Span: Journal of the South Pacific Assoc for Cwlth Lit and Language Studies
Number 36, 1992
Postcolonial Fictions:
Proceedings of the SPACLALS Triennial Conference 1992
Edited by Michèle Drouart

Poetry of Palestinians in Captivity

Ibtisam Abu-Duhou

Do people know who this rose is meant to be?
It is Palestine, the suffering country,
which the oppressors have devastated.
From: "A Rose in the Hand of an Oppressor"
(1947) by an anonymous Iraqi Poet.

The last issue of SPAN contained an article I wrote on Palestinian poets of the diaspora. In this "postcolonial fictions" issue I concentrate on Palestinian poets under occupation.
Palestine was subjected to a series of foreign occupations. In recent times, and more so in 1916, the five hundred years of Ottoman occupation was ended by the British Mandate over the whole of Palestine. The presence of Palestinian Arabs who inhabited Palestine for centuries as a cohesive group was terminated when Israel through its Zionist organization proclaimed itself a state and drove its Palestinian Arab inhabitants into forced exile in 1948.
The history of Palestine between the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the Partition Plan (1947) was a struggle between a long inherited Arab nationalism and an alien Jewish nationalism (Zionism). As a matter of fact, when Zionism first emerged as an organized political movement in 1897 to solve the "Jewish Problem" by "ingathering" the Jews of the world in a Jewish state in Palestine, it neglected "one not unimportant fact. Palestine was not a wilderness, or an empty, uninhabited place. It was already somebody else's home."1 This is indisputably the central fact about Palestinian-Israeli relations, and is indispensable to interpreting Palestinian attitudes towards Israel or Israeli behaviour toward the Palestinian People.
To the Palestinians, the Zionists were European settlers who, through a process of invasion by immigration, dispossessed them of their country and turned them into a nation of refugees. To the Zionists, this imposed ethical problems and required that the awareness of the Palestinian people be suppressed by disseminating several myths of Palestinian non-existence. Through adopting the slogan: "A land without a people for a people without a land," they went ahead, convincing the world that their scheme victimized no one, which required them to maintain the delusion that Palestine was a land without a people. Even after the creation of their Jewish state, they continued to insist that the Palestinians did not exist. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir claimed in 1967 that: "It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them."2 "They do not exist," she claimed. Thus 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.3
Far from "not existing" the Palestinians continued to make their presence felt, both within and outside Israel. The individual and collective experiences of the Palestinian people during the past few decades were recorded in the intellectual and cultural output of the Palestinisn poets. As mentioned in my earlier article, this Palestinian poetry, though it is Arabic in its language, structure, genres, history, ethos, values, mentality, vision, ambitions and spirit, is uniquely Palestinian in that being both the product and expression of the Palestinian physical and social environment, it is inhabited and dominated by the Palestinian national theme, which is of necessity centred around resistance to Israeli domination and occupation, and the struggle for independence and freedom. The fact that these poets were not an elite group privileged with a rare kind of education baring their souls through their poetry to each other in writer colonies, intensified their tendency to become, as a Palestinian intellectual had put it, "the spokesmen of a nation."4 Palestinian poets were, and still are, for the most part, ordinary people sharing the typical experiences of their community.
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 a primary avenue of expression of the tragedy and the aspirations of the Palestinian people. In form and type, this poetry coincided with the political division and development within Palestine and the Arab world. These political divisions are clearly delineated in the themes and forms of Palestinian poetry since 1948.
The remainder of this article deals with the poetry written between 1948 and 1967 by Palestinian poets living under Israeli rule.
"Poetry of the Occupied Homeland," "Palestinian Resistance Poetry" and "Poetry of Palestinians in Captivity," are terms widely used in Arabic writings to refer to poetry written by Palestinian poets living in Israel since 1948. This poetry has a distinctive character by which it may be discerned from that written by Palestinians living in "exile." This distinctiveness is the result of the different experiences undergone by the two groups after 1948. The life experiences of poets living in Israel, who belong to a minority group long subjected to laws and harassment aimed at depriving that minority of its material identity, culture and remaining land, were quite different from the life experiences of other Arab poets, even from those of their Palestinian colleagues living in "exile." Their poetry consequently took on four main distinguishing characteristics: attachment to the land, unbroken adherence to national identity, simplicity of expression with clarity of imagery, and finally, political commitment.
Some contemporary Arab critics, when referring to the emergence of this poetry, state that "perhaps the most interesting and valuable single recent development in modern Arabic literature is the emergence of the work of the 'committed' Palestinian poets as a literary force of great significance."5 Yet it is worth mentioning that "Palestinian Resistance Poetry" has become known to the Arab reader outside Israel only in 1966, when Ghassan Kanafani, a well-known Palestinian novelist and short-story writer, published his book Adab al-Muqawama fi Filastin al-Muhtallah (Resistance Literature in Occupied Palestine), which included, along with critical study, a number of poems by prominent poets there. Two years later another book appeared by Yusuf al-Khatib entitled Diwan al-Watan al-Muhtall.
The June War in 1967 played an important role in focussing close attention on this poetry. Other Arab poets, to whom the defeat was unbearable, were astonished by the optimism overflowing from the verses reaching them from the poets of the "Occupied Homeland." The voice of Samih Al-Qassem declaims:

