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‘It’s 3 am, in the cattle cage’ — Susan Abulhawa publishes first book of poetry

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MVSTW cover Thumbnail borderToday, Susan Abulhawa, the acclaimed Palestinian-American rights activist and author of the best-selling novel Mornings in Jenin, is releasing her first volume of poetry, My Voice Sought the Wind. I am delighted that Susan entrusted my company, Just World Books, with the job of publishing this lovely collection. Its combination of lyricality, intimacy, and a clear-eyed view of social and political challenges certainly evokes the spirits of Pablo Neruda (whose words inspired the book’s title), Mahmoud Darwish, or other greats of the world poetry canon. You can read some of the first reactions to My Voice here, or here.

Before releasing the book, Susan made a searing short video of one of the poems in it, ‘Wala’, which gives poignant voice to the plight of a Palestinian day-laborer ‘Everyman’ from the West Bank as he makes his daily odyssey to find the only work available:

Many people have asked us for the text of this poem. So we’re happy to share it with the readers of Mondoweiss, below. (Anyone else who wants to publish the poem, whether alone or as part of an anthology, is kindly requested to contact us to get permission.)

But of course, we hope you’ll buy the book to read all the poems in it, whose subjects roam across a wide range of human experience. The book also makes a deeply meaningful holiday gift for all your friends… So why not order up a few copies, to give to friends and family?


by Susan Abulhawa © Published here by permission

It’s 3 am
In the cattle cage

The line is long
And thick
With bodies

You wait

A jibneh sandwich
With cucumber
In a plastic bag
Clutched in your callused laborer’s hand

Your wife prepared your breakfast and lunch
She was up before you
And together you prayed a predawn salat

She kissed your face and said
Allah ma’ak ya habibi
Allah be with you, my love

You kiss the faces of your sleeping babies
You haven’t seen them awake in months
And you wonder
Has Walid’s voice begun to crack yet?
Have Wijdad’s hips begun to flare?
How big was Suraya’s smile when she came home
with her report card?

It’s 4 am
In the cattle cage

Still, you wait
The line before you is so long
And behind you now, it is longer

Few speak
You’re packed so damn tight
That you hold one another upright

You see your own fatigue
Reflected in the weariness etched on
The faces all around you

You look away
Pine for a smoke
But who the hell can afford that?

You stare at the graffiti beyond the
Iron bars holding you in
Written just for you
By zionist settlers sucking the breath from your lungs

You understand the meaning
Of their English words
“Die Sand Niggers”

You pine for that, too.

It’s 5 am
In the cattle cage

The soldiers arrive
The line loosens
You take one step forward
Propelled by the weight of bodies
Behind you

Your jibneh sandwich
With cucumber
In a plastic bag
Is crushed.
It never survives

It’s 7 am
In the cattle cage

Now is your turn
You produce your papers
Unfold and refold
Eyes down
Heart down
Your shoes are down on their luck

You’re out of the line
Fifteen men before you were pulled aside
And you tried not to look
Not to hear the one begging
Don’t hit me

It’s 7:30 am
On the cattle bus

You ride
The country they stole from you
Seeds outside your window
And you imagine
The man you would have been
The man you should have been
Out there
Riding the family steed
The thoroughbred mares your grandfather
Raised and nurtured and loved
In a Palestine

It’s 8 am
You get off the cattle bus
Your crushed jibneh sandwich
With cucumber
In a plastic bag
In one hand

Your eyes down
Heart down
You put your toolbox down to knock
On the zionist settler’s back door
Where the help goes


The zionist settler boss-man yells
Mish hon el yom!

Not there today

And all you can do is thank Allah that your
Wife and your babies are not
There to hear them call you

Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is the President of Just World Educational (JWE), a non-profit organization, and the CEO of Just World Books. She has had a lengthy career as a journalist, writer, and researcher on international affairs, including 17 years as a columnist on global issues for The Christian Science Monitor. Of the seven books she’s published on international affairs, four have been on Middle Eastern topics. This new series of commentaries she’s writing, “Story/Backstory”, will have an expanded audio component published in JWE’s podcast series. They represent her own opinion and judgments, not those of any organization.

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8 Responses

  1. Refaat on November 19, 2013, 10:58 am

    This book is going to be the highlight of 2013 for me. Can’t wait to put my hand on this book…

  2. Scott on November 19, 2013, 11:20 am

    Joint Chief Chairman Martin Dempsey yesterday credited Israel with being “an example of what could be” in the Middle East.

    “If we had one of my Israeli counterparts sitting here, they would tell you that most of the Arabs living in Israel have a better life than the Arabs living in the rest of the region and that is true,” he said.

    I hadn’t expected something so obtuse from Dempsey. Disappointing, to say the least. I though of it when I read Susan’s poem.

    • frankier on November 19, 2013, 12:05 pm

      He might be thinking at a time in the future when he is facing a confirmation hearing… he is preempitively making the donkey happy…

  3. seafoid on November 19, 2013, 11:41 am

    “You ride
    The country they stole from you
    Seeds outside your window
    And you imagine
    The man you would have been
    The man you should have been
    Out there
    Riding the family steed
    The thoroughbred mares your grandfather
    Raised and nurtured and loved
    In a Palestine


    History is funny too. Things never stay the same indefinitely.

  4. American on November 19, 2013, 12:13 pm

    That poem just hits me in the gut—-even as a child , in the South where blacks and whites were more thrown together than probably anywhere else in the country, I could feel this and see this—this crushing burden of humilation and subservience that blacks suffered every day years after years.
    How Palestines stand up under this I dont know–dont know if I could do it–afraid I would go to the dark side of murdereous rage against my oppressors.
    Something ,something, something has to end this.

  5. kayq on November 20, 2013, 7:45 am

    Wow this really did hit home. Absolutely beautiful.

  6. Hatim Kanaaneh on November 20, 2013, 11:50 pm

    So fantastic to read! And even more fantastic to hear the reading and watch the video. And yet it is as real as life itself. Thank you Susan and Helena.
    I want your permission to post it on my Facebook?

    • Helena Cobban on November 21, 2013, 8:37 am

      Thanks for the lovely response! Please do repost this– with due attribution to Susan, the name of the book, and a link to its sales page here. Thanks!

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