Why every nation needs a poet—an essay on Israel, Palestine, and the United States, from Amman, Jordan.
I had liked this man instinctively. His English was not as good as most drivers who hunted us down on sidewalks, back alleys, and bus stops here in Amman. But he had a quiet way and an air of deep intelligence.
I was on my way to pick up the boys from the Montessori school on the eastern edge of the city, near Haldoun. Susan, my wife, had business at the Fulbright office and for the first time since we arrived a month ago, we were comfortable enough with the city to separate. “Susie?” Mr. Hussein had asked. “Not today,” I said, and he nodded, smiled, and then uncharacteristically offered me a cigarette, laughing when I waved it off. Not smoking hopelessly labels you not only as foreign, but probably American.
“I am Palestinian,” Hussein said, a bit coolly. My driver’s heritage was not surprising. A recent census concluded that nearly 60 percent of Jordanians in Amman had Palestinian heritage. And nearly all of the taxi drivers were defiantly so. Still, I knew what was coming. I would say, I am American, and then we would launch into a discussion about American foreign policy, George Bush, Ariel Sharon, and Saddam Hussein. On other trips, I had allowed Susan to carry the weight of the conversation, letting her Iranian, museum-piece beauty and big smile soften the air around the cab. I sighed, knowing that no amount of sympathy for Palestine or disagreement with American leadership on my part would drive away the taste of iron in the air. Besides, the fact that I was American was ridiculously obvious, so I decided I would be a little evasive and responded, “Oh, yes? Palestinian? I’m a poet.”
Hussein looked at me for a second, then started laughing. “A poet?”
“A poet American?” he asked, as if such an idea were the most outlandish thing he had ever heard.
“Yes, naturally,” as if to say, “Of course, all Americans are poets.” He shook his head, still laughing wryly, and I imagined him thinking, “Not only is this guy in my cab an American, he is an American wiseass.” Without missing a beat, I followed up with a question I hoped would steer the conversation into my territory. “Hussein, give me the name of a great Palestinian poet.” I had never heard of any Palestinian poets at that time, and I was legitimately interested.
Hussein looked at me for a minute. “Great Palestinian poet?” He slammed his hand hard on the dashboard and shouted. “None! There are no!” He waved his hand across the air, “Halas!”
If Hussein had said, “I don’t read poetry,” I would have been mildly surprised (in contrast to the U.S., people actually do seem to read poetry in the Middle East) but accepting. But here was my Palestinian taxi driver claiming that his own people had no great poet. I didn’t know how to respond. “Too bad,” I mumbled. “A nation needs a poet.”
Since that day, I have had many people contradict Mr. Hussein—some vehemently, giving me long lists of important, internationally known Palestinian poets like Mahmoud Darwish, Kamal Nasir, Abu Salma, and Ibrahim Tukan. But I think Mr. Hussein may have been trying to say something more profound, not that there were no Palestinians who wrote great poetry, but that there was no single poet who captured the poem that is Palestine. Perhaps he was thinking, as Emerson wrote, “We have yet had no genius… which knew the value of our incomparable materials. I have not found that excellent combination of gifts in my countrymen which I seek.”
The poverty of knowledge about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that exists in America is daunting. One essential part of the story is that Palestine never did have borders. Palestine was and continues to be an idea as much as it has ever been a place, a belief and aspiration as much as it has ever been a residence. To say that you lived in Palestine in the early twentieth century would be like saying you lived in a myth, in territory of the soul. And its lack of status as an independent, self-governing nation was indeed part of the argument against Palestinian claims as early as the first UN accords establishing both Israeli and Palestinian states. The fact that there simply was no “Palestine” in the sense that there was Italy or Canada was no solace to those who were either pushed off their land by rifle-wielding immigrants from Germany, Poland, and Russia, or left voluntarily with the hope of returning in the wake of victorious Arab armies. Certainly there were Palestinians, people who resided in this idea and held property deeds that still sit as holy relics in safes in the back of groceries and coffee shops of Jabal Amman. There certainly was an historical Palestine that existed as a principality under the Ottoman Empire and then as mandate under the British Empire. And the human pain of losing one’s home is no myth. But despite claims for independence and self-determination, a Palestinian state never existed anywhere on the ground.
What is compelling about the idea of Palestine is the very lack of borders that argued against Palestine’s legitimacy as a nation was part of what made, and still makes it, one of the world’s great poems—a trope with a controlling idea powerful enough to provide the only real cohesive force in the Arab world. As such, it is essential to Arab consciousness and forms the basis of any hope for a united Arab world.
