- In the Wake of the Syrian Revolution: Poetry
- Bridging Cultures, Building Peace: Mohja Kahf
- Unveiling the Middle East: Ghada al-Atrash
- “When I’m Overcome With Weakness“: Najat Abdul Samad
- “My Sect is the Scent of My Homeland“: Youssef Bou Yihea
- “Waiting for Spring”: Hala Mohammad
- “In Syria Even The Deaf Can Hear War Crimes”: Amal Kassir
- HipHop for Justice and Peace: Omar Offendum
Mohja Kahf is a Syrian-American poet, academic and cultural critic. She has been writing poetry since the 1990s taking up a variety of topics. Her poems have been numerously republished throughout the Internet, projected on public buildings, pictured, illustrated in photosets, reduced to inspirational and motivational quotes and performed at many charity events.
Emails from Scheherazade, Mohja Kahf’s first collection of poetry (2004), gives an insight into what it feels like being an Arab and a Muslim woman living in America at the turn of the millenium. (See also her novel The Girl with the Tangerine Scarf, 2008). Her poetry “offers articulate, passionate challenges to commonplace perceptions” of the Middle East and its people, striking “notes of humor, compassion, outrage and celebration that resonate beyond literary registers.“ (Hayan Charara, Inclined to Speak: An Anthology of Contemporary Arab American Poetry, 2008). Around 2011 Mohja Kahf’s thematic focus changed. In one of her public performances she said that Syria had transformed her. Her poetry became increasingly involved with the struggle of the Syrian people: “This revolution is about life”, she said, “about Syrians finding a new life amidst the destruction.” (“Poetic Ammo …“) She wrote poetry which talks about suffering but also about resilience in and after – what she termed “this bizarre, twisted revolution.” (Fleischman)
There are many roads that lead to the poems by Mohja Kahf: the inspirational and motivational quotes on Twitter, liked and/or shared, pictured poems or photosets that readers created, audio recordings, YouTube documented poetry readings and last, but not least, word-to-mouth recommendations.
About Mohja Kahf
Mohja Kahf (b. 1967) came to the U.S. in 1971 from Damascus, Syria at an early age. From what we seem to know, her young parents opted to leave Syria to continue their studies abroad. Kahf’s family had strong anti-regime ties. Her grandfather, a member of the Syrian parliament, was exiled from Syria in the late 1960s. Her father was a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Her mother had learned nonviolent social change and personal spiritual transformation with Laila Said, an influential speaker and peace activist from Damascus. (Mohja Kahf, “Syria’s revolution of love.“) As a teenager Mohja Kahf lived briefly in Iraq, during her sophomore year in college in Saudi Arabia. (Drake).
In 2011, Mohja Kahf and her then 17-year-old daughter visited the Turkish border with Syria to work with Syrian escapees. (For details see “The Daughters’ Road to Syria“) Before they could spend time there, they learned that Syrian agents had offered 100 million Syrian liras – two million U.S. dollars – for the both of them. They decided it was time for them to leave. (Leatherby)
Mohja Kahf is a member of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement. She marched against the U.S. war on Iraq and was an early signatory of the U.S. Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. (CNN). With many other engaged US celebrities – Slavoj Zizek, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky and others she had been fasting a day to protest against starvation in Syria and called to end the blockades. The poet and scholar-activist has been reading from her poetry at many charity events.
Stepping into the role of a poetic storyteller: Emails from Scheherazad (2003)
Image. Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), “Scheherazade“. Scheherazade reigns as the mythical queen of Arabic literature, less because of her physical beauty (which is taken for granted), but because she combines narrative creativity with intelligence. (Maggie Huff-Rousselle)
The Context. The historical Scheherazade uses the art of storytelling to keep Shehrayar, the sultan, interested enough in her stories to postpone her death. The art of storytelling becomes an art of resistance.
In Emails from Scheherazad (University Press of Florida, 2003), her first published poetry collection, Kahf created a contemporary Scheherazade who thinks clearly and creatively and communicates through tales told with twists and turns. Kahf highlights a variety of themes, spanning more than a decade. “Perhaps Kahf’s most impressive accomplishment is her ability to bring together beauty and pain in the same breath, to write poems that encompass history and human endurance as well as joy, that testify to the fragility and power of the human heart.“ (UFP)
The book (Review by Natalie Handal) takes up the framing story of the legendary Arabian Nights stories, locating it in 21st-century Hackensack/New Jersey:
Hi, babe. It’s Scheherazad. I’m back
For the millenium and living in Hackensack,
New Jersey. I tell stories for a living.
The contemporary Scheherazad is
… mobile, global, revolutionary and in print. She left her fixed position behind the walls of Shahayar’s palace and embarked on several journeys that emboldened her to own both narrative and the body. She is free to explore relationships with foreign lovers and others but also to trascend the limitations of these entanglements in oder to soar beyond Arab and foreign guardianship. (Hanadi al-Samman, Anxiety of Erasure, p252)
She carries with her the life-saving ingenuity of the historical Scheherazad: Since she is inventive and artistically creative, the traditional Scheherazad succeeded ”in still(ing) the beast of doubt” in the king:
You must remember: Where I come from,
Words are to die for. I saved the virgins
From beheading by the king, who was killing
Them to still the beast of doubt in him.
