George Abraham’s Birthright And the Insurgent Poetics of Palestinian Liberation
This essay was originally published in the Full Stop Quarterly “Cultural Politics of Land” issue (Fall 2023). Subscribe at our Patreon page to get access to this and future issues, also available for purchase here.
Our current moment is witnessing an influx of creative work by radical young Palestinian poets as well as a serious reckoning with what being a Palestinian poet means. This emerging tradition of poetry does not seem too preoccupied with questions of detached formalism nor of abstract aesthetic theories. Rather, their poetics draw inspiration and creativity from the political circumstances and collectivities they inhabit. The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once reflected:
A literature born of a defined reality is able to create a reality that transcends reality—an alternative, imagined reality. Not a search for a myth of happiness to flee from a brutal history, but an attempt to make history less mythological, to place the myth in its proper, metaphorical place, and to transform us from victims of history, into partners in humanizing history.
By imagining new worlds and countering Zionist mythologies that deny them their history, Palestinian poets challenge the colonial history into which they have been brutally implicated by the Israeli apartheid regime. Tragically, the narcissism of Zionism and its dominant aesthetics demands total acquiescence and complete reverence from Palestinians. The Palestinian poet makes new futures imaginable and excavates bulldozed histories by rejecting the claustrophobic contours of an oppressive status quo—by sounding a defiant “No.”
But Palestinian poets are also rejecting the geographic divisions inspired by the disastrous Oslo Accords, the so-called “peace process” by which the most reactionary and opportunistic elements of the Palestinian political class agreed to lay down their arms and sign away the Palestinian right of return for the mere promise of an eventual future state. The Oslo Accords constituted a deathless betrayal of the previous insurgent spirit that had animated the Palestinian liberation struggle; up until this point, all engaged in the work of revolution were guided by the notion that however remote the exile to which they had been driven by the Zionist colonizer might be, it was still not only their right but their duty to fight for a future liberated Palestine. The Palestinian backers of the Accords, which resulted in the formation of the corrupt Palestinian Authority, chose to consolidate their own power by signing away the revolution and institutionalizing the political fragmentation of the Palestinian people. As a result, political legibility for Palestinians, once determined solely by commitment to struggle until liberation, was perverted by a crude hierarchy that sought to distinguish between those Palestinians living “inside” and those living “outside” the borders of a potential state that would somehow be secured by a cadre of narcissistic sellouts collaborating with the colonial power. It is therefore a gift to our revolutionary history that refuses to remain buried that newer generations of Palestinian writers and thinkers have firmly rejected this shameful betrayal and choose to look ahead by looking back to the previous paradigms of revolutionary potential that animated a critical contention with the Palestinian condition. In a recent interview, Palestinian poet, writer, and activist Mohammed El-Kurd said that the emergence of the Unity Intifada in May 2021 had shown Palestinians shaking off an internalization of the colonial logic that draws sharp boundaries between Palestinians from different parts of the globe. This most recent Intifada, or uprising, was a massive general strike carried out by Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank, and the Palestinian lands seized and occupied through violent ethnic cleansing by Zionist forces during the Nakba, or catastrophe, of 1948. As reflected in the Intifada’s “Manifesto of Dignity and Hope,” “Unity” represents the rejection of the fragmentation, or various “prisons,” to which the colonial Zionist state and the Oslo Accords program have subjected Palestinians. Now, through this most recent act of resistance, Palestinian dissenters were re-affirming that we are all one people, united by one struggle: “In these days, we write a new chapter, a chapter of a united Intifada that seeks our one and only goal: reuniting Palestinian society in all of its different parts; reuniting our political will, and our means of struggle to confront Zionism throughout Palestine.” There is thus a growing consciousness among Palestinians that view themselves as together in one shared struggle. As El-Kurd states about the supposed distinction between Palestinians living within the borders of Palestine, and those living elsewhere:
This hierarchy, which is this extension of these colonial borders—both the cement barriers, but also these colonial delusions in our minds that have fragmented our realities as Palestinians—all of these things have come crashing down. I think that’s one of the lessons we learned this summer, that Palestinians are all facing this colonial violence in its various forms and can always have a role to play in rebelling against it.
