London Grip Poetry Review – Out of Gaza

OUT OF GAZA: Merryn Williams reviews a new anthology of Palestinian poetry


Out of Gaza: New Palestinian Poetry 
Edited by  Alan Morrison and Atef Alshaer
Smokestack  Books 
ISBN 978-1739473457

It’s not well known, but Palestinians have been writing poetry since the 1930s when the country was a British mandate and there was no state of Israel. Today many thousands of them are living abroad, including more than half of the fifteen poets in this book. It was rushed out, in English only, as a response to the war in Gaza. Shocking to report, two of the fifteen poets have already been killed – Hiba Abu Nada, a woman of thirty-two, and Refaat Alareer, a literary scholar and activist who was assassinated (allegedly) with his family on 6th December. His poem “If I must die” has gone around the world:

If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze –
and bid no one farewell ….
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above

Everything has speeded up since the little wars of the twentieth century; the horror is being captured on mobile phones and the poems are being posted online. Some were evidently written before October, but the themes are constant – the experience of exile, the memory of ancestors, love for the land. The best-known poet here, Naomi Shihab Nye, contributes one of the best poems, “Moon over Gaza”:

I am lonely
for my friends.
They liked me,
trusted my coming.
I think they looked up at me
more than other people do.

I who have been staring down so long
see no reason for the sorrows humans make.
I dislike the scuffle and dust of bombs blasting
very much.  It blocks my view.

A landscape of grieving
feels different afterwards.
Different sheen from a simple desert,
rubble of walls, silent children who once said
my name like a prayer.

Sometimes I am bigger than
a golden plate,
a giant coin, 
and everyone gasps.

Maybe it is wrong
that I am so calm.

After the moon’s eye view, the worm’s-eye view, from Samah Sabawi in “Questions the media should ask the people of Gaza”:

How do you drink contaminated water?
How do you share a toilet with fifty other families?
How do you go to sleep with eyes wide open?
How do you walk though massacres with eyes wide open?
How do you wish to die, so someone could close your eyes?

Both these poets are women living in English-speaking countries, though intimately connected with Palestine and painfully aware of the news. What of those who are actually in the war zone? Among them are Marwan Makhoul, whose “Lines without a Home” appear on the cover of this book, and Mohammed Mousa, born in a refugee camp, one of whose poems has the extremely long title, “In a country that doesn’t need me, doesn’t know my name, my skin colour, my favourite coffee, or even who I was”. Another poem of his is called “I don’t want my memories to grow old on foreign soil”:

I want them to age in their ancestral home
where there is some of me,
the chilliness of a newborn sea,
the flavour of oranges,
the lunchtime tea
under the almond tree,
the sweetness of my grandmother’s cherries,
the Arabic coffee over the hills
that I am not allowed to see.
I don’t want my memories to grow old
away from me.
I don’t want my memories to grow old
in a foreign country.

(There is a shocking addition to this poet’s biography, ‘his mother, father, two sisters and their grandsons were killed in the Jabalia camp’).

Dareen Tatour, in “A moment before death”, says much the same thing as Mousa; she simply refuses to go away.

Mention should be made of some other very good poets – Farid Bitar, Tariq Luthan, and Sarah M. Saleh, whose “The Business of Occupation Bingo”, impossible to reproduce, is entirely formed from phrases like ‘ancient religious conflict’, ‘collateral damage’ and ‘both sides’. Another to watch is Mosab Abu Toha, also born in a refugee camp, arrested, beaten, then released and now in Egypt, the author of “What is Home?”:

What is home:

It is the shade of trees on my way to school
before they were uprooted.

It is my grandparents’ black-and-white wedding photo
before the walls crumbled.

It is my uncle’s prayer rug,
where dozens of ants slept on wintry nights
before it was looted and put in a museum.

It is the oven my mother used to bake bread and roast chicken
before a bomb reduced our house to ashes.

It is the café where I watched football matches and played –

My child stops me.  Can a four-letter word hold all of these?

Here is a slim volume full of fine poems, but profoundly sad and shocking.