‘Collective Awakening’, Isabelle Baafi interviews Mohammed El-Kurd

Mohammed El-Kurd is an award-winning poet, journalist, and activist from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem, Palestine. His work has been featured in the Guardian, the Nation, and Al Jazeera English. In September 2021, Mohammed, along with his twin sister Muna, was named one of the ‘The 100 Most Influential People of 2021’ by Time magazine. Rifqa (Haymarket Books, 2021) is his first poetry collection.

IB: I’d love to start this conversation by talking about your grandmother, Rifqa, who is quite a monumental figure in the book. Not only is the collection named after her, but her zeal also gives the book its boldness and urgency, and her wit provides some of the most memorable lines – for instance, ‘No matter how deep it drowns, / the truth always washes ashore’ (‘Rifqa’), and ‘After patience / there is but a grave’ (‘The Biggest Punch Line of All Time’). Did your grandmother ever write poetry, or did you ever show her yours?

ME-K: No, neither. My grandmother thought I was the most talented person in the world without ever encountering any of my work. Because I was my father’s firstborn son, and there’s that kind of patriarchal bias towards boys. She really celebrated me and really loved me, and she gave me an audacity and an entitlement when I was a child that nobody else in the family gave me, because everybody was busy; no one was interested in my writing. But my grandmother was very proud of me. To her, whatever I did was an extension of me. My grandmother was not a poet, but Arabic as a language is very poetic, very hyperbolic. The way we speak is very imaginative – like when you’re embarrassed, you don’t say ‘I’m embarrassed’. You say, ‘I want the earth to split open and swallow me.’ It’s always some visual image rather than the adjective.

IB: Your mother, Maysoon El-Kurd, was a poet though, right? The collection opens with a few of her lines:

I am Sheikh Jarrah.
There's a spear in my waist and spears in my back.
My resilience is an edifice.
I am Jerusalem's northern gate.
                                                       ('[I am Sheikh Jarrah.]')

Was poetry something that the two of you bonded over? Did it have a significant presence in your home?

ME-K: Yes and no. So, my mother would not like me saying this, but she can’t read English. And my mother was a harsh critic of my poetry, which is primarily why I started writing poetry in English – because she would be like, what the hell are you writing about? I remember when I was younger, I wrote this story about a boy – some blonde, blue-eyed boy in London. And my mom was like, why the hell are you writing about a boy in London? You should write about your own life. At the time I was very young, six years old, and my entire introduction to literature was through watching TV shows and cartoons and stuff, so those are the characters I found compelling. At the time, I saw my mom’s criticism as pretty harsh, but as I got older, I was like, wow, that’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten. And now, honestly, I write in English because there’s a chasm. I feel like there’s a disconnect between how we speak about everything in Arabic and how we write about everything in English. There’s this unabashed pride in Arabic that is seen as a performance of ethnocentricity in English.

So, my mom and I didn’t really bond over poetry, but she was always reciting her poems in the house. I would wake up to her reciting them to my father. They used to play a game (I talk about it in the book): the game was that after my mom read a poem, they would guess which line would be red penciled by the military censor. So that was always part of my upbringing. The reason why I opened the collection with her poem is that she’s never been published outside of the local newspapers. Just out of sheer busyness, I think. She’s a mom, she’s working… So she never got the chance to publish her work in a manuscript. For the past four years, I’ve been begging her to give me her poems so I can put them together and get them published for her. The epigraph was my way of saying thank you.

IB: As well as your mother, you have epigraphs quoting Amal Dunqul, Mahmoud Darwish, Toni Morrison, Aimé Césaire, Audre Lorde, and Frantz Fanon as conceptual launch pads and points of reference. How do you see your work as being in conversation with these writers? Would you say that they influenced your political ideation or your approach to poetry?

ME-K: I’ve always had a fascination with rhetoric – that is, the ability for a writer to contain ideas through figures of speech; the ability to propagandise, in a way. My editors would often say that you’re not supposed to give away the poem in the epigraph, but I’ve always wanted to put something that would encapsulate the poem, because I believe firmly that the poetry I write should be accessible. The poet Tongo Eisen-Martin talks about how he writes poems for real people, not poem people. And I really resonate with that notion. I wanted the book to be as accessible as possible, and these epigraphs are a kind of vehicle to convey the thesis to readers.

