The Art of Involvement #5

Using his poetry to advocate for Palestine is Yahya Ashour’s persistent mission as he tours from college to college across the United States. He grew up in the Gaza strip and has family there now. His pain and struggle is ever present, and he admits the darkness that completely overtook him following Israeli attacks following October 7th was crippling and is something he has to process everyday. This deep sadness that was at first paralyzing is now the force that drives him to continue traveling endlessly, sharing his art, and advocating for his people.

Ashour visited the University of Michigan-Dearborn in February. I remember sitting down in the auditorium as he set up, scanning the audience and passively noting how this was one of the first campus events that I saw such a diverse age range attending. Ashour gently spread a keffiyeh atop the podium. And then he read.

He had several poems to share, all with a clear, steady voice. He discussed dreams haunted by survivor’s guilt, life among rubble, and the abandonment of Palestinians in Gaza as neighboring nations looked on. Each poem was phenomenal in its craft, but the audience hesitated to applaud. How do you clap for someone’s suffering, laid out in front of you, eloquent as it may be?

Art is in many ways a way of breaking yourself open and giving your vulnerability to the world to digest. Sometimes, our appreciation of other’s skills in relaying their pain makes me feel rotten inside. I feel like I am intruding on the complex suffering of another human being. But from art, from expression, comes a greater understanding of the world and motivation to change it. 

It also gives space to conversation. Through audience interaction, I met the man that housed Ashour and helped him through the lows of the months following the beginning of Israel’s brutal retaliation. I met Palestinian elders that expressed their pride for Ashour’s dedication and heart in speaking for their people. 

One of the most key components of this conversation, however, was the critique Ashour laid out. Having spent extensive time in Michigan and some time in Dearborn specifically, Ashour delivered direct, relevant complaints to the audience about how he expected more origanization and action from Dearborn, known for being a heavily Arab American populated city. Ashour also spoke to the United States at large, to the masses of people going through the motions of life without a care for those being slaughtered with American money and arms.

Certainly, not everyone avoids despair over this genocide. Since November, I feel like I scroll through a terrifying display of war, bombing, death, mutilation, and starvation each day and shut down, unable to process the monstrous inhumanity. But I let myself be paralyzed by it too often, and end up doing nothing but engaging with them online or ranting about the genocide to friends.

When I thoughtlessly asked how one rose out of despair to take action, he responded, “I am not the person to ask. I am in despair… Perhaps you need to despair,” he commented, likely thinking of the many, many Americans that go through life with a shield of apathy and a cutting sword of unjustified helplessness.

There is a desperate need for active morals instead of default “neutrality”, which I feel more often than not describes ignorance that persists through a helplessness we grant ourselves, or else an avoidance of the pain that needs to be addressed. We think that reposting on social media infographics and Palestinian art is enough to assuage our moral failings, but this is supplementary at best. We think that we are only responsible for ourselves, that our morality is self contained, while our elected leadership continues to make decisions that cause death after death.

It is all too easy to despair, but Ashour tries to call us into action and not just well meaning empty promises. We have more agency and power than we know, particularly when we organize. We need strategy, which is what those who implement oppression excel at.

Now I see college encampments across the globe and I am proud. I see how they engage art through poetry readings and posters in a way that has much more meaning in person, in community. They are acting on the art as opposed to just consuming it, which reflects Ashour’s belief of art being a motivating core of the Free Palestine Movement. I know these actions have brought Palestinians and Ashour some hope. There is still much to do. I pray that more come forward and continue in allyship to liberate others, maintaining the lessons learned in organizing and effecting real change.

So as we engage with art in all of its thematic and political allure, we must remember that it is more than just entertainment. Poetry has been a lifeline for me, and in it I find humanity inseparable to a call to action. In suffering, I find the urge to soothe suffering. In joy, I find the desire to create and protect that joy for others. Art is survival. May we continue to create and recite and share and act until we are all free.

Buy an ebook of Yahya Ashour’s poetry here. Proceeds go to helping his family get out of Gaza.
Follow Yahya Ashour to learn more about his work and how you can help Palestinians

The silhouettes of different women in front of a simple graphic representing a correctional facility. The over laying text reads: "The Art of Involvement - Monologues of the Women in Blue: Many Women, One Voice

The Art of Involvement #4

A Student-made Project Centering Incarceration as Experienced by Women

“I am the voice for the voices that can’t be heard.”

Everyone on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus knows Penny Kane. 

You’d be hard pressed to find a single person on the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus who doesn’t know Penny Kane. And all those (many) same people would be able to tell you that Penny— chatty and genuine, kind and overbooked Penny Kane— is also formerly incarcerated.

Though her sentence is often considered short compared to most and less immediately “scary” as a financial crime, Penny has always made sure to put her experiences with the MDOC (Michigan Department of Corrections) out in the open, humanizing a population so often deprived of their humanity. 