On the fifth of June
we were born again.

The themes which permeate this poetry convey the profoundest aspects of the Palestinian experience: the assertion of a suppressed and denied identity, and the strong yearning for a usurped native soil. Sometimes such themes are expressed explicitly. In one of the most popular poems, "Identity Card," Mahmoud Darwish expresses defiance of the Israelis. According to Sulaiman, when the poem appeared in the early sixties, "the political identity of the Palestinian Arabs was, in the eyes of the world, largely a matter of numbers rather than nationhood; they were considered to have no aspirations, no cause and no identity. Darwish took the concept of Palestinian political identity, amplified it, and gave it a voice."6
Before examining this poem, it is worth noting that after 1948, extensive areas of land were acquired by the Israeli government upon the establishment of the state in conformity with the aims of the Zionist movement "to secure the land in the land of Israel."7 Between 1948 and 1958, the government of Israel made use of seven laws to facilitate the concentration of best Arab property in the hands of Jewish settlers. An estimated one million donums of land was expropriated from Arabs living in Israel. (This figure does not include the land of those who fled or were expelled during the wars of 1948 and 1967, nor does it include recent expropriation in the occupied territories (Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza Strip). Not only did the Arab landowners lose their property, but also some of them were evacuated from their villages, and their homes were dynamited. Samih Al-Qassem was one of those evacuated from the village of Ruma, his hometown, on November 5, 1948. Mahmoud Darwish found himself an "internal refugee" when his village, Barwa, along with several villages, was completely demolished.
Darwish's poem, "Identity Card," is one of the most celebrated poems to date. It consequently became a popular song and is quoted by many when discussing Palestinian identity. Moreover, as a song it has become extremely popular in the Arab world and among the Palestinians. The imperative word is sajjil (literally it means: write down in your register or record), which is repeated at intervals. The word is directed to a supposed Israeli clerk who - in the poet's experience - is annoyed when he hears the word "Arab" and is likely to flare up in anger when he hears that the man whom he has thought of merely as a number since 1948 still feels proud of his Arab nationality. Darwish starts his poem by saying:

Write down!
I am an Arab!
Fifty thousand is the number of my identity card.
I have eight children, and the ninth is coming next summer.
Does this anger you? Write down I am an Arab!

The irony of the word "Arab" is crucial to this poem. The poet, or the persona - the Arab addressing the Israeli clerk - flings back at him the word which, for the Israelis, can only designate inferior status, the same word that for the Arab himself is synonymous with pride and dignity. He assures the clerk that although everyday life has become extremely difficult for him as an Arab, he will in no way lower himself or lose his dignity.

