MEMO’s Jehan Alfarra speaks to Palestinian-American performance poet and writer Remi Kanazi about his background, activism and his latest works.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and latest works.
A: My parents and grandparents are refugees from 1948. My mother’s side is from Jaffa; my father’s side is from Haifa, Nazareth. My grandmother was pregnant with my mom when they were ethnically cleansed from Palestine, so I grew up in a small town in Western Massachusetts and I moved to New York City four months before 9/11.
My latest book came out in September 2015. It’s called “Before the Next Bombs Drop: Rising Up from Brooklyn to Palestine” via Haymarket Books. It is a poetry collection that ranges everything from topics of the Nakba, to cultural boycott, to US militarism in the US and abroad and essentially challenging folks to not just educate themselves on the issue of Palestine or on mass incarceration or injustices that we are seeing, but also to do something about it.
Q: How did you get into poetry and spoken word activism?
A: I had an older brother who used to send me information about what was going on in global politics, whether that was about Palestine or other issues around the world. When those two towers came down, there was so much vitriolic language. There was that, “We gotta go and turn that place into a parking lot” mentality, “We have to nuke them and start over” and I wanted a way in which I can articulate a message with the wave of anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim, anti-brown, anti-other kind of rhetoric, and push back against that. So I started reading everything I could, from Palestinian intellectuals like Edward Said, to prison abolitionists like Angela Davis. Once I consumed enough information, I started to pick up a pen and put my ideas down on a pad.
In 2004, my brother and sister took me to go see Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. That was the first time I saw performance poets perform live. I literally went home and wrote a terrible poem that night. So, even though I was writing about Middle East politics before I became a poet, what really got me to delve into the creative elements was seeing artists myself. So I figured that the average 19 year-old did not necessarily want to read an op-ed or watch cable news, but they would listen to a spoken word piece. So for me, spoken word was a way in which I could get a political message across through a cultural medium, and connect with the younger generation.
Q: How conscious is the international community about the Palestine question from what you can see, and what role does the media play in influencing people’s views on the Palestine-Israel conflict?
A: I think there are a lot of factors that are changing the way that people think about Palestine, particularly within the US where I am based. Social media is an easier way to communicate and disseminate information, so you don’t have to listen to Wolf Blitzer from CNN or the propaganda from – let’s say – the New York Times. You can actually hear the voices, whether it’s from Gaza through Skype, through video, through tweeting and Facebook posts. I also think that there is an anti-militarism streak that has taken a lot of populations around the world. They are sick and tired of mass surveillance. They are sick and tired of drone-bombing half a dozen countries, the war on Iraq and Afghanistan, and they are looking more and more to Israel as a militaristic entity that is ethnically cleansing people, bombing them, and enforcing segregation and apartheid.
From social media to coalition building, you have seen an even bigger transformation within the United States over the last five years. It’s not just about the issue of Palestine. It’s about the execution of black people on US streets. It’s about the kicking out of undocumented people. It’s about drones. It’s about mass surveillance. It’s about this kind of new rise of anti-Muslim bigotry that is kind of compounded with an old form of anti-Muslim bigotry, and people are saying enough is enough. Also looking at the economics of the situation, when you’re spending trillions of dollars on wars and not on hospitals and schools, you have to ask yourself what kind of society that you’re constructing. So for me, yes my family is Palestinian, but it’s about a system of oppression, it’s about challenging injustice, whether that is in the US or over in Palestine.
There was an incredible amount of opposition five or seven years ago on college campuses where you had maybe five to ten students for Justice in Palestine chapters. Today you have more than a 150. You’ve had resolution after resolution on academic boycott, you’ve had big name artists cancel their gigs and you’ve had divestment resolutions go through on college campuses, so you are seeing a fundamental shift. It’s not where we want to be, but for such a long time you felt stuck at stage one that now you’re at stage two or three and you feel like at least the momentum is in your favour.
Q: Your politically-charged spoken word performances often allude to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. What does it mean to you?
A: As it relates internationally, I would say that Palestinians are not victims in need of aid; we’re an occupied people in need of freedom. US tax dollars, campus investments and community investments are standing in the way of that freedom. And because the US in particular is so uniquely involved in Israeli settler-colonialism, occupation and apartheid, we have quite a big role to challenge those structures. Even me as a Palestinian-American, my tax dollars are funding oppression and step one is to cut that complicity and challenge that dominance within the US.
When you look at BDS and how it functions with reshaping the media landscape and coalition building, this is the very least that we can do internationally. I work on cultural boycott within the United States. You have had more than 25 divestment bills on college campuses; you have work that is going on within unions; you have academic boycott.
It is also important to remember that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine did not begin in 1967 and we can’t simply look at Palestine through the prism of the occupation of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. You have more than seven million Palestinians that can’t return to their homes. This is why when we talk about BDS, the right of return has to be central. When we talk about battling oppression, it’s not just targeting settlement goods but Israel itself as a settler-colonial state that was built on stolen Palestinian land with appropriated Palestinian resources, and through a mass ethnic-cleansing of an indigenous population. So, I think it is critical that we talk about the three basic rights within the BDS call: number one is ending the occupation; number two is the right of return for Palestinian refugees; and number three is ending apartheid conditions for Palestinian citizens of the State of Israel. These are basic demands that are covered under international law. Even though international law and the international community have used these mechanisms to oppress Palestinians, but it is to say that even under international law, we have these rights.
Q: Have you been to Palestine before? And what do you hope for the future?
A: I’ve been to Palestine five times, the first of which was in 2007. In terms of what I would like to see change, in a non-romantic corny way I would like to see Palestine liberated. I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done internationally, and that can’t supplant work that’s being done within Palestine and within the Palestinian diaspora.
Looking at the global landscape, in some ways things have never been better on the issue of Palestine. There’s more support, more younger folks, more marginalised communities that are stepping up and speaking out on Palestine, and yet in many ways things have never been worse within Palestine as this kind of fascism within Israeli society lurches even farther and farther to the right.
But I do have hope that if enough people come together, we can see fundamental change, and not in a cliché-Barack-Obama type of way, but in grassroots, people-taking-to-the-streets kind of way. So what is the fundamental spark that is going to happen in Palestine, which way is it going to ebb and flow, what is ten years going to look like from now? I am not 100 per cent sure, but I do think that the more that the global community is acting and challenging the complicity of their own societies, the closer we can get to a fundamental resolution.