Emerging from an “age of defeat”: interview with poet Ghassan Zaqtan

Ghassan Zaqtan reading from his work. 

Asian American Writers’ Workshop

And the silence of survival
which I have been gathering for years
with the patience of one who’s alone with the garden in summer
or one who retrieves absence
the absence
that never stops

(from “Wolves”)

Ghassan Zaqtan’s poem “Wolves” encapsulates both the hopes and sorrows of being Palestinian. He writes of a dream in which the “voices of those who left long ago will jump like grasshoppers when the door is opened.” Yet he closes with the poignant observation that “the absence never stops.”

“Wolves” is included in his latest book Like A Straw Bird It Follows Me. This is the tenth collection of poems from Zaqtan. Born in Beit Jala, near the West Bank city of Bethlehem, 58 years ago, he is the son of Khalil Zaqtan, a poet and UN aid worker. Because of his father’s work, Ghassan spent much of his early years in refugee camps for Palestinians driven from their homes during the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing which led to Israel’s foundation in 1948.

Granted asylum by Syria in 1982, Ghassan Zaqtan edited the literary section of al-Hurriya, a paper published by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Later moving to Tunisia, he edited the Palestine Liberation Organization’s literary magazine al-Bayader before returning to the West Bank in 1994. His debut novel Wasf al-Madi (“Description of the Past”) was published the following year.

Zaqtan recently completed a US tour before visiting London for the Nour Festival, a celebration of art from the Middle East and North Africa. During his time in London, Zaqtan spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Lauren Pyott.

Lauren Pyott: You’ve just arrived from a US tour which had to be rescheduled after the State Department failed to issue your visa in time. This has been described as “ethnic profiling” and “ideological exclusion.” Is this how you see it?

Ghassan Zaqtan: Before [classifying] these troubles as purely racist, I would say that this is a continuous difficulty which all Palestinians face, not just writers and poets. The process begins with having to obtain the visa from the [US] consulate in Jerusalem, a place that Palestinians are forbidden from entering without prior permission from the occupation authorities. This permission entails many other complications and it only lasts for a matter of hours, less than a day. So you have to wait for the permission, then go for an interview in Jerusalem, then return to the West Bank to wait for the approval. The process is exhausting and sickening and humiliating.

LP: What influence did your father’s poetry have on you as a child?

GZ: I was lucky to have been born into the house of a poet, and one who boasted a great library. We moved a lot, from camp to camp, but the library was what benefited most from the different atmospheres in the house. The literati, writers, politicians, intellectuals and children all influenced that atmosphere and I benefited from his culture and poetry to a great extent. His generation, the Nakba poets of the ’50s and early ’60s, took me to a new place, poetically speaking.

LP: Do you think that the role of the poet in Palestine has changed from your father’s time to yours?

GZ: It has to a great extent. During the fifties, Palestinian poetry, and Palestinian culture in general, were consumed with the Nakba and the new reality which it brought. This reality put pressure on writers, poets and the cultural elite. The lack of an institutional framework meant that it became both personal and political. So the Palestinian poet in the ’50s wasn’t able to engage with things that other Arab poets could, such as aesthetic and artistic affairs and the development of the poem. They maintained the classical form while at the same time contributing to preserving Palestinian cultural identity. I see this as the big achievement of Palestinian intellectuals.

After that, in the ’60s and ’70s, Palestinians became more involved with literary and poetical developments. So you had this shift from classical poetry to prose poetry, and then to resistance poetry, which was a phenomenon of political and literary polarization. The ’70s brought about two projects: resistance, and a new dictionary for the poetry of the revolution.

LP: You were also co-founder of the House of Poetry in Ramallah. What role does this organization play in occupied Palestine?

GZ: The role of the House of Poetry was to print and publish Palestinian poetry inside Palestine and transport it to the Arab world. I left the House of Poetry four years ago but I welcome the new generation, though they are suffering from problems as usual, and have had to stop publishing, which is painful.

LP: What are some of those problems?

GZ: Most importantly, the policies of the occupation forbid the importing of books into Palestine. This either happens directly, for example banning books from Syria or Lebanon, or certain books or forbidding books to particular groups. Otherwise they enter under military surveillance. This is an attempt at isolating the current generation from the Arab culture that surrounds them.

