The Good Artists Were Usually on the Right Side
[ Samih Al Kasim was the guest of honor at the 7th Swiss-Arabic poetry festival al-Mutanabbi: the poet Samih al-Kasim, voice of the Palestinian resistance. Interviewed by Alexandra Kedves. ]
Their tongue and their conscience, their spirit and their poet: that is what I want to be! As a poet I speak for my people, for the Palestinians. And I can say without hesitation that there is nothing they want more than peace, peaceful coexistence in an undivided country. We want to live as brothers with the Jewish population. As a British officer, my father fought against Hitler – and for the Jews. And the Palestinians represent a large group within the Semitic community of languages: nothing is more foreign to our nature than anti-Semitism!
And I believe that the Jewish population, too, ultimately wants nothing other than peaceful coexistence. Nowhere have the Jews fared better than here, in our common country. It is the authorities that are blind enough to want a purely Jewish state. They had this inhuman, monstrous idea of a wall! They treat the Palestinians as second-class citizens, occupy the country, expel the inhabitants. They give back territory that doesn’t even belong to them and expect gratitude: that is nothing but a political trick. It is the Israeli “classe politique” that cultivates the mentality of a ghetto – to the detriment of all. The only possible counterforce could come from the USA.
If the political strategists want their Jewish state, we reply: If it is your will, go ahead. But then we would like our own state, as stipulated in Resolution 242 of the UN Security Council from 1967 – with the Arab part of Jerusalem as capital. An open capital without walls. I come from Rama, a beautiful town in Galilee with ancient olive trees. It was my homeland, but now it feels like a threatened homeland. I have four sons who have studied, lived and worked in Israel. Nonetheless, they do not really belong to Israeli society.
And then the world is amazed at phenomena which it dismisses as “terrorism”. On the one hand one admires the members of France’s Résistance and people in general who sacrifice themselves in the struggle against oppressors. Why are our resistance fighters regarded as bloodthirsty terrorists, then? That is unfair. They are young people like my sons – and their mothers dreamed of a different life for them than that of a desperate stone-thrower or suicide bomber. How loudly must suffering cry before the world hears it? Occupation leads to opposition. We are for peace – even those who, unlike me, voted for Hamas because Fatah disappointed them. But Jerusalem is not David’s city; he too came from another country. In any case, it is not a matter of history or religion. Ur-Salem, the city of Salem, today Jerusalem, has Arab origins anyway. It is only a question of power.
I am friends with many Israeli writers and artists. And like all really creative people they are for peace and against oppression. From Picasso to Aragon, from Neruda to Mayakovsky, the good artists have usually been on the right side – and someone like Amos Oz as well. The fact that the Israeli novelist Zeruya Shalev is still suffering from her bomb trauma is hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the injustice that has been done to the Palestinians. My question in return: do you know how many Palestinian poets have been oppressed or even murdered?
Nonetheless, I will not let my voice as a political poet be silenced! Writers and poets have the task of writing about life. And life includes both flowers and politics, love and war. In Aragon’s “Elsa” poems – I knew him personally – war and occupation are constantly present. They became poetic icons of the Résistance. That is exactly what my poetry is meant to do: to touch and move what is innermost – and to reflect the outside world of experience. In Europe I increasingly see a plasticization of literature and poetry: it has no more fragrance, it is globalized, so to speak. I would contrast that with an Enzensberger or a Brecht.
For myself that has meant recently that I revisit classic forms, traditional rhythms and rhymes. It is important to maintain one’s cultural heritage. What would the Germans be without Goethe? What would the Arab culture be without the poet al-Mutanabbi? In my poetic collages I combine the legacy with the present, uniting pieces from life and pride in the past: this makes me a voice of my culture.
Samih al-Kasim, born in 1939, studied in al-Rama and Nazareth, taught in Nazareth, Galilee and Carmel and worked for various newspapers. At this time he is editor-in-chief of “Kul-al-Arab” in Nazareth. He is one of the best-known so-called “poets of the Palestinian resistance”, has published more than 40 books and has won numerous prizes; in January 2007 he received the Peace Prize of the Jewish-Palestinian peace village “Oasis of Peace”.
Samih al-Kasim, Sadder than Water: Selected Poems. Translation by Nazih Kassis. Introduction by Adina Hoffman. Ibis Editions, Jerusalem.
The International Poetry Festival al-Mutanabbi takes place once a year in various regions of Switzerland, organized by the Swiss-Arabic Cultural Center in Zurich, where the festival is centered. For the 7th annual festival poets were invited from Libya, Iraq, Syria, Tunesia, Egypt, Yemen and Oman, the U.S.A., among other places.
www.sakz.ch. Last Al-Mutanabbi readings: Geneva, June 6, Lugano, June 7.
Interview: Alexandra Kedves
Translated from the German by Isabel Cole