Interview with Deema Shehabi by Liz Castellano

For the required final project in “Israeli/Palestinian Literature,” I interviewed Palestinian-American poet Deema K. Shehabi. Shehabi was born in Kuwait in 1970.  Her father is from Jerusalem and her mother is from Gaza. She came to the United States in 1998 to study at Tuffts University and currently resides in California. This interview was conducted via email. After the interview is my personal response, a reflection of my experience as student studying the conflict and as a second hand witness to Deema Shehabi’s story as a Palestinian-American woman. 

1.  I have read that you are born in Kuwait. What was the town that you lived in like? What was your childhood like?  Your early education? 

My childhood was wonderful in the sense that I was a deeply loved and cherished daughter. Not only in a physical, enclosed/protective sense, but also in the boundless arena of my imagination.


My childhood years in Kuwait, where there was a large population of Palestinians, gave me such an embedded sense of community. I would walk down to the corner store and buy gum and notebooks from the owner who was Palestinian. The bus drivers, bankers, accountants, engineers, university professors, and teachers were Palestinian. We went to dinner parties, gatherings, and school events where Palestine was celebrated and upheld. As such, Palestine lived (not only as a geographical delineation of the mind) but through the palpable stories—the telling particulars—of people.

At the time, Kuwait was being quickly transformed, and it was entering its own eddy of identifiable consciousness. The landscape was imbued with both the old (Kuwaiti fisherman diving for pearls from their dhows at dawn) and the new (air-conditioned malls, large cars, and gleaming supermarkets).  At age 3, I started preschool at the American School of Kuwait; it was structured like a private American school but with the addition of classes in both Arabic and religion. The school was my second community, and it contained a thorougly diverse student body. My exposure to the world beyond my identity began there.

My childhood was spent cultivating strong relationships with my cousins and other family friends, absorbing the sea, and the desert—and their rhythms—and developing a sense of who I am and my place in this world.

2.  Can you tell me about your family while you were growing up?  Do you have siblings?  Did you have household chores or a job?  Did your parents work and what kind of education did they have?

My parents were both highly educated people, and they placed a huge emphasis on education for both my brother and I. My father had a Masters in Business Administration, and my mother had a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy. My father, who was a partner in an accounting/consulting firm, was fond of telling us: pick any career you wish but be very good at it. My mother was a charming, magical, and most gifted storyteller; she was our lifelong teacher.

When I was a child, I was very often moved by mother’s recollections of her girlhood in Gaza. And on the occasions when we would return to Palestine in the summer months, she would come alive in a different way than I had previously observed; a part of her would expand tremendously within the context of her home, her history, and her family.

And I think many Palestinians of my parents’ generation share this quality. Their time in Palestine, although sometimes painful, was regarded with tenderness and love. I would understand my mother much better when we went back (as though a piece of her was always missing and then found again). It was this experience that made me examine the thread of motherhood as homeland, a theme which is woven throughout many of my poems.

3.  I understand you came to the US to study at Tufts University in 1988.  How did you decide to leave your home then and come here to study? Did you speak English when you came here? Did you feel welcomed as a “stranger” in a strange land? Did you know anybody before you came?

It was always expected that I would come to the US to pursue higher education. My plan was to eventually return to the Arab world, but that never materialized. The question of whether I felt welcomed is a deep question and not easily answered. There were times when I felt welcomed but there were other times when I was vigorously confronting people’s prejudices and felt rather disoriented. In the end, I got tired of confronting people’s prejudices head on, all the time. It came to a point where I just couldn’t thrive in estrangement even though that very estrangement was a necessary prerequisite for a creative impetus.

There were instances, for example, when I would argue with my political science professor about upholding the concept of realpolitik, where only pragmatic power considerations reigned supreme. And I questioned what I was learning and asked myself: who will be at the receiving end of that Machiavellan concept? I still wholeheartedly reject that view for remaking a just society.

It was only when I turned to writing that I became comfortable because it anchored me in my exile. It provided me with respite from that gnawing feeling of loss. Or perhaps, it was in writing that I felt more displaced from norms of experience, so it was a more honest (at least in the process of my mind) than artificial normalization.

4.  In what groups or situations are you most comfortable in sharing your Palestinian identity? And most uncomfortable?

Even though I always insist on sharing my identity, there have been occasional discomforts, particularly with audiences who only view the Palestine question through an Israel-centered prism. The dehumanization of the Palestinian has been the core obstacle for a true understanding of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination. As the late scholar Edward Said says, “There is hardly an instance when the connection between freedom and interpretation is as urgent, literally concrete, as it is for the Palestinian people, a large part whose existence has been interpreted away in the West in order to deny us the same freedom and interpretation granted Israeli Jews.”

