art of resistance, Palestine

(Interview) Jehan Bseiso: This Is Not A Border.

JB by Ahmed Fouda/Photo by Ahmed Fouda/

Jehan Bseiso is a Palestinian poet, researcher and aid worker. Her poetry has been published inWarscapesThe FunambulistThe Electronic Intifada, and Mada Masr among others. Her book I Remember My Name (2016) is the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. Bseiso is co-editing Making Mirrors a new anthology by, for and about refugees. Her work also appears in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (published by Bloomsbury Press, 2017).

She is currently working on a collection of poems: Conversations Continued, a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. Bseiso has also been working with Médecins sans Frontières /Doctors Without Borders since 2008.

To me, Jehan’s work embodies the pride, dignity, love, defiance, resistance and bravery expressed in one sentence/thought/sentiment – This is not a border (also the title of an anthology of PalFest). In that spirit, This is not a border entails a vision of a different landscapes of today and tomorrow, a desire and determination to write one’s own narrative and own who you are, it means challenging power and staus quo, and finally – it’s an expression of love. With that in mind, Jehan and I meet again.

Our meeting is not in cafés on Hamra in Beirut, where we hugged for the first time, nor watching the blue horizon stretching all around tiny Croatian islands, which we both keep under our eyelids – but typing e-mails, thousands of kilometres apart – the same way we started talking four years ago, when I contacted her for the first time, intrigued by her poetry. We discuss borders, wars, diaspora, homeland, love…

Just last month, a new Israeli construction plan to cut off Ramallah from East Jerusalem was presented. The project would add 1,100 housing units to the settlement of Geva Binyamin. In his book Palestinian walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape, Raja Shehadeh captures the changing landscape of (the idea of) Palestine. How do you personally deal with that landscape?

Before I visited Palestine for the first time in 2012, its landscape was emotional and imaginary, both known and unknowable. Now if I close my eyes I can see the occupation’s determination to violate and violence the land. Only couple of days ago, settlers set farmland on fire near Nablus and Palestinians were prevented even from putting it out, they were forced to watch it burn.

I actually had the good fortune of walking the hills of Ramallah with Raja Shehadeh in May 2016 and 2017 as part of the Palestine Festival of Literature activities. With a group of international writers and artists from all over the world, we walked the hills of Ramallah, reflecting on the way the occupation marks and transforms the lands.

In her poem Gaza Hala Alyan writes: This is diaspora… This is dont change the channel/the least you can do is watch. In your poem Gaza, From the Diaspora Part Two, you write: Dear Diaspora, Boycott. Could we talk about the diaspora experience – its mixture of guilt, loss, misremembering, responsibility, fatal loving –how can one unravel that web?

I think of that beautiful poem by Hala as an alarm bell and a prayer for the diaspora.
The first time I heard the word diaspora, I was in a classroom and the teacher wanted someone to explain it in English and translate it into Arabic. No one could, she singled me out that day and said you should know what it means, you’re Palestinian – Al Shatat. Since then I’ve felt a strange affinity with the word. For me diaspora is a layer of citizenship you can choose to opt out of; when you are physically so far away, you can decide to switch off mentally and emotionally.

There is apathy dust that can settle on the diaspora that I like to challenge; which is why I call on them in some of my poems, asking them to engage, read, listen, ask questions. The thing is, even those who are on the move willingly, for education, for work, for a better future with better prospects are also leaving home and homeland behind. The Palestinian diaspora cannot go back, that’s what the right of return is all about.

In connection to the previous question, I will ask you a question asked by Ghassan Kanafani in Returning to Haifa – what is a homeland, after all?

For refugees forced to flee, homeland is a ball of fire they’re running fast as possible away from. For others, born and raised in refugee camps, homeland is a place beyond the sun, accessible only in dreams.

For me, Home is not a physical place, it’s a warm feeling radiating through all the little details that make our lives worth living. A perfect cup of coffee in the morning, made with exactly the right amount of milk, hearing my mother’s laugh, holding the hands of the man I love as the plane takes off. The truth is that I feel at home everywhere I go because after a certain point you carry all those details with you.

