British Writers In Support of Palestine

September 11, 2014

Tottenham Palestine Literature Festival

BWISP is getting excited! Sept 18-20 is the second Tottenham Palestine Literature Festival, organised by Haringey Justice for Palestine. A free weekend of literature, politics, music and Palestinian food, held at the West Green Learning Centre, the festival features an international cast including Ghada Karmi, Selma Dabbagh, Baroness Jenny Tonge, Ruqayyah Kareem, Brian Whitaker, Dervla Murphy, Sarah Irving, Naomi Foyle and Sarah Schulman. Guests will be exploring a wide range topics including Biography, Fiction, Poetry, Travel, Middle Eastern SF, LGBT in the Occupied Territories, and – you can’t discuss Palestine in the UK without it – the Balfour Declaration. The full programme is below, or here on the HJfP website. Directions here – if you’re in London, hope to see you there!

Tottenham Palestine Literature FestivalTottenham Palestine Literature Festival

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July 19, 2014

Nobel Laureates call for a Military Embargo on Israel

As the IDF bombs the captive civilian population of Gaza for the third time in six years, and initiates a ground invasion of the besieged territory, BWISP members John Berger, Selma Dabbagh, Ghada Karmi, Nur Masalha, China Mieville and Robin Yassin-Kassab have joined the Palestinian BDS Committee’s call for a military embargo on Israel. Signed by six Nobel peace laureates and public figures including Judith Butler, Brian Eno, and Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Former UNESCO Director General, the Open Letter was published today in an abridged version in The Guardian.

Chile, mentioned in the letter, has already suspended trade negotiations with Israel in protest over the current round of atrocities, and is considering withdrawing its ambassador.

To add your name to the call, please sign here.

 

Nobel laureates, artists and public intellectuals call for immediate military embargo on Israel

“With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. …There would be no oppressed had there been no prior of violence to establish their subjugation.” –Paulo Freire

Israel has once again unleashed the full force of its military against the captive Palestinian population, particularly in the besieged Gaza Strip, in an inhumane and illegal act of military aggression. Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza has so far killed scores of Palestinian civilians, injured hundreds and devastated the civilian infrastructure, including the health sector, which is facing severe shortages.

Israel’s ability to launch such devastating attacks with impunity largely stems from the vast international military cooperation and trade that it maintains with complicit governments across the world.

Over the period 2009-2019, the US is set to provide military aid to Israel worth $30bn, while Israeli annual military exports to the world have reached billions of dollars. In recent years, European countries have exported billions of euros worth of weapons to Israel, and the European Union has furnished Israeli military companies and universities with military-related research grants worth hundreds of millions.

Emerging economies such as India, Brazil and Chile, are rapidly increasing their military trade and cooperation with Israel, despite their stated support for Palestinian rights.

By importing and exporting arms to Israel and facilitating the development of Israeli military technology, governments are effectively sending a clear message of approval for Israel’s military aggression, including its war crimes and possible crimes against humanity.

Israel is one of the world’s leading producers and exporters of militarized drones. Israel’s military technology, developed to maintain decades of oppression, is marketed as “field tested” and exported across the world.

Military trade and joint military-related research relations with Israel embolden Israeli impunity in committing grave violations of international law and facilitate the entrenchment of Israel’s system of occupation, colonisation and systematic denial of Palestinian rights.

We call on the UN and governments across the world to take immediate steps to implement a comprehensive and legally binding military embargo on Israel, similar to that imposed on South Africa during apartheid.

Governments that express solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza, facing the brunt of Israel’s militarism, atrocities and impunity, must start with cutting all military relations with Israel. Palestinians today need effective solidarity, not charity.