Calling it a conflict is incorrect, in my view, because conflict denotes a struggle between two equal parties. There are huge power differential between the two peoples. For true peace, justice, and healing to be achieved (and not just the old deflated ball of a peace process that gets tossed around for the sake of placation, photo opportunity, and convenience), there must be an acknowledgement of what actually happened.

I’m most delighted speaking about Palestine with audiences who read and understand history and who are able to examine the connections between minorities and underrepresented peoples fighting for their rights. Recently, I read at an event sponsored by June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, and I felt like I was amongst family.

5.  What do you think about when you think about the conflict?

Even though I have much faith in humankind, I am constantly beset with worries regarding the survival of our people.  But the tragedy of the Palestinian experience also provides a vastness and universalism of thought that rises and slays the narrowness of racism, nationalism, and patriotism; it does this by constantly affirming human values. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes in “The State of Siege”, as translated by Fady Joudah:


I don’t love you, I don’t hate you
The detainee told the interrogator: My heart is filled
With what doesn’t concern you. My heart overflows with sage scent,
My heart is innocent, illuminated, full,
And there is no time in the heart for cross-examination. Yes,
I don’t love you. Who are you that I should love you?
Are you some of my I, and a meeting over tea,
And a nay’s hoarseness, and a song that I should love you?
But I hate detainment and I don’t hate you.

That’s why individual narratives and communal discourses are of utmost importance in providing a holistic view of the picture as opposed to the stale language of the evening news.

6.  What are your thoughts about the need for healing?  Nations?  Persons?  Yourself? 

It is my hope that we continue, as people, to hunger for closeness and understanding. Let’s go beyond the horribly disfiguring headline news and enter an intimate and humane conversation. That would be the epitome of healing. 

7. People refer to “home” differently- a place in their heart, a geographical location or where their loved ones reside.  Where is “home” for you?  

Home is all the places and landscapes and people I’ve grown to love. It is in the orchards of Gaza, the sunset mountains of France, and the gently rolling hills of this valley in California where I now reside. Home is where I bury my dead, and where I raise my children. Home is where I am able to reclaim my cultural prowess (of which I am proud).

8.  What inspires the words of your poems?  For whom do you write? 

For me, writing poetry is about the sanctification of parting, as embodied by nature, by individual faces, and in the multiplicity of identity. Most of my poetry searches for the interconnectedness between the exiled spaces of my youth and adulthood. I write poetry to immortalize the dead, to give length and breadth to the living, and to nurture the spirit.

Also, the process of writing poetry willingly colludes with self-discovery. This experimentation with words and images carries with it an unrelenting potential for illuminating our inwardness and unvoiced longings.  Ultimately, it is the desire for though metamorphosis that compels me to write.

Poetry—distilled from diverse human experience—cannot really be reasoned with, particularly with one dominant mode of thinking. This is not to say that it should be unintelligible.  Rather it must be somewhat illogical while engaging the visceral; it should displace the reader from norms of experience and offer a slant of experience that has been previously unexplored. Sometimes, it is about finding the perfect image combined with an intense presence of what is not being said.

9. What do you think is preventing peace?  What is your vision of peace?  What will it take to make this a reality? 

Simply put, the lack of compassion and the desire for dominance through resources, land, and culture (aka as colonialism, neo-colonialism) is what’s preventing peace. It’s in the structure which allows people to make money by waging war. I have a preliminary vision of peace—war, in all its forms, should be made obsolete. Peace also begins with an understanding that “we are more than a result of our material appetites,” to quote the morally-driven journalist Bill Moyers.

Reflection by Liz Castellano


“The only thing I would say is that as a Palestinian-Muslim woman living in the nauseating grip of anti-Muslim, anti-Arab hysteria, I’d like to pose a question as to how a student of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—can really be immune to the complex prejudices of the environment one lives in—as they exist on a social, cultural, political, and economic level? The problematics of representation are huge, and I wish you much luck in your writing.”

The person who posed this question to me was Deema Shehabi, a Palestinian-American poet, and she stopped me short when I read this.  First of all, she wished me luck in my writing.  Shehabi’s acknowledgement of the difficult task I had ahead of me was very daunting.  She also asked me how it could be possible for a student like myself to be immune to the prejudices throughout our society.  This puzzled me at first, and in response to her question, no, I am not “immune” to the prejudices.  But I feel sick thinking about how easily people become infected.  In order for me to stay about the disease, I have to do more than kick back and watch TV in order to rise above them.  Thus, I have taken the time to read, think, and keep an open mind about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and now I ask myself, how can I be prejudice of people whom I realize I share so much with?

