Bringing The Margins To The Page




S

uheir
Hammad is one of eight featured poets in Russell Simmons’


Def
Poetry Jam

, a Tony-winning Broadway show of spoken word. A Brooklyn-based
Palestinian poet who has contributed to many progressive movements.
Hammad’s unique voice is showcased in her poetry book

Born
Palestinian, Born Black

and her memoir

Drops of this Story








KATZ







:
Please tell us about your family history.






HAMMAD:
I was born in 1973 in Amman, Jordan. My parents are 1948 refugees
from Lod and Ramle [in what is now Israel]. Both sets of my grandparents
were forced out soon after 1948 and settled in Jordan. I emigrated
to Brooklyn when I was five. I’m the eldest of five children. 


Because
my mom was raised on the periphery of the camps and my father was
raised within them, they have very different sensibilities and different
relationships to the idea of Palestine. My father’s narrative
as a child of the refugee camps is the one that really has been
most silenced and marginalized. 


My
mother’s working class family eventually felt that they were
Jordanian citizens, although they identified as Palestinians ethnically.
But this was their lot: Palestine was gone. My father’s perspective
on Palestine was different because in the 1960s and 1970s, young
men and women from the camps were drawn into the Palestinian movement.
So he literally grew up in a war zone. The spectrum of Palestinian
identities that my parents represent helps me view my own identity
through as large a scope as possible. 




Your
poetry represents a politics of inter-connectedness and internationalism,
not narrow identity politics. 



I’d
like to think that, but for most people it is the first time they
hear a Palestinian woman speaking in her own voice. The work becomes
identity politics to people who haven’t before recognized your
identity and that can be challenging. 


Other
Palestinians feel like my writing and the body of my work is so
much more inclusive than they would choose to represent Palestine.
But Palestine has never been a separate entity for me. It’s
always been at the center of my belief in self-determination and
the need for a democratic society. For some people that center has
to be sexuality because their sexuality has been marginalized. For
others it is their skin color. For me, it is my Palestinian identity. 


One
of the dangers in the Palestinian/Israeli tragedy is that it is
talked about all the time, but to the detriment of other conflicts
and tragedies—for instance AIDS in Africa, Sierra Leone, Chiapas.
But it is just talk, the regurgitation of the same ideas, the same
paradigms, the same black and white conversation. The majority of
people feel they have a grasp of the situation because they see
it in the headlines every day, but there’s no real engagement
with what occupation means, with the displacement of the 1948 refugees
and with the kind of karma that creates. 




The
word occupation has been “popularized” by the war on Iraq.
How does that impact on the discourse about Palestine? 



The
mainstream conversation we are allowed to have on Israel is always
framed by certain absolutes: Israeli’s right to exist, the
acknowledgement of the horror of suicide bombing, and Israel’s
superior military and economic power. Whether they’re right
or wrong doesn’t matter; you can’t enter the conversation
without those requirements. 




How
do you view the demographic arguments Israel often raises?



It
is a manipulation. Golda Meir once said: We are the Palestinians.
Another time she said: There’s no Palestinian people. On October
25, 1972, exactly one year before I was born, she also said: I can’t
sleep at night knowing how many Arab babies are being born this
same night. It is an interesting quote to bring up to people who
will call you anti-Semitic for criticizing Israel because it is
an inherently racist idea to think that every Palestinian infant
is born to create a living hell, or insomnia, for Golda Meir. This
is a strain that is still found. It is the ancestor of, “They
raise their children to be suicide bombers. They raise their children
to kill.” Where does this idea come from, that a whole population
is so different from us, from civilized people, that a whole people
would birth to murder?





Part
of the power of your written work is that you make judgments based
on opinions and actions, not ethnicity.



The
majority of ignorant responses I get are not based on nationality,
but on religion. When we were previewing on Broadway, it was consistently
brought up to producers that this cacophony of urban voices did
not include a Jewish voice. I seriously wonder if I had not been
included in the original cast if those concerns would have been
raised. 