Homeland on the other hand is a very specific shape on the map, often misnamed and misrepresented. As a Palestinian born, raised, and living outside Palestine, homeland is on the other side of the border. It’s in the questions of the private security company contractors hired by the Israeli government at Allenby bridge, it’s the look on my grandmother’s face when she talks about orange fields and blue Gaza waters. Homeland is every time I say “occupied Palestine” when someone says Israel, in the little narrow streets of the old city in Jerusalem.

I often wonder how my children will understand or experience homeland, it’s not like I was indoctrinated by my parents, I was never told or forced to feel anything. I gravitated to homeland in my writing, my sense of grave injustice took me there, my heart travelled first and then my body followed. 

You are one of the authors featured in the anthology I Remember My Name, together with Ramzy Baroud and Samah Sabawi. The book was the creative category winner of the Palestine Book Awards. How did you get involved in this project and how important is it for you to have your work published in collaboration with other poets?

I Remember My Name is the quintessential diaspora project; all of us come from Gaza but Ramzy lives in the US, Samah lives in Australia and I was in Cairo when we started talking about the anthology. Editor Vacy Vlazna and artist David Borrington put their heart into it and when it finally came together we were all so proud.

Until today, I’ve only met David – we went to London together to receive the award on behalf of Ramzy, Samah and Vacy. Having my work in such good company is very important to me, and most recently two of my pieces appear in an anthology marking a decade of the Palestine Festival of Literature titled This is Not a Border (first published by Bloomsbury Press in the UK).

You’ve been working for Médecins Sans Frontièrefor almost nine years. Was it hard to keep it going parallel with  your writing, which is, I assume, taking more of your time and energy? You once beautifully said there’s work in your poetry, and poetry in your work – is that the key?

Yes! That’s my new motto: poetry in work, and work in poetry.
As a literature graduate I was told I have two choices, write or teach. I would love to write or teach full time at some point, but for now I made a different choice by joining Médecins Sans Frontières with whom I’ve been working in places near home like Iraq and Libya but also further away like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somali region of Ethiopia.

When I joined MSF I actually hid the fact that I was a poet from everyone because I wanted to be taken seriously as a humanitarian worker. However, despite all my efforts to choose between poetry and MSF I have so far failed miserably. My poems are about love and war, heartbreak and refugees dying at sea in their attempt to run away from poverty and conflict. Poetry is now a site of intersection that displays the explosive choices i’ve been making as an aid worker and a writer.

How did working for Médecins Sans Frontières change you? Is there a specific MSF moment you will remember – a trip somewhere, or meeting someone?

I met two lovers in detention two years ago, they were criminalized even just for trying to escape war and poverty. They attempted to leave by boat to Europe more than once, they were arrested several times, but they still had so much determination and hope it was amazing. They finally succeeded to get on a boat, and it sank, leaving one of them alive and the other dead. When I think of love, I think of the way they looked at each other in detention, the way he was worried about her when we took her to the hospital because she was ill. Somehow that was one of the most moving encounters I’ve had.

A colleague once told me that the more he travels and works with MSF, the more he realizes how much we all have in common, despite our insistence on all the details that make us different. We all want the same things; love, success, community, a better future, dignity in life and death. 

Nowhere refuge, only refugees, you write. How important is it for you to respond to the burning issues of our time through your poetry – one of them being the crisis of European refugee policy?

The media is reporting about refugee fatigue and compassion fatigue. I find the notion that compassion can be finite truly terrifying. I spend a lot of time looking at facts and figures, and reading “human stories”; I prefer just saying “stories”, because humanity is obvious, once we start having to state that the refugees are “also human-look at them!” we are catering to anti-refugee propaganda even with the best of intentions.

Like many people I can say that i’m haunted by the refugee crisis, and it’s a global one. I’m haunted at my work, by the images of bodies clinging to orange life vests, and i’m haunted at night when I think of how random it is, that it’s not me, not my family.