Signed by:

Adolfo Peres Esquivel, Nobel Peace Laureate, Argentina
Ahdaf Soueif , Author, Egypt/UK
Ahmed Abbas, Academic, France
Aki Olavi Kaurismäki , film director, Finland
Alexi Sayle, Comedian, UK
Alice Walker, Writer, US
Alison Phipps, Academic, Scotland
Andrew Ross, Academic, US
Andrew Smith, Academic, Scotland
Arch. Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Laureate, South Africa
Ascanio Celestini, actor and author, Italy
Betty Williams, Nobel Peace Laureate, Northern Ireland
Boots Riley, Rapper, poet, arts producer, US
Brian Eno, Composer/musician, UK
Brigid Keenan, Author, UK
Caryl Churchill, playwright, UK
China Mieville, Writer, UK
Chris Hedges , Journalist, Pulitzer Prize 2002, US
Christiane Hessel, , France
Cynthia McKinney, Politician, activist, US
David Graeber, Academic, UK
David Palumbo-Liu, Academic, US
Eleni Varikas, Academic, France
Eliza Robertson, Author,
Elwira Grossman, Academic, Scotland
Etienne Balibar, philosopher, France
Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Former UNESCO Director General, Spain
Felim Egan, Painter, Ireland
Frei Betto, Liberation theologian, Brazil
Gerard Toulouse, Academic, France
Ghada Karmi , Academic , Palestine
Gillian Slovo, Writer, Former president of PEN (UK), UK/South Africa
Githa Hariharan, Writer, India
Giulio Marcon, MP (SEL), Italy
Hilary Rose, Academic, UK
Ian Shaw, Academic, Scotland
Ilan Pappe, Historian, author, Israel
Ismail Coovadia, former South African Ambassador to Israel
Ivar Ekeland, Academic, France
James Kelman, Writer, Scotland
Janne Teller, Writer, Denmark
Jeremy Corbyn, MP (Labour), UK
Joanna Rajkowska, Artist, Poland
Joao Felicio, President of ITUC, Brazil
Jody Williams, Nobel Peace Laureate, US
John Berger, artist, UK
John Dugard, Former ICJ judge, South Africa
John McDonnell, MP (Labour), UK
John Pilger, journalist and filmmaker , Australia
Judith Butler, Academic, philosopher, US
Juliane House, Academic, Germany
Karma Nabulsi, Oxford University, UK/Palestine
Keith Hammond, Academic, Scotland
Ken Loach, Filmmaker, UK
Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez), Musician, US
Liz Lochhead, national poet for Scotland, UK
Liz Spalding, Author,
Luisa Morgantini, former vice president of the European Parliament, Italy
Mairead Maguire, Nobel Peace Laureate, Ireland
Marcia Lynx Qualey, Blogger and Critic, US
Michael Lowy, Academic, France
Michael Mansfield, Barrister, UK
Michael Ondaatje, Author, Canada/Sri Lanka
Mike Leigh, writer and director, UK
Mira Nair, filmmaker, India
Monika Strzępka, theatre director, Poland
Naomi Wallace, Playwright, screenwriter, poet, US
Nathan Hamilton, Poet ,
Noam Chomsky, Academic, author, US
Nur Masalha, Academic, UK/Palestine
Nurit Peled, Academic, Israel
Paola Bacchetta, Academic, US
Phyllis Bennis, Policy analyst, commentator, US
Prabhat Patnaik, Economist, India
Przemyslaw Wielgosz, Chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Polish edition, Poland
Rachel Holmes, Author, UK
Raja Shehadeh, Author and Lawyer, Palestine
Rashid Khalidi, Academic, author, Palestine/US
Rebecca Kay, Academic, Scotland
Richard Falk, Former UN Special Rapporteur on Occupied Palestinian Territories, US
Rigoberta Menchú, Nobel Peace Laureate, Guatemala
Robin D.G. Kelley, Academic, US
Roger Waters, Musician, UK
Robin Yassin-Kassab, Writer, UK
Roman Kurkiewicz, journalist, Poland
Ronnie Kasrils, Former minister in Mandela’s gov’t, South Africa
Rose Fenton, Director, the Free Word Centre, UK
Sabrina Mahfouz, Author, UK
Saleh Bakri, Actor, Palestine
Selma Dabbagh, Author, UK/Palestine
Sir Geoffrey Bindman, Lawyer, UK
Slavoj Zizek, Philosopher, author, Slovenia
Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun, Academic, France
Steven Rose, Academic, UK
Tom Leonard, Writer, Scotland
Tunde Adebimpe, Musician, US
Victoria Brittain, Playwright and journalist, UK
Willie van Peer, Academic, Germany
Zwelinzima Vavi, Secretary General of Cosatu, South Africa

 

