“My Homeland is a Suitcase”: An Interview with Kazim Ali by Julia Blanchard (2012)

 Julia Blanchard: How did your experience with Interfaith Peace Builders change you, as a person and as a writer?

Kazim Ali: Well first of all, I learned so many new things traveling through the land itself, talking directly with the people affected by the conflicts. So many of our experiences in the west, as Jean Baudrillard tried to articulate in his essay, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” are at a remove—experienced through “media”—plural of “medium,” the old school kind of psychic who accessed the spirit world for you. So our experiences are literally “mediated,” facilitated by middle-men. And these middle men are not the high (high as in drugged) priestesses of ancient times, nor the dotty and benign Oda Mae Browns of the world—they are slick contenders, representatives of corporate money, bought and paid for. Most of them, I should say. So we must understand that when we “consume”—literally “eat” without thinking—mainstream and corporate American news sources.

As a writer, I first felt an allegiance to a journalistic sense of truth. As if I didn’t already know as a poet that there is a human truth that is rooted in the body and breath that supersedes any external sense. The human truth of the body is the truth of kindness and mutual benefit. Nation, language, god and culture are all very sophisticated mechanics designed by people who have power to keep power. They are, none of them, in the best interests of humans, animals or planet as an organic whole.

So by the end of my experiences, having met Israelis of various political agendas, Palestinians of equally varied opinions, and learned from and encountered many foreign nationals as well, including my fellow IFPB delegates, I came to rely in order to understand the situation, the land and its peoples not so much on my skills as a journalist but rather on my skills and allegiances as a poet.

JB: You speak a lot about the walls between Israel and Palestine. How do you think the people of that area can break down those walls, literally and metaphorically?

KA: They have already—many kind, peace-loving, sane and generous Israeli and Palestinian people themselves—begun to break these walls down metaphorically. The walls will come down eventually; they must. But will they come down in war or peace? It is a good question. The people there—many of them—only want peace between and among them. They may disagree about how to get there, but they want it. So we have to be able to offer what support we can to those people, especially as thinkers and writers. When I was in Ramallah, I taught classes at a wonderful yoga studio there called Farashe. I hope to go again and teach once more. I also learned about the Palestine Writing Workshops, designed to give training and support networks to people in the area to write about their experiences.

As for the people in the region who do not wish peace nor do they still believe it is possible. They have, if you give them the benefit of the doubt, succumbed to their despair that the current situation will ever change. But there are people and nations around the world whose best interest it is that they continue to believe that peaceful solutions are pointless. Those nations are willing to pay good money to keep the conflict alive. So we as peace-makers must act in good conscience to prevent money that pays for death and occupation from reaching the people who will use it for those purposes. In my case, it means educating my friends and fellow citizens and petitioning my government to play a real role in building peace in the region.

JB: You mention that your friend Sophie De Witt started the Palestine Writing Workshop to inspire young Palestinian writers. From what you’ve seen, do these kind of programs serve more as identity-building or peace-promoting? Can they do both?

KA: You have to remember that for a long time in Israel it was frowned upon to use the word Palestine. That “identity-building” is important in terms of giving people a sense of their own worth and value. One of the early slogans of the Israeli independence movement (I heard it lots when I was over there) was “A Land without a People for a People without a Land.” While it may be true that there had never been an independent country called “Palestine” there had *always* been a people who called themselves “Palestinians.” (Well, to be precise they called themselves “Filisteens,” and still do—there is no hard “P” sound in Arabic. How’s that for linguistic colonialism?)

Sophie and her all-volunteer staff have done a lot with not very much. They need books for their library and they could use support in other ways too. Their website is www.palestineworkshop.org. Please visit and learn more about what they are doing there.

JB: How would you define a just peace? Do you believe that it is possible to build a just peace in Israel and Palestine?