The contemporary Scheherazade tells stories hoping to be engaging and persuasive enough to make a difference. Kahf’s “draws sharp, funny, earthy portraits of the fault line separating Muslim women from their Western counterparts.” (MacFarquhar).
They Are My Friends: The “Marvelous Women”
All women speak two languages:
the language of men
and the language of silent suffering.
Some women speak a third,
the language of queens …
The “marvelous women” are not only wives and mothers: they are also teachers, artists, engineers and they come from all walks of life:
… these women
… are elegant and fix engines,
… teach gynecology and literacy
and work in jails and sing and sculpt
The language they speak, in Kahf’s rendering, is the language of “queens”: It reveals that they have a plan (“(they) paint the ninety-nine names”), that they support each other, keep each other’s secrets and lift each other up. It’s them who provide the substance of the narrator’s poetry. Without these stories the narrator would be “a seamstress out of work“:
My friends give me poetry.
If it were not for them
I’d be a seamstress out of work.
it is from you I fashion poetry.
On the one hand, it is an unassuming way to define her mission as poet. On the other hand it is a statement on the importance of the “stenographers” and “hungry transcribers” (as it says in the poem) with creative talents: They give those “marvelous women” their voice.
On Prayer in Public: “My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears”
Image: Sears – Midway Mall (photo by Mike Kalasnik). Sears (officially Sears, Roebuck & Co.) is an American chain of department stores. It is mainly known for its appliances, hardware, and clothing.
The context: The U.S. Department store is the setting of a poem that talks about a Muslim grandmother trying to meet a ritual prescribed by her religion.
“My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears” (See Full Text) is about a young Arab-American woman who takes her grandmother, a Muslim, out for shopping. At one moment the grandmother goes to the bathroom in Sears trying to wash her feet in the sink for wudu, the cleaning ritual in preparation of formal prayers (salat):
My grandmother puts her feet in the sink
of the bathroom at Sears
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
“Respectable Sears matrons“ are watching. Their condescension knows no bounds: The granddaughter tries to translate their reactions: a sarcastic comment on assumed cultural superiority:
Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
The poem blends three perspectives, that of the Muslim grandmother proud of her cultural heritage, that of the “respectable Sears matrons” with their unbroken racist preconceptions and that of the Arab-American granddaughter, who knows both sides. Her sympathy is with her grandmother who, in the end, triumphs:
My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
The poem ends with a surprising advice:
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway.
Considered in isolation these last lines are, technically, direct speech, suggesting that the grandmother justifies her seemingly disconcerting use of the basin with an excuse, the fact that there were not wider washbins. On a textual level it is reported speech: the granddaughter reporting what she suspects her grandmother would have thought in this specific situation. Thus Kahf provides for a third perspective, that of an “implied“ reader who respects the concept of diversity and is prepared to take it seriously all the way down to its pragmatic consequences.
On Dress Codes and Fashion Statements: “The Hijab Scene Poems”
Image: “Love the way she do the hijab“, pinned by Toka Abo Shouk on hijab fashion. Many women wear the hijab, or headscarf, reflecting the call in the Koran for both men and women to “cover and be modest”. While the shawl makes a religious statement, it has also become a fashion accessory.
The Context: “It is my crown and my mantle, my vestments of grace. Its pleasures are known to me, if not to you.” (“West, Mideast Dichotomy in Veil Debate“). To veil or not to veil: that is however here not the question.
There are, in Emails from Scheherazad, five pieces that focus on the visual power of the veil and the deep-rooted prejudices it sometimes triggers. The reasons for wearing the veil are manyfold. Every woman has her own story:
The hijâb by itself is just a piece of cloth, at some level. I do not think we should take (it) as an exclusive marker of a woman’s moral worth or level of faith. It is the surrounding context – the etiquette, the morals – which make it anything. … The surrounding context can make it oppressive. (Kahf, “The Hijâb: Unveiling a Mystery“.)
“Hijab Scene #1“ is a three-liner. The setting is the homeroom of a tenth grade. Boy meets new Muslim girl.
”You dress strange,” said a tenth-grade boy with bright blue hair
to the new Muslim girl with the headscarf in homeroom,
his tongue-rings clicking on the “tr” in “strange”. (Emails… , “Hijab #1“, Emails … , p41)
Again Kahf offers three perspectives: the 15 something old classmate with the light blue hair plus tongue rings who finds the way the new Muslim girl dresses “strange”, the girl with the Hijab who remains silent and – as third perspective – a “secret observer” who remains unseen. He or she might conclude that “different“ would possibly be a better linguistc choice.