I’m in conversation with these writers, but even more so, I think that what shapes my conversations is pop culture: music and particularly hip-hop. Because again, it’s the ability to communicate philosophy, to communicate politics, through means that are devoid of legal and academic jargon.

IB: I wondered what you thought about the role of beauty in poetry, especially poetry that writes through oppression and/or trauma. Do you think poetry should be beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, when it depicts or references suffering?

ME-K: There’s an inherent quality of poetry to be aesthetically pleasing, but I think we must also interrogate our use – or our exploitation – of death and oppression to create beauty. There’s a poem in the book called ‘Park Benches with Teeth’, and it’s about homeless people in Atlanta. I often go back to that poem, and I think it’s a good poem, but I struggle with my authority to have written it. And I struggle with the beauty I assign to that poem: even though it’s very self-critical and very self-aware, there are still bits of it that are beautified.

As I said, it’s natural in poetry to beautify things, but at what point are we exploiting someone else’s pain to launch our own career? In English, it’s called artistic license, but in Arabic, there’s this proverb that says, ‘The poet is allowed what is not allowed to others.’ So, there’s this kind of permit given to poets to play with metaphor, to summarize God, to talk about poor people, all of these things – but recently, I’ve had a hard time writing about death and suffering. It’s important not to glamorise those things; there’s nothing glamorous about them.

Now, in the Palestinian context, it’s not really a culture of glamorising death, but there’s a certain pride we feel in death, particularly when people are killed by the Israeli occupation authorities. There’s a celebration. Obviously, that celebration is a performance that the family of the martyr is doing. They’re saying, ‘You have not broken our spirits. You may have stolen our child. You may have demolished our home, but you have not broken our spirit.’ And that kind of pride and celebration, although hard to comprehend, is understandable as a coping mechanism. But what I have a hard time with is the idea of me, someone far removed from a situation, articulating its silver linings as though trying to convince the family of a deceased loved one that there is a silver lining to it. It’s a hard thing to navigate.

IB: Throughout the book, there’s also a strong sense of lyrical frustration that considers the ineffability of life under occupation; the inadequacy of language to fully capture suffering and rage – and perhaps the inability of language to reclaim what has been lost. In the poem ‘Rifqa’, you state, ‘What I write is an almost. / I write an attempt’. In ‘Lice’, you say:

I can only describe this guilt
with similes that would invalidate it.
I no longer want to language, no longer 
                        want to tongue.

How did you navigate this difficulty of looking for words to express the inexpressible?

ME-K: Of course, beyond even the difficulty of your own craftsmanship, and of trying to articulate things that seem to be incomprehensible or so insanely bizarre that when you write them on the page they seem incredulous – beyond that, there’s also the risk of jail, the risk of losing your job, the risk of being kicked out of school. There are Palestinian poets who have been jailed and assassinated for their writing, and there is indisputably a war on Palestinian political thought. As a poet, you’re not only dancing around the landmines of cliché and trying not to sound melodramatic. There’s also the landmine of controversy: how do I say this without causing a stir? How do I say this without ending up in jail? And it’s hard. It discourages me from writing sometimes, to the point where I feel like I don’t want to do this anymore because I can’t even breathe without being accused of all kinds of things.

For instance, I compare the occupation to a cancer all the time, and my editors will always censor that out. Whenever there’s an op-ed by someone whining about me, there’s always that reference to me saying cancer, comparing the Israeli government to a cancer. And my belief is that if you don’t want to be compared to a cancer, your policy should not resemble cancer. But what’s happening here is that we have a false equivalency in which policies and systemic violence are somehow comparable to my sentiments and language. For Palestinians everywhere, this is a real struggle. You’re supposed to navigate this incomprehensible violence that is very real, very systemic, very policy-oriented, and so bizarre – and at the same time you’re also robbed of metaphor. So even the ability to narrativize it is robbed from you. With this book (and also my upcoming book, Hyenas), that crux is something I revolted against, because I wanted to call things by their name.

