Poems that plumb the mystery of solidarity

Poems for Palestine

by Kevin Hadduck
114 pp. Blue Heron Poetry. $0-$5

There was a tall, broad-shouldered, white-bearded, man in Montana, who was deep into the wide-open spaces, the trackless forests, and the wildlife. He had filled his office with stuffed animals. The animals never lived, had never been killed. They were the soft, cuddly kind that usually inhabit children’s rooms. Five years ago, perched on shelves and lying around on chairs and a sofa, they greeted a newly arrived scholarship student from Gaza, who had come to see the man—poet-educator Kevin Hadduck—at Carroll College, in Helena. He had never met a Palestinian.

Doaa Mohaisen was looking for help studying Latin. Instead, she found a friend. The day she left the U.S., a few months later, she was holding “Kevidello,” a stuffed-animal armadillo Hadduck had given her. In the interim, he and his wife had all but adopted Doaa.

Of their encounter, he told her, “I love the irony of how I, who was happily living in a huge, wide-open space in a wealthy country, met you, who came from such a small, cramped, and impoverished place, but you have made my world so much larger and my heart so much richer.”

Just weeks after he met Doaa she put him in touch with We Are Not Numbers, a Gaza grassroots writing cooperative she had helped launch in 2015. He became a WANN online mentor to Palestinians in Gaza. In June 2017, he made his way to Beirut to work with WANN founder Pam Bailey, a freelance American journalist, to help lead writing workshops for Palestinian refugees, making friendships all the way. Gradually he began writing poems for these friends as he gained a sense of each one in wide-ranging conversations. In some cases, he even got to know family members.

Eventually, he dedicated a book of poems to Doaa, “Beloved Brother, Beloved Sister: Poems for Palestine,” which lavishes praise and affection on her, along with almost 40 other Palestinian friends. Hadduck’s poems feel for them as they cope with the compressed, repressed, oppressed, deprived, depressing—and often horrifying—conditions they live in, mostly in Gaza, but also in the West Bank, the refugee camps of Lebanon, and elsewhere in the diaspora.

That Hadduck’s poems intuit and try to convey the emotional texture of his friends’ lives in Gaza and elsewhere is indeed an ambitious goal for a distant, thoroughly American poet to tackle. Yet the spirit that pervades the poems, written to and about these friends as a form of conversation, is one of liberating transcendence. An artistic alchemy transforms the Palestinian reality of suffering, grief, and worry into a ground of a joy that is shared by the poet and his friends and brings the reader into emotional contact with the mysterious solidarity that will perhaps be the people power that finally undoes the all-powerful apartheid that rules Israel/Palestine.

Hadduck’s unguarded expressions of affection and empathy could easily have resulted in over-the-top poems and made him seem naïve and unbearably sentimental, but his Gazan friends didn’t take him that way. In brief remarks included in the book by almost all the subjects of the poems, they sing his praises. Basman in Gaza says this:

I have not yet met Kevin in person, yet I see him through his words. We sit on the beach together. We cry and laugh over the darkness. We enjoy the taste of Maklouba together in his poems. He said to me in one of his poems, “Allow me to sit in the sunshine of a street café and taste the dark honey of your laughter, my brothers.”

As Pink says in one of her songs, ‘God it hurts to be human, but I’ve got you.’ I can say to Kevin thank you for your beautiful and honest poems and for your existence in all our lives. … There is nothing like the gift of love that we share.”

The full poem in the book, dedicated to Basman and his twin brother Bassem, is, “Brothers, You Give Me Laughter,”

“From a high place, even from a minaret,
oh, let me look down into Gaza and see
the full space of her suffering.

From a low place, a hollow in the sand
of her beaches, let me touch (how can I?)
the wide waters of her separation.

From a dark place, even a dank basement,
no, the pit of a bomb crater, let me smell
the blood-depths of her despair.

Oh! And then, allow me to sit in the sunshine
of a street café and taste the dark
honey of your laughter, my brothers.”

Doaa, who grew up in Shuja’iyya, the Gaza City neighborhood Israel practically annihilated in 2014, writes, “Kevin gives out a piece of his heart with every poem he writes. He shares the feelings we experience on a day-to-day basis . . . and captures the Palestinians’ dreams, thoughts, blues, and joys and puts them in words . . . to show that people from Palestine are just like all human beings.”

The poems are not mere sentiments. Gritty darkness emerges from beneath the incandescent emotion. In dialog with a woman named Dalia, for example, she calls hope “the twin of despair” and dwells on “the heaviness and pain of hoping through impossible circumstances.” She writes, “We stand on the strength of our hearts, not of our feet. We measure time by hope, as we await divine justice.”

The grim circumstances generate mystical sources of endurance, when for instance, “The heart becomes its own sky,” as Hadduck writes to Mohammed M. That won’t keep a drone rocket from screaming through the Gazan sky to kill you, but while it still beats, such a heart is a force.

Hadduck has connected with remarkable individuals in Gaza, although it seems likely that Gaza hosts an especially high proportion of remarkable individuals who have found ways of resilience, meaning, and hope because their survival depends on it. Many feed their spirits and sense of connection through writing and poetry. Rana describes herself in one sentence as “an author, mother of triplets, wife of a good man, proud Palestinian, and lover of all that is human.” Trying to care for and protect a child in Gaza might seem unbearable anguish to many Americans, but Rana would take her triplets to the Friday Great March of Return, before the Covid pandemic ended them. In “Rana, Imra’a, Spring 2018” Hadduck voices a glimpse of her, “Home again from a Friday March,”

“rinsing tear gas again from your eyes,
from their eyes, recalling with them
your fear, your pride, your hope.

