In his 2004 poetic tribute ‘Edward Said: A Contrapuntal Reading’, Mahmoud Darwish – the celebrated national poet of a Palestinian people denied a nation – wrote of exile as both the ‘outside world’ and ‘the world inside’. His question was open-ended: ‘And what are you between the two?’ Palestinian poet Fouzi-El Asmar elucidated this torturous distance in ‘The Wandering Reed’ (1979), describing exile as the ‘hangman of the twentieth century’ obliterating one’s reflection in the mirror. Rifqa (2021), Mohammed El-Kurd’s debut poetry collection, taps into and extends a rich vein of Palestinian poetry, contending with the internal and external dislocation experienced under Israeli occupation.
Rifqa’s namesake is El-Kurd’s grandmother, a towering presence who, after being exiled from her native Haifa, spent her long life defending her family home in Sheikh Jarrah. Palestinians were forcefully expelled from Haifa in 1948, and the same pattern of violent evictions continues in Sheikh Jarrah today. Rifqa stalks the pages alongside the likes of Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Edward Said, Nina Simone, Amal Dunqul and Toni Morrison: figures who have all, in various ways, struggled against domination. Beyond the names we may recognise, the scattered and nameless roam. Nicki Minaj fills the airways of Atlanta where women, much like their counterparts in Jerusalem and Gaza, ‘push out statistics’. In ‘Three Women’, El-Kurd conjures images of nooses and umbilical cords, laying out the stakes amidst the rubble. ‘There is no life without pushing, no life in siege’, he writes.
Planetary crisis threatens to further democratise the conditions of refugeehood. In the words of Rashid Hussein, an influential poet once described by Darwish as ‘the star’ of Palestine, even ‘God has become a refugee, sir’. El-Kurd draws on Hussein’s ethos, insisting on the commonality of an experience so often discussed and depicted in exceptional terms. Refugees, children and grandchildren of refugees living within sight of their own elusive homelands, exiles clinging to scraps of memory continents away, children of exiles holding the citizenships of the very states which have exiled their families, locals who are made to feel like exiles in their own homes and neighbourhoods, nations within nations: the disparate and distant become mordantly intimate in El-Kurd’s collection. There is nothing marginal about such people or their lives. If anything, their continued struggles for self-determination are central in undermining the brutal configurations of border and capital which increasingly condemn more of us to unliveable lives.
Hussein died in 1977, trapped in a mysterious fire that engulfed his poky New York City apartment. Widespread speculation followed, with some leaning towards theories of suicide and possible assassination, such fates being tragically familiar to Palestinian intellectuals. Others conclude that Hussein’s unpublished manuscripts or audio cassettes caught fire, causing him to die from smoke inhalation. Darwish lamented Hussein’s death, writing that his peer ‘choked in the smoke of his own poetry’. What we do know is that Hussein died in poverty, struggling with alcoholism and political alienation. Even for the more fortunate, exile is often an unbearably slow death. In life, Hussein was both a luminously gifted and fractious individual, known for his political activism, journalism and oration. Working prolifically across Arabic and Hebrew, he translated the writings of Patrice Lumumba, Bertolt Brecht and Hayim Nahman Bialik, participated in the founding of the Land Movement (established in 1959 to support the rights of Palestinians on their land) and served as a correspondent to the United Nations for the Palestine Liberation Organisation in the 1970s. Hussein was an unlikely spokesman who had previously wrestled with the knotty contradictions of being a Palestinian radical within the Israeli political structure. He contributed to the periodicals of the Israeli trade union Histadrut, and edited the left-wing Israeli party Mapam’s Arabic-language journal, where fellow poet Fouzi El-Asmar’s writings could also be found. In the end, these contradictions proved too fraught to bear for a man who, as Edward Said put it, ‘regularly outraged his superiors with unconventional ideas and utopian rhetoric’. Hussein was eventually expelled from political organisations and banned from teaching in classrooms.
In Hussein’s poetry, the exile’s life is marked by an agonising incongruity between the life one has imagined for oneself – which remains so cruelly out of reach – and the life one is forced to survive. The literatures of exiles point to an unceasing awareness of what has been lost, especially when it still lives on. Exile is a tiring procession of drudgeries. It’s hardly romantic, though it can produce poetry of intense romantic vigour. Hussein imagined God as a shivering refugee. In 1973, Gazan poet Muin Bseiso wrote the poem ‘God Was a Soldier Behind the Barricades of Damascus’, in which the title alone suggests the universality of this sense of besiegement. In El-Kurd’s poems, God lingers ‘at the drugstore’, surrounded by an inescapably harsh American landscape. Here, the Nakba – the ongoing devastation of Palestinian society that began in 1948 with the mass expulsion and displacement of Palestinians from their homes, towns and villages – is a discursive loop of grief, a cycle folding in on itself, recurring and resurfacing as the generational suffering under Israeli occupation continues. El-Kurd ends the poem ‘1948/1998’ with ‘Seventy-some years later we haven’t lived a day’, tracing this fractured line of history to its living present. ‘Born on Nakba Day’ describes Palestine as a place where ‘birth lasts longer than death’, and where ‘death happens between breaths.’ Amidst the wreckage El-Kurd describes, poetic elders become crutches as the young rely on ‘stacking and hoarding Darwish’s reasons to live.’ While reading, I am reminded of ambling through Amman with friends, another city of refugees and their children, its backstreets painted with Darwish’s list of what makes life worth living on his beleaguered land: the aroma of bread at dawn, Aeschylus’s writings, April’s hesitation, an hour of sunlight in prison, the first flutters of love, a tyrant’s fear of songs. El-Kurd belongs to a generation both animated by and burdened with an inheritance of political and poetic implications. In Rifqa, we see wry reclamation, interrogation and the jubilant mood of streets aflame with protest. Language is dismantled and contorted, drawing from a symbology of defiance. The occupier has a boundless imagination for cruelty, but the occupied have always been resourcefully slippery. The occupied are on the run, and as such are always one step ahead.
