Palestinian Natalie Handal: “Being political means being involved”
Palestinian poet Natalie Handal lives in New York, the cosmopolitan cauldron of the world where all nations and nationalities have mingled, but she always remembers her Palestinian roots. Handal writes for Vanity Fair, Guernica Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Nation, Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and her plays are performedat the John F. Kennedy Center and Westminster Abbey. An anthology of Arab poets (The Poetry of Arab Women) edited by her was an Academy of American Poets bestseller, named one of the top 10 Feminist Books by The Guardian, and it won the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award.
You have lived in Latin America, France and the Arab World. What does the phrase “Arab World” mean to you? There are as many as 22 countries, among which there is no official Palestine, where your parents come from. But it is only partially: for example, Ukraine has recognized Palestine, Kyiv even has Palestine embassy on Ivan Fedorov Street, but the United States, Canada and most EU countries have not. What does being a Palestinian mean to you? In what part of your consciousness or identity are you Palestinian?
I come from a family that was deeply rooted in Bethlehem. I am deeply rooted in this culture, and it is very important to me that my Palestinian history continues. There are currently about 12 million Palestinians in the world. Most of them live outside the Holy Land and cannot return. And those living in the West Bank in Gaza are temporarily displaced. Of course, the question remains how to solve all these problems. And I’m sure they will be resolved in the end. First of all, Israel must recognize the presence of Palestinians in its territories. We need to start a dialogue and manage how to live together. We have to see each other first. History teaches us that things never stay stable, they always turn into something else.
I believe that we are separated by the unknown. As well as myths about others that we have invented and believe in them. And I think that our art should serve as a bridge for understanding. Art must show us what it means to be human, to reveal fundamental human qualities.
But how deep are you in the Palestinian discourse? Do you just support Palestine by living in New York?
I am deeply interested in Palestinian affairs. But how can this be measured? Suppose you meet a Ukrainian-American, how can you determine to what extent is he Ukrainian and to what extent is he American? This is impossible at all. Humans are flexible and open beings. I am an American cosmopolitan, and I cannot single out any of my identities in particular: neither Palestinian, nor Latin American, nor any other. They are all in constant dialogue. I call it a Symphony of Pluralism. This is what my identity looks like.
Do you write your works in Arabic?
I do not have a native language. I grew up in a multilingual environment, so my native language is a whole symphony of languages. American English is beautiful in that it provides shelter for all the variety of other languages. Arabic is a very important part of my consciousness, it lives in my body and is present in my works. Just like French. All these languages live in my heart.
So do you have poems in Arabic?
No, I write only in English.
In the final of your poem “The thing about feathers” you (or your lyrical hero) promise your father: “I will keep my country in a notebook”. Did you mean Palestine and do you think it is necessary to fight for Palestinian statehood? Is it enough to just write in a notebook? What should a poet do to save his country?
I believe that we must constantly fight for freedom, human rights and even the right to exist in this world with dignity.
But what about more specific things — such as Palestinian statehood? Could you go out on the streets of New York right now and call on the United States to recognize the Palestinian state immediately?
Every day, when I write a line of my new text, I believe that I am fighting not only for the freedom and dignity of the Palestinians, but also for all the backward people of the world. Therefore, in itself, my action is resistance. Of course, there are people who go out on the streets, curse, fight, but my way of resisting as a poet is to write words on the pages and convey to people the awareness of what is happening through the media.
So what should a poet do to save his own country?
Every poet must solve this question for himself. For me, this is mainly evidence that I myself experienced and saw with my own eyes. And
I am sure that no event happens independently of others. If something happens to a child in Jerusalem, something similar will happen to a child in Ukraine. We live in a united world, and the problem is that we isolate events from each other.
When I write about a child who is being persecuted in Palestine, I also mean a Ukrainian child. Consequently, we must communicate as human beings, not as separate isolated individuals. Of course, it’s sad. I can only write about things I know well, but that doesn’t mean I don’t combine them with a wider range of suffering and injustice.
