Suheir Hammad: Bridging Palestine and the World

ELENA CASALE

In his searing portrait of Palestinian life and identity, After the Last Sky (1986), Edward Saïd writes “It is almost impossible to imagine a single narrative of the Palestinian experience.” The life of Suheir Hammad, a Palestinian-American poet, is a testament to this. The daughter of 1948 al-Nakba refugees, she was born in the Jordanian Jabal Husayn refugee camp and raised in New York. Hammad speaks of growing up in a home infused with poetry from the Qur’an, the words of Palestinian poets Fadwa Tuqan and Mahmoud Darwish, the sounds of her neighbourhood’s emerging hip-hop artists and the slang of “Puerto Rican, Black and poor White kids” in Brooklyn. At 43 years of age, she has received a number of awards, including the Morris Centre for Healing Poetry award, a New York Mills artist residency, and an Emerging Artist award from the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Institute at NYU. She has performed her work on college campuses, spoken word venues, rap concerts, on Broadway on the Tony award-winning Def Poetry Jam, and on TED Talks. Hammad’s poetry finds unity in collective suffering, bridging the archipelago of a Palestine under siege to the diaspora and beyond.

Hammad’s work of woman torn (from ZataarDiva) addresses the beheading, or so-called “honour killing,” of Nora Marzouk Ahmed in Cairo in 1997. Characteristically, Hammad’s poem fuses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a putatively unrelated subject. For instance, in a direct address to the girl’s attacker, the speaker asks “did her skin smell/ of zaatar her hair of/ exploded almonds/ between the olive trees”. The olfactory and visual imagery combine connotations of violence (“exploded”), with those of Palestine (“zaatar”, “almonds”, “olive”). Nora’s vitality is then swiftly shattered as we learn of her visceral death: “They beat you blue,” “ripped each hair out of your head” and “paraded/ her head through/ cairo,” a symbol of the “evil that is/ woman” – again, Palestine threads itself into the poetic discourse as the idea of beheading lends itself as a powerful metaphor for a forcibly fragmented nation. Within this discourse, we are left to ask whether of woman torn is a comment on Palestine as symbolised by this young, Egyptian victim, or whether its focus is simply on the individual and the surrounding context of honour-related violence in Egypt. I would argue that Hammad’s poem is, emphatically, doing both. As seen, the poem describes Nora’s tragedy comprehensively and gestures towards its local context, while intermittent, purposeful references throw light on Palestine’s political past:

family pride laid
between her thighs
honor in her panties
and no oslo accord
or camp david signing
could free her sex
from its binding

Just as the poem’s title of woman torn conveys a sense of forced dispossession and somatic aggression, this stanza’s rhyme conflates the “signing” of the Oslo Accord and destructive connotations of “binding,” suggesting the inadequacy of these past peace agreements in attempts for liberation. Hence, Hammad is neither presenting Nora’s narrative to comment on the Palestinian conflict, nor doing the opposite, rather, both instances stand as just two manifestations of a wide-spread violence:

this is a love
poem cause i love
you now woman
who lived tried to
love in this world of
machetes and sin

i smell your ashes
of zaatar and almonds
under my skin
i carry your bones

Of woman torn is a poem about universal marginalisation and cruelty “in this world of/ machetes and sin,” and the responsibility of survivors to “carry” its victims. It is about a woman’s body that was literally torn, of the women “torn” from their homeland, and of other global literal and metaphorical parallels.

In letter to anthony (critical resistance) Hammad analogously aligns global experiences of marginalisation by asking what the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and liberation says to the struggle of people of colour within the US, and vice versa. Hammad associates the incarceration of “anthony,” a “puerto rican rhyme slayer” in America, with the criminalisation of Palestinians. Both are implied to be corrupt practices, “Israel made itself holy and chosen/ and my existence is a crime,” and the jail is a “system based/ on money [that] deems you rehabilitated.” Despite this, the speaker’s conversation with Anthony is one of “intimacy,” and archetypal notions of the criminal are disrupted by the evocation of empathy for Anthony’s silenced voice: “shit I got a lot to/ say let someone pay me to talk.” Hammad writes: 

i have always loved
criminals and not only the thugged
out bravado of rap videos and champagne
popping hustlers but my father
born an arab baby boy
on the forced way out
of his homeland his mother exiled
and pregnant gave birth in a camp

The “thugged out bravado of rap videos” and “my father” again subvert notions of criminality, and a lexis of coercion (“exiled,” “forced”), suggests that criminality is not necessarily caused by the individual but by their circumstances. Indeed, Hammad calls for those who can make a connection between Anthony and “young girls twisted into sex work,” as prisons profit from “the young the poor the coloured the/ sexualised the different.” The site of danger is not the criminal, but the prison:

so i have always loved criminals
it is a love of self
And i will not cut off any part of
me and place it behind fences and bars
and the fake ass belief
that there is a difference between
the inside and the outside

In these lines, Hammad unites the criminalisation of Anthony and the occupation of Palestine in the motif of the prison. Linking global struggles in their collective marginalisation Hammad reaffirms that her own exile from Palestine cannot be disengaged from the broader history of imperialism and colonialism that scatters peoples across the world and severs them from their homes.

In her works, Hammad frequently returns to the inadequacy of language. In beyond words, for instance, language divides and isolates more than it unifies. “Haiti is not Chechnya/ Chiapas is not East L.A./ Iraq is not Palestine” exposes language as a tool for isolation rather than unification, leading the speaker to ask “Where has my language gone?” She considers the inability of words to reflect the horrors of reality, “Do words such as/ humiliation and torture/ truly fit the immensity of these acts?” and the fact that, they sometimes are not heard at all: “women scream at a frequency the living cannot hear.” However, Hammad’s innovative use of language metaphysically reflects an attempt at finding a new, inclusive method of expression, a multiethnolect that does not impose any punctuation or capitalisations, that vocalises rather than silences. The relationship Hammad constructs in her poetry between Palestine and the world is enforced even at the lexical level, literally exhibiting the way the Palestinian experience can be conveyed through other cultures and their languages, and vice versa, to

create a world where there is no
your people or my people
but our people

Hammad harnesses her peripatetic upbringing to create poems that are political and artistic achievements. Her incantatory verse speaks of Palestine, the world, and the dialectic between the two, calling for unity in the face of violence and marginalisation. This drive for unity pervades her work, her activism and the very fabric of her language itself. For ultimately, as Hammad reminds us, “to find ourselves we hold up a mirror to the worlds we all inhabit.”