It was crouched in a corner of a small make-shift shelter during the worst Israeli operation in Ramallah that Palestinian poet Tala Abu Rahmeh started writing poetry. Stuck inside, she began writing about her life in order to move — if only in her mind — outside the room. Now, years later, she is starting to understand just how much poems can hold and says she does not know what to do without them.
Back to the land of oranges
Born and brought up in Amman, Tala Abu Rahmeh moved with her mom and brother to Palestine a few years before the second intifada started. Right after her undergraduate studies at Birzeit University, she left for the US where she did her MFA in Creative Writing and worked for the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in Washington. Tala has received the Eliav-Sirtawi Middle East Journalism Award and the Expressions of Nakba Competition 2008 Best Written Book Award, and is featured in the anthology 25 Under 25 — Time You Let Me In, edited by Naomi Shihab Nye. She has recently returned to live in Ramallah. “I’m not exactly sure where I belong,” says Tala, “sometimes I want to be in Tahrir Square, other times I just want to live in Tennessee and have babies!”
Starting to write
Since she started writing, her poetry has been connected to very real aspects of life and survival. “I never thought a form of writing would save my life, but that’s what poetry did,” says Tala. “I first started thinking about it when I was 16 years old, sleeping next to my mom in a small room/make-shift shelter during the worst Israeli operation in Ramallah. I vividly remember thinking that poetry was like that shelter; small, direct, and fast. I needed that because I wasn’t sure how much time I had left.”
She continues: “I had a small notebook my friend had gotten for me, it was brown and had a picture of a window, and during that time windows were the most dangerous part of the house. I crouched in the corner in that room and wrote poems about what it used to feel like to be outside; the city square, the vegetable market, school, my grandmother’s house, anything that would take me, even for a split moment, outside. It took me years and a lot of reading until I understood how much poems can hold. I remember reading Langston Hughes and Naomi Shihab Nye and gasping at the details. Poems are the most beautiful paintings. I don’t know what I’d do without them.”
A Palestinian who lived through the second intifada in Ramallah, Tala’s poems are bound to deal with life under the occupation. However, her poetry captures other social matters as well, like the poem Suicide Note which is about suicides among Native Americans. “No matter how much you read about the US, living there is a completely different experience,” says Tala. “I remember being in a literature class about African-American women writers and thinking ‘Good lord, that’s exactly like we have it!’ Then, what struck me even more was homelessness in DC: I lived closer to downtown DC where mostly African-Americans lived, and realised painfully that I was much more privileged as a foreigner than these people were in their own country. Kind of how I am in my own home country.”
She continues: “I think that the multiple places where I have lived made me realise how malleable my identity is. I don’t feel particularly Palestinian or Arab or American, but a combination of them all, and my poems will always be about everybody.”
Writing in Palestine, writing Palestine
Tala has now returned to Ramallah where she teaches at the Bard/Al Quds Honors College and works on her first book of poetry. “Palestine makes it hard for me to write. I haven’t been able to write as much as I want to, and it pisses me off. Palestine is a suffocating place: it’s warm neither on the inside nor the outside. I constantly question my decision to come back, but my amazing students keep me determined to stick by them for a while.”
Palestinian writing is big, with influential names like Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Darwish. Any Palestinian writer will find his or her work situated in that tradition. “This is interesting,” says Tala, “because Palestinian writing tradition no longer fits in one box. Some of our current most influential writers are writing in different languages, and that makes me think about the mental limitation that language imposes when it’s also used to sign rotten peace agreements and support propaganda. I don’t know where I’m situated, and I avoid asking this question because I mainly write in English. I hope that one day my writing will matter to Palestinians.”
Palestinian poetry today
“Palestinian poetry of today is waking up from a long slumber,” continues Tala. This is the case with writers both in Palestine and in the global diaspora (which is big: 7.5 million Palestinians live outside their country today). “I’m constantly reading awesome writers who are taking great leaps towards a different kind of representation,” says Tala. “I think we need to read so much of what is written to know how to work with it, and change the current hopeless and stale thinking traditions. Things in Palestine are very grim right now, and there is no trust. But, what’s going on in the Arab world is opening up new channels of hope. I believe in poetry, and therefore in people and their ability to do beautiful things.”
Three Hundred Sunflowers
My aunt shakes,
“who told you?”
her voice bleeds through the phone,
“three hundred in one night, and we
haven’t gotten over
our one natural death.”
