Both Israeli and Arab, a poet straddles a conflict
Marwan Makhoul, a Palestinian poet living in Israel, writes of his precarious position, perched on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.
Our interview has barely begun when Marwan Makhoul says to me, “It’s not easy for me to be interviewed by an Israeli newspaper. We, the Palestinian residents of Israel, are threatened by both sides, the Arab and the Israeli. We’re neither here nor there. We haven’t found a fitting definition for ourselves.”
Makhoul, an Arab poet, and I, a Jewish journalist, are together to discuss the Hebrew-language publication of his book, “Land of the Sad Passiflora.” Many of the poems in this volume, he tells me, come straight out of his own biography.
Makhoul’s father is Palestinian and his mother is Lebanese. In one piece of verse, he writes, “There are things I don’t understand/because I am not Israeli/but also not entirely Palestinian.” Later on, he declares, “My homeland is a young woman who was raped/I will marry her.”
The Arabs who live in Israel, he tells me, have a unique predicament. Comparisons made to the immigrant Jews who came from Morocco, Russia or Iraq don’t hold up.
“Our situation is completely different,” he says. “We stayed put and others simply changed our country’s name and its political character. You could say that our homeland changed countries.”
The rift between Jews and Arabs, he says, often feels insurmountable.
Makhoul recalls how one day he came home from work and saw a group of Arab children and a group of Jewish children standing and staring at each other. “A small smile even flickered across their mouths, but it was like they were looking at complete strangers, someone they had been forbidden to approach,” Makhoul says.
“They stood a few meters away from one another but the distance between them was enormous. And that distance will remain as long as their parents do nothing to change it."
This incident happened in the northern Israeli city of Ma’alot, where Makhoul and his wife have lived since 2004. They moved there from the village of Peki’in, where the poet was born in 1979. He could have stayed in his hometown, he tells me, but he preferred to chart his own course.
“I am a young man,” he says, “and I couldn’t buy land in my own village because it’s very expensive. After all, no new Arab villages were established after 1948, and since 1950, the ones in existence haven’t expanded one bit. So the land is forever becoming more expensive. A dunam on the mountainside in [the Arab village of] Sakhnin costs NIS 1 million today.”
This skewed ratio of supply and demand does nothing to remedy the double standard between Jewish and Arab housing, he says.
“When residents of Arab villages ask to spread out, they get a ridiculous answer. They are told, ‘Build up; why do you have to build new houses on the ground?’ So I ask, why don’t they build up in Mitzpe Hila [a Jewish town in northern Israel]? Aside from that, people who live in multiple-storey buildings and are used to that can build up, but I am connected to the ground. I came from a tent and don’t want to distance myself from the ground; it’s part of my soul."
Q. Why did you choose to live in Ma’alot?
“I moved there, as they say, to ‘settle,’” he says, and laughs. “To show Jews that it’s possible to coexist. Not the type of coexistence where you come to our towns to eat our hummus, but actual coexistence. A shared life. To marry one another – why not? Most Jews are secular, so what’s the problem?”
That rosy dream, however, was quickly subject to a severe reality check. When Makhoul and his wife moved, he says, they found Ma’a lot to be filled with both secular and devout Jews, spanning every part of the religious spectrum. The religious Jews were committed to staying in their homes, but the secular ones, they found, were skittish in the couple’s presence.
“The minute Arabs began buying homes there, the secular Jews and the non-extremist religious Jews began to leave, sending property values down,” says Makhoul. “Why did they run away? What’s so bad about an Arab lawyer or Arab accountant?”
But real estate is a fickle thing, and property values were once again pushed up when radical settlers decided to “Judaize” the neighborhood where Makhoul lives, knocking on doors and offering to buy the Arab residents out.
“Some of the Arabs agreed to sell,” he says. “They didn’t move here because of ideology or some desire to take over the area. They came here because of basic needs. Even when you compare structures in the settlements and Arab villages, you see a difference. The settlement appears artificial, all the homes look the same; it’s not natural growth like in the village, which stems from human needs.”
In the book “Israeli City or City in Israel? Questions of Identity, Meanings and Power,” editors Haim Yacobi and Tobi Fenster write, “Of the 12 Arab or mixed cities that existed before the establishment of the state, Palestinian residents remain in only seven of them, and they too have also lost their economic, political and cultural elite. The harm to Palestinian urban culture that developed up to 1948 also set the image of the Palestinian population as a population that was rural, weak and politically and culturally peripheral, and economically dependent on the Jewish city.”
