Young Afghans are turning to poetry to defy the burden of conflict

From a report in the UN News Centre:

Much of Afghanistan’s newfound love of poetic expression – which has taken hold in Kabul and Kandahar as well – is coming from young Afghans seeking new ways to interact and express themselves.

The Citadel of Herat, in western Afghanistan, which dates back to 300 BC and was restored by UNESCO in the 1970s. Photo: UNAMA/Fraidoon Poya

Read the full story here.

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The Restless Brilliance of Hassan Blasim

My brief essay on Hassan Blasim in Kitaab, a site dedicated to the works of Asian writers.

Iraq hasn’t recovered from the throes of the devastation that invasion brought. It continues to be mired in sectarian conflicts, external attacks and extreme poverty. Who could possibly think of looking a hundred years into its future?

If anyone could, it would be Hassan Blasim.

Read the full essay here.

Photo: Arablit.org

Partition literature from Bangladesh

An extensive essay on literature from Bangladesh reflecting the effects of Parition and its enduring presence in the Indian sub-continent. Poet, translator, and essayist Kaiser Haq writes in The Daily Star:

Bangladesh’s Partition literature deserves to be considered alongside similar works from other parts of the subcontinent. But more important than literary criticism is the task of transcending the conflicts that have given rise to the literature. Perhaps the most deleterious outcome of Partition has been the partitioning of the subcontinental mind. We have not only become an extended family of squabbling nations, we have grown to deny our civilisational unity. It is imperative that we make efforts to rediscover our commonality.

Giving voice to Kashmiri women, children trapped in a cycle of violence

Freny Manecksha’s book Behold, I Shine, moves the spotlight from a masculine narrative of the Kashmir conflict to one that focuses on how women and children live in a militarized zone. She says in a recent interview with Kashmir Observer:

 

 

 

 

My inability to comprehend Kashmiri also made me more aware about things like gestures and how gestures also needed translation. For example, I met a woman whose husband was coaxing her to speak of how she was once sexually violated by security forces. This had happened 11 years ago, so she was struggling to address the issue. She spoke to me about everything else like daily life, abuse and harassment by security personnel’s but just refused to talk about that particular night. Finally, when everyone left the room, just as I too was leaving, she pulled my hand and slipped her pheran off her shoulder. This was how she showed me what had happened to her.

 

The “transvestite narrative” lens to conflict aftermath

Professor Explores Gender Identity in Post-Conflict SocietiesErika Almenara is assistant professor of Latin American Literature and Culture for the World Languages, Literatures and Cultures Department in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. A report on her work on gender identity in post-conflict societies.

Almenara studies the aftermath of human rights abuses in Peru and in Chile, particularly as they affect gender identity. She spent four weeks in Latin America in May and June, conducting research in Lima and Santiago de Chile.

“I think that in order to talk about these periods of violence, you cannot tell the stories from only the singular self,” she said. “These languages need to be both individual and common, distinctly individual yet somehow representative of many.

“By acting in a transvestite way, these narratives destroy the notion of the self. That’s a powerful and innovative way to talk about suffering, to talk about memory, to talk about violence.”

More on her work here.

Poetry for peace in Pakistan’s KP province

Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has been ravaged by war for a decade now. Poets from the region have joined forces to spread the dsc04774message of peace. More than 300 books have been written on the subject of “peace” over the last decade.

 

Read more about the peace poetry movement in Asia Times.

 

New volume on poetry and the Algerian War

“Editealgerian-ward by Francis Combes and translated by Alan Dent, Poets and the Algerian War (Smokestack, £7.99) features some of the French poets who opposed the war, including Louis Aragon, Jacques Gaucheron, Riffaud, Henri Deluy and Guillevic, as well as Algerian poets like Jean Senac, Kateb Yacine, Bachir Hadj Ali, Noureddine Aba and Mohamed Saleh Baouiya.”

More here.

 

The politics of food: Palestine on a plate

palestine+on+a+plate+book+coverLondon chef Joudie Kalla’s book “Palestine on a Plate” combines cuisine, history, and politics to bring to light traditional Palestinian recipes. Here’s an excerpt from her interview in Bloomberg.

 

 

Here in the U.K., a lot of “Middle Eastern” restaurants have popped up, and they are, in fact, Israeli. And it’s all the dishes we grew up on, in Arabic names, and it’s very frustrating. I’m not anti-Israeli, not anti-Jew, not anti-anything, just anti-misinformation. I think to label makloubeh and sayyadiyeh—dishes that actually mean something in Arabic and are historically from Palestine, from Arabs—to be presented and cooked and sold as Israeli is offensive and frightening. It’s the deletion of a culture and people.

In search of home and homeland: Seeking Palestine

Seeking Palestine: New Palestinian Writing on Exile and Home
Penny Johnson, Raja Shehadeh, editors
Olive Branch Press

Your mother’s face once sustained you. Now you have to strain your memory to trace its outline. The place you were born in you can’t return to, even if it were so you could die there. Y130225-seeking-palestineou can only be a nomad, an exile, or a refugee–never at home. Seeking Palestine, an anthology of nonfiction narratives gathers all these voices as it tries to make sense of the largely map-less Palestinian identity.

Susan Abulhawa chases this elusive piece in “Memories in an Un-Palestinian Story, in a Can of Tuna”. In her personal essay, the author best known for her novel, ‘Mornings in Jenin’ captures the breadth of a Palestinian’s nomadic condemnation. Her words–funny and shocking and tragic–tell how she was ping-ponged across geographies as a young girl. Thus, despite growing up in the US for most of her life, she says, “…I have come to understand that it (my life) represents the most basic truth about what it means to be Palestinian–dispossessed, disinherited and exiled.”

