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August 25, 2010

Ehab Lotayef's To Love a Palestinian Woman: Poems in English and Arabic

Dr. Michael Keefer

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Does the title of this collection of poems seem at first glance surprising?

What would it mean to love any Palestinian—man, woman, or child—within a context where the dominant discourse, and the whole current of state action, seem hostile to the notion of recognizing Palestinians’ possession of even the most basic human rights?

The politicians of Canada’s ruling parties may express a pious commitment to international human rights law, but their actions show how feebly selective, in fact, this commitment is.

  • In 1987, Canada was the only country at the Québec Francophonie Summit to oppose a resolution calling for Palestinian self-determination.
  • In 1997, Canada signed a free trade agreement with Israel that accepts Israel’s economic boundaries as incorporating the illegally occupied Palestinian territories, thereby giving preferential treatment to goods not just from Israel, but also from Israel’s expanding network of illegal settlements.
  • In 2006, Canada was the first country to join Israel’s illegal blockade of the Palestinians of Gaza—in punishment for having chosen, in a democratic election, a government of whom Israel and the West disapprove.
  • In January 2008, by which time the blockade’s devastating impact on public health in Gaza was evident, Canada was the only member of the UN Human Rights Committee to oppose a resolution calling for immediate action to end the blockade.
  • A year later, during Israel’s military assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, which involved large-scale war crimes and crimes against humanity, Canada was the only member of the UN Human Rights Committee that voted in support of Israel’s actions. 
  • In 2010, the Canadian government refused to condemn Israel’s murderous attack, in international waters, on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish flagship of a flotilla that was seeking to bring humanitarian aid to Gaza.

As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben reminds us, the ancient Romans had a term, homo sacer, to describe a person who is deliberately excluded from all of the protections of the law and can therefore be harmed with impunity.

Canada’s unprincipled support of Israeli and American policies has contributed to making the Palestinians, as a nation, homines sacri: people to whom the system of international law that we pretend to uphold as universal in its reach does not even begin to apply.

The principles of justice and collective security enshrined in international law ought to protect the people of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967 from ongoing theft of their land and ongoing military aggressions, from routine violations of their civil rights, and from collective punishments—including intentional deprivation of adequate food, clean water, housing, medical supplies, and waste disposal facilities, and a systematic denial of economic and educational opportunities.

But these principles of justice seem to be in abeyance in Canada’s relations to the Palestinians.

Our leaders’ message to them is that of Franz Kafka’s jurists in his novel The Trial: “There is justice, plenty of justice—only not for you.”

*  *  *

What could it mean, in this context, to love a Palestinian? Ehab Lotayef’s poems may help us to understand.

Lotayef writes across languages (the last half-dozen poems in this collection are in Arabic, with facing-page English translations), across cultural and literary traditions, and across the agonies that divide them.

His Arabic poems are written in two distinct registers: in some of them a colloquial voice sings from the page, while others, written in a more formal register, attach themselves to a classical tradition that goes back more than a millennium.

The English poems likewise range from song lyrics that invite musical accompaniment to solemn, often mordant, free-verse meditations.

Some of these poems explicitly respond to deep voices of the present and the recent past—the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, the Arabic and Hebrew poets Nizar Quabbani and Aharon Shabatai, as well as Arik Asherman of Rabbis for Human Rights and the murdered peace activist Rachel Corrie.

Elsewhere the reader may hear echoes of other poets whose work is at once lyrical and public: Harold Pinter, Bertolt Brecht, and perhaps also the antiwar poet Denise Levertov. 

As these names together might suggest, Lotayef is refreshingly serious about the ethical, social and civic responsibilities of poetry.

In an introductory note he alludes to the passage in Sura 26 of the Qur’an which speaks of poets “who say what they do not do.”

His own practice, as poet and activist, has been “to be present in the streets, the slums, the danger zones” where the pain and suffering on which his poetry reflects is inflicted, endured, and resisted. 

This presence in the midst of suffering is evident in the compassion and the measured ironies of Lotayef’s lyric voice.

Commenting on the fall of Kabul in November 2001, he offered congratulations

… on swapping Abdul for Abdil

Opium will be flowing still

and all the amputees,

survivors of a war that can never be won

will continue to live in hell […].

