Marwan Makhoul: Poetry, Prose, and Identity Politics

marwan-makhoulOur interview had scarcely begun when Marwan Makhoul told me “there is no coexistence between Jews and Arabs in Ma’alot-Tarshiha,” the upper Galilee city where the provocative uproarious poet currently resides. Born to a Palestinian father and Lebanese mother, he grew up in Beqeia surrounded by a mountainous landscape that is omnipresent in his works. “I moved [to Ma’alot-Tarshiha] for ideological reasons,” he told me. Like the political statements he proclaims through his verses, Makhoul’s choice to move to a Jewish majority city reveals a tumultuous thread of the Palestinian fabric. He is a Palestinian, an Arab, and Israeli citizen all at once. “I wanted to become a settler,” he says, albeit of a different kind, in order to reject ethnic purity and religious settlements.

Ma’alot was created as a settlement for Jewish immigrants in 1957, and was subsequently imposed upon Tarshiha when the Israeli government announced a merger of the two towns in 1963. For Makhoul, how the government views him and appropriates the land of his ancestors is painful, but beside the point. “What matters is al-watan (home),” an idea that transcends the political predicament that he and the other 2.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel face. “We did not seek to become Israelis. The government of this country came to us, we were here long before they were,” he said.

In “Sunday Sermon,” published in April 2015, Makhoul tackles the polarized politics of his identity by challenging Israeli military recruitment of religious minorities, such as Druze and Christian Palestinian Arabs.

Arise from temporary death
O Jesus
And forgive the occupier
Such is the Covenant of your Lord
Never would you break
Come pray for the governments
that anathematize all meaning in the Torah
Enlist!

When reciting his poetry publicly, Makhoul’s signature tone is tempestuous, blending cynical melancholy with outrage, yet without resorting to the clichés common in Palestinian political prose. His work recounts the narrative of Palestinian citizens of Israel while also building a bridge to connect with fellow Palestinians in occupied West Bank and Gaza, as well as Arab audiences at large.

It’s not an easy task, Makhoul admitted. Palestinians in Israel are marginalized, and even rendered invisible, for a variety of reasons. Nearly every Arab country forbids Israeli passport holders entry, and vice versa. “I’m a voice that tells people about our identity, and how we have worked to preserve it as Palestinian, Arab, and [in] connection with our people” he told me.

“Beit Hanoun” is emblematic of this vision. Referencing the northeastern Gaza Strip city, the poem recounts Makhoul’s reaction to Israel’s offensive in the summer of 2014, which wrought massive damage:

When I saw what I saw on the screen
I thought I was dreaming
or the TV was dreaming the impossible made real.
I never imagined, Beit Hanoun,
that you’d mean anything to me

Hello?
Hello?
Beit Hanoun?
Can you hear me?
I think the phone’s not working
or is perhaps asleep,
it is very late after all.
Never mind, let it go.
I’ve nothing better to do
than catch up with my brothers shading themselves
by the axed trunk of Arab solidarity.

Makhoul’s voice is stifled however, by an imposing challenge: fears of normalization. “Our [Palestinians in Israel] role in resisting the occupation has been largely dismissed…working with us can be wrongly perceived as normalization with the Israeli State,” he lamented. Makhoul also experienced a more immediate and personal challenge recently: the threat of a travel ban. Israeli authorities have been clamping down on critical voices using several tactics, including restrictions on movement. In April of 2015, Makhoul traveled to Lebanon through Jordan for a reading. Under Israeli law, Lebanon has been designated as an enemy state since 2000, and Israeli passport holders are prohibited from visiting the country. His decision to defy the restriction brought about a barrage of Israeli vitriol against him, which led to his detention at Ben Gurion airport upon his return from Lebanon.

Since the spring of 2015, Makhoul has been placed in detention every time he traveled through Tel Aviv. “There’s a culture of inflicting desperation on critical voices to force them into giving up,” he said. Despite being detained and insulted, Makhoul appears to be unfazed. A recent poem, “Arab at Ben Gurion Airport,” humorously portrays his determination to fight Israeli discrimination.

Who prepared your bag, she asked
Osama bin Laden, I replied

Do you have any sharp objects, she asked
My feelings, my skin color, and my Eastern looks, I replied

In addition to his political and social message, Makhoul also seeks to contribute to Arabic literature. “My style is not always what the audience wants. Sometimes, the best way to be heard is through being gentle and calm.” His melodic reading of “Sunday Sermon,” accompanied by legendary Lebanese singer Oumeima El Khalil, is a case in point. Makhoul views the blending of prose with modern music favorably. “There are no strict forms of prose and poetry anymore. Our human endeavor demands overlapping genres,” he claims. Defying the tradition of “committed poetry” – one where poets are bound by singular form, style, and message. Makhoul writes to deliver something new, from esoteric verses to the use of colloquial Arabic. No matter the form, Makhoul’s ultimate purpose to is share his experience and create a window onto his Palestinian-ness through verse.