Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 34-35, 1992-93
Edited by Vijay Mishra

Writing the Palestinian Diaspora Through Poetry

Ibtisam Abu Duhou

Poetry has been the mass art form of the Arab language, and through centuries, Arab poets have never lost their place of esteem in the minds of the people in the Arab world. In modern times, poets have had a greater impact on popular culture than novelists. As a matter of fact, there are more published poets than authors of literary prose in the Arab countries today, and public reading of poets consistently attract mass audiences, in settings ranging from rural villages to sprawling and sophisticated capital cities1.

Although modern Palestinian poetry is part and parcel of this Arabic poetry, it has a Palestinian uniqueness. Viewed in its Pan-Arab context, it is Arab in its language, structure, genres, history, ethos, values, mentality, vision, ambitions and spirit; but it has also evolved against the background of the turmoil of the Arab world. Its Palestinian uniqueness consists in two essential features that receive only ordinary care at the Arab level but extraordinary care, and emphasis, at the Palestinian level. First, Palestinian poetry is, at one and the same time, both the product and the expression of the Palestinian physical and social environment; second, it is inhabited and dominated by the Palestinian national theme as embodied in resistance to the Israeli domination and occupation, and in the struggle for independence and freedom.

The evolution of Palestinian poetry itself has also been marked by profound changes since the Second World War2. During the period in which authority in Palestine rested with the British, the Palestine conflict with 'Zionism and the mandatory power' became a prominent theme in poetry, but other, non-political subjects dominated a great deal of poetry at that time, too. Tragedy struck the Palestinians after the 1948 war with the creation of the state of Israel, and a Palestinian Diaspora thus came into existence, resisting the Israeli occupation and attempting to restore Arab rights in Palestine. The majority of Palestinians became refugees scattered throughout neighbouring Arab countries, while only a minority remained in Israel.3 In all this, the poetry of the Diaspora was evolved to reflect the life of the Palestinians and to symbolise their resistance to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In its forms and types, the poetry of the Diaspora coincided with the political division and development within Palestine and the Arab world. Four political periods may be identified in the history of the Palestinian Diaspora. These are: 1948 to 1967 (the Disaster year to the June war or Setback year); 1967 to 1982 (invasion of Lebanon and exodus from Beirut); and 1982 to 1988 (beginning of the ongoing Palestinian Intifada (Popular Uprising) of December 9, 1987. These periods are clearly delineated in the themes and forms of Palestinian poetry since 1948.

The remainder of this article deals with the poetry written by Palestinian poets between 1948 and 1967, irrespective of whether these poets were living in exile or under Israeli rule, for the themes of this poetry were exclusively devoted to representing the Palestinian Diaspora. Although the Diaspora was and is still being represented in all Palestinian poetry, other events have also received equal attention, such as the emergence of the Palestinian revolution in 1965 and its freedom fighters (Fid'ian), the invasion of Lebanon and the exodus of Palestinians from Beirut, the Intifada of the children of Palestine, as well as the liberation of Palestine as a global goal.

Recording the Diaspora

An examination of the themes of poems written on the question of Palestine, and the consequences of its loss in 1948, shows that the poetry written after 1948 has been the primary avenue of expression of the tragedy and the aspirations of the Palestinian people. Each piece reveals the Palestinians' personal odyssey from one country to another and reflects several aspects of the Palestine issue that the poetry written by other Arab poets did not reflect.

Aruri and Ghareeb describe the poetry of the Diaspora as "sentimental and melancholy; the expression of a bewildered people unable to comprehend the forces shaping their destiny. Their poetry conveyed their grief and longing for the land from which they were forcibly evicted" (p.xxvii). Their longing for the country that is their home is not predominantly material or political. It is first and foremost a deep spiritual aspiration which is just as strong whether they are living in a refugee camp or in a more comfortable situation4.

Palestine became the predominant theme of Palestinian poetry in the Diaspora. It concentrated on the theme of suffering as an 'exile' or 'alien', on life in 'exile in the desert' where eyes are filled with 'dust and rime'; on laments to the 'lost homeland' about how miserable life has become for all Palestinian Arabs, on sorrow over the way the Palestinian's outlook on life has become gloomy and bitter, and on complaints about living as refugees, as 'people cast out from one country to another'. 'Longing for the return home' and 'love of Palestine' were the common thread in this poetry. Quotations illustrating these themes can be amply provided, whether from poetry written by Palestinians or that composed by poets from other Arab countries.

Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, a leading novelist, poet and critic in the Arab world, likened the dispersion of the Palestinian people to being catapulted in space, and their wanderings in the life of exile as a journey through the cosmic absurd. But they continued stubbornly to cling to their reason and identity. They refused to forget. He demonstrated this Palestinian rejection of de-Palestinisation by describing his own experience as a wandering exile. Jabra, who was born in Bethlehem in 1919, did not suffer poverty or live in a refugee camp. At the same time, he has never hidden his feeling that he was living in exile since he left Palestine5.