In response to the terror bombings in London in July 2005, he drew what should have been (but never was in the mainstream media) the obvious comparison:

No conference postponed

No podium

No cameras

No one says “barbarians” when it happens in Basra

On a hot summer day

in the middle of winter

on pleasant spring evenings

or windy fall nights

each day of the year it happens in Basra

Downtown, in the suburbs

in classrooms, in homes

in slums and in villas

on factory floors

No one ever counted the bodies in Basra.

(The comparison becomes harsher still if one remembers that shortly after this poem was written, British SAS soldiers in civilian disguise were caught by Iraqi police in the act of preparing a bombing attack near a marketplace in Basra.)[1]

Another poem addresses the Dalai Lama, who was in Israel in 2006 to celebrate the centenary of Ben Gurion’s immigration to Palestine:

Beloved of Hollywood, Ocean of Wisdom:

can a liberated celebrity

bring freedom to a people?


They’ll hide the sun under your crimson robe

drown the truth in your words of hope

Leave my aching land alone

to Lhasa

I support your right of return.

Lotayef demands that the truth be spoken.

In a poem commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Nakba, or Catastrophe—the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 to 900,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948—he writes, “They stole your Qur’an and your Bible / Burned your orange groves and olive trees” (a reminder, if one be needed, that many Palestinians are not Muslims but Christians).

Yet while he spurs us to remember, Lotayef writes with equal insistence (as in the title poem of this collection) on the need for a love that is conjoined with solidarity, and with pity:

When you love a Palestinian woman

your heart is tuned

to the beat of a heart

that won’t forget

You travel far;

you walk the narrow streets of Jerusalem,

in the footsteps of Jesus,

carrying his cross, cleaning his wounds, wiping his tears […].

And in the poem “Abyss,” written on the first anniversary of 9/11, he denounces hatred as being not liberating, but a deeper form of entrapment:

Gates that can’t be opened

a wall within a wall

hostages of hatred

have no hope at all […].

One of the ways in which Lotayef configures hope in this book is through the ten fine photographs, which he took for the most part in Gaza, the West Bank, Baghdad, and Cairo, and with which his poems are recurrently in dialogue.

These include sensitive portraits: two haunting images of women with their young children in Gaza and in Baghdad, an elderly man in Dehaisha refugee camp in the West Bank holding out the keys to his lost home in Israel, and a more formal portrait of Adil Charkaoui, imprisoned for years, without public charges or a trial, on a Canadian “security certificate.”[2]

Other photographs are of landscapes, for the most part damaged or desolate: a street in Hebron, an avenue of tents on barren land in Gaza.

But one of these turns out to be a powerful image of hope. What at first glance appear to be two leaning tombstones photographed in Gaza, near the Egyptian border, with only the sky behind them, resolve themselves on closer inspection into crazily tilted concrete segments of the Israeli apartheid wall—which was for a short time breached, one remembers, near Rafah.

But hope alone is not enough, as Lotayef reminds Barack Obama in a poem addressed in mid-November 2008 to the President-Elect:

The train on platform three

is quarantined

Passengers are dying

in their seats

The station master forgot the codes

and lost the keys


Night is falling, fast


with sad eyes are waiting for their dads to take them home

Maybe you can

But we

we can’t survive for long

on hope alone.

Obama has been consistently deaf to messages such as this.

But perhaps Canadian readers of this memorable book will be more willing to open their hearts—and to help sustain Palestinians’ hope through political action, based on compassionate solidarity, and aimed at returning this nation to an awareness of our responsibilities under international law. 

To Love a Palestinian Woman: Poems in English and Arabic, By Ehab Lotayef, (Toronto: TSAR Publications, 2010).  ISBN 1-89477-0552.  x + 70 pp.  $17.95.


[1] See my article, “Were British Special Forces Soldiers Planting Bombs in Basra? Suspicions Strengthened by Earlier Reports,” Centre for Research on Globalization (25 September 2005).

[2] The principal evidence against Charkaoui, so far as I can ascertain, appears to have been that his surname differs only in dialect from that of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the semi-mythical Jordanian to whom for several years the Pentagon’s fabulists ascribed nearly every feat of the Iraqi resistance.

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