Over the holidays I’ve been reading and re-reading poems in Susan Abulhawa’s new book, My Voice Sought the Wind, and I cannot recommend a collection more highly. Abulhawa’s poems are best understood as a reflection of the grief of el ghorba, an Arabic word that Abulhawa says is not translatable but means strangeness, “the state of not belonging when living in foreign lands or exile.” The voice in the poems is that of an exiled Palestinian resisting the loss of family lands and resisting the effects of American culture. The verses are angry, passionate, frightening, and strange themselves, but mostly they are eloquent: they make another person’s consciousness familiar to us by the book’s end. And not just any person’s, but a victim of historic events. As such this collection is an important political document and deserves the comparisons to Neruda and Darwish.
The political character of the poetry is especially urgent when you reflect that Americans are being stuffed at year’s end with Ari Shavit’s Zionist manifesto, My Promised Land; even Guernica, a leftwing publication, is promoting it. That book contains a report on the highly-critical attitudes of Mohammed Dahla, a Palestinian in the Galilee, but it is from 2003; the author did not consider Dahla worthy of revisiting. No, the Palestinian view is readily dismissed.
What these poems assert as a historical/political truth is that Palestinians remain undefeated, and cannot be dismissed. That is Abulhawa’s largest transgression: to insist on a view that is highly uncomfortable in the United States but that any liberal has to acknowledge must be reckoned with. And so there won’t be peace in the Middle East until the inhumanities these poems make so real are addressed.
When your mother went mad and died with anguish
Your tears watered a refugee’s garden
The collection is diverse, but two overlapping categories of poems were especially meaningful to me. In her frankly political mode, Abulhawa describes Palestine as a victim of European colonialism. Her other mode is more personal. It relates the el-ghorba condition, and Abulhawa’s grief over the loss of traditional culture. Culturally, many of us are suspended between tradition and modernity, and Abulhawa makes this dualism come alive.
So first, a few excerpts of the political poems. In “Wala,” Abulhawa tells of a day from the standpoint of a Palestinian laborer in Israel, and offers a counterfactual:
On the cattle bus
The country they stole from you
Seeds outside your window
And you can imagine
The man you would have been
The man you should have been
Riding the family steed
The thoroughbred mares your grandfather
Raised and nurtured and loved
In a Palestine
Also defiant is “Facts on the Ground,” which contrasts European manners with Palestinian ones.
Europeans slept in Teta’s Jerusalem bed
…They cut their food with knives and forks
and drink their tea cold….
They’re shiny facts on the ground
Lies, psalms, and foreign fables planted
and watered every day
We cut our food with bread and drink our tea hot,
with fresh mint!
There’s more compressed history in “The Seed after the Seed”:
As they were being herded
To the precipice of history
Where the slave turned
The victim became the
Now some excerpts of the more personal pieces.
“Black” is about identity politics.
A European took my grandma’s house
Painted my country white
Kicked us out to the cold curb
Killed our neighbors
Cut my brother’s balls off
Motherfuckers fucked my mother
Then dragged me by the hair
and told me I needed liposuction
And a nose job
And the poem seems to offer an autobiographical snapshot:
My nose is big and long, crooked and pointy,
and all kinds of fucked up
Still, I can access white privilege if I want
But that would be worse
Would rip my soul
So I search for the Black in me
“Sister Palestinian I” is lacerating on the temptations of western culture.
When, then, you became an exciting fuck
You found yourself searching, over and over,
For some meaning in the heartbreak
Of an empty orgasm
In “Sister Palestinian II,” Abulhawa rages at the foreign language:
Your eyes make me despise the ghorba soaking my skin
and I tear at my tongue to rip
the English it planted
in this manufactured fate
“Untitled and Unfinished” also describes the loneliness of the exile in words all can understand:
In a room of flags and books
The country in my blood
Reached across the ocean
To turn my head
While in “Ramadan in el-Ghorba,” Abulhawa describes the loneliness of celebrating the fast in the west.
There will be….
No gathering of first second and third
There is no collective exhaustion here
Followed by collective merriment…
And so I will not do the exact same thing
At the exact same time
As millions will do every evening this month
The volume’s success is that the tension in these themes is resolved, somewhat anyway, in the heart of the author, by Abulhawa’s sensitivity to beauty and death around her in exile. “Cancer” is a poem about the death of a friend, and it hurts to read. “Death is fisting her,” Abulhawa writes. Then she describes the friend’s bargaining with life:
Just another chance, and
She’ll never again take for granted
The wind combing her hair
The majesty of old trees
Rain beating against her roof
Fireflies lighting the night
Freshly brewed coffee and the morning light
Good-fitting blue jeans
Springtime and random smiles
Painted toenails and subway performers
That is a pretty western catalog of joys. And in “New Frontier,” the poet offers this wise description of her own anger:
I am older now
See the story lines that time has carved on my face
The petulant and unruly heart
has become knowing
And kind as an old friend
I only went to war with myself
Pierced and ripped by my own sword
This extremely subjective poem doesn’t take away from the book’s political moments, it just affirms them. If you are moved by Abulhawa’s song, well, you have to listen to the whole thing. And the message is undeniable and human: the west must begin at last to reckon with unfiltered Palestinian declarations of the need for freedom.
P.S. We’re offering Abulhawa’s book as a gift with donations of $60 or more to our fundraiser.