Before my mom died,
she hesitantly collected sunflowers.
She would contemplate ripping them from the ground,
“Everything has a mother,” she would whisper
in the mountain’s green ear.
A girl, two-years-old,
held the hand of a stranger.
Her mom told her never to, but now,
she is buried in the rubble
of a mosque.
They were hiding from ten thousand bombs exploding
like light bulbs, and who is kinder than God
to shield them in his holiest house?
A boy, sleeping under the bed, dreams
of windows, the bringers of oxygen.
He smiles, in quiet revenge of missiles
that are sucked out of breath.
There is nothing more beautiful
In the police station,
down the street from the sea,
there was a graduation.
Policemen celebrated learning the laws of traffic
on streets, were cars park in the middle
to buy bread or bananas.
“we didn’t wait for the Israelis
to halt our stones and you think
we are going to stop for red?”
One policeman dreamed of the day he raises
his hand and freezes a river of vehicles.
He believed in the sugar of magic.
When the doctor arrived, right after the bombs
fell everywhere, he didn’t know which arms
belonged to which body,
they were all equally toned.
A woman, twenty-two,
has been putting olive oil on her hair,
every single day, these last three months.
Her grandma told her that the juice of olives,
pulls the hair longer, triple
its natural capacity.
She counted months and thought,
her summer wedding would have to brace itself
for locks of curly, black hair.
When they found her, curled up under her building,
with an iron wire passing through her heart,
her shower cap was fully intact.
There is a man the neighborhood hated,
He used to beat up his wife,
in the dim of the night.
When he got mad at her,
For drawing flowers on the living room wall,
he would throw her food out the door.
Pieces of the fifth missile,
pierced through his belly,
and the pot.
One of the men whose ceiling
melted onto his body,
really wanted to be in love.
He wanted to be so love struck
he would write letters to the moon.
He wanted to say things like “your
eyes are the irises of the universe,”
and not feel ashamed.
Last night, I slept with my teeth clenching
news headlines tattooed
on burned bodies.
I had a dream of a big bandage comforting
the city with mint ointment.
As ten giant men were lining
the brown parts on the smoky buildings
my mom stepped in, and shooed them away.
She put my hands together,
pressed them like jars of pickles,
we can do nothing but pray for healing,
so pray baby, pray.
“With hardship comes comfort”
Surat Al-Sahrih 7:99
You squeezed your eyes closed as a man in Gaza, the size of a tree,
shoved his baby to the camera
“the blast happened, she flew out the window,
they killed her, they killed her.”
I held your cheeks to let my skin sip some tears.
“And you tell me not all of them are bad?
they are all soldiers.”
We used to fit you
in the kitchen sink, tickle
your toes until your laugh echoed
across our little town.
One evening, after we all cried during news,
you decided to change the subject-
you talked about how it takes you ten seconds,
to bite into an apple.
I kept staring at your little teeth,
how do you eat steak?
Your mind is an eternal spring.
Stories grow in every direction,
and you can’t be bothered to weed.
You spoke of our uncles, spread across the globe, one
decided to take up religion in Miami, straight out
of the Qur’an, he lived his life.
When teta got dementia , stared at his face with empty eyes,
he stormed out of the room. The world is too smeared
for him and old age better come clean.
We laughed at how all our khaltos, tried to wrap
her forgetfulness, in versus of prayer,
When you walked away to mix
rosewater and corn starch ,
the facemask with undeniable power,
I thought of how much you made me laugh,
during my mother’s funeral.
When they told you, your amto
has died in Jerusalem,
you crawled under the bed, refused
to come out until all death was over.
Five hours later, you put on black
clothes, and came to tell me stories about how she ate
unpeeled shrimp, legs of any octopus, and bread
with tomatoes, salt and olives.
We laughed at how when the doctor told her
not to eat dairy, she sneaked cheese
in whole wheat bread.
You took my hand when I walked in
to services, and when I had a panic attack, crumbled
on the floor, in middle of group prayer,
you screamed for me.
Your mom, shoved perfume up my nose,
“this is Chanel No. 5, it better work.”
You slept next to me even
when I told you I see nothing
but blank dreams.
You would crawl near and whisper,
“I was your mom in our past life, and we were cats.”
You are fourteen now, and I’m terrified
of you growing older.
I want you to forever stretch
the length of your body, in the backseat
where you sleep on my lap, and I can look at you,
and wonder what to do,
with all this love.