Rubble of the Youth: Young Gazan Writers on Death and Despair
Born in Rafah in 1982, Asmaa al-Ghoul is a Palestinian activist, writer, and journalist with a focus on women and human rights issues. She writes for the cultural section of the London-based newspapers Al-Hayat and the Palestinian Al-Ayyam. She is also a correspondent for the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom, affiliated with the Lebanese Samir Kassir Foundation and Al-Monitor website. She is also the secretary of the board of directors of the Palestinian Institute for Communication and Development. Al-Ghoul has published two collections of short stories, and participated in many human rights events, and other cultural events locally as well as internationally.
It does not take much to spot signs of struggle in the writing of youth from conflict-ridden societies. Their struggle can be seen in their words, ideas, future outlook, and identity crisis. This applies to the writing of Palestinian youth who grew up after the political and geographical division of the West Bank and Gaza, or during a 16-year long blockade only occasionally interrupted by war.
Growing like a tree, despair can clearly be seen in the phrases and metaphors used by these writers, even to such an extent that it becomes almost synonymous with hope and joy. The works of these young writers, only in their twenties and thirties, complement one another, like pieces of a puzzle about death and siege.
So let us now examine these words to learn about the literary identity of these young Gazan writers, and the impact of two decades of political tensions. The complex cultural heritage clearly leaves them with some big questions about the world, their place in it, and their identification with its ideologies. It also leaves them wondering if they could use their experiences to understand this complex cultural legacy that they have been left with, the pain associated with it, and the blockade.
Looking at Palestinian youth literature requires some reading between the lines to recognize the impact of the blockade—especially when around the world, other youth groups are most likely to be free, in this age of technology, and free democracies.
The First Generation of Young Writers
Death as a substitute for life
Death comes as an unwelcome guest in the following texts by Gazan writers, who are all under the age of 25. But it is not a stranger, it harmonizes with the rest of their writing and the ideas behind it. You will not find them describing trees, flowers, and rivers, or talking about cats and dogs—not while they are surrounded by the rubble of four wars. When these young writers wish to escape the destruction that surrounds them, they look inward—only to be met with devastation, pain, and memories of prohibition, poverty, and isolation.
“Do not leave me alone. I will start thinking of the best way each of you will die. Perhaps two ways will overlap. Two people meet at the time of death, and die together. This way, their fate in their next life will be linked. They forget their previous lives, and I forget them. But actually, I have not forgotten,” writes Mira Elyan.
Staying true to the theme of death, Roaa Hassouna writes:
War is the wish of the dead,
for it gathers them with those,
who lived as if they were dead,
or eases their loneliness by
gathering them with others it snatches.
War is our neighbor,
and the night is our neighbor,
and love is the key to war.
Love is the graveyard of war.
War is a graveyard for love.
As for Issam Hajjaj, he defines himself through death and rubble. He writes:
I am the first fortune-teller,
who fell on the ruins of life.
And after death,
I am the dead question.
In both cases, the poets use words that imply the end, doom, and hopelessness. Hassnouna also writes:
The best way to die is,
they die together.
We gather after death,
and go to heaven.
Her repeated use of the word “death” here shows serious inner despair, and an early maturity leaving no room to live or enjoy life.
In the rest of her text, Hassouna focuses on the only light in the darkness of night, before returning to death, memories of her mother, and the distant God. Everything around her suggests nothing but the siege of the soul.
Repetition is not desirable in literature, but for the Palestinian writer, linguistic rules are not relevant when in despair. The nightmarish expressions appear new every time. Words such as ‘night’ and ‘death’ can be used a million times, and still not feel enough. They mean something different and dig deeper each time. She hopes the words will hit the reader differently each time, rather than bore them.
Hassouna uses repetition to stress that war is the graveyard of love, and the dead, and the face of chaos. She finds no consolation even in the night that she cannot bear, or the love that is not hers. Love belongs to those with two eyes, and she seems to have four. In the midst of the chaos, war, and cemeteries, her mind has shrunk, and no longer belongs to love. She writes:
Love is the key to war,
love is the graveyard of war,
war is a graveyard for love,
I have four eyes, and love is for those with two,
and I’m petty,
and love is for those whose love is mindful.
Love is a new face for chaos.
For Hajjaj, the images of war and the death of children are imprinted in his mind. He turns them into clever metaphors; describing himself at times as the last fortune-teller, other times as the first one to have fallen from grace. Hajjaj does not even dare to face death directly in his poem. He hides instead behind talks of children, love, and sleepers. He writes:
Life flies out of the mouths of children,
and goes to,
Love runs in their blood,
like someone running towards a deer.
