Over the last couple of months, like many people, I have felt pulled and pushed between competing suffering, fear, and, yes, hatred, in, and in relation to, the Palestine-Israel region. I turned for solace to reading and writing. Some of the writers I turned to I’ve known for years. Some I have become aware of in recent weeks. As I’ve read them, I’ve longed for them to hear each other. So I created this conversation of sorts. It’s not really for people who are directly experiencing the suffering of this violent conflict — their pain may be too raw and they are likely consumed with immediate survival and grief — but it’s for the rest of us in the world who are bystanders. Many of us care for both sides. So this conversation of poets and writers is to help us hold, generously, attention to both sides, not condoning cruel actions, but not choosing a side either: not highlighting and mourning the suffering of only one side, nor cheering the combatants of one side or the other. Meenakshi Chakraverti (1)
Note: The quoted poems and writing below are NOT in chronological order. Notes at the end of this imaginary conversation provide dates, sources from which I drew the quotations, and occasionally some additional context. These writers open up possibility. Your reading and reflection will do the same.
A conversation among poets and writers
Sahir Ludhianvi (Punjabi/Pakistani/Indian) (2):
Come let us weave dreams for tomorrow’s sake
Else the vicious night of our troubled age
Will poison life and heart such that all our lives
We’ll be incapable of dreams of love and peace.
Toni Morrison (African-American) (3):
No more apologies for a bleeding heart when the opposite is no heart at all. Danger of losing our humanity must be met with more humanity.
James Baldwin (African-American) (4):
Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.
Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian) through Agha Shahid Ali (Kashmiri) (5):
Who am I after the night of the estranged? I wake from my dream,
frightened of the obscure daylight on the marble of the house, of
the sun’s darkness in the roses, of the water of my fountain;
frightened of milk on the lip of the fig, of my language;
frightened of wind that—frightened—combs a willow; frightened
of the clarity of petrified time, of a present no longer
a present; frightened, passing a world that is no longer
Irena Klepfisz (American, born in the Warsaw Ghetto) (6):
vi a foygl
like a bird
vi a mes
like a ghost
iber di berg
over the mountains
over the sea.
In der fremd
iz ir heym
is her home.
muz zi lebn
she must live.
will become monuments
will cast shadows.
Amos Oz (Israeli) (7):
At first sight this girl seemed to be my age but from the slight curve of her blouse and the unchildlike look of curiosity and also of warning in her eyes as they met mine (for an instant, before my eyes looked away), she must have been two or three years older, perhaps eleven or twelve. Still, I managed to see that her eyebrows were rather thick and joined in the middle, in contrast with the delicacy of her other features. There was a little child at her feet, a curly-haired boy of about three who may have been her brother; he was kneeling on the ground and was absorbed in picking up fallen leaves and arranging them in a circle.
Boldly and all in one breath I offered the girl a quarter of my entire vocabulary of foreign words, perhaps less like a lion confronting other lions and more like the parrots in the room upstairs. Unconsciously I even bowed a little bow, eager to make contact and thus to dispel any prejudices and to advance the reconciliation between our peoples:
“Sabah al-heir, Miss. Ana ismi Amos. Wa-inti, ya bint? Votre nom s’il vous plaît, Mademoiselle? Please your name kindly?”
She eyed me without smiling. Her joined eyebrows gave her a severe look beyond her years. She nodded a few times, as though making a decision, agreeing with herself, ending the deliberation, and confirming the findings. Her navy blue dress came down below her knees, but in the gap between the dress and her socks with the butterfly buckles I caught sight of the skin of her calves, brown and smooth, feminine, already grown up; my face reddened, and my eyes fled again, to her little brother, who looked back at me quietly, unsuspectingly, but also unsmilingly. Suddenly he looked very much like her with his dark, calm face.