“Hijab Scene #2″ has a similar three-level structure. The third perpective, the viewpoint of the “unseen observer” engages the “implied reader” (Wolgang Iser) into wider fields of discussion:
“You people have such restrictive dress for women,”
she said, hobbling away in three inch heels and panty hose
to finish out another pink-collar temp pool day.
When asked about the order of the “Hijab scenes” – the published sequence being #3, #5, #7, #1, #2 – Kahf told a critic that the pieces were written in the numbered way but later placed sporadically throughout the book. (Abdelrazek) “Hijab #7“ was presumably written after 9/11, when the fear of terrorism had led to an increased hostility towards Islam and an unsubstantiated anxiety in some parts of society.
“Hijab Scene #7“ represents the inner monologue of a hijab wearing woman, who feels discriminated against or otherwise pressurised by prejudices she presumes follow her everywhere she goes. It could be the ticket counter of an airline, the foyer of a bank, or the office of an insurance company. The opening lines reflect what’s going on in her mind:
No, I’m not bald under the scarf
No, I’m not from that country
where women can’t drive cars
I’m already American
Whether she is buying an insurance, opening a bank account, or reserving a seat on a flight: She is haunted by the idea that the fact that she wears the hijab might triggers in her counterpart’s imagination the idea that she must be an expatriate from the Middle East. The narrator’s voice shifts from polite to more defensive and sarcastic replies:
What else do you need to know
relevant to my buying insurance,
opening a bank account,
reserving a seat on a flight?
What she seems to resent is an presumed inability of the people around her to get along with her on a normal basis. Intentionally or not she feels denied the right to participate in society as a normal American citizen. The way she looks, her ethnicity, her religion mark her immediately as strange, foreign, even terrorist. Her anger rises, her tone escalates:
Yes, I speak English
Yes, I carry explosives …
The poem ends with an unexpected turnaround:
Yes, I carry explosives
They’re called words
And if you don’t get up
Off your assumptions
They’re going to blow you away
“Hijab #7″ is a one-sided dialogue. There is no real, sensible situation or person. Her anger seems to be directed to some indefinite collective.
In a 2006 interview Mohja Kahf recalls being in a store with her best friend when a group of Amish women came in:
After we got out of the store, we looked at each other and we said, ‘Do you suppose people look at us like the way we just looked at the Amish?’ And we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s how people look at Muslims, especially [because] we were both women who both wore hijab (the Islamic headscarf), and that was sort of a revelation.
Mohja Kahf has a big veil collection:
Crimson chiffon, silver lamé or green silk: Which scarf to wear today? My veil collection is 64 scarves and growing. The scarves hang four or five to a row on a rack in my closet, and elation fills me when I open the door to this beautiful array. Last week, I chose a particularly nice scarf to slip on for the Eid al-Fitr festivities marking the end of the month of Ramadan. (“Spare me the sermon …”)
My Arrogance Knows No Bounds: “Ishtar Awakens in Chicago”
Image. Ishtar is one of the most outstanding deities of the Babylonian pantheon. According to the Assyrian legend she is the goddess of fertility, love, and sex. (Ishtar)
The context: The title suggests a mythological reading. Ishtar is a complex deity with wide-ranging attributes. For a non-expert in Assyrian mythology it is not easy identify fragments of the myth in the poem and associate them to their meaning in the text. The poem is however accessible without insider knowledge.
It is surprising when a woman – in poetry – self-consciously declares that her arrogance knows no bounds and that we will not make peace. “Ishtar Awakens in Chicago” (Emails … p62/63, full text here) begins with the lines:
My arrogance knows no bounds
And I will make no peace today
Today my belly is a well
wherein serpents are coiled
ready to poison the world
The narrator, in the role of a contemporary Ishtar, is a woman with a “hybrid“ or diverse identity: each part of it demanding its due. But – as she declares – today she isn’t up for compromise: She will defy all known norms:
Today neither will the East claim me
nor the West admit me
Offensive display of superiority or justified self-esteem? A global challenge to men? Her imaginations are a bit over the top when she talks about “talking big“ or “blowing cigarette smoke at the faces of others.” This may be overstating it, but there is an element of truth there: the insight that women need to be more assertive to get heard. In the end, it will benefit both parties. The verses read:
And you shall be so lucky
To find a woman like me
I am poison
And you will drink me
And you should be so lucky.
In the last part of the poem the initial optimism is somewhat migated: “you shall be lucky” to have a woman like me is turned into “you should be lucky”.
One reader said that Jenny Holzer’s Light Projection had motivated her to look for Kahf’s entire text and other poems by Kahf. She said she had been reeinforced in her personal feelings in a way she hadn’t seen published before. Other readers created visual representations of their readings. An example: a printerest user who made a pictured version illustrating pragmatic consequences that might, for him, arise from it. (see pictured text)
In Defense of Life: The ″Disbeliever″
Image. No to terrorism. (Image by Martin Leng)
The context. In contrast to an unbeliever, a person who does not believe in a particular religious faith, a disbeliever is a person who is always ready to doubt or question the truth or existence of something. Kahf’s “Disbeliever” is a personal statement on mass casuality terrorism at the turn of the millenium.
