THE DEAD are everywhere in Ghassan Zaqtan’s poems: sitting, circling, dancing in the garden, stomping the sidewalks, posing for photos. Poet, novelist, editor, and columnist for the Palestinian newspaper Al-Ayyam, Zaqtan returned to the West Bank in 1994 after more than two decades in exile. His poetry — like his homeland — is a world of endless anticlimax, of liminality made permanent, where all letters go unmailed and all stories remain unfinished. Homecoming brings no end to exile; the dead refuse to rest. Elegy is impossible here; “narrative dies at the starting line.” Absence is less of a problem than presence, undermined by tunnels, holes, and hauntings. “The only / remaining / ploy / now / is / silence,” Zaqtan laments in “The Islands,” but in the next line he winks his refusal: “That’s what he liked to say…”
In June, Zaqtan and his translator, Fady Joudah, were awarded Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize for Joudah’s translation of the collection Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me. The Canadian embassy in Cairo initially denied Zaqtan’s request for a visa to attend the award ceremony in Toronto. The year before, Zaqtan was admitted to the US only after PEN International and the ACLU launched a campaign to pressure the authorities. In July — along with, among others, César Aira, Haruki Murakami, and Edward P. Jones — he was shortlisted for the Neustadt International Prize, the winner of which will be announced in November. We met for coffee in Ramallah on the morning that US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers had agreed to return to negotiations.
BEN EHRENREICH: Did you see the news this morning about Kerry?
GHASSAN ZAQTAN: Yes. I’m not sure that it will work, but it’s good to try. We have two choices now. We have the one-state solution, which could be a strategic, long-term option, but which I think is too difficult because it means Palestinians will be second-class citizens and we will have another model of apartheid. And we have the other solution, which is necessary and immediate: for the Israelis to stop building settlements and to withdraw to the 1967 borders. I think the Israelis are not ready to do this. There’s no real leadership in Israel that can do what the Palestinians did when they agreed to the Oslo Accords, because we had at that time a historical leader in Yasser Arafat. Israel needs such leadership. They have to do something to protect the values they have claimed to uphold over the last 60 years. That’s their challenge.
BE: When you went to Canada for the Griffin Prize, there was some trouble with your visa. What happened?
GZ: I followed the application steps online because there is no Canadian office here that has authority to give visas. I received a letter from the embassy in Cairo. They denied my application, and it was funny because the official gave three reasons: that he did not believe that the occasion of the prize ceremony is enough of a reason to give a visa, that he was not convinced by my financial case, and that he was not sure I would go back to Ramallah. I was shocked, to be honest. It’s insulting. I sent the letter to the Griffin Trust. I had readings in Istanbul, and I went there. The campaign started from the United States cultural institutions and intellectuals and the Canadian cultural institutions and the Griffin. They did a good job really. The embassy officials told me, “Okay there is some mistake somewhere and you can refill the application and we will give you the visa.” I told them I will not refill the application because I wouldn’t be adding any different information. I had a reading in Jordan.
Suddenly they changed their minds. I was still in Istanbul. I had to write something about what was happening in Taksim Square for my weekly column. They talked with my wife, Fatin, and they told her Ghassan’s visa is ready. I picked up the visa in Jordan and the melodrama finished. I don’t think it was their plan to not allow me to go there. It’s just their traditional way of treating Palestinians. Most would have the same problems. I had the campaign, I had my friends, I had the influence of an institution like the Griffin, so they changed their minds. Most Palestinians don’t have this. This is the problem.
BE: Now that you’ve been nominated for the Neustadt Prize, do you anticipate any problem getting a visa to the US?
GZ: I have one. I had a tour planned to sign my book in 2012, six or seven states, a really good program. When I met the official in the embassy in Jerusalem — of course after I got permission from the Israelis to go to Jerusalem and all of that drama — they were very nice and they told me I will get my visa in two weeks. But the tour started and I didn’t get my visa or my passport back. And when the campaign started, they called me at my house and they apologized. They sent my passport to Ramallah by express mail but it was too late.
BE: The tour had started.
GZ: Yeah, we missed it. They organized another tour after three or four months, but not like the first one. But they gave me a visa for three years. I have a reading in the US next February and another three readings in April.
