I Remember My Name – Palestinian Poetry

Poetry by Samah Sabawi, Ramzy Baroud and Jehan Bseiso


by Susan Abulhawa

Three renowned Palestinians poets from Gaza – Samah Sabawi, Ramzy Baroud, and Jehan Bseiso – flanked by editor Vacy Vlazna and artist David Borrington have joined to create I Remember My Name, a powerful and moving collection of poems and drawings.

The title underscores a common torment that permeates much of this book.  All three of these gifted writers are exiles from their homeland, and whether they speak of love, loss, anger, heartache, resolve, despair, triumph, tragedy, or even the banal, there is often an undercurrent of an exile’s longing for home, tinged with the combined anguish and guilt of being spared the fate of that home. 

In “Status and Headlines,” Sabawi captures the impotent outrage that tries to find some outlet of self-expression in 140 characters on “cyber walls,” or a profile page she calls “my imaginary throne.”

140 characters to liberate Palestine


Jehan Bseiso

Likewise, Jehan Bseiso explores the irresistible but unsatisfying allure and absurdity of social media.  But where Sabawi’s poems are plaintive and lyrical, Bseiso’s are hard-biting, at times peppered with Arabic words. Consider the irony and audacity of this punch:

Arab Offspring forecast is cloudy;

with prospects of unseasonal paradigm shift.

I don’t know politics, but something about this brand of terror

tastes like Burger King.

Indeed, when her poetry takes a natural breath, powerful pictures emerge.  The most enduring images in my mind came from two of Bseiso’s poems.  One was of Gaza’s maternity room:

In the hospital, they put the pregnant women alone, because

they’re carrying hope, because they dont want them to see

what can happen to children.

 On one hand I kept this image of hope nestled in unspeakable carnage, on the other, Bseiso gave me another picture, one of reaching the sky by climbing on the over-ground cemeteries because there’s no place left to bury underground.

Raise high the beams – carpenters, death architects.

Soon your walls will reach the sky.  

 This is one of the poems that were translated into drawings by David Borrington, whose ability to draw poetry – to transform words, fill them in with shadows and light, and give them a distinct life.

 An urgent and bewildered rage echoes in these and subsequent poems, like “God Forsaken,” where Sabawi bluntly asks

What is the life of a Palestinian worth On this God forsaken earth? And like “Hashtag Gaza” where Bseiso quotes a father My boys took a ball to the beach. Came back bodies.  How can we remember what we cant forget?

 There is also the guilt, of course, of being spared.  In “Confessions,” Sabawi is shamefully relieved,

Someones family is grieving

But not the one whose name I carry

 But Sabawi does not linger there.  She delves deeper, digging through the guilt, and in a thought-provoking poem, Defying the Universe, she wonders perhaps it is she who is imprisoned, not her family in besieged Gaza

…Do you ever wonder who is walled in

Is it you…or is it them

Then, Bseiso takes goes further into vagaries of exile:

We are bastard children of hyphens and supplements and sentences that start with

Originally Im from…

 In that same poem, “Brainstorming Nakba,” Bseiso brilliantly inverts her inward gaze toward a Baboshka, Chernobyl and Rawanda, Hagel and Srebrenica and Baghdad.  In some ways, it is as if a bridge between the visceral plaint in Sabawi’s work and intellectual overtones of Baroud’s sorrow.  


Ramzy Baroud’s style is one of controlled passion and intellectual refinement that searches the world through the eyes of others, notable historic figures in particular.  In a moving tribute “To Afzal Guru,” Baroud climbs into the spirit of this Kashmiri martyr on the day of his hanging, as he ruminates on his silly dreams of heaven above this playground below where unruly children refused to learn the etiquette of captivity…where they pumped petrol into his anus to break him.

 In the beautiful juxtaposition of “Nakba,” Baroud places Jesus After the Romans caught him at a checkpoint Hiding a recipe for revolution, and a love poem next to the image of a Palestinian Pleading at every checkpoint…Searching for a home between Haifa and Eternity. 

 Baroud is masterful in this poetic layering of intersections of history.  He takes us to Chile where Neruda wrote his Song of Despair and where Allende, refugee from Gaza was killed here for our sins.  And this, Pinochets moustache was made by the CIA…Dogs barked as dogs here did, as dogs in Hebron do.  He winds into the layers and intersections of history, oppression and geography, through A million sad memories between Gaza and Santiago. 

 In Baroud’s glances at the historic and political, one also feels a deep sense of the personal, of Baroud’s own loss.  He speaks more openly of his heartbreak in “Breathing,” lamenting I am destined to dream shadows on grey walls.

In “Sand and Tears,” Baroud writes for a refugee from Mali and then a “Lullaby” for Miriam, a Palestinian refugee child:

Ill hold you tight

and sing your songs

of a distant land

beyond the stars

 While Baroud writes sensitively for children, he keeps his own parenthood unspoken.  Not so for Sabawi, for whom being a mother accentuates the condition of exile.  She writes of frantic efforts to give her children some threads of home – spices, food, poetry, stories, memory – to grasp and anchor their daily lives.

I want to fill the air with defiant aroma

That will nourish my children’s souls

And remind them where we come from

 samah_sabawi_1smElsewhere, Samah Sabawi turns her maternal instincts toward her oppressor and declares I will not delight in the suffering, Even of those who oppress me…Every death will be mourned by a grieving mother.

Sabawi heeds the impulse to find relevance and anchors in the world.  For her, “words” are a source of power: Words Lift me up from despair And take me home.   At the same time, there is a retreat from that power in a poem with feminist overtones, “Invisible,” in which she writes I keep my words inside of me Fearing if uttered Their sharpness would slice my tongue in halves.

Feminist and introspective tempers are found elsewhere in this collection. These verses are both vulnerable and defiant in Sabawi’s “Imra’a.”

I am human


Your ticket to paradise does not begin with my virtue

Your peace of mind does not being with my conformity

Your redemption does not begin with my submission

Your honor is not defined by my chastity

 A better path is woven into these poems.  “Liberation Anthem” even lights a torch for Israelis to whom Sabawi writes: 

Dont be afraid,

We will liberate you too.


This short (100 pages) collection of poetry packs a lot of potency and a lot of love.  In the fine literary traditions of Arabic poetry, this book of English poems about hyphenated struggles that straddle both languages, on multiple continents in our time is to be savored.



For more information click here. Order the book from the publisher; from Amazon. Click here to order from Australia.


Source Article from http://www.intifada-palestine.com/2016/06/i-remember-my-name-palestinian-poetry/

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