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The Power of Poetry: How Palestinian Poets Have Guided the Resistance

by in Palestine on 7th May, 2024

When I think of Palestine, I think of the warm aroma of maqlubah and musakhan. I think of folk songs played on the lute and the stomping of the dabke dance. But above all, I think of poetry. The words of Mahmoud Darwish, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Mourid Barghouti, give the English romantics a run for their money. Through their politically-charged verses and lyrics of hope, these poets sparked a flame of cultural resistance that continues to burn brightly today.

Poetry has historically been Palestine’s most beloved art form. The social historian Dorothy Benson described poetry as an ‘essential ingredient’ of Arab culture that has been passed down since the establishment of Islam in the region. Poetry was commonly performed in both private and public spaces as recently as 1940, regularly drawing in large, enthused crowds. 

In the late nineteenth century, poetry’s function within Palestinian society started to shift. What had always been a creative form imbued with romance and musings on the mundane, began to take on a political nature. As resentment toward the Ottoman Empire and calls for Palestinian Independence became widespread within society, Palestinian poetry increasingly reflected on these issues.

Poetry, in both written form and through public performance, was a powerful tool utilised by political poets to disseminate nationalist ideas across the country during critical moments in the Palestinian fight for self-determination, such as the 1936-39 Arab Revolt and the 1948 Nakba.

How Is Literature a Form of Political Resistance?

Literature holds enormous power in times of occupation and oppression, and has been used as a political weapon in numerous twentieth century decolonial movements across the Global South. In 1968, the Palestinian writer and member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ghassan Kanafani, stated,

“The cultural form of resistance is no less valuable than armed resistance itself.”

This is because resistance through writing and creativity enables disenfranchised civilians to protest against dominant political powers. Furthermore, it offers people living under oppression the agency to construct their own narratives of their history and culture. Tasneim Zyada, a British-Palestinian writer, explains that literature’s unique power is in encapsulating ‘the feeling and energy of the time, which is what leads to historic change’.

Poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Tuqan, Tawfiq Zayyad, Harun Hashim Rasheed, and Samih al-Qasim were amongst the many writers who led the Palestinian resistance poetry movement when it gained real traction in 1948, after the forced displacement of over 750,000 Palestinians (known as the Nakba). 

These poets documented the horrors that Palestinian people experienced, such as being driven out of their homes by the newly established Israeli army as well as the enduring public humiliation and violence. This was no small act of resistance. By recording instances of violence within literature, Palestinian poets pushed back against the Israeli state’s attempts to conceal their crimes and eradicate Palestinian voices. 

Take Harun Hasmin Rasheed’s poem, ‘Raise Your Arms’, for example. In this poem, he recalls being intimidated and threatened with a gun by Israeli militants:

Raise your arms…

they aimed their guns at me…

-Raise your arms…

I stood, my eyes flaming 

and scorching with anger

The world blackened in my eyes

my hands on the wall

as guns were pointing at me

I wished the wall would fall on my head

my comrades and I waited

for their bullets,

for their bullets

The resistance poets spoke of more than just despair; their poems also expressed aspirations for a liberated Palestine. We see this in Fadwa Tuqan’s revered poem, The Deluge and The TreeThe final stanza of the poem reads:

When the Tree rises up, the branches

shall flourish green and fresh in the sun

the laughter of the tree shall leaf

beneath the sun

and birds shall return

Undoubtedly, the birds shall return.

The birds shall return.

Tuqan’s assuredness in the return of the ‘birds’, who are symbolic of exiled Palestinians, is an allegory for the hope held by many Palestinians of one day returning to the homeland. 

Shahd Mahnavi, a Palestinian poet born and raised in Jerusalem, shared that she is ‘inspired’ by the resistance writers of the twentieth century like Ibrahim Tuqan, Mahmoud Darwish, and indeed her own father, Ibrahim Karain, a poet and creator of the Palestinian magazine Al-Awda, translating to ‘the return’. 

She stated: “These are the poets that fought to be heard and for the independence of the Palestinian people. They fought for Palestinians who have been denied a voice, a basic human right. I look up to them and so do a lot of Palestinians.They left a remarkable legacy for other writers to follow. We’re [contemporary poets] all continuing their work.”

Similarly, Tasneim Zyada, whose family were forced into exile during the Nakba, says that being aware of authors such as Barghouti, Suheir Hammad and Edward Said ‘validated’ her own voice. She explained,

“[these writers] showed me that it wasn’t out of the norm for us [Palestinians] to be sharing our stories – the conversation had already been started. It made me realise that this is what we [Palestinians] do. There was a long legacy of speaking out, and I was a part of it.”

The Consequences of Speaking Out

History is witness to the fact that speaking out is never easy, especially if you are speaking out against your own violent colonial oppressors and the occupiers of your land. Hence, unsurprisingly, writing resistance poetry under Israeli occupation comes with severe repercussions. Oppressive censorship laws mean that Palestinian literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, has to be approved by Israeli officials before being published. 

A report on censorship in the West Bank published in 1984 found that literature produced by Palestinian poets and creative writers was ‘closely scrutinised by censorship authorities for political content’. Poets that referenced topics such as Palestinian national aspirations, the right of refugees to return to their homes, and opposition to occupation in their works were often imprisoned and subjected to torture. 

This is because the Israeli government recognised the power that poets and artists held in championing the resistance and encouraging Palestinian people to speak out against their oppressors. In fact, the Israeli general Moshe Dayan once compared reading one of Fadwa Tuqan’s poems to facing ‘twenty enemy commandos’, highlighting the extent to which they perceived writers as a threat to their regime.

