Rafeef Ziadeh is a Palestinian poet, performer and activist for the rights of her people. She travels often to perform her poems and to carry the message that change can happen in Palestine and in the world if we work for it. An interview with her, in which Rafeef discusses the role of culture in liberation, current points of inspiration and the importance of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel campaign.
Rafeef Ziadeh (Photo: Artthreat.net)
How did you start advocating for Palestinian struggle through poetry?
It is very hard to tell what comes first, if poetry or politics, because when you are born as a Palestinian refugee you are in a very political situation already. So my poetry is much representative of the situation I was born into, which is that of a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, who has been exiled, ethnically cleansed from Palestine and is waiting in a refugee camp to go back home.
I can't write outside that reality, because it is what surrounds me. In terms of art generally, Palestinian culture has been under attack since the creation of the state of Israel, they say: You don't exist as a people, your culture doesn't exist. So using culture as a way to assert our identity is really powerful. To me, to have that voice is not only about writing poetry but about asserting our identity as Palestinians.
How do Palestinian refugees build that identity from exile?
One thing Palestinian refugees always say is that we may no longer be in Palestine but Palestine is inside of us. So it is through our exiles, and many of us have been made refugees not only in 1948 but again in 1967. Then some of us had to leave from Iraq, and now from Syria Palestinians are being made refugees again. So we are not even speaking of one exile anymore, it is exile, upon exile, upon exile. And I think in some ways the geographical distance begins to matter less and less, because the idea of Palestine is not just about physically being there, but about the justice of the cause. That is why we talk about boycott, divestments and sanctions, what we are talking about is freedom, justice and equality, in a sense not just for Palestine, this is our belief for the whole world: Social and economic justice. This idea of justice is not about being geographically located somewhere, it is about a deeper belief in justice. Most Palestinian refugees through oral history, mainly through mothers and grandmothers, have been able to feel Palestine, to smell Palestine, to understand Palestine without ever seeing it. We have understood that is the power of the connection of Palestinians to Palestine.
What is your inspiration as an activist and a poet?
The past two years have been really intense in terms of the world generally. Certainly the Arab uprisings were very important moments to me because I think it’s when we finally reclaimed our voice and our geographic space as well. For years we have been told: you Arabs don't understand democracy, you don't want democracy, your culture doesn't work with it and, for once, we were actually showing the world what democracy looks like in practice. That is not to say that we have resolved the issues, or that we have this perfect society. But at least, there was a moment where our voice was heard. That was a huge inspiration.
Also the youth demonstrations happening from Greece to here in Catalonia to different parts of Europe, the Occupy movement, they all have been an inspiration, these are moments of hope. I know there are people who feel frustrated and angry because we keep going out and not making a difference, we are not stopping the cuts, but we are in much better shape that we were 5 years ago, or 10 years ago when we didn't even fight for an alternative, now we are discussing an alternative and to me that is very inspiring. It is in these moments when I find creativity and beauty.
Please, talk to me about Cultivate Hope, the piece you made in support of Hana Shalabi, when she was on a hunger strike in Israeli prison.
Hana Shalabi's piece came in a very personal moment for me. People kept talking about her heart as if it was an object. Every time I would turn on the news, people wondered if her heart would withstand the stress, as if it was just a muscle in a body. But at that same time, every Palestinian and every Arab was watching the hunger strikes, her heart muscle was not a muscle anymore, it was holding the hope that we can still resist, it was holding civil disobedience in prisons. Here we are talking about prisoners within a prison in a prison. Anyway I see the West Bank as a big prison, there is a wall surrounding it, and Gaza is the same, so we are speaking of prisoners in a prison inside a prison, resisting and saying: No, we are not going to take this. So I wanted to put out something in the world to say that these heart muscles today are holding all of us and we really are not only inspired by them, we are them in so many ways. That is where the Hana Shalabi poem came from.
For a long time I worked on the question of Palestinian political prisoners, my first activist works were about them, because I think every movement for liberation has its own political prisoners, and if you don't defend them and stand by them then you cannot sustain or build a movement. What we have to think now in terms of activism is that things don't end when a hunger strike ends. We still have political prisoners, they are still being held, being tortured. Israel stills arrests little children and tortures them, so we cannot just go back to life as normal because they are no longer in the headlines. This struggle has to continue.