“Let’s go beyond the horribly disfiguring headline news and enter an intimate and humane conversation.  That would be the epitome of healing,” says Shehabi.  The power of literature and personal narratives are that they reveal the heartaches and human struggle because of the conflict and this is more than just the bombs and firearms the media portrays. Literature’s exposure to the human side of the conflict permits me to recognize the common humanity I share with those who suffer because of it.  The personal relationships I have created with speakers in poems and characters in stories make it hard for me to be prejudiced of “them”.  When called to contemplate this situation across the sea, I realize how human the emotions are and all a sudden it hits close to home. Throughout this paper, I reflect on the interview I conducted with Deema Shehabi.  I articulate differences and similarities between this course’s selected readings and Shehabi’s words. I also identify many of these themes as alive within my heart.  These commonalities include: the impact of childhood, family, land and home on a person; also the effects of words, imaginations and literature on one’s experience of the conflict, and, the human need for peace.

The story of Shehabi’s childhood in Kuwait surprised me. She recalls it with a happy heart as filled with love, community, education and freedom. All her life she was expected to attend college in the U.S., and she did! I am unfamiliar with this depiction because in class we most thoroughly analyzed stories that took place within the occupied territories. However, Shehabi’s childhood conceptualized for me that there was land (Kuwait) on which Palestinians could live independently and proud about their culture. Men in the Sun by Ghassan Kanafani narrates the desperate struggle of three men to get to Kuwait. The hopes the men have for a better future in Kuwait portray the country as a special destination land where they can be educated, free and work.  These hopes seem to line up with Shehabi’s description of her childhood, as Kuwait was indeed a place she enjoyed the benefits of freedom. As she conveys in her poem, “Growing,” “It so happens I am happy to be a daughter/ and it happens that I dance into dinner parties/and Arabic concerts,/dressed-up, polished like a pearl/” Like Shehabi’s childhood in Kuwait, I too had a great childhood in Garden City, New York. I was always surrounded by family and friends and my parents made many sacrifices to provide me with what I needed. Family is such a big part of development, and I can relate to Shehabi’s love for hers. Although, I cannot imagine having my family torn apart because a conflict; I know so many Palestinians and Israelis know what this feels like.

As Shehabi witnessed changes in herself and in Kuwait while growing up, she also witnessed changes in her mother when the family would visit Palestine. “She would come alive in a different way than I previously observed; a part of her would expand tremendously within the context of her home, her history and her family.”  This wholeness Deema’s mother felt while in Palestine relates to the common theme of connection and unity with the land itself.  “I would understand my mother much better when we went back (as though a piece of her was always missing and then found again),” said Shehabi. Her mother’s heart and being were renewed when she walked across the grounds of Palestine. Shehabi explains how she herself would try to figure out who she was in this world by “…absorbing the sea, and the desert-and their rhythms”. She further conveys her own sense of connection with the land in her poem “Breath,” “You come to me/ from rows and rows of orange trees/ rows and rows of olive trees/ rows and rows of lemon trees”. This emphasis of union with the land is also seen in Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun. “Abu Qais rested on the damp ground, and the earth began to throb under him with tired heartbeats, which trembled through the grains of sand and penetrated the cells of this body.” Abu Quai and the earth share the same heart beat.

Similar to Abu Qais, Shehabi and her mother are reminded of their home, history and family through the land, I too am reminded of my home in the land.  Home for me is where I am in the presence of God, and I see Him so vividly in the blue sky and green grass.  I too feel whole and rejuvenated when I am in nature because it where I feel most connected to my faith and trust in God.  Considering how precious this “home” is to me, I would be devastated if something shattered my communion with God in nature like Palestinians’ union with their homeland has been.

When I asked Shehabi where home was for her, she listed many different lands, including, “…the orchards of Gaza, the sunset mountains of France, and the gently rolling hills of this valley in California where I now reside.”  For Shehabi, home is where she can reclaim her “cultural prowess”.  Home also includes the places where her loved ones live and are buried and where she raises her children. I was surprised she did not mention the land of Kuwait.  As for myself, I call many places home, from the Long Island beaches to the New York City streets.  Because she and I are both social beings (humans), I feel for her special appreciation for the land and the people who create a sense of home for her. “Home is where the heart is” and heart is in people and in land.  I can only imagine the pain I would feel if the place I called home was destroyed by bombings and bulldozers.