People must realize as you mention that it’s not a European refugee crisis, but one that is being exacerbated by European refugee policy. It is also a global refugee crisis. For example, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing conflict and famine in South Sudan and seeking safety in Uganda. Few people are aware that Uganda is now hosting more than 1.3 million people, more than any country in Europe at the height of the “European refugee crisis”.

I currently live in Lebanon, a country where one in four is a Syrian refugee, and at least 400,000 Palestinian refugees have been living in camps for more than 50 years – it’s impossible to ignore the refugee crisis, and its political and economic drivers.

You are co-editing Making Mirrors, a new anthology by, for and about refugees. The anthology is challenging the objectified, passive refugee narrative. Can you tell us more about it?

The plan is to offer a volume of poetry by, about, and for refugees, that seeks to connect artistic voices of those fleeing violence from Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine, Somalia, Iraq, and other war torn countries. I am editing this anthology with US poet and scholar Becky Thompson, and our hope is that Making Mirrors will provide a multilingual interactive, collaborative volume of poems that will be published as a book and also a website.

Among those whose work is set to be included in the collection are prominent poets Naomi Shihab NyeZeina Hashim BeckZeina Azzam, and Hala Alyan. We have received incredibly powerful poetry from first-time writers, in different languages, and we are currently working on holding writing workshops to generate more poetry from within refugee communities. 

In one of our previous talks, you said how women from the MENA region are portrayed either as victims or superheroes, and that is too much of a burden. Just last month, Mashrou Leila put out a new video, for the song Roman. The video aims to “celebrate and champion a coalition of Arab and Muslim women, styled to over-articulate their ethnic background, in a manner more typically employed by Western media to victimise them”. Do you feel the victim/superhero narrative is being more challenged nowadays, with efforts such as this one?

I think a lot more needs to be done in order to dislodge Western media’s obssession with the victim/superhero narrative in the portrayal of both men and women from the MENA region; and now you can also add terrorist to that oppressive framework so it’s victim/terrorist/superhero.

I am a big fan of Mashrou Leila; I find their music and lyrics original, subversive and full of heart and mind. That video is like a good poem, it recalls and disrupts images, ideas and narratives from a perspective of expansion; you always end up with more at the end. This is precisely what I love about poetry; freedom of interpretation and play.

You are performing your poetry all over the world and working on a collection of poems, Conversations Continued, which is a compilation of real, misheard, and misremembered conversations. What has that process been like so far?

I have divided the poems in Conversations Continued into three main chapters; Conversations Homeland is mostly about Palestine and the search for home inside and outside, Conversations Habeebi is about love, its necessity and impossibility sometimes. In Conversations ThawraI write about hope and despair in the wake of the so-called “Arab Spring”. Many of the pieces started as incomplete letters, facebook posts, interrupted conversations all distilled into poems.

I am always listening to people talking around me, because I am fascinated by what we call “ordinary” use of language in conversation – I find it actually quite extraordinary.

Finally, what are you reading at the moment, can you share some words/thoughts that have inspired you lately?

In a world that continuously divides and conquers our concentration, lately I have become a reader with commitment and attention span issues. This is why I read more than one thing at a time. Currently I am in awe of Look by Solmaz Sharif; her writing perches at that intersection between politics and poetry, art and life – it’s an important collection of poems, one that needs to be studied not only read. I am also going in and out of Hisham Matar’s The Return and rereading a collection of dark and somber short stories by the inimitable Ghassan Kanafani.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

Advertisements
Standard
art of resistance, Kuwait

Illustrations By Owaikeo (Ahmed Al-Refaie).

owa/all art © Owaikeo/

Ahmed Al-Refaie, going by the artistic name of Owaikeo, is an illustrator from Kuwait. His illustrations are colorful, clever and playful – definitely worth your attention.