On January 11, 1998, unidentified gunmen entered a movie theater and a small mosque in Sidi Ahmed near Algiers and massacred 120 men, women, and children at close range during Algeria’s ongoing civil conflict.
Reminiscences of other recent incidents of modern mass casualty terrorism are brought back: the war on the war on Iraq, Qana in southern Lebanon (when in 1996 106 civilians were killed during military operations), the Kosovo, Hama (when in February 1982 the Syrian Arab Army and the Defense Companies besieged the town for 27 days in order to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood) Rwanda, Afghanistan … Distrusting all ideologies that legitimize violence as a means to an end, the narrator thencomes to talk about her own thoughts on ideologies. It’s based on the values of a shared humanity. One of the targets of the massacres in Sidi Ahmed/Algeria was a movie theater:
I am a disbeliever
in everything that refuses to kiss
no matter the religion or the nation or the race
I am a disbeliever in everything
that does not say “How was the movie? I love you”
The poem is written in the form of oath, a formally affirmed statement to keep a promise. There are some general elements to it: a solemn appeal to anything sacred, the determination to keep a promise, the contents of the promise, and witnesses who will testify to the oath.
The values narrator holds sacred:
By the limping of the people of Iraq
By the sound of frantic running in Qana, in Kosovo
By the men and boys of Hama massacred
By the swollen bodies in a river in Rwanda
and Afghani women and the writers of Algiers …
I need time outside this history
where I can whisper in the ear of each of them,
By God, you will never be forgotten
By God, I will make sure the world
sings to you, learns your name and your music,
The witnesses are the public, the readers. Reading the poem aloud is like sharing an inner vow not to forget the innocent people, civilians, who became victims of actions which they were not responsible of.
In Emails from Scheherazade Mohja Kahf slips into the role of her literary ancestor, Scheherazade. In inventing a narrator with whom she shares autobiographical features Kahf tackles stereotypes about Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. and dismantles them with her slamming, lyrical poetry:
I don’t write just to make different peoples comfortable with each other or to right “misunderstandings”—I think people need to face their real discomfort with each other first, and see what that’s about—because it often has to do with real injustices requiring collective action to change. So I’m against a surface level of “tolerance” that is too glibly reached. I root for writing to be aesthetic and socially conscious, beautiful and brainy, dynamic, provocative and speaking truth to power. (Kahf, Of Stories and Stoytellers)
“Syria Has Transformed Me“: Bringing Poetry and Politics Together
Image: Since March 2011, Syria has been embroiled in a non-violent revolution followed by a crackdown that led to a civil war with Syria becoming one of the most violent countries in the world.
The context: “Hatreds based on class and sect would diappear, along with political prisons and electric torture-prods”: That was how her narrator imagined a new Syria before 2011. Since 2011 Mohja Kahf writes poems which might be labelled political.
Bringing poetry and politics together is a tricky thing. It is like walking on a tightrope. Poetry and politics are not mutually exclusive. But bringing the two together is not easy. To put it laconically: Politics is based on concrete identifyable situations, whereas poetry lives from ambiguity. If political considerations prevail poems risk to degenerate into political propaganda; if poetical expressions prevail the political statement risks to become obscure.
With the Syrian Revolution Kahf’s poetic and cultural work became focussed on Syria. On Aug 30, 2013 she posted:
I hear the roar of pain from my Syria, hear it loud, hear it every day, in minute detail, with names of friends and relatives attached; it not only breaks my heart but in Syria it breaks whole lives. (“The roar of pain from my Syria.“)
She was inspired by “her” people who had rediscovered their long-crushed voices, who had challenged the iron regime with creativity (Stop the Killing and The Brides of Peace). She praised the work of Syrian poet Khawla Dunia, an activist, and Fadwa Suleiman, an actress who had led protests against the regime: One of Suleiman’s poems felt like ″stumbling through the streets of the city in a new language. It was about displacement … in this bizarre, twisted revolution.” (Kahf maintains the term “revolution“ because although, as she said, technically non-fitting it was common practice in grassroots circles.)
Kahf’s venture into the field of political poetry is accompanied by blog essays. Then and Now, her essay on the Syrian Revolution, is about “(the) young non-violent resistance and the ensuing armed struggle” (subtitle). For her, Muhammad Abdulwahhab, an ordinary Syrian, embodies its spirit: “I am a human being. Not an animal. A human being,” Muhammad Abdulwahhab was reported to have said on June 14, 2011, when he spoke into a microphone, probably the first time in his life. “That existential awakening, echoed by people across Syria, is the essence of the Syrian uprising“, so Kahf said. Her poetry focuses on moments that had an great effect on the Syrian people: the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor who became “the spark that lit the spark”, a Syrian martyr, Ghiath Matar, whose legacy is still living on, the struggle ″to keep the revolution clean”.