I
like to point out that every Jewish voice is not Zionist—it’s
a spectrum like any other ideology. I hope that all of us can meet
one another where our actions lead us, but not where our religion
or gender dictates us to be. 


I
had a note from someone who came to the show complaining about my
poem “We Spent The 4th of July in Bed.” What I’m
trying to do in that poem is shed light on child labor, the slave
sex trade, poverty, and, yes, the specific murder of Palestinian
youth. There are so many stories that are not fashionable in the
forefront of our consciousness. 


In
that poem, I’m very clear not to identify the gender of the
lover. Straight people assume I’m talking to a guy. Queer people
generally are grateful that the gender isn’t specified. When
I say “lover” instead of my man, I am artistically creating
a safe space for my queer audience to step in and relate to the
poem. Now why can’t certain people relate to the poem because
I mention Palestinian youth? Why does that bar them from entering
this poem? 




What
has been your experience as a Palestinian and poet since September
11?



I
did not get to do [my post-September 11] poem on Broadway. I can’t
speak for the reasons for the creative decision. I was reminded
weekly that I was the first Palestinian woman on Broadway. It shapes
every aspect of my work, because I’m very sensitive to the
fact that other third world, refugee, marginalized young girls need
to look at me and say to their parents: I can do that without being
naked, I can do that without my sexuality introducing me. I can
tell our stories in our own vernacular, in our own worldview. I’m
honored to carry that responsibility. 


The
audience reminds you, when some of the people walk out. In Boston,
a woman in the front row was with me in that poem, until I said
“Palestinian youth dead, absorbing rubber bullets”…and
then she had an urge to rummage through her bag. In San Francisco,
I had people get on their [cell] phones while I was reading that
poem. I’ve had coughing campaigns through that poem. 




Please
describe your publishing history and the particular barriers you’ve
encountered.



My
first two books came out within months of each other. My late publisher,
Glen Thompson, was an African American, who had very socialist utopian
ideas in the late 1960s and left Queens, New York to live in Israel
on a kibbutz. He was perceived to be a Palestinian because of his
complexion and genotype. He left America’s paradigm of race
relations only to be rudely awakened into Israel’s paradigm
of race relations. He went back to Europe and America and created
a publishing company for the work of Black poets and writers. 


Three
decades later, Glen Thompson came full circle with his disillusionment
and his awareness of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and its relationship
and connect- edness to the struggle for self-determination around
the world. He took a lot of flak from everybody for publishing this
Palestinian girl from the ghetto. I wasn’t African American.
I wasn’t Jewish. But he took the chance because of his own
personal experience. He died in 2001. I really believe that he made
a contribution to healing that wound, that trauma, by making my
work public.







Why
haven’t you been published by a New York commericial house? 



I
cannot meet one person in publishing or now in the theater world
without them having to connect with me solely on Israel. Oh, my
uncle lives in Israel. Where in Israel are you from? Horrible suicide
bombings. I believe people are trying to connect, but they connect
on something, which is not a valid conversation. My identity is
only referenced to a Jewish identity. Because of that, any criticism
of the state of Israel is easily and dangerously labeled anti-Semitic.
And no one wants to be thought of as an anti-Semite. 


I
don’t create this conversation. I am consistently asked to
engage in the misappropriation of language. Do you mean anti-Semitism
or do you mean anti-Jewish racism? I’m seen as aggressive,
hostile. As a poet, I am painfully aware that I have to be very
specific in my language. So getting into the conversation of being
myself a Semite is not, at the age of 30, something I’m interested
in doing. 




Is
the battle for precise language wider than that? 



I
deal with this within the Palestinian communities. I’m very
clear about the difference between Zionism and Judaism. For Palestinian
boys in the West Bank, the majority of whom have been in Israeli
prisons and experienced physical torture, every occupier they know,
regardless of their physical race, is a Jew. Yet I expect them to
not say, I hate the Jews. I expect them to say, I hate Zionism.
That’s not fair of me. My responsibility then is to share what
I know and there are many Palestinians who do make that distinction.
Whether or not they work with Jews, their analysis is clear, based
on the facts on the ground. So if I can see that kind of language
abuse within the Palestinian communities, I can see it in other
communities. There isn’t one community that has ownership over
backward ideas. I don’t get mad or deeply offended when U.S.
Jews don’t make the distinction between Zionism and Judaism
because Palestinians don’t always make it. But it’s my
responsibility to make that clear. 