About the inspiration behind his work, Al-Refaie says“I’m sparked with everything around me, spinning old cultures with a modern twist to bridge the gap between what’s modern and what’s traditional.”

owa2

owa4

owa3

• • •

Follow Owaikeo on Instagram, plus – click here if you’re interested in checking out his merchandise.

Standard
art of resistance

Playlist: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan.

landscape-1444059507-final-ayqa /art by Ayqa Khan/

Someting a little different for this Playlist – slam poetry by Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, from this year’s The Last Word Festival.

Featuring new work by established artists, rising talents and works-in-progress from home-grown performers, The Last Word shines the spotlight on themes of home, heritage, mental health, politics and musical journeys.

Manzoor-Khan was the second place runner up this year, with the poem that’s hard to forget – This Is Not A Humanising Poem.

You can listen to her brilliant performance here.

Previous Playlist:

PJ Harvey & Ramy Essam

Basel Rajoub

Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Aynur Doğan

Standard
art of resistance, Syria

Jehan Bseiso | Requiem For Raqqa.

raqqa_bread/Scenes from Syrian War: Raqqa, by Molly Crabapple/

Requiem For Raqqa

4th of July fireworks descend hot as acid,
call it chemical, not white phosphorus,
call it mistake, not massacre.

A doctor in East Ghouta tells me one grave holds his entire family.
(you left me)

A pharmacist sends me a voice note saying there is no more Insulin.
(you left me)

A politician in the US doesn’t know what Aleppo is.
(how could you leave me?)

In occupied Jerusalem, a young man says:
“Syria is the Nakba of our generation.”

(you broke my heart)

Hide in a cafe in Marseilles, order Turkish coffee with lots of sugar.
Go to the library in Alexandria, order lots of books about politics.
Stop reading.

Don’t watch Al Jazeera.
Don’t listen to the BBC.
Make up your own mind, says Beirut graffiti.
(but, you left me, you really left me)

It’s been six years since I slept, Syria.

This poem was first published on Mada Masr.

Standard
art of resistance, Lebanon

Playlist: PJ Harvey & Ramy Essam.

Capture/from the video The Camp/

PJ Harvey and Egyptian artist Ramy Essam have come together to write and record The Camp, and they will donate all net profits from the track to Beyond Association, a national Lebanese NGO which provides access to education, healthcare, and psycho-social support for displaced children in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.

The video for The Camp premiered on Guardian today – it features photographs by photo-journalist Giles Duley and was edited by Rick Holbrook.

You can watch & listen The Camp here.

Previous Playlist:

Basel Rajoub

Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Aynur Doğan

Hello Pshychaleppo

Standard
art of resistance

(Interview) Adrienne Roberts: A Woman’s Work Is Never Done.

red_women_copy55291/Photo: See Red Woman’s Workshop/

Adrienne Roberts is a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester since 2012. Her research and teaching interests are in the areas of international political economy, feminist political economy, debt and debt-driven development, and gendered dimensions of the carceral state and the criminalization of poverty.

Her work has been published in journals such as Third World Quarterly, International Feminist Journal of Politics, New Political Economy and Critical Sociology. Her book Gendered States of Punishment and Welfare: Feminist Political Economy, Primitive Accumulation and the Law (Routledge) was published in 2016. Roberts was a guest of the 10th Subversive Festival – European Left Against New World (Dis)order in Zagreb.

How is gender equality used as a stratgey of corporate business growth and a way of legitimizing capitalist exploitation?

It’s not only the corporations, but also a lot of the neoliberal government instutions, that have latched on the idea of gender equality as being smart economics. The idea is that it makes good economic sense to empower women. The problem here is how the empowering of women is understood, which is empowering women as workers and as consumers.

There’s been a lot of talk about the need to indrease women’s “human capital”, so that they can be integrated into the work force. What gets left out of those types of arguments is any attention to all the work that women already do, whether it’s dometic labour or home based work or various forms of the so-called informal labour. That is largely ignored in the debate that is positioned in a way that says that including women into the capitalist labour market leads to empowering.