As we resist the romanticization of Palestinian identity, it is incumbent upon all of us as Palestinian poets, writers, and artists more broadly to throw down the shackles of a fictitious individualism that puts us in competition against each other for who “has it worst of all,” and instead to revive the revolutionary spirit of a shared commitment to the total liberation of the Palestinian homeland and people.
George Abraham is attuned to this growing consciousness, and it is evident in their poetic work and recent interview with El-Kurd in Mondoweiss. Abraham asks El-Kurd how he achieves a balance of a clear rejection of Zionism in his own poetry without presenting a reductive view of the Palestinian resistance, or of Palestinian identities, which are complex and embodied in different ways. The question clearly comes from a devoted reader of El-Kurd. But Abraham is also a serious poet in their own right, who is reflecting upon their own craft within a wider context of anti-colonial artistic resistance.
Indeed, Palestinian poets have already naturally figured direct rejections of Zionist convention into their work, preferring fluid geographies in place of rigid colonial borders and walls, identities in constant motion rather than simplistic binaries of “here” or “there.” Though published by Button Poetry in 2020, the year before the unfolding of the Unity Intifada, George Abraham’s collection Birthright is a striking example of this new spirit of Palestinian poetics. This set of poems powerfully encapsulates a new, forward-looking Palestinian identity that rejects the stagnation ushered in by the Oslo Accords—suffocating, because the Accords rely upon the isolation and fragmentation of the Palestinian people in order to bolster Zionist colonization and the political corruption of the Palestinian Authority whose bread and butter is literally gained through crushing its own people’s resistance—in favor of new possibilities of individual identification and collective resistance.
The sequence of poems in Abraham’s collection intricately plays with dominant notions of colonial time and history. The first piece, “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM,” stands alone, separate from the narrative reflected in the numbered headings and poem titles that contribute to the forward-moving feeling of the collection. By standing at a remove from the collection’s clearly defined progressive structure, the poem punctures the poetic timeline Abraham patches together. What does it mean for “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM” to stand outside of the delineated, numbered, and structured form of the collection of poems? It models an understanding of time that takes the Palestinian reclamation of Jerusalem as redundant and historically inevitable. To “take back” Jerusalem is thus figured as an act with a historical import alluded to in the preceding quotation by Mahmoud Darwish: It “transform[s] us from victims of history, into partners in humanizing history.”
Indeed, the poem itself confirms the artificiality of time as it coheres into the dominating fiction of colonial nation-making:
. . . There were 7, all of us born
of this country before this country
existed. It was ours
the way a street cat is mothered
by thin air. Still, we called this
Reclamation and being-at-home stand outside of colonial time, haunting its cracks and crevices with the spillover of prelapsarian familiarity and attachment. “Reclamation” is redundant when one is already at home, when the killing violence of the colonial state is all that attests to the contrary.
Following this poem, Birthright is divided into three main sections: I. Dispossession, II. Birthright, and III. Adaptation, with another poetic outlier, “Despite Forgiveness,” closing off the collection as “TAKING BACK JERUSALEM” opened it. The sequence suggests at once a deeply personal and resonant journey, one that begins with the loss of the homeland, transitions to questions of political and cultural inheritance and resultant rights, and concludes with the forced need to “adapt” to what is, at heart, an overwhelming burden, a sentiment similar to that once captured by Edward Said when he referred to exile as “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.”
There is a political irony to Abraham’s titles. “Birthright,” the title of the second section as well as the collection as a whole, naturally has a common-place definition with which Abraham’s poetry flirts. But in the Palestinian context, it also refers to “birthright” trips, the racist and exclusionary process of colonial tourism by which Jews from all over the world are offered propaganda trips to the Zionist state, free of charge, while Palestinians simultaneously remain denied the UN-mandated right to return to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948 and successive campaigns of Israeli ethnic cleansing. The use of “birthright” as a title inspires a productive friction between both of these meanings, and also forces the reader to ask, just what is the Palestinian’s “birthright?” What would it mean to speak of such a thing, both in the present moment of Zionist colonial violence and dispossession, but also in relation to a liberated future?