Write down!
I am an Arab.
I work with comrades of toil in a quarry,
and I have eight children,
for when I wrest a loaf of bread,
clothes and school books
from the rocks,
and do not ask for alms at your door
or lower myself at your doorstep
Does this anger you?

In the middle of the stanzas, Darwish concentrates on pointing out the deep roots of his ancestors in the country, and the characteristics of the people he belongs to, from whom he inherited his great pride. Again he is not sure that the military government would permit even this state of affairs to continue. He expects further expropriation.

Write down!
I am an Arab.
You have stolen the Orchards
of my ancestors
and the land I used to cultivate,
I and all my children (together);
And you left nothing but these rocks
for us and all my grandchildren.
Yet, will your government take them too,
as is being said?

But the main message of the poem is seen in the last stanza. The poet warns the colonial master that oppression creates a spirit of revolt.

Write down! . . . at the top of page one:
I neither hate others
Nor do I steal their property,
but if I become hungry
the flesh of my usurper shall I eat.
So beware . . . beware of my hunger
and of my anger.

This defiant attitude of the Arab poets in Israel results from their social, political, economic and legal status. Contrary to Zionist allegations, designed to win public sympathy in the West, the Arabs in Israel are subject to a pattern of discrimination not unlike that of the Black in South Africa and Rhodesia.
Harun Hashim Rashid tells the world that he is not merely a non-Jew, not even just an Arab refugee, but a Palestinian:

Palestinian is my name
In a clear script
On all battlefields
I have inscribed my name
Eclipsing all other titles.

Another well-known Palestinian poet, Samih Al-Qassem, vowed never to succumb to injustice:

As long as I own a foot of land
As long as I own an olive tree
A lemon tree, a well, and a memory
As long as Arabic is still spoken
in folklore and poetry
I'll wage in the face of my enemies
On behalf of the free: workers,
students, and poets
A scourging war against the enemies
of the sun.

Most Palestinian poets, however, did not go so far in their defiance, but stressed the sense of tragedy, and affirmed loyalty to the native soil, often using symbolic language to evade censorship and probable persecution.
Readings of the "Palestinian Poetry in Captivity" reveal that the Arab poet in Israel is humanist, cosmopolitan and revolutionary. The poetry of Darwish, Al-Qassem, Sayyad, Jubran, and others had emerged after the June war of 1967 as a "spark of hope" and "steadfastness" amidst the hopelessness of Arab writing at that time. It expressed the union between the poet and his people and the poet and his cause.
Darwish speaks of "lost innocence." He feels that his childhood was thrown into the "fire, the tent, exile . . . " In 1948, when he was a boy of 10, he was forced to escape with his family and walk across the mountains and forests of Lebanon. When he returned to his village, "Barwa," two years later, he found that it had been completely obliterated and the land ploughed. Darwish's impression of this period - the military government and police harassment - were to remain with him and influence his poetry, which was frequently written in prison. Words such as "refugees," "Red Cross," "occupation," "UNRWA," "security," "Arabness," "revolution" permeate his poetry. A gradual shift from a mood of sorrow and grief to one of anger and challenge may be discerned in his works.
But despite his anger and challenge of an oppressive system, the poet never loses sight of the prospect of co-existence and pluralism as alternatives to exclusivism. His "Dialogue with a Man who Hates Me," which is an imaginary dialogue between an Israeli-Arab, perhaps the poet himself, and an Israeli-Jew, offers an excellent illustration of this point, and dissipates the myth of Arab propensity for aggression.

"My grandparents were burnt in
"My heart is with them, but remove
the chains from my body."
"What's in your hand?"
"A handful of seeds."
"Anger colours your face."
"That's the colour of the earth."
"Mould your sword into a ploughshare."
"You've left no land."
"You are a criminal!"
"I killed not, I murdered not,
I oppressed not!"
"You are an Arab, you are a dog!"
"O Man, May God cure your soul.
Why don't you try the taste of love
Why don't you make way for the sun!"

