Links between struggle and art probed in new book on Palestinian poets

Khaled Furani’s Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry is an anthropological study of Palestinian poets, particularly those living in Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Furani interviewed writers and attended readings and festivals in Palestine and the wider Arab world, while providing historical background drawn from poetry journals such as al-Jadid and the cultural pages of papers such as al-Ittihad.

Although this may sound dry as dust to anyone not absorbed in the minutiae of Palestinian literature, this is actually a fascinating book on several different levels.

Firstly, it gives an in-depth portrait of an obscure but intriguing phenomenon, the poetry festivals which bloomed in Israeli-occupied Palestinian villages, mainly in the Galilee, in the 1950s and ’60s. These festivals were an integral part of the cultural resistance of the era, and many of the older poets with whom Furani spoke were subjected to house arrest, sackings and imprisonment for participating.

Central to Furani’s thesis is the fact that the poems performed at these festivals were written in a classical Arabic style, in which the strict rules of rhyme and rhythm have guided writers in Arab countries for centuries. According to Furani, Palestinian poetry — like Arab verse in general — underwent radical changes during the twentieth century, from classical forms to shi’r hurr (free verse, with some rhyme and rhythm but not bound by strict rules), to almost unbounded “prose poetry” (35, 48).

For Furani, these changes reflect shifts in Palestinian politics and the wider Palestinian condition, and also deep-rooted differences in how poets and their audiences view poetry as a phenomenon.

Tensions over style

Arguments over whether a poet’s environment influences their creations have raged within literary studies for decades, and won’t be rehashed here. It’s taken as given by Furani, who seeks to understand why different generations of Palestinian poets have adopted classical, free or prose poetry forms. Some argue that the discipline of classical styles is, once mastered, a liberating force (77-78). Others see it as confining and obsolete; as Furani shows, there is sometimes considerable acrimony between the camps (49,80) — although it is noteworthy that even prose poets may use measured free verse for certain subjects, especially martyrdom, for which it is seen as more appropriate (183).

These tensions are not necessarily just an esoteric interest. As Furani shows, traditional poetic forms were important in asserting Palestinian-Arab identity during the early years of the Israeli occupation, and the teaching of colloquial language and literature was seen as an attempt to undermine the links between Palestinians and their Arab heritage (42).

Furani also sees in the shift from classical to free to prose poetry a tracing of the extent to which poets feel able to play a role in political struggles. Traditional poetry, devised to be recited, not read, and often performed at festivals, was a public activity, the product of a strange moment in time when poetry followed the politics of Marx but was in a form that preceded the prophet Muhammad (57). Poetry was part of a clearly-articulated struggle, seen as political not just by poets but by the Israeli authorities, who subjected poets to harsh punishments. This explicit political purpose is maintained through the era of free verse, by the “poets of the resistance” as epitomized by Mahmoud Darwish, but with a modernist sensibility.


But in prose poetry especially, Furani sees a move away from political purposes, a sense that poetry has become about the inner self, not patriotism and martyrdom, read in solitude, rather than packed halls. This type of poetry, he says, is often difficult to understand and, rather than attracting big popular audiences, is written for small numbers of knowledgeable readers (219). Its writers, maturing in an atmosphere of increasingly brutal occupation coupled with a declining trust in the established Palestinian political factions, do not see themselves as part of a national struggle, questioning not only whether they can help to save their people, but even whether they can save themselves.

In exploring these issues, Furani offers insights into the thoughts of great names in Palestinian poetry, including Mahmoud Darwish and Samih al-Qasim. Alongside these, and sometimes more interesting for being lesser-known, we also meet characters such as the militant Daud Turki, who refused to regard himself as a poet, and newer generations of writers such as Zakariyya Muhammad, Mahmoud Abu Hashhash and Maha Qassis.

Incidentally, Furani’s fieldwork experiences also offer an insight into life for Palestinian citizens of Israel, the shifts, over the last six decades, of their political hopes and aspirations, and the constraints on their encounters with fellow Arabs.

Finally, Silencing the Sea rises above its putative status as an ivory-tower academic text through the questions it poses for contemporary artists and activists. What is the relationship between art and politics? Does art really have any impact on political causes? And what is the relationship — inverse or otherwise — between the quality of art and its political engagement? In other words, can poetry be both artistically good and politically important? Or, as some poets and critics have complained, on or off the record, does political popularism intrinsically corrupt the quality of creativity?

It’s impossible to capture in one review the multifaceted richness of this book. It isn’t special only because of the range of topics it interweaves and the significant questions it poses. It is also that rare thing, an academic text which is beautifully written and a genuine pleasure to read. Not only this, but the publishers have apparently decided that the subject is worth presenting well, with the intricate Arabic calligraphy of the front cover replicated throughout the book. This is an intelligent, thoughtful study, honest in its approach, complex in its contemplations and lovely in its presentation.

My one criticism? As an academic hardback, this book is too expensive; even the Kindle version is seriously overpriced at $44. Affordable editions are badly needed so that Silencing the Sea can reach the readership it deserves.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She is the author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and co-author, with Sharyn Lock, of Gaza: Beneath the Bombs.