Why We Write

November 16, 2011

(published on Sawt Al Niswa web-zine on November 15th 2011)

Is writing a desire to confess? A cry in the dark, a desire to be known, to be read? In her 1997 essay, quoting the poet Muriel Rukseyer, the American poet and social activist Adrienne Rich said, “If there were no poetry on any day in the world… poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger.”1 Sometimes this hunger to leave a mark of one’s existence seems like some sort of perverse willfulness. At other times, it becomes absolutely necessary.

I write in order to heal my brain, organically. We create stories and re-create them, every few months, it seems, to deal with the shifting and boiling temperature of inner life. In this “white heat” of writing, time dissolves and the past and the future converge into one moment where the tip of the pen meets the paper. (Or when the mechanical imprint of the character appears on the screen; the psuedo-ink?) In writing, I am calm, I hope I am calm. I will tell myself that everything is smooth, has a surface, is reflective… Keeping a journal allows one to chart the ups and downs of daily life as well as the divisions between our personal, professional, relational and private lives. Where poetry breaks down these barriers in a flash of insight, narratives can build them back up.

If I had to choose, I would choose to sing rather than to write. What is it about singing that cuts to the heart, that opens an immediate pathway between the singer and the listener? A song appears once and is gone, it is bound to a particular moment in time and to a place, a stage. All of the feelings, moods, and vibrations of an experience pulse together when listening to a song performed live. It strikes me that a singer onstage (or a spoken-word poet for that matter) is like a political activist delivering a speech. She cannot cling to her mantle, her power, after using it or else it becomes a shroud. She knows that her power lies in mediating between the world and power, and that is her gift.

Justice, to me, is a big tawny bird with feathers of copper and gold. She eats truth, she is a woman covered with blood, having birthed herself and cut the cord. She is a painter, an image weaver, singing out her reel of films and string… the bird filled with mercy, a woman in a cup, a ribbon, smiling wholly, she erases everything and sings her own song, like the phoenix, who appears to sing out its unique song, to make words into arrows and into necklaces to celebrate what is being done right and all the work left to do. For, “[f]reedom is not necessarily a path, it is an ether into which one plunges… where one merges with what was held back from ecstasy…”2 If writing were not political/ i would tear my hair out/ it’s not delicate, aesthetic butterfly/ wings coated with a fine silver dust/ it is not the underside of clouds…

As a woman I have been inspired by writers, song- makers, artists and poets. I suppose what I always shouted at my brother, “it’s not fair!” is still the guiding truth of my life. It was this choice that propelled me to switch majors from Comparative Literature to Anthropology. I wanted a discipline more in tune with political and cultural life. The political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt named the joy one experiences when acting in public, “public happiness.” Public happiness is the great treasure of all of those who live through revolutionary times and feel the exhilaration of acting in such a way as to make a difference in the world. One sees the joy in the faces and voices of the protesters. However, this is not true, re: Arendt, that the signposts we used have worn away; they have just been re-invented, re-inscribed with new meanings. Anthropology, then, has more in common with archaeology than I thought. We dig up forgotten meanings, excavate and brush off old concepts and forgotten texts that may help us to see the world we live in a new light.

We know that one cannot live by bread alone, but writing, in particular academic writing so often seems an unnecessary embellishment on top of the sounds and speech of everyday life. At the same time, as academics, as teachers and writers, we must be responsible witnesses, to try to create platforms for thought and reflection. Academics must be activists in this era of propaganda and spinning of truths so that our own faces are no longer recognizable in the stories we are forced to create or tell about ourselves in order to pass muster with the architecture of corporate life. We must create a world where knowledge can flourish and help to build society, rather than serve destruction and war.

Our bureaucratic institutions thrive on cultures of paperwork. We gather facts and we sort them and file them. Our libraries fill with books. Yet, at a certain point, the time for writing must come to an end. It is not acceptable anymore to bear witness to the daily injustices. We must translate our ethics into practice, in the very slippery and incomplete ways that they must be. The time for careful discourse is over, we must say something, anything. It is time to go down to the streets. If you are not willing to put your body where your mouth is, then your words have no real meaning. Writing must live between the body and speech. It must live as a text. It is to this end that we write, again and again, because the distance between experience and expression is always too big a gap.