What is the risk in enforcing such visions of empowerment?

The risk is that in ingoniring all of the other work that women are already engaged in, we risk further increasing the burden placed on women. It’s also important to talk about the power of women as consumers.

Different national economies and global economy in general haven’t recovered from the crisis of 2007/8, and we’re seeing stagnating levels of economic growth. Women are meant to be the real miracle workers, they are the ones that are going to get us out of it – empowered as workers and consumers. Valuing women as consumers risks obscuring all sorts of other inherent aspects of gender equality. Gender equality is underminded by the view that inequality is best solved by the integration into the capitalist market.

In connection to what you said about women as consumers, could we talk about feminism as a brand, the way it is often used as a marketing strategy, particularly in the Western countries, and then there are growing industries for empowering through “feminist” products?

There are many examples of how that’s done, and it depends on the type of feminism we’re talking about. This type of feminism is liberal feminism that isn’t challenging enough on a whole range of norms associated with femininty and capitalism.

All of the attempts to sell Dove products because they are somehow more natural and allow women to express their beauty naturally, but at the same time featuring images of women who are still being commodified and valued because they are attractive women, is a bad attempt to reconcile feminism with cosmetic industry. You see it in fashion magazines, like Vogue and Elle, which have explicitly adopted the feminist stance but don’t see any contradiction between that and continuously creating unrealistic and unachieveable standards of beauty.

How does this type of work contribute to feminism and does it at all?

There’s a lot of debates around that. I think it does. It’s obvious that feminism means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In the USA, another example of this would be around Beyonce and her type of feminism, feminism of the famous, powerful and rich. They do have a message of empowerment and it does speak to a lot of people. Is that limited understanding of feminism? It is.

But this is a tricky question because it’s important for feminism not to alienate people and cause more separation, but there’s also danger in supporting feminism that is so inoffensive to the capitalist system, a system which is detrimental for women in so many ways. In such a narrow view of feminism, possibilities for major social changes are extremely limited.

Thinking about feminism globally, how can the feminism in the “developed countries” affect women elsewhere – like the “third world” labour, which now greatly depends on underpaid female wrokers? We can think about the relation of female workers and consumers of the garment industry as an example.

This is where the allegiance of different feminist organizations is important, and there are feminist groups that work on that. There are different feminist campaigns that have emerged globally, largely as respones to the corporate driven feminist agenda, and they are precisely about trying to draw attention to ways corporations exploit women through various industries, such as the garment industry, which is not well regulated.

This cannot only be tied to campaigns on consumption and western-based feminist movements by fair trade clothing, because that’s still too simplistic and too indvidualistic and not transformative enough. There are other ways consciousness can be raised among feminists in the West by linking up with the very people involved in making the products we consume. There are many venues where these sorts of discussions are happening now, around the world, like social forums. It’s an ongoing project and its future is yet to be determined.

WOMANKIND_Posters_RGB3 /Photo: For All Womankind/

You’ve wrritten a lot about the role of the state in forcing women to adhere to the historically shaped roles and categories, including those of paid and unpaid work. How crucial is the role of the state?

It’s essential. There are so many ways we can think about the involvment of the state historically and in the present moment, in producing and securing gender norms, inculding gender norms around paid and unpaid labour. In the book Gendered states of Punishment and Welfare, I am looking historically, up to neo-liberalism, at how the state is involved in creating specific gender norms.

Before the transition to capitalism you have the family working together for the most part, as an integrated unit, you don’t have the separation of what we now call productive and reproductive labour. Through a whole host of state policies in the early stages of transition to capitalism, a change is happening.

I am talking about state policies in England to create private property, done through different laws, and then the private property being regulated in a way that criminalizes peasantry, and says they are no longer able to collect food, fish, etc. All of these laws lead to creating wage labour, and people not involved in wage labour are to be punished. As we get further along the capitalist development, closer to the Industrial revolution and particularly after the Industrial revolution – these laws take on a more gendered form.

