Resistance Poetry in occupied Palestine



“The responsibility of an artist representing an oppressed people is to make revolution irresistible.”
– Toni Cade Bambara

Forgive me for having helped you understand
You’re not made of words alone.”
Roque Dalton, Resistance Poet from El Salvador assassinated in 1974

Mahmud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008) the Palestinian poet and author who was regarded as the Palestinian national poet examined the two-fold struggle of the Palestinian resistance and its poets in his poem, “The Roses and the dictionary.”

Be that as it may
I must.
The poet must always have a new toast
And new anthems

Traversing a tunnel of incense
And pepper and ancient summer
I carry the key to legends and ruined monuments of slaves
I see history an old man
Tossing dice and gathering the stars

Be that as it may
I must refuse death
Even though my legends die
In the rubble, I rummage for light and new poetry

Did you realize before today, my love
That a letter in the dictionary is dull?
How do they live, all these words?
How do they grow? How do they spread?

We still water them with the tears of memories
And metaphors and sugar

The occupation of Palestine by the Zionists in 1948 led to a disastrous change both in the number and the social structure of the Palestinian population. Nearly three-quarters of the Palestinians who continued to live in their homeland were peasants. The cities were mostly evacuated either during the war or soon afterward. This led to a shocking deterioration in the social conditions of the majority of the inhabitants in Palestine due to the fact that the cities had been the centers of both political and cultural effusion.

As the Zionist occupants closed their military ring, they started to impose their oppressive measures. Their chief purpose was to eradicate every trace of Palestinian cultural heritage and to implant the seeds of new trends which might grow and integrate within the Zionist political and literary life.

The backbone of resistance literature in occupied Palestine had disappeared with the emigration of a whole generation of writers and men of culture. The non-emigrants constituted a society that was mostly rural and was subjected to political, social, and cultural persecution unmatched anywhere else in the world.

The short period of silence after the 1948 war was followed by a great awakening, and national poetry poured out reflecting the people’s national fervor. Under this hard siege, it is quite easy to realize why poetry was the first harbinger of the resistance call, for poetry spreads from mouth to mouth and lives without publication. It was the medium by which the defeated people expressed themselves. It dominated every manifestation of their life. Wedding mornings, evening sittings, and all other gatherings were transformed by the effect of those lyrics into fierce demonstrations heedless of the firing squads. Many popular poets were put in prison or confined under severe restrictions. And as the trend of popular poetry grew and expanded, the occupying forces extended their tyrannical, measures, killed some poets, and prohibited all gatherings of Arabs.

Such measures could not anyhow uproot this trend of resistance. With the beginning of the sixties, a remarkable new wave of literature came to light. The tenets of this new wave were courageous, full of vitality and optimism, and highly charged with the spirit of defiance, unlike the literature of the exile poets of the same period, which was mostly sad and vehement. The defeated and the helpless that had resorted to love poetry during the few years which followed 1948 developed into the real force of resistance poetry – dauntless, brave, and hopeful.

Resistance poetry
The term resistance poetry was first applied in a description of Palestinian Literature in 1966 by Ghassan Kanafani in his study, Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine: 1948 – 1966. Kanafani’s essay was, significantly, written in 1966, before the June War of 1967 whose culmination in the defeat of the Egyptian and Jordanian armies by the Israel forces resulted in the occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip and the opening of the border between these territories, now referred to as the “occupied territories.” and Israel.

Ghassan Kanafani was assassinated on July 8, 1972, then aged 36, in Beirut, Lebanon, when he turned on the ignition of his car, an Austin 1100, detonating a grenade which in turn detonated a 3-kilo plastic bomb planted behind the bumper bar. Kanafani was incinerated alive together with his 17-year-old niece Lamees Najim. Mossad eventually claimed responsibility. Rumors circulated suggesting Lebanese Security forces had been complicit. His obituary in Lebanon’s Daily Star wrote that he was a ‘commando who never fired a gun’ whose ‘weapon was a ball-point pen and his arena was newspaper pages and he hurt the enemy more than a column of commandos.

In 1966, when Kanafani wrote his study, the literature of occupied Palestine was, because of official repression and censorship inside Israel and studied neglect within the Arab world, largely unknown outside the borders of the then 18-year-old state of Israel. Much of Kanafani’s research and work is thus concerned with documenting the existence and material conditions of production of Palestinian literature under Israel occupation in the face of what he designates as a “cultural siege.”

