By Syma Mohammed
Remi Kanazi, Palestinian-American poet and activist, gave a rousing performance at South Bank’s annual Poetry International festival last week.
Kanazi’s spoken word poetry, reminiscent of the socially conscious lyrics of old school American hip-hop, also follows the tradition-bearers of Palestinian resistance poetry such as Mahmoud Darwish.
Describing himself as an “angry” poet, Kanazi engages with political themes such as the abuse of human rights, the need for justice, Palestine, Iraq, identity and the notion of home.
His forthright poetry seeks neither to appease nor apologise. No-one, who is deemed reprehensible, escapes his scathing criticism:
“Sometimes I don’t know who I hate more
The governments in the West
Or the politicians in the East
Who sell their souls quicker than the oil they export” [Only As Equals]
Obama, just like his predecessor Bush, is also a target of his anger: “a president who broke history, but not poverty, occupation, or corporate interests.”
He laments the double standards that exist in American notions of justice, both in Iraq and in Palestine. In Poem for Gaza, he says “Funny how we blame the victims.”
Kanazi speaks about the struggle for justice which drives his work. In Iraq, he affirms his belief that he is not anti-American because he was opposed to the war in Iraq, but rather because he is a humanist – speaking out as a ‘human being’. It is the fact that injustices are perpetrated for money, power and greed that anger him.
Although his themes are serious, Kanazi lifts his poetry with regular splashes of humour. He introduces his poem Coexistence as a love story for Israel! However, his opening line boldly declares ‘I don’t want to coexist’. The poem dwells on the Palestinian need for human dignity and the need to be treated as equals, rather than having to be grateful for jobs and scraps from the Israeli state. He ends with: “I don’t want to exist. I want to exist as a human being.”
His poem Palestinian Identity is a coming-of-age meditation on the trials of carving out an identity as an exile in a foreign country, bereft of the role models and frames of reference one would normally have:
“I was born overseas
With little knowledge of myself or my ancestry
Growing up in American society
I conformed to the mentality
I watched MTV
Envied actors and people who drove Mercedes
I didn’t listen to Public Enemy or read Edward Said
Comprehend the need for autonomy
I was a dark kid, trying to be a white kid, acting like a black kid”
Throughout his performance, Kanazi’s delivery is clear, confident and assured – each word drilled out with conviction and candour. There are many memorable lines that leave their mark on the listener such as: “Just because your house is beautiful does not mean that the bones you built it on have fully decomposed” [Only as Equals].
Such lines catapult Kanazi into a league of haunting Palestinian voices which cannot be ignored.
Kenazi is a recurring writer-in-residence at PalFest (Palestinian Festival of Literature). His first book Poetic Injustice: Writings on Resistance and Palestine will be available from January on www.PoeticInjustice.net.
Poetry International is the UK’s biggest poetry festival. This year’s theme was Imagining Peace, with specific focus on Palestine and the Middle East. Established Arabic poets such as Mourid Barghouti and Nabeel Yasin performed alongside younger English language poets such as Suheir Hammad.