Rafeef Ziadah: ‘Make a pariah state of Israel’

Poems of Rafeef Ziadah are inspired by true stories of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and in exile.

Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah
Written in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza, Ziadah's poem We Teach Life, Sir became popularised by a 2011 performance in London [Courtesy of Rafeef Ziadah]

“Today, my body was a TV’ed massacre,

and let me just tell you: There is nothing your UN resolutions have ever done about this.

And no sound bite I come up with, no matter how good my English gets, will bring them back to life.”

First written in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 Israeli war on Gaza, these words from Rafeef Ziadah’s poem “We Teach Life, Sir” became popularised by a 2011 performance that went viral.

A Palestinian performance poet based in London, Ziadah is an activist in her own right and a member of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee.

She has helped to spearhead many of the initiatives calling for the academic and cultural boycott of Israel until it adheres to the demands granting Palestinians rights under international law.

The poem is now featured on Ziadah’s latest album of the same name, which blends her poetry with original music composed by Phil Mansour.

Al Jazeera spoke with Ziadah about her latest album and the inspiration and politics of her art, as well as her UK-based activism.

Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah is also an activist and a member of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) [Courtesy of Rafeef Ziadah]
Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah is also an activist and a member of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) [Courtesy of Rafeef Ziadah]

Al Jazeera: Your poems were previously known for your captivating performance. Why did you decide to add music to your poems?

Rafeef Ziadah: Both my first album, Hadeel, and this second one, We Teach Life, have been collaborations with wonderful musicians who deliberately worked to ensure that the music strengthened and emphasised the words.

With an album, unlike live performances, people are not able to see me and relate to my facial expressions or hand gestures – on the album we wanted to recreate that connection and music really helped to bring the poems to life.

I was happy to work with activist-artist Phil Monsour (who produced the album). The music has also helped introduce the work to a broader audience and is beginning to have radio play on independent radio stations around the world.

Al Jazeera: How long did it take you to make this album? Why have you decided to release it now and what do you hope will come out of its release?

Ziadah: The album was a slow collaboration that started with a number of poetry pieces and slowly grew in number. It took about 12 months to complete the final production, but the poems were written over several years and recorded in a few countries depending on accessibility.

It is really an attempt to capture in words a number of recent experiences of Palestinians inside historic Palestine and in exile as well.

This work is also – in many ways –  a collective effort beyond myself and the musicians because we launched a crowd-funding campaign to support the final stages of production and many people generously donated to make sure narratives that are largely absent in the Western mainstream can be heard.

As I explain in the album’s artwork, “the poems and music here have been written over several years, three wars, two sieges, too many borders and many protests and picket lines. I hope they capture even a glimpse of the love and resilience of many who teach life with a steadfast smile every day.”

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Al Jazeera: Which poem on the album is the most touching for you, and why?

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Ziadah: Every poem on this album is a true story based on conversations I have had with Palestinians and refugees in many different parts of the world. I hope each story connects with and touches people in some way.

One of the most difficult to write was the poem “Pillow” about a man who in panic picked up a pillow instead of his baby girl while fleeing Israel’s aerial bombardment.

His child survived, but while telling me what happened, he suddenly stopped and showed me the pillowcase that he had kept for years and said: “I keep it to remember”.

The poem Silence Still came out of conversations with a wonderful woman who was a Nakba survivor. In her last few months, she would only describe her village in Palestine and refused to talk about anything else.

Of course, the title of the album is based on the poem We Teach Life, Sir, which dealt with mainstream media bias against Palestinians, but various poems touch on different topics including the difficulties of borders, migration, and racism in Europe and North America towards refugees.

Musically, the tracks have both quiet moments accompanied by Oud solos and others full of energy and rhythm.

The poems and music here have been written over several years, three wars, two sieges, too many borders and many protests and picket lines. I hope they capture even a glimpse of the love and resilience of many who teach life with a steadfast smile everyday.

Al Jazeera: As an activist working on behalf of Palestinian rights, how do you see art – whether poetry or otherwise – as interlinked with the realm of politics?

Ziadah: In our context I am not sure how we can separate our lives, including art, from the political. The separation, unfortunately, exists more in academic discussions than in people’s daily lives and interactions with art.

Ultimately, my experiences and those of the majority of Palestinians have been shaped by dispossession and exile enforced by Israel’s settler colonial regime through a set of comprehensive apartheid policies. The journey of refugees from many countries to Europe, which I write about in this album, is shaped by a political system that treats asylum seekers as suspect.

Even as an individual I find myself reading in countries that place so many negative stereotypes of Arab women on my shoulders before I even utter a word, regardless of whether I attempt to be political or not.

This reality and our narratives are the backbone of the poetry I write, and that in turn links to my activism because narration is not enough. I am also interested in calling for action against those complicit in supporting Israel’s crimes or abuses of refugee rights.

Al Jazeera: How does this view influence the activism you do, with regard to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement?

Ziadah: I have been involved in the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign since its inception, helping to found the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid in Toronto and Israeli Apartheid Week, which is taking place this year in more than 150 cities and campuses around the world.

I am a proud member of the Palestinian Academic and Cultural Boycott Initiative (PACBI) and have supported cultural and academic boycott campaigns and pledges whenever possible.

Today more than ever I believe we need a movement to isolate Israel’s regime in the manner of South African apartheid. Since the so-called “international community” seems to be oblivious to the conditions that Palestinians are living in, the only option left is to make a pariah state of Israel.

Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions are a legitimate tool in this strategy – they help to educate about the reality of Israel’s regime of oppression against Palestinians and, more importantly, they move people beyond basic condemnation to effective action.

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Al Jazeera: What do you think about recent measures taken by the UK government to limit BDS activism? 

Ziadah: The UK government recently announced details of its restrictions regarding ethical procurement in an attempt to intimidate public bodies like councils and universities from cancelling contracts with corporations complicit in Israel’s human rights violations.

Although they do not appear to introduce new legal obligations on public bodies, these documents are intended to create a chilling effect and form part of a concerted campaign to curtail BDS campaigning.

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I agree with my colleagues in the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC) who explained: “This government is going further than Margaret Thatcher ever went to defend South African apartheid.”

The UK government is effectively undermining civil rights and local democracy in order to shield Israel from criticism and accountability. 

Far from hindering BDS campaigns, such repressive measures only highlight the UK’s deepening support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians and underline the need for more BDS campaigning.

In response to the measures, more than 25,000 people signed a petition rejecting the government’s plans and a coalition of organisations has committed to defending the right to continue BDS campaigning. Students rejected the measures by organising Israeli Apartheid Week events across UK campuses, with an opening plenary attended by more than 350 people in London.

Source: Al Jazeera