Abraham’s poetry is formally experimental, which aligns them with other young, contemporary Palestinian poets such as Zaina Alsous, Heba Hayek, and Mohammed El-Kurd (to name but a few). As with the others, Abraham’s experimentation is meant to expose some of the defining characteristics of language, language’s ability to shape meaning, and especially, how these meanings can be contorted in such a way as to normalize Palestinian erasure and dehumanization. The multi-part poem, “Inheritance: a Translation,” reflects Abraham’s stylistic dexterity as we are gradually consumed by a poem within which it becomes impossible to take anything for granted, from the agreeability of imagery to syntactical sequence. In the first instance, the poem begins with a declaration of devastation:
Filasteen is burning. It is
an obvious metaphor: for God
so loved the colonized, He sent us
to hell with our oppressors—for God
so loved us smoldering, He birthed us
unto ember topography, holy—leaking
light—hardly a metaphor at all. (7)
Fire is a recurring motif in Abraham’s poems, and it’s not difficult to see why. In the first place, it is clearly tied to the ongoing devastation that the Zionist colonial state inflicts upon Palestine and Palestinians; a few lines down Abraham will write about the hypocrisy by which corporate media constructs Palestinians as attention-worthy only when it can caricature them as vengeful “terrorists,” while colonial assaults remain rampant:
we’re trending & worth attention
only in anger—where were your tears
& hashtags when the fire spread
to the West Bank? when Gaza combusted
again? & in August? & in 2014? & in 2008?
But fire is also pluralistic in its significations. It can be literal and symbolic, snaking, wisp-like, between the foreground of colonial struggle and the burning bombast of eschatology; the unrelenting violence of the colonizer is forged to and sublimated by the Earth-quaking conflagrations of a God under whom living becomes afterlife, and love is expressed through purification by abjection.
One of the earliest glimpses we’re given of Abraham’s formal experimentation is in the concluding three lines of this portion of the poem:
?reverse in read to hardest history isn’t
?repetition in digest to hardest it isn’t
?human when digest to hardest cremation isn’t
Disordering the lines in this fashion allows Abraham to place added attention on how history and linearity are often associated with one another, and how this association needs to be upended if the difficult work of contending with the Palestinian colonial condition—which is, as Edward Said often demonstrated in writings such as After the Last Sky—often fragmentary, elliptical, contradictory. It is not a condition that can countenance what Fanon referred to as the “Manichean world” of the colonizer, with all of its attendant, dichotomous values. It is perhaps in this vein that Abraham writes, “I’m starting to think I have an attraction to/impossibility” in “To All the Ghosts I’ve Loved Before: A Palinode in 15 Unsent Valentines.”
Abraham’s poetic experimentation also extends to the possibilities and limitations of genre itself. Abraham has a clear fascination with ekphrasis, which is a literary technique that self-consciously meditates and celebrates another creative work or vaunted aesthetic object. However, the poems in Abraham’s collection invests decidedly unpoetic and unaesthetic objects with ekphrastic attention. For example, the piece “Video Loop: Ben Gurion Airport panic attack,” is, obviously enough, not literally a video loop. Yet Abraham utilizes verbal collage of various “travel advisories” combined with redacted descriptions such as,
it’s been an hour / / since they took Z / / at security—he was / / the only
/ / in our group / / my cross hangs heavy / / around my throat / / name / / blood
The redaction of “dark-skinned” emphasizes the racism of colonial Israeli airport profiling. Instances of racial profiling on the basis of skin color can be dimly registered, but are more consciously processed in terms of religion, semantically ricocheting from the current scene to imply a deep-seated Zionist association between race and religion. The navigation of an inherently racist system within which the routinization of injustice is so thoroughly pronounced relies on layers of internal denial and repression. Redacting “line” from “bloodline” leaves open the possibility of reading the word as “blood” alone or, as with “dark-skinned,” probing the inner meaning behind the complete word. It is difficult to read the “line” in “bloodline” independently of “dark-skinned.” There may be a surrealistic association between “line” and the act of waiting in line. But it also invokes the ethno-supremacist associations of “bloodline” and implicit notions of purity, which sustain the racialized logics of repression, exclusion, and discipline practiced by the settler colonial Israeli state.
