On Arab American Women’s Anti-War Poetry – Michigan Quarterly Review
A column of smoke resulting from Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip

On Arab American Women’s Anti-War Poetry

I. Witnessing

These are the first few lines of Hala Alyan’s poem “Diaspora” written in response to the 2014 Israeli bombing of Gaza. During the war, over two thousand Gazans were killed and over ten thousand were injured, the infrastructure destroyed, many more left homeless. A war of collective punishment, seeking not only to intimidate, to tear down, to kill and to maim, but to destroy kinships, to annihilate foundations and to interrupt connections. The Israeli settler colonial expansion in East Jerusalem and the West Bank occupies more land day by day through the fragmentation of Palestinian society, the incessant construction of Israeli settlements, the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes, and the rupturing of the landscape through an apartheid network of highways and checkpoints connecting Israeli settlements and rending asunder Palestinian towns and villages. The wars in Gaza have aimed, similarly, at creating breaks that reverberate throughout Gazan society—the erosion of a sense of community, the destruction of any structures that sustain life, and ultimately stifling the very possibility of life. As we watch the most recent genocidal Israeli war on Gaza unfold on our screens, and as we witness many more thousands of Palestinians displaced, killed or buried under the rubble of demolished apartment buildings, the expansionist logic of settler colonialism appears to be intensifying at a frightfully swift pace.

This is weight, writes Alyan. Depending on how you choose to hear it, this is a burden and it is a moment of waiting. It is the weight of witnessing and the interminable wait before the human losses are counted, it is the weight of losing count. The sheer force of the techno-military industrial complex sustained by the U.S.-Israeli alliance manifests through the transformation of natural things into fire—the aluminum dusk, clouds of sulfur, morning of cinder, flashlit bodies. Settler colonial power functions through the complete monopolization of everyday life and the occupation of those very coordinates that constitute existence: the integrity of the body and the senses, relationships of kinship, connections to a community, distributions of space, and senses of time. In this sense, settler colonialism is biopolitical. It aims not only to destroy, but also to control, to take away voice, image and representation, to swallow up land, to distort time, and to distract from the passing of time. The time of the occupation is endless.

Time is relative. The timing of the bombing, the felt experience of time. The fact that bombs can be released through the pressing of a button, from a sheltered and highly securitized position of privilege. In a time of drone warfare, temporal scales take new dimensions. How are we to compare the time it takes to release a bomb, a fraction of a second from the point of view of the one seated in front of a computer screen, to the time of the devastation of the bomb, in which human lives are irremediably and forever damaged? Technology has brought us closer and further apart.

For Alyan, technology is a type of mediation that forms the however fragile links between the Palestinian diaspora and the suffering of the people of Gaza:

Diasporic witnessing is here intertwined with guilt. A form of guilt that cannot be reversed or undone. Exile is not a choice; it is a legacy for Alyan. As she writes in the same poem, in a parallel life her father’s father “grabbed a fistful of soil, and instead of leaving, stayed.” Diaspora is, thus, responsibility: “The least I can do is watch.” To bear witness: to watch, to observe, to record, to hold on to the event, to give visibility to pain, to articulate an ethical response. A witness, in this sense, is at the same time a bystander and an active participant collecting evidence of injustice, attesting to the reproduction of violence, legitimizing and disseminating the narratives of those oppressed. Alyan writes:

In her poem, Alyan claims her kinship with Gaza, as well as her personal and family history. And, most importantly, she gives visibility to Gaza through her performance art and her writing, celebrating survival and ties of love in the wake of violence. The witness thus becomes breath, the breath of the living, the breath that carries words, the breath that resonates with music, the breath that rewrites dominant history, and the breath that perseveres against all odds. Alyan’s last two lines reaffirm kinship to an imagined community, responsibility, and the future as a site of emergence:

 II. Kinship

Suheir Hammad’s “first writing since…” reflects on the collective and personal experiences of mourning in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in New York. The poet is silent in the beginning: 

Trauma enacts the breakdown of language. A period of waiting, in which the radical shifts in everyday life in the aftermath of collective tragedy slowly accumulate like lost impressions. And then, the perceptions and feelings are formed into thoughts and into the language of poetry.

