- Israeli poet Moshe Dor
The color of poetry is coal-black...
- Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish
As Palestinian and Israeli negotiators continue to engage in a long, difficult dialogue about the final status between Israel and a new Palestinian state, I would like to discuss a very different form of dialogue between the two peoples - the dialogue of poetry. Because behind all the signing of agreements and hand-shaking and posturing and red lines and green lines, there is the bottom line: the emotions and experiences of the people.
I believe that poetry, by its nature, is a form of dialogue, and that poems are attempts to communicate. And in the Palestinian-Israeli arena, the poet's need to communicate across political and cultural boundaries is particularly intense. Yehuda Amichai has acknowledged: "I have no illusions. It's quite difficult for poets to communicate with one another in a society that is politically torn apart the way ours is." Nevertheless, because of the geographical, linguistic, and political barriers inhibiting communication between Palestinians and Israelis, many poets, including Amichai, have used poetry as a means to convey messages to "the other side," or to explore their feelings about the conflict.
Communication through poetry is particularly important to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, where literature and poetry are highly valued for giving voice to the deepest feelings and concerns of the people. Not only does poetry maintain a central role in Palestinian society as the time-honored art form of the Arabs, but also Palestinian poets carry the additional role of being spokespersons, who must articulate the struggles, desires, and political views of the people. Poetry had also played a central role in the development and survival of Israeli cultural identity. According to Israeli poet Karen Alkalay-Gut, early Israeli writers were considered "hero[es] of the [national] cause...." The Israeli people have relied on poetry both to invigorate their children with patriotism and to help themselves cope with the effects of war. Poems, that "affirm... the significance of life" play an integral role in Israeli military funeral services, memorial days, and other public occasions.
The interchange between the two cultures and the daily interactions between Israelis and Palestinians have infused the work of many poets. For example, some Palestinian poets who learned Hebrew in Israeli prisons - as a language of oppression - have incorporated Hebrew vocabulary into their poetry. Poetry scholar Adel Muhammad Abu Amshah explains:
[S]everal Hebrew words related to the daily life of the prisoner... have remained in some poets' memories... and in fact these same words have appeared in some poems... such as 'al-mujashat', which is a container that the prisoners' food is put in, and 'al-mashatih', which are the wooden planks that the prisoners sleep on....
Similarly, many poems written in prison or about prison life refer to the prisons by their Hebrew names. For example, Al-Mutawakkil Taha, a prominent poet from Ramallah, has been detained in Israeli prisons several times. In the following passage from his 1988 poem "Wa Nahnu Siwa" ("And We Are the Same"), Al-Mutawakkil mentions that he is writing from "Ketziot," the Hebrew name for the detention camp known in Arabic as "Ansar 3." The poem's epigraph identifies it as a "Letter from Ansar 3 to the women fighters in Neve Tirzah," a women's prison. The poet addresses his female counterpart as "my soul sister" and compares his prison circumstances to hers:
...My soul sister,
shall I ask about your hunger, how it splits mountains inside you
and how the confusion in your two lips calls to the seas
and how the cells make you scream
and are we the same??
Shall I ask, while prison is a gas that explodes the heart of love
and are we the same??
Shall I ask, while the chain begins at the cuff of my wrist in "Ketziot"?
and stretches until it embraces your two palms
in the darkness of the women's prisons?
What is particularly surprising, however, is that some Palestinian poets have also included Hebrew words - in Hebrew lettering - in Arabic poems. Renowned poet Samih Al-Qassem, who grew up in the Galilee in the 1940s and 1950s, has also been imprisoned several times because of his poetry and activism in the Israeli Communist party. From these life experiences with Israeli society, he presumably has a very good knowledge of Hebrew. In the following excerpt from his poem "Atillu wa Asghu" ("Look Around and Pay Attention"), Al-Qassem manipulates the Hebrew expression b'seder (meaning "okay" or "fine"):
Are you skilled in the slaughter of doves?
Are you skilled in breaking bones?
Are you skilled in weaning infants before
the time of weaning?
