Festival Internacional de Poesía de Medellín

Poet protects 'personal history'



JEFFREY BROWN: There were no olive groves on our drive from Jerusalem into the West Bank, only a high concrete barrier, the new reality of this old conflict. For Israelis, this is a security fence, built to keep out suicide bombers. To Palestinians, this is a punitive wall to divide and control, a barrier, a fence, a wall.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN, Poet and Journalist: (through translator): There is here a struggle over the language. There are two narratives in this land, and each one has its own terms, and it has its ground rules.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ghassan Zaqtan is a poet and journalist who works in the West Bank city of Ramallah, and lives in a new home in a nearby village. From his balcony, he can see a Jewish settlement on a nearby hill, another fact of life in the West Bank.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN: But you have to start from the details.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, where do the details come from in -- for your poetry?

GHASSAN ZAQTAN: Memory.

JEFFREY BROWN: Memory?
GHASSAN ZAQTAN: Memory is very important.

JEFFREY BROWN: As always on our trip, we were offered coffee. Here, it turned out to be a good way into talking about poetry.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN: For this uncertain place, for uncertain life, which we have in this area, we have to -- to protect our personal history.

JEFFREY BROWN: In Ramallah, where Zaqtan writes a newspaper column, people we talked with spoke of an often tense and tenuous life. The Palestinian Authority police patrol the streets. Within the Palestinian community, tensions between Hamas -- which won last year's election -- and Fatah, the longtime ruling party, have often resulted in violence.

For his part, Ghassan Zaqtan lived abroad for many years, returning after the hopeful days of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians. Now those days seem far away.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): A complete people has lost its future, has lost the location, has lost its place. And, obviously, poetry is one of the most expressive forms in order to reach the people. This is why the poets were the first to remind these people of their identity. This is yours.

JEFFREY BROWN: Zaqtan does this by writing about the small details of life.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): I am not the kind of person who will walk in front of the demonstration. I feel that's not my place. I walk behind the demonstration in order to collect the small things that may fall, whether it's the handkerchief or a child's backpack or a purse. That's my attitude.

JEFFREY BROWN: Only a few of Ghassan Zaqtan's poems have been translated into English. One, called "The Habit of Exiles," ends this way.

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): "My heart is suspicious, brother. My stance is final. No one will guess the storms in my head. I no longer have confidence in those who pass through at night."

JEFFREY BROWN: "No one will guess at the storms in my head." Are their there storms? What are they?

GHASSAN ZAQTAN (through translator): Of course there are, but the storms in my head are questions, questions concerning everything. I believe that part of my role, as a poet, is to generate questions, to create a place for them. It is not our job to provide answers, but to be an incubator that produces questions.

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