As a Palestinian-American artist, the recent election of Donald Trump has weighed heavy on me. Immediately following the election, Israeli government officials released videos of support, and even made public statements calling for the death of the idea of Palestinian independence. The type of rhetoric emerging against Palestinians in this time, while not novel, is as targeted and intensified as ever. When fires broke out in Haifa recently, Palestinians were immediately blamed for setting fire to their own historical homeland. Although the Palestinian Authority sent masses of ground support to help fight the fires, violent, hateful rhetoric against Palestinians from the Israeli government persisted; Israeli officials even posted a “thank you” poster all over social media, in which, major powers were acknowledged via a display of flags for their aid to Israel on fire, while Palestinians were merely mentioned as a footnote. Even in aid and solidarity, we are still inherently the lesser people.
The day after the election, my campus was silent and rainy all day. I arrived to my poetry class, taught by the phenomenal Dilruba Ahmed, consisting of mainly women/non-binary poets, several of whom are people of color. Instead of a regular class, we all wrote and vented together that day. During our open talking space, one poem came to mind: “compline” by Philip Metres. This poem has taught me that one can simultaneously grieve and celebrate one’s existence, and that this dichotomy of grief and celebration is powerful when these two forces are in dialogue with one another. Metres’ poem, similar to a ghazal, adapts a repetition of the phrase “of God,” which evokes a hauntingly lyrical tone of both grievance for those we lost to God, and celebration of resilience. He writes,
“That we will learn the awful hunger of God, the nerve-fraying Cry of God, the curdy vomit of God, the soiled swaddle of God,
The constant wakefulness of God, alongside the sweet scalp Of God, the contented murmur of God, the limb-twitched dream-
Reaching of God.”
In creating this repetition, Metres evokes parallel images of God as violent but sweet; as forgiving but grotesque. I often feel pressured to have a relationship with God, being from an Arab family; religion is a pertinent aspect of Middle-Eastern identity, partially due to religious conflict in the region, and the inheritance of inter-generational trauma which points us to a higher power. These natures of God tie together Metres’ poem as one of both grievance and praise, in the context of his experience as an Arab-American.
As an Arab writing in America, I cannot help but reflect on my own relationship with the Arabic language. The ghazal, while not unique to Arabic, is a popular poetic form in the Middle East and South Asia. In attempting to write a ghazal, as a person from a displaced Western upbringing, it requires utmost sensitivity and respect for the removal from its original context. My ghazal, as the concluding poem of this set, is a love poem for Palestinians which both grieves and celebrates our existence, drawing formal inspiration from ghazal tradition in the Arab world, and thematic inspiration from Metres’ piece. The second poem in the suite draws inspiration from another Arab-American poem which also contemplates the relationship between Arabic and poems in the American tradition; Marwa Helal’s “Poem to be read from right to left” inspired the last few italicized lines in my second poem. Helal’s poem is, intentionally, written from right to left, which makes it purposefully hard to read and digest from the perspective of an English reader. She uses this form to comment on the relationship between her Arabic and English skills, and how the languages intertwine and interact in one body. Our narratives are most human, and consequently hardest to digest from an oppressive perspective, in intersection.
In responding to the hateful rhetoric emerging after the Haifa fires, I drew influence from both Helal and Metres to craft a poem suite that simultaneously grieves and expresses pride in existing. I ground the situation and its urgency in the first poem of the suite, in order to center attention to the Palestinian communities who need this most. The second poem of my suite is intentionally fragmented, and incorporates Helal’s form called “the Arabic,” which makes the poem, like Palestinian history, intentionally harder to read and digest from a Western perspective. The third poem of my suite is a sonnet, which reflects on both the political and personal, in a similar manner to Metres’ “hung lyres” – a series of poems in which Metres reflects on his daughter, growing up as Arab-American in the post-9/11 world. The ghazal, at the end, draws upon Metres’ “compline” and other ghazals/ghazal-like poems emerging from Middle-Eastern and South Asian tradition, ending on a note of simultaneous pride in existence and grievance of all we have overcome.
ComplinePoem to be read from right to left