In Desert of Exile written in 1953, Jabra saw life outside Palestine's borders as merely a life in exile in the desert:

In the deserts of exile, spring after
spring passes . . .
What we are doing with our love
While our eyes are full of dust and rime.

The poet then complained to his lost homeland about how miserable life has become for the Palestinian Arabs, wandering in exile from one place to another:

O land of ours . .
remember us now, wandering
among the thorns of the deserts,
wandering in rocky mountains,
remember us now,
in tumultuous cities across the deserts
and oceans.
Remember us with our eyes full of dust,
that never clears in our ceaseless wandering.

Tracing the theme of exile in the works of another prominent Palestinian poet, Tawfiq Sayigh (1932-71), better known among English readers perhaps than many other Palestinian poets, reveals that longing for the homeland constitutes one of three major themes in his poetry, the other two being love and God6. Again, Sayigh's life after 1948 cannot be described as hard from a material point of view. After teaching at the American University of Beirut, he won in 1951 a Rockfeller Foundation fellowship to study comparative literature at Harvard University, and in 1959 he joined the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, where he stayed until 1962. he also taught at the University of California from 1968 to 1971.

But his longing for his homeland, where he spent his boyhood and early youth, kept recurring day and night. Lamenting his state as an exile and refugee, and remembering his home, which he left in 1948, he says:

My feet are torn,
and homelessness has worn me out.
Park seats have left their marks
on my ribs.
Policemen followed me
with their suspicious looks.
I dragged myself from place to place,
destitute except for
day-long memories of a home
that yesterday, only yesterday,
was mine,
and except for evening dreams
of my dwelling there again.

Another example is that of Mahmud Al-Hut, who in 1951 published his Diwan7, The Arab Comedy. In this collection of poetry, Al-Hut described himself in a long poem as a refugee, and addressing his "lost paradise" told her about himself and his fellow refugees as people cast out of one country after another:

O lost paradise! for us you were never
too small,
but now vast countries have become too
small for us,
Woe unto your people who were torn asunder,
wandering under every star!

The following poem speaks for itself. In fact it is one of many such statements that inevitably found their way into the writings of many Palestinian poets. (Using the name of a specific place in Palestine, here Jaffa, as a symbol denoting the whole country was and still is a practice in Palestinian poetry in the Diaspora.)

Jaffa! my eyes shed blood after the tears
had dried.
Will I ever see you again?
My memory of you is fresh day and night,
living within my innermost soul.
. . .
What ails my heart! wherever I go it
sadly cries:
Alas my homeland!
Whatever opulence in life he gains,
derision for that life is his only response.

Many examples may be given to show that the Palestinian poets could not see in any other country an alternative to their 'lost homeland', since all countries remained alien to their hearts. This, therefore, makes their longing for Palestine a natural and true feeling.

While expressing longing for their homeland, the Palestinian poets often seek news of it by inquiring from the wind, the stars, and the birds. Among the poets who burn with thirst for the return is Abu Salma. His many poems on this theme are overflowing with passion for the 'lost home', attachment to its soil and longing for reunion with it. In 'We Will Return', for instance, he imagines everything in his lost country: the shores, rivers, hills, plains, beckoning him to return.

A poem called 'The Lake of Olive Trees' written in 1957 by Yusuf al-Khatib provides a good example. Al-Khatib, being worried about his house and village after they had become Israeli property, tries to appease his anxiety by asking the wind to tell him all about his home and village. The wind reports bad news: the olive tree in the courtyard of their house has wilted, and the house itself has become dreary and has sunk into despair after its owners left. He turns to the stars, asking them the same thing, but the stars confirm what the wind has said. The poet, deeply depressed, pleads with the flocks of birds to carry the following message to his village:

Oh our village!
I sent to you flocks of birds.
To them I said:
When you reach our village beside the river,
Alight awhile, and tell our home all about
our grief.
Tell it we would not be alive
were it not for our hope of tomorrow.
. . .
Oh our village! I swear by your soil
we have not stated sleep,
wakeful through remembering you,
tearful because of our separation from you.
And all the time we gaze at the sky
observing your sad face.
Oh, how sad your face has become!

Just as the Palestinian poets did not lose faith in the return, Palestine, for her part, is still waiting for the return of her 'children', in spite of the continual frustration of this hope. Her confidence in their return induces her to prepare to make them their favourite drink, tea with mint leaves, as she sits waiting for them every night.

Seeing me leaving, my mother said:
You will come back.
Ever since, she has been waiting and storing up mint
leaves in case her dear ones,
who like their tea mixed with leaves of mint,
arrive in the evening.

