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Poet Remi Kanazi: Global and Palestinian Movements for Justice Are Inseparable

Kanazi discusses his latest book of poems, which incorporates images of struggles for social justice in Palestine and worldwide.

Palestinian refugees leave Galilee during the British Mandate of Palestine, 1948. (Photo: Fred Csasznik)

Remi Kanazi’s poetry brings to life the experience of Palestinians living under occupation and in exile, refusing to be erased and struggling for liberation. In his new collection, Before the Next Bomb Drops, Kanazi covers topics ranging from police brutality, Islamophobia and institutional racism in the United States to the wars created by US foreign policy. Order your copy of this highly recommended collection of verse by clicking here to make a donation to Truthout!

Remi Kanazi is a poet, writer and organizer based in New York City. Truthout recently interviewed him about his latest book of poems, which incorporate themes and images of Palestinian and worldwide social justice.

Mark Karlin: Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine is the title of your collection of poems that we are featuring this week on Truthout. Can you explain how you chose to focus on a global movement against injustice that shares common values in some of your poems, while still keeping your primary focus on the ongoing struggle for liberation of the Palestinian people in most of the others? What is the relationship between the two?

Remi Kanazi: They are inseparable. The same impetus that drives me to act against Israeli occupation and apartheid motivates me to stand against US militarism, the prison industrial complex, police violence and the expulsion of undocumented communities. Similarly, this work can’t be separated from battling transphobia, misogyny and ableism. It’s to affirm that people deserve freedom and justice, whether in occupied Palestine or brutalized Baltimore.

How is this reflected in your poem “#NoLessWorthy”?

“#NoLessWorthy,” a set of hashtag poems, presents the theme that we aren’t “expendable,” we aren’t “collateral damage,” we aren’t “nameless, faceless victims” that can be discarded into the dustbin. From the execution of Mike Brown to the bombing of Gaza, millions are responding by mobilizing against state murder and are pushing back on the Orientalist tropes and anti-Black caricatures that mass media and governments use to legitimize violence against Black and Brown communities.

Your first poem in the collection is “Nakba.” How do you approach that seminal event in Palestinian history?

The poem is personal, but the message is not unique. Nakba literally means “catastrophe” and its effects are shared in varied ways by millions of Palestinians around the world. From 1947 to 1949, Zionist colonizers ethnically cleansed 750,000 Palestinians and destroyed 531 villages. My parents and grandparents are refugees from 1948. My grandmother was pregnant with my mom when they were driven out of Yaffa. “Nakba” delves into the personal aspects of being a refugee, living in exile and not being able to return home. The poem is also a recognition that the Nakba never ended, the new generation hasn’t forgotten Palestine, and the movement for liberation and return hasn’t vanished.

You currently live in New York City. Can you discuss your feelings and images in “Layover in Palestine”?

“Layover in Palestine” examines the experience of never feeling completely present in Palestine. Will I be denied entry? Will I be banned permanently? Will I ever see close friends again? Can I fully experience Palestine knowing that this interaction is temporary? The poem was written primarily about my last trip in 2014, when I was scurrying around Palestine, snapping pictures in case these would have to be long-lasting memories and feeling like I wasn’t able to just take in my surroundings, be at home and feel rooted in this place, even if for a brief moment. Palestine, in the figurative and literal sense, continues to elude me.

Having watched the acceleration of how news coverage increasingly jumps from outrage to outrage, I was fascinated by “Until It Isn’t.” You poetically convey how quickly the world forgets urgent needs for justice. Furthermore, you raise the issue of how “shock and awe,” whether in Iraq or Gaza, becomes passing titillation for the media-consuming public. After all, it’s been more than a year since the latest round of death and destruction in Gaza, but you wouldn’t know that Gaza is still in a life-threatening crisis from the mass media.

There are human beings under those bombs, a person on the other side of that gun barrel and millions who face what many have the luxury to tune out. Furthermore, the devastation doesn’t end when the cameras turn away or the tweets stop. Fishermen in Gaza are being shot at on a near-daily basis, tens of thousands of homes have yet to be rebuilt, 95 percent of the water is unfit for drinking and Israel still controls the air, border, sea, imports, exports and every other facet of life for 1.8 million Palestinians relegated to an open-air prison.