Rifqa is divided into four sections, each contending with various forms of dispossession. Exile is stratified within a colonial paradigm where ‘lucky refugees’ are given houses and ‘shiny promises of UNRWA’ (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees in the Near East), while others are spat out in different directions. In interviews, El-Kurd has attested to being a better writer in Arabic than in English. Rifqa strains English through repurposed metaphors, proverbs, snatched lines of borrowed poetry, unitalicised expressions and untranslated prayers (‘After patience there is but a grave’). For Arabic speakers, this sustains an effect of disorienting familiarity. Amidst the ‘sick homesickness’ of occupation, the difficulty of translation is represented. All the while, El-Kurd refuses the death of liberatory dreams by writing towards a future where ‘one day we will write about dispossession in the past tense.’ His poems shift between forms, their fragmented caesuras disrupting the white space of the page, even as they volley between English and Arabic, occupied and occupier, grandmother and grandson.
Born in Sheikh Jarrah in the late 1990s, El-Kurd travelled to the US to study, but moved back home to protest the forced evictions that threatened his family’s home. Rifqa’s world is one where exhausted exiles dream of the Haitian Revolution’s promise in the back of Brooklyn Ubers, or bring up massacre at the party and not apologise for it, despite the indifferent crowd. ‘One of them promised to put my rags in the museum’, El-Kurd writes in ‘Why Do You Speak of the Nakba at the Party?’, illustrating a refusal to place victimhood on a pedestal. Like their poems, exiles and refugees are most eagerly welcomed into the halls of humanitarian liberalism when draped in the suffocating costume of apolitical vulnerability. They mysteriously wash up on Western shores with outstretched hands. They suffocate in lorries or in their own smoke-clogged apartments. In our cultural mainstream, we await and celebrate the poetry spun by survivors only if it’s suitably defanged. We are less comfortable with poems midwifed by an urgent struggle for the inalienable right to life and dignity on one’s land – less comfortable with the literatures and lives of those who demand our action instead of our inconsistent pieties. As El-Kurd describes, these are the refugees who ‘refused to be martyred’, who ‘refused to exit’. Rifqa challenges the politics of spectatorship and spokespersonship, extending the poetic tradition of a people crossed by borders and separation walls, of a poetry which swaggers even when wounded.
If there’s one thing that flourishes under occupation, it’s gallows humour. Rifqa serves up the signifiers linking canonical Palestinian poetry to today’s strains of ‘diaspora poetry’ with sardonic relish; olive trees, watermelons, old women smuggling figs through military barriers, barbed wire, the untranslated echo of Marcel Khalife bangers. Elsewhere, there is the warbling familiarity of Oum Kalthoum. El-Kurd is a poet concerned with ‘finding the joke in jasmine’, with ‘molotovs in Fendi bags’ and ‘pamphlets in python shoes’. Poems such as ‘Where Am I From Jerusalem?’ and ‘The Biggest Punchline of All Time’ render the maddening inertia of a life lived under occupation, a world where survival becomes ‘a funny story to tell on evenings with what remains of the family’. The comic absurdity of forced expulsion and imposed exile is a tricky register to juggle, but one which is cathartically rewarding for readers who will recognise a kind of humour cultivated amidst horror.
Nowhere is this more poignant than in ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Anti-Biography’, two poems which compress the confessional mode. ‘Used to pimp my pain / Now I merely exploit it’, El-Kurd observes, skewering the dubious economy of witness-bearing. In ‘Anti-Biography’, he writes,
I think identity is corny.
That would have enraged me at seventeen.
My current beliefs would have —
except for the rifles
we all agree on the rifles.
This is a poem of prickly disclaimers and sheer realness. Insight rubs up against melodrama, and El-Kurd fluidly moves between contrasting modalities. He is both the formerly shrunken teenager and ‘the institution, the prestige, the watermelon.’ Where Said was once the music critic for the US journal The Nation, El-Kurd was recently appointed as its Palestine correspondent. He has critiqued the value of his own inclusion on TIME’s list of 100 Most Influential People 2021 for the kind of activism that his lesser-known friends and neighbours have been jailed for. Hussein died alone a stone’s throw away from the UN’s hallowed headquarters. Recently, El-Kurd addressed the UN General Assembly, beginning his speech with a deadpan introduction: ‘Hello international community, thank you for these groundbreaking speeches. I’m sure the occupation authorities are really concerned right now.’ El-Kurd doesn’t believe in the poet’s capacity to change the world from within a rarefied silo of prizes, individualist ambition and convenient political neutralisation. He is a better poet for it.