“Exile” is the permanent address many have been left with since the Israel-Palestine conflict began with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. And so as poet and translator Sharif L. Elmusa etches in an essay combining his poetry and prose with river-like flow, not only their presence but even the absences of Palestinians are portable. To lug this presence/absence around, a Palestinian pays steep baggage fees. “I can only go inside myself / into the maze of the hippocampus / which is like going inside a pyramid / and finding the robbers had carted away / the belongings.// What will I shed this round / to complete my portable absence?”

In Elmusa’s unresolved puzzle lies a fundamental kernel of the Palestinian struggle — resistance. To resist isn’t a political act but a pact one must make early on in life — for survival itself. Especially when one’s existence is shaped in refugee camps, bombed schools and hospitals, occupied territories and dreaded checkpoints.

It is a sort of resistance that brought back Lila Abu-Lughod’s father back to Palestine after living in the US for forty years as an exile. Abu-Lughod senior was a scholar and professor of political science in some of the most reputed North American universities. A medical condition impelled him to return to his homeland; he felt his time was running out. In “Pushing at the Door,” Lila tracks not only that journey — its irony and pathos — but its inter-generational roots, leading back to her grandmother and her dislike of the  neighbourhood she found herself in after her family fled their home (she didn’t want to leave) in the early days of the fighting. Her problems, seemingly simple — the absence of a public bakery and having to buy bread — point to the many compromises a refugee must make to survive. What is perhaps the most telling in this lovingly-profiled essay is a recurring nightmare Abu-Lughod’s father had been suffering from since 1948 — a nightmare that is the Palestinian tragedy.

The dream never changes…I am living by the sea–the house I grew up in was in Jaffa, right by the sea. A thief comes, a burglar. He starts pushing open the door and I try to shut it. A struggle that doesn’t end. He pushes and I try to shut the door…And I scream but no one hears me. I’m shouting to the people in the house that someone’s breaking in, but no one hears.

That the nightmare is a continuing one can’t be lost on the reader. Israel continues to build more and more settlements in Palestinian territories and despite decades of struggle, the voices of the people displaced from what was originally their land seems to fall on deaf ears within the international community.

In “Onions and Diamonds,” Mischa Hiller, an English writer of Palestinian origin looks at the theme of exile with a refreshingly liberating view. He recalls Edward Said’s memoir “Out of Place” to make the point that exile need not always be a dirty word. He cites the examples of self-exiled American writers, Jewish writers forced to flee during the Second World War and contemporary Arab writers in exile. Returning to Palestine isn’t just about the right to reclaim a physical space (irreversibly altered by Israel) but having the freedom to “graduate from being dispossessed to becoming an exile,” for him.

 

Israel’s occupation of Palestine doesn’t stop at territorial boundaries. In “Of Place, Time, and Language,” Adania Shibli writes about the intellectual occupation of young Palestinian minds that starts as early as their school years. The curriculum taught in Palestinian schools is subject to the approval of the Israeli Censorship Bureau, which allows teaching texts from different Arab countries except Palestine. What if those stories got the children thinking about the Palestine issue? Another thing makes Shibli’s essay interesting. She writes how every time she enters Palestine, her wrist watch stops working. Once she leaves the place, the watch works fine. Like Abu-Lughod’s nightmare, this, too, is a metaphor for Palestine itself — a place where time has stopped and refuses to move, regardless of all the strides elsewhere in the world.

No other piece in the book captures the violent and browbeating takeover of Palestinian territory, and along with that, its people’s society and culture like Rema Hammami’s “Home and Exile in East Jerusalem.” Hammami chronicles with humour and journalistic ardor, how within a decade (1992-2002), the neighbourhood where she lives in Nablus went on from being a gentrified Palestinian locality to a place devoured by Israeli settlements; how people’s houses are overtaken by the state of Israel and even while the matter was in court for settlement, guards were posted in a Palestinian’s property. And about how people construct their dehumanized lives in the face of continued bombings, airstrikes, and flagrant human rights abuses.

As with many others in the city…the main ingredients of my life were on the other side–in the theatre of war. My commute to work now involved crossing four of them (checkpoints) each way–each with its own random moods, ludicrous demands, and particular expertise in sadism.

Graffiti-wall

One of the most powerful voices in Seeking Palestine is that of Jean Said Makdisi’s. Writer and researcher Makdisi is also the sister of Palestine’s best-loved intellectual, Edward Said. Her essay “Becoming Palestinian” draws upon family history and her father’s influence in creating for Jean and his brother a deep sense of connection with Palestine and its history. More importantly, though, Makdisi makes a crucial point in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict–the role of Palestinian Christians. She points out how the propaganda of the conflict tries to portray “the Judeo-Christian Western world in an endless conflict with the Muslim world over the ‘Holy Places’ in the ‘Holy Land’.” Restoring Christian Palestinians to their legitimate place in the public awareness is key to dismantling this idea of a religious clash, Makdisi feels.

An anthology of narrative nonfiction on Palestine that’s not academic in nature runs the risk of succumbing to cliched tropes of nostalgia and sentimentality. Editors Penny Johnson and Raja Shehadeh must be commended for making this an anthology which, despite drawing heavily from memory relies on straight facts, deep humanity, and lucid analyses, not maudlin reminiscing.

Shortly before writing this, I posted a question for my friends on a social media platform. What did home mean for them, I asked. The responses were varied but the common patterns alluded to comfort, security, acceptance, and freedom. And returning. The last pattern is a crucial absence, even an impossibility, for many Palestinians. When you can’t return home, the least–or the most, depending on how you view the situation–you can do is to seek your home. Like tracing the outline of your mother’s face in your mind because you can no longer see her.

Hence, Seeking Palestine.