A couple of days ago I led a workshop for a wonderful community of writers entitled ‘at the edge of the dark’. We began from the liminal space between seasons, which felt apt for a cold day at the cusp of the dark moon, and dived into poems that shed light on the dark. We had rich material to work with and the inspiration of varied and brilliant poetry shining the light of truth took us to some deep places.
It’s so easy to think that our writing doesn’t matter, but it does. We don’t always know in what way — that’s not our business — the writing goes out into the world like n grown up child making her or his own way and if it touches one person, changes one story, then it matters.
The Palestinian writer, poet, translator, university professor and activist from the occupied Gaza Strip, Dr. Refaat Alareer, surely knew this. Rafaat was killed on December 6, 2023, during an Israeli airstrike. He died with his brother, sister and their children in a campaign of ongoing genocide, having done so much to promote the work of other Palestinian writers. He was only 44 years old. His poetry and his love for language was a cry for a safe place to live and flourish for every Palestinian and his poem “If I Must Die” has become the emblem of that cry since his death, translated into dozens of languages in his memory.
I’m sharing it today because Cinnamon Press, the publishing company I founded 19 years ago and run with my husband, Adam, and daughter, Rowan, is one of many signatories to ‘Publishers for Palestine’ and today is a day of action and commemoration for Rafaat and for those whose lives are being lost and devasted.
The UN relief agency estimate that 1.9 million people have been internally displaced by the war in Gaza — that’a almost 85% of the population. Around 30,000 died in 100 days — 300 a day (and though this is never a numbers game when we are considering human lives with families and relationships, that compares to less than 40 civilians a day killed during the US offensive in Iraq). But you can read the statistics in so many other places.
How do we talk about the fact that all life is connected, that the suffering of one is the diminishment of all, when the world is not only watching a genocide, but a good portion of it refuses to even see the absolute horror of this?
I write a lot about the need for all of us to become a different story. I write about the connection of all life and how making some people or species ‘the other’ is at the heart of the ecological, economic and spiritual mess that we are inflicting on this planet. We cannot step from the edge of darkness into light while genocide happens.
We cannot keep silent in the face of it. The lie is that we can’t call this genocide, that to question Israel’s governnment is anti-Semitic. But to name the attacks on Gaza as genocide has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, as the plethora of Jewish groups protesting against the actions of the Isreali government demonstrates. Rather, it has everything to do with power, with othering those who are not ‘our kind’, with a corrupt patriarchy that serves no one humanely.
Refaat Alareer understood this and I hope you will listen to his prophetic poem ‘If I must die’ and take it to heart.
If I must die
(1979 – 2023)
If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze–
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself –
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale
Our wonderful authors at Cinnamon Press range across all faiths and none. What unites them is the willingness to see the humanity of all, the understanding that none of us are free until all of us are.
One of our newest authors, Yaara Lahav Gregory, had her debut novel, Night Swimming in the Jordan, published in the midst of the current tragedy engulfing Israel and Gaza. Israeli-born, Yaara grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and has spoken about heartbreak in the face of the current situation. A lifelong peace activist, she has worked with others for many years to promote Palestinian rights within both Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Another of our authors, Adnan Mahmutovic, was the person who alerted me to ‘Publishers for Palestine’. Adnan knows what it is like to be in a conflict-torn place. Now a professor of literature in Sweden, he arrived there from Bosnia as a war refugee in the 1990s. His second novel, At the Feet of Mothers, is about Joseph Schneider, who grows up in a Cherokee-Jewish family in the Smokey mountains of North Carolina. When his mother falls ill she reveals she stole him from a Palestinian girl, Aliya, in the 80s when she volunteered at a hospital in Gaza, and Joseph must decide whether to honour his promise to Rachel to embark on a painful pilgrimage in search of Aliya.
I’ve been working with the Lebanese-British poet, essayist and prose writer, Omar Sabbagh for the last fifteen years. A young father who grew up in the shadow of horrific conflicts in Lebanon, he is all too aware of how vital it is that we dehumanise nobody, and how disempowering it can feel to watch acts of inhumanity while polticians use phrases like ‘human animals’ about ordinary people trying to make it from one end of the day to the other. Omar is amongst the most linguistically dexterous people I know, his writing is rich and intense and layered. So to witness him wrting about not having the words to express the horror is particularly sobering.
There are many reasons to be good with words;
you can build things that fly like scandalous birds
to drape the eyeless sky you see with wings
like eyes. You can scan the world of senseless things,
so that things, as things, may move, be moved,
moving-away from the curse of their thinghood
because of the shape you gift to mold their insides.
With words, in short, you can live another life.
But when it comes to a starless catastrophe
like this, and all your tools go numb, go blunt,
and you can’t but fail to make anything just, worthy,
showing light as it falls, only, a felled and falling sun –
it’s then, I think, you learn your loss, the violet lessons
of dusk: the owl of Minerva, shown-up, a stranger to herself.
When I lived in Wales for 20 years I wrote a poetry collection about the local slate mines that had been known as ‘the slaughterhouse’. There is a Welsh word for horrors that we don’t have the means to express in language — anhraethol — what cannot be said. We are watching unspeakable things. We don’t have the words. And yet we cannot stay silent. At the edge of the darkness, we can only move into the light if we do so together, finding the words to ‘let it bring it hope, let it be a tale.’