We will teach you the art of struggle
and the meaning of battle
and the lesson of peace
Al-Qassem uses the word "b'seder," one of the most frequently used expressions in Hebrew, to address an imagined Israeli audience and perhaps to evoke in his Palestinian readers, who would be accustomed to hearing the expression, a sense of fear or anger towards Israeli authority. The other interjection of Hebrew in the text actually has no meaning. Although "yaratznu" and "vayatznu" look and sound like Hebrew words, they don't exist in the language. In this case, Al-Qassem seems to be attempting to capture the sounds of Hebrew, as well as a common Palestinian experience of constantly hearing the language but not understanding what is being said. By usurping the language of authority, Al-Qassem intensifies his criticism of Israeli aggression and takes on the role of authority himself, condescending to the Israelis with "We will teach you...."
In addition, some Israeli poets have been influenced by their personal interactions with Palestinians. For example, Israeli poet and peace activist Dan Almagor writes the following poem, "In My Shoes," to describe how his acquaintance with Walid, an employee in his local grocery store, changed his perception of Palestinians:
For some people a Palestinian is Yasir Arafat,
A youth throwing a Molotov cocktail at a bus,
A boy hurling taunts at soldiers and cursing their mothers.
When you say "Palestinian" to me, I think of Walid,
The only Palestinian I know and who knows me....
The poet here distinguishes his own impressions of Palestinians, based on his personal acquaintance, from the perceptions that "some people" have from seeing Palestinians only on television or at a distance. Almagor goes on to relate an incident when he gave Walid some "secondhand clothes for/His relatives in the village," including an old pair of shoes. The poet reflects:
How strange to think that someone, somewhere
in Walid's village near Nablus,
Is wearing my shoes now.
Once, not so very long ago,
I was in his shoes.
Almagor encapsulates the strangeness of Palestinian-Israeli relations in this particular exchange of a pair of shoes. Walid's village could not be far from the Israeli town where the poet lives, and yet he clearly has never been there. To Almagor, the village is a distant place that he can't quite visualize - "someone, somewhere" - and yet knowing that his own former shoes, such a personal item, are on the feet of a Palestinian villager allows him to imagine that person more concretely. At the same time, he feels self-conscious about being fortunate enough to give away old clothes and shoes, reflecting that "not so very long ago," presumably during the Holocaust, the tables were turned, and it was the Jews who were poor and oppressed.
Since the dispute over the land is the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's not surprising that many poets have dedicated poems to the country, to the land itself, or to a particular place. Jerusalem - which both peoples claim as their capital and which pulls at the heartstrings because of its holiness in Judaism and Islam - is often used in poetry to represent the land of Israel, or Palestine as a whole. For example, in the following two poems, Palestinian poet Mu'in Bseiso and Israel's Yehuda Amichai both play on the words of Psalm 137 ("If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,/let my right hand forget...")1 as a means to express their love for the land:
The God of Urushalim2
Let my right hand forget me,
let my beloved's 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]
squeezing honey and milk
out of drops of our blood,
and hatch out monsters.
- Mu'in Bseiso
If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Then let my right be forgotten.
Let my right be forgotten,
and my left remember
Should my right forget,
My left shall forgive
I shall forget all water,
I shall forget my mother.
If I forget thee, Jerusalem,
Let my blood be forgotten.
I shall touch your forehead,
Forget my own
My voice change
For the second and last time
To the most terrible of voices -
In these poems, both poets express a deep, personal connection to Jerusalem, associating the city with their own blood, their bodies, and their closest family members. Both give a sense of danger and imminent pain at the possibility of losing or forgetting Jerusalem, and both imply that the act of "forgetting" or not fighting for Jerusalem would be a disgrace to their brothers and mothers.