The cool breezes of the soul,
dance on the faces of sleepers,
and the basin of songs.
None of these three young writers can see an ordinary future ahead of them. Poets tend to be sad, but what we are seeing here is absolute despair that is completely void of any hope or joy. If poets are suffering this much, how bad is the suffering of ordinary young people who cannot express themselves in words? What solace do they have? How will death have its sway over their lives—when hopelessness seems to kill everything for those in their prime years?
In the rest of her poem, we see the future Mira Elyan sees for herself when she talks about life after death, heaven, God, the promised Jerusalem, and her mother. She writes:
We gather together after death,
in a scene outlined by this window now.
We drink lemonade in Jerusalem,
perhaps this indicates we will go to heaven.
Rest assured then,
make all the sins you want,
and Jerusalem will intercede for you,
and my mother will intercede for me,
and God will intercede for my mother.
When we reach God,
it will be a new beginning that neither my small heart,
nor this window, nor the night can handle.
God is the heart of this text.
For Elyan, the future is emotionally and mentally tied to the fate of the dead around her, the devastation of war, and the smell of corpses. For her, the only future is after death.
As for Hassouna, war devours love and even the dead whose noses are covered with dirt. She writes:
War is the wish of the dead,
whose noses are covered in dirt,
and they missed our scent.
Death alone snatches the souls,
but bodies are not the only things that die.
As for Issam, he sees some freedom in his future, but it is associated with sadness and the fate of the prophets. He writes:
And my body is free and sad,
following the footsteps of the prophets,
and going beyond them,
I am the last to emerge from the mouth of time,
I move my wand,
and a melody lines up on my sail,
I sail over the passersby,
for a decade,
a decade by myself,
looking for a sound of salvation.
The Second Generation of Young Writers
Now let us look at writers who are a little older, to see how different their outlook is on questions of identity, the future, and hope.
Writings by the second generation tend to be focused on love or partnership as a way to escape the present and death. We also see a strong curiosity about sex and touch prevailing over death. Their words spring from longing, life, and hope. For them, love is a savior, and a partner is a savior. Curiosity about sex creates a desire for life. But also, their poetry style is more complex and mature, and their narration more dynamic.
Passion for life seems to increase with age. It is as if death turns into embers whose fire has been extinguished by words, remaining only inside people’s minds. But does it stay there until a specific age before once again returning as the hero of the tale, as it once was in their earlier years of youth?
Consoling himself over the absence of his beloved, Ghazal Al-Aloul writes:
You are gone,
and you have to imagine,
being alone on the crying bed is not easy.
Today no longer longs for tomorrow.
You are the tomorrow that never comes.
It’s as if the hour hands had a heart attack.
and you are the rubble of sleepiness,
tiredness, and the scent of farewell.
This generation does not want to face death. It is tired of it, or more accurately, it is tired of writing about it after all those wars. The abandonment of a beloved at some point became much worse. Yahya Ashour writes:
Then with funeral-anxiety I whispered:
get even closer to me,
I beg you:
don’t light these cigarettes in your soul!
Let me once be,
I sang to you,
the song we painted together,
and when your turn came,
you coldly climbed onto my heart
and you sang it to everyone…
We see Tariq Hajjaj immersed in the female body, shaping it, without a care of what is going on around him. He writes:
I am the one,
who molded your body.
I kneaded your dry clay,
with my soft hands,
that no salt touched.
I kneaded you so well,
that the galaxies measure their age around you,
and the anklet of the sea…
The World and the Self
Love is not the only element keeping this generation too busy for death and war. The idea of the self within the context of war, and questions about nothingness, existence, and God are also responsible. We see a journey of soul-searching, matched by slicker choices of literary styles and creative techniques of expression. This can be seen in the direct writings of Ahmed Abd al-Aziz, the nature metaphors of Muhammad Abu Libdeh, the history references of Shad al-Shamali, and the focus on the place and city of Alaa Obaid. Searching for reassurance, everybody is wondering about the meaning of war, and it is not about explosions or death, but rather about history, origin, and the self. Ahmed Abdel Aziz writes:
Almost three thousand years ago,
Ibrahim, peace be upon him, was calling,
in the Holy Land, that there is only one great God,
when the Canaanites were calling Bastarte,
to every female with a breast that hardened in the face of the wind.
