At a writing residency this summer, during a discussion about what is now known as “these difficult times,” one of my writing mentors, the poet and essayist Lia Purpura, reframed our discussion with a challenge that she has given herself. “I want to live more like a poem asks me to live,” she told us. This has become an invitation that fascinates me. Instead of poetry as an island of escape or solace, let me welcome it, the practices it demands, and try to imagine the kind of life it requires. Each of the essays I’ll share in this space is my response to Lia’s invitation.
* * *
A Poem Asks Us to Name Our World
Naming is an audacious act. The child arrives and the stitching of their story begins immediately in many cultures.
In 2013, my family and I visited the cities of Haifa, Yafa, and Akka.
Naming claims at least some aspect of the named, braids the giver and the recipient in a process of signification.
I am writing the names of the cities as I know them, cities that people the poetry and novels of Palestinian literature, cities with Arabic names.
I find that poetry is often a naming impulse, that search in a thick fog for the best words in the best order.
These are the cities that many of my friends call home, to which they trace back their lineage centuries.
The best order, the scaffold from naming to making sense of, to placing within reach and in context of what else we believe is known.
American passports made it possible for my family and me, despite our Palestinian names and histories, to visit these places. We were able to cross checkpoints, rent a car, and drive on roads lined with bright blue highway signs emblazoned with the names of towns most Palestinians cannot access. The first sign at the exit indicating to us that we were leaving Jerusalem, for example, noted the city limits in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and English.
A name can speak loudly in its absence.
In the scripts of all three languages, the city was identified by its Hebrew name: Urshalim. The Arabic did not read: Al-Quds. Three versions of an unnaming unfurled over the highway. This was a deliberate decision of the Israeli Ministry of Transportation that began in 2009, in which the Netanyahu government set out to replace the names of cities outside the West Bank and Gaza with Hebrew-only names.
I think about this naming often when I remember the textures of that day, the moods that passed through us on the drive in search of the places and the origin stories they anchor, the lives, the actual living bodies they sustain.
The erasure grew more disorienting as we drove along the coast, the names of places we were hoping to visit or signs we wanted to photograph for friends who are denied this journey by exile and occupation were nowhere to be found. Evidence of Palestinian identity was steadily being disappeared in favor of this three-script consolidation of a claim on place and time alike.
Poetry can name our world in ways that seem unimaginable outside a poem. Or perhaps in ways that only seem possible once a poem has carved out a space for them.
On that same visit to cities and villages stripped of their Arabic names for everyone except their native people, we took a tour of Akka. Also known as Acre, Akka is a walled city on the Mediterranean coast famous for its sweeping views and the youth who dive gleefully off its fortress into the sea below. It was also a district, before 1948, greater Akka a home to over sixty villages, many of which were razed to the ground during the war. Local guides now offer tours of the sites of destroyed and renamed villages.
The village of Al-Birweh, hometown of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, was also part of the Akka district. In his poem “Jidaariya (Mural)” Darwish writes: “This sea is mine/This air is mine/And my name—if I mispronounce it on my coffin—is mine/As for me—full of all reasons for leaving—/I am note mine.”
An Israeli organization named Zochrot, a Hebrew word that means memory, also runs such tours, (re)naming what seem like ruins along the highway. We visited with a Palestinian guide, a history teacher and native of Akka. He drove us from the emerald-domed mosque at the heart of the city to the site of Al-Kabri, a village nine miles northeast of Akka. Only a desecrated cemetery and the hefty foundation stones of homes remain.
Naming is an act of defiance against time. Is it the language of memory with which we linger? Are we “refusing to move forward,” or are we carrying our bodies across battlefields and hastily drawn borders, bringing the sound and resonance of who we are into today?
Growing up we learned to sing a version of the Darwish poem “Identity Card,” which opens with the declarative sentence: “Sajjel, Ana Arabi,” often translated “Record, I am an Arab.” First published in 1964, the poem is known for its response to that early wave of erasures, the criminalization of language and symbol that swept across Palestinian communities.
Al-Kabri is an Arabic name whose etymological family includes pride, grandeur, expanse. The place is now a public park, another breathtaking unnaming as the park is inaccessible to the great number of refugees who belong in this village but cannot return. Yet it is available to those who wish simply to picnic on its ruins.
What does it mean to live amidst such cacophonous silence?
We were there as the sun began to set, and we made our way to the remains of the cemetery to recite Al-Fatiha. On headstones that had survived the destruction, most names were rendered illegible.
Among the graves, beneath the amber light and thickening shadows of carob and pine, praying for the nameless dead, I tried to fill the space with all the throaty Arabic syllables of the sura. On that August day in 2013, we learned an Arabic name, braiding it with its story and location. This, too, is how poetry asks us to live, to embrace this audacity, to fully inhabit our bodies in time and space, to speak their living etymologies.
Naming is an audacious act, a demand that each of us confronts in different places, and an invitation to carry meaning in our lives.
Lena Khalaf Tuffaha is a poet, writer, and translator. She is the winner of the 2016 Two Sylvias Chapbook Prize for Arab in Newsland, and the author of Water & Salt, a book of poems from Red Hen Press published in April 2017. She is currently Poet-in-Residence at Open Books: A Poem Emporium.