Palestinian Poet Gives Heart To His People

VISIONS OF JUSTICE
Three Poems
Introducing Palestinian Writer
Saleem Al Naffar

The sound of the Muslim muezzin or call to prayer resonates over the world: a voice dignified, solemn, and as expressive as a lyric from a longing heart. Such are the works of Palestinian poet and novelist Saleem Al Naffar, whose prominence as an author published in Arabic makes his writings required reading in the schools of Palestine.

Here, along with essential facts of Naffar’s life and career, are three sample works for speakers of English, translated for the first time by his lifelong colleague Muhammad Jihad Ismael. (“Life,” “Departure” and “O My Lovers” are collected in Naffar’s Poetic Works (Ramallah: Ministry of Culture Publications 2016).

Born in 1963 into the crude conditions of a refugee camp near Gaza City, Saleem was hardly of walking-age when the aftermath of the 1967 war with Israel forced his family to migrate to another camp of desperation, called Al Raml, near Latakia in Syria.

His word for that boyhood is “melancholy,” and it ended at age ten when his father passed away there, making Saleem the family-man most responsible for his mother, brother and sisters.

Literature and poetry were his solace: he began writing lyrics in high school, and then studied Arabic literature at Tishreen University. After first seeking out any available stage for reciting his poems, Naffar soon began placing them in Arabic journals and newspapers.

As he began a family of his own, his literary reputation grew, and after the 1994 founding of the Palestinian Authority, Naffar returned with his family to live in Gaza. He still lives and writes there, publishing new critically-recognized volumes of poems, novels (for example, Nights of Latakia), and an autobiography (Little Memory on Happiness)—working also as an editor for a range of Arabic journals and magazines.

“Generations of my family have endured the needless poverty of apartheid,” Naffar has said. “From that, I sometimes sing of our despair. But maybe people like my work because, even so, it never gives in to hatred or calls for violence.”

Life

Knives might eat
what remains of my ribs,
machines might smash
what remains of stones,
but life is coming,
for that is its way,
creating life even for us.

***

Departure

Earth is yawning,
spreading her wings,
soldiers are babbling,
siege coming closer.
Mirrors will go extinct:
soldiers will depart
without one word.

***

O My Lovers

We will come one day, O lovers
to our first things,
no murder separating us
nor time letting us forget.
In such mysterious ages,
right’s clarity arises in us
giving powers to our voices
for dreams
and days that make us brothers

We will come one day, O lovers
where passion is flame
and oppression’s fire bleeds us.
Here many footpaths drove me:
my child’s eyes are narrating tales
of stolen homes, diaspora
and sorrows of our herdsmen

His promise is enduring
that we’ll return
even if our night is long
Here are Haifa and Nazareth
Here is Jaffa
to break the heart with gentlest hands
the river of the eye gives us
bitterness and groans
but days whisper to us
yearning has shaken me
for friends, games,
where chambers of waiting shout aloud

We’ll come one day, O lovers
Right will speak slowly
so do not delay the dream
nor hurry time

Many corners of our home
are wound with our history
time did not exclude us
their crazy evil machine
did not smash our hopes
the perfume of right sleeps in arteries
buried inside us
even if our footpaths lengthened
and our tragedies went further than insane
right will come, slowly
slowly come to us.

– Saleem Al Naffar

(This article was provided to Rebel Voice by US Historian, Jack Dempsey)

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