Everything I had heard from my parents, from neighbors, from Uncle Joseph, from my teachers, from my uncles and aunts, and from rumors came back to me at that moment. Everything they said over glasses of tea in our backyard on Saturdays and on summer evenings about mounting tensions between Arab and Jew, distrust and hostility, the rotten fruit of British intrigues and the incitement of Muslim fanatics who painted us in a frightening light to inflame the Arabs to hate us. Our task, Mr. Rosendorff once said, was to dispel suspicions and to explain to them that we were in fact a positive and even kindly people. In brief, it was a sense of mission that gave me the courage to address this strange girl and start a conversation with her: I meant to explain to her in a few convincing words how pure our intentions were, how abhorrent was the plot to stir up conflict between our two peoples, and how good it would be for the Arab public — in the form of this graceful-lipped girl — to spend a little time in the company of the polite, pleasant Hebrew people, in the person of me, the articulate envoy aged eight and a half. Almost.
But I had not thought out in advance what I would do after I had used up most of my supply of foreign words in my opening sentence. How could I enlighten this oblivious girl and get her to understand once and for all the rightness of the Jewish return to Zion? By charades? By dance gestures? And how could I get her to recognize our right to the Land without using words? How, without any words, could I translate for her Tchernikhowsky’s “O, my land, my homeland”? Or Jabotinsky’s “There Arabs, Nazarenes and we / shall drink our fill in happy manner, / when both the banks of Jordan’s stream / are purged by our unsullied banner?” In a word, I was like that fool who had learned how to advance the king’s pawn two squares, and did so without any hesitation, but after that had no idea at all about the game of chess, not even the names of the pieces, or how they moved, or where, or why.
But the girl answered me, and actually in Hebrew, without looking at me, her hands resting open on the bench on either side of her dress, her eyes fixed on her brother, who was laying a little stone in the center of each leaf in his circle.
“My name is Aisha. That little one is my brother. Awwad.”
She also said:
“You’re the son of the guests from the post office?”
And so I explained to her that I was definitely not the son of the guests from the post office, but of their friends. And that my father was a rather important scholar, an ustaz, and that my father’s uncle was an even more important scholar, who was even world famous, and that it was her honored father, Mr. Silwani, who had personally suggested that I should come out in the garden and talk to the children of the house.
Aisha corrected me and said that Ustaz Najib was not her father but her mother’s uncle: she and her family did not live here in Sheikh Jarrah but in Talbieh, and she herself had been going to lessons from a piano teacher in Rehavia for the past three years, and she had learned a little Hebrew from the teacher and the other pupils. It was a beautiful language, Hebrew, and Rehavia was a beautiful area. Well kept. Quiet.
Talbieh was well kept and quiet, too, I hastened to reply, repaying one compliment with another. Would she be willing for us to talk a little?
Aren’t we talking already? (A little smile flickered for an instant around her lips. She straightened the hem of her dress with both her hands, and crossed and uncrossed and recrossed her legs. And for an instant her knees appeared, the knees of a grown-up woman already, then her dress straightened again. She looked slightly to my left now, where the garden wall peered at us among the trees.)
I therefore adopted a representative position, and expressed the view that there was enough room in this country for both peoples, if only they had the sense to live together in peace and mutual respect. Somehow, out of embarrassment or arrogance, I was talking to her not in my own Hebrew but in that of Father and his visitors: formal, polished. Like a donkey dressed up in a ballgown and high-heeled shoes: convinced for some reason that this was the only proper way to speak to Arabs and girls. (I had hardly even had an occasion to talk to a girl or an Arab, but I imagined that in both cases a special delicacy was required: you had to talk on tiptoe, as it were.)
It transpired that her knowledge of Hebrew was not extensive or perhaps her views were not the same as mine. Instead of responding to my challenge, she chose to sidestep it: her elder brother, she told me, was in London, studying to be a “solicitor and a barrister.”
Puffed up with representativity, I asked her what she was thinking of studying when she was older.
She looked straight into my eyes, and at that moment, instead of blushing, I turned pale. Instantly I averted my eyes, and looked down at her serious little brother Awwad, who had already laid out four precise circles of leaves at the foot of the mulberry tree.
How about you?
Well. you see, I said, still standing, facing her, rubbing my clammy palms against the sides of my shorts, well, you see, it’s like this —
You’ll be a lawyer too. From the way you speak.
What makes you think that exactly?
Instead of replying, she said: I’m going to write a book.
You? What kind of book will you write?
In French and English.
You write poetry?
