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Bringing The Margins To The Page
S uheir Hammad is one of eight featured poets in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam , a Tony-winning Broadway show of spoken word. A Brooklyn-based Palestinian poet who has contributed to many progressive movements. Hammad’s unique voice is showcased in her poetry book Born Palestinian, Born Black and her memoir Drops of this Story .
KATZ : Please tell us about your family history.
HAMMAD: I was born in 1973 in Amman, Jordan. My parents are 1948 refugees from Lod and Ramle [in what is now Israel]. Both sets of my grandparents were forced out soon after 1948 and settled in Jordan. I emigrated to Brooklyn when I was five. I’m the eldest of five children.
Because my mom was raised on the periphery of the camps and my father was raised within them, they have very different sensibilities and different relationships to the idea of Palestine. My father’s narrative as a child of the refugee camps is the one that really has been most silenced and marginalized.
My mother’s working class family eventually felt that they were Jordanian citizens, although they identified as Palestinians ethnically. But this was their lot: Palestine was gone. My father’s perspective on Palestine was different because in the 1960s and 1970s, young men and women from the camps were drawn into the Palestinian movement. So he literally grew up in a war zone. The spectrum of Palestinian identities that my parents represent helps me view my own identity through as large a scope as possible.
Your poetry represents a politics of inter-connectedness and internationalism, not narrow identity politics.
I’d like to think that, but for most people it is the first time they hear a Palestinian woman speaking in her own voice. The work becomes identity politics to people who haven’t before recognized your identity and that can be challenging.
Other Palestinians feel like my writing and the body of my work is so much more inclusive than they would choose to represent Palestine. But Palestine has never been a separate entity for me. It’s always been at the center of my belief in self-determination and the need for a democratic society. For some people that center has to be sexuality because their sexuality has been marginalized. For others it is their skin color. For me, it is my Palestinian identity.
One of the dangers in the Palestinian/Israeli tragedy is that it is talked about all the time, but to the detriment of other conflicts and tragedies—for instance AIDS in Africa, Sierra Leone, Chiapas. But it is just talk, the regurgitation of the same ideas, the same paradigms, the same black and white conversation. The majority of people feel they have a grasp of the situation because they see it in the headlines every day, but there’s no real engagement with what occupation means, with the displacement of the 1948 refugees and with the kind of karma that creates.
The word occupation has been “popularized” by the war on Iraq. How does that impact on the discourse about Palestine?
The mainstream conversation we are allowed to have on Israel is always framed by certain absolutes: Israeli’s right to exist, the acknowledgement of the horror of suicide bombing, and Israel’s superior military and economic power. Whether they’re right or wrong doesn’t matter; you can’t enter the conversation without those requirements.
How do you view the demographic arguments Israel often raises?
is a manipulation. Golda Meir once said: We are the Palestinians.
Another time she said: There’s no Palestinian people. On October
25, 1972, exactly one year before I was born, she also said: I can’t
sleep at night knowing how many Arab babies are being born this
same night. It is an interesting quote to bring up to people who
will call you anti-Semitic for criticizing Israel because it is
an inherently racist idea to think that every Palestinian infant
is born to create a living hell, or insomnia, for Golda Meir. This
is a strain that is still found. It is the ancestor of, “They
raise their children to be suicide bombers. They raise their children
to kill.” Where does this idea come from, that a whole population
is so different from us, from civilized people, that a whole people
would birth to murder?
Part of the power of your written work is that you make judgments based on opinions and actions, not ethnicity.
The majority of ignorant responses I get are not based on nationality, but on religion. When we were previewing on Broadway, it was consistently brought up to producers that this cacophony of urban voices did not include a Jewish voice. I seriously wonder if I had not been included in the original cast if those concerns would have been raised.
I like to point out that every Jewish voice is not Zionist—it’s a spectrum like any other ideology. I hope that all of us can meet one another where our actions lead us, but not where our religion or gender dictates us to be.
I had a note from someone who came to the show complaining about my poem “We Spent The 4th of July in Bed.” What I’m trying to do in that poem is shed light on child labor, the slave sex trade, poverty, and, yes, the specific murder of Palestinian youth. There are so many stories that are not fashionable in the forefront of our consciousness.
In that poem, I’m very clear not to identify the gender of the lover. Straight people assume I’m talking to a guy. Queer people generally are grateful that the gender isn’t specified. When I say “lover” instead of my man, I am artistically creating a safe space for my queer audience to step in and relate to the poem. Now why can’t certain people relate to the poem because I mention Palestinian youth? Why does that bar them from entering this poem?
What has been your experience as a Palestinian and poet since September 11?
I did not get to do [my post-September 11] poem on Broadway. I can’t speak for the reasons for the creative decision. I was reminded weekly that I was the first Palestinian woman on Broadway. It shapes every aspect of my work, because I’m very sensitive to the fact that other third world, refugee, marginalized young girls need to look at me and say to their parents: I can do that without being naked, I can do that without my sexuality introducing me. I can tell our stories in our own vernacular, in our own worldview. I’m honored to carry that responsibility.
The audience reminds you, when some of the people walk out. In Boston, a woman in the front row was with me in that poem, until I said “Palestinian youth dead, absorbing rubber bullets”…and then she had an urge to rummage through her bag. In San Francisco, I had people get on their [cell] phones while I was reading that poem. I’ve had coughing campaigns through that poem.
Please describe your publishing history and the particular barriers you’ve encountered.
My first two books came out within months of each other. My late publisher, Glen Thompson, was an African American, who had very socialist utopian ideas in the late 1960s and left Queens, New York to live in Israel on a kibbutz. He was perceived to be a Palestinian because of his complexion and genotype. He left America’s paradigm of race relations only to be rudely awakened into Israel’s paradigm of race relations. He went back to Europe and America and created a publishing company for the work of Black poets and writers.