KA: I like that you said “just” peace—because you have to address issues of justice and reconciliation in order to have real lasting peace. There’s a long way to go, of course, but the first step I think is allowing the Palestinians a chance to meet as a unified people in order to have some of the real discussions and debates in order to forge solutions for the future. The people of Gaza have been under blockade since 2006; many Palestinian people living abroad were refugees from the conflict with no right to return home to the Palestinian territories or the state of Israel, and both the Palestinians who live inside the state of Israel and those who live in the West Bank territory do not have permission to cross over the Green Line boundary.

So how do you start developing a polity sophisticated enough to be able to negotiate an end to this military occupation and sovereignty for the people who live on that land? It seems obvious to me—painful and disturbing, but obvious—that the elements advocating violent resistance seem to be the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.

JB: Is there ever an instance of a people not ready for peacebuilding? Can peace wait, or should peace always be pushed forward?

KA: Why should peace “wait?” In whose interest is it for peace to wait? In whose political interest and more to the point, in this case, in whose *business* interest?

JB: In your essay “Poetry and Community,” you write about Mahmoud Darwish, who resigned from the Palestinian National Council because “he felt his position on the council as an artist was a symbolic one, that once the actual political work began, he ought not be a part of it.” What is your opinion on this? Should the artist be a symbol or an activist? What do you see yourself as?

KA: Well, first of all, I should say that I think I mischaracterized his reasons for resigning from the PNC a little. Darwish was opposed to the Oslo Accords. He was among those who felt that the symbolic claim (I think everyone agreed, even then, that the claim was largely symbolic) to all of the conquered land should not be abrogated. By further agreeing to the zoning of the West Bank into areas under full Palestinian control, under joint administration and under full Israeli military control, Darwish felt that the Palestinian leadership was relinquishing their greatest political capital which was the moral position. His very famous line of poetry went “My homeland is not a suitcase,” meaning that although he had consigned himself to a condition of exile and lost his Israeli citizenship papers, he still held in his heart the idea of independent Palestine. When the Accords were agreed to, Darwish felt that the ideal had been dropped in favor of expediency and a conditional expediency at that. He amended his line glumly, including in a new poem “My homeland is a suitcase.”

At any rate, Darwish’s concerns bore themselves out and now, nearly twenty years later, the promises of Oslo—including those to build no new settlements—seem tragically laughable.

JB: You say during your trip to Israel and Palestine that “The characters are different, the events take place in different times, but one can’t help but slowly realize that the story is the same.” How can these stories be used to connect people, not separate them? What is the power of storytelling in peacebuilding?

KA: I think this is true—a dispossessed people ghettoized, under military occupation, etc.—only a surface level. The cases of the Israelis when they arrived from Europe and around the world in Palestine over the course of many waves of immigration and the cases of the Palestinians as they live now, inside Israel, in the West Bank, in Gaza, in refugee camps in Lebanon and other places, and in diaspora around the world are very, very different. These people were subject to different historical pressures, had different levels of international support, different levels of education and military equipment. They aren’t really the same situations at all.

Storytelling has had a great power in identity-building and nation-building, and the power of constructing a national or religious narrative should not be underestimated. We do have to begin exploring the common human experiences, but we can’t sacrifice a hard assessment of history in order to get there. Darwish said the Oslo Accords amounted to voluntary amnesia. Israeli poet Rivka Miriam said something similar when she talked about the municipalities, like Bethlehem, that were surrendered to the Palestinian Authority after Oslo. Amoz Oz said that what people have to realize is that Israelis and Palestinians feels an equal sense of passionate identification or ownership over this land and these places. So an effort toward peace-building will have to take this into consideration. David Ben Gurion said something very powerful: (I’m paraphrasing here) “Of a Jewish state, a democratic state or Greater Israel, we will be able to have only two of the three.”

JB: This many not be entirely related to peacebuilding, but my favorite line from your poetry is “and if I ever dared to pray for something real / would it be for my thirst to be quenched for for unquenchable thirst–” This line resounded so deeply with me, and I think it is a central question facing our world. Do you have any comments about it?

KA: That is a good question.