Hammad’s poem records the confusion in the days succeeding the attacks on the towers—families looking for their missing loved ones, holding up signs with their pictures and names, anger boiling under the surface of things, erupting in declarations of reprisal:

But where is “over there”? And who are “they”? Hammad recognizes that the abstract, distant, and manufactured “Other” over there includes “Her” over here.

“over there is over here,” she writes.

Hammad is implicated in this relationship in more than one way—not only as a New Yorker and a mourner, tied by the links of grief to her home community, nor only as the sister of a Navy officer who will soon be called in to fight, but also as a woman of color, an Arab American, suffering the consequences of a retaliatory xenophobic and nationalist discourse exploding in the aftermath of the event, in the media, in politics, in everyday encounters, and in street scenes, where American flags decorate houses and shops. But Hammad actively refuses this latter interpellation:

By reordering the emotional separations and dissociations enacted by xenophobia, anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia, Hammad creates other connections against violence and the destruction of human lives. Her writing takes speculative shape, in that it generates unexpected ties of identification, empathy and kinship for her audience:

By bringing the suffering of New Yorkers in relation to the bodily precariousness experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, under a permanent state of siege and colonial warfare, Hammad gestures to the very notion of vulnerability as a site of emergence of newly defined notions of solidarity against violence. She also connects the prevalent visibility of the victims of the September 11 attacks, to the invisibilized victims of Israeli bombings and military occupation.

Ultimately, her poem locates its rhythm in the very same vitality that is the source of vulnerability:

Capturing and restructuring the retaliatory language of the Bush administration, Hammad channels collective mourning into a call for a global community yet to come, which transcends cultural, ethnic and religious distinctions, and in which life is endowed with respect and cared for as the relational bond of society.

In her poem, “First Bombing,” dedicated to Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal writes on the verge of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the devastation of Baghdad: 

The first bomb explodes in Baghdad and reverberates through the speaker’s body in New York City: “a trembling inside me.” Over there is over here. Handal’s search for solace through her identification with Hammad, is not only an affirmation of kinship, their shared Palestinian heritage, their shared Arab belonging, but also the attempt to locate a space of mourning in the midst of a society busily at war with a displaced and misplaced enemy:

III. The Senses

For Jacques Rancière, politics is inextricably intertwined with aesthetics. By this, he refers not only to the political dimensions of visual and literary texts, but also to the manner in which our senses are conditioned by specific historical and political configurations of power. “Politics,” writes Rancière, “revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, about who has the ability to see and the talent to speak.” To be able to see and to be able to speak, to move freely across borders, separation walls, checkpoints, and through public spaces, to touch others and to be in community with others—these are politicized conditions related to the different articulations of privilege, rights, and access to the means of representation. 

But what happens if imperial power fundamentally displaces the order of the senses by blocking, erasing, overwriting or obliterating the histories of the oppressed? Who has the right to speak in open forums, on television channels, in mainstream media, international conventions, and in locations of concentrated political power? And whose voices are systematically distorted, censured, and muted?  These questions of voice and visibility are intimately connected to distinctions between lives apprehended as valuable, vulnerable, injurable and lives perceived as invisible, negligible, subhuman. Imperial power structures the order of sensibility through which we establish strong emotional ties to some lives, while ignoring the destruction of others.

Judith Butler’s work on precariousness, ideologies of war and acts of witnessing lingers extensively on forms of imperial power that make some lives more visible and valuable than others. Reflecting on the complexities of vulnerability, Butler distinguishes between precariousness, or the common condition of life that is susceptible to destruction, and precarity, which “designates that politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.” In response to the nationalist ideologies proliferated in the aftermath of September 11, Butler analyzes the manner in which war discourses regulate the affective responses of the Western publics to the suffering of distant others, especially when these other lives are portrayed as mutually exclusive with “American” lives. Thus, the precariousness of one segment of the population, our U.S. lives “over here,” is invoked as a means of self-defense against those other lives “over there” who are represented as less-than-human and ungrievable. The conditions of precarity produced by U.S. wars abroad in Afghanistan and Iraq are simultaneous with the interpretative frames of war, media and political discourses that erase Arab, Afghan, and Muslim lives from the conditions of visibility. 

