Creative Solidarity: Making Poetry with Palestinian Refugees

A version of this paper was given at ‘Stories in Transit: Telling the Tale in Times of Conflict’, Museo Internazionale Marionette, Palermo, 26-28 September, 2016

You will find the Lajee Center on a road between two thresholds. The first is a metal door. It separates Aida Refugee Camp from the holy site and popular tourist attraction of Rachel’s Tomb located just a few hundred meters away from Lajee’s main entrance.

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This is where Israeli soldiers regularly enter the camp to carry out searches, make arrests and quell protest. It is a door that allows the realities of military occupation to penetrate further into the camp and much of the strength of Lajee’s communal, territorially based solidarity is forged through an opposition to those that come through it. Yet, if solidarity is a force found in the effort to resist this opening it is arrived at in the knowledge that closing the door only completes the Wall. What is really needed is the erasure of the Wall itself.

The second entrance is at the other end of the street: it is a model of a large arch.  On top of this arch sits an equally large sculpture called the Key of Return.

creative-solidarity-4Installed in 2008 the key ‘weighs close to a tonne and measures around nine meters in length’. Aida Camp was recognised as an official refugee camp in 1950. Its first residents came from seventeen different villages in the Jerusalem and Hebron areas who had been displaced from their homes during the Nakba of 1948 and many elders in the camp still possess the keys to the homes they had to leave behind.

Enlarging these private artefacts of memory, the refugees of Aida Camp document a non-violent, inter-generational and familial solidarity based on the realisation that individual experiences of displacement had collective resonance.

In addition to this, the Key of Return gives material expression to a more expansive, geographically unconstrained, feeling of solidarity with the estimated 7.98 million Palestinian refugees and displaced persons that exist worldwide.

Alluding to the Right of Return (otherwise known as United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194) the key also expresses solidarity premised on the framework of international law and human rights, which for Palestinians remains promissory and unfulfilled.

The Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights explains that there is a ‘protection gap’ characterised by ‘the continued failure of Israel, individual third states and the international community as a whole to ensure the provision of comprehensive standards of protection to which Palestinian refugees are entitled.’

The arch is in fact a permanently open lock.

It represents an imagined solidarity, large enough for all Palestinians to eventually pass through and under. Human rights, figured here as an artwork, are claimed as a cultural resource.

Being in solidarity with the community at the Lajee Center means wanting the arch to widen, staying open long enough for the other door of military occupation to shut. The goal of an undivided Palestine to which the Lajee Center and Palestinians aspire can only be fulfilled once this condition has been met. In its mission statement Lajee insists that its ‘projects and activities are open to all Palestinians’ and it ‘refuses the division of Palestinian people on any level’. A door that opens and closes as an expression of military power imposes division.

These two thresholds, the arch and the door, are cacophonous. They seem to swing on the same hinge, and the Lajee Center is physically and metaphorically located between the two.

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In a recent video posted on Facebook by Salah Ajarma, the Center’s director, we see armed Israeli Soldiers climbing the stairs to the first floor reception. The soldiers pause at the top of the stairs as Salah gets his body between them and the first floor entrance, behind which a group of young Palestinians gather.

At this threshold, and during this clearly emotive act of care, the footage captures a framed painting of Mahmoud Darwish hanging on the wall beside the door.

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I am reminded of the last three lines of Darwish’s poem ‘One Square Meter of Prison’: ‘My freedom is not to be what they want, but to enlarge/ my prison cell, and carry on my song of the door. A door is a/ door, yet I can walk out within me […]’. 4

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In this translation by Munir Akash and Caroline Forché the song is not sung against the door or to distract us from the door. The song is ‘of the door’. The poem places faith in the capacity of art to derive models of liberation from forms of material and spatial constraint, and in proposing a notion of walking ‘out’ within one’s self the notion of a social exterior opposed to a psychological inner is transgressed.

