Palestinian Poet Hind Shoufani: “I’m Tired of Being Bombarded by Pain”
In September Hind Shoufani came to Pittsburgh to read at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh’s annual Jazz/Poetry concert, where she shared the stage with international poets Alexandra Petrova, Tommi Parkko, Khet Mar, Israel Centeno, and Sonia Sanchez. Shoufani calls Dubai her home at the moment, though she has lived in Beirut, New York, Amman, Damascus, and currently Iowa, where she is a resident of the University of Iowa’s International Writing program.
The author of two books of verse, Shoufani’s poetry has been described by the Daily Star as “ranting, raving, stomping, flailing, [with] wild-curls-everywhere and two-middle-fingers-to-the-world.” She is known for her hard-edged takes on everything from failed lovers to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the emotional bombardment of Arab media.
The gregarious Shoufani, who identifies herself foremost as a filmmaker, is also the founder of the Poeticians, a loose group of international poets in Beirut, Amman, and Dubai who congregate for monthly open mics without boundaries, membership, or censorship.
In this interview, conducted with poet and essayist Sheryl St. Germain—who also directs Chatham University’s Creative Writing MFA program—Shoufani talks about her parents’ roles as Palestinian activists in the 70s and 80s, her new film on the same subject, and the complications (and benefits) of being a poet who doesn’t call herself one.
So you were born in Lebanon as a refugee.
Yeah, I don’t even know if refugee is really the right word, because my father had gone to Princeton, and my mother was an American citizen, so I was a privileged refugee. I wasn’t in a camp or anything. But in terms of being state-less, not having paperwork to belong to a country, and not having a citizenship, yes. I was born into a family where my father doesn’t have a passport. He is an exile. So in that sense, a refugee. My parents were both Palestinian activists – my mother on a more social scale with women in the camps and small businesses. My father is a PLO leader, a pretty hardcore politician. He’s an academic writer – he’s written over 25 books.
The introduction to your latest book of poetry, Inkstains on the Edge of Light suggests that your father is “disheartened and shattered.”
Well, they failed to liberate Palestine. He left his entire life behind in America – he was married to an American woman and was teaching at Maryland; he was tenured. And in the early 70s he decided that all of this academia and this relaxed, comfortable life wasn’t going to work for him. And so he left everything behind and lived in an extremely volatile, difficult place with people in camps, in war zones, and under bombs. He didn’t see his family in Palestine for 35 years, he lost his brothers, he didn’t see his parents ever again – his parents died, he never saw them – he lost his first wife. He thought he could create a leftist, democratic, Pan-Arab, nationalistic, secular movement that could unite the Arabs in resistance to Israel in a political way – not with bombs and abductions and murder—and they failed. They failed miserably. And so he’s 80 years old now and has been disheartened for 20 years.
Now, all of this is true until the beginning of this year when all of these little revolutions sprung up all over the Arab world. I think for the first time in 40 years my father is seeing the germination of a seed, the blossoming of something that they had planted 30 years ago, which is like, “You must rise up against the oppression of your own leaders.” And that’s what people are doing, that’s the first step in a free Arab world, which we have never seen. And so this was written before the revolutions, when he was a disheartened man, even though he is a hardworking man who didn’t give up. Right now he’s actually very happy.
Did his life influence you? It seems as if you were inspired by him in some ways.
I’m very inspired by my parents. I think both my parents are the source of everything I want to say. They gave up a lot for their Palestinian cause. They were far braver than I. They lived in much more interesting times. My mother died very young –
How old were you when she died?
I was 19 and she was about 42, 43 maybe. So that was a tragic loss. She was a very special person. Far more socially, culturally and familiarly special than my father in many ways. But I am inspired by them, yes. I like what they stood for. They were part of a Palestinian movement that was really quite honorable amidst all of the beggars, thieves, liars, opportunists, puppets, and traitors that were around in the region. They were part of a beautiful thing that died.
They went through a lot of hardship like nothing I’ve ever gone through. So I do write about them because I feel like someone needs to honor the legacy. And you know, they’re all passing away, the men in the 70s and the 80s who were leaders of political movements. Someone has to remind the youth these days that at some point there was hope in the Middle East, and I’m making a documentary about that. As a filmmaker this is my big project this year – I’m making a feature length documentary, an art house film, about the PLO.
Could you talk about your film projects and what drew you to film?
I don’t quite know what drew me to film. In the beginning I thought I was in love with theater, and then the second year when I was in the [Lebanese American] University, I fell in love with film. I was 18 years old, I had no idea what I was going to do. But I had this notion in the back of my head that I wanted to go to New York City and study film – for absolutely no reason. It was just, “that’s the cool thing to do.” And eventually I wound up doing that. The world has definitely aligned itself in very strange ways to get me a Fulbright scholarship and then to go to NYU. Every other university didn’t take me, but NYU took me, and the Fulbright people had to send me to New York. It was just somehow orchestrated by the universe, for lack of a more sophisticated way of saying it.
