April 7, 2021KR OnlineNonfiction

Between the Familiar and the Familiar

Writing is connected to voting at its very core, in the sense that it is essentially about making a choice. This does not only manifest itself in making the choice to write or to become a poet, as in my case, but it also manifests itself on a micro level, in the very process of choosing what to leave from your experiences with the world in your art and what words to fix on the page. But, most importantly here, for someone born in Palestine, writing was as close as I could get to voting, to having that space that allowed me a choice. It provided me with the awareness of my right to a voice—before I was aware of my right to vote. Words and how they are chosen, used and displayed were very dangerous toys in my childhood—I have seen people arrested by Israeli soldiers, or even shot at, for trying to write the word “Palestine” on a wall.  Living under Israeli occupation before I came to the US meant that I didn’t exist as a “citizen” to have a vote. It’s even more accurate to say that voting, even the very mention of the process, for a Palestinian, is a constant reminder of the inability to vote.

This is one of the essential ironies of being a Palestinian: living adjacent to the democratic process while never allowed to participate in it. We certainly followed the Israeli elections closely to see who will control us and how, and we certainly paid the price of that process just as any under-privileged and un-represented group would. Voting meant power, and we were not allowed to exercise that power. We only lived what other people’s vote brought us. During my childhood, I heard adults discussing how the policies of the “Iron Fist” implemented by Yitzhak Rabin won him a term as the Israeli prime minister; these policies meant tangible things we all experienced: house searches, demolition of homes, brutal arrests—but most hauntingly for me as a child, and still as an adult, is the image of Israeli soldiers holding a young Palestinian in place as they attempt to break his arm with stone. A traumatic experience that I could only talk about in a poem:

the law is clear, an eye
for an eye, an ear for an ear:

arms hold hands, hands
hold arms: and the stone

is raised in the air, then
here and here: bones

break in images: there
there, calm yourself

down, and down again:
hunted, now you can

haunt: the shatterings
underneath purple flesh

the blood pulsing in vein to
vein, and the spill that stains

Becoming a citizen of the US in the summer of 2018 interrupted my awkward existence as a “non-citizen” or as a “nobody.” Somehow (as the displaced of the earth tend to do out of necessity) I have settled in that shadowy existence for so long. I even felt at home in the restlessness of exile, in being a passing figure, rather than a recognized political reality (for what did recognized-political realities ever bring to us, the Palestinians?!). That existence had poetic resonance even before I read the famous lines by Emily Dickinson, “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—too?” Yes, becoming a US citizen gave me the right to vote, but it also brought to me things for which I didn’t bargain: the guilt of belonging, the fear of losing my connection to my people, and most hauntingly, of losing my voice as poet, of losing what I have to say.

I experienced it on a political level, too: even with the right to vote as a US citizen now, my choices in American elections are always between the familiar and the familiar. Never has there been a dent in this equation, especially in the choices “we” had in 2020 (and now I might venture to speak as an American). It’s not ironic that the only willing candidate to apply the humanistic equation equally, and to all, including to Palestinians, was a secular Jew from Brooklyn—the only American presidential candidate we didn’t see hurrying to lobby for AIPAC! What is truly ironic, however, was how our choices as Americans (of vast and diverse backgrounds) had to boil down, or simmer down rather, to the two we had in 2020. At a time when everything seemed to be uprooted by mounting and mounting inequalities, especially in the way the pandemic has been handled in the US, and let me add in Israel—for it is forced upon my existence as a point of reference—“we the people” seemed to be still reserved for flat-out racism and its liberal white cover. This is at a time when the communities most devasted by COVID remain in both places, the ghettoized, disenfranchised, and underrepresented in the democratic system: African Americans and Palestinians. Israel’s management of the pandemic, its quick and efficient vaccination plans, was only reserved for Israelis and continues to be denied to Palestinians whose borders and access to the outside world is in the hands of a system that excels in building dividers and separation walls.