November 11, 2012

Letter(s) To Gaza: a beautiful event

Saturday November 10th, as part of Redrawing the Maps: A John Berger Free School, BWISP co-ordinator Naomi Foyle and Palestinian human rights worker Saleh Hijazi co-hosted a very special event, Letter(s) to Gaza. The event allowed the audience to converse with Palestinian speakers Ahmed Safi (Gaza and Oxford Brookes University), Ahmad Alaraj (The Freedom Theatre) and Selma Dabbagh (British Palestinian novelist), then write their own letters to the besieged population of Gaza, to be posted on the Letter(s) to Gaza blog. The letters will be circulated in Gaza via Palestinian students and their families, courtesy of Dr Haidar Eid of Al-Aqsa University, whose 2009 open letter to Barack Obama challenges the American President to end his indifferent lip service to the plight of the Palestinians, and hold Israel to account for the suffering caused by the blockade.

The Letter(s) to Gaza event was a response to John Berger’s video reading of Ghassan Kanafani’s short story ‘Letter from Gaza’, which can also be read here. ‘Letter from Gaza’ is a haunting portrait of the courage of Palestinian children. Written over forty years ago, it is no less relevant today, when as I write reports are coming in of four teenage boys killed in Gaza by IDF shelling of a football playground. Two were killed in the initial assault; two in a second shelling when they ran to help their friends. The mother of one boy gave birth to a new son today, and named him after his murdered brother. On Remembrance Sunday here in the UK, one could read no more searing account of the impossibility of forgetting the dead.

In the context of such brutal repression, hoping to make a difference by writing letters to people one has never met may seem a fey notion. But Ahmed Safi told us that people in Gaza are so isolated any kind of friendly contact from the outside world would be hugely welcomed. He also told us of the spirit of the people is strong, that they smile in the face of relentless IDF attacks, and maintain a vision of freedom from the blockade that has crippled their economy and infrastructure. His own grandfather spoke for sixty years of his home in Jaffa, which he was forced to flee in the Nakba in 1948. This tenacious remembrance, Ahmed realised after his grandfather died, was not despair but a kind of hope: the hope of return.  Ahmad Alaraj spoke of how touched he, as a Palestinian forced to live in the West Bank, was to meet Ahmed Safi.  He also talked about the Freedom Theatre’s recent Freedom Bus project, a travelling theatre initiative which included a video link to Gaza, to gather stories which actors then performed for audiences in the West Bank.  Again, to feel a sense of connection with those imprisoned in Gaza had been a very moving experience for him. Selma Dabbagh spoke of her own love of Kanafani’s stories, and her recent experience judging Gazan blogs, which she admired greatly, but felt did not always convey the lively spirit of their authors, whom she’d met on her visit to Gaza for the 2012 Palestinian Festival of Literature. Perhaps this disconnect between personal and public expression is the result of cultural factors; perhaps it also indicates what the huge responsibility it is for a young person to speak as a member of a suffering population in a public forum, unsure of who is listening. At the event, in a discussion facilitated by BWISP member Jonathan Rosenhead, we discussed the political situation in Gaza – including Saleh Hijazi’s investigation of human rights violations by Hamas, and Ahmed Safi’s work in the international aid industry, which he feels does not address the cause of the crisis, the Occupation; but we also stressed that a letter was a personal document, and that we hoped to encourage an intimate exchange based on mutual interests and curiosity about the other. We wanted to allow people here to ask questions and offer support, and for Gazans to feel free to reply and share something of their daily lives, the routines and dreams that keep them going.

Something wonderful happened in the room itself, as Palestinians who cannot meet in their own homeland were brought together, while the audience overcame some initial shyness and wrote intensely for half-an-hour, resting their papers on copies of the John Berger exhibition catalogue. When we shared the gist of our letters, it appeared we had all found a personal path into our correspondence. One man wrote about Palestinian cinema; a woman wrote a letter to a little boy who had open heart surgery in her London hospital six years ago; another related the émigré history of her own Finnish family to the Palestinian refugee experience of losing one’s home; another man had recently been hit by a car, and discovered that his surgeon was a dedicated member of Medical Aid of Palestine. I wrote about my efforts to get to Gaza in 2009, and recalled my dream of co-editing a collection of poetry from Gaza. As we parted, it felt like not the end of the event, but the beginning of a conversation.

