Samih al-Qasim, Palestine’s Lorca

Late Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim (Photo: Al-Akhar)
Published Thursday, August 21, 2014

The third pillar of Palestinian “resistance poetry” has fallen. 

The first, Tawfiq Ziad, died prematurely in 1994. 
Then Mahmoud Darwish followed, more than a decade later. 
Now, Samih al-Qasim (1939-2014) has closed the curtain on this chapter of Palestinian poetry.
Damascus – The trio were the most prominent of the Poets of the Occupied Territories – as the title of one Nizar Qabbani poem called them. We learned the anthems of Palestine from them, with attention, enthusiasm, and ecstasy, and thanks to them, we were able to form a detailed portrait of Palestine, and her orange, olive, and plum groves. Even their sweet aroma slipped through the borders and the fences of the occupied land along with each poem of his that crossed them.

We learned the anthems of Palestine from them, with attention, enthusiasm, and ecstasy, and thanks to them, we were able to form a detailed portrait of Palestine, and her orange, olive, and plum groves.

Tawfiq Ziad departed our world. Mahmoud Darwish had left his homeland. But Samih al-Qasim remained in Palestine, “Like a Solitary Sword” – to paraphrase from a poem by Amr ibn Ma’adi Yakrib – and retained a sharp tone that accepted no compromise.
Qasim infused a Canaanite spirit into his anthems in a poetical construction that mobilized and incited action. He invoked the eloquence of our ancestors in shoring up his tone of defiance, and his poems often were tributes to Palestine’s geography, which always was the bearing he followed toward freedom.
Samih al-Qasim started out as a communist but he ultimately became a solid Arab nationalist at a time of national weakness and degeneration, and a time where many of his compatriots went on to befriend the enemy. He trimmed his texts from “internationalist illusions,” and “Standing Tall” – as the title of one of his poems declares – and returned to his origins among the country’s bloodied fields.
The poems he produced were not fleeting, but had deep roots that dug into the soil, and left an ineffaceable mark. Their underlying melody was like a marriage of violins and flutes, with an air of good tidings, as though all the defeats, setbacks, and instances of despair were not strong enough to muffle Qasim’s fiery, reverberating voice that forever entrenched the anthems of Palestinian resistance.
With Qasim, there was no distance to speak of between poem and song, and in 1958, he chose the name Aghani al-Durub, or Songs of the Alleys, as the title of his first diwan, or collection of poems. The charge of anger would only increase in the tone of his subsequent and defiant poems, including in “I Carried My Blood on My Palm, I Need No Permission,” and throughout 60 more titles.
His words covered many themes with immense creativity in what is a huge opus of hope in a reborn land, untarnished by the boots of the enemy, and a regenerated, deeply rooted identity, untainted by the mournful sentiments of nostalgia in exile.
Defending his overtly direct style, Qasim once wrote, “It is a bad sonata, but a strong a [musical] march.” Later on, Qasim wrote good sonatas as well. To be sure, not everything Qasim wrote falls under the “resistance poetry” genre, or the praise poetry genre, for which some criticized him. Yet the bloody history of his country was the overarching motif throughout his attempt to archive the collective pain of the Palestinians and his personal anguish, and above that, to tend to his open wound with the balsam of words.
His vast poetic output is often marked by distinct novelty, which goes side by side with his Homeric soul as it wanders between the Sea of Acre and the Negev Desert. Consider for instance how his collection of poems Diwan al-Hamasa [Anthology of Fervor] coexists with unorthodox titles like Ard Murawigha. Harir Kassed. La Baas. [Evasive Land. Sluggish silk. But It’s okay], or Collage.
The book Al-Rasa’il [The Letters] sheds light on other parts of his life. The book contains letters exchanged with his soul-mate Mahmoud Darwish, which capture an astounding dialogue between the homeland under occupation and exile; between hardness and nostalgia; between conscience and injury; and between the themes of captivity and the themes of migration.
Mahmoud Darwish wrote in one letter:
“Never in the history of human robbery, my dear, has anything like this ever happened, with the expulsion from one’s homeland being coupled with the attempted expulsion from one’s self-awareness and identity. It is as though we cannot say what is already said by reality at large, in a way that does not upset the balance of the planet itself. When the occupation becomes the occupier’s ‘sole homeland,’ it becomes required of us to apologize for what should be common sense, and to highlight the elegance of our murder in a way that is sensitive to the reputation of the dagger planted in our flesh.”
In another letter, Samih al-Qasim wrote:
“We are not a branch cut off from our nation’s tree. We are the guardians of its dreams and the bearers of its pure torch.” Later on, Mahmoud Darwish asked him in a tone of despair, “Where is my grave, brother? Where is my grave?” to which Samih replied, “Do not ask me where your grave lies. As long as this cradle remains an unresolved cause, then the grave, too, shall remain an embarrassing question with no answers.”

With Qasim, there was no distance to speak of between poem and song

Yet the theme of death had slipped into Qasim’s work early on. After all, he was the one who wrote Quraan al-Mawt wal Yasmine[the Book of Death and Jasmines] (1971);Al-Mawt Al-Kabir [The Great Death] (1972);Ilahi, Ilahi, Limatha Qataltani [God, God, Why Have You Murdered Me?] (1974); andSa Akhruju Min Sourati Thata Yawm [I Will Leave My Form One Day] (2000).
It was as though this poet’s life was dedicated to calamity, from being detained by the occupation’s forces, to his house arrest, and to being ravaged by cancer that dueled with him for many long years. Palestinian writer Alaa Hlayhel asked him once in a long interview, “Did cancer not break you?” Qasim answered, “I have not been broken but something in me has definitely been bent. But my core has not broken.” With such strong will, Samih al-Qasim led his fragmented life, caught between many barriers, and his poems traversed the borders without losing any of its anger, eloquence, and rebel spirit.
We shall remember vividly that exceptional time when he visited Damascus, years ago, and went to the Yarmouk refugee camp before its recent devastation. He was carried on the shoulders through the camp for seven kilometers, as though the people of the camp wanted to repay him with a different kind of poetic gesture.
In the end, is it only a coincidence that the author of Kitab al-Quds [The Book of Jerusalem] passed away on the same day that Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca had died?
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian   
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