Reflection: Building, Breaking, and Sharing: The Power of Words in the Israel/Palestine Conflict

Unless a situation is happening directly to us, we as humans depend on words to understand the world around us. Whether these words take the form of a phone call from a friend, a blog, or a newspaper article, we depend on words and stories to construct our vision of different situations. The importance—and danger—of words can be vividly seen through examination of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and is a deep fault line running through the ideas of Kazim Ali, a poet, prose writer, and professor at Oberlin College. After reading a series of his essays and blog entries about a trip he took to Israel and Palestine with the group Interfaith Peace Builders, I interviewed Ali over email about his experiences and thoughts today. He reflects on the power of naming, a theme also shown in different works of Israeli and Palestinian literature. He asserts that words can help create identity, and that this identity is needed in order for a just peace to occur. He demonstrates the power of storytelling, both in the stories that have impacted him and the way that his stories have affected me. These words and stories that Ali describes are inextricably linked to the conflict in Israel and Palestine: they can amplify the conflict, they can begin to heal the conflict, and they can illustrate the reality of the conflict.

The importance of naming is the most vivid connection between Ali’s reflections and the literature we have read in class. In a blog he wrote while in Israel and Palestine, he described his use of place names as he crossed and re-crossed the Green Line and the Separation Barrier: “I found myself changing not only my affect but my actual language as well – the “West Bank” became “the Occupied Palestinian Territories” or “Palestine,” while some of the Jewish settlers I met with used the phrase “Judea and Samaria,” linguistically staking their claim on the place” (Ali, “Ramadan in Ramallah”). Ali’s conscious choice of names echoes, though without the malicious undertones, the airport interrogation scene in Wild Thorns. In this novel by Sahar Khalifeh, the Palestinian character Usama struggles linguistically with a Polish solider at the airport, both characters determined to assert their own way of naming the same place. The dialogue reads, beginning with Usama:

“…my mother moved to Nablus.”

“Why did your mother move to Shekem?”

“She likes Nablus.”

“Why does she like Shekem?”

“She’s got lots of relatives in Nablus.”

“And why have you left the oil countries to return to Shekem?”

“I’m returning to Nablus because my father died.” (Khalifeh 13)

As this dialogue reveals, the naming of a particular place holds power—power over the place, power over the way the world views the place, power over the people who live there.

Conscious of this sensitive issue, Sandy Tolan, author of The Lemon Tree, creates an entire preface to his book about how he decided to address spelling and punctuation. He says, “In the Middle East, the use of a single letter—say, an ‘e’ instead of an ‘a’—can be a political statement, or at the very least a declaration of identity,” illustrated by an example of various spellings of one place name (Tolan xi). He then describes how, in regard to the different Israeli and Palestinian perspectives he presents, he decided to “use the pronunciation favored by the person through whose eyes the reader is seeing at a particular moment” (Tolan xi). This careful analysis and choice of names and words once again reveals the power that language has over a conflict. Kazim Ali brings the topic up again in our interview: referring to the Palestinians, he says, “Well, to be precise, they called themselves “Filisteens,” and still do—there is no hard “P” sound in Arabic. How’s that for linguistic colonialism?” Even as far (physically) away from the conflict as America is, the impact of language and naming is evident.

Although Ali believes that words and language can help heal the conflict, he also has witnessed ways that it exacerbates the conflict instead. He describes one particular instance in a blog entry; in the city of Hebron is a “sidewalk with a green stripe down it to clarify on which side the Arabs must stay.” (Ali, “A Walking Guide to the Heart of a City”). When two boys run into each other, one says in English, “I was born in this city. You can’t tell me what to do,” and the other, a soldier, responds by saying in Hebrew, “Get out of here or I will beat you and then violate you and then who would you tell about it?” (Ali, “Walking Guide”). Besides the pure depravity of this encounter, the impact of words and language are evident. The boys begin by speaking to each other in English, a “neutral” language in the sense that it is not a native language of either side. When the soldier threatens and insults the other boy, however, he switches into Hebrew, the language of power for this area. By speaking in Hebrew, he is asserting his cultural power over the other boy. Words have power; used in this way, they serve to aggravate the conflict.