I’ll be honest though: I think poetry is very important, but I don’t think I can read my poems in front of a checkpoint and watch that checkpoint collapse. Like, I understand the limitations of poetry and I understand its power as a mobilizing force, a fueling force, a force of mass information and mass education. And I understand that having the authority to narrate means that you’re able to shape public opinion and inevitably public policy. That’s really where my faith in language lies. I don’t believe that I’m some amazing rebel with a torch in my hand, but I do think that those who are articulating the struggle are helping to shape a collective consciousness.

IB: You mentioned Atlanta earlier, and I know that you studied there for your BFA, and some of the poems in the collection are set there. How was your time in that city? Did being in the US affect your understanding of justice in any way? How present was Palestine in your mind, perhaps as a parallel or even an interrelated context (considering the US’s financial support of Israel)?

ME-K: I learned so much from Atlanta, in terms of organising, narrative building… For me, Palestine was present all the time because the police exchange programmes – through which the Israeli police train the American police – these programmes became even more hyper-militarized, and incorporated even more racial profiling tactics and more hyper-surveillance tactics. But, you know, being in [the US] was really humbling and eye- opening, because the United States has a very bloody history, and my ethnic cleaning in Jerusalem is funded by US money – but in the United States, I’m a fair-skinned person who can fly under the radar without being stopped and asked for my ID. Yet, I lived in Atlanta and I saw how police brutality, how state violence, manifested against Black communities. And that awoke in me a real desire to build across networks, across struggles, and form alliances, because at the end of the day, all of our struggles are global struggles. That’s not really an epiphany, that’s something we’ve understood for a long time, but unfortunately we don’t have the resources to create change – or maybe we do but we’re mismanaging them.

IB: You mentioned that you’ve got another book due out soon, Hyenas, which sounds really exciting. Tell me about that.

ME-K: It’s a book-length poem, like a prose poem. It’s experimental and it details last summer’s events, from the hearing about the expulsion orders up to the cancellation – or wherever I decide to end it.1 The reason I want to write it is that when I became visible to the public I had so many offers to write a memoir – and when somebody’s turned into the face of a movement (which I reject wholeheartedly) you become a saint and your memoir is this heroic account of the strings you pulled and the world you’ve changed, blah blah blah. But that’s not who I am, and that’s not what I believe. I’m not going to write an I Am Malala, because I’m not Malala. I don’t buy that (no judgment to Malala). I wanted to write a memoir recounting what happened in a very transparent way: all the frustration, the rage, the comedy – all my real desires. Like, I was on the front lines under the tear gas and sound bombs, but I wanted to be on the beach because it was August, you know what I mean? But when writing a traditional heroic memoir, you can’t disclose those discrepancies.

Hyenas is largely a commentary on state monopoly over violence, and the violence of the law – the blooding of the law, even. It’s a very transparent account of what happened. And there are moments that I cannot believe actually happened. I remember I met with the minister of affairs of a certain European country. And I was smoking a cigarette and wearing a tank top on Zoom. And at the time I didn’t realize what that meant. Like, why did I do that? Those are the things I wanted to revisit, because the institutions that we tried to appeal to, like the UN (at which I spoke), it’s time for us to question those institutions’ authority, because this so-called international community – these diplomats, these people to whom we bow our heads, to whom we’re told to write ‘Sincerely’ at the end of the email – these people have not done anything to help us. But I don’t want to write a memoir because I’m opposed to that kind of framing. What happened last summer was not my doing. It was the actions of hundreds of thousands of people, and a memoir that glamorizes my own decisions and choices would be fictional. Nobody put on a Superman cape and saved the neighborhood. Ours is a forty-nine-year-old struggle that my grandparents started, and I was merely walking in their footsteps.

1. In May 2021, an Israeli court ordered that Mohammed’s family, along with three others in Sheikh Jarrah, would be displaced from their home to make way for Israeli settlers. Following months of protests, state violence, and worldwide support for Sheikh Jarrah’s residents, the Israeli Supreme Court cancelled the displacement in March 2022, ruling that the four families could stay in their homes until the state had examined the ownership documents for the plots in question – a process that could take years or may not be carried out at all.