BE: Last time we met, we talked about your father’s village, Zakaria, which was destroyed a few years before your birth, so you were born into exile.
GZ: Yes, I was born in Beit Jala [in the West Bank, near Bethlehem.]. My father was employed in the United Nations agency for refugees, UNRWA, so we had to move with him between Palestinian camps in Jordan and Palestine. I spent most of my childhood in Beit Jala but we moved to al-Karama refugee camp on the east bank of the Jordan River. My childhood is full of memories of the river.
BE: When there was a river.
GZ: Yes. At that time there was a river. It was before the Israelis built a dam. There were fish. We would fish in the river. We moved to Amman after the 1967 war because the Israelis started to shell the camp. My father stayed behind and moved us as a family to Amman. I went to secondary school there and I studied in a teacher training college. I graduated as a teacher of physical education and then I moved to Beirut — I was 22 maybe — after working for two or three years. At that time, and afterwards, Jordanian intelligence was very hard on Palestinians, especially if you belonged to or supported the PLO, which I did. And Beirut was the center for intellectuals under the umbrella of the PLO. Most of the major Arab writers fled from the regimes in their countries to Beirut — it was an open place for poetry, for poets. It was a dream to be in the same square with Saadi Yousef, with Adonis, with Mahmoud Darwish, with Nizar Qabbani. You can imagine what it meant to a young writer. At the same time it gave you the idea of being a revolutionary.
BE: What year was this?
GZ: Around ’78. I was one of the leaders of the Palestinian Democratic Youth Organization in Lebanon and Syria.
BE: Was that connected to the PLO?
GZ: Yes. And we succeeded at moving the mainstream — and I’m very proud of this — of the organization towards a commitment to education and culture. This was not easy.
BE: Away from pure politics?
GZ: Yes, and military training. I was not against the military at that time, but I think I made a difference, and I succeeded in publishing a monthly magazine. Some of the most important writers wrote for it, like Saadi Yousef, like Zakaria Mohammad. It stopped in ’82, during the Israeli invasion, when they surrounded Beirut, because most of the youth went to military groups and I lost my relations with them.
When the war was over I went to Aden, in Yemen, by ship. That was the agreement, that the PLO should leave Lebanon. I chose to go to Aden. During those 10 days on that ship, with 1,000 young soldiers and fighters, I asked myself all kinds of questions. The PLO was very important for me — I’m the son of the PLO — but being alive after this war, you’re on the sea, you have to think of life more than death, and not just under the conditions that you have lived as a Palestinian. You have to open your mind and you need the wide world. You have to open the doors and the windows, to listen to others and to speak to others. You have to tell your story. I spent a few months in Aden and then went to Damascus and went to work as a cultural journalist. I completely changed my plans. I went to Cyprus, Tunis, Damascus.
BE: Tell me about your decision to return to Palestine in 1994.
GZ: Oslo was a bad agreement. It was really not good for Palestinians. I think Yasser Arafat signed it because he knew that the other choice was to vanish in exile. Oslo gave us as Palestinians an incomplete return, an incomplete dream, but it gave me a very narrow opportunity to go back. It was a narrow gate for a wide dream.
BE: Mahmoud Darwish published some of your early poems and you quote him and refer to him by name in your own poems. How do you grapple with his legacy?
GZ: I was lucky because we were very close friends.
BE: In Beirut?
GZ: No. I met him once in Beirut, but I was too young and he was a star. In Damascus I met him twice, but the same conditions remained. In Tunis in 1989, my book The Heroism of Things was published and suddenly he sent for me through a friend. I met him in the house of this friend and we spent the whole night — we both left at about four o’clock in the morning — talking about that collection and about poetry. Five years before this I had published in his magazine, but he never mentioned it. Later I discovered that he had read most of my work. Then we started to be very close, and we came here [to Ramallah]. We met every day. Every day, I mean that. We had our table in a restaurant here, in Masyoun in Ramallah.