She also wrote poetry in Arabic, but she never showed it to anyone. Hebrew was a beautiful language, too. Had anyone written any poetry in Hebrew?
Shocked by her question, swollen with indignation and a sense of mission, I began there and then to give her an impassioned recital of snatches of poetry. Tchernikhowsky. Levin Kipnes. Rahel. Vladimir Jabotinsky. And one poem of my own. Whatever came to mind. Furiously, describing circles in the air with my hands, raising my voice, with feeling and gestures and facial expressions and occasionally even closing my eyes. Even her little brother Awwad raised his curly head and fixed me with brown, innocent lamblike eyes, full of curiosity and slight apprehension, and suddenly he recited in clear Hebrew: Jest a minute! Rest a minute! Aisha, meanwhile, said nothing. Suddenly she asked me if I could climb trees.
Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian) (8):
My sky is ashen. Scratch my back. And undo
slowly, you stranger, my braids. And tell me
what’s on your mind. Tell me what crossed
Youssef’s mind. Tell me some simple
talk … the talk a woman always desires
to be told. I don’t want the phrase
complete. Gesture is enough to scatter me in the rise
of butterflies between springheads and the sun. Tell me
I am necessary for you like sleep, and not like nature
filling up with water around you and me. And spread
over me an endless blue wing …
Naomi Shihab Nye (Palestinian American) (9):
The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling
to say, “Until you speak Arabic,
you will not understand pain.”
Something to do with the back of the head,
an Arab carries sorrow in the back of the head
that only language cracks, the thrum of stones
weeping, grating hinge on an old metal gate.
“Once you know,” he whispered, “you can enter the room
whenever you need to. Music you heard from a distance,
the slapped drum of a stranger’s wedding,
wells up inside your skin, inside rain, a thousand
pulsing tongues. You are changed.”
Outside, the snow had finally stopped.
In a land where snow rarely falls,
we had felt our days grow white and still.
I thought pain had no tongue. Or every tongue
at once, supreme translator, sieve. I admit my
shame. To live on the brink of Arabic, tugging
its rich threads without understanding
how to weave the rug … I have no gift.
The sound, but not the sense.
Hayyim Nahman Bialik (born in the Russian Empire, Jewish) (10):
…Get up and walk through the city of the massacre,
And with your hand touch and lock your eyes
On the cooled brain and clots of blood
Dried on tree trunks, rocks, and fences; it is they.
Go to the ruins, to the gaping breaches,
To walls and hearths, shattered as though by thunder:
Concealing the blackness of a naked brick,
A crowbar has embedded itself deeply, like a crushing crowbar,
And those holes are like black wounds,
For which there is no healing or doctor.
Take a step, and your footstep will sink: you have placed your foot in fluff,
Into fragments of utensils, into rags, into shreds of books:
Bit by bit they were amassed through arduous labor—and in a flash,
Everything is destroyed…
And you will come out into the road--
Acacias are blooming and pouring their aroma,
And their blooms are like fluff, and they smell as though of blood.
And their sweet fumes will enter your breast, as though deliberately,
Beckoning you to springtime, and to life, and to health;
And the dear little sun warms and, teasing your grief,
Splinters of broken glass burn with a diamond fire--
God sent everything at once, everyone feasted together:
The sun, and the spring, and the red massacre!
David Grossman (Israeli) (11):
See Under: Love is a novel about a story that was lost, torn to shreds. There are several such lost stories in the book, which have to be told again and again because that is the only way to assemble the traces of identity and fuse the fragments of a crumbled world. Many characters in the book are looking for a story they have lost, usually a childhood tale, and they need it very badly so that they can retell it, as adults, and be reborn through it. It is not innocence that drives their desire to tell children’s stories, for they have virtually no innocence left. Rather, this is their way to preserve their humanity, and perhaps a modicum of nobility — to believe in the possibility of childhood in this world, and to hold it up against the sheer cynicism. To tell the whole story again through the eyes of a child.