Three decades later, Glen Thompson came full circle with his disillusionment and his awareness of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and its relationship and connect- edness to the struggle for self-determination around the world. He took a lot of flak from everybody for publishing this Palestinian girl from the ghetto. I wasn’t African American. I wasn’t Jewish. But he took the chance because of his own personal experience. He died in 2001. I really believe that he made a contribution to healing that wound, that trauma, by making my work public.
Why haven’t you been published by a New York commericial house?
I cannot meet one person in publishing or now in the theater world without them having to connect with me solely on Israel. Oh, my uncle lives in Israel. Where in Israel are you from? Horrible suicide bombings. I believe people are trying to connect, but they connect on something, which is not a valid conversation. My identity is only referenced to a Jewish identity. Because of that, any criticism of the state of Israel is easily and dangerously labeled anti-Semitic. And no one wants to be thought of as an anti-Semite.
I don’t create this conversation. I am consistently asked to engage in the misappropriation of language. Do you mean anti-Semitism or do you mean anti-Jewish racism? I’m seen as aggressive, hostile. As a poet, I am painfully aware that I have to be very specific in my language. So getting into the conversation of being myself a Semite is not, at the age of 30, something I’m interested in doing.
Is the battle for precise language wider than that?
I deal with this within the Palestinian communities. I’m very clear about the difference between Zionism and Judaism. For Palestinian boys in the West Bank, the majority of whom have been in Israeli prisons and experienced physical torture, every occupier they know, regardless of their physical race, is a Jew. Yet I expect them to not say, I hate the Jews. I expect them to say, I hate Zionism. That’s not fair of me. My responsibility then is to share what I know and there are many Palestinians who do make that distinction. Whether or not they work with Jews, their analysis is clear, based on the facts on the ground. So if I can see that kind of language abuse within the Palestinian communities, I can see it in other communities. There isn’t one community that has ownership over backward ideas. I don’t get mad or deeply offended when U.S. Jews don’t make the distinction between Zionism and Judaism because Palestinians don’t always make it. But it’s my responsibility to make that clear.
Please tell about the experience of performing in the Tony-winning Def Poetry Jam .
It’s pretty amazing to be introduced at the top of the show as being from Brooklyn by way of Palestine. My cast members joke about how the first year of the show was really difficult for me. I often felt at odds with the audience. I felt insecure because I wasn’t making the audience laugh, wasn’t giving a physical performance. I was just reciting my poem. The majority of the audience is there for entertainment and relaxation. You are actually engaging them in analysis and content that is very foreign for those of us who only get our news from corporate media and whose imaginations are shaped by Hollywood images.
I understand that my presence in the show is often an entry point for the majority of the audience into these uncomfortable conversations. It’s not fun being the entry-way.
That kind of performance speaks to the anxiety in the audience, people who have always wanted to stand up and scream. I’m proud of that. Members of the audience never before felt that their everyday experience could be rendered into art. If we didn’t have moments of pure laughter or pure pop culture, there’s no way I could do what I do.
Performing in Boston has been an amazing experience. [We thought] that we were either going to incite a race riot or inspire some real conversation about culture. Whereas on Broadway we did matinee shows where there were no people of color in the audience. There are communities where the affirmation of your words is the responsibility of the audience, whereas there are audiences where any distraction or interruption is considered rude. The amazing thing about Boston has been this mix of the strata—economically, racially, all these differences we construct. Each segment of the audience allows the other permission to respond in a new way. So suddenly you have middle-aged, middle class white people who are responding, affirming in the middle of a poem. Then you have people of color who, because of the presence of the traditional white audience, are given permission to listen. For me, the mix is a blessing that we allow the middle ground where the words and the performance matter.
Do you have any specific messages for us?
I would remind people that we have never made progress on our thinking and our agendas without being uncomfortable. The vast majority of progressive circles are apologetic about Israel’s actions. They live in fear of being manipulated into the right-wing’s anti-Jewish venom and people need to let that fear go and engage in the truth of this human tragedy. There has to be a space for anti-Zionist Jewish voices and there has to be a space for Palestinian narratives—which will conflict with one another, which will not always be progressive, will not always be as radical as we want them to be. But it is our responsibility as people who engage in this kind of art, to engage in the uncomfortable.
I’ve learned a lot from queer theory and queer political thought on pushing the envelope and understanding the necessity for art and thought that goes beyond my threshold of comfort. We have to bring that paradigm into this conversation. What queer theory has done is question the very fundamentals of everything we believe about our desires, our biology, and our society. I believe we should use that type of thinking in approaching any situation where we’re trying to resolve a conflict. Do not assume the other person’s story.
Tell us about the collaborative poem you do with two other Def poets.
I love doing that poem because it’s one of the few times in the show where we acknowledge our inspiration, our mentors. I talk about June Jordan, Jayne Cortex, Sapphire, and Mahmoud Darwish. I was writing part of that poem the week June Jordan died. To be able to say her name every night and to bring her radical aesthetic to the attention of an audience, most of whom will not go out and get her book. But the next time they see her name, they’ll remember her from Def Poetry Jam and maybe they’ll look her up and become acquainted with her amazing body of work.
At the end of the show there is a swarm of voices. I am saying Mumia Abu Jamal, Leonard Pelltier, Asada Shakur, Fred Hampton, George Jackson, Paul Robeson. Even within this group there are some conflicting opinions, some nationalistic, some communistic, some homophobic—but the point is to honor them and bring their voices to the attention of people. It’s not about you. You have a responsibility to bring the margins to the page.
Sue Katz is a freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.
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