In your poem “In search of midnight” there is one very characteristic fragment. During lovemaking, a woman stops a man when he mispronounces her name. And then he remembers being tortured in his home country because he also mispronounced his own name. It seems to me that the key to understanding this verse is right here. But what does that mean? Is it just an image, do Arabs really pronounce their names in some languages incorrectly? The woman didn’t seem to know which country the man came from before, but when he said her name incorrectly, she suddenly guessed. So, the wrong pronunciation is the key. At the end of this verse, the man even receives new documents because he refuses to pronounce his name correctly. Did you mean here that everyone should hold on to their roots?
This is a multi-layered poem, but it is dedicated to how love can be occupied. Bethlehem and Jerusalem are sister cities that never existed separately. There are only six kilometers between them. And now there is a wall that separates them.
And so if someone from Bethlehem falls in love with someone from Jerusalem, they can’t be together, because they just can’t live together in one of these cities. For example, a resident of Bethlehem in Jerusalem will immediately lose his documents.
It was also important for me to show the idea that Palestinians were displaced and divided at the language level, geographically and through identity documents. After all, every inhabitant of Jerusalem has a blue card.
But 1.7 million Palestinians have Israeli citizenship, 2.5 million live in the West Bank, and some in Jordan. And they can’t meet each other, because there are checkpoints and walls everywhere. To move to another part of the country requires a special permit. I’m not talking about going abroad anymore. And this feeling that the most important things for us, such as love, can be occupied, speaks for itself. And you don’t have to say anything more.
A mispronounced name is an image of a divided Palestinian society.
In your poem “Even in love” you twice mention the word “war”: war has destroyed you, war lives in me. Do you mean a specific war, or is it just a poetic image? For me, as a citizen of Ukraine — a country where the war is going on — this is a very important issue. It seems to me that today no one can use the word “war” in Ukrainian poetry as a poetic image, because it is too real for us. It is a lost and worn image. For us, the war has a specific and real address. How real is the war for you?
It is very real, because when I write “war”, I mean the wounds and scars that appeared in me due to lack of choice, due to the inability to return home. And I can’t love freely. This is the most nightmarish and painful experience of my life. He lives in me and has a lot of vitality.
But you were born in Haiti.
There are 12 million Palestinians worldwide. And this is very important to realize when we talk about what it means to be Palestinian. Some of us are born in Haiti, some in Japan, some in Minnesota, and some even in Kyiv. We are a divided nation without a homeland. So it is possible that the Palestinian was born in another land, speaks a different language and has a different nationality. But that’s what connects you to your identity.
How often do you visit Palestine?
Every year. I just need to go home and hold on to my roots as hard as I can, get closer to the olive trees.
You are the editor of the collection “Poetry of Arab Women: a modern anthology”. Is it difficult to be a poet in the Arab world? I mean — in the social sense. Each culture has its own limitations, but I think the limitations in some Arab countries are very large and strong. For example, here is some fairly recent news: “In Qatar, the poet, imprisoned since 2011 for a poem that, according to the court, insulted the former emir, was released”. Or: “A Palestinian poet and leader of the newborn poetic movement of Saudi Arabia was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam.” Or: “A prominent Sudanese poet, journalist and human rights activist is on the list of 19 prisoners who will soon be executed in Sudan.” So, in my opinion, writing poetry in the Arab world is extremely dangerous for men, but if you are a woman, the danger is even greater. Is that true?
Traditionally, since pre-Islamic times and still Arabic poetry is considered a source of beauty and history of Arab culture. And this is very important for poetry, and poetry is very important for the Arab world. As you mentioned at the beginning of the interview, there are more than two dozen Arab countries, there are Gulf countries, there is the Levant, there is North Africa. And they are all under one umbrella of Arabic literature. Of course, there are local poetic movements, as well as socio-political dynamics. I will only talk about the experience of Palestine. There is no doubt that Palestinians are fighting for their freedom with words. We know the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and many others.
So it was an anthology of exclusively Palestinian poets?
No, this is an anthology of Arab poets. In fact, I edited two anthologies. And this anthology of Arab poets aimed to eradicate the situation when the West does not notice this phenomenon, does not hear the voices of these poets. And as you can see from the list of authors, this is very bright, resonant poetry for the Arab world.
