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‘I use my writing to speak up’–young Palestinian poet talks love and resistance

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Mohammad al-Kurd began writing when he was just seven years old.

“I grew up in a household wrapped and filled with poetry,” the now 19-year-old told Mondoweiss.

“In fact, one of my earliest memories is waking up to the sound of my mother’s voice, reciting poetry to my dad and asking for his feedback before she sends it for publication in Al-Quds newspaper.”

Last month, the blossoming young poet released his first-ever publication, “Radical Blankets.”

Kurd, a resident of the occupied East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, took on a public role during Israel’s colonization of his neighborhood in 2009. At just 12-years-old, he became the star of a documentary, called “My Neighbourhood,” which explored Israeli settler-driven evictions in Sheikh Jarrah.

At the time, Israeli settlers took over a section of the Kurd family’s home. The family continues to live side-by-side with the settlers almost a decade later.

However, Kurd says he has become much more critical concerning the complexities of solidarity activism in Palestine since the documentary. “There are serious conversations that need to be had about the future of Palestine and Palestinian refugees, and the meaning and expectations of solidarity,” he said.

Kurd is currently a sophomore at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is majoring in Writing.

His new publication, which he described as a “poetry and multimedia magazine”, includes samples of Kurd’s poems, illustrations and artworks, meant to “make poetry more accessible,” he said.

The magazine is also a promotion for his forthcoming full-length poetry collection, “RIFQA” — the name of the teen’s late grandmother who has influenced much of his work, which will be released later this year.

The book is being published by Smoke Signals, a collaborative music studio and production company developed by American poet Aja Monet and Umi Selah, co-founder of the activist group Dream Defenders.

Mondoweiss spoke with Kurd about his new publication and how his writing has been influenced by his life in occupied Jerusalem.

“Radical Blankets” by Mohammad al-Kurd. (Photo: Courtesy of Mohammad al-Kurd)

Mondoweiss: What prompted you to start writing at such a young age?

Kurd: I write because it enables me to have the privilege of having a voice, thus having somewhat of a power and an influence. Growing up Palestinian means you grow up with many closed doors, too many narratives of failure, and too many forms of oppression. I believe I am literally privileged to be able to use my writing to speak up, especially growing up powerless and armless and voiceless and freedomless.

Mondoweiss: How have your experiences in Jerusalem influenced your writing and the topics you cover?

Kurd: I do not know how to answer this question without sounding obnoxious or pretentious. How can Jerusalem and its realities not affect my writing? Often times I am described as “political” and although the label does hold some accuracy, what is important to mention is this: being political in Jerusalem is a choiceless matter.

Being “apolitical” is a privilege. Dinners in Palestine consisted of politics served and tabled before any food was. Expressive arms, opinionated and stubborn, persuaded and challenged whichever person had an opposing voice. It was a joy to debate my father, despite the fact that politics were not a conversation of choice, but an obligation that we were forced to breathe in every single morning, with the normalcy of breathing and roosters announcing sunrise.

In America, however, this was not the case. Politics are some sort of taboo and a question about them would be looked at as a violation of privacy. People say “it’s uncomfortable to talk about,” or “we don’t want any hurt feelings,” when confronted with political questions. This was not the reality for me. Or for any Palestinian.

The oxygen we breathe is political, the soils we stand on are greatly affected with political choices, and Palestinian lives and livelihoods are constantly devastated by the hands of non-Palestinian politicians. So, naturally, art, a response and an imitation of life, will be political.

Mondoweiss: Do you find that there is a difference in your writing after you went to university in the U.S.?

Kurd: I find that whatever I write in America is never as good as what I write in Palestine. I am also still having a challenging time understanding my own privilege as a person who is receiving higher education and living abroad, and how that changes things for me.

Another thing is, I am now very aware (and inspired, maybe) about the intersectionality and familiarities between the Palestinian struggle and the black/African American, Native American familiar respective struggles, and I have been having a lot of conversations about that.

(Photo: Courtesy of Mohammad al-Kurd)

Mondoweiss: In your new publication, which poem is your favorite? Can you explain why it’s significant to you?

Kurd: Currently, my favorite poem is “This Is Why We Dance,” of which I have included an excerpt of the poem. The poem is significant to me because it is an autobiography of some sort, it pays homage to women’s roles in the resistance, what I’ve witnessed of Palestinian women, and how that, in addition to trauma, made me who I am today.