Hiba Abu Nada (Palestinian) (12):
I shelter you
and the children who
as chicks in the lap
of their nest
they don’t walk
in their dreams
towards the house
I shelter you
from wound and woe,
and with seven verses
the taste of orange
the color of clouds
Ben Ehrenreich (American)/Asmaa al-Ghoul (Palestinian) (13):
When Hamas breached the walls surrounding Gaza on October 7, al-Ghoul said, “I was happy.” Not because Israeli civilians had been killed—that news, which filled her with sadness, shame, and fear, had not yet reached her—but because, she said, “we thought this will move something,” that finally, something might shift and the slow, steady strangulation under which Gaza had lived since 2007 might be broken.
“We didn’t know the rest of the story,” she said. In those early hours, before word got out about the killings in the kibbutzim and the Israeli towns outside the Strip and at the music festival, this is what people were celebrating. We thought the targets were military, al-Ghoul said, and for a moment she allowed herself some giddy hope that some real victory might come of it, that Israel could be forced to end its siege so “we can come and go like normal people,” free to drive across their own country. “This is what I miss,” she said, “I miss the good air, just to visit, to have a home.”
She couldn’t finish the thought. Sobs overwhelmed her. Her voice crumbled into a moan. She waved her hand at the images flashing across the television screen, more bodies covered in gray dust. “Look what happened,” she said, “they destroyed it. They destroyed Gaza.” The first neighborhood to be razed, she said, was al-Rimal, in Gaza City. Her family had lived there in a rented house for most of the last 19 years. “It was one of the most beautiful places in Gaza.” She brought up a photo on her phone, a vast, nonsensical geometry of twisted concrete and buildings collapsed in on themselves. It was captioned in French: “Ma maison était ici,” My house was here.
Lily Galili (Israeli) (14):
Some years ago, I worked on a series of articles on mixed cities in Israel where Jews and Arabs live together (Akko, Ramla, Lod, Yaffo etc). All throughout this ordeal I felt accompanied by two ghosts: one of my mother, a holocaust survivor dead by then, the other of an old Palestinian refugee. Both stared at me with anticipation; both whispered in my ear: “this land is my land.” I’ve known, by then, I cannot fully satisfy both. I can only recognize the drama and the tragedy of one of them, and try to minimize the damage and the pain of the other. I chose my mother, over and over again….
My intricate relationship with Zionism started on the wrong foot. As a child growing up in communist Poland, I was madly in love with then long dead Stalin. When my mother announced we were leaving for Palestine (that’s how she referred to Israel), I was less than ecstatic….
And then I fell in love again. This time with this crazy, pained and pain-inflicting country. Decades of participation in anti-war and pro-peace demonstrations, learning to live with the unfulfilled promise of a safe-haven certainly caused some erosion, but never destroyed my self-definition as a Zionist. Just the opposite, it made me an all-Zionist girl. I’m the liberal “peacenik” at rallies, but also the settler from an illegal outpost. One day I might feel closest to an Israeli Arab and on another day, I might identify with an American Jew.
Ultimately, my Zionism is about shouldering collective burden. I feel responsible for everything that goes wrong in Israel and I rejoice in the little that goes right.
I am the All-Zionist girl. I know it sounds terribly self serving. It’s not. If anything, it’s selfish.
I know, from experience, I could never live again in a place where I am a minority. I’d rather struggle with the often non-democratic nature of Israel , the lack of social justice, the cruelty of occupation, the constant sense of guilt, and do (almost) the best I can to change it. From here, from within. Yet my Zionism stops at the Green Line. https://www.thedailybeast.com/all-zionist-girl
Fady Joudah (Palestinian American) (15):
As I witness my collective Palestinian death unfold live on digital media and non-American TV, as I have become “a river of bodies into one,” a conduit for common decency, condolences, solidarity that affirms and elevates me, a survivor who has his dead, a survivor with a familiar name, relatable sound, relevant corpus, a vessel for the outpouring of empathy whose primary mode offers me the visibility that can’t be uncoupled from market forces—and it is true that my books, along with those of several Palestinian writers, have been selling well since, in my case, I have announced my dead to America, at least until the mainstream media became uninterested in parading my grief, since my grief did not come without troublesome talk about equal humanity, a political condition for freedom, an unthinkable condition for the US and Israel vis-a-vis Palestinians, a condition whose absence is necessary for the continued destruction of Palestinian life.