There’s a poem in Inkstains on the Edge of Light called “Civil Fatigues.” In that poem you say of Palestine that you’re tired of it, and later that you’re tired of loving it, hating it, loving it. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about that ambiguity of how you feel about Palestine.
I’ve never had Palestine. I was not born there. I was not raised there. Much of its geography, topography, languages, and histories are not known to me. I’m definitely more of a Beirut girl, a Damascus girl, an Amman girl, currently a Dubai girl, previously a New York girl, but I’ve never been a Palestinian girl living in Palestine. So it’s this mythical, ephemeral mirage somewhere out there. But it has influenced my life to a huge extent because it affected my mother, my father, my grandparents, and therefore, by default, me.
This poem “Civil Fatigues” is more of a reaction to news. When you’re in the Arab world you’re bombarded by information that is usually very violent all the time. You cannot escape the news. If you were to watch any Arab channel continuously or listen to Arab radio or whatever, you would just hear of a lot of death every day. And it is a constant bombardment on your senses – particularly if you’re a sensitive person. It’s a lot of negative information, and it just doesn’t get better. There are no breaks. There are no optimistic hopes of light – pockets of hope they would say.
I just got tired of it. Everywhere you go you hear more refugee stories, more stories of kids dying in Gaza because they lost electricity, or they don’t have any ventilators, or they couldn’t get access to a hospital because they couldn’t get a permit and the kid died of cancer. Or an old man couldn’t get to dialysis on time. Or they bombed this building or that building, or this woman was separated from her family. And it’s just endless! Endless small details of people’s lives that are really heartbreaking. And it’s quite the norm.
This would be completely implausible for an American to understand that just 2 hours down the street from them is a shantytown or a refugee camp, and 20 people just died in half an hour because of a bomb. I don’t think it makes sense to a Western audience. But this is our reality. And it’s filtered through the news. Also, the Arabs have a way of showing you, very intensely, dead bodies, massacres, severed limbs, bloodstains on the floor, crumbled buildings, children starving, and things like that. That’s where the poem comes from.
It’s a difficult choice to decide whether you want to be involved in the history your parents have created for you as activists or if you want to be away from the pain of it. And I think that is what the poem is trying to say: I am tired of being bombarded by pain, and other people’s pain, which creates a certain amounts of guilt because I’ve been privileged in many ways as a Palestinian.
You write in English. Why the choice to write in English?
I get asked this question all the time and I don’t actually know why I write in English. It’s the language I dream in, which is what most people would tell you. I was raised in a home where my mother was an English Lit. major so we had hundreds of books. I grew up reading a lot because there wasn’t much else to do in Damascus at the time in the 80s and 90s. I grew up reading a lot of English literature and very little Arabic literature, unfortunately. I developed a love for the English language. I went to an English high school, an American university for my undergrad, and for my master’s as well.
Maybe a lot of Americans don’t identify with this, but there’s a huge amount of people in the Middle East – in Beirut particularly, in Amman, definitely in Dubai, somewhat in Syria, definitely also in Cairo – who speak English as well as they speak Arabic, if not better. American music, American pop culture, British as well, is there all the time, so we’re very accustomed to culture from the West in that sense.
And I’m more comfortable in English than I am in Arabic. Arabic is a complicated, complex language. I understand it very well. I like to read it. But I would not publish my work in Arabic. I write for myself in Arabic sometimes, but I would not publish it. I like to think of my work as Arabic thoughts in the English language. I feel like it has a sense of the way the Arabs speak, what they might think, and the way the rhythm of the Arabic language is, but it’s in English.
What about the Arabic poetry tradition? Do you feel this is a tribe with whom you are connected?
Yeah, I would say I definitely feel connected to the tradition of Arabic poetry. I’ve read a lot of Arabic poetry. In fact probably the most Arabic literature I’ve read has been poetry. I don’t read the newspapers in Arabic. But I have read a tremendous amount of Arabic poetry, because it is gorgeous. I’ve studied it too. I have an A level in Arabic Literature. I have studied pre-Islamic Jahili poetry, Umayyad poetry, Abbasid poetry, Muslim poetry, and all kinds of poetry. On my own I read modern Arabic poetry. I love it. It’s very moving. I would be honored if people who wrote beautiful Arabic poetry would consider me part of their collective, but I’m not sure. Because I write in English there might be some sort of, “You Yankee sell-out!” There might be an element of that, but I don’t care, really.