Optimism was and still is a characteristic of poems on this theme. This is not to imply that pessimistic feelings about the return did not permeate certain poems; but simply that such pessimistic poems do not form the majority. Even after the Arab defeat in the June War of 1967, Arab poets in general soon regained confidence in the future and expressed a firm faith in the capability of the Arabs to regain their rights in Palestine (see Sulaiman p.125-126).

Figures of the 'beloved', symbolising the lost Palestine, were frequent. One may take as an example Abu Salma's poems, in which this symbol carries the major thematic lament. For this poet, the favourite word for the beloved is 'al-Samra' (the brown-skinned girl)8. In 'Love of the Brown-Skinned Girl', one finds another name used to denote the poet's beloved, namely Thurayya, a common woman's name in Arabic. The poem appears to be a love song directed to a real woman, especially when one finds the poet describing some of the physical distinguishing marks of his beloved, such as the dimple in her cheek. Addressing his Thurayya and expressing his adoration of her, the poet promises her that he will remain a faithful lover, saying:

Thurayya! Is that the remnants of your yearning in your
eyes, or is it something more?
My verses about you become fascinating when repeated by
your lips.
The charming dimple [in your cheek] reveals
all the secrets of our love.
It is only your love that overflows in my
poems, yet your eyes remain far more poetic.
In my heart no love would last but that of
the brown-skinned girl.

In the poetry of the younger Palestinian generation, such as Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qassim and others the symbol of the beloved (Palestine) has developed still more and become fused with that of the 'mother' and that of the 'land' in such a way that the three become one. The poetry of Mahmoud Darwish is the best example of this, since this unity is reflected in most of his poetry collections, without losing its originality or uniqueness, and reflects his innermost feelings. Darwish also sometimes uses real names for the woman he loves, but this practice should not mislead the reader. The beloved, whatever her name is, remains the same, that is, the land or the mother. He himself makes this clear in 'Memoirs of a Palestinian Wound':

My homeland is not a travelling bag,
nor am I a passing traveller.
It is I who am the lover and the land
is my beloved.

Darwish's love affair with his beloved motherland sometimes takes on a mystical quality, as in the "17 Psalms", published in his Diwan, I love you, I love you not. Sometimes the affair seems a hopeless one, when he feels that his beloved, although before his eyes, is intangible and unattainable. This makes him desire to see the affair dissolved, however painful it may be for him. In 'Psalm 8', he addresses her (Palestine) saying:

Why don't you wash your hands of me
so that I may stop dying again and again?
. . .
Tell me just the once
so I may be capable of dying and departure
. . .
Die, so that I may mourn you,
or be my wife
so that I may know
what betrayal looks like
just the once.

Nevertheless, whatever Darwish suffers because of this love affair he accepts as his destiny, and so his love remains vigorous, though the picture of his beloved never vanished from his sight. She lives in his innermost feelings, and appears to him, wherever he goes and whatever he sees.

The Palestinian poets felt their experience deeply, and their experience was profoundly political. Their poetry naturally reflected this existential commitment. Through their poetry, they expressed the deep feelings of suffering among the exiled Palestinians. At the same time, their poems were overflowing with nostalgia for the lost homeland.

As in their politics, so in their poetry, the Palestinians sought conciliation. 'The poet, and sometimes the Palestinian people, are Christ, with all the consequent imagery of the side wound, the crucifixion, and resurrection'. In his poem 'To Jerusalem', Yusuf Hamdan proposed a life of peace for all:

I want you to be a Kaaba, for the
people of the earth.
A spacious house.
Without guards:
I love you . . . a voice from a minaret.
The sound of horns
Mingles with church bells.
I love you, a jasmine in the
open air.

Some writers find the present Palestinian emotions concerning the return to Palestine no less intense than the sentiments expressed by the Psalmist9. In fact, Psalm 137 (verses 5 and 6) find an echo in poems written by Palestinian poets. Mu In Bisisu, for instance, wrote 'The God of Urushalim', in which he imitates the Psalmist, saying:

Let my right hand forget me,
let my beloved eyes,
my brother and my only friend
all forget me.
If I remember not
that the God of Urushalim
lies heavily on [the chest of]
our land,
squeezing honey and milk
out of drops of our blood,
to live
and hatch out monsters.

Another example is that of Samih Al-Qassim, in his poem 'A Palestinian Psalm'. He wrote:

From this wounded land,
Purgatory of sorrows,
The orphaned birds call you,
O World!
From Gaza, Jenin. Old Jerusalem:
Under the sun, in the wind in exile,
Hearts and eyes once sang:
'Lord of Glory'. We've been tired
too long
Send us back!
Alleluia, Alleluia.