To combat the threat posed by writers, Israel has time and time again deliberately assassinated Palestinian academics, intellectuals and artists to erase their voices and deter ordinary Palestinians from joining the liberation movement. In the 1970s, when resistance art was flourishing in Palestine, writers Ghassan Kanafani and Kamal Nasser were killed by Israeli forces to silence their resistance. Fifty years later, we see the same tactics continually being carried out. 

Growing up with a father who worked in politics and published a magazine with nationalistic undertones, Shahd Mahnavi expressed that she constantly felt fearful of the Israeli army. She disclosed: “Growing up, there were always consequences for speaking… your house could be raided, which happened to me a few times. We were under constant monitoring.”

A report published by the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in December 2023 confirmed that every single Palestinian cultural centre has been partially or completely destroyed since the assault on Gaza in October 2023, as well as nine publishing houses and libraries. This sweeping cultural denigration is an attack not just on today’s Palestinian population, but their ancestors and history. It allows Israel to perpetuate the false narrative that prior to their existence, Palestine was a barren land without a people and culture.

Furthermore, the report found that at least 28 artists had been killed by Israeli forces in just two months. The ‘martyrs of the cultural sector’ include poets Hiba Abu Nada, Omar Abu Shawish, and Refaat Alareer, who had all written about the decades of hardship endured by Palestinians in their literary works. 

Refaat Alareer, in particular, as a poet, professor, and activist, had been instrumental in furthering the Palestinian cause amongst students. He was ruthlessly targeted and killed by an Israeli airstrike on 6th December 2023. His martyrdom sparked international outrage and propelled anti-genocide protesting. At protests in London and Edinburgh, his poem ‘If I Must Die’, detailing how he wanted his eventual death to push readers into fighting for Palestinian liberation, was recited by speakers. In Houston, Texas, teenagers organised a kite-flying tribute to honour Alareer as well as the other countless Palestinians killed and injured in the ongoing crisis. 

Student activists at University College London (UCL), where Alareer gained his master’s degree in English Literature, ‘renamed’ the UCL Student Centre the ‘Refaat Alareer Student Centre’, as part of a wider protest against the university’s neutrality to the ongoing genocide in Palestine. The international reaction to Alareer’s killing was evidently guided by his poem ‘If I Must Die’, a testament to the power that poetry holds in calling people to action. 

“If I Must Die” 

If I must die, 

you must live 

to tell my story 

to sell my things 

to buy a piece of cloth 

and some strings, 

(make it white with a long tail) 

so that a child, somewhere in Gaza 

while looking heaven in the eye 

awaiting his dad who left in a blaze— 

and bid no one farewell 

not even to his flesh 

not even to himself— 

sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above 

and thinks for a moment an angel is there 

bringing back love 

If I must die 

let it bring hope 

let it be a tale

– By Refaat Alareer. 

The Flame of Resistance Burns On…

Despite the risks, Palestinian resistance writers have not been dissuaded from sharing their words. In fact, some view writing as a necessary practice to fight cultural erasure carried out by Israel. Tasneim Zyada states,

“Documenting through creative mediums has led us to be rooted and reaffirmed in our identities. If we aren’t the ones documenting our stories, the richness of our culture and entire communities will be lost. If we don’t write or share our stories, both in Palestine and in the diaspora, the global understanding of our narratives will miss how our experience has evolved – leaving us to be a historical moment of the past, instead of a people that still lives.”

Shahd admits, “If I was in Jerusalem, I would be in jail right now, simply because I’m raising awareness of what’s happening in Gaza.” Her family pleaded with her to stay silent, so that she would one day be able to return to Jerusalem and see them again. But she responded, “There’s something in my heart, a warmth, telling me to speak up. If I don’t do it, who’s going to do it? People at home are going to die, be imprisoned, have their home destroyed if they speak. So I speak for them.”

In Shahd’s poem, ‘Hope; As Day Awakes’, we see the influence and ideas of earlier resistance poets like Tuqan, who regularly spoke of hope:

Hope in the sunshine as day awakes,

Hope in the sunset as twilight takes.

Hope in the waking of a brand new morn,

Hope in the eyes of someone you adore.

Hope in the loved ones as they lay buried in peace,

Hope in the children running playing after the cease.

Hope in the world as solidarity rises,

Hope in believing United we go marching.

Hope in humanity as voices awake,

Hope in a future where love’s embrace takes.

Tasneim Zyada succinctly summed up the meaningful relationship between the poetry of the past and the poetry of today, stating, Art is in conversation with the times and the previous work before it. It’s a prompt for future conversations as well. Anything I put forward has influences of conversations from the past and may influence conversations that I have yet to engage in.” 

The writers that led the resistance in the 1950s have undoubtedly paved the way for contemporary poets, just as today’s poets will shed light on cultural resistance for future generations. Poets like Shahd Mahnavi and Tasneim Zyada have refused to let the work of early resistance poets be forgotten and are bravely continuing their legacy.

When the poets of today and yesterday share their words, they take on new lives in the minds of everyone who encounters them. Their words inspire us and act as an ever-present call to arms. Consequently, the colonial powers who are working to decimate the cultural form of resistance are ultimately fighting a losing battle.

Mohsina Alam

Mohsina Alam

Mohsina Alam is a 22 year old freelance journalist based in Brighton, England. She writes about a wide range of topics, including fashion, travel, humanitarian projects, politics, and love. She is the creator of The Love Club; a monthly newsletter all about writing, personal thoughts, and, of course, love.