What is the potential of creativity in liberation struggles and, more specifically, in Palestinian resistance?
I think if you look at any liberation struggle or freedom struggle for social justice, what we remember is the music, the songs, the places. Somewhere along the line, we have forgotten that art, poetry and music are at the heart of struggles, they are not an addition to it. Unfortunately you go to many events today and you see a panel with six different speakers, they are all speaking at people and then maybe you see a cultural performance of 15 minutes at the end, as if someone remembered: “Oh, we need a bit of culture”. Culture is at the heart of struggle and we need to bring that back to the way we organize things. In Palestinian culture, so much of our struggle has been around keeping our culture and saying that we exist, so it has always played a central role in everything we do since the works of Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish to our dancing or our cuisine. It has been a central part of how we function and I think it helped us as Palestinians to sustain ourselves. It is hard to live under bombs, or when you don't know if you are going to get arrested, so to be able to have culture on your side and to do cultural production, I think it’s a mechanism of survival as well.
After the 2008 Gaza attack, what was your aim with We teach life, sir
To be honest I can say philosophy is what my aim was, but when I wrote that poem I was mostly just feeling so much racism and dehumanization that I needed to say: “Stop asking us these questions that make no sense and let us be ourselves, actors that can and do fight every day to live.” It is at that very basic human level, it was a call and a cry for my humanity, the humanity of the people in Gaza who were facing the bombing at the time. Because there is nothing as degrading as standing there and having someone saying to you that you teach your children to hate. Because that is why I wrote the poem: I was asked why we Palestinians teach our children to hate. To me the idea of having someone facing me and asking me that was so racist, imagine what you think of people when you ask that. You must think they have no feelings, they don't care about their children. Yet, for them is very normal to ask us these questions, so I just wanted to say no, it is not normal that you ask that, we are not going to accept this anymore. We have to critique these moments that are so normalized. We are actually human, we are actually teaching people courage by just existing, by going through the checkpoints, going to school. We are resisting and that is what We teach life, sir was about.
Is that how western media depict Palestinians?
I was in Canada at the time, the bombs were falling on Gaza and we did a press conference to say that the Canadian government was not saying anything about the bombing. Then a journalist from one of the news agencies asked me that. It is not an uncommon question, ever since I did that poem I get emails, almost daily, from Palestinians saying: “We were asked the same question.” It is common for Palestinians to be asked these kind of questions in mainstream media. I urge people to look at TV programs and check: First of all, how many Palestinians are interviewed if ever, because most of the times Palestinians don't even get interviewed, it is either Israeli experts, or a reporter that is in Jerusalem talking about Palestinians. That is the first issue, and then the second, if you do get a Palestinian interviewed, all the questions are from an Israeli perspective, and they are about terrorism, about why do you teach your children to hate, and that is the way mainstream media handles the issue.
What is the role of BDS to achieve justice in Palestine?
I think BDS is a really important strategy because for years and years we would talk about Palestine and we would tell people: the apartheid wall is bad, the settlements are bad and there is theft of water, and people would feel bad, and then go home and have nothing to do, and they wouldn't feel how they are connected or complicit in the system. What BDS allows us to do is to tell people: “You have a responsibility to act, it was a call from Palestinians to the people of the world, because the governments of the world have not acted.” When the governments don't act to stop injustice, we have no other option than to ask the people to act to stop injustice. It allows people to know what are the products they are buying and what they are supporting, what is your government position on Israel, do you have free trade relations, etc I mean, the European Union is Israel’s largest trade partner, so everyone living in Europe has a responsibility if they don't like what is happening, if they don't like the way Israel is acting, they have to act and tell their governments: “You are not speaking in our names.” I think that is why BDS is important, it is a tool for people to use in their own hands.
What is the meaning of resistance for you?
I can just say from my personal experience, I have seen Palestinian women in Lebanon during the invasion of the country sitting in shelters with their children, not knowing if fathers, or husbands or brothers were alive but teaching them about Palestine, playing games, teaching dancing, and teaching resistance. To me that is what resistance is, that despite everything, despite that we are facing one of the strongest military in the world, we still believe that justice can happen, that ordinary people in the world can affect change and fight for justice. That is what resistance is.
Teresa Lamas is a journalist specialized in gender and international development cooperation.