IN THE remarkable beginnings of MOHAMMED EL-KURD, Rifka, the Jerusalem-based poet writes about desire: for uninterrupted childhood, for home, for laughter. These aspirations are, of course, shrouded in that ubiquitous burn for liberation that is gripping the stomachs of Palestinians, both in the region and across the world. Rifka beautifully explores the ways in which colonialism is altering our navigation through time and space – a few miles of travel can take a lifetime, an event that happened 73 years ago is happening for the first time tomorrow, and the city you fled from can be recreated right where you land. In El-Kurd’s work there are reverberations of Palestinian visionaries who came before him. Suheir Hammad’s cadence, in particular, is resonant. It appears both verbatim in the captions marked “after Suheir Hammad” and in the body of the poems, but its influence is present even when not mentioned. In his poem “post Zionism” as it appears in ZaatarDiva, she writes: “This is not new / I always, we have / always been”, with the refrain of “we always have been” repeated continuously throughout the stanzas. The poem is an affirmation and a rejection; the title is both the recognition of a current era, the state after Zionism, but also a wish – the state after Zionism. El-Kurd, too, holds this simultaneity – in the title poem, “Rifqa”, El-Kurd writes about his grandmother, “Rifqa left Haifa to go to Haifa / to go to Haifa.” In the poem “1998/1948” he writes: “It’s the same murder / they do it in a whisper”, “It’s the same murder / everywhere. Seventy years later / we haven’t lived a day. This recursion is appropriate, perhaps the most appropriate form for capturing the Nakba.
“Born on Nakba Day” appears as “My Nakba Birthday” in the 2019 El-Kurd spoken word album, Belly dance on wounds. On his album, El-Kurd performs his work with the accompaniment of ‘ud by Clarissa Bitar, resulting in an intimate and immersive experience. The ‘ud begins after El-Kurd says’ watch, listen’, amazing transition, expert draw. Here, one has the impression that it is only the listener who receives the voice and the music of El-Kurd. On the page, however, the audience works differently; in the absence of sound, there is greater attention to the peculiarities of language. In “Born on Nakba Day,” that “watching / listening” also marks a transition – this time, instead, it defines the scaffolding of an audience within an audience. El-Kurd begins: “Your wickedness rewrote my autobiography […] Your nastiness told me to push / through, // look, / listen. This is the only time the poem addresses a ‘you’ – the rest focuses on the ‘me’ and those ”[o]outside the hospital room. The event of the speaker’s birth must be perceived by the reader and by his people – it is a spectacle. El-Kurd writes: “Birth lasts longer than death / In Palestine death is sudden, / instantaneous / constant.
Like the Nakba, the Palestinian death is in progress, but also like the Nakba, the Palestinian resistance is too. I am thinking of Hammad’s poem “post-Zionism”, with its repetition of “always been” as a manifestation of Palestinian existence. El-Kurd produces an origin story that is aware of the world she is waking up to – he is not a “main character,” as origin stories can often imply. Instead, he elegantly integrates his personal narrative into the collective. The poem ends, people “told my mother / to push” – work, life is also a revolution. The audience creation in this poem is deliberate and careful. A hallmark of this collection is absolutely its self-awareness of the act of writing – there is a need to be hyper-sensitive to who is reading and how they look when your occupant has the world’s most powerful army by his side. .
This harmonization and this investment in the act of writing is manifested in a playful way in some places, sadly acute in others. In “Autobiography,” writes El-Kurd, “I miss the metaphors children throw stones at. Sirens were lullabies / fireworks; bombs and we were fed up. By this categorical rejection of the “metaphor”, El-Kurd reiterates that colonialism is not a theoretical concept nor a thing of the past. The violence he talks about is not hypothetical. I love the moments of statement anchored in “Autobiography”: “Zoloft makes my face plump, a choice between sanity and thinness”: children throw stones and people are on antidepressants. There is banality among the rubble.