There is also a fresh vulnerability to Abraham’s work. This includes a frank assessment about their own anxieties related to literary influence, legacy, and inheritance in “The Ghosts of the Exhibit Are Screaming (Palinode)”:
The Arab American Institute DM’d me on Twitter to say my work reminds
them of Kamal Boullata. I thanked them. But, in truth, I have never read
Boullata’s work. I have never pored over Kanafani. Though I won an award
named after him. I have never finished Said’s Orientalism. I have never studied
Darwish as well as. I won’t finish that sentence. He is the only poet my family
can quote from memory.
Whether or not this is Abraham speaking from direct experience or an exaggerated poetic narrative voice, the effect is similar: The poem explores the crises of confidence that can impact the contemporary Palestinian writer. To a certain extent, questions about being “well read enough” in order to feel legitimate are broadly applicable to all writers, but the political urgency of the Palestinian colonial condition amplifies this anxiety. To write of/about Palestine, of the experience of being Palestinian, is to wade into formidable waters, to draw from a reservoir of nationalist, anti-colonial literature whose depths can be surprising, and overwhelming, to the young writer.
But what makes this piece so moving is the end, which witnesses individual impostor syndrome replaced by the gratitude of collective uplift:
. . . To think, I was taught to consider myself
alone in this. I didn’t know how to Read then. I still don’t, I think.
By a dialectical blossoming of meaning, not knowing “how to Read” in the last few lines is similar but distinct from the preceding difficulties in reading. For the impossibility of ever knowing how to read fully is now premised upon the ongoing potential and edification to be continuously rediscovered in the act and process of reading other Palestinian writers. Whereas before reading merely haunted the uncertain ego, it now consecrates a collective sense of community in literary anti-colonial struggle.
And of course, the same is true for writing, which continues to make new possibilities in place of insufficient conventions blocking the road to veritable liberation. As Abraham writes in “Against Consolidation”:
& is this not the job of the poet, much like the mathematician? to give language to
that which cannot be constructed?
This line encapsulates how we as readers cannot finish Abraham’s collection the same people we were when we first pulled back its cover. The question form belies Abraham’s certainty of knowledge, their precision in execution: Throughout the journey of reading, Abraham has given language “to/that which cannot be constructed.” We therefore set down this collection of new versions of our same old selves. And the political implications of Abraham’s literary achievement cannot be stressed enough. After all, giving language to that which cannot be constructed only makes the revolutionary imperative to achieve the supposedly impossible goal of Palestinian liberation that much more conceivable.
Omar Zahzah is a writer, poet, and organizer of Lebanese Palestinian descent as well as an Assistant Professor of Arab, Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies in the Department of Race and Resistance Studies (RRS) at San Francisco State University. Omar’s writings have appeared in various publications including Narrative, Mizna, FIYAH, Electronic Intifada, Middle East Eye, In These Times, Palestine Chronicle, Arab Studies Quarterly, Full Stop, and the New York Times. Several of Omar’s poems were featured in the anthology Beside the City of Angels: An Anthology of Long Beach Poetry, and he has poetry forthcoming in an anthology of global anglophone Palestinian poetry co-edited by George Abraham and Noor Hindi that will be published by Haymarket Books. Omar’s book Terms of Servitude: Zionism, Silicon Valley, and Digital Colonialism in the Palestinian Liberation Struggle is forthcoming from The Censored Press.
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