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

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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.