‘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
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
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
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
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
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
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?