“The Anti-Biography”, on the other hand, is more indulgent in its poetry; “Autobiography” is a prose poem, the lines overlap and the sentences become entangled and tangled in an overwhelming breath, while “Anti-Biography” spans multiple pages, some lines basking in white space . It’s curvy, in a way – the two poems seem like heavy processing, but the performance is different. “Autobiography” is a surge of interiority, while the latter is a refutation of perception and performance in a careful game of sarcastic versus serious. El-Kurd, reflecting on artist biographies, writes: “I think identity is out of date. / It would have pissed me off at seventeen. And later, “I am only the institution, the prestige, the watermelon” – the state, the state and the flag of resistance. What happens to a symbol of resistance if it is uttered in the same breath as the state it opposes? As in “Autobiography”, the treatment of mental illness is founded. “A cluttered bedroom / bedroom is not poetic,” he writes, shattering the earlier lush syntax. El-Kurd continually refuses to romanticize. These poems respond to the construction and commodification of the poet, perpetuated by the ego and the reader under the institution.
El-Kurd’s work also draws attention to how language is manipulated under the occupation. The poem “Fifteen-Year-Old Girls Killed for Attempt to Kill a Soldier” or “Background” takes this head on. He writes,
Violence are not children
For me, it has always been an apology.
Disaster run with context, commissioning
heroes as humans. It is a disproved revolution.
The refusal present in “Anti-Biography” appears again; El-Kurd is careful to portray the phenomena that keep Palestinians wicked. With poetry comes the potential for obstruction, and so El-Kurd gives context: “Context: they want cats / declawed, they want doors knocked / unanswered. As the cycle of speech goes on, whenever the spotlight is on the uprisings of oppressed peoples, the issue of violent resistance is reduced to a disciplinary frown by the loudest liberals. El-Kurd resists this; this poem begins with an epigraph by Fanon: “In its naked reality, decolonization stinks of red hot cannonballs and bloody knives. To declaw a cat is to deactivate it. To tell a colonized people how to resist is to condemn them to death. To compare their resistance to the violence around them is to show willful ignorance.
In “Laugh”, the poet synthesizes the geographies where he cut his teeth, “Atlanta taught me that people will clap / again the bullets that puncture them if they have / the right rhythm. to look at. There are / several ways of seeing. I remember Solmaz Sharif’s first words See: “What you call a thing matters. El-Kurd looks at what concerns him, what builds his people, and repeats it. Often it is enough to repeat the absurdity that stems from the growing paranoia of a colonial power to make a point. It makes sense that his segments on CNN and other US news channels went viral at the height of the uprisings in Palestine in May. When asked if you support the violent protests that have erupted, he immediately asks, “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?” Context: The declawed cat is unnatural. An indigenous people without sovereignty is not natural either.
So what is the function of poetry? What are we supposed to glean from this collection, beautifully crafted but questioning its very medium? “Laughter” tells us bluntly: “Poems will not build a house”. On first reading I thought that was the thesis of the poem: the direct action El-Kurd learned from his communities in Atlanta, Jerusalem – a reflection on what the movements look like and what distracts us from it. The poems are not a distraction, however. He guides us throughout the collection with those moments that tell us the value of story. A quote from his grandmother: “[I]If we don’t laugh, we cry. This, on the contrary, could be the balm of everything: “In Jerusalem”, the opening poem of the collection, ends with a quote from the poet’s mother: “The most tragic of disasters / are those who make you laugh. Although contradictory at first glance, I see these lines as extensions of each other – in the face of tragedy, if we don’t allow ourselves to be laughed at, we can only cry. In “Autobiography,” El-Kurd clearly tells us, “laughter was the motive for less revolution and more freedom than more child’s play.” In “Rifqa,” he writes, “what I write is almost an almost. / I’m writing an attempt. Praising his grandmother’s praise, he writes: “She worked tirelessly until survival became a fun story to tell with what’s left of the family. Poetry, then, cannot build a house, cannot stop a bomb. He can, however, communicate. El-Kurd’s flourishes come from repetition and pauses – his language is simple. This clarity is nevertheless necessary. How many times have Palestinians died because of a misunderstood word? How often have Palestinians taken out of context? There is so often a reiteration of intention in these poems, and there almost must be. El-Kurd pours so much into this collection, looking for that opportunity to laugh, as a tribute to those he documents.