Penny represents the women of Huron Valley Correctional Facility, who she calls “the ugly step-children of the MDOC” for the mistreatment, dismissal, and silencing they face while incarcerated. Her writing has been monumental in sharing her story, and in her newest project, Penny has used her writing skills to bring forth stories of 25 women in condensed monologues in a new format: film. 

The Monologues premiered at the 25 year anniversary of the Inside Out Prison Exchange in Philadelphia, then showed at DePaul University; I attended the screening that occurred last Thursday. Partially I attended to support Penny, but the other large part of me just wanted to attend something that centered incarcerated women, which is rare. 

The film was produced by Journalism and Media Production studio interns with professional lighting and angles. The end result is perfect in its simplicity as it made the words spoken by the women central. 

5 different readings presented in the Monologues, each read by a different formerly incarcerated woman explores themes of degradation, loss, beauty, sexuality, abuse… in short, what it really means to be a woman in prison. The film succeeds in balancing common experiences of the women interviewed and their personal experiences. 

It was emotionally heavy to hear the experiences of Indigenous women in the prison system from Dakota Shananquet, who likened her deprivation of her Anishinaabe cultural practices while incarcerated to the residential schools her grandmother and mother suffered through. “The criminal justice system can be savage at times,” Dakota says in the film, tearing up at recounting her being forced to miss her own daughter’s funeral and not being able to practice her and her ancestors’ way of life even while grieving. 

Another monologue read by Machelle Pearson described “having all her firsts” taken by prison after being incarcerated at 16. While in prison, she was raped by an officer, gave birth, and lost contact with her child quickly. Coming out of the facility at 51 years old, she was able to meet the man he’d become for the first time. She also drove for the first time. 

Other topics explored in the Monologues included the dealing of period products in prisons (women were never given sufficient pads and thus they became a treasured kind of currency), making and wearing makeup and perfume in prison, meeting their intimate needs in various ways, and the support systems AKA “prison families” women form. Each story was genuine, full of life and humor. Each segment felt powerful and overwhelmingly human. 

Following the film, Penny and two of the women featured in the film, Felicia Cotton and Machelle Pearson were available for questions from the crowd. It’s safe to say that the film brought up many questions and reactions from the viewers and resulted in a heathy, open conversation, including the perspective of an attendee who used to work within the justice system overseeing jails. Machelle spoke about her experience meeting her son and learning how to survive in prison after coming into it with a young, less cynical mind. Felicia was one of the women that really looked out for her, and this lead us into deeper discussion describing the prison family dynamic. All three remain involved in activism on behalf of “the women left behind”, as Machelle put it.

Q+A Portion of Monologues Screening event. Pictured here from left to right: Machelle Pearson, Penny Kane, Felicia Cotton.

Penny continues to work towards this goal, seeking to expand the film and the perspectives offered into a 45 minute documentary film. She plans to finish writing the Monologues of Women in Blue (which name she is considering changing due to some confusing it as an event centering women police officers) this Summer, and finish filming in the Fall.

After seeing the film, I pestered our Campus Video Network President, Sydney Mckinney-Williams, to slot it into the student film screening that occurred earlier today. Although I was unable to attend, I heard it was a great event and the film was received well! Penny is hoping that the next screening will be at Wayne State in the Fall. I feel it is a film that needs to be seen and appreciated by many, many people. I have faith that it will be. 

The Monologues of Women in Blue: Many Women, One Voice is certain to spark empathy and respect for the incarcerated women that speak through it and create a broader community that will share hopes that other women will have to endure less at the hands of the MDOC. 

“When you look at us, don’t feel sympathy; feel empathy. Look at our success.”

– Machelle Pearson
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The Art of Involvement #3

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Reflections on the event “Silenced and Forgotten Palestinian Literature and Art” lead by Arabic Language and Culture Club, with support from SJP

This piece acts as a reflection surrounding poetry as a part of the Palestinian identity and Free Palestine Movement, observed by me as a student on the University of Michigan-Dearborn Campus.

Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.

Mahmoud Darwish, Under Siege

As far as I know, there has always been an organization called “Students for Justice in Palestine” at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Of course, I know that there is a strong Arab American community in Dearborn, and I knew that there was a Center for Arab American Studies, but I hadn’t seen as many events as I do now. Maybe I did, but as a white person, never felt like it was my place to attend them. 

It is only in the last 6 months with the emergence of protests, collective action, and a flurry of educational events being organized on my campus that I have begun to understand that I can choose to take an active role in allyship, that it wouldn’t be “intrusive” to be in spaces that needed to reach people like me.  I regrettably have to admit that I am not the fierce advocate I should be, but I am learning. 

