The importance of Susan Abulhawa’s poetry

Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr

MVSTW_cover_Thumbnail_border__13173.1374585693.826.1280Over 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

You ride

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

Out there

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

generation cousins

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

Or love.

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.

Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

thank you, Philip. :)
– susie

Yours’ is an amazing and familiar voice, Susan. Your voice is important and true.

Many thanks and my heartfelt best wishes to you.

Yours is an amazing and familiar voice, Susan.

Many thanks and heartfelt wishes to you.

I’m going to buy the book as soon as I can.

To be honest, I prefer, for example, the forceful anger in Gihad Ali’s Eye to eye to Abulhawa’s mixture of poetry and pamphlet, which is too explicit to be the first, and too weak to qualify as the second.