I do feel that I return to writing to make my real choice in this country. Writing, and composing poetry in particular, is a pact with the unfamiliar. But the question remains for me: how do we connect the poetic with the political in the US? How can the right to a voice be a guide to our right to a vote? I still have no American candidate for whom I can cast my vote and feel that I have made the right choice. My only exit out of this dilemma is not to disassociate myself from the process, but to exercise solidarity. For me, this means a compromise; it is about recognizing something beyond my own cause. I do wish, however, that the American equation would pay me back with solidarity, as a Palestinian, and as an Arab. Yes, I voted for what the moment demanded, but I wish “the left” would do more to recognize the American role in creating injustices around the world. I wish that the domestic causes of liberal democrats would not blind them again and again to seeing that the role of American governments—left and right—has been to “incite violence” and to create disorder as we all saw in the events of storming the Capital Hill. For the first time in US history, people experienced firsthand, although very briefly in comparison to many lingering issues that US policies have created in other countries, the devastation and anxiety this scene could produce for a country and its people. I wish that solidarity would mean: a stepping out of the American equation for once, that the value of a human existence would not be measured by the fight to preserve privilege for the ones who hold the same political views we hold, who advocate the same causes we adopt, or by the demands of the specific identities into which we have settled. This is, again, what I gathered from my experience as a Palestinian, and not from my “identification” as a Palestinian.  “Identity” has been always, to me, that stepping into the abyss of “democracy.” It has meant in my experience one thing: to have to show my Israeli issued ID card to a soldier in order to “pass.” The American equation has not been very different for me.

When I applied for my American passport a few years ago, I received a letter informing me that my passport cannot be issued because my birth city does not match my country of origin. Of course! When I applied for my American citizenship I put “Palestine” as my country of origin. This was changed without my consent to “Jordan” on the citizenship application—and I cannot tell you how many times it has been done in my experience as an immigrant in this country. “Palestine” does not exist for the US. When it came to “issuing” my American passport, the mismatching created by the system itself created a problem for me, the new citizen. Then I had no recourse but to poetry, feeling like one of Gwendolyn Brook’s lines, saying to myself: “I am not anything, and I have got / Not anything, or anything to do!”

But the poetic moment also meant waiting anxiously for weeks on end for the recognition to take place, for the issue to be resolved. Initially, I had insisted on writing “Palestine” on the application, and now I was being punished for making that choice. When I finally got my passport, the phrase “West Bank” was substituted for my country of origin. This, I understood when I traveled with that passport. It was not only an erasure of who I am but also a way to mark me around the world—and if only I can relate some of those stories, but I’m running out of space at it is, as Palestinians usually do. Even with the American passport, I was not fully “a citizen.” I was made to be reminded of it every time I pulled that passport, just as I was reminded of it when I had to consider my choices and cast the first vote in my life in the presidential elections of 2020.

Writing and reading the poets I love—and mention here for others to consider reading— remains my preferred space in the US, or the space where I feel I make the best choices. It is not a substitute for an actual place, unfortunately—the loss of the first place is a reality with which refugees and exiles have to contend all their lives; it cannot be compensated by anything. But for now, I find it refreshing to go back to writing, to free myself of the American familiar; to see that the processes in which a writer engages can still be salvaged from everyday life and not from any political identification. It is refreshing to me to be able to create that space outside of my American life—in which I often feel either excluded or forced to perform my identity as an “other.” It is refreshing to me to be able to return and repeat the sentiments, the essential poetic formula of disrupting the familiar that I quoted from the American poetry I love by Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks, and which I find again in a simple line of poetry by one of my favorite poets in the Arabic tradition, the ninth-century poet Abu Tammam:

لا أنت أنت ولا الديار ديار

You are not you: those homes

No longer homes.

If we could translate more of that poetic into the political—without the usual markers of difference, without the exhibition of diversity as an end in itself— then maybe we have a chance at salvaging American politics from its all too familiar terms.