The letter-writers will be sending final copies to the organisers this week, to be posted on the Letters to Gaza blog. If anyone reading this post would also like to contribute a letter, please get in touch with Saleh Hijazi and Naomi Foyle at lettertogaza@gmail.com

Finally, Saleh and Naomi would like to thank the organisers of Redrawing the Maps, a week of events, screenings and discussions celebrating the work of John Berger. We would also like to thank John Berger himself, whose long, warm and incisive commitment to Palestine, and bold early advocacy of the cultural boycott of Israel, have laid the foundation for all BWISP’s campaigns and activities.

October 16, 2012

SOAS Panel Discussion on Palestine: 3 Questions about BDS

On Tues October 9th I appeared with British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, British filmmaker and cultural boycott activist Miranda Pennell, and the British-Israeli-Iraqi-Jewish writer and journalist Rachel Shabi in a panel discussion at SOAS, organised by the Centre for Palestinian Studies and chaired by Bidisha. The discussion was wide-ranging and included the role of Arab women in political struggle, the question of ‘fashionable causes’ and the usefulness of comment threads.  Cultural boycott was also high on the agenda, and the subject of some disagreement on the panel and in the audience. I would therefore like to respond here to three questions raised during the evening.

1. Not all Palestinians support BDS, so why should I?

Rachel Shabi helpfully stressed that the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign is a Palestinian initiative. However, she counter-claimed that Palestinian society is diverse, and not all Palestinians believe in boycott. This statement is undeniably true. Leaving aside the question of militant resistance, some Palestinians believe in working within the Palestinian Authority and the UN, or with charitable NGOs. Others are simply trying to survive, and may place their faith in Allah, God, or the Shekel. So how does one, as a solidarity activist, decide which Palestinians to support?

The question is a political one, and must be answered politically. Only politically organised activity with strong and principled Palestinian leadership can bring positive, lasting change in the region. So, which such groups are reaching out to solidarity workers, and requesting our support?

We can immediately rule out the PA. Unless one is a UN representative, the PA is not reaching out to foreign individuals. In addition, the UN route to change is blocked by the veto power of America, and – as Wikileaks demonstrated – the PA is seriously compromised by corruption within the organisation. There is no way for solidarity workers to effectively help change this situation, apart from campaigning for UN reform.  While I do not disparage such a goal, to devote all one’s energies to it would be an incredibly indirect way of expressing support for Palestine.

One can of course join direct action groups, helping with the olive harvest, accompanying children in Hebron on the way to school, working with faith groups, or joining non-violent protests against the apartheid wall. But doing so will still leave you with the fundamental choice for peace campaigners in the region: do you support ‘dialogue’ groups or the boycott divestment and sanctions movement?  For many Westerners, dialogue seems instinctively attractive, but in my own view, careful thought and research must inevitably lead to the conclusion that it is not the option for the true solidarity activist.

The concept of ‘peace through dialogue’ appeals to many Westerners and left-wing Israelis because in our own personal experience we often need to engage in conflict resolution with antagonists in our families or workplaces, and this process is predicated on the understanding that both parties must listen to each other and take responsibility for their own failings.  However, it is a huge mistake to project this personal process between equals – or those in a mutually agreed power structure, such as a workplace – onto the Israel-Palestine conflict. While political and personal dialogue is indeed fundamental to the peace process, it is essential that this dialogue takes place within a framework that acknowledges the true scale and roots of the conflict: the occupation of Palestine; the apartheid nature of the Israeli state; and the Israeli denial of the refugees’ right of return.

In other words, in the case of Israel-Palestine, any dialogue that takes place is never between equal partners.  Analogies all break down at some point, but rather than a ‘bad marriage’ between incompatible people who have to co-parent their children, the Israel-Palestine conflict is akin to a highly abusive relationship where the abuser has huge wealth and social prestige, and the abused person has been disbelieved by the police for years – and in fact has been punished for resisting the attacks, or occasionally responding to them in a violent manner. Only if the authorities and the abuser finally recognise the nature of this abuse, is it safe or indeed worthwhile for the two parties to attempt any kind of dialogue. Think of the difference between divorce counselling and a bullying tribunal at work. In the former, a neutral mediator helps two people make compromises; in the latter, the victim and the bully have clearly differentiated roles to play in proceedings, and if found guilty the bully will be punished. Again, this is only an analogy, and I apologise to Palestinians who may find it ill-fitting or simplistic. But I think it is worth making because I believe that many Westerners think of dialogue mainly in personal terms.

