief and liar,
the honest and those who disbelieve,
the lost and confused,
the wretched and the hungry.
Then, the sick of my homeland,
born out of pain,
refused to comply with injustice
until they became children whose innocence was violated.
The world’s compulsion left them stunned.
They grew older.
No, their sadness grew,
strengthening in repression,
like roses in salted soil.
They embraced love without fear,
and were condemned, not
for their deeds, but for declaring,
‘We love the land endlessly,’
so their love freed them.
See, prison is for lovers.
I interrogated my soul
during moments of doubt and distraction:
‘What of your crime?’
Its meaning escapes me now.
I said the thing and
revealed my thoughts;
I wrote about the current injustice,
wishes in ink,
a poem I wrote...
The charge has worn my body,
from my toes to the top of my head,
for I am a poet in prison,
a poet in the land of art.
I am accused of words,
my pen the instrument.
Ink – blood of the heart – bears witness
and reads the charges.
Listen, my destiny, my life,
to what the judge said:
A poem stands accused,
my poem morphs into a crime.
In the land of freedom,
the artist’s fate is prison.

Translated by Tariq Al Haydar

Ashraf Fayadh

    Cracked Skin

    My country passed through here
    Wearing the freedom shoe.
    It went far away, leaving its shoe behind.
    It was running in a confused rhythm, like the beat of my heart.
    My heart, which was running in another direction, with no
    convincing reason!
    The freedom shoe was torn, old and fake,
    Like human values in all their dimensions.
    Everything left me behind and went away including you.
    The shoe is a confusing invention.
    It proves our ineligibility to live on this planet.
    It proves we belong to another place, where we do not need to
    walk for long,
    Maybe its floor is paved with cheap slippery ceramics.
    The problem is not with slipperiness, but with water.
    The problem of heat, broken glass, thorns, dry branches, pointed
    rocks.
    The shoe is not an ideal solution...
    But it satisfies certain of our purposes,
    Exactly like the mind,
    Like emotion.
    My emotion is dead since you left me last time.
    I cannot reach you since my imprisonment
    inside a cement box engraved with cold metal rods.
    Since everyone forgot me, starting with my freedom,
    ending with my shoes which suffer from an identity crisis.

    Translated by Waleed Al-Bazoon and Naomi Foyle

Mustafa Abu Sneineh

Ant

My story is there when the story of war is told –
Since no-one pays attention to a plucky ant except
when a defeated
Conqueror notices her.

I stumble, stumble, and get up again, whenever a soldier
recounts my story.
They say the language of war comes from the arsenal,
But I only know the language of the wheat
I’ve been carrying for years, only to stumble again.

The conqueror can stare all he likes.
One day someone will come and tell the story I recognise:
A brave ant contemplating a defeated conqueror.

Translated by Katharine Halls

Farid Bitar

Pain that never heals

12 December 2012

Spoke to the birds about it
They told me ‘do what we always do
Fly to another place
Then come back with a fresh start
To the same place that you started’

The olive tree was listening
Told me ‘sonny don’t listen to the birds
Look at me; I am in the same place for ages
I get uprooted, so the IDF soldiers can get a better view
I always resurface
I survived Empires
They are gone, I am still here’

Was listening to Darby Tillis
Spilling his guts
About his pain that never heals – 20 years now
Spent 8 years on death row in Chicago jails
For a crime that he never committed
The police made up the charges
Now exonerated
He still cries about his pain

My pain keeps getting re-opened
Every time the Israelis invade Gaza
The flotillas that never make it
My people living on a dollar a day
My pain never goes away

Translated by Farid Bitar

Fady Joudah

Mimesis

My daughter
    wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
She waited
Until it left of its own accord

If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn’t a place to call home
And you’d get to go biking

She said that’s how others
Become refugees isn’t it?