Nevertheless, although the two poets use the same metaphor to address the same theme, each writes in the context of his own society, culture, and poetic tradition. Amichai, born in Germany and raised as an Orthodox Jew, has lived most of his life in Jerusalem. In his youth, he served in the British Army and in Israel's Palmach force in the 1948 war. In "If I Forget Thee," Amichai uses Psalm 137 as a lens through which to reflect on his own behavior and his personal relationship to Jerusalem, the land, and God. He takes the burden of forgetting on himself with the lines "Should my right forget.../I shall forget all water/I shall forget my mother." He intimates that if he should ever forget his allegiance to Jerusalem, he will suffer personally and will lose any sense of himself, even his own voice.
Bseiso, on the other hand, uses the psalm to criticize Israeli oppression and to remind the Palestinian people of their obligation to fight for Jerusalem. Bseiso grew up in Gaza in the 1930s and 1940s, but because of his political activism, spent most of his life in exile in other Arab countries until his death in 1982. In his poem, Bseiso implores his people to remember that the "God of Urushalim lies heavily" on the land of Palestine, "squeezing honey and milk" out of Palestinian blood. His use of the term "God of Urushalim" to represent Israel is heavily ironic, suggesting that the Israelis use their religion to justify controlling the land and oppressing the Palestinian people. He plays on the biblical description of the Land of Canaan (now Israel) as the "land of milk and honey," to accuse the Israelis of building their homeland on the suffering of Palestinians - "out of drops of our blood." The poem also implies that any Palestinian who does not "remember" and fight against the "God of Urushalim" will lose his right hand, or his identity, and everyone that he loves.
These two poems exemplify the basic difference between the aesthetics of Israeli and Palestinian poetry: Palestinian poetry is and always has been political, while Israeli poetry is predominantly apolitical. In fact, Arab literary critics consider political poetry the highest form of the art. According to literary scholar Samira Meghdessian, Palestinian literature is "the most politicized among all writings by Arabs," and Palestinian writers find it "impossible to avoid" dealing with politics in their writings. Most Palestinian poets write with the urgency of the "oppressed," using poetry as a means to express their suffering under occupation (or their longing for the land from the exile), their anger towards their Israeli oppressors, and often their desire for political resistance. The effects of exile and Israeli occupation on Palestinian poetry are captured in this line from Mahmoud Darwish's famous poem "Bitaqat Huwiyya" ("Identity Card"), published in 1964: "The color of poetry is coal-black." Darwish, having lived most of his life as a refugee and an exile, intimates that the Palestinian tragedy has so blackened the lives of his people that even poetry, the great art of the Arabs, has been blackened by real life themes such as uprootedness, conflict, hunger, poverty, unemployment, and death.
Furthermore, the idea that Arabic poetry should demonstrate "commitment" (iltizam) to Arab causes, particularly the liberation of Palestine, has dominated Arab literary circles for decades. Arabic poetry scholar Khalid Suleiman defines "commitment" as the belief that "literature should have a message, should serve the causes of aspirations of the [Arab] nation, rather that just delight the reader." He also points out that commitment "contradicts the idea of 'art for art's sake'..." and requires that poetry should be judged by non-aesthetic as well as aesthetic standards.
The late Syrian love poet Nizar Qabbani exemplifies commitment to the Palestinian cause by paying homage to the "boys of the Intifada" in his renowned work of prose and free verse, The Trilogy of the Children of the Stones:
about the children of
the stones is that they
have brought us
rain after centuries of
brought us the sun after centuries
brought us hope after centuries of
have decided to fight
as they wish, live as
they wish, die
as they wish.
O children of Gaza,
teach us some of what you know,
Teach us to be men....
Qabbani sends a clear message in this passage: heroizing the "children of the stones" for resisting Israeli occupation, and at the same time criticizing previous generations of Arabs for not fighting their oppressors.
On the other hand, the validity of "political poetry" has been hotly debated in the Israeli literary world for decades. In fact, literary scholar Esther Raizen explains that many Israeli literati consider political poetry "an inferior branch of the art" because of its emphasis on social messages over imagery and aesthetic values. For example, Yehuda Amichai describes himself as "a moralist poet who deals with political realities [rather] than a poet who writes out of political context." Like Amichai, most Israeli poets use their art to explore the effects of the conflict on their own lives or their own society. Literary scholar James E. Young explains that Israeli war-related poetry tends to focus on "the deaths of Israeli soldiers or the condition of bereaved families at home" rather than war itself. As Karen Alkalay-Guts puts it, most Israeli poets prefer to write "about themselves."
