13 October, 2014Issue 26.1LiteraturePoetryThe ArtsThe Middle East

Email This Article Print This Article

Words, Stones and Poetry

Dominic Davies

Bird Not Stone
Henry Bell and Sarah Irving, eds.
A Bird is Not a Stone: An Anthology of Contemporary Palestinian Poetry
Freight Books, 2014
256 pages
ISBN 978-1908754561



When A Bird Is Not A Stone was published in the UK earlier this year, the many editors, translators and contributors who have worked collaboratively on this project could not have known quite how timely the text’s appearance would be. For the anthology—a comprehensive collection that gives a new voice to a wide range of previously unheard Palestinian Poetry—has implicit, if not explicit, ties to two of the most covered news items in the last few months in the UK, but also in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as the rest of the world.

The first of these ties is rather obvious, as anyone who turned on a radio or television at some point between 8 July and 24 August, or even during the preceding months, will know. Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip, the motivations of which shifted from hysterical cries of revenge in response to the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank to equally hyperbolic fear-mongering around Hamas’s rockets, was a tragedy that resulted in the death of some 2,200 Palestinians (mostly civilians) and just over 70 Israelis (mostly soldiers in the Israel Defence Forces, or IDF). Israel dropped 500 tonnes of explosives on Gaza’s densely inhabited urban enclaves, a terrifying increase on the 70 tonnes used by the military superpower during “Operation Pillar of Defence” in the previous war in Gaza, just two years ago in November 2012. Unlike in 2012, however, the BBC covered this summer’s war on a daily basis, launching the issue of Israel/Palestine into mainstream public consciousness. After a large grassroots protest about the pro-Israeli bias of the BBC’s coverage took place outside the BBC headquarters in London, their focus turned with a little more balance to the violent atrocities taking place against Palestinians in Gaza. The Palestinian cause, which mostly goes unnoticed in the Global North, has found new international solidarities and is at least, now, once again the subject of some debate in the UK.

The second recent event that may inform our readings of this new anthology is certainly not one that a reader first approaching it might expect. On 18 September, 1.6 million Scots voted for independence from the United Kingdom, seeking to bring an end to the 300 year-old union between England and Scotland. However, they were democratically denied this independence by a further 2 million Scots who voted to remain part of the UK in a referendum that had voter turnout of around 84%, which is remarkably high when compared to most UK elections in recent years. What does the referendum on Scottish Independence have to do with Palestinian poetry? There are broad thematic overlays which connect the anthology to this summer’s dominant news stories: geographical territory, political sovereignty, and national identity. However, Palestine still seems a long way from Scotland and it is this distance that the anthology seeks to bridge, an extra dimension that makes it unique.

A Bird Is Not A Stone is comprised of poems by twenty-six Palestinian authors, the original Arabic versions of which are printed on the left-hand side of each double page. On the right-hand side is the English translation, a productive layout that allows even non-Arabic speakers to visualise the poetry in its original form, and for those with a basic knowledge of the script to shape its sounds whilst taking the meaning from the English. Of course, bilingual readers—which, unfortunately, this reviewer is not—will be able to enjoy the originals as well as the art of the translation in and of itself. But what is special about this anthology is that all of the translations have been put together by Scottish poets. Each poem credits what the collection calls a “bridge translator”, a bilingual author who has transliterated the Arabic into English. These transliterations have then been crafted into a variety of poetic forms by Scottish poets. For the English-only reader, then, these poems have three authors; they embody a cross-national collaboration that forges new cultural solidarities between these two national identities. The timeliness of this effort, given the events of this summer, is therefore extraordinarily pertinent, as both Palestinian and Scottish national identities have embarked on new struggles in their attempts to come to terms with themselves and the world, not to mention their more economically and, at least in Palestine’s case, militarily dominant neighbours.

In a further unique addition to the layout of this anthology, some of the poems have been translated more than once, not only into English but into a range of indigenous Scottish languages and dialects, including Scots, Gaelic and Shetlandic. Once again, it doesn’t matter if the reader is not fluent in these. For the English speaker, it is possible to decipher the meaning from the various dialect translations, and the sound of the Gaelic alone, when read alongside the English translation, offers another rich cultural and poetic layer to the collection. The biographies of all the poets, both Palestinian and Scottish, are included in the back of the book in alphabetical order, a way of organising the contributors that once again blends nationalities rather than dividing them. A closer look at these also reveals that the Palestinian poets are not only from the West Bank or Gaza (though a significant number of them are), but from the larger diaspora as well. These include contributors from Palestinians born and/or living in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon as well as in parts of Europe. The collection thus gives voice to the Palestinian population in its fully globalised form, capturing the complex geographical underpinnings of a cultural identity whose history is troubled by exile, displacement, and countless asylum seekers and refugees.

