art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

(Interview) Hala Alyan: Poetry As Emotion, Memory, Resistance.

hala a vimeo/Hala Alyan, photo via Vimeo/

Hala Alyan is an award winning Palestinian-American poet who has lived in various cities in the Middle East and the United States. Her poems reflect her life – the life of searching, making and remaking, longing and surviving on the food of memories. All of her torn anchors found new waters in her poems.

Alyan was the winner of the 2012 Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival Competition and her first book of poetry, Atrium (Three Rooms Press),  a powerful debut, won the  2013 Arab American Book Award. Her third collection, Hijra, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry contest and will be published in the fall this year.

I was thrilled to be able to exchange thoughts with Alyan and dive into her world – the world of captivating poetry, untamed emotions and new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking through words.

How did you start writing, did you feel the great need to express yourself through words, was it a calling in a way?

I’ve written for as long as I can remember; it was a way to feel less lonely as a child and also to escape into other worlds. As I got older, it also became a way to make sense of chaotic environments, messy breakups and the general grit and loveliness of life.

hijra/Hijra by Hala Alyan/

Atrium was the winner of the Arab American Book Award in 2013. Did the success and experience of your first book make it easier to write the second (and the third)? What was it like to go through the process of writing  another collection?

Winning that award was wonderful for me, and I definitely think it helped me get the second book published. It also was such lovely reinforcement for my writing, which enabled me to take more risks in the second and third manuscripts.

The process was a lot easier after the first manuscript, perhaps because I knew what to expect and also knew that it would take time; for Atrium, I was so impatient to see it out in the world!

You are doing your post-doctoral training in the field of clinical psychology. How do you manage writing and working? Does it take away the energy for writing, how do you keep the motivation?

I’m a licensed clinical psychologist now, and it can be a challenge to balance both lives. For the most part, though, I feel very lucky to be able to exist in the two worlds. I’ve said often that I believe each field complements the other. My work as a clinician allows me to be a more effective and compassionate writer.

Also, something I’m learning about myself is that I’m not the kind of writer that can sit and write for several hours at a time. I like the urgency of only having a lunch hour to write; I’m more productive when there’s a time limit.

What do you do when “dry days” come along, how do you feel when you are not able to write anything?

I’ve learned to stop resisting those days, just accepting that sometimes I won’t be able to write but also trusting that it will come back. I used to struggle with that a lot, believing myself to be an imposter just because I couldn’t always sit down and summon the “muse”. But now I recognize that it’s just all part of the process.

Your third collection of poetry, Hijra, will be published in the fall this year. Poems in Hijra explore what it is like to lose home, language, and culture as the result of political conflicts over which you have no control. Could you tell me more about the book?

They are basically poems of exodus and flight, a mediation on how physical space is refashioned, transmitted and remembered. The hope was to write poetry that creates a dialogue between two worlds (land of origin vs. new land), using language as a cultural vehicle. Many of the poems follow women from unnamed, war-torn villages/countries as they migrate to the West.

Your poems deal with exile, with being a refugee. With all the conflicts around the world, climate change and poverty, migrations became inevitable for so many people. Do you feel the responsibility to bear witness to these hard times with your poems?

Yes, I do feel that it’s a universal responsibility to bear witness, using whatever tools one has at their disposal: whether that’s through poetry, journalism, art, song, photography, law, etc. Those of us with the privilege of having a voice that’s heard have the responsiblity to amplify the voices of those that don’t.

How do you keep the connection with Palestine? Do you visit often? Do you feel the pressure, like some of your poems reveal, to at least watch the news and be constantly informed about the situation there?

I hope to visit again soon. I think the connection stays alive through family, stories, reading the wonderful writing that comes from Palestinian writers. I do feel like it’s important for people (not just myself) to remain informed on and invested in the situation in Palestine.

linking the body/photo © Sama Alshaibi, Linking the Body and the Desert/

What are some Arab writers (poetry and prose) you hold dear to your heart, whose writing inspires you?

