An interview with Palestinian poet, Rafeef Ziadah
Rafeef Ziadah is a Palestinian spoken word poet and human rights activist.
She has never seen her homeland, Palestine, but her passion and longing for her cultural heritage is clearly evident in her emotional performances.
Following a successful poetry set a few nights back in London, she sat and recalled the oddity of her situation.
“See, it is strange for us Palestinian refugees, because we haven’t actually lived in Palestine.” Rafeef explains. “But Palestine has lived in us since we were children, which is a huge difference.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, most of her poems reflect both her frustration and sorrow at the Palestinian struggle against occupation.
Although Ziadah began writing at a very early age, her first public performance was not until 2004, while studying at York University, Toronto, in reaction to an incident during a creative action demonstration.
During the demonstration, students recreated a checkpoint with Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians.
“I was one of the citizens lying on the floor, being Palestinian,” Ziadah explained.
“A Zionist came by – the demonstrations at York are always heated – and as I was lying on the floor, he kicked me right in the gut and said, ‘you deserve to be raped before you have your terrorist children’.”
She admits that the deeply felt hatred from the student was both shocking and disgusting to her.
“The only way I could deal with it was to write back,” she says. The resulting poem, ‘Shades of Anger’ resists the racist remarks of the student, while also signifying her refusal to back down quietly.
Since her poetic debut, she has done much over the past decade to raise awareness of Palestinian suffering, both the oppression within Palestine as well as Palestinian displacement across the globe.
“My family are refugees to Haifa,” she says. “But part of my family are internally displaced inside Israel.”
Ziadah was born in Beirut, a third generation refugee. Some of her first childhood memories were of the 1982 siege and bombing of Beirut.
“After that, my family left Beirut and we were always travelling around being stateless Palestinians, constantly deported from one country to the other, until I finally settled in Canada to do my PhD”, she says. “I have only recently come to London.”
Although she has never visited Palestine herself, Ziadah recalled the deeply entrenched memories of her elders:
“Most people in exile miss a place that they know. We miss a place that we don’t know.
“We miss a place that we just hear about and it is a home that we are told of and I think it’s holding onto that idea that we have a home and that we will return to our home, which is what I try to hold onto in all my work and to speak about in all my poems.
As an active member of the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, Ziadah’s primary purpose is to seek equality and justice against racism and extreme Zionist ideologies.
“The way the [BDS] movement frames it is that we simply just want freedom, justice and equality: nothing more and nothing less.
“We are not defined by what we are against. Of course, we are against the occupation, we are against colonialism, we are against apartheid. But, what we are actually for is justice and freedom for all of the Palestinian people, and for everyone who actually lives in that area.
“Because Israelis themselves are also not free. If they are oppressing another people, and their young ones are carrying out an occupation, it must be destroying their humanity as well.
“But when we say freedom, justice and equality, we are not speaking just of the West Bank and the Gaza strip, we are speaking for all Palestinians wherever we are.
“For Palestinian refugees having a right to return; for Palestinian citizens of the Israeli state being treated equally without discrimination, and ending occupation and dismantling the apartheid wall. Anything less than that would not be justice for Palestinians.
“But this is also basic humanity” Ziadah admitted.
“Most people get into these very complex debates about: ‘this is a complicated situation, how will it ever be resolved?’ Well, if everyone can just live in equality on that piece of land, then what is so wrong with equality?
“And to those who defend Israel, why are they so obsessed with defending its current form? What is so important to them in this situation, where clearly one people are being oppressed and being occupied?
“Why would you want to defend them? Just say you want equality for everyone who lives in that land. If you are an anti-racist, this would be the logical stand to take.”
Nevertheless, is it feasible to hope that Israelis and Palestinians may one day live peacefully with each other?
“It is not a question for me of people being unable to live together,” Ziadah said. “It is the situation under which they live, because people have lived in Palestine for centuries and centuries fine.
“It was when there was an attempt to create an exclusively Jewish state, instead of people being able to live there in equality. If there is justice, if there is equality, then of course people can live there just fine.
“The question is that we need to dismantle the racism and have justice, and that is when we will be able to have our resolution. Until we have that, then nothing can be really resolved.”
So what are the main obstacles that are preventing Palestinian’s from achieving this resolution?
“I think the biggest problem, honestly, is the normalisation of Palestinian suffering”, said Ziadah.
“If you think about it, there is a state that is building a wall. It has checkpoints. They are scanning people’s retinas.
“It is as if it is a science fiction movie. Yet you see Western media on television saying that this is the only democracy in the Middle East – about a state that is inflicting all of this suffering.
“It’s my biggest fear that people no longer think that this is abnormal. This is a very abnormal situation, but it is not making people angry, and that I truly don’t understand.
“How anyone can be living in this time and age and say this is alright behaviour; to treat people and control their life in this way is alright and to starve the Gaza strip and impose a medieval siege. How is this okay and normal?
“That is why to me, the work of activists around the world is really important in raising the issues of Palestine and saying no, this is not normal, and we are going to do something about it. We are not going to be silent and complicit even if our governments want us to be.”
Another poignant poem by Ziadah is ‘We Teach Life, Sir’. Like ‘Shades of Anger’, the poem was inspired by experiences from her activism.
In this particular case, during a UN press conference, a journalist pointedly asked her, ‘don’t you think it would all be fine if you just stopped teaching your children to hate?’
A provocative question, which Rafeef claims reflects the general attitude of the western media that she is compelled to deal with on a daily basis.
“I think the current hunger strike [by Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails] is very telling of how the media reacts,” she added.
“When Gilad Shalit was imprisoned, when he was kidnapped – and this is important to stress – he was a soldier of occupation. When he was kidnapped, there were stories about him and his suffering and the suffering of his mother and his father, and everything about him.
“There are 2,000 Palestinians on hunger strike, and the media will not speak about it. Only now have we started to see stories.
“To me this is just a microcosm, one instance of how the media has dealt with issues about Palestine and the question of justice for Palestinians. It is this complete bias, this complete double standard.”
Through her spoken poetry, Ziadah is able to expose the resentment that is felt towards her and her people, but also deliver a lasting hope for justice, freedom and equality.
Her album, Hadeel, released in 2009, is available for purchase online.
She is currently touring around the UK with Arab Australian singer Phil Mansour, and traditional Arab cultural band, Raast.
The tour commemorates the 64th anniversary of Al Nakba (The Catastrophe), when one million Palestinians were displaced from their homes and villages in 1948.
Ziadah is expected to perform at a Palestinian cultural event, Commemorating Al-Nakba, in London on May 15.