Poetry has been utilised by Palestinians as a way to form, claim, and articulate a nationalist identity since the UN partition of Israel and Palestine in 1948, and was undertaken with renewed vigour after the Six-Day War in 1967, a series of Israeli territorial and military expansions which led to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank still ongoing today. Perhaps most famously, Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) was widely accepted as the unofficial Palestinian poet laureate, himself writing from exile for much of his life after he joined the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1973 and Israel denied him re-entry to his home country. His work’s preoccupation with, if not glorification of, the Palestinian land—from its soil to its people—is a theme taken up by many of the poems in this collection. His legacy as a Palestinian cultural figure is scattered through the anthology at a range of intertextual levels. To make the timing of this publication even more pertinent, arguably the second most famous Palestinian poet, Samih al-Qasim, passed away just a few weeks ago at the end of August. The title of his first poetry collection, Waiting for the Thunderbird, which appeared in 1968 in the wake of the Six-Day War, may likewise have an intertextual influence on the title of this collection, A Bird Is Not A Stone, itself a thoughtful construction addressed by many of the poems included within it.

In some ways, this provocative heading may be seen as an embodiment of the anthology’s overarching project. Surveying the thematic intersections and preoccupations of the many poems collected here, one notices that birds and stones are images frequently returned to albeit by different authors, as the symbolic potential of these animals and objects are taken up, echoed, and manipulated throughout the text’s pages. The predominant currency of stones and birds can be read as symbolic allusions to notions of cultural resistance and national liberation, ambitions with which Palestinian poetry has often tasked itself and that are interrogated self-reflexively by the poetry here. For those who follow the Palestinian/Israeli conflict on a regular basis, or who have travelled to the region in times of unrest, the stone is both a symbol and literal tool of resistance, especially in the Occupied West Bank where the IDF, Israeli settlers and Palestinian civilians come into regular contact with one another. Unarmed and demilitarised—a lingering condition of the failed peace talks known as the Oslo Accords, signed by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat in the mid-1990s—West Bank Palestinians are subject to the military force of the IDF with no way of physically resisting them. The only weapons to hand are the stones scattered on the sides of the road and over the dusty, brown landscape. These are picked up and usually thrown at huge armoured trucks or large caterpillar bulldozers. Hence their symbolism: as stones bounce off the invading vehicles, protesting Palestinians are dispersed with tear gas, rubber bullets, and sometimes live ammunition.

The juxtaposition of “bird” and “stone” in the anthology’s title therefore conjures the contrasting images of birds and stones flying through the air, imagery which recurs in several of the anthology’s poems, emphasising how unlike a bird a stone is (‘not a stone’). And yet, throughout the collection, birds gain a symbolic currency of their own that is discrete from that of the stone. As Omar Shabanah writes in the anthology’s longest poem, ‘The Poet’, which is nestled at the very centre of the book:

I am the poet. […]
I am the bird that will see
the end of the flood
and come carrying the branch of liberation.

Abdel Nasser Saleh’s poems are likewise filled with liberated birds escaping their cages, as “a flock of birds take flight” here, and “two doves take flight” there. In Zakaria Mohammed’s poem, ‘The Plate Breaker’, which is on the anthology’s final page, “Poetry flips things upside-down. It grants failure a wing and throws it into the sky.” Stones may bounce off armoured cars and scatter away into the dust, ineffective. But the poems, thrown like stones from the hands of their poets, grow wings that are like pages, and fly away, liberated, readable and translatable beyond the borders of Occupied Palestine. A Bird Is Not A Stone proves this with its unique presentation of cultural intersection. But like all good poetry, it does far more than this, changing and evolving, responding to its context. It is a collection that will keep on giving, demanding re-readings as the sometimes claustrophobically bleak fate of Palestine continues to develop in the twenty-first century. As Maya Abu Al-Hayyat, a Palestinian author of novels, poetry and short stories, writes in the foreword to this collection: “Poems are full of doubt, undermining solid logic, highlighting absurdity beyond truth, and focusing on the untruthfulness of absolute facts.” A Bird Is Not A Stone is a valuable collection that is simultaneously testament to the power of poetry and the resolute and ongoing cultural production of Palestinian poets across the world.

Dominic Davies is a final -year D.Phil. student at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.