Protest and Poetry
For as long as I can remember, my family have been discussing the conflict in Israel and Palestine – my mother was in Egypt in the early 60’s and her earliest memory is of seeing my grandfather’s Palestinian colleague crying at the loss of his land. Finding the right approach to writing about Palestine, took me some time as I wanted to create subtle pieces that left thinking space, despite at times wanting to write a more polemical rant.
At university I took part in the occupation movement during the 2009 attack of Gaza and wrote ‘The Party Wall Surveyor Report’ a poem which turns the conflict into a domestic dispute between two neighbours. I rarely introduce this performance poem as a piece about Palestine, as I want audiences to connect with the personal impact of a conflict surrounding a home first and then link this injustice to Palestine.
The recent attack on Gaza termed ‘Operation Protective Edge‘ motivated me to write ‘Morning prayers’, which again looked at the domestic impact of war, all too often lost in news coverage that focusses on the numbers, and long range footage of explosions.
At a lecture given by the previous UN Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Territories- John Dugard two of his points particularly struck me – his statement that each settler home on Palestinian land was a war crime, and that Israel utilised an ancient Jordanian law that gave permission to the state to take land if it was seen as good hunting land for the King and was ‘unused’. This helped be write ‘The architects are plotting’ where I look at the culpability of those businesses profiting from and planning settlements, and explore the empty land or ‘terra nullus’ concept used to dispossess Palestinians and indigenous people all over the world.
The final poem ‘Orange groves‘ explores my mother’s memory of the Gaza man who lost his land in 1967, and how for a short period the Non Aligned movement of India, Egypt and Yugoslavia supported Palestine.
The party wall surveyor’s report
Planning permission ignored
(despite something said in a small Flemish hall
about tulips growing pale in the shade).
For a large fence is blocking
my client’s sun
and his children can’t grow
and have lost their kite
over the other side
where the neighbours’ dog
My client states
that you built a wall
through his living room
splitting the sofa in two
so his wife never saw
the end of the news.
My client knows
about your unlicensed sprinkler
that is making grass hay
and turning dinner to desert.
His water feature is clogged
and the koi carp were algae-gagged
then fished by you.
His orchard has been lopped,
trundled by heavy wheelbarrows
then levelled to marmalade,
that not even bees will touch-
as they are not allowed in
without your permission.
My client asks
for free bee passage ways,
as his flowers are bypassed
and are feeling small.
There’s a noise complaint too,
beyond ASBO severity-
for the fireworks that invade his dreams
and are burning him.
He still objects that you watch
from your roof whilst his roof caves in.
Resents that you tap his metre
to light the score board
where you are always winning.
We know you need gravel
for your garden path
to your pine pagoda,
but would appreciate
you not grinding up
the walls of his house.
My client’s drive is blocked
by your errant kids
who check his identity
each time he tries to live.
My client fears
he has no mans’ land but yours
and no ones’ word but his
but I speak for my client
and you should let him live.
You pray for quiet mornings
to wake on the roof this summer,
with your grandma the only one
unbothered by Eid fireworks,
and the youngest cradling new red shoes
like a new-born.
You long for monotonous streets
adapting only to the seasons,
homes improving or crumbling
at the natural rate with families ripening,
and washing bunting more crowded
each year. You hope for time to tend
the herbs you grow in retired teapots
by unbroken windows, have a garden
free of rubble. You want to only worry
about having enough jalabiyas*
for every August wedding,
for the worst news to be
muttered in weather reports-
that storm clouds will shrink
the shoals you sell
leaving your husband
playing indoor dominos for days
and learning the best of the worst
Egyptian films by heart.
You wish you had parcelled
old regrets for now-
stockpiled, pickled and canned
whilst things could grow,
that you had enjoyed the water-
had the time to swim between wars.
You now relish all the little battles
from before, like the day they banned soap
said it could be used in bombs
and your little one chimed
that even they knew baths were bad too.
You hope for the rush to school
to be fuelled by no more
than a stern bell ringing teacher.
You pray for your son only to fear
spiders, heights and getting lost
that he will grow bored of birthdays,
only ever hold toy guns
and never ask why you cradle
these red shoes like a new-born.
* Jalabiyas- long gown worn in the Middle East
The architects are plotting
They send drones to scope the relief,
plan how much dynamite they need
to re-start this tired skyline,
translate road signs, rename rivers.
They arrive rather than return,
each home they plan a tomb for those
that hold keys to changed locks round necks.
The architects were efficient-
dug up a Jordanian crown*
which made all un-worked land a gift,
a grenade their orb, a ruler
their sceptre: coronation done.
They wore the crown, did not forge it.
The people here are just markers
on history pages written
by the ink splattered architects.
They scatter the squatters, who drift
from their plot or clump in tight packs
building toe to shoulder towers.
No foundations since ’48
No new towns of their own allowed.
Architects cement their future
build over the past, each planned tap
a drain that withers an other’s fruit
as they empty the unused land.
The architects need protection
too many upset shepherds here
who woke to find homes were marked
as bulldozer appetisers.
The architects sell square foot dreams,
plant ‘sold’ signs like flags, buss punters
in with holiday grins, sunscreen,
suitcases of freshly squeezed zeal.
They make homes safe with guns, patrols
and spread a giant umbrella
– for the bursts of stony showers.
Every few years they ‘mow the lawn.’
They have all the passwords you need
to keep their club alive, and if
they did not defend themselves then
the architects would be driven
into the sea, no Moses tricks
now, though enemies surround them.
No matter how fast they import
buyers to settle their contract
with this ground- their own DNA,
barren souls clog their orchard land.
The architects keep on planning
till backers pay their endless debt,
it’s not blackmail, if you right wrongs,
and they will collect signatures-
they have all the right equipment.
There is a democratic glow
about the place, you can feel it-
civility finally sprouts
in the desert- like a rolling
Jerusalem Rose growing in
* Jordanian crown- refers to an ancient Jordanian law used in Israeli law which originally gave the King the right to take any land deemed fit for hunting if it was considered not in ‘use’.
India House, Cairo 1967
Aminah had never seen tears
on a grown man’s cheeks
as she peered into the study
her puffed lemon dress
frilling through the door gap
she knew she shouldn’t widen,
where the crumpled secretary was rocking
by mahogany, my grandfather unsure
how to lift him- the man wouldn’t drink
but needed something
kept saying ‘my orange groves,
my orange groves, they have taken
my orange groves’
this morning he was landless,
an unreturnable with daughters
queuing at the Raffa border,
whilst Indian guns and Balkan bullets
were being ordered here and now
for Egyptian trained by Indian hands,
my grandfather would do what he could
and the secretary wished he had savoured
his home trip harvest, the last taste of his land.
Photo by Silvio Arcangeli