Palestinian poetry reflects a painful longing for home

Poetry plays a special role in Palestinian culture. Among other Arabic speakers and Farsi-speaking Iranians as well, poetry is a passion. The 13th-century Kurdish Sufi mystic Rumi is the best-selling religious poet in America today. Rumi is known for his love poems and for his celebration of the divine indwelling.

It was from children that I first learned the refined enthusiasm of Palestinians for poetry. Some years ago, a dance group from the Deheishe refugee camp outside Bethlehem was invited to dance for the annual meeting of the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.

Unexpectedly, at the conclusion of the dancing, a few of the teenagers began to declaim poetry, first in Arabic, then in English, from well-known authors and then from their own. I was astonished by the quality of the oral presentation and then of the students' own verses. No U.S. poetry jam could come close to its power. I couldn't imagine teenage American rappers, even from the best Jesuit schools, offering anything of similar quality.

In our own times, the best-known Palestinian poet was the late Mahmoud Darwish, whose poetry is filled with longing for his lost homeland. Darwish composed a melancholy cycle of poems interlacing memories of his lost Palestinian homeland with the lost Muslim kingdoms of Andaluz (southern Spain).

For Darwish, the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 was a second fall of humanity. He wrote:

I am Adam of the two Edens, I who lost paradise twice. 
So expel me slowly, 
and kill me slowly, 
under my olive tree

The remembrance of paradise is dissolved in a bitterness in which death is preferable to exile.

Evoking the experience of sudden dispossession, Darwish compared the Palestinian expulsion from Israel to the Muslim expulsion from Spain in 1492. Andaluz, the home of cities like Seville, Malaga, Cordoba and Granada, was famous for its beauty, for its gardens, its architecture and sumptuous food. Darwish conflates Spanish conquistadors with Israeli independence fighters in these verses:

So enter our houses, conquerors, and drink the wine 
of our mellifluous Mouwashah.* ...
Our tea is green and hot; drink it. Our pistachios are fresh; eat them. 
The beds are of green cedar, fall on them, 
following this long siege, lie down on the feathers of 
our dreams. The sheets are crisp, perfumes are ready by the door, and there are plenty of mirrors: 
enter them so we may exit completely. Soon we will search 
in the margins of your history, in distant countries, 
for what was once our history. And in the end we will ask ourselves: 
Was Andalusia here or there? On the land ... or in the poem?

One Westerner who has understood poetry as the path to the Palestinian soul is British scholar of religion Karen Armstrong. In her Holy War: The Crusades and Their Impact on Today's World, she employs Palestinian poetry to illuminate what we call too glibly "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." She celebrates Bethlehem-born poet Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who saw all Palestinians, no matter how "settled and comfortable," "as wandering perpetually in a life that has become a spiritual wilderness."

O land of ours ...
remember us now, wandering
among the thorns of the deserts
wandering in rocky mountains,
remember us now,
in tumultuous cities across the deserts
and oceans.
Remember us with our eyes full of a dust
that never clears in our ceaseless wanderings.

Another poet, Tawfiq Sayigh, recounts the alienation exiles suffer abroad:

My feet are torn
And homelessness has worn me out
Park benches have left their marks
on my ribs.
Policemen followed me
with their suspicious looks.
I dragged myself from place to place,
destitute except for
day-long memories of a home
that yesterday, only yesterday,
was mine,
and except for evening dreams
of my dwelling there again.

Some Israelis have understood the spiritual dislocation of their neighbors. Author David Grossman captured some of those feelings in his nonfiction explorations, The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire. American Christians need to understand the suffering of exile, too. The Christmas season is not all peace and joy. The feast of the Holy Innocents runs red with the blood of infant martyrs, and Epiphany ends in a family's flight into exile.

Through the Christmas season, there runs a current of suffering. If we brave a connection with the kind of homeless suffering found in the infancy narratives, Palestinian poetry offers a way to experience it as the loss and the longing of our own contemporaries. So, too, do Grossman's books. The experience of Christmas will be incomplete unless we identify with the dispossessed and the families of those unjustly deprived of life.  

*The characteristic form of Andalusian poetry.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here