Language does not need to further the conflict, however; used with imagination, with “empathy, compassion, and love for one another,” Ali believes that words can help the cause of peace (Ali, “Practicing Yoga on the Mountain of God”). In regards to peace, Ali believes that it must incorporate justice, “because you have to address issues of justice and reconciliation in order to have real lasting peace.” He believes that the first step to achieving this peace is “allowing the Palestinians a chance to meet as a unified people in order to have some of the real discussions and debates in order to forge solutions for the future.” These discussions, the stories exchanged between a separated people, are what can help unify the Palestinians and help advocate for a just peace. This peace cannot exist, Ali says, until the people themselves create it: “a city cannot be ‘unified’ by armies or states, only by the people who live inside it” (Ali, “Walking Guide”).

By talking to Kazim Ali, and by reading his essays and blog entries, I feel that I have a small window into the experiences of people living in Israel and Palestine. A further testimony to the power of words, so many stories that he recounted have burned themselves into my memories. The two boys arguing on the sidewalk with the green line. The old blind Palestinian woman who has to knock on her bolted door for permission from Israeli soldiers every time she wants to leave her house (Ali, “Walking Guide”). The “shouting hill” where people on the Israeli side of the border call out their news to loved ones on the Sryrian side of the border (Ali, “Walking Guide”). These stories and words have brought the conflict closer, have made it more vivid and real for me.

Another take on words and storytelling has continued to make me think and stretch my understanding of the conflict: the Palestine Writing Workshop founded by Ali’s friend Sophie DeWitt. The PWW’s website presents their mission as, “Supporting a community of emerging writers in Palestine to give voice to our stories, to write our narratives, and claim our rights through creative writing and storytelling.” I asked Ali about this program, wondering if it served more as identity-building or peace-promoting, and if it could do both. He gently reminded me that identity-building is necessary for the peace process, in order to give people “a sense of their own worth and value.” As someone who has not struggled with a governmental and cultural oppression to this extent, it is easy for me to forget that a sense of identity is not always easily come by. I am inspired by the work of the PWW, and it has given me another perspective to understand the power of creative writing and storytelling. Ali said in our interview, “Storytelling has had a great power in identity-building and nation-building, and the power of constructing a national or religious narrative should not be underestimated.” Used in this way, words can serve many functions: they can illustrate reality for an outsider, they can build identity and community, they can lead to clearer understanding and peace.

When Kazim Ali first arrived in Israel and Palestine, he “first felt an allegiance to a journalistic sense of truth,” but began to realize what he already knew as a poet, “that there is a human truth that is rooted in the body and breath that supersedes any external sense.” Accustomed to learning about situations through the news and the media, it can be difficult for people to open their minds to the conflicting ideas offered to them by real people and real truths. This again illustrates the power and danger of words; they can lead toward or away from reality. Ali recognizes the power that Israeli and Palestinian writers have by telling their stories, and he also recognizes the power he has by telling his own stories of the conflict. Ali makes it clear that words can be used for good or for harm, but he reminds us to always look deeper, as he himself began to rely “not so much on [his] skills as a journalist but rather on [his] skills and allegiances as a poet.” We cannot simply read the stories; we must look to the human experiences beneath them.

Works Cited

 Ali, Kazim. E-mail Interview. 24 November 2012.

Ali, Kazim. “Practicing Yoga on the Mountain of God.” The Huffington Post, 10 Aug. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Ali, Kazim. “Ramadan in Ramallah.” The Huffington Post, 02 Aug. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Ali, Kazim. “A Walking Guide to the Heart of a City.” The Huffington Post, 17 Aug. 2011. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.

Khalifeh, Sahar. Wild Thorns. Northampton: Interlink Publishing Group, Inc., 2009. Print.

Tolan, Sandy. The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. New York City: Bloomsbury USA, 2007. Print.