Just Call Me JiJi

Jennifer D. Klein

SUNDAY, AUGUST 10, 2008.

Nablus, West Bank

“I have found that the land is fragile, and the sea, light; I have learned that language and metaphor are not enough to restore place to a place…. Not having been able to find my place on earth, I have attempted to find it in History, and History cannot be reduced to a compensation for lost geography.”

–Mahmoud Darwish, in memoriam, 1942-2008

It is our last night in Nablus, and a crowd has gathered at a local hotel for the first poetry reading the city has seen since before the 2nd Intifada in 2002, featuring Saed, Falastine and me (Saed keeps calling us “fugitive poets”). I’m more nervous than I expected to be; I haven’t done a public reading since 1994, and I’m intimidated every time someone refers to me as “the poet.” Saed bustles around while Mark and Michael help set up the LCD projector so we can run RJI’s Poetry of Witness slide show during the break. Falastine, who is giving her very first public reading, hovers close to my elbow and asks about the poems she’s chosen, looking for reassurance. I am spent, tired, and nervous, and I suspect I don’t do much to soothe her.My nerves are shot, as I’m sure my letters have suggested; after five weeks living in this complex society and oppressive situation, I feel sapped of energy, guilty to be able to walk away, and sad to have to go home. Relationships here have been complicated and have covered every inch of the gray area: young men in my class are attentive and sensitive, making me miss teaching boys after 9 years in all-girls education. Outside on the streets of Nablus, young men around the same age constantly stare and harass us verbally, even though we’ve been so careful to cover ourselves up. Mark, Michael and Mohammad offer comfort and connection but avoid physical contact because of Islamic law; it’s been a month since I’ve had a real hug from a male, as it’s all quick handshakes if they touch me at all. Saed is the only one to break right through this physical isolation, quick to give me high fives and even place a hand on my shoulder when he can tell I’m struggling with something.

The hall is packed when Dr. Nabil begins his introductions, and then I’m doing my thing, talking to the crowd about the power of poetry to bring people together and leap over boundaries of communication and ideology. Mark smiles at me reassuringly, and I can feel myself warming to the crowd. He told me the other day that I seem angry, and he’s right; I’ve felt increasingly angry, especially since my visit to Hebron, and I haven’t been able to snap out of it. Saed told me he thinks I’m not actually a cynic, that I think I’m a pessimist but that I’m actually a heartbroken optimist, heartbroken to encounter so much human badness. This, he says, comes from my intrinsic belief that we are capable of good; otherwise, why would I be so upset about it? But even with his unflagging optimism, Saed hasn’t been able to convince me that people are actually good at heart; even he started talking about cutting people’s hands off when I had my butt pinched a week before our departure. The capacity to avoid violence and act with compassion seems like a fantasy still, a bedtime story we tell our children so they won’t be so scared by the explosions they hear in the night, a naive claim made by Anne Frank right before other humans gassed her.

And then I feel something shift in the air around me. The call to evening prayer begins to echo through the empty streets outside and enters our event like a perfect background melody, and the room feels resonant suddenly, everyone pensive and watching as I read the hardest piece I’ve chosen, my angriest piece in years, “Another Endless Road.” Mark told me the poem suggested the Israelis had won a huge victory if I so connected Judaism with Israeli statehood, and I feel mildly ashamed as my anger settles on the crowd and reverberates in the air around us, as I let myself realize how right Mark is. My “no amount of prayer can erase the stench of us” weaves in the air with the call to evening prayer, and I feel sorry I still can’t believe, moved as I am by other people’s faith.

But then my turn is over, and I get to sit and be the proud teacher, watching Falastine read like she’s been at it all her life, and then we all laugh over Saed’s yearly love disasters and cry with him over his lost mother and his many scars. It still hurts him to laugh since the appendectomy, but when Habib starts playing the aud, it’s all we can do to keep Saed from dancing. Everyone starts singing and clapping; even Falastine’s father, who came only begrudgingly and told Falastine last week that there was no point to her pursuits in poetry, is smiling and singing along. She and I hold hands and this is what I want to remember; this one moment is Nablus at its best. Then Saed starts singing to me by the nickname he’s used since the day we met: Jiji. Within minutes, the whole crowd is singing along to the “Jiji” lyrics Saed and Qais made up the other night in the car, and I’m blushing and laughing and even crying a little.

And there is something good and right in this moment, in this life, in taking a step outside of my own life to feel angry with and for the good people I’ve met in this community. There is hope in this room, all of its inhabitants singing and clapping and feeling the possibilities, what Denise Levertov called “the deep intelligence living at peace would have.” We have come together in the face of war and occupation to use language together, and the energy the air carries is charged with potential. Poetry is not enough; it won’t feed children whose parents spend three hours at checkpoints trying to make it to jobs in towns 10 miles away. It’s not going to fix life for the students who can’t attend this reading because they can’t get home through checkpoints if they leave Nablus too late. Poetry won’t erase the days An-Najah’s campus is empty because no one can get through. Poetry is little consolation for a difficult life. But I can also tell that we’ve started something this city needs: the opportunity to come together and celebrate, bear witness, and share a powerful moment in solidarity with one another, a moment of hope.

It hurts to leave this place that embraced me as “the poet from abroad.” Ahmed, my most loyal student, looks like he’s been crying when he gives me a small gift and dashes for the door after the singing is over. He wrote his first poem ever in my course this summer; perhaps there is a peaceful future to be built even in small successes. People are still gathered, talking and laughing, long after the event is over. There is hope in the air, creativity. Potential.

These are the things I will remember most: the sunsets watched over strong coffee and good conversation on Saed’s porch; the teddy bear he needed to be able to laugh after surgery; planting flowers on his mother’s grave; the late Mahmoud Darwish’s white tulips; the enthusiasm, insights and metaphors of young poets; being offered tea by everyone we met; seeing a falling meteor up close; talking theatre and philosophy with Qais, goodbye hugs from Saed and Mohammad; and the five times a day that the call to prayer reminded me to be a better person, less angry and more peaceful.

These are the things I will try to forget, even though it’s what people need to hear about the most: brothers at war with each other; women made tough and mean by life; religion used to justify violence; the sound of gunshots at night; the biggest wall I’ve ever seen; friends bearing the scars of torture; children throwing stones; young soldiers always walking with a finger on the trigger; being herded through checkpoints like farm animals to slaughter; failures of coexistence where so much was possible. Maybe Saed is right: I am wounded because I am so hopeful, want so badly to believe that we know how to be better humans and can strive to behave that way.

As e.e.cummings wrote, I write to Nablus: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart).” Just as you fought obstacles to let us all the way into your lives and work, we will fight on your behalf to tell the world how we found love and kindness, friendship and welcome in Nablus. Poetry will never be enough, but it’s a start. May the world be a more peaceful place to live when we see each other again.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

-William Carlos Williams

Click here to see Jennifer’s full blog from her summer teaching poetry in Palestine with the Research Journalism Initiative

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