Writing in a different but not unrelated context, the poet and theorist Denise Riley argues that if ‘we hold that the conception of social space is itself metaphorical, as there is not literally a great exterior which stands massively against our separate interiorities, it may be somewhat easier to disentangle that problem of the self’s “passage” outward and across into the social, since instead one can claim to be already social’ (52). 5

The idea of the already social self corresponds to the poem’s framework of solidarity where the speaker declares: ‘I love the fields between/ Autumn and Winter, the children of our prison guard, and the/ magazines displayed on a distant sidewalk.’ This is an expansive love that refuses the categorization of weather patterns into seasons in a desire to treasure the land as a spatial continuity. It does not ignore, rail or legislate against the punitively social imposition of imprisonment. Instead, the possessive determiner ‘our’ in the phrase ‘the children of our prison guard’ modifies its noun inverting the expected power relation between jailer and jailed. Riley argues that there is ‘an emotive topography in spatial conceptualisations of inclusion and exclusion’, and as the ‘our’ expands to include its captor we arrive at a solidarity premised on poetry alive to those contours (50-51). 5

The frequent occurrence of the word ‘door’ is significant here. In Classical Arabic poetry, poems were written as a set of verses of equivalent length called bait, meaning tent or house. These verses were divided into two halves called hemistiches, and each of these were called misra, a word which literally signifies one of the two folds of a door.

In ‘One Square Meter of Prison’ the door is not fashioned from two equally shaped rhythmic folds but occurs fifteen times, each time advancing a different kind of rhythm and opening: ‘the door of legend’; ‘A door to keep September gentle’; the ‘door of metonymy’. These variations express an absolute solidarity where ‘everything’ – as the poem informs us during its opening lines – ‘is interchangeable’.

The footage of Salah standing next to the painting of Darwish, gently baring the soldiers from penetrating the interior of the Center, affirms a sense of the social that is not only based on notions of resistance, rights and belonging, but on language and the metaphoricity of social space, which becomes strongly identified with Palestine’s cultural heritage through the figure of Darwish.

As a ‘community-based grassroots creative cultural center’ (Lajee’s words) the photograph of Darwish reminds us that Lajee is a place where an aesthetics of solidarity meets practices of resistance in the name of legal rights. This is a complex triangulation that warrants careful negotiation.

I decided that one of the ways I could and should negotiate this solidarity was to design and implement creative writing workshops. This decision was not arrived at quickly. In 2009 I responded to a call to join Lajee’s Ninth International Summer Camp. As one of around twenty participants drawn from a wide range of countries I participated in an intense and immersive three-week introduction to the academic – legal, historical, economic, and humanitarian – dimensions of the occupation. Given  Lajee’s mission statement the Summer Camp is best understood as part of their effort to cultivate a ‘grassroots people-to-people tangible and internationalist solidarity’.

After returning to London my desire to advocate based on what I witnessed became inseparable from an attempt to make solidarity the foundation of my poetics.

I began a long ninety page poem called Living In. It includes diary entries, slogans, letters, diagrams, sonnets and songs. Conceived as an extension of the poem, I designed and implemented a series of creative writing workshops  with young Palestinians living in Aida and Jalazone refugee camps. These workshops were supported by a grant from the Artists’ International Development Fund (a British Council and Arts Council England Scheme) and delivered in collaboration with the Lajee Center and The Palestine Writing Workshop in Birzeit. These workshops were developed further in 2015 in collaboration with Syrian actor and poet Ammar Haj Ahmed.

Designing and implementing creative writing workshops in a non-Western context led me to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the creative writing workshop itself. How, for example, might the kind of sociability encouraged by the creative writing workshop relate to forms of solidarity practised at the Lajee Center, and more fundamentally, what does it mean to gather people together for the common purpose of creative writing in the first place?