But I have a more daring question. The Israeli people at large, the Jewish communities outside Israel that identify strongly or faintly, defensively or hawkishly with Israel, the mainstream Western world, and all expressions of Zionism, what do they want from Palestinians?
In the best-case scenario, I do not think they really know. I am terrified to think that this relentless progression of dispossession and carnage against the Palestinians has reached irreversible, irrational levels. In my dark hours, which increase by the year, I wonder if Israel is unable to examine or defuse its impulse to test the limits of genocide against the Palestinians—because it has not been able to process the genocide that the Nazis committed against the Jewish people. A genocide that was made possible by centuries of European antisemitism, pogroms, silence, and looking away.
David Grossman (Israeli) (16): But the cracks in the sense of security are deeper and more fundamental : in recent years, the years of the second intifada, Israelis have been living in a world in which people are, quite literally, being ripped apart. Entire families are killed in the blink of an eye, human limbs are severed in cafes, shopping malls, and buses. These are the materials of Israeli reality and the nightmares of every Israeli, and the two are inseparably mingled. Much of daily life in Israel now occurs in the pre-cultural, primitive, animalistic regions of terror. Fierce violence is employed against the Israelis, and they respond with equal ruthlessness against the Palestinians. To be an Israeli today means to live with the perception that we have lost our path and that we are living in a dismantled state, in every sense — the dismantling to the private, human body, whose fragility is exposed over and over again, and the dismantling of the public general body. Deep fault lines have emerged in recent years in the various branches of government, in the authority of the law and of the courts, in the credibility of the army and the police, and in the trust that the public affords its leaders and its faith in their integrity.
Ben Ehrenreich (American)/Asmaa al-Ghoul (Palestinian) (17):
Death on television isn’t death. It’s an image, a recyclable flash of pixelated light accompanied by commentary, chatter, noise, the obscenity of cliché. It can be bent into some semblance of meaning, inserted into one or another political narrative. But when you’re there, al-Ghoul said, what stands out is the silence. “It’s very quiet.” Bodies that minutes earlier were warm and alive are cold and still. And then there’s the smell, which no screen can convey. “I smell the death in the air even though I am not there,” al-Ghoul said. “When I go out, when I walk, there’s death in my eyes. I cannot live like before. My eyes are full of death.”
David Grossman (Israeli) (18):
I feel the heavy price that I and the people around me pay for this prolonged state of war. Part of this price is a shrinking of our soul’s surface area — those parts of us that touch the violent, menacing world outside — and a diminished ability and willingness to empathize at all with other people in pain. We also pay the price by suspending our moral judgement, and we give up on understanding what we ourselves think. Given a situation so frightening, so deceptive, and so complicated — both morally and practically — we feel it may be better not to think or know. Better to hand over the job of thinking and doing and setting moral standards to those who are surely “in the know.”
Fady Joudah (Palestinian American) and Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian) (19):
Around 1988, during the first Intifada, Darwish was a member of the executive council in the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Along with Edward Said, he was assigned the task of drafting a new charter toward peace. It was a prickly and odd time for Darwish, “for what is a poet doing there, there in the executive council?” he asked himself. In an essay titled “Before Writing My Resignation,” Darwish became uncomfortably aware how “the creative Palestinian is prohibited from the luxury of vacated and dedicated time for the sake of creativity, because this is bound to a direct cessation from patriotic activity. Yet prisoners grow flowers in their prison yards. And in front of the zinc huts mothers plant basil and mint. The creative person must create his flexible margin between the patriotic, the political, the daily, the cultural, and the literary. But what am I to do? What does a poet do in the executive council? Will I be able to write a book of love when color falls on the ground in autumn?”
David Grossman (Israeli) (20):
In this reality, we authors and poets write. In Israel and in Palestine, in Chechnya and in Sudan, in New York and in the Congo. There are times in my workday, after a few hours of writing, when I look up and think: Now, at this very moment, sits another author, whom I do not know, in Damascus or Tehran, in Kigali or Dublin, who, like me, is engaged in the strange, baseless, wonderful work of creation, within a reality that contains so much violence and alienation, indifference and diminishment. I have a distant ally who does not know me, and together we are weaving this shapeless web, which nonetheless has immense power, the power to change a world and create a world, the power to give words to the mute and to bring about tikkun — “repair” — in the deepest, kabbalistic sense of the word.
