Throughout the 20th and 21rst centuries, leading women opposed militarism and repression, were strongly committed to promote peace and freedom, have demanded justice, dignity and human rights for all. (For details see Blanche Wiesen Cook) Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian-Brooklynite who – in addition to other achievements that go to her account – excells in the art of spoken or performance poetry. Her poem “What I will“ has been called “a modern statement of pacifism”, a testimony of living non-violence.“ (David Roberts)
About Suheir Hammad
Suheir Hammad (born 1973), American poet, author, performer, and political activist, was born in Amman, Jordan. Her parents were Palestinian refugees who immigrated along with their daughter to Brooklyn, New York City, when she was five years old. In an interview with Christopher Brown she said that she had absorbed the stories, her parents and grandparents had told her about their lives in their hometown of Lydda, known today by the name of Lod, before the 1948 Palestinian exodus, and of the suffering they endured afterwards, first in the Gaza Strip and then in Jordan. At school in Brooklyn she was taught a different story:
The idea that politically the Palestinians are not considered refugees in America meant that the dominant narrative that I received as a child in public education completely cancelled out the narrative my parents told me at home. And so this idea that my parents gave me this entire history of displacement and the refugee crisis around the world … then I would go to school in Brooklyn and not only would this narrative not exist, the narrative that was put in place was the opposite of it – the idea that the Palestinians were inherently violent and that they were inherently anti-Jewish. (Christopher Brown)
As an adolescent growing up in Brooklyn, Hammad is said to have been influenced by Brooklyn’s hip-hop scene. When hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons came across her piece entitled “First Writing Since,” a poem describing her reactions to the September 11 attacks (see text here), he signed her to a deal with HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. In 2008, she was cast in her first fiction role in cinema, the Palestinian film Salt of this Sea by Annemarie Jacir where she played the role of Soraya, an American-born Palestinian woman, who heads to Israel and Palestine on a quest to reclaim her family’s home and money that were taken during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Suheir Hammad has published a book of poems, Born Palestinian, Born Black (Harlem River Press, 1996, reedited and augmented with a new author’s preface, and new poems, under the heading The Gaza Suite.a memoir, 2010), Drops Of This Story (Harlem River Press, 1996), where, during the rise of crack and Hip Hop, Suheir developed her own ideas of what words such as “race” and “culture” meant to her, and Breaking Poems. (Cypher Books, 2008). In addition to her work as a creative artist, she has written and spoken out about issues such as the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, domestic violence, sexual abuse, racism, and homophobia.
Suheir Hammad: ”What I will”
“What I Will”: The Poem
The opening lines begin with a clear anouncement:
I will not
dance to your war
drum. I will
not lend my soul nor
my bones to your war
… I know that beat.
War drums are a symbol of the stirring up emotions, the summons to war associated here with the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
I will not side
with you nor dance to bombs
because everyone else is
The speaker states her refusal to be complicit in the celebration of the militaristic rhetoric and disassociates herself unquivocally from the crowd, or – with a line from the poem – from “be(ing) played“:
will not lend my name
nor my rhythm to your
The last lines resume the dance metaphor:
I will dance
and resist and dance and
persist and dance. This heartbeat is louder than
Suheir Hammad avoids mentioning the concrete background. Neither are does she name the powers she holds responsible for “drumm(ing) up war“. That lends gives her impassionate plea for life a universal note.
In an interview with Christopher Brown Suheir Hammad said about her poetry:
I think that poetry tries to make a connection between the absences and the losses that I feel in my person, and make the connection to the body feeling detached or feeling displaced, and the reality of land and shelter and the idea of the continuity of citizenship and the idea of ancestry. … So I think the work succeeds more when it’s about illuminating this detachment. (Christopher Brown)
A phrase worth to be remembered: ”I’ve read too many books to believe what I’m told.“
“Suheir Hammad in 2009.”
Abuelhiga, Soraya. “Woman Walking Heavy/Brown Worlds in her Face”: Global(ized) Identities and Universal Patriotism in the poetry of Suheir Hammad“. The Postcolonialist (Nov. 18, 2013).
Brown, Christopher. “Interview with Suheir Hammad“. The Electronic Intifada (8 June 2006).
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. “Women and Peace: The Legacy.“ ms. magazine.
Living Nonviolence. “What I Will”: Suheir Hammad“. (March 3, 2011)
Handal, Nathalie. “Drops of Suheir Hammad: A Talk with a Palestinian Poet Born Black“ Al Jadid.
Poem Hunter. “Biography of Suheir Hammad.“
WISE (Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality).“Suheir Hammad”.