The proliferation of Creative Writing degrees within British Higher Education (the context in which I now work) has led to similar acts of soul searching. In her Guardian article ‘In Praise of Creative Writing’ Rachel Cusk states that a typical creative writing workshop at a British university contains ‘students whose ambitions and abilities, whose conceptions of literature itself, are so diverse that what they have in common – the desire to write – could almost be considered meaningless.’ 6

Thinking about Cusk’s problematic definition of the writing workshop in the context of Palestine highlights (for this author at least) a structural similarity between the creative writing workshop and foundational theories of solidarity proposed by early sociologists such as Emile Durkheim.

In The Division of Labour in Society (1984) Durkheim posed the following questions about the place of solidarity within contemporary society: ‘How does it come about that the individual, whilst becoming more autonomous, depends ever more closely upon society? How can he become at the same time more of an individual and yet more linked to society? (p.7).’ 7

The relationship between the individual and the group is a determining factor in the social and creative dynamics of the creative writing workshop. When turning to the creative writing workshop as a mode of solidarity in Palestine I developed writing exercises that deliberately set out to explore these dynamics. This amounts to practice-led research into how the western model of the creative writing workshop might be sensitively adapted within the context of a Palestinian refugee camp. What follows are four examples of this exploratory, pedagogic practice. These should not be read as examples of best practice but as genuine attempts to navigate a complex terrain within the parameters of a solidarity understood to be operating on a number of different and often overlapping levels (national,  social, legal, oppositional, international and creative). My lack of fluent Arabic and my awareness that everything done under the name of solidarity needs to be viewed through the historic and ongoing complicity of the UK in Palestine’s occupation by Israel shaped the design of this work. These political conditions would also likely form the basis of any critique.

 

Strategy One: The Flag as a Form

This is an exercise that has the virtue of being easy to implement when there is limited time to get to know and establish trust with a group. To begin the exercise the colours red, black, white, green are each read out eight times in Arabic at a reasonably fast pace. A short pause is left after each repetition and participants are invited to write down a single word in response. It is not revealed at the outset what the colours correspond to, and it was surprising to me that many of the participants, even at the end of the exercise, did not immediately identify these colours with their flag. Instead, without knowing it, they assigned value and developed their own associations and significations in relation to its form. At the end of the exercise each participant had generated thirty-two words with each person reading out their words preceded by the name of the colour associated with it. In 2013 around 30 of this poems were produced accompanied by a few lo-fi in-situ recordings. Here are two examples from young people in Aida Camp.

 

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After performing their poems participants were invited to make their own flags out the words, some of which with the help of Munir Nuseibah, I have been able to translate.

If I had more time to develop this exercise I would have liked participants to have experimented with other visual arrangements, such as the one below.

flag-translation-change-of-contrast

While these poems might seem devoid of narrative the deconstruction, reconstruction and proliferation of the Palestinian flag registers and responds to its changed status since the Oslo Accords, which is powerfully observed in this passage from Mourid Bargouti’s I Saw Ramallah:

Now the significations are confused Abu Muhammad, one of our old neighbours said to me. Raising a small Palestinian flag on the roof of a school or a house or even on the electric wires on the street used to cost young men their lives. Rabin’s army used to fire at anyone who tried to raise one flag and we gave martyrs throughout the intifada just to raise a flag. Now the flag is everywhere, behind the desk of every civil servant down to the smallest clerk. You don’t like the fact that the romance has gone. No it’s the absence of sovereignty signified by the raised flag that I do not like. (Barghouti, 2000, p. 141)

My hope was that rather than reasserting the dream of the Palestinian nation state, or the silent and ubiquitous articulation of its denial which Barghouti argues is embodied in the flags that flap  on the desks of every hotel in Palestine,  I was asking participants to write through this absence. The exercise  forces instinctive, imagined expressions through and up against an image loaded with social and political significance.

 

Strategy Two: Newspaper Narratives

This exercise is modelled on the cutup practices of Brion Gysin and Tristan Tzara. These are Tzara’s instructions for how to make a cutup poem:

  1. Take a newspaper.
  2. Take a pair of scissors.
  3. Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem.
  4. Cut out the article.
  5. Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag.
  6. Shake it gently.
  7. Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag.
  8. Copy conscientiously.
  9. The poem will be like you.
  10. And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.