The ‘dialogue peace camp’ does not offer solidarity to the Palestinians – not just because it does not start from the understanding that the conflict is hugely imbalanced, but because it explicitly forbids such an analysis.  A list of 66 Palestinian-Israeli ‘co-existence’ organisations can be found here, on the website of the British charity Children of Peace. I wish to stress that I am in no way judging the motives of the Palestinians involved in these grassroots organisations. I have not lived their lives, and I have not faced their choices. What I want to highlight here is the fact that Children of Peace only funds groups that sign up to its ‘non-partisan’ values.  These values are expressed in the charity’s claim that, in relation to adults, Israeli and Palestinian children have suffered ‘disproportionately’ from the conflict: to get funding from Children of Peace, organisations are not allowed to politically challenge the fact that, thanks to the occupation, Israeli apartheid and the refugee camps, it is overwhelmingly Palestinian children who have died or been maimed, and who suffer from poverty and lack of educational opportunities.

Children of Peace is a throwback to Empire. The charity is operating like a group of secular Victorian missionaries, providing vital aid only to those who are willing to subscribe to its world-view.  Given the fact that Israel chronically underfunds education, health and basic social services for Arab-Israelis, and systematically attacks the basic infrastructure of Gaza and the West Bank, there is huge financial incentive for Palestinians to sign up to such deals. But without the ability to name the conflict for what it is, such organisations will never be able to effect substantive and lasting change.   As Faris Giacaman argues here, Palestinians have long known that what they call ‘the peace industry’ has not built up significant Palestinian power or leadership:

Based on an unpublished 2002 report by the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, the San Francisco Chronicle reported last October that “between 1993 and 2000 [alone], Western governments and foundations spent between $20 million and $25 million on the dialogue groups.” A subsequent wide-scale survey of Palestinians who participated in the dialogue groups revealed that this great expenditure failed to produce “a single peace activist on either side.” This affirms the belief among Palestinians that the entire enterprise is a waste of time and money.
The survey also revealed that the Palestinian participants were not fully representative of their society. Many participants tended to be “children or friends of high-ranking Palestinian officials or economic elites. Only seven percent of participants were refugee camp residents, even though they make up 16 percent of the Palestinian population.” The survey also found that 91 percent of Palestinian participants no longer maintained ties with Israelis they met. In addition, 93 percent were not approached with follow-up camp activity, and only five percent agreed the whole ordeal helped “promote peace culture and dialogue between participants.”

By insisting on a narrative of two equal parties to conflict, and by making financial aid dependent on Palestinian acquiescence to this narrative, the ‘peace industry’ only reinforces the imbalance of power in the region. This is the process of ‘normalisation’ that the boycott movement decries.

In contrast, the assets of the BDS movement are limited to moral capital only.  And yet it has attracted the broad support of 173 Palestinian grassroots organisations, including many unions, and a growing group of Israeli activists, Boycott from Within. PACBI has the express support of over 60 Palestinian cultural and academic organisations. The BDS movement has not bought this support: on the contrary, boycott advocates within Israel now face severe penalties from Israel – heavy fines or imprisonment – for expressing their views. A solidarity activist can therefore support BDS knowing that the movement represents not only an accurate analysis of the conflict, but also the free and principled self-expression of a huge range of community and professional organisations. No external authority or funding body is dictating the operating terms of these groups. Unlike the ‘dialogue peace camp’, BDS is a purely Palestinian-led political movement with a huge base of mobilised popular support, and is therefore the only option for international activists who wish to work in solidarity with Palestinians.

2) Isn’t cultural boycott ‘a bit witch hunty’?

Rachel Shabi expressed support for divestment, but stated that she felt cultural boycott in particular could be ‘a bit witch-hunty’.  This is not an uncommon reaction to boycott campaigns; I therefore wish to take this opportunity to expand on what I said at SOAS and entirely reject the comparison.

