Imagine a Middle East in which Arab and Jew make poetry together
rather than battle one another. Utopian? Naive? Away from the
headlines about bombings and army incursions, promising Arab Israeli
and Jewish Israeli poets have been coming together to study their
art, learning about verse but also using the creative process as a
bridge across a national and linguistic divide.
"The framework of a poetry class cannot solve a political
conflict between nations but it can contribute to gaining
familiarity, understanding, and mutual respect between Arabs and
Jews and even to help establish ongoing cooperation between poets,"
says Amir Or, founder of the program and director of Helicon, the
Society for the Advancement of Poetry in Israel. It has just
published an anthology in Arabic and Hebrew of the poems that
emerged from this year's joint class.
The topics of the poems range from the drudgery of manning an
army watchtower (Jewish poet Eyal Rechter) to continuing despair and
emptiness over the loss of homeland (Arab poet Muslim Mahamid). But
regardless of the differences in perspective and experience, there
are many common themes including love, loneliness, and battling
Over a period of six months, the 11 Jewish and five Arab poets
joined together in the northern Israeli town of Zichron Yaacov for
workshops taught by leading Jewish and Arab literary figures and
scholars. Among the topics were Hebrew and Arabic poetic traditions,
reading aloud at recitals, editing of texts, principles of
translation, and writing exercises.
The class was motivated in part by the widening gap between the
worlds of Israeli Arabs and Jews after the eruption of the intifada
uprising in the fall of 2000, says Mr. Or.
As fighting raged in the occupied territories, Israeli Arabs
demonstrated in solidarity with their Palestinian brethren. Thirteen
Arabs were shot dead by police in protests that marked a major
crisis in relations, with many Arabs concluding their citizenship in
the Israeli state was hollow and experiencing heightening feelings
of exclusion, and many Jews having their sense of security shaken by
images of Arab protesters blocking roads and throwing stones.
"We understood we could do something," Or says.
Or also hopes the class will contribute to the growth of Arabic
poetry in Israel, a field previously much neglected by the
mainstream Israeli literary world. Helicon began bringing the poets
together and three classes have since emerged.
If the comments of participants are any indication, the poets
have forged a kind of separate peace despite the lack of healing in
the overall political context.
The program's strength is that the poets come as individuals and
not as representatives of groups, says Basilius Bawardi, who teaches
Arabic literature at Haifa University and lectures in the workshops.
"This is an island of people putting ideology and politics aside and
dealing with poetry and understanding each other," he says.
It was through the translations that the poets really got to know
one another, the participants say. As opposed to the overall
political situation in which they are a minority facing
discrimination, the Arab poets had the upper hand in the translation
process since all of them knew Hebrew at least on a working level.
Only a third of the Hebrew poets knew some Arabic, according to
Or, reflecting the asymmetry in Israeli society where Arabs must
master Hebrew in their schooling, but Jews often receive at best a
smattering of literary Arabic.
The poets conferred together in groups of four or five, led by
instructors fluent in each language. The poets composed
transliterations and read out the poems to give a sense of their
rhythm and sound. They also devised a basic literal translation.
Then they looked for nuances, with group members questioning the
poet to discern his exact meaning and cultural particularities. …