How dangerous is it to be a poet in the Arab world?
It is absolutely safe. Of course, in any country there are very sensitive topics that need to be written about carefully. As for Palestinian poets, when they write about what they see, about the living conditions of the Palestinian people, they can be imprisoned or placed under house arrest on the orders of the Israeli government. It happens.
So, there is no special danger for poets after all?
It depends on certain conditions. We were invited to a fantastic Publishers’ Forum in Lviv, but there are also many literary festivals in the Arab world. It is not necessary to summarize the individual events you mentioned. Any generalization is dangerous. Of course, it’s sad, all these arrests of poets. But we have to look at what is happening in the context of those countries. Let’s not use the word “Arabic” so widely. The experiences of Palestine, Lebanon or Saudi Arabia are very different.
Do Arab poets suffer from gender censorship? Can they, for example, write about sex?
Censorship exists all over the world. And the poetry of Arab women speaks for itself. If you have read about this book, you may have noticed the richness and variety of voices. If this diversity exists, then Arab women can write and publish about it.
This anthology “was designed to draw more attention to Arab-American poets, who are on the sidelines of the literary and ethnic movement in the United States.” But why are they on the sidelines? Is it a matter of language or topics that they touch on? Maybe they are in closed communities that prefer to develop outside the literary scene?
I mainly wanted to present in this anthology the poetry of Arab women, written in different languages of the world: Arabic, French or English. Do not forget that this anthology was published in 2001. Today, there are far more opportunities to present literary movements than there were sixteen years ago. These are both new magazines with translations and websites. The very landscape of translated literature today is radically different from what existed twenty years ago.
Are there Arab foundations or charities that support Arab poetry around the world?
There are a lot of such foundations. Throughout the Arab world, they support the publication of writers’ works and literary discussions. There are especially many such forums in London. They are specifically involved in promoting Arabic literature both in the Arab world and abroad.
Does the money come from Qatar or some other Arab country?
No, this is a generalization again. There are many sources of funding around the world. You can’t talk about one thing. The world is big.
I meant: are Arab governments inclined to support Arabic literature in their countries and abroad?
If there are all these literary festivals and publishing houses, then there is support. Although, of course, I can’t talk about any individual cases, but I urge you not to generalize.
Is it possible for a poet to exist outside of politics? Perhaps some poets are creating politically engaged works to gain more popularity? Can you say that there are some indications that the poet is not really interested in politics, but only exploits it?
I would not generalize, but everything in a sense is political. To be political is to be involved. So, if you are involved in any form of activity, it means that you are involved in politics.
It is similar to the feminist slogan: “Personal is political”.
I do not really believe in external attributes. I believe in involvement. And I am attracted by my words.
Many people know almost nothing about the Palestinian problems. Even as I was literally preparing for this interview, I suddenly found out that Ukraine recognizes Palestinian statehood.
Do you usually tell some details about Palestine before performances so that the audience can better understand your poems? Do you think that poetry needs comments and explanations in any case, because poetic language is very private, personal, and people often do not understand what is quite obvious to the author?
I think poetry should speak for itself. And the public should travel with poems if they need to. And literature itself transcends boundaries, walls and boundaries. And I hope that I manage to transform the power of art in this way. People love and suffer, and poetry conveys that experience.
But poetry is a kind of secret language.
I see it differently. For me, poetry is a journey. You can decide for yourself whether you should start this journey, whether you should open this book, whether you should decompose the metaphor used by the poem, decompose the political dimension of poetry or emotions. And you can decide whether you need to decipher it all or just travel through the text.
So, if you do not understand what the poet is talking about — let’s google!
What does “understanding” mean? We may not understand something intellectually, but we understand it physically, emotionally, and therefore the word “understanding” has many meanings and layers.
I mean, there are a few toponyms in your poetry that I didn’t know about at all, and I literally had to google to understand what it was all about.
Sometimes Google will not help to understand everything properly. I myself do not always fully understand my poems. We are unlimited by our own experience. You can understand something in my poems that I did not understand myself, and tell me about it, because it was not immediately noticeable to me. Poem is an infinite space of meaning. And we can dive into it to travel in different layers.