Qunfuz

Robin Yassin-Kassab

Posts Tagged ‘Palfest

Maghut’s Shade and Noon Sun

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maghutSyrian writer Muhammad al-Maghut was born the son of a peasant farmer in the dusty town of Salamiyah in 1934, during the French occupation. As a young man he joined the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, the second biggest mass party in Syria after the Ba’ath. Like the Ba’ath, the secular SSNP appealed to religious minorities – al-Maghut was of Ismaili origin. Unlike the pan-Arabists of the Ba’ath, it envisaged a fertile crescent state including Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait and even Cyprus. Al-Maghut was locked up on several occasions for SSNP membership. During his first imprisonment – in Mezzeh prison in 1955 – he met the influential poet Adonis and started writing poetry himself.

As a poet he deserves to be much more widely known. Along with Adonis and Nizar Qabbani he was a modernist, using free verse instead of the traditional Arabic forms. Like Qabbani he aimed to be accessible to the ordinary people, but his ‘lover narrator’ is perhaps better suited to our twisted times than Qabbani’s. Certain verses sum up the decadent atmosphere very well indeed. The following remind me of those Gulf Arabs and others who profit from the prostitution of refugee women from occupied Iraq:

Lebanon is burning – it leaps, like a wounded horse, at the edge of the desert/ and I am looking for a fat girl/ to rub myself against on the tram/ for a Beduin-looking man to knock down somewhere. My country is on the verge of collapse/ shivering like a naked lioness/ and I am looking for two green eyes/ and a quaint café by the sea/ looking for a desperate village girl to deceive.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 7, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Bubbling with Energy

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An edited version of this article was published in The National.

Palestine 045We entered Palestine from Jordan, across the Allenby Bridge and over the trickle which is what’s left of the diverted, overused, and drought-struck river. The Dead Sea glittered in the hollow to our left. Jericho, the world’s oldest city, shimmered through heat haze to our right. The site where Jesus was baptised was a stone’s throw away. Palestine is most definitely part of bilad ash-Sham, in the same cultural zone as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but it is also most definitely like nowhere else on the planet. Suddenly the superlatives were coming thick and fast.

Palestine feels as large as a continent – but one that’s been crushed and folded to fit into the narrow strip of fertile land between the river and the sea. The Jordan Valley depression is the lowest point on earth, part of the Rift Valley which stretches from east Africa, and it’s as hot as the Gulf. But only a few miles up from the yellowed, cratered desert into the green hills before Jerusalem, and the weather is very different. As we left our performance in Ramallah a couple of nights later, gusts of fog blew in on an icy wind. If a Palestinian in the West Bank manages to find an unoccupied hilltop – which isn’t at all easy – he can look all the way to the forbidden Mediterranean, and perhaps he’ll pick out the fields of his ancestral village.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 24, 2009 at 1:01 pm

A Visit to Hebron

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This was published on the Reuters Great Debate blog.

Palestine 210There’s no pretty way to describe what I saw in Hebron, no tidy conceit to wrap it in.

I visited as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, the brain child of the great British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I was in the company of many wonderful writers and publishers, among them Python and traveller Michael Palin, best-selling crime novelist Henning Mankel, Pride and Prejudice screenplay writer Deborah Moggach, and prize-winning novelists Claire Messud and MG Vassanji.

Our first stop was Hebron University, where I ran a workshop on ‘the role of writing in changing political realities.’ The students were bright and eager; the only discomforting note was struck by a memorial stone to three killed while walking on campus, by rampaging settlers, in 1986.

After lunch we visited Hebron’s historic centre.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 3, 2009 at 12:11 am

Entering Palestine

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I love it when Arab Christians have names like Omar. It shows, on their fathers’ part, a rejection of the sectarianism which cripples us. I know of a Christian family in Beirut which named its eldest son Jihad, and Muslim families with sons called Fidel and Guevara. Omar is not merely a specifically Muslim name; it’s more particularly a Sunni name, disliked by some Shia for theological-historical reasons. Omar is not a good name to have written on your ID card while driving through a Shia-militia-controlled area of Baghdad. But I know an Iraqi Shia woman whose brother is called Omar, because her father rejected the whole sorry sectarian business.

By and large, the Palestinians have avoided the curse. It’s still the case that if you ask a Palestinian whether he’s Muslim or Christian he responds, “Palestinian!” I mention this because our guide from Amman to the Allenby Bridge was a Palestinian Christian called Omar, and because the Palestinians, unlike their enemies, are proud of their diversity and pluralism.

Swaying in the bus aisle, Omar explained that Jordanian officers would check our passports but would not stamp them. “The Jordanian government has recognised Israel, but not Israeli control over the West Bank. Why are there Israeli police on the border and not Palestinians? Jordan recognises this as a crossing, but not a border.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 12, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Posted in Jordan, Palestine, Zionism

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From Vanunu to the New Jew

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Mordechai Vanunu breaks the rules

I cannot keep silent … Disaster follows disaster; the land lies in ruins … My people are fools; they do not know me.” Jeremiah 4:19

Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew, born in Marrakesh. Today he credits his humanity to having been born in an Arab country rather than in the Jewish state. He was nine when he was taken to Israel. He attended an ultra orthodox school, and after his military service became a nuclear technician at the Dimona plant. At this time his anti-Zionist politics developed. Later he flirted with Buddhism, converted to Christianity, and in London in 1986 told the Sunday Times what he knew of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, backing his claims with photographic evidence.

He was then caught in a ‘honey trap’, lured by a beautiful woman from London to Italy, drugged and kidnapped in Rome by Mossad (with the connivance of British, French and Italian intelligence services), and brought back to Israel, where he served 18 years in prison for his truth-telling, twelve of them in solitary confinement. He says he survived because of his strong will (“the first thing I did in prison was give up smoking”), and by playing opera records. He refused to converse with the only human beings available – his guards. His lawyer describes him as “the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 6, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Suheir Hammad

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Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Suheir stars in the film Salt of this Sea, but it is surely time someone directed her in a poetry performance DVD. You have to hear her read to really appreciate what she does. A good place to start is the poem First Writing Since, which concerns 9/11.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 5, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Visit Palestine

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Palestine 121

Click here to see my photo album of people.

Click here to see my photo album of walls.

Click here to see my photo album of al-Khalil/ Hebron.

Click here to see my photo album of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Please read the captions.

I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

June 1, 2009 at 11:00 pm

Posted in Culture, Palestine

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