Everyone Should Be Reading Palestinian Poetry

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Written By Pinang Driod

Recently reading through the cookbook Jerusalem, I was struck by an observation made by its co-authors, an Israeli chef and a Palestinian chef, in their introduction. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi write that food “seems to be the only unifying force” in Jerusalem, a city claimed as the capital of both Israel and Palestine. Despite their cuisine’s fraught history, the chefs consider preparing meals to be a uniquely human act—an unspoken language shared between two people who might otherwise be enemies.

I was flipping through Jerusalem rather than scrolling through news updates about the Middle East. I found comfort in the co-authors’ attitude of community, especially when many conversations on social media, in mainstream U.S. coverage, and in real life threaten to turn the lost lives of the Israel-Hamas war into abstractions. I quietly leave the room whenever the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is casually discussed at work or among friends, because I do not want to treat death as a watercooler topic of conversation. I am the son of Palestinian immigrants, and I have family in Gaza. I do not want to be a spokesperson for Palestinian suffering.

Although reading about violence in Palestine does little more than cause me pain and frustration, poetry allows me to access the place’s wonder and complexity. And, judging from the surge in people who are sharing Palestinian poetry, the same is true for readers across the globe. The poems of Mahmoud Darwish, Mosab Abu Toha, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, and other Palestinian writers have gone viral on TikTok, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter). The hashtag #palestinianpoetry has more than 206,500 views on TikTok, and the hashtag #mahmouddarwishpoetry has 17.8 million views. Both the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets have been sharing works by Palestinian writers, not to mention the countless posts I see among my own family and within my various literary circles.

As a poet myself, I suspect that there are many reasons for the form’s increased popularity. Poetry can communicate confusion and suffering because it isn’t a medium for resolving problems. It is better suited for affirming humanness, piercing through politicized news narratives, and—during tense historical moments—producing memorable, shareable lines. Of course, a line offers only a glimpse of a poem’s whole. It cannot, and does not, aim to make the argument of the entire poem—if a poem makes an argument at all. But in a few carefully considered words, poems can create enough electricity to spark surprising feelings in a reader: curiosity, pain, empathy. How important, especially now, to connect audiences to poems that generate such emotions.

Consider just the title of the widely shared poem by Noor Hindi, “Fuck Your Lecture on Craft, My People Are Dying.” Hindi’s title, which acts as its first line, bluntly concretizes the Palestinian cause and turns it into an issue of human rights—her people’s rights. The poem’s urgency is apparent in its language, starting with a verb, that verb, and ending with an image of death. The title is a desperate, angry cry for help.

The speaker positions herself against the “colonizers” who have the freedom to “write about flowers.” She, however, aims to “tell you about children throwing rocks at Israeli tanks / seconds before becoming daisies.” The broken line and its comparison of sturdy, unliving tanks with fragile daisies point to the same conclusion: The speaker’s people are precious nothings compared with the forces around them. The speaker can’t talk about children without talking about flowers, a strangely beautiful dehumanization. She is, in ways she can’t quite articulate, like the colonizers her poem stands against.

Many of Hindi’s lines carry their emotional weight in language and images immediately accessible to the reader. When Hindi writes, “Palestinians don’t see the moon from jail cells and prisons,” it stings with the same venom as “I know I’m American because when I walk into a room something dies.” I’ve seen each of these lines shared individually, retweeted, and highlighted as a synecdoche for the poem.

No wonder some fear poetry’s viral power. Fadwa Tuqan, a Palestinian feminist and poet, famously used her poetry as an act of political resistance from the 1940s until just before she died, in 2003. The Guardian published an obituary featuring an exaggerated claim that the former Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan once likened reading a single Tuqan poem to facing 20 enemy fighters. A more accurate telling of the event comes from Samar Attar’s Debunking the Myths of Colonization: The Arabs and Europe, which notes that Dayan wanted a group in Israel to rescind its offer inviting Tuqan to recite poetry in the West Bank. The defense minister’s justification, according to Attar: “One of her poems is capable of creating ten resistance fighters.” Regardless of the number of combatants poetry can allegedly spur into battle, the point stands: Words have influence, and poetry’s words, dense with meaning and softened by emotion, can generate real change.