Many connections between Shehabi’s ideas of the purpose of her poetry can be related to David Grossman’s reason for writing.  Shehabi says in reference to her poetry, “This experimentation with words and images carries with it an unrelenting potential for illuminating our inwardness and unvoiced longings.”  “It should displace the reader from norms of experience and offer a slant of experience that has been previously unexplored.”  To quote Runo Isaken’s interview with Grossman, “In morality’s catastrophe zones,” “For Grossman, literature is about seeing the other side. …to see the world from many different angles at the same time.” These insights lead me to say Grossman and Shehabi write to expose the audience to a different perspective.  Shehabi does so by taking people beyond the norms and introducing readers to something unexplored.  Likewise, Grossman creates a four person narrative in Smile of the Lamb to articulate the emotions, thoughts and struggles of different characters in order to provide a bigger picture of the situation.  More than one of these characters would have otherwise been “unexplored” if Grossman did not include four “out of the norm” stories within one book binding.  I am grateful for both their efforts because they create a more diverse picture of the conflict, hopefully reducing prejudice tendencies.  Distance from the norm challenges our thinking, let us think about peace!

Another theme we discussed in class is the power of words and the human imagination.  Shehabi refers to her mother as her lifelong teacher and a “charming, magical, and most gifted storyteller.”  Through stories, Shehabi witnessed her mother’s connection to Palestine.  Thus, she as a child entered a world where she connected to the history of the land through her imagination that was stimulated by her mom’s touching childhood memories in Gaza.  In her poem, “Of Harvest and Flight,” Shehabi perhaps assimilates the exile of her mother and their people, “But tonight, in Gaza beneath the stars,/ I turn towards my mother/ and ask her how a daughter/can possibly grow beyond/her mother’s flight.”  She identified her challenge to get beyond her peoples exile.  We have seen many parent-child relationships in which the parent creates alternate world for the child to live in Smile of the Lamb. The stories a child is told help shape them, and we see this happen for good and bad.  It seems that Shehabi’s mother’s stories had a positive influence on her. She was brought closer to her mother and to the land before her time.

Today, the land of our time is begging for peace.  Shehabi’s vision for peace is the most important message I want to convey in this report.  It is important to promote peace to keep the hope for it alive. We need to constantly think, talk and act for peace so we do not get lost in the darkness.  “For true peace, justice and healing to be achieved…there must be an acknowledgement of what actually happened” says Shehabi.  She notes feeling uncomfortable around “…audiences who only view the Palestine question through an Israel-centered prism.”  This idea connects with Shibley Telhami’s concept of the “prism of pain”. Looking through a prism of pain prevents peace because whatever happens, positive or negative, is perceived towards a preset historical lens.  Shehabi and Telhami both articulate the need for a clear lens and an open mind.  This notion is throughout the poem, “Jerusalem,” by Naomi Shihab Nye. The speaker focuses on the future and moving past the hurt rather than staying behind and calculating who suffered more.  This courageous mindset is easier said than done, but is crucial for peace.

Shehabi also claims, “…the lack of compassion and the desire for dominance through resources, land and culture…is what’s preventing peace.”  I agree with this insight. I think the fight to be on top deepens the rift between people and leads to greed, jealously and disharmony- three things that take us further away from peace.   Shehabi also explains how her vision of peace is one in which all forms of war are made obsolete.  I share Shehabi’s hope for peace and need to think about others.  For me, peace will come by living out my Catholic faith. If I truly am able to witness the face of Christ in others, I will not be able to harm Him.  I think peace needs to start within yourself first.

When I enrolled in this course, I did not know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  However, I have begun to obtain a more tangible understanding of it by reading personal narratives and conducting this interview.  They helped me relate to the people involved, which has brought me closer to the tremendous “concept” of the conflict.  With my new understanding , I am realize that simply calling it “the conflict” minimizes the harm that has been done to the human sprits of both people.  (Shehabi also considers calling it a “conflict” is “incorrect” because it “denotes a struggle between two equal parties.”)

This mentioned harm has fueled prejudices throughout our society.  Edward Said’s idea of orientalism is present throughout the media and I am sure a shared opinion of millions.  Furthermore, many hold similar prejudices against Arabs, like the woman in Room on the Room by Savyon Liebrecht.  She initially thinks less of them and it takes her a while to identify them as individuals.  “It is imperative to understand each other and do away with stereotypes…” says Amos Oz.  This course has given me a glimpse of the human spirit suffering from the conflict; I feel for the spirit because I have a heart and can imagine the pain.  Today, I am doing my best to keep distant from prejudices with an open mind, particularly by praying to God for the ability to identify Him in all whom I meet.  To revisit Shehabi’s concern, I am still not immune to prejudice but my exposure to her story and the story of her people has me feeling healthy; I see myself in “them”.  My parents gave me the middle name “Hope”, but I realize it is more than just a name, it is a virtue.  I have hope we will one day no longer be “us” and them”.