The imagery included in the poem is very intimate and close to my personal life and physical home, and the poem came as a result of conversations with many friends of mine that inspire me and many people that question or disregard my experiences.

Mondoweiss: There is also a lot of artwork in your publication. Can you describe what these mean and why you decided to incorporate a visual element into your work?

Kurd: I chose to make the magazine a “multimedia” magazine to make poetry more accessible. People do not read anymore, especially not poetry — so, making the magazine filled with art in addition to poetry definitely makes it more readable.

The color-scheme of the magazine is bright, and yellow is the dominant color. Yellow is the color of me and my “brand”. It is the color of caution; it’s what I do and who I am: bring attention to cases and stories that are often forgotten or dismissed.

The leg crown, “Colonialism In Flesh”, is a metaphor for how colonialism (and military occupation) affect people, especially women. The legs are a metaphor for femininity. The blood is for murder and for fertility. The barbed wire rim is an allusion to the crown of thorns that Jesus Christ is often depicted wearing and the Israeli Annexation Apartheid Wall. The diamonds and pearls behind the legs are the resources countries are often invaded for.

Mondoweiss: Your grandmother Rifqa is often referenced in your poems and the illustrations in this magazine. Can you explain how your grandmother has influenced you?

Kurd: My grandmother Rifqa is literally in every poem (and I make mention of that in my poem “This Is Why We Dance”). She is a huge source of inspiration for me and I am unable to summarize that. She, also, is just one Palestinian woman of many Palestinian women who come from different narratives and traumas and choices and preferences and complexities.

My personality has been shaped, partly, by her, and so has my vernacular, so it makes sense for her to be my “muse,” although it’s dangerous and arguably a cliché for writers to write about their grandmothers.

“Colonialism In Flesh” by Mohammed al-Kurd. (Photo: Courtesy of Mohammad al-Kurd)

Mondoweiss: How do your experiences being Palestinian continue to influence your work in the U.S.?

Kurd: I believe that I am privileged in the sense that I am able to get education abroad and utilize my voice. I believe in my role of using my voice to speak out (I’m not saying every Palestinian must speak out), so I include my Palestinian narrative and other Palestinian narratives in every single assignment, project, or presentation I have.

I just recently created an installation, where I recreated clothes from famous Palestinian massacres and acts of injustice, like Mohammad Abu Khdeir, Deir Yassin Massacre, Enas Dar Khalil, etc. and put them all in a closet, to highlight the events often neglected and excluded from the “global trauma genre”.

I am here to receive an education, but I am also here to educate. I am just lucky I get to do that artistically.

Mondoweiss: Can you talk a bit about your forthcoming book “RIFQA” and what topics your poems focus on?

Kurd: “RIFQA” is my full-length debut collection of poetry in which all of the excerpts included in “Radical Blankets” will be included in full-length. The book is my testimony of how my personality and vernacular was shaped by the revolutionary Palestinian women in my family and outside of it, my experiences through them and within them, and the radical inventions they have harbored for decades.

This book, however, does not tell their stories nor appropriate their voices, it is about how great of an influence they had on me and my voice, because I believe Palestinian women are seldom represented or credited.

Jaclynn Ashly

Jaclynn Ashly is a journalist based in Bethlehem, Palestine. You can find her on Twitter @jaclynnashly

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2 Responses

  1. gamal on April 15, 2018, 4:29 pm

    “The book is my testimony of how my personality and vernacular was shaped by the revolutionary Palestinian women in my family and outside of it, my experiences through them and within them, and the radical inventions they have harbored for decades”

    anyone intimately involved with Arab families knows the real role of Arab women, Arabs, here check out the trauma being suffered by Syrians in the midst of war and got to love them..maybe it could be bottled and traded to those tremulous and in need of healing in the bleak metropolitan steppes of America.

    • CigarGod on April 19, 2018, 10:41 am

      Yes, Gamal.
      My whole life it has been obvious to me the leading, frontline role women have always played.
      It is they who stand in front of bulldozers, use the muzzle of a military weapon as a vase, refuse to give up their seat, and slap the faces of brutal occupiers.

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