The historical struggle against colonialism and imperialism of such resistance movements as the PLO(Palestine), Kenya Land and Freedom Army “Mau Mau” (Kenya), The FLN (Algeria), the FNL (Vietnam), FRELIMO (Mozambique), the PAIGC (Guinea-Bissau), the MPLA (Angola), BPLF (Baluchistan), ANC (South Africa), FMLN (El Salvador), SPLM ( South Sudan), the Sandinista FSLN(Nicaragua), among other resistance movements whether successful in their struggle or not, is waged at the same time as the struggle over the historical and cultural record.

Milan Kundera, in his publication, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, has put it better: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Significantly, one of the first targets of the Israel Defence Forces, when they entered the Lebanese capital of Beirut in the fall of 1982, was the PLO Research Centre and its archives containing the documentary and cultural history of the Palestinian people.

For Kanafani, the “extreme importance of the cultural form of resistance is no less valuable than armed resistance itself. “

Ghassan Kanafani, like Amilcar Cabral, was assassinated by the representatives of the imperialism he was struggling against. Both of these assassinations signal the importance attached to the efficacy of cultural resistance, acknowledged and recognized by the enemy.

The role of poetry in the liberation struggle itself has thus been a crucial one, both as a force for mobilizing a collective response to occupation and domination and as a repository for popular memory and consciousness (Harlow 1987).

According to Elias Khouri, the Lebanese novelist, and critic, in his article, “The world of meanings in Palestinian poetry’’

“Language is the very framework of steadfastness. Language is the repository of collective memory. It is the basic national value that must be preserved. The role of poetry is, therefore, a major one, not only because it is more powerful than other forms of writing as a means of political mobilization, but also because it sustains, within the popular memory, national continuity.”

What makes poetry the most popular literary genre in resistance literature?

It should be borne in mind when reading the literature which has been able to emerge, that the
majority of the population in occupied Palestine has been struggling ·through the dim night of persecution and torture to consolidate its existence and to express itself.

The following points summarized by Kanafani in his study sheds some light on the real situation of the majority population inside occupied Palestine:

One, The majority of the Palestinians who remained were not, owing to their social condition, up
to the cultural standard which allows for the creation of a new generation of writers and artists.
Two, Palestinian cities which used to receive and encourage the talented young men coming from
the rural sector was transformed into prohibited cities of the enemy.

Three, The majority of the population of Palestine was completely isolated and had no contact with the outside world.
Four, The Zionist military rule imposed on the majority population tyrannical restrictions and
censored their literary productions.

Five, Publishing and distribution means have been either limited or under tight restrictions.
Six, the Opportunity for Arabs to learn foreign languages is nonexistent. Very few are allowed to
enter high school and almost none are allowed to enter university.

Under this hard siege, it is quite easy to realize why poetry was the first harbinger of the resistance call, for poetry spreads from mouth to mouth and lives without publication. This also explains why this poetry was at the beginning restricted to the traditional form which is easier to learn by heart and quicker to appeal to the sentiments. The first outburst was mainly characterized with love lyrics, but side by side with the traditional poetry, popular vernacular lyrics began to appear to form the first kernel of resistance manifestation. It has now succeeded in forming its own expression crystallizing it into palpitating literature of resistance.

With the advent of the 1970s, a remarkable new wave of literature appeared. The proponents of this new wave were courageous, full of vitality and optimism and highly charged with the spirit of resistance and nationalism (Kanafani 1968)

To get a clear idea about resistance poetry from occupied Palestine, we shall reflect on some representative poets:

“The Impossible” by Tawfiq Zayad’s

Here we shall stay
A wall upon your breast,
Facing starvation,
Struggling with rags,

Singing our songs
Swarming the streets with
Our wrath,

Filling your dungeons with pride,
Rearing vengeance in new generations
Like a thousand prodigies
We roam along
In Jaffa, Lidda, Ramallah, in Galilee.

The poem expresses the poet’s belief that whatever the Zionists do, they will not succeed in forcing the Palestinians to leave their homeland. Their life begins and ends in Palestine
The poem also reflects the humiliation and suffering the Palestinians are undergoing under the Zionist occupation. In their homeland, listen as Zayad says, they do not find any job but washing dishes and sweeping kitchens.