This war is pulling us from our feet like children,
telling us of our foolishness that’s shown on television.
It doesn’t seem that anyone is finding what they want,
by finding themselves in a city that has besieged them.
Alaa Obaid writes:
When you pass by,
I take a piece of the cloud of your scent,
and distribute it in the city streets.
A city we live in,
and doesn’t live in us,
forces us to carry its name,
and doesn’t carry us in its buildings,
I don't know, is it gray? Or were ashes created in it...
I hang what remains of my day behind the door,
and close the box on its shadow…
Some delve into love, others philosophy, history, or self-blame or condemnation, all in the search for identity, and finding meaning in life – something this generation struggles with under the blockade. Mohammed al-Zaqzouq writes:
I am not a prophet,
but the saints palated my mouth,
with the tears of the wretched,
and the antelopes full of prayers,
slept in my lap.
I knew your color better than the light,
and I read the smoke of your ovens in the lonely mornings.
I spread the crumbs of my heart,
in the niches of your forgiveness,
and slept from the depth of forgiveness.
I am not a prophet, but I drank your sleep at nightfall,
asleep on the shoulder of stillness,
with grandmothers pouring their years on my lame youth,
faltering, the universe on my watch is helpless and timid.
Even if he is not talking about death or dying, it is clear that al-Zaqzouq here is haunted by sadness. He continues:
I am the distance that extends,
between the weeping and tears,
the descendant of butterflies,
left behind in the forgetfulness of the fields,
clothed with commandments and prayers.
Crying & Loneliness
Again and again crying comes up in these poems to describe despair, loneliness, and fear of the unknown.
Al-Aloul writes: Sleeping alone is not easy on the crying bed
Ashour writes: When I realized that I was in front of a mirror, I cried.
Abdulaziz writes: I learned to cry in the streets when he tried to drink
Roaa writes: To collect the remaining tears
Duha writes: I number the meetings, I restrict them, and I cry for absence
Obeid writes: Do not blame the embers of your eyes, he will not listen to you, let him fall.
Abu Libdeh writes: As if the music somehow turned into crying
Zaqzouq writes: I am the distance between weeping and tears.
Hajjaj writes: And I blew your heart with the river wind, so that I would not see its tears.
For these poets, crying is not an act of despair, as much as it is a way to escape everything, and get to know oneself all over– as if looking at the wounds closely washes the soul. Crying here is, surprisingly, almost a sign of hope that better times could come.
Hope in scenes of nihilism
Nevertheless, the search for the final scenes of any poets' salvation– that is, after all the crying, the welcoming of the coming phase, and the optimism about the future, is nihilism. It is the last scene where hope equals nothingness. Heba Sabry writes:
We are the children of nothingness,
corpses of one shade of clay,
that could have been light or fire.
And to betray the world,
I put a lonely chair in the middle,
and extend from above,
Hanging by ropes in the middle of the world is Heba's hope. As for Hamed Ashour, he emerges disguised as the living, with their laughter, loneliness, ability to die, and inability to live. He writes:
I go out disguised as the living,
with the laughter of the living,
with their loneliness,
their ability to die,
their inability to live.
I get out of my image,
with illusory feet,
and hands of nothingness.
As for Mahmoud El-Shaer, nothingness chases him as he does it, whilst slowly losing his soul. He writes:
To the ends, you run towards us,
as if you came before the trial.
And we run around you,
like those who continue to lose their soul.
Also with you, we both become twins of ashes,
and a decision in your presence is a verse,
with which the poet begins his poem.
Hind Joudeh writes:
I will be clothed with fear for another age,
I will wear it as a dress,
and seek refuge in it,
in case of your rising!
These possibilities have turned into an eternal curse for Karim Abu Al-Rous who has become totally obsessed with the question of what happens in the last minutes before death. Here we see the delinquency of the older generation in looking outside their immediate surroundings, hoping to find themselves in estrangement. He writes:
Letters as stinging nets,
and scorching too.
an eternal curse befalling me,
its constant question of what will happen,
the last minute of my death,
Writing fiction can be difficult when death robs you of the ability to imagine, leaving you with nothing but the cruelty of reality. As we’ve seen, young Palestinian poets prefer writing about their personal experiences, which include destruction, and a no-travel zone where children die or lose their mothers. For all those who are dead and focused on the blockade, imagination has been hijacked by pain. There is no point here in even discussing the quality of literature; in war, all warriors become writers, all writers are warriors, and hope is synonymous with despair.