So many! Etel Adnan, Fady Joudah, Naomi Shihab Nye, Khaled Mattawa, Philip Metres, Mahmoud Darwish, Deema Shehabi and more.

What is the beauty and power of poetry, in your words – why is it important?

It’s important for many reasons, not least of all that it grants the reader access to another world, another mind. Poetry rearranges things, which can help us see things not only in a different way, but sometimes in a clearer way. The best poetry tugs at you, releases something authentic—an emotion, a memory, even resistance.

 ✍

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art of resistance, Syria

Playlist: Kaan Wafi | Pieces From Exile.

kaan wafi/photo © Pieces From Exile/

Displaced Syrian artist and producer Kaan Wafi has been living in Germany for the past two and a half years. Like many Syrians in exile, he is preoccupied with the war and its devastating effects on the country where over 300 000 people have been killed, over 4 million have become refugees and over 7 million are internally displaced.

Wafi’s album Pieces From Exile is a pastiche of clips from Syrian activists and survivors of war mixed with hip hop beats and samples from traditional Syrian music. The album was done in memory of those lost, abducted and displaced by the war.

The album’s dreamy sound creates a sense of nostalgia relatable to any exiled person – looking back and going through memories of a homeland devastated by war, violence, poverty. Dreams of change on hold, rivers of people leaving the country to find the doors already closed before them.  Darwish is echoing everywhere – The Earth is closing on us, pushing us through the last passage.

One hundred percent of proceeds of this record will be donated to Syrian NGO White Helmets. Do something good today – listen to the music, buy the album.

Previous Playlist:

Yasmine Hamdan

Atab by Cheb Abid

Fadimoutou Wallet Inamoud

Khebez Dawle

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Option Of Last Resort: Iraqi Refugees.

ira8/photo © Gabriela Bulisova/

There is something special about Gabriela Bulisova’s photography. She documents wars, conflicts, exiles. Her subjects go through tragedies, they are extremely vulnerable and extremely powerful at the same time. Like the countries they come from, they are war-torn. Like the countries they come from, there’s more to them than just war.

The great thing about Bulisova’s photography is that she manages to capture the internal struggle – longing, desperation, sadness, void. It’s in the faces and movements of the people she portrays, but also in everything around them – light and the absence of light, unclear lines, shadows.

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In her series The Option of Last Resort Bulisova follows the stories of Iraqi refugees in United States. Why such a name for the project? For people who seek refugee status in America, the U.S. government offers resettlement as the “option of last resort” for the most vulnerable refugees.

“The masses of people displaced by the war in Iraq have become invisible and insignificant, overshadowed by other war-related events. Many of the displaced were the brains, the talent, the pride, the future of Iraq. Many of them, stigmatized by unforgettable violence, will never return to their homes”, Bulisova writes.

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Many of these refugees dreamed of America as a promised land, but the reality turned out to be very different from that. Once in the United States, they encounter the intricate, challenging, and often disillusioning process of transitioning to life in America.

“Many feel abandoned by the country they helped and risked their lives for; many are unemployed and facing dire financial crises; many yearn for the embrace of family and friends left behind; and many wish they could return home. Still fearful for their own safety and the safety of family members in Iraq, many refugees asked that I not reveal their faces or names”, Bulisova writes.

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“I want to feel like a human being again” is a sentence you can hear refugees repeating. It made me think of so many other refugee and exile stories – captured in stories, poems, novels. The same thought is present in all of them. Human being. To feel like a human being.

But for many – it just doesn’t seem to happen. There are no changes. They are, like Nadia Anjuman wrote – “lost in a sea of darkness, emptied of the thought of time, that eternal pit”. They are asking, like Mahmoud Darwish asked – “are we to remain like this, moving to the outside, in this orange day, only to touch the dark and vague inside?”