Meeting new people and learning more about the long-standing oppression of the Palestinians has been a key motivator in my desire to take action, speak, and yes, write on behalf of the cause of liberation. I’ve noticed that art and poetry in particular has been an effective way to share the historical oppression and genocide of the Palestinian people. Perhaps art makes the subject more accessible and cuts to the heart of human experience. In particular, how the human experience has been impeded and forced through unimaginable circumstances. Horror beyond my comprehension, yet life and hope remain.

I have now attended 2 events on Palestinian poetry. The first (which will be discussed in this post) featured poems presented by UM-D professors. Due to a late start and my carpooling, I was only able to attend the first part of the event. I took notes as I listened in an effort to get the most out of the poem scholarly analysis that followed, and this post is based on these notes and my reflections of an event I attended months ago and just decided to write about now due to its impact on me and connection to other events.

As the event kicked off, it was clear we were not going to be thrown into the reading blindly. I appreciated the context established by the professors leading the event, who shared the history of the Palestinians and their decades long struggle with Israeli occupation, from the 1948 Nakba to current day. There was also special attention given to how and why those who seek to oppress target art and poetry: to control the creative is meant to control the thought and enforce submission to the regime in the spirit of the event: Silenced and Forgotten Palestinian Literature and Art.

We were told that there was and is a frequency of kidnapping and assassination of Palestinian’s who write about and question life under Israeli occupation, and my chest panged thinking of Refaat Alareer (whose poem “If I Must Die” follows me wherever I go) and countless other great thinkers, poets, artists, and journalists who have died under siege with their people.

We were also informed of a theme to seek out in the poem by Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish that would be read to us to start, and one I noted as particularly interesting was the theme of the Palestinian body. The control of the Palestinian body, the loss of legal rights and the right to live were mentioned, as well as the Palestinian body as a symbol for the people and the land. In my notes, I inscribed the body being “not a passive object or victim, but a fighter.” The body is not defeated. And often, it feels like the body is all can be had.

My steps are wind and sand, my world is my body
and what I can hold onto.
I am the traveler and also the road.
Gods appear to me and disappear.
We don’t linger upon what is to come.
There is no tomorrow in this desert, save what we saw yesterday,
so let me brandish my ode to break the cycle of time,
and let there be beautiful days!

– Mahmoud Darwish, A Rhyme for The Odes

This event was crafted in a way that made art a vehicle for learning more about history, the political situation Palestine is afflicted by, the silence and betrayal coming from their neighboring nations, and connecting with the experiences of Palestinians. All of these intricate topics were tied into discussion through a poem recounting a story of martyrdom, Ahmad al Zatar.

This is why art has an essential role in resistance. For oppressed people, art is not only a way to communicate but a way to exercise their humanity and spirit which their oppressors attempt to crush completely. However, for those seeking to be allies, art is just an entry point to the broader movement and conversation. Art brings us together, but we bear the responsibility to not only engage in, but maintain the dialogue prompted by art in hopes that it sparks action to shape a better world.

The Art of Involvement #2

The Art of Involvement: The Unfortunate Need to Rest

“Time is a wall we all share” and there are so few doors. I am unsatisfied. I am always unsatisfied.  

I write this with a pounding headache, while eating half of a chocolate chip cookie for dinner. It’s that time of the year: burnout central. Most would call it midterms. I know I am most definitely not alone in my exhaustion this week. Being a student is demanding, not to mention someone who chases passion and community around as much as I do while having to drive 30 minutes there and back, and work, and meet with friends, and… Well, you get the idea. 

Art is wonderful, and art is something that feeds me and drains me all at once. I definitely think it’s something worth the extra effort to support. I am always swept away by how much I love being around people that value art as much as I do, but as much as I loathe to admit it, I can’t experience it all. 

Even now, as I dedicate this small amount of time to expressing myself, I know I could be relaxing. Soaking in the tub or annoying my cat with unwarranted kisses sounds wonderful. I also know that I regret it when I don’t force myself to sit down and write. I find myself too often taking a passive role in my own life, scrolling endlessly through mind-numbing content rather than reflect, engage, and create on my own terms. 

I avoid life because work and school are already quite enough, thank you very much, but then I feel less myself… It’s a dilemma I’ve always struggled with. 

My current solution is attending the events painstakingly put together by the people around me. I overcommit, of course. Not only am I a chronic people pleaser, but being busy tends to make me feel happier until I hit the wall. 

Hello again, wall. 

Part of the wall right now is due to my own spent energy in coordinating other things, such as the literary magazine, Lyceum. My baby. My creative outlet since Freshman year that I have struggle to let go of now that I’ve helped it hobble along for almost 4 whole years. Now we are getting over 50 people each semester to submit their work and its going great! Right before I have to leave. 