I think Mr. Hussein may have been trying to say something more profound—not that there were no Palestinians who wrote great poetry, but that there was no single poet who captured the poem that is Palestine.
Though official statistics place the percentage of Palestinian origins at roughly 60 percent of the population of Amman, as noted earlier, experience has left me with the impression that 80 or 90 percent of the population claim that heritage. And this feeling of a common ancestry in Palestine is in no-way specific to Jordanians. One of the reasons that the refugee problem is unresolvable is that any genuine attempt to repatriate Palestinian refugees to the current Palestinian Authority or greater Israel would overwhelm the territory. And it may be said that every Middle Eastern man and woman is, at heart, Palestinian, and in their souls, refugees. As a nation without borders, Palestine can absorb them all; as a symbol of frustrated Arab longing, of the Holy Land denied, of the longing of an individual to be part of something larger than himself or herself, it serves as the principle underpinning. Indeed, Palestine has become the nexus for all Middle Eastern aspirations to a place on the world stage and for Arab resentment toward both historical and contemporary imperialism by western powers. It is at once the symbol of their greatest hopes, most determined defiance, and greatest humiliations.
On the other side of the issue is, of course, Israel, or Zion—itself a powerful symbol of aspiration, itself emergent from story and myth. As powerful as Palestine is to Arabs, Zion was to Jews in Europe. Zion and Zionism began in the dreams of Jewish intellectuals responding to worldwide anti-Semitism that had subjected their people to thousands of years of wandering and brutal harassment. Violence against the Jews, forced flight, isolation in ghettos, and the resulting purges and pogroms, convinced many Jews that the only refuge was the return to land they believed was promised them by God, where they might protect themselves as a nation. The British Mandate of Palestine and the famous Balfour Declaration, committing the British government, at least in principle, to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, lent the concept of Zion a legal and political force. So, under the slogan “a land without people for a people without land,” over five hundred and twelve thousand European Jews are estimated by UNISPAL to have immigrated to Palestine over a forty-year period. The problem of course was that this land was not without people. It had an indigenous population that was itself agitating for nationhood. And the conflict rages.
A nation does need its poets and poetry. However much people claim to dislike it, poetry—those articulated symbols and metaphors, those stories that resonate with a community and are therefore essential to human aspiration—responds to the basic need of individuals to reach beyond their small existence and connect with something meaningful. At its worst, poetry simply records the longings of an isolated individual but, at its best, when one poem or poet tunes into the longings of a people, poetry provides us with an articulated affirmation of our purpose as a culture—and indeed, culture cannot exist without it. This relates to why rhetoric is such an important part of the political sphere. A political speech attempts to give a vision in keeping with a nation’s core values while also trying to expand, adapt, and reaffirm those values for successive generations.
What is compelling about the idea of Palestine is the very lack of borders that argued against Palestine’s legitimacy as a nation was part of what made and still makes it one of the world’s great poems.
In the mid-nineteenth century, still stunned by the Louisiana Purchase, inflamed with patriotism from the war of 1812, and heady with the liberating ideas of European Romanticism and Transcendentalism, American writers more widely began to see their expanding nation as a culmination of the promise outlined in the Declaration of Independence. The size and scope of the nation affirmed not the power of the country, but the power of its mission as a symbol of freedom. To these men and women, often abolitionists, labor reformers, and suffrage activists, upward mobility was not merely about economic or even civic freedom and civil rights but about spiritual and communal growth. Emerson’s famous statement that “America is a poem in our eyes” was a bold expression of the belief that America and Americans had a transcendent purpose on this earth. And in spite of violent challenges to that symbol, America has maintained its vision of itself. I say America’s “vision of itself” because the symbolic value of the United States on the international scene has been debatable for nearly as long as it has existed—as a free and open society that stands as a representation of liberty to the rest of the world. And our major symbols affirm those values; the Statue of Liberty raises a torch, not a fist.
When my friend Ahkmed points across the Dead Sea to the salt cliffs beyond and the area we call Israel and Jerusalem and whispers “Palestine, El-Khuds,” I am seeing the physical manifestation of the power of a shared story. I see in the story of Palestine and also of Israel a disturbing parallel to what is happening to the poem that is the United States.