Their eyes flicker at your deep gaze.
It is for their quavering hearts
that you stitch their days together
with the words of your stories,
your instruction, and your prayers.

for patterns of hope you stitched for them.”

Instilling hope in the children, Rana defies a siege designed to kill all hope and keeps her own hope alive.

Ali thinks of himself, he says, “as a dreamer and a tea-and-book enthusiast, Palestinian by blood, yet American in spirit.”

Aya, a 19-year-old Mandala artist and dental student, says it’s “impossible really, to describe all the ways that life here [in Gaza] tears us down. … I go to school every day, simply wanting to do what I love. I keep a smile on my face.”

Leen says she lives “with an Israeli drone in my head, day and night, but wherever I go, I pursue peace.”

Walaa is “in love with being an English teacher for naughty smiley kids in Gaza” and says she is “living a great journey of love with my remarkable and stunning husband, crowned with the presence of our little angel Emma.”

Some might wonder why, late in life, a man in Montana who never had connected with a Palestinian, suddenly bonded so intensely with these Palestinians and the whole Palestinian people. Sympathy with the Palestinians is laudable but coming to identify with them so closely must reflect a deeper motive. The same sticky question could be posed about what drives any committed Palestinian solidarity activist with no personal or family connection to Palestine. When posed by supporters of Israel, the question usually comes out, why has someone or some group “singled out” Israel’s wrongdoing rather than that of notorious regimes in other countries. There are good reasons for Americans to target Israel’s wrongdoing, of course, such as that it is massively financed and whitewashed by the U.S. government and it is polluting the soul of the Jewish people. But the question itself is loaded as it assumes that the activist’s real motivation is anger at Israel, not concern, much less affection, for the Palestinians. Always lurking just below the surface of that premise is the suspicion of antisemitism. Rational, well-founded justifications for criticizing Israel rarely remove the taint of such suspicious assumptions.

Yet Hadduck’s poems sail above such doubts and suspicions because they are built on these relationships with individual Palestinians and the joy and self-growth they generate in him. That fact may contain a lesson for activists who tend to resist admitting even to themselves the gratification they get from supporting the Palestinian cause. Recognizing, much less reveling in, the sense of purpose and connection and other positive emotions that engagement in the solidarity struggle can unleash may seem self-centered and too likely to make their activism look like a self-interested pose that turns suffering Palestinians themselves into mere bit players in a drama about the activists’ virtue. So, it is thought that the better course is to stay focused on the suffering and humiliation inflicted on the Palestinians and the righteous anger that they and all principled people should feel in response. This, however, is a low-energy and basically negative attitude.

Now compare Hadduck: “I cannot, nor will I ever, find words numerous enough or beautiful enough to say what beauty and joy these friends have brought to me.” The connection has lifted him up. Of his friend Huda, for example, who lives deep in the Ein el Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon, he writes, “I hear that she lives in a dark place, even at noon. I hear that the darkness there blots out the sun.” But he goes on, if you could look “deep into Ein el Hilweh, into the heart of her,” you’d see “the bright lights, the magnificent flowers of Allah blooming and shining there. See Bright Huda.”

Commitment to solidarity generates a passionate compassion that “grabs and drags” a person “down among the broken, weak, and bent, while strong men place their bets and test their skill,” Hadduck writes. It “sows and reaps” a man, “while dead men deal, who staked their lives on skill.” In other words, when Palestinians simply welcome a person’s friendship and listen to his song and he to theirs, true-life springs forth.

The heartening insights in Hadduck’s book are probably not something the Palestinian solidarity movement could—or should try to—instrumentalize to help end apartheid. They are too fragile, like the breath of life that is a recurring theme of the poems, such as in the poem “Breathing,” written for Basman. It begins with Hadduck at his Montana window, breathing in air that the surrounding spruce trees silently exhale. The poem ends:

“I reflect beside myself at my window.
They say in Gaza, even the children seem old.
The whole world is old and breathless.

Brother, do the tamarisk and olive trees
hold their breath, awaiting catastrophe?
Breathe in. Breathe out. Insh’Allah.
Basman, teach us to breathe like trees.”

In reply, Basman writes his own poem, also called “Breathing,”

“I stand at my open window and breathe.
At dawn, the sun’s rays warm my face.
Gaza is silent but for her breathing,
weary from the buzzing of drones.

Another window opens half a world away.
Kevin, I see you standing there, breathing.
Do I breathe the same oxygen here in Gaza?
Do our souls meet with each breath in and out?

The world is clenched in wars, drenched in blood.
Teach them, Kevin, how to let go, how to breathe.”

In the poem called “At Al Aqsa,” Basman writes:

“I am praying at his barrier.
He keeps staring at me,
holding his gun and his breath.

Does he feel guilty?
Does he see me?

Can he hear my ‘Allah akhbar’
with that helmet on his head?

I kneel on my grandparents’ land.
He keeps his ‘ready to kill’ stance.

He tries not to look me in my eye.
I try to hold my tears.

I don’t know how I feel.
Should I be angry or scared?

I pray at his barrier.
He points his gun
and holds his breath.”

Kevin ends his poem “Physiotherapist” speaking in Basman’s voice, who is a physiotherapist:

“Through the din of their helicopters
and jets and tank engines revving,
I wonder if any of them just says to himself,
‘See that man just breathing over there?
I think he’s the only one here
who knows what he is doing.’

I am trying to teach them how to breathe
by breathing. How else does one
teach the world to breathe?”

Excerpts are printed with permission from the author. “Beloved Brother, Beloved Sister: Poems For Palestine,” (2019) © Blue Heron Poetry.


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