Palestinian poets of the Diaspora sought to cover the spectrum of their people's grievances and hopes. But above all, these poets expressed their people's simple yearning to go home. As the world awaits the outcomes of the 'Peace Talks', the Palestinians outlook for the future clearly points to a strong ambition based on a deeply rooted attitude. The Palestinians have now conceived their national goals, have come to believe firmly in them, and therefore, they must achieve them. These goals are: the right to self-determination, the right to Diaspora Palestinians to return home, and the establishment of the independence State of Palestine on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as a prerequisite to the realisation of peace between the Arabs and Israel.

This Palestinian image of the near future is not only a dominant and essential feature of the current Palestinian poetry, but is also a dynamic motivating force which is slowly but surely moving that poetry forward, orienting it towards peace and directing its paths towards innovations, creativity and perfection. Nonetheless, however Palestinian poets choose or are compelled to express themselves, it was and is still Palestine and their yearning for it which will continue to haunt them.

And when I am led all alone
To be whipped and humiliated
And lashed at every police station
. . .
And when soldiers smash my head
And force me to sip the cold of
To forget you - I love you
even more.

This is 'Love Palestinian Style'.


I would like to express my indebtedness to Dr Michèle Drouart for her suggestion and encouragement, to Dr Abdel Rahman Yagge of The University of Jordan for providing several volumes of his own work on Palestinian literature, and for Dr Abdel Latif Barghouthi of Birzeit University. Further, the preparation of this article has been informed by the following writers:

Naser Aruri and Edmund Ghareeb (editors). (1970). Enemy of the Sun. Washington: Drum and Spear Press.

Salma Khadra Jayyusi. (1977). Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry (Vol. One and Two). Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Khalid A. Sulaiman. (1984). Palestine and Modern Arab Poetry., London: Zed Books.

1 See Jayyusi (1977), Sulaiman (1984) and Yaggi (1984).

2 Jayyusi (1977) has treated these changes in details in her two volumes.

3 Ironically, Israel was established as the 'homeland' of the Zionists in a country whose population in 1917 consisted of 93 percent Palestinian Arabs and 7 percent Jews. In 1947 the proportion of the Jewish population grew to 30 percent, due to Jewish immigration under the British Mandate.

Unhappy with the United nations' Partition Plan in 1947 to divide the country into an Arab state and a Jewish state, David Ben-Gurion stated on january 8, 1948 that the 'force of arms, not formal resolution, will determine the issue.' And on march 31, 1948, the haganah launched a military offensive against Arab towns and villages designed in Ben-Gurion's words 'to make the state larger and Jewish.' By the time of the armistice in 1949, the 'state' was indeed larger and Jewish. A heretofore Arab majority was forced to flee their homes and become refugees. Only 200,000 Arabs remained in the newly created state of Israel, where they lived as second class citizens.

The War of 1967 enabled Israel to absorb the remainder of Palestine, including the West Bank which had remained under Arab control after the 1949 armistice as well as the Gaza Strip. The war left around two million (now they are close to three million) Palestinians under Israeli rule, and another two and a half million scattered all over the world including the United States and Australia.

4 The refugee problem in particular, more than the other consequences of the 1948 war, received world-wide attention. For example, in the period 1950 and 1967, 18 resolutions were adopted by the United nations General Assembly, all affirming, and reaffirming annually, the right of the refugees to repatriation or compensation. Israel, for its part, has rejected such resolutions, sometimes arguing that the refugees left the country under the order of Arab leaders, sometimes linking the refugee problem to the negotiation of a complete peace settlement with the surrounding Arab States. Even to the present day, Israel is refusing to join talks on the settlement of the refugee problem, though some scholars believe that peace settlement and the refugee problem are two different matters having no moral connection. Since 1948, Israel has wished that the refugee would be absorbed within the Arab States, so that their problem would be resolved, while all the host countries, with the exception of Jordan, encouraged the Palestinians to maintain their distinctive identity.

5 See "Hiwar ma' Jabra Ibrahim Jabra", Sha'un Filastiniyaa, p.77, April 1978, pp.176-192.

6 See Issa J. Boullata, 'The Beleaguered Unicorn: a Study of Tawfiq Sayigh', Journal of Arabic Literature, Vol. 16, 1973, pp.89-93 (quoted in Sulaiman, p.121).

7 Diwan is an Arab word used to denote a collection of poems.

8 This word is repeated in many poems, such as Tawlaki ya Samara' (If it Weren't for You, Brown-Skinned Girl), Hiya wal-Sha'ir (She and the Poet), Hawa al-Asmar (Love of the Brown-Skinned Girl), and others.

9 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget here cunning.
If I do not remember thee,
let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
If I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
(Psalm 137, verses 5, 6.)

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