War acts directly on the senses, Butler writes, “crafting them to apprehend the world selectively, deadening affect in response to certain images and sounds, and enlivening affective responses to others.” We see similar patterns, narratives, and frames of visibility being deployed throughout the current Israeli invasion and destruction of Gaza. In the name of “self-defense” and the quintessential precariousness of the lives of one population, another population is obliterated from the world of the living. Our senses have become once again weaponized in this latest articulation of imperial warfare. And yet, the logic of imperial power can be disrupted and hijacked. 

To create political art—a form of poetry, for example, that challenges the dominant conditions of visibility—is to subject your audience to the collision of different politics of sensoriality, according to Rancière. The mysterious order of the senses, and its connection to inner emotional landscapes, is not permanently foreclosed and can be defamiliarized through radical interventions. This means that political art can disorient our habitual ways of seeing/hearing, and open our senses to the otherwise, to what is left unseen/unheard. The anti-war poems of Arab American writers, often performed in public spaces, resonate and reverberate, disrupt and reconstruct, create affective connections where perhaps there had been none, and bring the “over there” in close relation to the “over here,” in such a manner that dichotomies no longer hold and, ultimately, break apart.

IV. Everyday Life

After living for almost seventeen years in exile in California, Etel Adnan returned to Beirut in 1972. This was right on the brink of the Lebanese Civil War, when conflict was already simmering under the surface of everyday things. Being forced to collapse two worlds, that of her immediate experience (the new old Beirut) and her existential life (“California was on my mind, like a filtering device”), Adnan becomes “mobile, edgy, and most of all, vulnerable.” It is in this state of enhanced apprehension and vulnerability, in which contradictory impressions and emotions of different worlds compete in forming her daily habits, that Adnan discovers something humbling about the act of witnessing. In the years leading to the war, living in the expectation of catastrophe, Adnan’s perception of the world shifts and she is now capable of grasping the fragile relationships connecting all living beings in the logic of everyday life. The precariousness of life facing the danger of destruction is intertwined with the vulnerability felt by the poet. Her heightened perception of her own disorientation is paradoxically what renders her more vividly aware of her deep embeddedness in the world:

Thirty years later, back once again to her home in the Bay Area, Adnan finds herself on the edge of another catastrophe, this time from the point of view of the bystander. It is the Spring of 2003 and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq begins. In her prose poem, “To Be in a Time of War,” Etel Adnan registers minutely her everyday routine interspersed with her emotional reactions to the development of the war, the anger she feels towards war criminals, the pain she feels for the victims of bombings, the guilt she feels towards her own sheltered life:

Throughout her poem, Adnan’s everyday objects, habits, little pleasures and luxuries of the sheltered life, become recontextualized from the point of view of her attachment to the Baghdad of her past, cluttered with memories, relationships and loved ones. A Baghdad now under heavy bombings, looting, the devastation of its archives and its National Library. 

The call to witness cannot always be responded through language. Indeed, Adnan writes in a state of frustration and rage, aware of the fact that she does not have enough words to close the unbearable distance between herself and another. And yet, through the small epiphanies of everyday life she comes to the shapes of a poetic critique that interweaves the over here and the over there, the self and the other, in an effort to break down the interval of manufactured differences, hostility and indifference. To use Edward Said’s term, Etel Adnan performs a contrapuntal reading of her witness position, torn between two worlds, and the complicated relationship between complicity and resistance.

Arab American poets Hala Alyan, Suheir Hammad, Nathalie Handal, and Etel Adnan, are uniquely positioned to interrogate the production of bodily precariousness as a result of imperial and settler colonial violence, as well as its erasure from dominant Euro-American forms of representation of the wars in Iraq and Palestine. Their work fundamentally challenges the reproduction of imperial power, its redefinition of space (the dialectic of “here” versus “there” in which distance elides responsibility to the victims of Israeli or U.S. bombings) and its redefinition of time (the progressive narrative of imperial time bolstered by the techno-scientific rationale of modern warfare). By disrupting these conventional frameworks of meaning, Arab American poets foreground the function of poetic language as a space of emergence in which spatial and temporal coordinates, as well as notions such as empathy, witnessing and responsibility can be reconfigured.

Alexandra Magearu is a writer and artist, originally from Romania, now based in Cleveland, Ohio. She teaches in the English Department at CWRU. Her writing has been published in Tint JournalWorld Literature TodayThe Comparatist, Women’s Studies, and two book collections, Ecosophical Aesthetics and Phenomenology of the Broken Body.

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