Here we shall stay,
Cleaning dishes in your bars,
Filling cups for your masters
Sweeping your sooty kitchens
To snatch a bite from your blue fangs
To feed the hungry children.

For the poet, this is not a hopeless situation. Depression and frustration have created an “unconquerable” people of them, ready to die for the liberation of their homeland:

Here we shall stay with ice-hearts
Red hell in our nerves and hearts
We squeeze the rock to quench our thirst
And lull starvation with dust.
But we shall not depart.

Here we spill our dearest blood
Here we have, a Past, a Future
Here we are the unconquerable
So strike deep, striking deep,
My roots.

Another Palestinian poet who contributed a great deal to the poetry of resistance is Mahmoud Darwish. He lived in occupied Palestine up to the early seventies, then left for Lebanon, later to Egypt, and then returned to Palestine. One of the major themes of Darwish is his emotional and intellectual alienation after the loss of Palestine. In his poem “Lover from Palestine” he tells us his bitter story of separation and suffering. His beloved here in Palestine, and the separation between them stands for the Zionist occupation of Palestine:

A thorn in the heart are your eyes,
Lacerating, yet adorable
I shield it from the storm
And pierce it deep through night and pain,
The wound illuminates thousands of stars,
Transforms my present into a future
Dearer than my being
And I forget as our eyes meet
That once we were twins behind the gate

The contact with his beloved has not come to an end at all when the enemies stole her from him. Instead, she spiritually overwhelms his existence since he is imagining her with him in different forms and types:

I saw you last on the quay,
A lovely voyager without a bag,
I ran to you like an orphan searching
For an answer among ancestral wisdom

How could an orchard be banished to a quay
And yet remain as evergreen
I saw you on the thorny peaks
A sheepless shepherd running a chase
And in the ruins where once you
Were the green branch

I stood strange knowing the gates
The gates, the windows, and cemented stones reverberated
I saw you in night cafes washing dishes
I saw you in chimneys, in the streets.

In cattle fields, in blood dripping
From the sun
In the salt of the sea
In every grain of sand
And yet you were as beautiful as earth

The poet then plainly speaks of the name and nature of his beloved. He describes how she looks like and how her eyes, feel and words are:

Palestinian is your Name
Palestinian are your eyes, your Tatoo
Palestinian your Thought, your Clothes
Your Feet, your Forms
Palestinian the Words,
Palestinian the Voice
Palestinian you Live
Palestinian you Die.

The decision of the Palestinian nation to fight the Zionists who had raped their homeland is once again dealt with in Samih Al-Qassem’s poem “Report of a Bankrupt”.
The images here do not reflect the stand of the Palestinians only, but shows implicitly the methods the Zionists are following in order to force the Palestinians to submit:

Go and filch the final strip of my land,
Ditch my youth in prison holes,
Plunder my legacy,
Burn my books,
Feed your dogs on my fishes,
Go and spread your net of terror
Upon the roofs of my village,
Enemy of man,

I shall not compromise
And to the end, I shall fight,
If you blow out all the candles in my eyes
If you fill my anguish.
Forge my coin,

Uproot the smile on my children’s faces,
If you raise a thousand walls,
And nail my eyes to humiliation,
Enemy of man,
I shall not compromise
And to the end
I shall fight.

Fadwa TouQan’s “To Christ” is another important poem. It deals with the situation of Al Quds (Jerusalem) under the Zionists. In fact, Al Quds (Jerusalem) is another symbol for Palestine as a whole:

Lord, father of the universe,
Jerusalem’s feasts are crucified

This year.
On your day,
All the dells, O Lord
Are silent!

They rang
For two thousand years
But now
They are dumbfounded,
The domes are black
Black news overwhelms all
Jerusalem walls

On the cross
Jerusalem bleeds
On the hands of torture

“My father” published by Mahmud Darwish in 1966 while he was still living in Palestine revealed in his steadfastness;

My father once said
He who has no homeland
Has no grave on earth;
……. And forbade me to leave.

Main sources
Barbara Harlow (1987) Resistance literature. London: Methuen & Co.

Ghassan Kanafani, Resistance Literature in Occupied Palestine (1948 – 1966) Translated by
Sulafa Hijjawi. Published By The Ministry of Culture, Baghdad- Iraq in 1968. Revised and Edited in 2009

*Njuki Githethwa is a writer and activist-scholar from Kenya

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