Dangerous Weddings: Palestinian Poetry Festivals during Israel's First Military Rule

By Furani, Khaled | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Dangerous Weddings: Palestinian Poetry Festivals during Israel's First Military Rule


Furani, Khaled, Arab Studies Journal


Colorless, tasteless, and voiceless

Would our poems be

If they did not carry the lantern

From door to door.

And if simple folks don't grasp

Their meanings

We would better waft them away,

We would better let our silence stay.

-Mahmoud Darwish (1964)1

These lines by celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish emerge from the silence of the devastation culminating in 1948. They belong to a broader attempt by Palestinian poets to recover a language to endure the conquest of Palestine and the frst Israeli military rule (1948-66).2 In those years, poets' aesthetic and political acts had not yet splintered into mutually inimical realms. Like verse by his contemporaries, Darwish's poetry searched for a home for those beref of a homeland.3 One location of that home, as ephemeral it may have been, was a series of unique and understudied poetry festivals, which took place primarily in the remaining villages and towns in the Galilee during the years of military rule. Palestinian poets and their public remember these festivals as having the aura of village "weddings," due to their popularity, inclusivity, and sense of elation, breaking from the normalcy of ruin. In this article, I explore how these festivals, and in turn language and its rhythms, ofered a home and a refuge for memories, fears, hopes, anger, angst, and aspirations. These festivals illustrate a particular historical moment in which aesthetic agency-striving to achieve "the beautiful"-coalesced with political agency, articulating dissent.

This article draws primarily on archival material from al-Jadid (The New, 1951-91), the Arabic-language literary periodical of the Israeli Communist Party, as well as on interviews with poets who experienced the festivals. I examine this short-lived phenomenon as it fourished and then withered under Israel's frst military rule.4 These festivals illustrate a particularly powerful confuence between the political and poetic in modern Palestinian history before they were sequestered into autonomous realms under the literary demands of a secular modernity, which constantly draws and redraws boundaries for immuring "the religious."

The rise and demise of the festivals also reveals the ways in which poetic shifs coalesced with a struggle over sovereignty in the secular complex of nation-states. My evocation of "the secular" builds largely on Talal Asad's, where he calls for a distinction between secularism as a political doctrine (for example, separation of church and state), secularization as the name of a sociological thesis and historical transformation, and "the secular" as a powerful, distinctly modern formation in modes of being and knowing.5 In these festivals, the Palestinian struggle for national existence permeated what poets did and wanted to do with words. In her discussion of the festivals' signifcance, Adina Hofman argues, "It is no exaggeration to say that in their time . . . these festivals made poetry the most important means of political expression for the hemmed-in, cut-of Palestinian citizens [sic] of Israel."6 This article aims to understand the ways in which the primacy of poetry in Palestinian life ofered political action vitality. I examine the character of the festivals as "literary-political" events under Israeli military rule, trace the relationship of poetic forms to conditions of their rise and demise, and locate these events within global conditions of secular modernity (that is, "world" literature, socialist realism, modernism, and nationalism).

A Diwan for Persistence

Poetry among Palestinians living under early Israeli military rule, an extension of Emergency Regulations from the British colonial rule over Palestine (1917-48),7 assumed the role that Arabs had traditionally assigned it. Their diwan acted as a historical repository, akin to how the Blues was a repository of the "deepest expression of memory" for African-Americans.8 Introducing this Palestinian poetry to an English-reading public, Abdul Wahab Elmessiri observed that while its appearance inside Israel "might seem at frst some sort of miracle . …

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