You’ve said a few times that you haven’t studied the craft of poetry. Why aren’t you interested in studying the craft of poetry?
Poetry is a hobby that has gone completely out of control. It’s like someone who says, “I like to swim in my backyard every day” and then finds themselves trying to cross the Atlantic, swimming with cameras on them. They don’t know why they’re doing it. They don’t know what to say. That’s kind of like me right now. It started as a spontaneous reaction to the war in 2006 in Beirut and with the love of poetry and literature, which I had been reading a lot as a kid. It was a hobby.
But now you have two poetry books.
Now I have two books and a third on the way. I’m performing poetry in a variety of countries and getting paid for it – which is shocking. I am being flown out to different places and interviewed.
I have never studied poetry and I don’t know if I want to. I was fully intent on studying it in Iowa when I was arriving [at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program]. I was really interested in taking a few poetry classes with the MFA students. And then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if I started counting my words, counting my sentences, counting syllables, looking at form and structure, it might become less of a fun hobby. I might then have to start performing work that adheres to a certain tradition and a certain set of values, norms, and forms that I might fail at. If I enjoy poetry as an instinctive, completely free form, open verse thing, and people identify with that and like it, then I am just going to continue to do what I do.
Are you ever afraid that somebody’s going to be angry about what you wrote? There are people who are in exile because of what they’ve written.
I’m worried, a little bit, about my film. I’m worried that I might be in trouble with the Arab world when my film comes out.
I could imagine that there are certain people who would be angry about the poem you wrote about the young woman being stoned. I think it’s a phenomenal poem, but the people that you’re really angry at in the poem who stoned the young woman–
Yeah, but nobody around me in the society I’m in – in Beirut, Amman, or Dubai where I live and where I perform – would stone a woman. We’re talking about tribes of people – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, places maybe in the depths of Iraq, or some tribes in Jordan, perhaps – that I have no contact with, who would never be reading poetry in English to begin with, who would never come to see me perform at a bar in Dubai. So I’m quite safe in that sense. The things I perform are to an audience that is very similar to you, to the lovely people here who are filming us and who are with us, and to the audience going to be there tonight for the performance in Pittsburgh. They’re not that different. They’re multicultural, multilingual, and they don’t believe in the stoning of women. And so in that sense I’m not really in danger.
This particular poem is one of my favorite poems. I’ve performed it a lot. I’ve definitely hurt a few people in the audience because it’s very visceral, it’s very long, and they have to sit through this tirade of pain, bloodshed, things like “motherfucker – ”
A final question. You talk on your website about being interested in female rights and liberties in the Middle East. Certainly, we can see that in your latest book. You write, I think, very powerfully from a woman’s perspective. Do you consider yourself a feminist or is that an outdated term for you?
I don’t know if feminist is an outdated term simply because I never actually experienced it for me to outgrow it. Had I been born in my mother’s time… My mother was a feminist, obviously. She was an amazingly strong, empowered, very tough, cool woman who ran the household and was the person who made money in our house. She controlled everything because my father was this crazy politician who was away. She was in control of the house. I grew up with a very strong female figure. All of her friends also worked. They were the superwomen of the 90s who had a job, a career, children, a husband, a social life. They were very vibrant women who also went to the gym. So that was kind of what I grew up with, which was great, as an example. I don’t know if I’m a feminist. I don’t think about it. I’m extremely blessed. I have been given freedom. My parents gave me freedom. They may have not given me an American passport and lots of money, but they’ve given me freedom. I’ve always been able to say what I want to say, go where I want to go, and study what I want to study.
So I’ve been given freedom, and with that comes a certain awareness that this is not the situation of most women around me. Obviously I’ve got a lot of friends in the Middle East who do have similar backgrounds and are very much in control of their life, their sexuality, their decision-making; they make their own money, they live alone, and they control their own life. But I also know a lot of women who have had to enter into marriages that they did not want, who have had to have abortions before they got married, who have had to have hymen reconstructions to be a virgin when they got married, who have been beaten, who have been through divorces, who have had to move back in with their parents, who couldn’t ever live on their own, who thought of marriage as an escape from a brutal father, who couldn’t go to college, who don’t work, who work and have to give their money to a poor family. I’ve met a lot of women particularly in places like Damascus and Amman that are a bit more traditional than Beirut, where there’s much more female empowerment.
These stories piss me off. This should not exist. It’s 2011. We have American women running for President while Saudi women can’t drive. It boggles the mind that there are places in the world where women cannot exit their home, where women cannot go to school. My father hates that. My father is the first feminist I ever met. He’s amazing that way. He talks about the Taliban and all these places where women have acid thrown in their face. It’s incredible that this exists.
If writing about it helps, then that’s great.