Palestinian metaphors

July 7th, 2009 | Posted in Boycott, Culture, Palestine

Interview with Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, by Stefan Christoff for

    Photo: Abdel Rahman al Mozayen, “Children of the Intifada”

Celebrated Brooklyn-based Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad creates poetry remarkable for its precision and ability to cut to the heart of some of the most profound political conflicts of our time.

Her voice is shaped by Palestinian history, yet offers contemporary insights into a culture often misrepresented in the media. She builds on the work of Palestinian artists like the late Mahmoud Darwish – those who have played a key role in capturing the national voice of a Palestinian nation that remains absent from the world map, but is ubiquitous in the minds of millions around the world. Hammad’s poetry paints a full picture of the immediate conditions and historical injustices faced by the Palestinians.

Although she came to national artistic prominence in the U.S. after hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons invited Hammad onto HBO’s Def Poetry series, in recent years Hammad’s Palestinian perspectives have been featured in media outlets internationally. She’s also starred in the feature-length Palestinian drama Salt of This Sea, a Cannes award-winner that tells the story of a Palestinian born in Brooklyn who returns to Palestine for the first time – a story not far from Hammad’s own experience.

During a recent trip to Montreal, Suheir Hammad spoke to Hour about the current situation in Palestine, the art of performing and why the election of Barack Obama hasn’t inspired Palestinians.

Hour: Often there is a tension – should art be simply appreciated for art’s sake or is all art political given that life is shaped by politics? What are your thoughts about the role that artists can play within political movements, and within liberation struggles, especially that of Palestine’s?

Suheir Hammad: I always go back to questioning artists about what they believe art can do. If an artist believes that the intention of their art and the manifestation of their art can transform behaviour and opinion, there should be no place you do not go.

For example, when Erykah Badu travelled to Israel last year, she contacted Palestinian artists, [including filmmaker] Jackie Salloum, and also talked to me about the context. She asked us questions about Palestine before travelling. So when Badu got into Palestine she met up with Palestinian rappers. As soon as she got to Tel Aviv she was questioned [by Israeli security agents] about who she listens to and why. So perhaps the decision for Badu to travel to Israel was taken by her record company or management. However, in travelling, Badu took action to inform and empower herself.

Hour: Your poetic work touches on experiences of indigenous people around the world, in Palestine but also here in North America, including Turtle Island. Can you talk about how your poetry approaches experiences of colonization?

Hammad: There is definitely a continuum in the experiences of indigenous peoples around the world, and the subsequent ghettoization of these indigenous populations. As an artist, the language that you develop grows and you begin to find the words that illuminate this continuum.

Hour: We’ve seen many questions of cultural identity come forward with President Obama’s election, but discussions seem to stay on the surface and the deeper questions about colonization and history aren’t touched. The New Yorker magazine printed a cover during the 2008 election campaign that created controversy, where Michelle Obama was portrayed almost as if she was Assata Shakur, a Black Panther, while Barack Hussein Obama was portrayed as a post-9/11 Muslim stereotype.

Hammad: It was an absurd magazine cover, especially when Angela Davis or Kathleen Cleaver are still alive and are vibrant genius legal minds who continue to create and analyze our society.

People in the U.S. were overjoyed about the possibility of what Obama could be. I think that there has been a tension about how to have a conversation with people about Obama’s economic and foreign policies without taking away people’s true joy that this President could be different. This is an interesting conversation that we must have.

I think that the traditional left-of-centre approach on Obama is not going to serve us. We have to think of new ways of talking to people.

Hour: As a Palestinian, how do you feel about Obama’s election?

Hammad: I absolutely knew through Obama’s cabinet choices that we would be getting an administration that will uphold the dominant Zionist narrative about Palestinian history and reality. Rahm Emanuel has an agenda and this is the agenda that Obama is engaging with. Until there are other agendas and perspectives within the inner circles, I really don’t see a change in policy on Palestine.

Hour: Across the Middle East, writers like Ghassan Kanafani or Mahmoud Darwish, who recently passed away, are celebrated. For decades, art has played such an important role in projecting the voice of Palestinians and Palestine. Certainly there is a new generation of Palestinian artists like hip-hop outfit DAM, Emily Jacir and yourself. How does this play into the continuum of Palestinian art? Can you talk about the role that you think the Palestinian cultural voices will play in the years to come?

Hammad: First we have this huge vacuum left by Darwish, because he became a national poet to several generations and died at the peak of his craft. If you were following Darwish in his 60s he was developing amazing metaphysical concepts, Palestine as a metaphor – writings that are his last legacy to us.

What if Palestine is a metaphor? What if after all our real-life blood and sweat clashes over land, nationality and identity, what if Palestine is a metaphor about our humanity?

There is a real void left by Darwish because he was able to speak to my generation and also to my parents’ generation in ways that this new generation will have to learn. Through film, poetry or hip-hop we will have to find a way to speak to a multi-generational Palestinian experience.

Hour: How do you feel about the Palestinian experience being expressed through hip-hop?

Hammad: On a personal level, it’s like I dreamt it up. The first time I travelled to Lyd, I met [hip-hop group] DAM in my father’s town. I had heard stories about Lyd my entire life. Today it is not the town that my father had told me about. Actually, I experienced the ghetto of Lyd, which has all the trappings of all the ghettos that I had been to in my life. For those young Palestinians from Lyd to call on and relate to voices from Brooklyn, to help them find a conduit for their expression, it is surreal!

There are two forces coming together to expand each other through hip-hop: the Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonization and the expression of hip-hop culture and resistance. Hip-hop expands Palestinian national thought because now we know and have heard the stories of others who have dealt with oppression in other places.

Hour: I’m sure it is very difficult to convey through words the effects of the Israeli attack on Gaza this past winter, the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, or the impacts of the Palestinian refugee experience for over 60 years. When you are on stage or developing your poems, how do you convey that reality through your poetry?

Hammad: Darwish actually talked about this, what happens on stage. I often go back to this phrase that Darwish said in a film, which is, “The poem on the page has a life of its own,” which I always believed because I never thought originally I would be on stage. I was always interested in writing, and it is the actual writing process that continues to feed my work.

Once you enter the public sphere you are engaging as a public citizen and this is a different experience from writing poetry. [It is] sharing my innermost thoughts and observations with strangers.

Audre Lorde has a poem called Litany for Survival, which says, “So it is better to speak, remembering, we were never meant to survive.” On a personal level I have my own fears and insecurities, and as Lord explained, you are always going to have them – you will still be afraid sometimes, but you must continue.

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