The October 7 attacks and the current war in Gaza are harrowing examples of the consequences of undervaluing human life. “Imagine extending … equal humanity to everyone, every time,” Fady Joudah, a prolific Palestinian poet and essayist, wrote in a recent LitHub article. The politician-poet and activist Hanan Ashrawi shows what it means to extend humanity to some of war’s most vulnerable victims in her poem “From the Diary of an Almost-Four-Year-Old.” Though her poem borders on sentimentality, Ashrawi achingly describes how the world looks to a toddler whom a soldier unremorsefully shoots in the eye. The poem’s power comes from its final lines, in which the child dispassionately recounts hearing about a nine-month-old who has also lost an eye and wonders if the same soldier was responsible. The speaker empathizes with the younger victim, expressing herself with a precociousness that might be sweet if it weren’t devastating:

I’m old enough, almost four,
I’ve seen enough of life,
but she’s just a baby
who didn’t know any better.

The 3-year-old’s matter-of-factness and innocence produce a painful irony. Palestinian toddlers, Ashrawi suggests, are so accustomed to violence that they’ve become experts in it. Having “seen enough of life,” they are emotionally prepared for their own death—in some ways, more so than adults.

Indeed, much of Palestinian poetry emphasizes the voices of the injured and silenced. Lena Khalaf Tuffaha’s “Running Orders,” an enormously popular poem, describes an unconcerned assault on life, and in doing so, insists that all life is valuable—the message of many Palestinian anti-war poems. Tuffaha’s poem is told from the perspective of a parent preparing to flee her house after receiving a warning call. I find the poem especially heartbreaking amid the current conflict, during which the Israel Defense Forces have seemingly chosen to forgo the knock-on-the-roof policy, a warning to allow noncombatants to escape (to where? some poets and human-rights groups ask) before soldiers drop a bomb in a civilian-dense area.

For Tuffaha’s narrator, though, the experience of receiving a warning is new: “They call us now, / before they drop the bombs.” The break at the end of the opening line separates the politeness of a phone call from the community-shattering violence that follows. The attacks isolate the speaker from her neighbors even as she is surrounded by them, and her city becomes a “prison by the sea / and the alleyways are narrow / and there are more human lives / packed one against the other / more than any other place on earth.” These short, claustrophobic lines pile injustices on top of one another, offering no way out of this war-imposed jail cell.

The speaker, swept up in her family’s mistreatment, starts minimizing her own suffering. She begins speaking in the voice of the caller and the other combatants: “It doesn’t matter that / you can’t call us back to tell us / the people we claim to want aren’t in your house / that there’s no one here / except you and your children / who were cheering for Argentina / sharing the last loaf of bread for this week / counting candles left in case the power goes out.” Tuffaha affirms the family’s dignity by emphasizing the ordinariness of their lives. And in showing the casual destruction of their home, Tuffaha’s closing lines strike with the force of a missile. They empty the sensitive reader in the same way the speaker’s house has been gutted:

It doesn’t matter
that 58 seconds isn’t long enough
to find your wedding album
or your son’s favorite blanket
or your daughter’s almost completed college application
or your shoes
or to gather everyone in the house.
It doesn’t matter what you had planned.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
Prove you’re human.
Prove you stand on two legs.

The only solution her family has is to run, but 58 seconds isn’t enough time to grab the myriad objects that, together, make up their life. Ironically, to prove they are human, they have to run, shoeless, like animals. And because “the borders are closed / and your papers are worthless,” the best the family can hope for is some sort of foreign pity as refugees, lost and permanently away from home. Najwan Darwish, one of Palestine’s most prominent poets, ends his poem “I Write the Land” with the notion that he, and many other Palestinians, eventually will be erased: “My words are everywhere / and silence is my story.” To him, erasure is the inevitable outcome of Palestinian struggles for sovereignty, and his story alone is insufficient to bring effective change.

Poetry at its best can stun readers into silence, but also give the silenced a voice and a way to share that voice. Reading Gazan poets, many of whom have recently been killed, I’m struck by the words they leave behind, and their unignorable humanness. News reports and interviews of course have the potential to share the perspective of the disenfranchised. But poetry conveys the humanity and personality of an interview without its opportunism; it offers the heart of a news article without burdening itself with data. Better still, it doesn’t have anything to prove. It sits like a monument to injustice—unflinching, chipped, told in broken pieces that together are something like art.


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