Q. So how is life in Ma’alot now?
“Very bad. I’m like a single dot of white floating in a vast sea of black. A sea of skullcaps. This sea is not black because of the particular religion, but because of religious extremism. My neighbors don’t say hello to me anymore.”
Aside from being a poet, Makhoul is also a civil engineer and the CEO of a construction firm. His first book, “A Letter from the Last Man,” was published in 2002. In 1997 he won the weekly Kul al-Arab’s Young Writer Award. He participated in a translation workshop organized by the Helicon Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel, and in 2008 was chosen to represent the young poets of the Arab world at the World Culture Festival in Italy. He won the outstanding playwright award for his play, “Not Noah’s Ark,” which was shown at the 2009 Masrahid Festival in Acre.
The word and the pain behind the word
“Land of the Sad Passiflora,” which was published in Hebrew in 2011, won the Palestinian Poets’ Association’s Mahmoud Darwish Prize for a work of Palestinian poetry. Twelve translators worked on the book’s Hebrew translation (the Hebrew edition includes excerpts from the original book alongside other poems by Makhoul).
The book was edited by Almog Behar, a poet and author, and a conversation that he had with Makhoul appears at the end. On Saturday, September 29, 2012, the book was launched at the Arab-Hebrew Theatre Center at the Jaffa Theatre. Participants included Sasson Somech, Ronny Someck, Rafi Weichert, Almog Behar, Mira Awad and Norman Issa.
You cannot translate a heartbeat
Of course, things were lost in translation in this new volume.
“Poetry, even in one’s mother tongue, is a thing that is complex and not easily understood,” Makhoul says. “That is even more true when it is translated into a different language. Translation in general emasculates the poem, and sometimes the translation conveys what the translator understood and not what the poet wanted to say. The original poem can be compared to a beating heart. The translator comes along and creates a heart, with all the arteries and veins, and even paints it red. But he cannot translate the heartbeat. So, to a certain extent, a poem that has been translated into another language is a heart without a heartbeat, or a heartbeat with a defect.”
He believes that Hebrew, however, spares some of the original.
“First of all, the Israeli translator is familiar with the atmosphere in which I write and the place where I write,” he says. Sometimes he knows the music of the poem. In addition, the translated poet – myself, in this case – knows the second language, and I can read the result. I am sure that not everything was conveyed in the translation, but it still makes a person happy to see their compositions rendered in another language and still conveying the poetic and political message. It’s a new creation, actually.”
Q. Do you think it is a good thing that the book was not translated by a single translator?
“On the one hand, there are actually twelve voices here, and that could hurt the book because there is no single unifying voice. On the other hand, the abundance of voices can help the reader identify my voice, the poet’s voice, the common denominator that runs through all the poems. If there had been a single translator, his voice would have taken control of the book.
“I worked with Almog for two years,” he adds. “He knows the word and the pain behind the word. This book is another brick in our wall of cooperation, his and mine. I don’t think that another editor would have succeeded in doing what Almog did with this book. I owe Almog and Rafi Weichert [the owner of Keshev Press] a great deal of gratitude. If not for their efforts, the book would not have been published.”
The poet king of Nazareth
Most contemporary Hebrew poets have at least a small circle of admirers, but when Makhoul walks into the Nostalgia restaurant in Nazareth, he gets the true royal treatment. Customers and owners alike greet him, inquire into his health and well-being. They fawn over him, congratulate him, treat him like a king.
What does all this fanfare mean? Does Arab culture hold poetry in higher esteem than Hebrew culture?
“Even in Arab culture, poetry is not what it once was,” says Makhoul. “Today, there is so much art published via new media, and there are things that interest audiences more. People are looking for different things. The golden age of books of poetry was in the 1960s and the 1970s. But what are we going to do? Are we going to stop writing poetry? No. Instead of not writing poetry, we’ll modernize it. We’ll use YouTube, add music, theater and the like.”
According to Makhoul, Arab poets, too, face empty rooms at their poetry readings, and they, too, rely on each other to read their words aloud.