Inside Palestine, there is no real communication between the different cities. It was hard for books issued in Ramallah to reach Nablus, for example, and it was impossible for them to get out of Palestine, so they had to be published in Egypt or Jordan. The Poets magazine had to be printed in Palestine and Jordan. Imagine the cost.

This wasn’t just because of the occupation, but the occupation destroyed the system of publishing and distribution. We managed to overcome this by issuing something called The Book of Poetry where we would choose an important writer, and publish them in the local newspapers, as only they had a distribution network. This was actually an idea from UNESCO. We managed this for two years and reached thousands of readers across Palestine.

LP: You also spent large periods of your life living outside Palestine before returning in 1994. What effect does “place” have on your poetry?

GZ: It’s a crucial part of writing. It’s impossible to write in the air. Place can mean exile or the homeland, but it’s the source of your writing. Voices, smells and colors enter your writing.

Of course, there is a difference when you’re in exile and looking toward the homeland. Yearning, romanticism and dreaming make things seem more beautiful. The move from exile to the homeland isn’t just a shifting of knowledge but also a relationship with a new place. For me, after 40 years in exile, the homeland wasn’t familiar. There is a big difference between the homeland that you form in your imagination and the homeland that you find on the ground.

My return wasn’t dream-like. Our return is part of a political agreement between the PLO and Israel and this is an imperfect agreement. It provides a small window to pass through, but it is an agreement of the strong versus the weak. This is what makes even the return imperfect. The homeland that we return to is controlled by the laws of the occupation. An imperfect return to an imperfect place.

This, of course, has a huge impact on my writing. But I also think that the return of Palestinian writers from exile to the homeland creates a sort of positive interaction. The experience of exile is culturally rich, one based on a sense of pluralism, integration and the experiences of others. All of this then enters Palestine. Those living inside Palestine, suffering directly from the occupation, are more conscious of everyday struggle. This knowledge also comes into the experience of return. This is often overlooked, but I think it’s very important. Those who have really benefited from this intermingling of the experiences of exile and the homeland are the poets of the ’90s generation, the Palestinian youth of today.

LP: Speaking of this “imagined homeland,” you once said that “collective identity” and “community art” encourages an “almost obligatory patriotism.” Is this something you struggle with, in your own poetry?

GZ: It’s important to understand that each Palestinian and every poet has their own sense of privacy, whether they’re in exile or inside Palestine, and that there are variations within this. There are multiple geographies of Palestine which each have their own reality. This may form a sense of collective memory, but you could also say that this enriches, rather than fractures, the individual imagination across multiple notions, visions, languages and experiences. I personally don’t see them as isolated regions. Rather than regarding it as a collective imagination, I see it as a collective experience that is both varied and rich. It enriches and deepens the Palestinian text. I see “place” as a varied and enriching experience and not a weak one.

LP: The poet Mahmoud Darwish often spoke of the “burden” of being the “representative” of the Palestinian people. Do you also have a sense of that burden? Do you feel that your readers make demands of what your poetry should be?

GZ: They make demands of me, inevitably. The Palestinian image, the stereotype, unanimously held by the audience, is basically a political suggestion which exists in the imagination. Darwish carried this burden, but he rid himself of it at the same time, and he did so very skilfully.

He was able to create a shared language with the audience and to carry the collective appreciation of the image, without losing what he intended. This is what I consider to be his genius. He didn’t sever himself from this image, but developed it. So whoever accepts the Darwish of “Record, I Am an Arab” in the ’60s, with its politically direct rhythm, accepts the Darwish of “I Don’t Know the Stranger” in 2005.

This transformation and development lifted the burden of the Palestinian cultural elite, myself included. For me, there exists a huge distance between what the audience demands of me and what I offer. Our generation is “freer” than that of Darwish, perhaps because our generation, sadly, exists in the age of defeat. Perhaps because we were born amongst losses.

Most of our generation wrote our first book in 1980 or 1981, and only a year later was Beirut [Israel’s invasion of Lebanon] the biggest strategic loss, despite the slogans of steadfastness. We are the sons of this generation of losses. We were the “Poets of Troy” who existed inside rather than outside the walls, as Darwish said. But this allowed us to discard the matrix of slogans and revolution and dreaming. When the dream shattered we were able to take small fragments from it, and this has granted us greater freedom.

Lauren Pyott is a freelance writer and translator of Arabic, specializing in Arabic literary translation. She has spent a number of years living in Palestine and is now based in Edinburgh. Her website is laurenpyott.wordpress.com.