Prefabricated barracks Nahr El Bared Camp.

Poems for Palestine

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

eats kites.

 

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.


Morning prayers

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

unremarkably intact

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

borrowed pools.

 

* 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’.


Orange groves

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

Laila Sumpton

Laila's poetry uses imagery and lyricism to tell stories about identity and human rights. She studied English literature at the University of St Andrews and Human Rights at the University of London. She is a member of the Keats House Poetry Forum, a collective of London based poets supported by Keats House in Hampstead who work on poetry projects. She co-edited 'In Protest- 150 poems for human rights', a unique anthology of global poetry collated by the Keats House Poets and the University of London's Human Rights Consortium.

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