Ghassan Zaqtan’s paralyzing poetry, translated by Fady Joudah, is laden with ruminations on death. “I’ve been dead for a long time, as you know,” Zaqtan writes in a letter to his daughter (The Orchard’s Song). The significance and nuance of Zaqtan’s contribution against the political backdrop of Palestinian reality can be understood as a poetic rendering of bio-politics. Each poem evokes anxiety, stemming from a constant state of potential death, or constant reminders of the limitations of life. The collection reads like a soundtrack chronicling the state of Palestinian political prisoners, particularly in light of the ubiquitous strategy of starvation as resistance.
In Like A Straw Bird It Follows Me, Joudah seamlessly laces the poems together into one fragile assemblage in which themes and images emerge, fade, only to reemerge. No theme is more prevalent and so tightly stitched into the fabric of Zaqtan’s poetry than death. Zaqtan’s obsession with death is the foundation from which life is fostered. In the poem, The Song of the Drowned, Zaqtan writes: “And beneath the mud/ the drowned prepare fish for the nets.” In a similarly related poem The Islands, Zaqtan writes:
There are no birds here…
water gnaws the rock’s edge
puncture the seashells with their teeth
and string necklaces
that accumulate behind them and push them
toward the edge…
and as the circle closes in on their washing bodies
the threads are every which way
carrying shells, as “they”
bite the ribbed surface with their incisors …
each time they string two shells they hum
through their carious teeth,
some women the pirates will abandon
In poems like The Song of the Drowned and The Islands, the living depend on the dead - the living literally feed off the dead. The drowned provide the living with fish; the dead commoners provide the poet with inspiration for his vocation; the ruins and shells of the ocean make for ornaments and jewelry to decorate the living and their material lives. The haunting and desolate plunder of the dead and their remains is set against the magical surrealist backdrop of a deluge-like reality, a mythical aquatic world with salt and fish, shells and spirits. Zaqtan’s dead dance in wet grass: “Beneath the light/ their dust was coming apart// it had rained at night/ all night.” In this collection the dead have the freedom to dance and come alive while the living are bound by the “rendezvous in the gist of speech.” Zaqtan is apt to write about the weaknesses of the human condition and the desire to escape life’s mundane veracity, “I must leave it… because/ I want to remove the dust that has settled after me on the cypress.” (A Regretful Young Jaheer Man). In Black Horses, Zaqtan writes:
…the ghosts that I picked off the road and gathered like necklaces
from other’s necks and sins
Sin goes to the neck… there I raise my ghosts, feed them
and they swim like black horses in my sleep.
In the collection, there are “Additions to the Past” but virtually no discussion of the future, other than the references to death. The present is static. The third section of the book is a series of “Pretexts.” This section’s form stifles the present from actualizing. There is an epistemic violence enacted within the text, as more pretexts and more memories of the past are piled into the text—the more moribund and absent describing the present tense becomes. The here-and-now is never uttered because it is limited or stuck in a meta-conversation about the conversation, the memories of the conversation, the limitations of the conversation, and the pretexts of the conversation. The poems induce frustration because of their inability to communicate in the present tense suggesting an unwillingness to forgive history. Therefore, the conversation, which needs to transpire, in order to achieve release, never actually transpires. Everything, but the present, surfaces. This is The Bird Follows Me:
In the year two thousand or a little before, there might have been
A prelude that inhabited me, it resembled summer
In the room of bachelors,
I used to spin it in my speech
A prelude like other preludes
I didn’t retrieve from muttering
Like a straw bird
It follows me
The bird in the poem, and throughout the entire collection, can be read to represent the present here-and-now, certain Palestinian narratives currently unfolding. This bird, however, is never the center or subject of any poem in the collection; it is always following Zaqtan, beckoning to be addressed but always ignored. The bird is drowning in pretexts, haunted by ghosts, drowning because it requires too many preludes and overtures to escape or appear. The bird follows Zaqtan as “he carried the narrative of a dead person/ or the one who never came.”
In Walter Benjamin’s essay The Storyteller, he argues that the art of storytelling is declining. Parallel to the decline of storytelling is “diminishing the communicability” of death and experience of dying. Benjamin claims that the archetypal narrative or story is built from death and that now it is made “possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying” because of new sensibilities towards death. Zaqtan however, falls into the catagory Benjamin sketches for the art of good storytelling as each poem is built around death. Death is the foundation from which life and poetry grow. Zaqtan does not move away from describing death, each poem grapples with the inevitable and almost romanticized experience of it. Remembering Sleep illuminates the brinkmanship between life and death, “her effigy is by the edge of sleep;” in the same poem Zaqtan continues, “…and here I am still/ in the place still running/ free and mortgaged by presence!” Zaqtan has a way of folding death into the everyday motions of life in a matter-of-fact or unemotional tone. This given or obvious preoccupation with death makes it so that his poetry conveys immensity without falling into the trap of sentimentality. The last stanza in the poem Black Horses is:
All died in war, my friends and classmates…
And their little feet, their excited hands, remained
Stomping the classroom floors, the dining tables and sidewalks,
The backs and shoulders of pedestrians…
Wherever I go
I hear them
I see them.