Like the flag poem exercise, this kind of activity gets participants to turn to their social space into a source for poetry, and see language as a material artefact that can be physically manipulated. As well as celebrating the sometimes surprising and unusual word combinations that this exercise produces I encouraged participants to build their own micro-stories around their fragments. Young people in Aida and Jalazone refugee camps produced around thirty of these poems. Here is a selection:

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While these poems have not been translated I remember one young person’s story that ended with the line ‘Messi makes the Palestinians sad’. ‘Messi’, the famous Barcelona and Argentinian footballer, was one of the words this participant pulled out of the bag. Barcelona had recently visited Israel and Palestine on a ‘Peace tour’. Shimon Peres even thanked the players saying: “You are ambassadors of peace. You brought light to our people, hope to our children and a message of peace to the Middle East.” At least one young Palestinian in Jalazone didn’t see it this way and his disapproval and sadness registered in the poem.

Strategy Three: Writing on and of the Wall

The Wall that divides the West Bank from Jerusalem is a site of inscription.

the-wall-as-a-site-of-inscription

It is covered in graffiti and slogans in many different languages. Depending on who you speak to it is called the separation wall, the security barrier or the apartheid wall. The Wall’s effect of militarising, ghettoising, and appropriating Palestinian land is well documented. In solidarity literature it is often described as a snake and attributed agency.

In all these ways the Wall is a textural concrete object. It encircles Aida Camp on two sides. When my workshop participants in Aida Camp stood up from their desks they could see it out of the window.

After asking the participants to take me on a short walk along the wall on a route of their choosing, occasionally asking them to translate words and phrases on its surface, we went back to the Center and I asked them to imagine what it would mean for the Wall to have a voice, and what if anything it might say to them.

I assured participants that they would not have to tell me or anyone else what it said. I’m wary of creative writing being used for therapeutic purposes outside of a therapeutic setting. Aside from a four-year stint as a Samaritan I have no specific training in dealing with trauma.

With that said, I did ask participants to come up with a sentence in response to the Wall and most of the young people include what the wall said as part of their response. In addition, they all wrote down one phrase they had seen on the wall during our walk. We chose one of these as the title for the poem, while the other phrases were regularly repeated during the performance of the poem. The group settled on the phrase  ‘free Palestine’ as the title, and you can hear the poem’s circular and collaborative structure as different voices return on this edited recording.

I’m not exactly sure how to value this poem aesthetically or ethically. The literal translation I transcribed on the day records that Anas, the only boy in the group, says: “I want to leave this agony because of the things I see the Israeli’s doing to the Palestinians”. In this sentence he assumes the Wall’s voice before responding in his own: “So leave and never come back”. He then finishes his poem, half in doubt and half in certitude, with the question “forever?”. Positioning the wall as a witness to its own violence is a highly original move.

Elsewhere in the poem participants deploy and process hate speech. When the wall says: “These are the arabs we want to kill” the poet responds by turning the Wall’s aggression into an aesthetic judgement: “you are the dirty, boring one”. When another poet-participant says “I want to throw rocks at you/ I want to kill you/ I want to break you” the wall stubbornly replies “I will never leave”. In her chapter on malediction Riley writes:

It is the cruel gift of the malignant word to linger and echo as if fully detached from its original occasion, whose authoritative hostility I might by now, having recognised it as such, have dethroned. For the word itself still retains its reverberating autonomy, despite my potential overthrow of its speaker. This fact may offer one answer to the suspicion that accusation can retain me in its clutches only because I am especially emotionally pliable in the face of the authority of the Other. The word, instead, may be the real Other. The Other may be cut down to size as words, and dedramatized to lowercase (p.16).

This exercise reveals how the ‘authoritative hostility’ of the wall is able to detach itself from its original and material occasion of violence to reverberate as words in the minds of young Palestinians. The poem that the participants collaboratively produced in less than 30 minutes suggests that poetry may have a role to play in the dismantling of that hostility.