The Tragic Life of a Street Vendor: ″Bouazizi Lit a Spark“
Image. Mural in honor of the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia (2010) (Clarion Alley Murals SF CA)
Story. The action of the young man sparked a wave of popular uprisings. Observers hailed the incident as the onset of an “Arab Awakening“.
Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi was a Tunisian street vendor who on Dec. 17, 2010 set himself on fire ″in protest of the confiscation of his wares and the harassment and humiliation that he reported was inflicted on him by a municipal official and his aides.” (Wikipedia) The news spread like a wildfire – throughout the country and throughout the Arab world. Al Jazeera wrote: “(W)hen Mohamed Bouazizi poured inflammable liquid over his body and set himself alight outside the local municipal office, his act of protest cemented a revolt that would ultimately end President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year-rule.″
I was living in a dark
cave as long as war,
as dank and sick as sanctions.
I was hungry as invasions,
I’d forgotten what hope
even tasted like,…
And then there was Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian man who, “half existing”, suddenly became an icon of hope.
Bouazizi’s suicide was not the trigger. There were many factors that contributed to the uprisings across the region: demographic changes, removals of food subsidies, changing geo-strategic patterns, etc. Bouazizi, so the poem says, had no political ambitions: He did it “not for Tunis or the nation/or me, or Liberation (he dit it) for himself, his human self.“ His aunt Radia Bouazizi is reported to have said that his dream was to save enough money to be able to rent or buy a pickup truck. Bouazizi supported his mother, his uncle and two of his siblings. He could not have predicted that with him a revolution would begin from the small provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, a desolate place 265 kilometers south of the capital Tunis.
Bouazizi lit a spark,
and the spark lit a spark
and he set us all on fire.
In her blog-entry Mohja Kahf gives reasons why the spark caught Syria:
In Syria, a broad spectrum of twenty-somethings across every province were inspired by Bouazizi’s self-immolation. … Syria’s revolution youth hit the streets out of grievances they have experienced, in their own bodies, in their own lives; this revolution was … begun … by geographically widespread rural and small-town women and men of all sects, young people whom the CIA never even heard of, coming together in a new spirit. They are nobody’s proxies, no matter how much outside agendas want to make them somebody’s proxies. (“Syria: It’s Still a Revolution”)
The poem is however more than a celebration of the initial collective outcry: .
… there ain’t no magic beans,
no quick stalk to paradise,
and the rubble’s full of rocks,
and the road is full of snakes.
The “Arab Spring“ had lifted the veil on freedoms irrevocably. It had inspired millions around the world. The people of Syria had collectively decided to be free. If Bouazizi’s death was to have a meaning, responsibilities would have to be redefined:
… it isn’t over yet; …
and the map is changing shape,
but I know now what I can do
and I know what you can, too,
and there ain’t no going back.
Legacy of a Syrian Martyr: “The Fallen Protester’s Song”
Image. Revolutionary Mosaics in Kafranbel. The “Revolution Panorama“ features the various stages and transformations that the Syrian revolution had undergone. The project, however, had not been without controversy. (watch video).
Story. The detail shows Ghiath Matar, a Syrian activist who became known for giving flowers and water to army soldiers. He was one of the first people to organize and lead peaceful protests in Syria against dictator Bashar al-Assad. He was murdered by the regime. (Facebook) Ghiath Matar left a political testament.
“The Fallen Protester’s Song” (Full Text, Video, 00.50 –03.80 ) is about Ghiath Matar, a renowned activist who became a symbol of peaceful resistance in the Syrian revolution. He was among those who showed unparalleled creativity in non-violent resistance. In the heat of Syrian summer of 2011 he and his fellow protesters distributed flowers and bottles of water among the military charged with suppressing them. On Sep 6, 2011 Matar was arrested by the national security forces. Four days later, his body was returned to his family with scars and sores resulting from severe torture. “His throat was pulled out and there was a long sewn incision in his abdomen area indicating possible organ theft the Syrian Government Security is known for.“ (Moustafa Jacoub, “In Memory Of Ghiyath Matar“). Ghiath Matar “gave his life to free Syria and with a loving smile to all, even to soldiers, pointing their guns at him; he called everyone to come together to build a democratic state based on justice, dignity and freedom for all“ (Jacoub).
The poem is written from Matar’s perspective. The fallen activist recalls his last days:
(RIP Ghiyath Matar, Sept 9, 2011, whose name means “deliverance rain”)
These last few days were the most beautiful
I ever lived, my friends.
In Kahf’s representation of Matar’s last will the speaker talks to his “friends”:
For the first time
in our lives spent under martial law,
we took the secret freedom we’d been eating
… right outside like melting ice cream
and started giving it away. To anyone.
After that, we were free.
