Writing is a cultural weapon

South African and Palestinian poets on the shared experiences of Apartheid and resistance. This week on AIAC Talk. Watch it Tuesday on Youtube.

Ahmed Abu Hameeda, via Unsplash.

For the people residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, this past weekend commemorated the 15th of May, 1948, when the state of Israel came into existence. For one half, it was an occasion to mark triumph, to remember the moment they supposedly returned home. For the other half, it was an occasion for despair and mourning, marking the moment they were expelled from home. As one side celebrated independence, and the other remembered the Nakba, the world continues to bear witness to how the condition for the continuation of a Jewish ethnostate remains Palestinian subjugation.

In the last two weeks illegal Israeli settlers, protected by Israeli state security forces, forcibly removed people in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah from homes they have lived in for generations. Israeli occupation forces, unprovoked, stormed Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, detonating tear-gas, sound bombs, and firing rubber-coated steel bullets leaving over 200 Palestinians wounded on the last Friday of Ramadan. Now there is intensified bombing of civilians in Gaza by the Israeli military; at the time of publication, more than 192 Palestinians have been killed, including 58 children, while over 1200 were injured.

In the face of all this, Israel (emboldened by its backers, like the United States) asserts like a broken record that it “has the right to defend itself.” Notwithstanding the fact that even as far as the proximate causes of the current violence is concerned—Israel is the immediate aggressor—Israel has structurally been the aggressor since 1948 when in its creation at least 750,000 Palestinians (from a population of 1.9 million) were made refugees beyond the borders of the state. As the Jerusalem-based writer Nathan Thrall observes, “In the seven decades of Israel’s existence, there have only been six months, in 1966-67, when it did not place members of one ethnic group under military government while it confiscated their land.” Couple this fact with Paulo Freire’s trenchant point in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed.”

That Israel “has a right to exist” as an apartheid state is an outrageous idea, and that Western governments expect us to take it seriously, is offensive. Israelis, of course, have every right to live in peace and security and flourish, and so do Palestinians.  It is the notion — rooted in a modern but anachronistic concept of the nation-state as Tony Judt once pointed out — that Israelis have a supremacist claim to dominate the territory, which makes the Zionist movement, not a homecoming project but a settler-colonial one that required the dispossession and displacement of the indigenous population. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once noted soberly to an Israeli interviewer: “You created our exile, we didn’t create your exile.”

In that interview, Darwish goes on to further say:

I want to remind you of a sensitive point. I’m not so sure that the most recent generations of Jews remember that they’re living in exile, be they in Europe or America. Does the concept of “homeland” live with you through all the generations? Do all Jews bear such longing? Yet every Palestinian remembers that he had a homeland and that he was exiled from it. Not every Jew remembers this, because two thousand years have passed. The Palestinian—for him, the homeland is not a memory, not some intellectual matter. Every Palestinian is a witness to the rupture … Homeland is a broad concept, but when we go to the homeland we’re searching for a specific tree, a specific stone, a window. These components are very intimate and are neither a flag nor an anthem. I long for the little things.

This week’s AIAC talk is devoted to Palestinian solidarity. For international spectators, the case for Palestinian liberation often exists in the heady space of argument, a realm of abstractness. And while there are the visceral images of horror and brutality we are exposed to on our TV screens, when the ceasefires are declared and the violence paused, it can cause us to forget that another violence still remains—in the little things. This is the violence of petty apartheid, a word South Africans used to describe how apartheid’s most debilitating effects, how it controlled the most intimate aspects of life, how it was a daily humiliation. This was exemplified by what happened in East Jerusalem, when Israeli security forces barricaded the Damascus gate esplanade (a popular gathering spot especially during Ramadan), or when those same forces desecrated Al-Aqsa—the point is to rob people of all their dignity in every way.

We want this episode to transport us to the realm of not simply understanding the injustice of apartheid, but of grappling with its totalizing brutality—and it is often the case, that literature, film and poetry can evoke images of places we’ve never been, can allow us to bear witness to feelings we’ve never experienced. Relating the importance of black art in relaying the black experience during apartheid, the South African poet Mafika Gwala declared in his seminal 1984 essay, “Writing as a Cultural Weapon”: “ When you face a truth and there is challenging need to express it, you can most emphatically capture it through poetry, because there is no way you can twist it about in a poem. You have to bring out the truth as it is, or people will see through your lines. It is also through poetry that you find, most soberly, that there has never been such a thing as pure language.”

This episode will feature South African writers reading the poetry and prose of Palestinian writers (with some hopefully joining us, subject to availability during these trying circumstances). South Africans know the despair and suffering of apartheid. But South Africans also know that apartheid can end. And so, as Palestinians continue to resist, we hope for this to serve as a small gesture of solidarity as they dream of freedom.

“A dream is a piece of the sky found in everyone,” asserts Darwish. “We can’t be boundlessly realistic or pragmatic. We are in need of the sky. To strike a balance between what is true and what is imaginary. The dream is the province of poetry.”

Stream the show on Tuesday at 7pm Cape Town, 8pm Jerusalam, and 1pm in New York on YouTube and Facebook.

Last week, it was the 40th anniversary of Bob Marley’s passing so we devoted the episode to his life and complicated legacy, helped by Matthew J. Smith and Erin MacLeod. That episode is now available on our YouTube channel. Subscribe to our Patreon for all the episodes from our archive.

Further Reading