Revolution 2011

January 27, 2011

In case you’ve been under a rock for the last few days, let’s recap the momentous and thrilling happenings taking place around the world:

1. The complete overthrow of Ben Ali’s regime by the Tunisian people

2. Massive protests in Egypt demanding Mubarak’s resignation

3. Al-Jazeera’s leak of incriminating documents against the PA during the Israel/Palestine peace process

4. Palestinian students staging a sit-in at the PLO offices in London

5. Protests of tens of thousands in Yemen calling for the ousting of president Saleh

Facebook. WikiLeaks. The Palestine Papers. Twitter (follow me @safaliy0!)

We are deluged with digital information. Nevertheless, I still sit sometimes and write my journals by hand. In returning to something old-fashioned; writing, I also wanted to point to the timelessness of sitting, discussing politics over coffee, organizing face to face. Students, dockworkers, academics, lawyers, cab drivers. This revolution is for everyone. A people’s revolution is the only thing that can stop unchecked corporate greed and the militarized corrupt governments which suport them. It is the only thing which has ever worked and the only thing which ever will.

“That fear barrier seems to have been broken,” Shenker says. “These are sort of middle-class people who are generally enjoying quite a comfortable standard of living… They’ve got a lot to lose, and yet they’re still being motivated to come out, to be beaten, to be hit by water cannons, to be carried off into the desert,” he says. “There’s so much energy and so much momentum behind what’s going on … I think we’ll still see a lot of people on the streets tomorrow.”

So, viva Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Lebanon, the United Kingdom and all other countries living under the yoke of oppression. It is your destiny to be free. Like birds, we all wither until we are free.

In solidarity,


New Year

January 9, 2010

As we enter a new year, taking time to reflect on the successes and failures of the past is a good thing to do.

All kinds of resistance, resistance means everything. Beginning with the word “no” and ending with holding arms. And in between there are many ways, [including] a political struggle, a popular struggle. They want us to accept them as they are: racist, discriminating, an apartheid regime in Israel. This is what we don’t want. We cannot coexist with such people. But we can coexist with people like us. This is the way we are looking for. -Leila Khaled

Rachel Corrie

May 28, 2009

Here are a couple of interesting things that I’ve stumbled upon in the past few days.

“So this film is an independent investigation into the death of Rachel Corrie, but it turned out also to be an inquiry into the investigation itself, into the inquiry process of the Israeli army. Now, for example, the Israeli army says they are investigating possible violations of human rights during the bombings in Gaza in January. All the time the Israeli army investigates the killing of civilians, and in 99.9 of these cases, there is no independent investigation, and nobody’s punished, you know?

Not that it is the only army in the world that kills civilians. I’m not naive — it’s not. But maybe it is the one who kills civilians and it is so easy for the Western world to accept it and to swallow it. Maybe it is the only one where there are so many lies and hypocrisy around it, you know? It is not the army who kills the most civilians in the world, but maybe it is the army for which it is so easy to lie about it and to still be presented as democratic — this is a problem. The hypocrisy about it, you know? As an Israeli I would prefer them to be less hypocritical. If they continue to kill, at least I would like them to stop lying.”

“In Israel, when you are a Jew you can say what you want. When you are a Jew. That part is very important.”

 “it’s really time for the Americans, especially the Jews among them, to stop being intimidated by this pressure, from the Israeli lobby or whoever it is. They should say what they really feel. A lot of people are talking in our name who are not entitled to talk in our name.”

Only A Matter of Time…

March 11, 2009

Ministry, Israeli consulate in New York embark on mission to fight search results showing images of war-torn Gaza when asked to find ‘Israel’; plan to flood web with positive images of Jewish state courtesy of topnotch photographers


This goes nicely with the piece I found today about airbrushing of women’s bodies in magazines.