Raiah Harnik's oft-cited poem "Your Socks," written in 1983 after the Lebanon war, is a prime example of this type of poetry. Born in Germany in 1933 and brought to Israel as a child, Harnik now lives in Jerusalem. In this poem, she addresses the subject of war indirectly by focusing on the personal effects of war:
Your socks are in the drawer
Your clothes are in the closet, folded
Your fatigues, too
And your clock ticks next to me
Waking me every morning for nothing
At four-thirty sharp.
Where did you rush to at four-thirty
To which oblivion, to what end
At four-thirty in the month of June
Why did you hurry what was so urgent again...
And your clothes are in the closet
Dress uniform, fatigues,
A parka with epaulets, next to the curtain.
And a clock which wakes me every night
At four-thirty sharp.
In this understated poem, Harnik mourns the loss of a loved one by describing the things that remain after he's gone. The fatigues and uniforms are the only direct evidence of war that Harnik provides in the poem - the reader is left to infer the rest. Her concern is with her own loss, and with what happened to this particular man, disregarding the larger context of the war. The manner in which she asks questions about his disappearance ("Where did you rush to... to which oblivion, to what end...?") almost suggests that the soldier chose to die, that he was personally searching for something in his life, or in his death.
Nevertheless, the horrors of the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon - specifically, the infamous Sabra and Shatila massacre - prompted a number of prominent Israeli poets to begin writing political, anti-war poetry. According to James E. Young, the Lebanon war also changed the focus of Israeli war poems from Israeli suffering to "the death and suffering of others, especially that of Arab children." In addition, many Israeli poets began using the Holocaust imagery to demonstrate the irony of Jewish soldiers killing Arabs.
For example, Dalia Ravikovitch uses Holocaust allusions to express sympathy for the Arab victims of Sabra and Shatila in her famous poem "You Can't Kill a Baby Twice." Born in 1936, Ravikovitch has lived her whole life in Israel, and has been active in the Israeli peace movement since the Lebanon war. The poem begins:
By the sewage puddles of Sabra and Shatila,
there you transported human beings
in impressive quantities
from the world of the living to the world
of eternal light.
The image of people being "transported... in impressive quantities" hauntingly echoes the transports of Jews to extermination camps, when trains carried them directly from "the world of the living" to death. The poem continues:
...a soldier yelled at
the screaming women from Sabra and Shatila.
He was following orders.
Like the Nazi soldiers who blamed their commanders for the deaths of the Jews they slaughtered in the Holocaust, this soldier is only "following orders." The image of him yelling at "the screaming women" evokes the intimidation that Nazi soldiers used with Jews in the camps. Finally, Ravikovitch turns her gaze towards the children:
And the children already lying in puddles of filth,
their mouths gaping,
No one will harm them.
You can't kill a baby twice.
Ravikovich's emphasis on the dead children in this poem also recollects one of the worst horrors of the Holocaust - the millions of children who were killed in the Nazi gas chambers.
Palestinian poets have noted the irony Ravikovitch expresses - that the Jews, after surviving the Holocaust, have become oppressors of another people - as well. For example, Mahmoud Darwish's poem "Dialogue with a Man Who Hates Me," written as a conversation between an Israeli and a Palestinian, opens with these lines:
My grandparents were burnt in Auschwitz,
My heart is with them, but remove the chains from my body.
Darwish suggests that the Israelis have claimed their parents' and grandparents' deaths in Auschwitz, or other Nazi death camps, as an excuse for keeping the Palestinians in "chains." Although the Palestinian speaker feels sympathy for the Israeli's painful history, he cannot act on this sympathy while he is suffering under Israeli authority.