But if Darwish's persuasive attempts fail, then he will move away from pacifism to justify man's struggle in the face of adversity and pain:

The prison and chain will not remain.
Nero had died, but Rome was alive.
She fought on with her eyes.
The seeds of a withering ear of wheat
Will fill the plain.

Similarly, Samih Al-Qassem wrote about Arab willingness to share Palestine with the Jews and live together on the basis of equality.

I shared with them my grief and bread
My roof and clothes
But I refused to share my son
Oh wounded grandfather!
Could you advise?
Ink has the smell of blood
But my heart is clean
And my hands are used to the plough
My sword has been hidden in the sheath
For nearly a thousand years.

But the June war, which revealed beyond doubt the expansionist aims of the colonial settler, made these poets less optimistic about the chances of a political settlement. In 1968, Samih Al-Qassem wrote "The Fall of the Masks," expressing the view that Israel has removed her mask and committed herself publicly to a militaristic policy. The Arab is left with but one alternative: to resist.

In which God will you seek shelter?
Which God will bless your napalm?
Who will sell you a writ of absolution?
You, the stooge of colonialism
The agent of skyscrapers
And guardian of petroleum.

The link between Israel and western colonialism is evident to the poet. The diplomatic support to Israel given by the United States convinces the poet that the United Nations is not the proper forum to seek redress:

Oh esteemed security council
For twenty years I called on you
And today, through the storms
My voice comes to you as a red rose
From the field of crime
Farewell - Farewell
Until we meet again
In the old city
of Jerusalem.

Other poets like Tawfiq-Zayyad in "After the June Aggression," have questioned Israel's motives. It is in Jubran's writings however, that we see the strongest indictment of Israeli society. It is particularly evident in his poem "A Hanging Human 1964," where the Arab in Israel becomes like the Indian in the United States; his killing becomes an object of entertainment.
This poem presents a moving picture of a brutal society, where children's toy stores use the Arab in pictures and games, one of which has a bottom which when pressed makes an Arab swing from the gallows. Yet the poet combines his protest with an appeal to "the souls of those dead in Nazi concentration camps," and identifies his cause with that of the millions of Jewish victims.
Israel's response to this kind of poetry has been severe, despite her attempts to appear as an oasis of democracy in the Middle East. As Darwish had put it, "You can write what you wish as long as you are willing to pay the price. This is the unwritten law." The price may be loss of employment, restrictions on the freedom of movement, or imprisonment. Indeed, these poets paid the price. Darwish was restricted to Haifa for over four years, was imprisoned several times, and finally went into exile in France. Samih Al-Qassem was imprisoned in 1964, fired from his teaching job in 1964, restricted to Haifa in 1967, and later placed under house arrest for years. He was arrested and tortured by the police, his books, such as Awaiting Thunderbird, published in 1969, were confiscated within twelve months in violation of the law. Other poets were also placed under town arrest: Salem Jubran, Tawfiq Zayyad, and Issa Lubani, for example.
Recited in village meetings and in the fields, "Resistance Poetry" has served as an effective channel of political communication in a community deprived of its leaders. No wonder that the Israeli police often raided such meetings and disrupted them in the name of "security." The government feared that poets might be capable of filling the leadership vacuum in a leaderless peasant society. For example, Shimon Peres, Israeli former Minister of Defence, could not think of a better excuse to apply martial law than the existence of resistance poetry. Again, Moshe Dayan, former Israeli Defence Minister, upon reading a poem by Fadwa Tuqan of the occupied West Bank, remarked that the poem was equal to twenty commandos.
The poets have been united in their response; neither jail, punishment nor economic conditions and intimidation succeeded in breaking their will to resist. Darwish forcefully illustrated his response to the threat of imprisonment.

I will write it with nails
eye sockets and daggers
I will recite it in my prison cell -
In the bathroom -
In the stable -
Under the whip -
Under the chain -
In spite of my handcuffs.