Zaqtan is haunted by the dead but this idea is handled with lightness, he suggests that something leaves the self at ease knowing that those who have passed remain a part of our lives in an evocative way. The dead are in the roughage of tables, inside school floors. In the poem The Absentee’s Song the character in the poem oscillates between life and death and the reader does not know if she is alive or if she is dead. However, the poem also suggests that there is no distinction between the two. Zaqtan writes:
The caw awakened
a woman in her thirties
from her death
who said to the little girl:
I gave birth to you in a dream,
you aren’t real for us
to love you like other girls,
leave for twenty years
so we can love you
and wait for you,
but don’t grow older in the fog
lest we die.
The last three lines suggest a tokenized aversion to death, whereas the rest of the poem suggests that life and death converge, the line between the two is vague, complicated, and difficult to decipher. The woman in her thirties is awakened from her death by her daughter’s clawing. She then asks the girl not to “grow older in the fog” lest they die. However, the poem already asserts that the woman is already dead - implying that our trepidation towards death has less to do with fear and more to do with conforming to a norm that fears death. Only Her Dream Will Tell of Her goes:
And she leaves me like an old concern on the shelf of her days,
my neighbors are photos of other absentees,
their stare at the dust,
their examined lives as they’re summoned
in a hurry then thrust aside
Near me on the shelf are the roaming dead
and the living who don’t respond
or see the path to her crime
The only thing that will tell of her sleep in my bed
is her dream,
and the embrace that turns a heart blind…
there is no hardship on a path leveled by wolves.
What is a life of hardship? And how can one transcend their hardship to understand it as a path “leveled by wolves?” In the poem, the crime committed is seeing the path of hardship and coming to terms with the fact that it was the wolves that leveled it. In this context, crime is the wisdom of knowing that one’s crime is no crime at all, and wisdom is the defiance of that recognition. I offer the ongoing Palestinian hunger strikes as an additional angle to approach Zaqtan’s poetry because those starving are currently personifying the structure of death in Zaqtan’s poems - contently saturated with the theme of mortality, and the paradox of living a life of death. Palestinian political prisoners live a life built around the memory of their former lives, the memory of the departed, or the hopeful future of everyone’s inevitable departure.
Mahmoud Darwish, a clear source of inspiration for Zaqtan, asks in the Memory for Forgetfulness, “…[If] dignity had the power to choose between self-defense and suicide.” After starving for over 220 days Samer Issawi was finally given an “emergency” trial where the Israeli court rejected his appeal for bail in late February. According to sources from ADDAMEER, a prisoner support and human rights association, Issawi was recently transferred to a civil hospital where he released a statement asking those watching not to worry if he dies because he is, "still alive...even after death." He embodies Darwish’s question about finding dignity in the most desolate circumstances. Indeed, Issawi, Mahmoud Sarsak, Hana Shalabi, Khader Adnan are just a handful of the 1,600 political prisoners that were, or are still starving, pushing their lives to the edge until their release. There are over 4,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody, and over 300 in administrative detention. Although it is almost certain that Issawi will die, in this brinkmanship the political prisoner is only released as they reach the cusp of their demise; the Israeli legal system is therefore, regulating the distribution of death.
My appraisal of the hunger strikes is possibly a disillusioned one. Perhaps one can read that each hunger striker is enacting positive political action by resisting the oppressive forces controlling their lives. However, I would argue that the starvation process was introduced as a last resort for people who lack access to fair due process. Upon embarking on the hunger strike and up till its completion the lives of those starving were never more meaningful or valuable than on the precious of death. In The Regretful Young Jaheer Man, Zaqtan writes:
…there is no sun for me here
no state that delights the soul
or a rendezvous in the gist of speech…
I have no fear
and no horse.
I must leave quickly
and toss its laws to the wolves
its wisdom to sand
and leave at night
as when I arrived back when no gray glistened in my parted hair,
and free and nervous like a strange plant
I stood at the gates…
Through starvation Palestinian political prisoners simultaneously embody and resist their bio-political reality, attempting to tell a story by rapidly approaching death. The narrative behind the door of Zaqtan’s poetry, beyond the meta-text, and below the surface carries with it the suffocated stories of resistance. Their starvation confronts death as power’s limit; and the stories of those dispossessed are like the bird that is never addressed, not always visible, but following not far behind.
Dina Omar is a Palestinian poet, writer, and graduate student studying Anthropology. She is a founding member of Students for Justice in Palestine National and serves on the National Executive Board of the Palestine Youth Movement.