 

Strategy Four: Watadd and the Door

In 2015 I met poet and actor Ammar Haj Ahmed. Ammar was one of the few Syrians to be granted Asylum in the UK. For a period of around three months we translated each other’s poetry, staged a poetry reading and collaborated to found an informal creative writing and research network called Watadd. Our collaboration culminated in the design of a series of workshop exercises around the theme of the door.

These were derived from my interest in the meaning of a series of literary ‘doors’, including ones found in Kafka’s Metamorphosis and James Baldwin’s Giovani’s Room and what happens to them when they are opened in the context of Palestine. We also drew on Ammar’s very real experience of crossing borders and his knowledge of Syrian folk tales.

When I travelled to Palestine in August 2015 I took Ammar’s voice with me on an mp3 player played out our exercises to refugees and non-refugees across the Westbank. Here is the text of the first exercise:

Some doors are large, some are small. Some have powerful people waiting behind them, and some open out onto empty rooms. For this first exercise we want you to think of a door. This could be a door you’ve seen, or it could be one that exists only in your imagination. You can close your eyes if it helps you to picture it. If you’re stuck, think about who or what is behind the door. Think about whether you are on the inside or the outside of the door. Think about what colour the door is, and what it is made of, or what building it is part of. Now, when you’re ready, describe the door you see

Here is the recording in Arabic:

Here is an edited collage of some of the responses that this exercise garnered in Palestine. These recordings were made in Arabic the voice you hear is that of my translator

Work to develop these creative writing exercises as a mode of creative solidarity within Palestine and within other refugee camps in the Middle East  is ongoing.

 

 

 

Further Research Questions 

  • How exactly do the Lajee Center staff understand and practice ‘oppositional solidarity’ in the face of Israeli military incursion? Would they recognise this term and what do they see as their duties and responsibilities when soldiers invade the camp? What do residents feel like when this happens? Are these the most necessary questions and what are the appropriate research methods to gather this information?
  • What do the Lajee Center staff think of the Key of Return? What do they think it means?
  • What does it mean for the legitimacy and efficacy of Human Rights to be claimed as a cultural resource by refugees?
  • What is the best source to cite for technical terms relating to Arabic poetry? For example, ‘hemistitch’ is a  Greek word, what is the term in Arabic?
  • Outline more clearly the relationship between the ‘social’ and ‘solidarity’. Where does the term ‘social solidarity’ come from?
  • Who has developed Durkheim’s theories and in what direction?
  • Why do we need the term creative solidarity? How might one measure its effects? What are the aims of this kind of solidarity?
  • I’ve argued that the relationship between the individual and the group is a determining factor in the social and creative dynamics of the creative writing workshop but what is the evidence for this and what studies have been undertaken in this field in the UK and abroad?
  • What is the status of the printed newspaper, and more specifically, different printed newspapers in Occupied Palestine, and leading on from this, what is the cultural valence of the cut-up method in this context?
  • When was the first mention of the ‘Wall’ in solidarity literature and how am I defining solidarity literature?
  • What kinds of writers have registered the wall’s presence in their work and how?
  • Where exactly is the Wall attributed agency? Which sources?
  • Does the wall writing exercise promote creative writing as a form of therapy and if so what are the potential problems with this?
  • Why exactly am I unsure how to ethically and aesthetically value the collaborative wall poem?
  • How many Syrians have been granted Asylum in the UK and when?
  • What were the names of the local translators provided to me by the Lajee Center and Palestine Writing Workshop and what are the benefits of using non-professional, community based translators rather than professional?
  • How would I locate the Palestine Writing Workshop (as opposed to the Lajee Center) in the nexus of solidarity described above?
  • How does the military occupation of Palestine condition and determine language?
  • What social class is Mourid Barghouti and what are the implications of using middle class educated writings as a way of thinking through the literary and social politics of my writing exercises with refugees?
  • What are the things that have been proved to compromise solidarity within an artistic context?

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