It might sound strange, but my personal relationship with Darwish and our long friendship allowed me to dismantle his influence on my poetry. This led me to be influenced by his overall knowledge — in particular, of Hebrew culture. I was influenced by his relationship to life more than I was influenced by his poetry. As a poet I’m outside of his influence. He knew that very well, and he liked it. My perspective was completely different and he respected this. Most of my generation had a real problem when we started: the influence of Mahmoud Darwish. Most of us tried to escape, to avoid being under his power, and three or four from our generation did it, but it was hard. It meant reading more, looking for other experiences, being very hard with your texts and with critiquing your work. And he helped us. Through his great magazine, al-Karmel, he gave us the space to publish our work, which was against his work. This is amazing. Most of us started in al-Karmel.
BE: It’s hard not to read your work as the poetry of the post-Oslo period. There’s a strong sense of being caught in a narrative that at the same time binds and excludes you, which feels very much like the experience of Palestine in the years since Oslo, of this ending that failed to arrive.
GZ: It’s an incomplete place. There has been no return for Palestinians, or for me. I’m still a refugee in Ramallah. I had to start with less than zero here, exactly like in Jordan and Damascus and Tunis and Cyprus. The real long-term, strategic solution is one state between the river and the sea — but not under the conditions of Netanyahu or Lieberman or the settlers. There is no other way to bring peace to this place. Let’s make it simpler than the politicians have. Let’s ask Israel: what do you want? One state? Okay, we agree: but with equality. Two states? Okay, we agree, but drawing on what? On the ’67 borders? That’s the big Palestinian political mistake. The ’67 line is not a holy border, it’s just the lines of the agreement that ended that war. The real border for the two states is in United Nations Resolution 181. That’s what the world agreed on, and it’s not too late. There are two solutions in my opinion, the United Nations resolution, or one state. We admitted in the PLO that we couldn’t throw the Israelis into the sea. They have to admit now that they can’t throw us into the desert. If they reach this point we will have peace.
They started building settlements in 1967 to put the Palestinians under pressure. They used the settlers and now the settlers are using them. I insist that it’s not only the Palestinians’ responsibility; it’s the Israelis’ responsibility not to let this minority in Israel take the region and the future to hell. Do something to protect the morals you claim. Don’t come and stand with us in Nabi Salih, don’t come to support us in the demonstrations here — demonstrate in Tel Aviv. That’s your duty. Thanks for coming here, but it’s not your place. We will do this. We are patient, we know what to do. Don’t use us to clean your conscience. Go, be brave, and demonstrate in Tel Aviv and Haifa and in the Naqab.
BE: Do you think I’m right, though, to feel in your poems this sense of great sadness over the incompleteness of this place?
GZ: We haven’t told our story as Palestinians. We lost this opportunity because we depended on the politicians. We put our culture under the power of the politicians and we lost it, because they are not good storytellers. Maybe we started with Mahmoud Darwish — he started to rebuild the story. The Israelis made a good story. They knew how to deal with their audience very well. We lost our story to the politicians’ stupid, narrow imaginations. What we have to do now is to get it back, as intellectuals, as writers, as creators. I don’t know how, but I’m trying to do my best.
BE: I’m slightly surprised to hear you say this, only because one of the things I kept taking out of your poems was a frustration with narratives, and with the way that people are expelled from their own stories.
GZ: There are two stories, the story that we want to tell and the story that we have. There is a gap between the real story, which we are still looking to complete, and the story written by the politicians. We also have to clean the Israeli narrative, because it’s not true — it’s ignorant of our presence. I deeply believe that we are the result not of one state or one time, but of the whole history of this place. We have many civilizations in this place. This place is very heavy. We are not coming from this period or that period, and if we accept that we are the conclusion of all of these histories, the narrative will be clearer. Some start history with the Battle of Ajnadayn, when the Muslims invaded Palestine 1,300 years ago, as if there is no history before that. This ignores 10,000 years. The Israelis start with the Hebrews’ journey to Palestine. They ignore what happened after and they ignored what happened before. This narrow perspective results in settlements and what we have now, because they have to ignore the land and its past, they have to ignore the villages that were here. They just see the last 70 years and they see God’s promise. Okay, we have another promise from the same God. We have our holy book too. It will never end that way. If you want to belong to this place, you have to belong to all of its history and respect 10,000 years of several civilizations. And it’s good to be a result of 10,000 years of civilization.