The word "Dialogue" in the poem's title emphasizes the irony that, although the two men are speaking in turn in the format of a dialogue, they are not really communicating with each other. The opening lines of the poem, for example, emphasize the lack of understanding between the two peoples rather than an increase in communication. Each statement is a kind of refrain that encapsulates the political positions of one side. "Auschwitz!" serves as a rallying call for the Israelis in the insistence on the need to occupy Palestinian territory for national "security"; "Remove the chains!" captures the Palestinians' insistence that Israel withdraw from all territories and release all prisoners without regard for Israeli needs.
Their imagined conversation continues with the Israeli demanding of the Palestinian: "Mold your sword into a ploughshare." To this, the Palestinian responds simply, "You've left no land." This response carries two meanings - first, that the Palestinians feel they have no choice but to fight for their land, which the Israelis have taken. Second, the line can be read with a sneering tone, as if to say that it's impossible for the Palestinians to turn their weapons into "ploughshares," because they have no land left to plough.
In the final lines of the poem, Darwish gives the Palestinian a voice of hope for a positive future:
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!
Here, the Palestinian criticizes the Israeli and sympathizes with him at the same time. His commanding tone - "Why don't you make way for the sun!" - suggests that he blames the Israelis for blocking the sun, that is, for darkening the lives of the Palestinians with wars and conflict and occupation. Yet he also expresses pity for the Israeli, whom he perceives as having a kind of tortured soul, and suggests that the Israelis are unnecessarily making their own lives unhappy as well as the lives of Palestinians. In the line, "Why don't you try the taste of love," he tries to show the Israeli his own potential for happiness if he would only pause from his anger for a "taste of love."
As in the poem above, many Palestinian and Israeli poets have felt compelled - either by anger or a deep need to communicate - to write poems directly addressed to "the other" people. These poems are usually one-way conversations in which the poet expresses a message of urgency or desperation, or an attempt to understand where the other is coming from. These attempts to communicate across political boundaries often bear a sense of futility that the intended audience may never be reached.
One example of direct address is another poem by Darwish, "Those Who Pass Between Fleeting Words," which was published in 1988, at the onset of the Intifada. The poem is punctuated by the refrain of the title, addressing the Israelis in a sort of third person ("O those who...") and repeatedly accusing them of being untrustworthy, and of not translating their words into actions. In the following lines, Darwish focuses on the cycle of violence between the two peoples and emphasizes that both peoples live under the same "sky and air":
...O those who pass between fleeting words
From you the sword - from us the blood
From you steel and fire - from us our flesh
From you yet another tank - from us stones
From you teargas - from us rain
Above us, as above you, are sky and air
Then, he quickly makes clear that he's not interested in sharing the land with the Israelis at all:
O those who pass between fleeting words
It is time for you to be gone
Live wherever you like, but do not live among us
It is time for you to be gone
Die wherever you like, but do not die among us
So leave our country
Our land, our sea
Our wheat, our salt, our wounds
Everything, and leave
the memories of memory
O those who pass between fleeting words!
Darwish does not mince words in this poem. The message that he sends to the Israelis is one of deep pain and frustration, a sense of having had enough already.
Although the format of direct address is less common among Israeli poets, both Yehuda Amichai and Dalia Ravikovitch were compelled by the tragic events of the Intifada to address poems to the stone-throwing Palestinian children. In Amichai's "Temporary Poem of My Time," he pleads with the resistance fighters - "Please do not throw any more stones" - then tries through the energy of his words to wrest the stones from their hands:
Please throw little stones,
throw snail fossils, throw gravel,
justice or injustice from the quarries of Migdal Tsedek3
throw soft stones, throw sweet clods,
throw limestone, throw clay,
throw sand of the seashore,
throw dust of the desert, throw rust,
throw soil, throw wind,
throw air, throw nothing...
Through his repetition of the word "throw," Amichai tries to turn the children's action of throwing into words - presumably in the hope that his words will become reality. While maintaining the format of direct address, he turns his plea away from a realistic conversation into a fanciful cataloguing of smaller and softer objects to be thrown, in an attempt to show the children how tiring and futile all the throwing is - that in the end, there will be nothing left to throw but wind, then air, then nothing at all.