It is hard to talk about yourself. I will only say what I can say at this time, from where I stand now.
I write. The consciousness of the disaster that befell me upon the death of my son Uri in the Second Labanon War now permeates every minute of my life. The power of memory is indeed great and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing effect. Nevertheless, the act of writing creates for me a “space” of sorts, an emotional expanse that I have never known before, where death is more than the absolute, unambiguous opposite of life.
I write, and the world does not close in on me. It does not grow smaller. It moves in the direction of what is open, future, possible.
I write. And all at once I am no longer doomed to face this absolute, false, suffocating dichotomy — this inhuman choice between “victim” and “aggressor,” without any third, more human option. When I write, I can be a whole person, with natural passages between my various parts, and with some parts that feel close to the suffering and the just assertions of my enemies without giving up my identity at all.
Fady Joudah (Palestinian American) (21):
[Mahmoud Darwish’s] The Stranger’s Bed is a journey of, and through voice. There is a delicate speech that gives birth to itself here. There is an “I” that overflows from the “you,” and a duality that merges beyond the narrow constructs of language. There is dialogue between masculine and feminine, prose and poetry, self and its others.
Not enough can be said about the metaphysics of identity in this book of love. An appeal to healing begins the collection: “We came / with the wind to Babylon / and we march to Babylon,” “Am I another you / and you another I?” “Then let’s be kind.” The subtle dialogue between tone and cadence in poems such as “Low Sky” and “We Walk on the Bridge” ushers the tender musical exchange throughout the book, where even the mythic can be treated with “one cup of hot chamomile / and two aspirins.” And the sonnets — a stranger’s template for another vernacular — develop the spine that gives the book its sway as man and woman, poetry and prose, commune with each other. Duality (or the annihilation of it) becomes “the necessary clarity of our mutual puzzle.” In many respects The Stranger’s Bed is a conversation that, once begun, compels the reader through to its last utterance, uninterrupted, where the Familiar and the Stranger become “two in one.”
David Grossman (Israeli) (22):
Who will we be when we rise from the ashes and re-enter our lives? When we viscerally feel the pain of author Haim Gouri’s words, written during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, “How numerous are those no longer with us.” Who will we be and what kind of human beings will we be after seeing what we’ve seen? Where will we start after the destruction and loss of so many things we believed in and trusted?
Are we capable of shaking off the well-worn formulas and understanding that what has occurred here is too immense and too terrible to be viewed through stale paradigms? Even Israel’s conduct and its crimes in the occupied territories for 56 years cannot justify or soften what has been laid bare: the depth of hatred towards Israel, the painful understanding that we Israelis will always have to live here in heightened alertness and constant preparedness for war. In an unceasing effort to be both Athens and Sparta at once. And a fundamental doubt that we might ever be able to lead a normal, free life, unfettered by threats and anxieties. A stable, secure life. A life that is home.
Mahmoud Darwish (Palestinian) (23):
We store our sorrows in our jars, lest
the soldiers see them and celebrate the siege …
We store them for other seasons,
for a memory,
for something that might surprise us on the road.
But when life becomes normal
we’ll grieve like others over personal matters
that bigger headlines had kept hidden,
when we didn’t notice the hemorrhage of small wounds in us.
Tomorrow when the place heals
we’ll feel its side effects
Naomi Shihab Nye (Palestinian American) (24):
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
David Grossman (Israeli) (25):
I conclude with one more wish, which I once expressed in my novel See Under: Love. This wish is uttered at the very end of the book, when a group of persecuted Jews in the Warsaw ghetto finds an abandoned baby boy and decides to raise him. These elderly Jews, broken and tortured, stand around the child and dream about what they would like his life to be, and into what sort of a world they would like him to grow up. Behind them, the real world is going up in smoke, with blood and fire everywhere, and they say a prayer together. This is their prayer: “All of us prayed for one thing: that he might end his life knowing nothing of war … We asked so little: for a man to live in this world from birth to death and know nothing of war.”
Nikola Madzirov (Macedonian) (26):
I saw dreams that no one remembers
and people wailing at the wrong graves.