But the regime struck back, first the soldiers, then the “torture doctors“:
… I was (split) by the bullet spray of soldiers sent to shoot us,
then by the state’s torture-doctors. They cut my insides out,
trying to find the freedom and extract it surgically.
The last line show clearly how poetry and politics can be successfully brought together. The motivation of the regime to strike back is visualized through the multi-layered image of the “surgically extracted freedom”. Pithilly and accuratly. There are more images which surprise by their striking freshness, e.g. when the narrator describes the time under martial law as a state of long-term calcium deficiency:
Imagine an entire country with a calcium deficiency,
long-term, and everybody shrinks, but no one notices.
or when the political goal of “freedom for all” is represented in analogy to photosynthesis: plants needing oxygin for growing and human beings needing oxigin to breathe.
when freedom is no longer treated like a narcotic,
dosed in hidden little baggies only for the few,
but becomes like photosynthesis in plants,
processing light in every leaf,
when freedom falls like a deliverance rain,
then, my friends, remember me.
The real Matar left a political testament, addressed to “My free and young brothers of the revolution, you who have shared with me the path to freedom during days that were the most beautiful days of my life.“ In it he asked his fellow campaigners to carry on the struggle for freedom they had shared when he was still alive. “(M)y will to you to remain true to the principle we went out for“: “to say no to injustice and tyranny, (y)es to freedom, justice and dignity.“ Kahf’s poetic rendition of Matar’s testament speaks to an external audience. Hence the metaphors that Kahf uses to bridge the emotional distance.
Read the last tweets by Ghiyath Matar.
Fresh Tears of the People of Syria: “My People Are Rising”
Image: The olive branch is a widely shared symbol of peace.
Context: In 1989 a picture travelled around the world. It showed the “tank man”, an unidentified man who stood in front of a column of tanks the morning after the Chinese military had suppressed the Tiananmen Square protests by force. “My people are rising” begins with an image of people “lifting olives and songs”.
My people are rising,
lifting olive branches and song, they are waking;
they are not hungry for bread alone;
“We don’t want your bread,
we are hungry for more.“
It then gives detailed information about the uprisings: who took part, where actions took place, what the revolutionary chants were etc., sporadically interrupted by personal remarks.
Ever since the photo of the tank man who stopped a military tank on Tiananmen Square in 1989 went around the world people, protesting in front of tanks has become an icon of non-violent resistance. Kahf’s poem ends with an image of barechested protesters trying to stop the tanks. In Kahf’s poem it becomes associated with the cruelty of a regime which doesn’t shy from the worst to eliminate undesired resistance:
They stand before tanks barechested
and they fall under bullets while calling,
“The earth is big enough for all of us!
Let us have a little of it too! The earth is big!”
The lines about the “Horani” are accompanied by a personal note:
And the Horani said as he lay dying in the pool of
rain mixed with blood,
“It’s worth it to have lived these last days free.”
I hear his words, and his blood
runs into the soil of my dark, dark heart
like the rain in Syria.
Kahf sees her poetic and essayistic work as part of what she calls “(the) war of narratives“. Two quotes:
“Missing from mainstream coverage of Syria’s uprising: love, hope and the gleam in the eyes of Syrian people awake as never before“. (“Syria’s revolution of love.“)
Faded from the news reports are the pictures of nonviolent activists waving white roses in the face of the army and images of children marching with candles claiming “We are all Hamza Al Khateeb.” Instead, our visual access into the revolution is mostly comprised of bloody body parts and angry shouting men, and we often hear confusing stories of unverified massacres. (as quoted in “Poetic Ammo …“)
In “My people are rising” the poem becomes a source of information about the civil rights movement in Syria, its people and participants, represented with Kahf’s known passionate eloquence. More matter-of-fact readers will have to get used to linguistic duplications (the “fresh, fresh tears”, the “big big earth”, the “dark, dark heart”).
Defeating the Beast Within: “The Vigil”
Image: An ancient ceramic water container showing Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra (an ancient serpent-like water monster). Fighting the multi-headed giant snake was one of Hercules’ labors. First he thought it was easy but then he came to realize that by chopping its head off he was only making it stronger.
Context: Kahf adapts the myth to illustrate what to her mind were dangerous developments in the course of the Syrian Revolution.
From early 2012 onward the non-violence movement in Syria turned to a mixing of violent and nonviolent resistance thereby jeopardizing people power, particularly when violence became the main driver of resistance. (Bartkowski and Kahf, “The Syrian resistance“) Many protesters saw the only way forward was to meet violence with violence, guns with guns.
“The Vigil“ (Full text) talks about the struggle to “keep the revolution clean”. The omens are not favorable:
My friends, we will probably lose the fight
to keep the revolution clean.
The poem is written in the form of a parable. Parables challenge readers to reconstruct the implied analogy from the reverse:
First we struggle against the great Worm
then against the multiple heads that will sprout
in place of its head.
