Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Before There is Nowhere to Stand

Last week I went to the Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley, to a poetry reading called Before There is Nowhere to Stand. Most everyone read a poem out of that compilation of poems. The writers are Palestinian, or Jewish and/or Israeli.

Some of the poems I found really powerful. The first poem was by a Palestinian, and the second by an Israeli. The first was about memories-of childhood, and family. It was really sweet. The second was about dividing Jerusalem (you take the dates, I'll take the figs) and the absurdity of separation. I really liked them both.

There was a Darwish poem too. Now I wonder what Darwish would have thought of his poem being in there.

People bare their souls in their poetry. The words can be so honest, and so raw. So how could you tell someone that their honesty, and their confession isn't enough? That allowing their words in this anthology could be misleading, and even harmful?

I looked for the poems I liked on Google, and found a few of them posted on The Velveteen Rabbi. One comment really resonated with me:

Thank you for sharing, these are both breathtaking poems. One thing that I was struck by in your juxtaposition of them here is the sense of equivalence evoked. Both poems begin with incredible tenderness and beauty and end with horrible violence. Reading them together suggests that there is a fundamental sameness between Israeli and Palestinian experiences of violence. I find this both profoundly true--when someone you love is killed, does the context really matter?--and also very troubling, because I believe the violence is unequal, both statistically and structurally. Clicking through to the book's site, I found some of my thoughts mirrored in Vivien Sansour's critique, which I'd encourage others to read. (Viven's letter is below)

Reading that allowed me to articulate what I'd been feeling. I was uncomfortable listening to a Darwish poem being read intertwined with an Israeli poem. Two poets, one line here, one line there, one line here, one line there. I was sitting next to a Palestinian friend who had just arrived. I'd heard his poetry at the Nakba day event, and thought he'd like to see this event. Sitting next to him and listening to this back-and-forth made me squirm. It sounded silly, the partnership. Carthartic for one poet to talk about fear and emotions, while imaginably mounted on top of the other.

I felt a strong connection to people at this event. Some are friends, Palestinian and Jewish/Israeli Americans with a long history of activism and family connections in Palestine/Israel. I can't claim to have either. Some of the poems didn't sit well with me...but how can I say the event wasn't enough? Several of us had a wonderful lunch and tea afterwards, and talked nonstop about Palestine and activism. I was completely at ease with everyone. So how can I complain?

I wasn't going to mention any of these questions here. But as I was looking for the poems I liked, I read a review of the book from Lost Horse Press, which includes Vivien Sansour's letter, "in lieu of an introduction." Vivien writes:

Unfortunately, I do not see myself participating in such a context. Perhaps I would if one day justice is served and we are in a state of reconciliation. However, this reconciliation whether through poetry or otherwise is not possible at this point. As I would like to describe it, it is like having to sit down with my rapist and understand his pain while he is still penetrating me.

I knew I had to include her letter, if I was going to mention the book at all. How would the poetry reading have been different, for better or for worse, had someone had gone up on stage and read these words? I think they're important, and something that everyone in the audience could have understood and appreciated.

Especially in Berkeley.


"Vivien Sansour gave permission to print her correspondence in lieu of an introduction, along with two of her poems. Even as the editors do not assume there to be a singular Palestinian or Jewish “voice,” Vivien’s letter may echo opposition and challenge normalization. Because what is absent is as telling as what is present.

from a Letter from Vivien Sansour
Dear Joan and Grace,

Please accept my sincerest apologies for being so late in responding to you. I have been reading the manuscript and really struggling with it to be honest. For the sake of full integrity I would like to share with you a couple of things. I do not feel a just representation and I am afraid that in the context of an unfortunately misunderstood political reality the anthology, although I know and trust that it is well intentioned, perpetuates an idea that I am very uncomfortable with and that is of framing the situation as two people who just need to get along and who just don’t understand each other.

I have been discussing it with my dear friend Ayelet who is a former Israeli soldier and currently lives in Los Angeles as she refuses to return to Israel and have her kids serve in the army. We had both performed poems we wrote to each other in the past and we have found that, unfortunately, the reality of a military occupation becomes clouded when the message of “bridging gaps of understanding between two people who just don’t get along” is perpetuated. In that spirit, I write you with my deepest regrets because I feel I cannot participate in your anthology; not in an introduction nor with my poems.

As I was making my trip from Jenin to the U.S. (via Jordan because I, like most Palestinians, am not allowed to use the airport in Tel Aviv) our car was stopped on the road by an Israeli checkpoint and we were forced out of the car and made to stand in the cold for half an hour. After being humiliated and screamed at by a young Israeli soldier (move, stop, walk, go back) we were finally let through to make it to the bridge to cross with thirteen different checks and stops in Palestinian-only buses that we were stuffed into like animals. It is hard for me on a personal level as well to compare and equate my experiences in the same context as my oppressor.

The poem for the people of Sderot, for example, makes it look like we all suffer from the same demon of fear. While all human suffering is awful, in the grander political context there is a political force, a powerful military force that the people of Sderot are supported and protected by. They are part of a system that is systemically and slowly exterminating an indigenous population. Not to mention that Sderot is a settlement built on stolen land. The people of Gaza are imprisoned with no access to sea or land to run away to even.

I do not want to focus on these details, I just want to explain why in the struggle to achieve justice, which is the only way to peace, I am growing more and more convinced alongside my Israeli and international colleagues who are also struggling for justice, that it is important for us to present the situation as it is: A military occupation and not a conflict between two people. Jews, Muslims, Christians have lived together in Palestine before 1948 and it was not until a European colonial project was started in the beginning of the 1900s that we started “not to get along.”

Unfortunately, I do not see myself participating in such a context. Perhaps I would if one day justice is served and we are in a state of reconciliation. However, this reconciliation whether through poetry or otherwise is not possible at this point. As I would like to describe it, it is like having to sit down with my rapist and understand his pain while he is still penetrating me.

My only regret is that I have taken a long time to come to this conclusion and I am afraid I have caused you an inconvenience in your process. But I would have also done you injustice to write an introduction that would not be in integrity with where I stand nor with how I think the struggle for justice is best served.