And Samih Al-Qassem expressed his response to economic intimidation this way:

I may - if you wish - lose my livelihood
I may sell my shirt and bed
I may work as a stone cutter
A street sweeper, a porter
Or rummage your garbage for food
O enemy of the sun
I shall not compromise
And to the last pulse of my veins
I shall resist.

The poetry of Palestinians in captivity is devoid of any signs of hopelessness or defeatism. It reveals a profound understanding of the colonial settler society and draws on the experience of oppressed people in similar areas such as Algeria, South Africa and Rhodesia. The younger Palestinian poets in Israel share the struggle of all the oppressed people, and have in common their demands for social justice, liberation, and progress; yet their unique circumstances impose certain conditions relating to their particular case.
In their poetry, one feels not only the alienation of the individual within a group-oriented society, and the anguish of patriots in their occupied homeland, but also the pervasive conditions of an exploitative regime which denies certain individuals their humanity. These conditions awaken the individuals and lead them to find their identity and to assert their humanness, to live and transform life. Thus, it is not surprising that the poetry becomes the expression of a whole people and not only of the individual or of a small segment of society. Words become weapons of resistance against hopelessness, submission, and nihilism. The poets' consciousness of their people's struggle causes them to look around them and to feel that there are other peoples in the world who have waged and are waging a similar struggle for freedom and dignity and lead them to express their feelings of solidarity with them. Thus, in spirit and content these poets have a universal message, an identification with the universal struggle. Darwish spoke of the martyred poet Lorca, Al-Qassem spoke of the USA's role in Vietnam and of its treatment of Blacks in "The Unknown Continent" and of Patrick Lumumba. Salem Jubran wrote about "the Red Indians," and Zayyad sang about the Cuban experience. Their call was and still is a universal one. It was/is a call for regeneration and resurgence in the face of death and oppression.

University of Melbourne

I would like to express my indebtedness to Dr Michèle Drouart for her suggestions and encouragement, to Dr Abdel Rahman Yagge of The University of Jordan for providing several volumes of his own work on Palestinian literature, and to Dr Abdel Latif Barghouthi of Birzeit University. Further, this article has been informed by the following texts:
Aruri, Nazer and Edmond Ghareeb, eds. 1970. Enemy of the Sun. Washington: Drum and Spear Press.
Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, 1977. Trends and Movements in Modern Arabic Poetry, Vol. I and II. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Sulaiman, Khalid A., 1984. Palestine and Modern Arab Poetry. London: Zed Books.


1 Quoted in G.H. Jansen, Zionism: Israel and Asian Nationalism. Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1971, 182.
2 The Sunday Times (London), June 15, 1969.
3 That the Arabs were still the majority in Palestine, despite illegal Jewish immigration, did not deter the United Nations from dividing the country into an Arab state and a Jewish state, giving the latter 55 percent of the land. Worse yet, the Jewish state was to have 495,000 Jews and 497,000 Arabs. The Arab state was to have 724,000 Arabs and 10,000 Jews. The U.N. voted on the Plan on 29 November, 1947.
On January 8, 1948, David Ben-Gurion stated 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.
4 Conversation with Dr Abdel Latif Barghouthi of Birzeit University.
5 M.M. Badawi. "Commitment in Contemporary Arabic Poetry." Cahiers d'histire Mondiale, Vol. XIV, 1972, 879 (quoted in Sulaiman, 196).
6 Khalid A. Sulaiman. Palestine and Modern Arab Poetry (London: Zed Books, 1984) 201.
7 Law on the Acquisition of Absentees Property, 1950; Defence Laws 1945; Emergency Laws (Security areas) 1949; Emergency Articles for the Exploitation of Uncultivated Lands 1948; Law for the requisitioning of land in times of emergency 1949; Law of Acquisition of Land 1953; the Law of Prescription 1958; (see Sabri Jiryis, The Arabs in Israel, Beirut, Lebanon, 1968, 1-90).

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