“But I decided to do something about it,” he says. “I decided to make a change. When I was 20 years old, I wanted to read poems on Nakba Day in front of 20,000 people. Everybody was amazed to see a young man standing in front of such a large audience, reading poems with such confidence. And I enjoyed it. I love it. It’s good for a poet to be applauded. It makes him write more. And then, people started inviting me to all the big events, like Land Day. That’s how people started to get to know me and my poetry.”
When Makhoul felt that he had enough followers, he decided to hold readings in major halls.
“They told me, ‘You’re out of your mind. Hundreds of people won’t come, like you think they will.’ But I felt that I had an audience already. I did an evening with saxophonist Yamen Odeh and oud player Alaa Azzam. I read my poems while they played melodies in the background. I did seven readings like that and every single one was sold out.”
Q. Do you make a living from poetry?
“No. I don’t take money for myself for those readings. I don’t want my poetry to be subject to money. I donated all the money from those performances to cultural organizations.”
Hitler is a lousy dominoes player
Q. Do you feel that there is a difference between a performance of yours in Ramallah and one in Haifa?
“Yes. There’s a difference. The audience in Haifa understands my conflict better. It understands the complex situation that I’m in because they’re in the same situation. It’s more difficult for the audience in Ramallah to understand that. They’re in a completely different situation.”
Makhoul says that he would like to integrate into Israel, but finds it hard to do so under the current conditions.
“For that to really happen, a lot of things need to change,” he says. “I need to receive recognition for my identity, recognition for my Palestinian culture, true, not partial, equality, without [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman’s fear of the demographic situation dictating the way I’m treated. It’s hard for me to identify with something because I’m forced to. I want to identify with it in a way that is honest. I want to do it with emotion. That’s the job of the one who adopted me. He’s the one who has to make it happen, not I. Without negating my full identity as a Palestinian. I didn’t come to this country from outside. It came to me. It needs to convince me of its legitimacy. It has the burden of proof. Once, I wrote a sentence that aroused a lot of opposition. I wrote: ‘Hitler, you are an awful dominoes player. You tipped the Jews onto me, but I didn’t fall down.’”
Why Rachel Corrie, and not I?
The Palestinian question, Makhoul says, isn’t necessarily about territory.
“Even if the Palestinians come and say, ‘We don’t want anything, we have no demands of you, take us and do with us as you wish,’ the Jews in the state would still face a problem. They don’t really want the Arabs to integrate,” he says. “In a certain sense, it’s convenient for the State of Israel to be in a constant state of war.
“There are quite a few Jews in Israel that I have more of a common denominator with than people from Yemen or Saudi Arabia,” he says. “But I won’t give up on my people. Why can Rachel Corrie identify with Gaza and I can’t? I speak as a human being. I’m shocked by what’s happening in Gaza, and I’m just as shocked by a terror attack on Dizengoff Street. In both incidents, it is my side that has been wounded.”
Demographic fear, Makhoul says, blocks true peace. In his opinion, Israel must recognize the Palestinians’ right of return to their land. “I understand the problem that the Jews have with the right of return, and I understand the Jewish teenager who was born in a home in Haifa. It’s not his fault that his home was stolen from Arabs. But I also understand the old Palestinian man whose home was stolen in the first place. I don’t make a comparison between the sides, but I understand both of them,” he says.
Do you want an audience, or do you want the truth?
He does not understand why Jews are afraid to live alongside Arabs. “The Mizrahim [Jews of North African and Middle Eastern descent] lived well in the Arab countries before Zionism began,” he says. “All the attacks that took place in Baghdad and in other places – the Zionists were involved in them. They did it in order to create the impression that there was a problem with the Arabs and that they should immigrate to Israel. It’s a fact that before the 1940s, there were no attacks on Jews. They lived very well there. It’s a fact that wise people such as Sasson Somekh and Sami Michael say that things were good there. They know the truth. They never bought into those lies.”
Makhoul writes poetry that touches on political and social subjects, but does so without defaulting to easy slogans or cliches.
“It’s easy to become well-known and make a lot of noise with slogans,” he says. “You have to ask yourself: Do you want an audience, or do you want the truth? As time passes, only the truth will remain. There’s a proverb that says that as time passes, only the stones remain in the wadi, while the water flows away. Those who swim with the current disappear and are forgotten. There’s another proverb that says that only a dead fish swims with the current. It’s the easiest thing to be ingratiating, but those who please everybody never please themselves.”