I saw embraces in a falling airplane
and streets with open arteries.
I saw volcanos sleep longer than
the roots of the family tree
and a child who’s not afraid of the rain.
Only it was me no one saw
only it was me no one saw.
Agha Shahid Ali (Kashmiri) (27):
Your history gets in the way of my memory.
I am everything you lost. You can't forgive me.
I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.
Your memory gets in the way of my memory:
I'm everything you lost. You won't forgive me.
My memory keeps getting in the way of your history.
There is nothing to forgive. You won't forgive me.
I hid my pain even from myself; I revealed my pain only to
There is everything to forgive. You can't forgive me.
If only somehow you could have been mine,
what would not have been possible in the world?
Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) (28):
To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
We pray that it will be done
Audre Lorde (African-American) (29):
Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.
The angers between [peers] will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar. I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.
The angers of [peers] can transform difference through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal but a sign of growth.
Meenakshi: These poets and writers open up possibility. But you — people of strategy and action — need to build the structures and make possibility into reality. Do it.
(1) Who am I? Why do I care? Why these writers? FWIW, what do I think?
I am Meenakshi Chakraverti, an US American of Indian-Bengali origin. I am a writer, living in NYC. I live on land that was inhabited by the peoples of Lenapehoking. Descendants of the Lenape and other indigenous communities continue to live on this land that has been settled, often with violence and theft, by waves of settlers, including me, from other parts of the world. I honor them and I own that history. I chose to become an American citizen and over the last two decades have been learning to live with American history as my history. Having grown up as a member of an upper-caste Hindu family, I am also learning to be more conscious of, and own, my caste history.
I am aware that this war in Palestine-Israel is just one of many wars, and many other wars cause grievous harm without me feeling so stirred. So why this war, this region? In my case, two things: (1) Early in my life I grew up with the grief of the Holocaust (a horror and a grief for ALL people; we are all accountable), and then I became increasingly aware of the losses and plight of Palestinians. I know Israelis personally and have good Jewish friends who have family in Israel. And I’ve worked with Israelis and Palestinians in Second Track dialogue work and grew to have a personal fondness for all of them. So there is a real personal connection with that region. (2) I am a US citizen. The US continues to be inordinately powerful and influential in that region, as much or more than it is any other region. As a US citizen, I am accountable for the policies of the US.
Most of the quoted writers are people whose writing I know and admire. A few are new to me but their writing has made me think and feel in ways that open up understanding and possibility. They all have written things that “the other side” might “disagree” with, and they all have written things that show they see something and feel something of what “the other side” sees and feels.
A long time ago, after the Oslo Accords collapsed and the Second Intifada had started I did some work with a group of Palestinians and Israelis. Most of them were writers; all of them worked with words. In one of the breaks between their facilitated conversations, they sat together. They took a long break. At the end, they turned to us, and said: “if it were up to us, we’ve resolved the conflict.” I do believe that if the writers I’ve quoted here were to meet — for all the pain and anger that those still alive feel right now — they would have a different conversation from the engagements between the Israeli leadership, especially Netanyahu and his government, and the Palestinian leadership, especially Hamas. I believe they might well find a way to resolution and the rest of us in the world would rejoice. But many of the writers quoted here aren’t still alive, and those who are, don’t get to meet and certainly don’t get to decide the way forward. However, perhaps, we, who read them, can push our leaders to hear and amplify their voices.
What happens next?
I have no solutions, but I see the possibility of peace (yes, really, even today!) and I have no choice but to hope. I have no standing from which to propose or build solutions but I do think that I and others like me —bystanders who care — can create space for people who are more immediately affected to breathe, feel, and think with less rather than more fear and thus to be more active supporters and participants in a real peace process. Perhaps a peace process could start with recognizing the state of Palestine with 1967 borders. Let’s seek and support people brave enough to make this a peaceful and prosperous region for all.