For every head chopped off, Hydra would regrow one or multiple heads. However:
of evil is inside us, ever ready to bud …
What is alarming: The “mad-eyed” dominate the scene:
Already, the mad-eyed
are gesturing wildly, as if they owned the scene.
But the beast in Kahf’s poem is already “tottering“:
The head of a flesh-torching evil is ripening,
tottering, ready for the final swipe.
In one version the canonical Hydra myth, Hercules kills the monster by using both sword and fire. The last lines return to the Hydra myth adapting it to the present situation:
… Justice is the sword
raised high, but reason is the shield.
The piece was filmed at a poetry reading and fundraiser event in Los Angeles. (Watch the video on YouTube) Put together by a journalist in attendance at the event, Eve Lyman (Mohja Kahf in a tweet) it interspersed the poetry reading with still photographs as well as sound and video from news reports on Syria. The idea to make Kahf’s poem part of a multi-sensory experience wasn’t a bad idea. However “The Vigil“ talks about a moral dilemma: to stick to non-violent resistance in spite of adversary developments. In the multimedia piece this focus risks to get lost.
Brutality Beyond Comprehension: “Holding Fatima in the Light“
Image: Photo of Fatima Mughlaaj in life. According to available information the 2-year old girl had been decapitated by a bomb that fell on her house in Idlib in Sep. 2012. (Photo via Mohja Kahf.)
Context: Shortly before she organized “Stand with the Children in Syria“, an awareness and funds raising event as part of a worldwide rally, Mojah Kahf had posted the poem on her Facebook page. (Read full text).
“Holding Fatima in the Light” opens with the description of a photo that had circulated on the Internet:
Her legs plump in tights under a dainty skirt
—little girls are such fun for mothers to dress—
she lies splayed on the floor,
a mass of red flesh and nerves spilling from her neck.
The narrator forces herself not to look at the photo again, hoping it had been a well-intentioned forgery:
I. do. Not. Look. at the photo of the little girl decapitated,
I beg it to be a lie. Photoshopped by a liar
who thinks lying helps the revolution.
But then she hears about a father in Kafr Uwayed village, asking whether someone had seen the head of his little girl and if so would they please give it back to him so that he might bury her. Her thoughts focus – inintentially, by linguistic association – on the talking heads on TV babbling about “endgames”:
There are many talking heads,
but none of them are the head we want,
the one that should matter
above all endgames…”
“Endgames” might be a hint to “some in the global left or anti-imperialist camp (who) understand the Syrian revolution only through the endgame of geopolitics. In such a narrative, the uprising population is nothing but the proxy of U.S. Imperialism“. (“Then and Now“).
On Sep. 17 2012 a blogger to the Egyptian Chronicles published a comment entitled “#Syria Revolts : A horror that #YouTube could not tolerate“ where he retraced the history of the photo on YouTube. YouTube finally removed the video that documented the war crime. The notice said: “This video has been removed for violating YouTube’s policy for violent and graphic content“.
On Sep 19, 2012 Mohja Kahf wrote on Twitter: “Please hold her (Fatima) in the Light. Hold a thought for her. Bless her. Bless her head & little heart. RIP, Fatima.” In another tweet she drew attention to “rev artist Juan Zero’s image honoring little girl decapitated.”
How This Freedom is Built: “The Heave into Freedom“ .
Image: It shows “The Kiss“: Gustav Klimt’s idealistic vision of love (1907/8). The Syrian artist Tammam Azzam superimposed Klimt’s iconic work over the walls of a war-torn building in his native country. The photoshopped image went viral as an unromantic commentary on the Syrian conflict. The image was ‘liked’ by over 20,000 people and shared 14,000 times in only 5 hours.
Context: In “The Heave to Freedom“ the narrator meditates on the pragmatical conditions of love and beauty.
“These are the days of freedom-building for Syrians
Are you among those who stand by saying,
“This is impossible”? We know it is impossible.
There is no shortcut. Each one has to bring “one trowel, one brick.” “Pain and blood are its mortar.” There is no guarantee that the project will succeed. But there is an option:
What if this
is the unbearable suffering
that will make us love each other? What if
these are the burning coals we must cross
to reach most in the world?
Lives Waiting to Be Freed: “To The Free Syrians Behind Bars”
Image: Detail from a campaign poster of Save the Rest, a grassroots activity to agitate against the regime from the heartland of the nation’s capital.
Context: Syria’s internal armed conflict began with the anti-government protests in 2011. The number of political prisoners in Syria is estimated at tens of thousands. Some who were released reported torture and life-threatening prison conditions. Thousands of people have already died in prison. The images of emaciated, battered corpses went around the world. (Human Rights Watch, “Syria: Stories Behind Photos of Killed Detainees”)
You, shoulders hunched on cots in prison cells tonight,
you whose bodies are …
hung by meat hooks (for bludgeoning), …
may our love reach you tonight.