In his poems, Makhoul is careful to maintain a human, personal perspective. Many times, his poems deal with day-to-day situations, seemingly mundane anecdotes that serve as microcosms of complexity for the precarious place he calls him.
In one poem, he describes a trip to Tel Aviv by rail, during which the speaker contemplates the passengers on the train – a Russian woman, a laborer, a Moroccan Jew and a young Ethiopian man looking at the window “at the remains of an Arab village – that means nothing to him.”
In another poem, “An Arab at Ben-Gurion Airport,” Makhoul describes the unpleasantness that so many Arabs arriving in Israel by air brace themselves for. The female security guard asks the speaker the usual questions of the security inspection. “She said/Do you have any sharp objects in your possession?/My feelings, I answered.”
Even though Makhoul’s poems deal with complex situations, not to mention tragic ones, he often uses humor and irony. In his poem about the airport, for example, he writes, “The security guard hands me over to the police officer/who frisked me all of a sudden and called out:/What’s that?/My national organ, I say.”
In another ironic poem, entitled “Long live the homeland! Onward, O homeland!” he writes, “I am in favor of a Jewish state/from Zimbabwe to the Goat Islands,” and adds, “I know/that I am worthy of coastal cities like Acre/I make them the fastest food I can.”
Yearning and the absence of roots
Because of his status in Arab culture, as well as the political slant of so many of his poems, comparisons to the late, beloved Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish seem inevitable.
Darwish died in 2008. Does he intend to fill those shoes?
“I love Darwish, maybe even too much,” says Makhoul, who dedicated a poem to Darwish in which he writes: “How will we finish the story on our own while it still hops along?”
But he doesn’t want to carry on a torch that someone else has already lit.
“Darwish was my hero. In a certain sense, that hurt me for a certain period of time. It took me some time to break free from him,” he says. “I don’t want to be Darwish’s successor. Not at all. I don’t want to be a second Darwish. I want to be Marwan Makhoul. I want my own personality, my own world.”
Other great influences, Makhoul says, are the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, the Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef, and the Kurdish poet Lukman Derky.
But they are influences rather than direct guides. “I don’t know whether a comparison can be made between them. I can talk about the strengths and weaknesses that I see in each one. While I love the classical Arabic poetry of the past, I don’t particularly like most of the modern Arab poets who write classical Arabic poetry. It’s far from reality. I don’t like it that poets today write poems about camels and deserts instead of writing about a Mazda 6 and Facebook. The Arab poets yearn for the times when they were strong, when their culture was in power.
It’s hard for them to let that go. It’s a mental problem,” he says.
Makhoul believes that Arab poetry is now in a completely different place.
“It has no roots. It has no real historical continuity. It doesn’t have anything in common. The Jewish poet who came from Russia was influenced by Pushkin and Mandelstam. A poet who came from Spain was influenced by Lorca and Borges. So there’s some weakness there, but I also see power there, because a wide variety and many styles were created. I also like the fact that Hebrew poetry is connected with life, with the modern era. The Hebrew poets write about their experiences in the modern world. Their poems have shopping malls and cars and the Internet. And that interests me,” he says.
Makhoul’s newest book was recently published in Lebanon, and he was invited to attend a book fair in Beirut. But he knew that getting to Lebanon from Israel would be no easy feat.
“Half my family lives in Lebanon,” he says. “When Israel controlled southern Lebanon, I used to go there all the time. So I have strong connections there, many friends. In 2000, when Israel withdrew from Lebanon, I called my grandmother, who lives in Lebanon, and she wept, saying that now she would never see her daughter again. She was right. She never saw her daughter to her dying day. But I promised her that I would get to Lebanon because of my poetry. I hope very much that when I contact the interior minister, he will allow me to go to Lebanon and not be a foe of poetry.”
There is no difference between night and day
but the sweet taste of the sun.
There is no difference between a drunkard and a devotee
but the honesty of the former.
There is no difference between trees and roses
but the role of trees in the annals of history.
There is no difference between me and you.
No difference at all.
(from ‘Land of the Sad Passiflora,’ from the Hebrew translation by Sausan Qatish)