Graduation looms, and it’s exciting and terrifying all at once. And there’s another reason: I need to do everything I want to now, before I leave student life behind. A college campus is such a brief, wonderfully compact time and place to connect, explore, and grow. My time here feels like it’s been so brief (and partially it was, due to the shutdown that left me adrift in Zoom purgatory). I found my places and my interests, and it was only through me throwing my all into things and being open. I’d say my frantic attempts to avoid regret might end up rather successful. 

Here I am, tired and setting up for another full day tomorrow,  knowing I am not going to sleep enough tonight–head swimming with plays, drag shows, and open mics and I feel happy. I’m glad for the reminder of my personal limits as well… maybe it will click this time? It usually does, at least for a small stretch. Then I throw my alone time to the wind once more, only to be violently reminded that I am, in fact, an introvert. That I am, in fact, just human. 

For the record, this is not the post I wanted to write for this week, but it is the one that won’t leave me alone until I push it out of my system. And here I am, forcing you to be a witness. Isn’t that the nature of art? Maybe you relate, or roll your eyes, or award me with a brief nose-exhale. Maybe you don’t read this at all, but it’s still here for you.

And hey, my headache feels better.

Of course the sun stretches itself so wide, to touch all that it can
I want to scatter too, selfishly. Afraid to lose touch. 
Do not compel me, put the focusing lens away I will wash 
All in fragile warmth / Sustaining.

italicized entries from my journal, 4/1/23

The Art of Involvement #1

The Art of Involvement: Crafts with Pride

There is no feeling quite so humbling as being defeated by a beginner’s origami guide. What makes this humbling rather than humiliating is, ironically, the people that watch me amused while I flounder. I can glance at their creased brows, creased paper, and open books and see that we are lost together. It turns out that mutual confusion is a great way to bond, and crafts can be the perfect facilitator.

Of course, getting people together at the same time and place is essential. I was one of around 40 people that came to the Valentine’s Social event hosted by Pride last Thursday. The LGBTQ+ student organization wanted to create a social event that would give people an opportunity to gather and celebrate all kinds of love with some more non-traditional Valentine’s crafts; namely, rock painting and the paper folding art of origami. 

This event took place in the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Pride Space, affectionately referred to as “the Closet” (small, enclosed, a place where gay people are). The Closet is a room where rogue stickers overtake the tabletop and worm-on-a-strings hang on the wall in rainbow order. It’s perfect, comfortable chaos. 

By the time I got to the Pride Space, the quaint room has been overtaken by an additional table and still people had spilled out into the Wolverine Commons to work on their crafts. Rock painting was particularly popular. When asked about the idea behind painting rocks, Pride Treasurer Meg remarked, “canvases can make people nervous, but rocks are just rocks.” Rocks, despite being only rocks, ended up being beautifully transformed. The other craft at hand, origami, was conceptualized as paper flowers and then broadened into the more general art of paper folding. One Eboard member in particular, Katie, spent studying how to make paper cranes prior to the event so that she could help others.

Katie is the secretary of Pride and the primary planner of the Social. She said the event’s main purpose was to further Pride’s goal of “creating a safe and accepting social space for the students of UM-D”. The Social was open to anyone and their partners, both in the spirit of the holiday and as a part of Pride’s wish to be an open safe space for all kinds of people. In short, this event was a great way to catch up with old friends and make new ones.

Crafts were a must to make to take the pressure off of meeting new people. Plus, as Katie said, it gave everyone an opportunity to “learn something new and take home a souvenir.” 

Due to coming in the last half an hour, I was regulated to the crescent booth where neat squares of patterned paper lie in wait. Fun fact about me– I know how to make exactly one thing out of folded paper: a beak or boat or hat, depending on your imagination, which my dad taught me. I very much fell into the crowd of learning something new.

I began with a quick Google search: “origami beginner’s guide”. I attempted a simple cat face and folded things backwards and forwards until I corrected myself. I successfully folded a blue fox (perhaps not one that others recognize on first glance). I was happy to be making anything and turn my mind away from assignments and work. The sounds of several conversations filled in any gaps in my brain that weren’t occupied with paper folding, and I jumped in and out of those conversations as I pleased.

Each time I looked up, I could see someone new doing something different. Next to me, my friend was making a second crane so that the two of them could kiss. On my other side, a person I had never met before shared my confusion at the diagrams we looked at and failed to replicate.

After my next attempt at creation ended in paper too thick to fold properly and incomprehensible shapes, I couldn’t help but throw my hands up in defeat and laugh. The floral patterned paper I so meticulously folded collapsed onto the table. “That was a mouse,” I explained. My fellow origami amateurs tilted their heads, trying to see any resemblance. Huh.

I smoothed out the paper and gave another try more often than not. In the end, all of the defeats never erased the one beautiful fox I managed to make with my own hands, and none of the confusion overwhelmed my joy in being enveloped in friendly, unexpected conversations.

As I tuck in laughter, crease paper with conversation, / I have to accept that my clumsy fingers won’t always make things right. / But I can always start again.