Can a poem be as deadly as a tank?


Firm stand. Arab-Israeli poet Dareen Tatour reacts after being sentenced to five months in prison in Nazareth, on July 31. (Reuters)

A poem has certainly never stopped a tank, Nobel literature laureate Seamus Heaney once wrote, but the Israeli government seems to disagree.

It appears to believe there is a mighty combustible charge contained within a poem and that the poet is rather like a tank commander. On July 31, Arab-Israeli Dareen Tatour was convicted for inciting violence and supporting terrorism through her poems, as the Israeli court has it.

Her offence goes beyond the accusations. Tatour’s crime is that of the imagination. She dared to imagine Palestinian national solidarity and a constantly renewing political consciousness despite the economic and psychological pressures of living under occupation.

For this thought-crime — of hope — Tatour has spent nearly three years under house arrest and has been banned from using a mobile phone or the internet. Her indictment quoted from one of her poems: “Resist, my people, resist them,” almost as if it were an outright declaration of war on Israel. “I will not succumb to the ‘peaceful solution’,” Tatour had written, “never lower my flags until I evict them from my land.”

It puts her in the tradition of other poets of resistance, determined to take up the task of expressing and articulating Palestinian identity, as did Samih al-Qasim. His simple eloquent images are drawn from daily life:

“I speak to the world… tell it

About a house whose lantern they broke

About an axe that killed a lily

And a fire which destroyed the world,

I speak about a goat not milked

A morning coffee… not drunk

A mother’s dough not baked

A mud roof that flowered.

I speak to the world… I tell it.”

Tatour’s anthem of defiance is in line with the call by Mahmoud Darwish, widely regarded as the Palestinians’ national poet, to make poetry an effective instrument of resistance:

“Comrade poets!

We’re in a new world

What’s past is dead, who writes a poem

In the age of wind and the atom

Creates prophets!

… If only these words were

A plough in the hands of a peasant

A shirt, a door, a key

If only these words were!”

That the Israeli government views Tatour almost as an enemy of the state and an agent of instability takes us down a familiar path. Poetry that challenges the approved narrative was considered an offence by thinkers as far back as Plato. The father of Western philosophy said unbridled creativity was so dangerous to the well-ordered state that the unruly poet had to be ostracised. In tenth-century Baghdad, the first Arab Muslim philosopher Al-Farabi took his cue from Plato and made a case for controlled creative expression.

Accordingly, even though Tatour’s prison sentence — five months — seems paltry compared to the years she has spent in detention, it is clearly meant to frighten others who dare to use free verse to sing the song of freedom. Or, as Darwish once put it, to “write the unseen.”

For the allusive has great power. Perhaps the Israeli government is right and poetry does have a power greater than guns and tanks and the threat of prison sentences. As University of California, Los Angeles anthropology and Near Eastern languages Professor Susan Slyomovics once wrote: Israeli “censors are stricter with literature and poetry than with journalism: a news story about a young Palestinian rock-thrower was permitted but a poem on the subject was banned.”

This has led Palestinian poets to use canny techniques to sneak past the censors. Long before the Arab-Israeli peace talks that would propel her to international prominence in the late 1980s, Hanan Ashrawi was an English literature professor and deeply conscious of Palestinian modes of literary resistance.

In a 1978 paper for the Journal of Palestine Studies on the poetry of the occupation, Ashrawi noted the “heavy use of symbolism.” The olive tree “automatically means Palestine, the land and the will of the people to remain,” she wrote. The organic relationship between human beings and the soil are expressed as the palm tree, almond, fig, jasmine, lily, ear of corn, orchard, garden and orange. “The poet, and sometimes the Palestinian people, are Christ, with all the consequent imagery of the side wound, the crucifixion and resurrection… Palestine is Jerusalem, the lover (especially female) and the mother.”

The symbolism was a way to evade censorship, especially in a system that once regarded the very word “Palestine” threatening enough to be censored in West Bank children’s textbooks.

In the 50 years since Ashrawi wrote her paper, the world has changed enormously. Today, there is genetic engineering, the internet and mobile telephony. Apartheid has ended, the Berlin Wall has fallen and Saudi women are legally allowed to drive. But state censorship and the criminalisation of poetry in Israel is much the same, or perhaps rather worse.