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In 2015, the escalation of armed conflict across the central governorates of Iraq, and the constantly changing security situation, resulted in new and secondary movements of internally displaced people across central Iraq and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

UNHCR reports that newly displaced people in Iraq find their limited financial resources quickly depleted by the increasing costs of accommodation and basic foods. The number of Iraqis seeking refuge in other countries is still rising and it will not stop, atleast not considering the (political) solutions we have so far.

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It makes me think of Riverbend, again and again. “In 2003, we were counting our lives in days and weeks. Would we make it to next month? Would we make it through the summer? Some of us did and many of us didn’t.

Back in 2003, one year seemed like a lifetime ahead. The idiots said, ‘Things will improve immediately.’ The optimists were giving our occupiers a year, or two… The realists said, ‘Things won’t improve for at least five years. And the pessimists? The pessimists said, ‘It will take ten years. It will take a decade'”, she wrote in 2013.

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Years went by, more than a decade passed. Iraq Body Count still counts the bodies, they still have a lot of work to do. The website says: Tuesday, 29 December: 36 killed. Monday, 28 December: 65 killed (30 children executed in Qayyarah).

Civilian deaths are almost doubling every year. What will the new year bring us? What will we bring to it? What will we do with all the possibilities? Can we make people feel like human beings again?

//all photos © Gabriela Bulisova//

For more on this and her other projects, visit Bulisova’s official website.

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art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict

Zakaria Mohammad: Is This Home?

The following is an excerpt from Zakaria Mohammads Is this Home?, translated from the Arabic by Michael K. Scott. It is a story of Mohammad’s return to Palestine after decades spent in exile.

tumblr_n0m7k6wfob1rouua1o7_r1_1280/The Bearer Of Burdens, Sliman Mansour/

In the days prior to my return I had decided to assume a cool demeanor and contemplate my country as a tourist might, and not as a rapturous and homesick returnee. I wanted to hold the moment in my hands, examine it, and write up the experience. And I wanted to minimize, to the extent possible, any emotional entaglement on my part, so that I could see things clearly. I’ve gotten tired of emotional entanglement… My entire life has been full of that. Now I am an old man who wants to see things clearly with a neutral eye. Yes, I want to be as cold and dry as a stone, if I can.

Then I got to the bridge that connects one bank of the river to the other. I arrived, and ended up on the other side. I came away from the bridge with my blood boiling. Five hours of interrogations and closed rooms with the Israeli secret police seemed to have injected poison into my veins, and obliterated all of the happy scenarios I had constructed for the moment of my return. For the Israelis, these hours were needed so that each and every returnee would understand the truth they wanted understood: you are coming to place yourself under our heel. This is the supreme truth, and everything else follows from it.

I was unable to act like a tourist who sees things with an indifferent eye. I was unable to act like a returnee overcome with yearning and joy. I was unable to tak ein the views or the scenery clearly. I had no ability to contemplate and enjoy, nor to observe or critique my feelings. It took me a few hours in Jericho before I could regain a bit of my composure.

Then we sett of from Jericho. The plam trees on my right provided pleasing company. I found joy in them, until our guide informed us that the Israelis owned all of the plam groves. We walked on, our little flock shimmering ahead like a mirage, stopping only at the Israeli checkpoints.

There was with us a man who had reached, or nearly reached, his old age. He was returning after forty years of absence. All he had lef in the homeland was a married sister in Talouza. He was afraid that this sister might not recognize him, and not acknowledge that he was her brother. She might refuse to receive him. His thinking was beyond me. How could a sister shut the door on her brother, whom she has not seen in decades? The thought seemed ludicrous to me, but the man was afriad it would happen. He wanted us to wait for him until he knew his sister’s reaction, and that of her husband. We didn’t have time to wait. Every one of us wanted to see his mother and family. So we went our way. We left him knocking on his sister’s door, hesitant and in trepidation.