Whether Gaza or Baghdad, a people’s struggle isn’t a spectator sport. Death isn’t a click, tweet or profound Facebook status. Social media has done so much to amplify voices, disseminate information and keep people connected. But it’s important that people’s lives don’t become something that we simply consume intermittently; conflict voyeurism isn’t empathy or solidarity.

Let me ask you about “#InsideOut.” It is an example of how you have incorporated the formatting of social networking into some of your poems. How is your poetry impacted by social networking?

In this collection, I integrated three sections of hashtag poems on various subjects. Social media is an integral part of my life, so I attempted to tease out its best elements and use them as a way to tap into new creative spaces. I’m known for 400-word performance poems. The hashtags, and some of the other shorter poems in the book, are a way to accessibly address critical issues in succinct form.

Your poem “Solidarity” addresses the issue of privilege, commitment and solidarity between advocates for Palestinians and Palestinians themselves. Can you explain your concerns as expressed in the poem?

Remi Kanazi. (Photo: Haymarket Books)Remi Kanazi. (Photo: Haymarket Books)The poem is split into two parts. The first addresses the trope that the Palestinian voice isn’t “palatable” enough, so we need someone speaking on our behalf. It also discusses this bogus notion that Palestinians owe others something if they speak up on Palestine, give a panel talk or write a book on Israeli occupation. People often attribute the highest value to someone merely for seeing Palestinians as human beings undeserving of being massacred and dispossessed. There can also be a tendency for the person put on the pedestal to embrace that flood of praise, and that is something to be wary of and critique.

Beyond the dynamic between Palestinian and solidarity organizer, the poem addresses organizing spaces themselves. A speaker isn’t better than a student simply because they hold a microphone. Value in the solidarity community shouldn’t be based on how many Facebook likes your posts get, how many Twitter followers you have or how rousing of a speech you can give. Organizing begins locally; it’s often not glamorous, but that’s the essential work. I get out of bed in the morning because of the countless Palestinians and solidarity folks working across the country. They inspire and motivate me.

We need to be cognizant – whether speaker or organizer, whether solidarity activist or Palestinian – of how we operate and make sure we aren’t replicating the same structures our work critiques. The poem is not meant to wag a finger, but rather presents criticisms and questions. I’m incredibly appreciative of those who speak up, organize and challenge Israel’s system of supremacy, and I address that in the poem as well.

In the haunting poem “Refugee,” you close with the phrase “we cannot be erased.” How do you, as a poet, work literarily to express resistance and defiance without lapsing into prose exhortations?

I try to be as sincere as possible. There’s a lot of truth in that line. No matter how many homes are bulldozed, no matter how many bombs are dropped, no matter how many villages are ethnically cleansed, Palestinians refuse to be erased – in Gaza, in refugee camps outside of Palestine, in Santiago, Chicago and London. It doesn’t mean that we are invincible; it doesn’t mean that we don’t suffer tremendously; it doesn’t negate the varying experiences of Palestinians; but after 70 years of Israeli displacement, massacre and collective punishment, Palestinians refuse to go away, refuse to disappear, refuse to be erased.

How does poetry, in turn, help to light the fire of bold resistance?

Whether Mahmoud Darwish or June Jordan, whether in South Africa, Algeria or Ireland, poetry has been part of the fabric of uprisings against systems of oppression. From a protest to a café stage, poetry continues to be incorporated into spaces to galvanize, educate, disarm and explore. On a personal level, I began writing spoken word poetry after going to see Suheir Hammad perform in Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. The poetry that night inspired me to pick up a mic and a pen, and to express my political thoughts through a cultural medium, so I intimately understand the impact poetry can have on people.

“Normalize This!” says so much about why Israel is threatened by any movement or campaign that justifiably stigmatizes it. Why is Israel fighting so ferociously against the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, for example?

Israel is afraid of principled action challenging its system of occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. This is why Israel is allocating millions of dollars and government positions to fight against BDS; it’s why the Israeli media goes into panic mode anytime an artist cancels a gig in Tel Aviv, and it’s why Israeli think tanks and business leaders feel threatened by BDS. It is a positive, ethical and effective tactic that confronts Israeli domination in the international arena.

Israel operates in the way that it does because it is protected; it is given a green light to act with impunity. BDS complements other actions, from street protests to coalition building to challenging the pervading media narrative. More people are waking up each day and are questioning Israel’s system of ethno-religious supremacy, and more people are seeking to cut ways in which their tax dollars, community investments and tuition funds profit off of that supremacy.

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