Dalia Ravikovitch also expresses weariness with stone-throwing in her poem "Stones,"4 in which she alternates between direct address to the Palestinian children and an internal meditation on the situation. The poem seems to be sparked by hearing someone yell the word "stones" in English during a clash between Palestinian civilians and Israeli soldiers - or perhaps she simply imagines that she's heard the word. She begins the poem with her immediate reaction to the word, and by addressing questions to the boys in an imaginary conversation:
Stones means stones.
Why did you say stones?
Why did you throw stones?
Why do you stand here, boy?
What is there for you in throwing stones at soldiers?
Why aren't you afraid?
Why are stones all you have in your mind
and in your hands?
Then, as if exasperated by the unending questions, to which she receives no answers, she begins to describe what she has seen of the stone-throwing (perhaps from television or from newspaper photos) and her perception of the boys' experience:
Now we said stones.
Boys of seven years, ten, nine, twelve
all of them throw stones.
They go up in a frontal line from the alleys
with hands full
with body cheerful and light
the only thing in their minds is stones.
Between one arrest and another
maybe also the blow of a baton
maybe also a wounded head,
everything open for them.
At the end of the poem, after describing this tragic state of events in which young boys have nothing in their minds but "stones" and suffer every kind of physical wound, she again addresses the children directly:
stones, stones, stones, stones
children, children, children, children.
Go home, children
How will you live without rest?
The repetition of the words "stones" and "children" here, and the desperation of the final question, evoke a sense of the poet's weariness with seeing the same news, the same images, the same violent events over and over again. These last lines - "Go home, children/ How will you live without rest?" - also carry a plea of concern for the children themselves, who, Ravikovitch fears, are filling their lives with nothing but violence and anger. The series of questions from the beginning of the poem to the end suggest that the children's battle is ineffective - that this cycle of throwing stones, then getting arrested or injured, only to throw stones again, results in hurting themselves.
Palestinian poet Samih Al-Qassem also laments the futility of violence in his poem "Attilu wa Asghu" ("Look Around and Pay Attention"), written during the Intifada. His plea is the reverse of Ravikovitch's and Amichai's - it is a plea to the Israelis to stop their acts of violence. In the following passage, Al-Qassem addresses Israeli soldiers in particular:
Where are you going, with your bloody feet?
Where are you going... violence in the wake of violence?
and reckless upon a thousand recklessnesses
and an army among the people
and a people among an army
Where do the clubs and helmets go
where do your tear gas bombs come to
to which death and from which death....
Like Ravikovitch, Al-Qassem expresses his horror by asking his imagined Israeli audience a series of questions, and suggesting that they, too, are merely repeating a cycle of violence rather than achieving anything. And like Amichai's evocation of weariness through repetition in "Temporary Poem of My Time," Al-Qassem repeats the question "where" to the Israelis throughout the poem to suggest that there is nowhere to go with all this violence: "to which death and from which death?" He also, like Amichai, emphasizes the finiteness of the land with these images of feet and helmets simply walking back and forth with no possible destination. Similarly, in "Temporary Poem of My Time," Amichai says of the Palestinian fighters:
...They throw stones,
throw this land, one at the other,
but the land always falls back to the land.
They throw the land, want to get rid of it,
its stones, its soil, but you can't get rid of it.
...the past throws stones at the future,
and all of them fall on the present.
This passage captures the sense of smallness, the sense that any violence committed in the land will "fall back to the land." Amichai also suggests that the effects of past violence are still being felt, that the only receptacle for the ramifications of the stone-throwing is "the present," the land here and now.