The family home consisted of two concrete rooms whose doors close only at bedtime. There, on my arrival, my sister cried, while my father seemed to be only semiconscious, thinking of the days long gone by, and of the death that hovers around him. As for my mother, she smiled. But her smile seemed to be carrying some illness – some effort to forget – that I could not yet understand. The reunion was no bolt of lightning. I was weightless.

The first days passed in the rush of greetings and hugs. But gradually the war between memory and reality broke out, in my mind.

In exile we lived in memory, and on it. Memory would devour us. It gave us vitality, and it adorned the goal, the purpose of our exile. It would grow and expand, merging with truth and delusion. It had its own routine. It would conjure up a scene from the past for me, whenever and however it wished. We would play together. Memory and I were twins.

So here’s my memory going round and round, like an ant that can’t find its hole after some miscreant hand had messed up the path, the sand and the scent. This is my memory: a lost ant in churned-up sand. Since she can’t stay in this condition – running around in circles – forever, she began on her own to dig a new hole in the ground. And the new hole in the ground? It was my exile. She is working with everything she has to construct and anthill to replace the one that was smashed. She finds her subject, and her self, in exile. Is this home then? Is it ‘home’ for memory to be forced to transform exile into being her ‘thing’, instead of home?”

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art of resistance, Iraq

The Book To Read: Late For Tea At The Deer Palace.

Tamara Chalabi’s Late For Tea At The Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family was the book I was really struggling with. It’s not because the book is poorly written or hard to read (quite the opposite), I was struggling with my inner thoughts and my own opinions of the people Chalabi wrote about, which were (most of the time) in contrast with the picture Chalabi painted throughout the book. But that is exactly why I wanted to read it and why I feel the need to write about it.

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/Late For Tea At The Deer Palace by Tamara Chalabi/

My first reservation towards this book stemmed from the fact that Tamara’s father is Ahmed Chalabi, who helped US government in launching war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (for more about him, you can read Aram Roston’s book The Man Who Pushed America To War: The Extraordinary Life, Adventures and Obsessions of Ahmad Chalabi). After years in exile, Ahmad Chalabi entered Baghdad in 2003 as a would-be president of the new Iraq but he never reached that goal. In Late For Tea At The Deer Palace, Tamara Chalabi trys to stand outside her father’s shadow. In the first pages of the book, she writes:

“Everybody asks me about my father. He has been labelled a maverick, a charlatan, a genious. He has been named as the source of supposedly faulty intelligence that led America into the war in Iraq. He has been called a triple agent for the Us, Iran and Israel. But this is MY story.”

Still, the whole story of Late For Tea At The Deer Palace is based on memories of Chalabi family, so keeping a distance from certain aspects of her father’s story and his character was just impossible. The history of the Chalabi family is quite amazing. Pre-Saddam, the Chalabis held high rank: they were prominent Shia Muslims, part of the wealthy power elite, occupying positions of prestige and responsibility from the Ottoman Empire to the time of the national government. The Deer Palace was the nickname for the Chalabi mansion in Baghdad. Chalabi writes:

“The magnificent dining table could seat twenty-four, and was used for official receptions Abdul Hussein [Chalabi] held for personages such as the King, members of the Cabinet, official foreign visitors or the British High Commissioner.”

For the most part, the Chalabis were loyal to Nuri Said, the long-time British puppet who’d been part of Lawrence’s Arab Revolt in 1917 and who, until 1958, was the power behind the Iraqi throne. When the monarchy  was toppled in 1958, they fled to London.