They are not just trying to create a class of wage labourers, they also say women need to behave in very particular ways if they want to be considered deserving of any sort of state support. If you are unmarried, if you have “bastard” children, you’re considered to be undeserving. There are similiar types of practices now, but with the move from the welfare state to work state, there is a disregard for all sorts of reponsilibilites women tend to have, and there is a rise of equality with the vengance within the criminal system.

Talking about equality with vengance – a big part of your research focuses on the carceral state and gendered forms of poverty, especially in connection to the criminalisation of poverty.

With the criminal system during the welfare state, which was still highly gendered and problematic on many levels, women used to be thrown in reformatories, and now you have women who are treated increasingly harshly, who are thrown into prisons similar to men’s. You’re not seeing the disciplining of women in a gender specific way, as it was seen in the welfare state era.

This has horrifiying results because when we stop paying attention to reasons why people end up committing criminal acitvity, we lose sight of the fact that women who are in jail are almost always there either for drug related crimes or for property related crimes, petty thefts, etc. If they are there for violence it is normally for violence committed against an abusive partner.

The reasons for those crimes are rooted in women’s socio-economic position and gendered forms of precariousness that are produced by neoliberalism. To ignore that and assume that women have made a cost-benefit calculation and a rational choice to engage in crime and that the way we need to deal with that isn’t through social support and social services, but through a harsh state that will be punitive in its reaction to crime is a really wrong approach.

You also look at debt-development a lot, but unlike many researchers, you analyze it on a micro-level, on the level of households.

What’s been going on since 1990’s through the microcredit projects is that so-called development in the so-called Third world is presumed to be something that can happen and that can be enabled by providing loans at the small scale to indviduals and increasingly to women. Somehow the provisioning of these loans is magically going to enable them to start sustainable businesses to bring themselves and their communities out of poverty. The microcredit project has been discredited over the years, we have several decades of studies that have shown it has failed to deliver on its intended outcome.

But the idea behind it hasn’t disappeared by any means, we’re seeing it reinvented right now in the interest that the development agencies and states have in supporting small to medium enterprises, as well as the focus on enterprenourship and women particularly. Even when they’re not talking about microcredit as much, there is still this assumption to provide small amounts of loans and business training to women and that is how we will achieve development. That bypasses all of the existing issues around underdevelopment and it doesn’t address the role of the state in supporting and working towards the reduction of poverty.

And finally – how is it possible to develop deeply transformative feminism in a capitalist system, if gender inequality was so essential in the development of capitalism?

That is why feminism needs to be anti-capitalist. There are inherent limits to forms of gender equality we can attain in a capitalist system because it is historically founded on gender inequality and it always enables to continue to profit and accumulate by reproducing gender inequality. I don’t see a time where we can have gender equality in capitalism. This is still not a widely recognized feminist position, but it’s also important to fight battles as they come up.

One big problem of Marxist feminists is that their critique is of such great proportions, on a structural level, and it risks taking away the sense from the small battles within the capitalist system, which are all necessary and important for the immediate needs and everyday lives of so many people.

We need to hold on to the analytical understanding of the roots of the gender inequality, but that isn’t meant to be a demobilising approach that says that anything that’s not directly undermining the system is useless.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

Standard
art of resistance, Syria

Playlist: Basel Rajoub.

Capture/photo: The Queen of Turquoise album, Basel Rajoub/

Basel Rajoub is a little wonder. He is a Syrian saxophone player – a skilled improviser, and highly original composer. Rajoub performs both as a solo artist and a leader of the Basel Rajoub Ensemble.

His Soriana Project (“Soriana is ‘our Syria’, a homeland we left behind”, Rajoub says) features collaborations with like-minded artists celebrating their heritage and paying homage to the gift and beauty of music.

You can listen to Rajoub’s Soriana from the album Asia here. Turn the lights low and enjoy.

Previous Playlist:

Crystalline (Omar Souleyman Remix)

Aynur Doğan

Hello Pshychaleppo

Grup Bunalim

Standard