Please
tell about the experience of performing in the Tony-winning



Def
Poetry Jam





It’s
pretty amazing to be introduced at the top of the show as being
from Brooklyn by way of Palestine. My cast members joke about how
the first year of the show was really difficult for me. I often
felt at odds with the audience. I felt insecure because I wasn’t
making the audience laugh, wasn’t giving a physical performance.
I was just reciting my poem. The majority of the audience is there
for entertainment and relaxation. You are actually engaging them
in analysis and content that is very foreign for those of us who
only get our news from corporate media and whose imaginations are
shaped by Hollywood images. 


I
understand that my presence in the show is often an entry point
for the majority of the audience into these uncomfortable conversations.
It’s not fun being the entry-way. 


That
kind of performance speaks to the anxiety in the audience, people
who have always wanted to stand up and scream. I’m proud of
that. Members of the audience never before felt that their everyday
experience could be rendered into art. If we didn’t have moments
of pure laughter or pure pop culture, there’s no way I could
do what I do. 


Performing
in Boston has been an amazing experience. [We thought] that we were
either going to incite a race riot or inspire some real conversation
about culture. Whereas on Broadway we did matinee shows where there
were no people of color in the audience. There are communities where
the affirmation of your words is the responsibility of the audience,
whereas there are audiences where any distraction or interruption
is considered rude. The amazing thing about Boston has been this
mix of the strata—economically, racially, all these differences
we construct. Each segment of the audience allows the other permission
to respond in a new way. So suddenly you have middle-aged, middle
class white people who are responding, affirming in the middle of
a poem. Then you have people of color who, because of the presence
of the traditional white audience, are given permission to listen.
For me, the mix is a blessing that we allow the middle ground where
the words and the performance matter. 




Do
you have any specific messages for us? 



I
would remind people that we have never made progress on our thinking
and our agendas without being uncomfortable. The vast majority of
progressive circles are apologetic about Israel’s actions.
They live in fear of being manipulated into the right-wing’s
anti-Jewish venom and people need to let that fear go and engage
in the truth of this human tragedy. There has to be a space for
anti-Zionist Jewish voices and there has to be a space for Palestinian
narratives—which will conflict with one another, which will
not always be progressive, will not always be as radical as we want
them to be. But it is our responsibility as people who engage in
this kind of art, to engage in the uncomfortable.





I’ve
learned a lot from queer theory and queer political thought on pushing
the envelope and understanding the necessity for art and thought
that goes beyond my threshold of comfort. We have to bring that
paradigm into this conversation. What queer theory has done is question
the very fundamentals of everything we believe about our desires,
our biology, and our society. I believe we should use that type
of thinking in approaching any situation where we’re trying
to resolve a conflict. Do not assume the other person’s story. 




Tell
us about the collaborative poem you do with two other



Def

poets.



I
love doing that poem because it’s one of the few times in the
show where we acknowledge our inspiration, our mentors. I talk about
June Jordan, Jayne Cortex, Sapphire, and Mahmoud Darwish. I was
writing part of that poem the week June Jordan died. To be able
to say her name every night and to bring her radical aesthetic to
the attention of an audience, most of whom will not go out and get
her book. But the next time they see her name, they’ll remember
her from

Def Poetry Jam

and maybe they’ll look her up
and become acquainted with her amazing body of work. 


At
the end of the show there is a swarm of voices. I am saying Mumia
Abu Jamal, Leonard Pelltier, Asada Shakur, Fred Hampton, George
Jackson, Paul Robeson. Even within this group there are some conflicting
opinions, some nationalistic, some communistic, some homophobic—but
the point is to honor them and bring their voices to the attention
of people. It’s not about you. You have a responsibility to
bring the margins to the page.



 





Sue Katz is a
freelance writer based in Boston, Massachusetts.