The narrator reads out a list of detainees, many of them detained under the so-called “anti-terror” laws. (Human Rights Watch, “Syria: Political Detainees Tortured, Killed”.) Some are mentioned by their first names, others by their full names like Yacoub Hanna Shamoun, an Assyrian Christian who had been incarcerated for over twenty years without due process, or Ahmad Thani Abazid, one of the Syrian schoolboys who are said to have sparked the Syrian revolution.
… I see your faces, and my eyelids open.
Hanadi, Yahya, Deya, Majd, Ziad, Ahmad, Malak, Omar, Ghassan,
Maan, Rafah, Hazem, Guevara, Amr, Marwa, Tareq, Anas, Juwan,
Shadi, Raji, Mohammad, Alaa, Moaz, Emad, Bilal, Ali, Talal, Amer, Zain,
Tal, Tahama, Osama, Yaqub Hanna Shamoun, Ahmad Thani Abazid,
The narrator includes those detainees whose families had not received an official explanation for the detention of their relatives or any information regarding their whereabouts.
and every other prisoner, especially those yet unnamed,
unlisted anywhere, snatched by dictatorship’s police
without a word reaching family or neighbors,
without an online page to tell the story,
do not think you are alone. …
A painting created by one of the political detainees, illustrates their physical and mental shape. The narrator tries to remind them why they are detained. A key image is the phrase “truth flexing”:
You are free, no matter behind how many locks.
Do not think you are not powerful. You are powerful.
You are the muscle and sinew of truth flexing.
It is a message of empathy and solidarity. Hopefully it would be like “Ayn Fijeh water on (their) tongue(s)”:
We are scrabbling with our hands
through barbed wire to get to you. …
and may (our love) be as sweet
as Ayn Fijeh water on your tongue. …
Our hands clasp your hands, pulling. Hold on tight.
Justice for Detainees in Syria, a support organization with the mission to uphold justice for Syrian detainees through the documentation of human rights violations against political prisoners, advocacy for the release of detainees, advocacy for an end to torture in Syrian prisons, and providing financial and psychological support to detainees and their families republished Kahf’s poem on their website. (See also the video Unbind Their Hands: Free Syrian Nonviolent Prisoners of Conscience) On Twitter Mohja Kahf continues to document political prisoners, posting names, giving information about their cities, religious and ethnic identities, and details about their lives, along with ways to help. (See some of her tweets referring to prisoners of conscience)
Writing political poetry is like walking on a tightrope, both components asking their due. What characterizes Kahf’s political poems is that they are multi-layered and ambiguous while simultaneously explicit, through their titles, through the transparency of their settings, through the choice of their communication styles. They reach diverse audiences on a personal level, especially since they retrace the process that led the narrator to a particular awareness, and that the present questions to reflect on rather than answers. Her in the narrower sense political poems. some more convincing than others, show the potent voice poetry can have in the struggle for social justice and political change.
Poetry as a form of resistance
Poetry, however unidentifiable and elusive in its abreviated and condensed style, is a kind of consciousness transfer.
Mohja Kahf’s poems resonate with many audiences. Her poetry – as Hayan Charara put it in 2008 – “offers articulate, passionate challenges to commonplace perceptions” of the Middle East and its people, striking “notes of humor, compassion, outrage and celebration that resonate beyond literary registers.“ Kahf, the poet, favors a form of “direct poetry”: narrative, conversational, straightforward, a poetry that tries to reach its audiences through everyday scenarios or through personal address. This also applies to her political poetry. Her poems are deeply structured. You needn’t reconstruct all layers of meaning, all subteties, intended or not, to like her poetry. Much can be discovered by pure reading, although different audiences will enjoy different sets of poems.
What strikes most is Kahf’s honesty and passion. In “Marvelous Women” she describes herself as a poet in terms of a “seamstress” who – without the stories that are brought to her – would be out of work. She makes no secret of her beliefs. As a poet with a dual/multiple cultural heritage she has an advantage over poets who are limited by their parochial view. This is important in our global age. From a stylistic point of view her poetry has been described as an amalgam of both Syrian and American influences (Poetry Foundation) Or, as Lisa Suhair Majaj put it, her work “draws on American colloquialisms and Quranic suras; it is informed not only by American free verse … but also by a lush energy that draws on the heart of the Arabic oral tradition and Arabic poetry.” (Majaj as quoted in Poetry Foundation). That makes it interesting for Syrian as well as a Syrian-American audiences and beyond.
Kahf’s uses the art of poetic storytelling as a form of resistance: Her narrator turns into a subversive figure. In line with the historical Scheherazade, who with her ingenuity and linguistic inventiveness saved her and other people’s lives, Kahf’s poems always surprise readers, with twists and turns.
At the moment Kahf is preparing The Hagar Poems, a poetry collection centered around the story of Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah—the ancestral feuding family of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The book is due to be released in Aug. 2016 (see sample poem). “Hagar Poems is a compelling shakeup of not only Hagar’s story but also of current roles of all kinds of women in all kinds of relationships.“ (University of Arkansas Press)
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