(2) This excerpt is from a poem by Sahir Ludhianvi, the pen name of Abdul Hayee, a poet and writer born in 1921 in Ludhiana, Punjab. I was introduced to this poem by Punjabi (both Pakistani and Indian) partners in Sahar, a Boston area-based dialogue effort in the early 2000s. This translation is based on the translation I was given, perhaps slightly modified by me. I have not found any source with this exact translation. Here is a transliteration of the original Urdu. The link also leads to a video of the poem being read.
aao ki koī ḳhvāb buneñ kal ke vāste
varna ye raat aaj ke sañgīn daur kī
Das legī jaan o dil ko kuchh aaise ki jaan o dil
tā-umr phir na koī hasīñ ḳhvāb bun sakeñ
(3) “The War on Error” (in the section titled The Foreigner’s Home) in The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison.
(4) “The Creative Process” by James Baldwin.
(5) From “Eleven Stars Over Andalusia” by Mahmoud Darwish, the English version by Agha Shahid Ali, with Ahmad Dallal. Agha Shahid Ali was a Kashmiri poet writing in English. The original poem was written in Arabic.
(6) From “Di rayze aheym/The Journey Home” by Irena Klepfisz, in Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971-2021. Klepfisz’s mother was a Holocaust survivor and her father was killed in the Warsaw Ghetto.
(7) From A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange). This excerpt is situated in the summer of 1947 in British-ruled Palestine.
(8) From “Two Stranger Birds in Our Feathers” by Mahmoud Darwish (from the collection The Stranger’s Bed, translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah).
(9) From “Arabic” by Naomi Shihab Nye (from her collection Red Suitcase).
(10) From “In the City of Slaughter” by Hayim Nahman Bialik, written in 1904 about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in Moldova which was part of the Russian Empire (translated from the Hebrew by Vladimir Jabotinsky). I found this version on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hayim_Nahman_Bialik.
(11) From “Books That Have Read Me,” an essay by David Grossman, published in the English collection titled Writing in the Dark (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen).
(12) This poem by Hiba Abu Nada is quoted by Fady Joudah, in his essay titled “A Palestinian Meditation in a Time of Annihilation,” published on November 1, 2023 by Literary Hub. Hiba Abu Nada died in the bombing of Gaza on Oct 20, 2023. (https://lithub.com/a-palestinian-meditation-in-a-time-of-annihilation/)
(13) From “Death in the Air” by American writer Ben Ehrenreich, in which he interviews Gazan writer Asmaa al-Ghoul (blog post 8 November 2023). https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/news/death-in-the-air?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Lit%20Hub%20Daily:%20November%209%2C%202023&utm_term=lithub_master_list
(14) From “All-Zionist Girl” by Lily Galili, in The Daily Beast, April 27, 2012. Lily Galili is a major Israeli journalist. https://www.thedailybeast.com/all-zionist-girl
(15) From “A Palestinian Meditation in a Time of Annihilation,” by Fady Joudah. See (12).
(16) From “Contemplations on Peace,” by David Grossman, in the collection Writing in the Dark. See (11).
(17) Same as (13).
(18) From “Writing in the Dark,” by David Grossman, in the collection Writing in the Dark.
(19) From the Translator’s Preface, by Fady Joudah, to the collection of poems of different periods, The Butterfly’s Burden, by Mahmoud Darwish.
(20) Same as (18).
(21) Same as (19).
(22) From “Who will we be when we rise from the ashes,” by David Grossman, published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on October 20, 2023. https://www.jta.org/2023/10/20/ideas/israeli-novelist-david-grossman-who-will-we-be-when-we-rise-from-the-ashes.
(23) From “ A State of Siege,” by Mahmoud Darwish, translated by Fady Joudah in The Butterfly’s Burden. See (19).
(24) From “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, from her selected poems in Words Under the Words.
(25) From “Contemplations on Peace,” by David Grossman, in the collection Writing in the Dark.
(26) From “I saw Dreams” by Nikola Madzirov, published in How Does the World Breathe Now? Film as Witness, Archive, and Political Tool, by Savvy Contemporary, Berlin. Translated from the Macedonian by Peggy and Graham Reid.
(27) From “Farewell,” by Agha Shahid Ali, in his collection of poems, The Country Without a Post Office.
(28) From “Eagle Poem, by Joy Harjo, from her collection In Mad Love and War.
(29) From “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” by Audre Lorde, keynote presentation at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, June 1981, and in the collection Sister Outsider.