At a recent dinner party with intensely pro-western Iranian friends—also in Jordan on Fulbrights—the conversation again turned to American foreign policy. “We all understand why America wants to destroy al Qaeda and bin Laden,” said Shahrin. “But why is it destroying itself?” After only two weeks in the country, I had grown used to being a magnet for such outbursts. Even the ride to our friend’s house was not without its politics. We had missed a right turn and found ourselves in front of the palatial American embassy in Jordan. Our taxi driver, who had spent most of the trip glaring at me through his rearview, needed to turn around and tried to do so in front of the embassy gates. At that point, a Jordanian soldier standing on a Jordanian tank pointed a machine gun at the cab. Though we were in no danger, and the soldier appeared to be simply waving us along, the irony of having a Jordanian soldier point his weapon into a Jordanian taxi full of Americans in defense of the American embassy seemed too much for the man behind the wheel. Waving his hand dismissively at the huge gates, electric fences, cameras, and security forces surrounding the complex, he sneered, “America.”
When the city upon a hill is surrounded by barbed wire, it becomes not a beacon but a fortress. Again and again from our leaders we hear the seemingly self-evident declaration that a people “has a right to defend itself.” And it seems Americans, justified by dreams of freedom, and anger over any threat to those dreams, are willing to go to extreme, even masochistic, if not suicidal, lengths in their self-defense. But in the desire for vengeance and security, we may be losing sight of the very things we are trying to secure. If I were an Israeli living in Jerusalem, I might be in favor of the security barrier. And Americans, still shocked and wounded by the image of the Twin Towers collapsing in the heart of New York, seem to be willing to do anything to protect themselves from ever having to face that again.
If the most basic responsibility of a government is to protect the lives of its citizens, then its spiritual charter must be to protect and defend the ideals for which they live. If the symbol of the guillotine is incompatible with liberty, so is any act of violence against civilians. As Arafat himself stated directly following the World Trade Center attacks, “A just cause cannot be won by unjust means,” or to paraphrase Gandhi, violence on the part of the oppressed merely justifies the hand of the oppressor. The symbol of the suicide bomber is simply incompatible with the concept of freedom. And those who call the bombers martyrs or heroes are not freedom fighters, however just their cause might be. Likewise, whatever image European Jews may have had of what Zion might become, I doubt that it involved a security barrier running through Jerusalem, the expatriation of thousands of people, and targeted assassinations that always kill more bystanders than actual terrorists. Can anyone in the world say the phrase “holy land” without tasting the most bitter of ironies? And that bitterness is beginning to attach itself to the concept of America, as well. Regarding slavery, Abraham Lincoln wrote, “I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world” and it “enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.” Patriotic Americans are fully justified in rejecting our current domestic and foreign policies for the same reasons, just as patriotic Israelis should hate the wall and Palestinians should hate suicide bombers. Moreover, these policies pose a question to the people of the United States: how much of who we are are we willing to give up so that we might protect ourselves? And when it is all over, locked in our safe-deposit box, will there be anything left worth securing?
I see in the story of Palestine and also of Israel a disturbing parallel to what is happening to the poem that is the United States.
A few days ago, I was taking my usual walk to the grocery store, this time to pick up some chocolate for Susan and the kids. Coming up to the counter, I was met with an effusive, “Hello, mister! Welcome to Jordan!” Like everyone else in the city, the shopkeeper had me pegged for an American right off. And like many Jordanians, he wanted to convince me of his innate love for Americans and America. He had worked for fourteen years for the U.S. State Department, had lived in North Dakota and Philadelphia in the nineteen sixties, and had a daughter living in Chicago. The conversation finally did, of course, wend its way toward politics. But this man was not just condemnatory of George Bush—his disdain seemed universal. “All these idiots,” he said, “Bush, Sharon, Arafat, Hussein, Blair… all these idiots willing to kill for vengeance, war, freedom. But where, where is the man who is willing to die for peace? Show me the man.”
“Man,” he continued, pointing to his groin, “is not here, but here”—pointing to his left temple—“here, in his head.”
“And also here,” I said, lightly tapping his chest. His eyes popped open.
“Yes, yes,” he said, pleased. “Are you a Quaker?”
We both laughed. “No, just an American,” I said.
Joel Peckham is an essayist, poet, and a scholar of American Literature whose work has been published in many journals, including The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, The North American Review, and American Literature. His most recent book, The Heat of What Comes, was published by Pecan Grove Press in 2008.
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