In addition to this weariness with the violence, many Palestinian and Israeli poets also express a strong desire for peace rather than conflict - as well as a sense that a peaceful end would be better for the lives of both peoples, not only for themselves. Al-Qassem's "Atillu wa Asghu" continues:
We will teach you the art of struggle
and the meaning of battle
and the lesson of peace
so your children can grow up without a military uniform
so your young men can embrace their lovers without metal arms
so your fathers can return
with a bouquet of roses to the flowerpot
so we and you can be
without any shackles, borders, prisons, madness
so we and you can be
without a helmet and without a gun
so we and you can live as the remains of songs
and not a trace of desire in our lives
so we and you can live
without the business of dancing among graves and above
and without injustice, or oppression, or shame, or fear, or cruelty....
Al-Qassem ranges the gamut of emotions in his poem - expressing a deep desire for peaceful lives for both his own people and the Israelis, and yet also expressing extreme anger towards the Israelis. At the same time that he tries to show his Israeli audience some of the beauties in life, he accuses them of lying and starting wars. He feels that the Israelis don't really want peace, and that this is something he has to "teach" them by showing them what they might see if they would only "look around":
We say to you frankly
look out a little from the dark ages
look around at the overflowing field of the world
look around at the graceful breath of life
at the grass in the old wall
at a boy climbing the foot of the stars
at a little girl swinging among the flowers of the garden
look around a little
and pay a lot of attention
so we say
we say to you frankly
all the wars have disproved you
the land was too narrow for your lying
the people shouted about your lying
and nothing remained but true peace
and nothing remained
And pay attention!
Al-Qassem ends his poem with an insistence on the need for peace, and his conviction that underlying the wars and political conflicts there exists a "true peace," if only the Israelis would stop fighting and "pay attention" to it.
Amichai, as a former soldier, also feels that ultimately there will be nothing left but peace. In his poem "Wildpeace" (written in the early 1970s), Amichai hopes that both sides will soon simply get tired of fighting and allow peace to emerge:
Not the peace of a cease-fire,
let alone the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
as in the heart after the excitement is over,
when you can talk only about a great weariness.
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
Let it be
suddenly, because the field
must have it: a wildpeace.
I believe that these last two poems highlight the deep historic desire for peace held by both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. And yet in the same poems, we can see a clear difference between their perspectives on the conflict - a difference that manifests itself even in poems expressing a desire for peace. That is, Amichai's perspective, on the one hand, is a desire for peace coupled with a "great weariness," a sense that all the continual violence is futile and unnecessary. And Al-Qassem's perspective is a desire for peace coupled with anger and frustration with the Israelis, charging them to "look out a little from the dark ages..." and blaming them for the conflict ("all the wars have disproved you...")
Nonetheless, the two poets stand on common ground in expressing their desire for a "true peace," which they both believe does not stem merely from negotiations or from an end of war. First of all, both poets intimate that neither the fighting nor lack of fighting will lead to a true peace. Amichai forswears "the peace of a cease-fire" and implies that "the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares" may be too forceful a peace, or may be more of an empty clatter than an actual achievement of peace. In addition, Al-Qassem stresses to the Israelis that "all the wars have disproved you," suggesting again that wars and the ends of wars have accomplished nothing towards a true peace.
Both poets also express a frustration with what Arabs call kalaam fadi (empty words), presumably on the part of politicians. Al-Qassem says: the land was too narrow for your lying/ the people shouted about your lying/ and nothing remained but true peace..." He goes so far as to accuse the Israelis of lying, but also emphasizes that too many false words, or perhaps simply too much political jargon, have become an obstacle to the realization of a true peace. In a similar vein, Amichai envisions a peace "without words, without the thud of the heavy rubber stamp," suggesting that he has little faith in the signing of agreements, or in the effect of words alone. He and Al-Qassem, like most Israeli and Palestinian poets writing today, prefer a peace which arises from stripping away the façade of politics - a peace which arises from the genuine sentiments of the people.
Author's note: This article was supported by a research grant from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I am also extremely grateful to several people: Dr. Lisa Pollard of UNCW, who made this project possible and advised me through the research and writing; Rebecca Lee of UNCW, who reviewed many drafts with undying patience; and to Dr. Mohammad Alwan of Tufts University, for reviewing my translations and for teaching me Arabic.