Political witch-hunts involve substantial punishments: the loss of employment, the destruction of one’s career, perhaps even imprisonment.  Modern day ‘witch hunts’ also often involve smear campaigns. The subjects of cultural boycott campaigns are never remotely in any such dangers.

To start with, the boycott targets institutions, not individuals.  When boycott activists direct campaigns toward individuals, it is simply to ask them not to appear in Israel or at Israeli-funded events. If they insist on crossing this picket line, then boycott activists may protest against their activities on that particular tour of the region. Otherwise, activists have never called for the ‘boycott of boycott busters’

Crucially, boycott activists cannot force writers, musicians or artists not to take a gig in Israel: any loss of employment that results from respecting the boycott is entirely voluntary, and amply offset by the reward of right relationship with one’s own conscience.  The only pressure that boycott activists can apply is sustained moral pressure, and to suggest that we should not be doing so verges on questioning our right to protest. I personally have led campaigns politely but persistently requesting high-profile writers not to appear in Israel. These writers are wealthy professionals with teams of publicists, editors and festival staff to support them. If they make a decision to take money from an apartheid state, they ought to be prepared to face a rational public debate about it.

It constantly disappoints me that British writers who appear in Israel do not want to participate in that debate.  I do not possess a tall black hat, a ducking pond, or any kind of power or desire to wound these writers. I just want them to change their minds about shaking hands with ethnic cleansers, and if they cannot do that, then I believe they should at least answer all the questions the BDS movement lays at their doors.

3) Can BDS lead to peace, and if so, how?

This was a question from the audience, and it is a good one. BDS is obviously a controversial strategy because it strikes at the heart of neo-liberal values, and the concept of unlimited free speech; its detractors therefore sometimes argue that adopting BDS only inflames the conflict. I obviously do not agree.

In South Africa, sustained international pressure played a huge role in bringing apartheid to an end. How BDS can help do this in Israel is suggested by a recent article by Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf: the reason the peace process has stalled, he argues, is because for the average Jewish Israeli the status quo is preferable to either the one-state or the two-state solution. The one-state solution would involve the kind of demographic and democratic shift Zionists most fear, and the two-state solution would involve giving up settlements, land and resources.  I am grateful to Boycott from Within activist Ofer Neiman for sending me the link to this article, and for his succinct summation that what boycott does is make the status quo uncomfortable.  BDS is a constant reminder that the world does not approve of the political choices Israel is making.  BDS may in the short-term add to friction, but this friction is necessary grit in the process of real change: change that results in the priceless pearl of justice.

I hope that these responses flesh out my comments on the night. I will also post them on the BWISP FAQs page for ease of future reference.

October 2, 2012

[Oct 9th SOAS Event] Palestine Now: Writers Respond

Filed under: Palestinian Literature — Naomi Foyle @ 3:56 pm
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Palestine Now: Writers Respond

With Bidisha, Rachel Shabi, Selma Dabbagh, Miranda Pennell and Naomi Foyle

Date: 9 October 2012 Time: 5:30 –  7:00 PM

Venue: School of Oriental and African Studies.  Russell Square: College Buildings

Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Lecture

Series: Lecture Programme on the Contemporary Middle East

A panel discussion with Bidisha, journalist for the Guardian, the Observer, the FT and the New Statesman, authors Rachel Shabi and Selma Dabbagh, activist and film-maker Miranda Pennell, and Naomi Foyle, British Writers in Support of Palestine. To coincide with the publication of Bidisha’s fourth book, Beyond the Wall: Writing A Path Through Palestine (Seagull/Chicago University Press).

Organiser: London Middle East Institute

Contact email: vp6@soas.ac.uk

Contact Tel:  020 7898 4490

November 16, 2011

Remi Kanazi: Hope Bearer

Remi Kanazi performed to a capacity crowd at the Friends’ Meeting House in Brighton last night, delivering a host of his signature powerhouse poems, a double whammy of Palestinian and American street cred, and bucketfuls of hope. Organised by the Brighton and Hove Palestine Solidarity Campaign, this gig was the fourth in Remi’s long-announced UK tour – a dizzying 22 shows in 18 days.  He’s acclimatized quickly: ‘Don’t call it my UK tour,’ he begs us, ‘I’m not going to Scotland or Wales – I’ll get in trouble.’ (Don’t forget Northern Ireland, Remi!) The remark gives a small measure of the man: as well as an internationally regarded poet and activist, Remi’s a kidder, a clowner and a master of self-deprecation: an artist both deeply engaged and engaging.