The main character of the book is Bibi, Ahmed’s mother, a matriarch who’s quite spoiled and a snob, but also very fierce and determined in controling the lives of the others in the family. Her royal status was always extremely important to her, and the event that might illustrate this the best was when the family temporarily relocated and had to live without servants, in an apartment in London. Bibi was enraged to see her husband, Hadi, making baklava for the family, telling him she “didn’t marry a confectioner.”

chalabi family/The Chalabi Family, photo via NY Times/

It was so hard for me to relate to these people and to feel any kind of compassion. Tamara’s writing is gripping, captivating, but her main characters were just not that easy to identify with. I felt more sympathy towards their servants who were shortly mentioned from time to time. I didn’t have the same experience when reading Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, although the story was also from the perspective of a privileged family and a person who was part of the elite. In Chang’s book I felt a deep awareness of that fact (being privileged fact) and the great modesty of her family, while in the story of Chalabis – there is not a lot of that, and that makes it a little repulsive.

All that being said, I still think this is an important book and I would recommend reading it. It offers ‘the other side of the story’ on many levels, primarily two: privileged elites versus ‘regular’ masses and exile versus motherland. It is a well-told saga and a whole century of Iraqi culture and history is at times greatly woven into the story. Chalabi writes:

“Does exile ever really end? Rather than being a physical separation from a place, I believe that it is essentially a state of mind. It grows and evolves, taking on a life of its own. To have an inheritance of exile is a never-ending journey between myth and reality. Part of my coming to terms with Iraq entails accepting a reality that was built on an old dream; the dream of another home.”

• • •

Previous The Book To Read:

A Sky So Close by Betool Kheadiri

My Happiness Bears No Relation To Happiness

Suad Amiry & The Absurdity of Life Under Occupation

Sohrab Sepehri & The Water’s Footfall

and more.

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art of resistance, Iraq

What We Carried: Fragments From The Cradle of Civilization.

What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization is a photography project by Jim Lommasson. Through photography, Lommasson asked Iraqi refugees to share an item that accompanied them during their immigration to America, and to express what it means to them. Going through this powerful collection of images, I thought of one Waltz With Bashir moment – “Memory takes us where we need to go.”

144“The picture on the phone is my house in Baghdad. This means home for us. This phone has all the numbers of our friends and relatives in Iraq as well as pictures.”

765“I want to ask my country ‘Iraq’ when we will get some rest. Shall we spend tears on our current circumstance or should we cry for the past. We have been carrying our miseries for long time on our chests. Strangers from around the world occupied our land and they kill our people for a very cheap price. We are tired, we are tired and we want to get some rest.”

980“My best friend Sheema’a. She means a lot to me and was the closest person to me I couldn’t leave her photo behind.”

11Many times simple things seem nothing to others while it means everything to you. A scarf, not a fancy once or so special this one might seem. I take it with me where ever I travel. A scarf is all what I have now of my soulmate whom I lost my smile and happiness since I lost him. (it belongs to my killed brother). Not such along story, again sectarian war took my brother like so many other Iraqis. Whenever I take this scarf in between my hands, I close my eyes and hug it close to my heart. Thinking about it as it used to embrace my beloved brothers neck and chest. Wish I was a scarf (this scarf) so I could be as much as I can close to the one I lost!”

12344“Without ‘Nana’ (means mother in Trukmani language) there would be no Samir. When I was drawing on the walls, cabinet, doors, clothing and other things in my house my mother was spanking me and beat me so hard. That’s motivated me to be an artist. We lived such a difficult life with all aspects and my family struggled a lot financially plus the wars and injustice that we have been through. My mother was so kind and patient with everybody all the time and I learned from her how to be patient and honest with everything. This is my mother’s gift to me and I’m carrying it with me everywhere I go because it’s giving me the strength and patience that I need. In 2006 and just before I left Iraq my mother gave me this gift and asked me to carry it with me all the time because it has the name of Allah ‘God’ and this will protect me and give me patience and strength.”

56“This Holy Qur’an is opened on the page that has Alnaas verse, and this verse means a lot for me because it’s the verse of protection.”

/all images © Jim Lommasson/

For more on Jim Lommasson and What We Carried: Fragments from the Cradle of Civilization, visit Lommasson’s blog.

 

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