Remi introduces himself as an ex-fat boy, the only brown kid in a small mid-Western school, afflicted with a mono-eyebrow and a mother who was loudly proud of being Palestinian; and while it’s clear his politics stem from being the grandson of four 1948 refugees, and his poetry was honed in post 9-/11 New York, one imagines that his humour developed from playground self-preservation techniques. For his show, though built around the urgent, often angry poems of his new collection Poetic Injustice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine, abounds with humour. Like a comedian, he gets up close with the front row, in ways that may make older British people uncomfortable except that Remi’s introduced himself before the show, and is clearly eager to make friends. He needs to cast the audience as interlocutors at times because his very vocal poems — sometimes addressed to real-life opponents he can’t get out of his head — explore and enact a raging cultural dialogue about racism, violence, and the desperate need for change. Packed with a one-two punch of history and determination, these are poems that travel: today’s audience is composed mainly of local activists – though one of the UK’s top hiphop artists rolls in late after getting lost on the way from London — but Remi’s equally at home with crowds of a thousand, all hungry for emotion served like a good steak: not raw, but rare.

For Remi’s anger is seared by his own unique take on the poet-performer’s craft: eschewing obvious rhymes, his poems meld the rhythms of rap poetry and impassioned speech, and are performed with a dancer’s ethos: mind, body and spirit working as one. Remi often places his fist on his heart, and then opens his hand out to the audience – a physical symbol of the way poetry transforms anger into communication. His topics range from family history and events in the Middle East, to the current American political climate (prophetically, Remi was an Obama-sceptic even before his election) and the vital importance of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Here he gives us an artist’s eye view – BDS, he explains in answer to a question, is directed against the Israeli state and its complicit institutions, and doesn’t mean a person can’t perform in a private café or home within the 1948 borders.

But while they impart a ton of information to arm us for the arguments the topic of Palestine inevitably provokes, Remi Kanazi’s poems also gift us memorable imagery:

my grandmother
still fills tear ducts
with longing memories of Yaffa

(‘Home’)

just because the house you built is beautiful
doesn’t mean the bones you built it on
have fully decomposed

(‘Only as Equals’)

Of Middle Eastern civilians, whose quest for justice goes unseen by the poet’s trendy twenty-something peers, he writes:

… they are human beings
gracing the windowpane
reflecting stillborn images
they are voices
chiming in choirs and temples
they are life
that won’t be forgotten
they are the world’s shiver
and whether you like it or not
they are coming inside

(‘Before the Machetes are Raised’)

At the ripe old age of twenty-seven himself, Remi is already a veteran campaigner, whose poetry has taken him all over North America, Europe and the Middle East, and whose political commentaries have been featured by news outlets including Al Jazeera English, GRITtv and BBC Radio. As a Palestinian writer and performer, remaking poetry for a new generation, he helps gives the struggle for justice an enormous shot of hope. For in the last 100 years the Palestinians have faced two main enemies: Zionism and international indifference. And if the latter is largely based on ignorance of the Palestinian people, culture and communication are the antidotes. In her groundbreaking memoir of post-48 exile, In Search of Fatima, Ghada Karmi recounts meeting Tony Benn early on in her activist life: give me something to work with, he asked – give me something to match Jewish literature, music and suffering in the minds of the general population. Well, the Palestinians have always had culture, especially poetry, but now, in Remi Kanazi, Suheir Hammad and Selma Dabbagh, among others, they have young writers who are bicultural, media savvy and only just flexing their collective muscle.  This is a potential game-changer; a cause for immense hope.

Remi Kanazi is today fit, confident, and boasts beautifully threaded brows – a walking advertisement for the benefits of poetry and politics. Though as he asks – what’s political about wanting your basic human rights? Another of his piping hot takeaway lines; lines that, in the end, take you back to his book. Poetic Injustice. Buy it here

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