Open Language: roaming language to its full extent

Mohammed Alzaqzouq

Mohammed Al Zaqzouq is a Palestinian author and researcher. He studied Arabic language and literature at AlAqsa university of Gaza. His writings are published in many Palestinian and Arabic platforms. He worked as a coordinator for the cultural gathering for knowledge, “You tuba.” At present, he works at Tamer Institute for Community Education as a coordinator for the community library’s program. His poem, Seers betrayed me, won the AlKhalili award for poetry as  part of his participation in the Palestinian cultural forum’s first contest for creative writers in 2018.

Sherif Sarhan, Letters Without Signatures, 30×30, aluminum.

I grew up in the Gaza Strip. For me and other young people of my generation who were concerned with the arts broadly speaking, and with the act of writing specifically, there weren’t any literary father figures in the literal sense of the term. We had a certain degree of communication with the generation above us, but it was a surface-level form of contact that didn’t delve deeply into the question of the literary work and what lies behind it. We did not talk about literature as an amalgamation of a revolutionary literary discourse and its proponent, in the way that you can’t, according to Roland Barthes’ formula, simply kill the author, but rather must weave a relationship between symbol/author and text. When we wanted to write, we had to choose: either start somewhere new by translating a particular language that could express itself clearly, or become echoes of the same, previous language.

This question, or this choice, might seem urgent and contemporary and of concern to us alone—we who have been cut off from time by siege, exclusion and marginalization, but still want to communicate and transmit—but in fact, in terms of depth itself, it is the same question that is continually posed. Put most simply, it asks: Will you be you, or will you be them? In other words, will you sculpt your own language out of the bones of your meanings, or will you clothe yourself in the language of transformation?

In this text, I attempt to establish a clear articulation of the question of our language, or perhaps to answer it based on our own experiences.

Historically, the interests of most schools of social criticism based on Marxist theory have revolved around the centrality of literature’s representation of the social, rather than individual aspects of life, and the principle that literature is an expression of the larger collective voice, which necessarily reflects that of the individual. The imagined reader is a member of society, and by the same token, represents society as a whole. According to this view, the value of literature lies in its ability to reflect. It is a concave or convex mirror that presents a bulging or misshapen image of society, such that the creative product appears to be a new form but is ultimately a collection of images of society itself. This notion implicitly suggests a functional, performative form for literature, and identifies its motives as external i.e. originating in the social surroundings and their concerns, and filtering into the interior of the creative self, where they are treated creatively and then emerge in their final artistic form. To look at literature from the viewpoint of social criticism means to see the suffering and pain which motivate creation as necessarily connected to social issues. For Marxist writers this means the pain of the working classes who toil in mines and quarries, which is represented in different ways in the novels of George Orwell, Jorge Amado, Milan Kundera, Haidar Haidar, and many others. As such, it is the voice of society struggling for existence and freedom—and particularly so in the case of the literature of peoples who are still colonized or living under occupation.

An examination of Palestinian literature—poetry and prose alike—from the period of the naksa [1] of 1967 will affirm that most of what was written reflected social concerns like national liberation, resistance, independence, and other major issues that are often dealt with in “committed literature.” Noticeable examples include Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa and Umm Sa’d; Jabra Ibrahim Jabra’s The Ship and In Search of Walid Masoud; Emile Habibi’s The Six-Day Sextet and The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated Pessoptimist; Muhammad Ayyub Abu Hadus’s Nightmares Come in June; and in poetry, Mahmoud Darwish’s End of the Night; Tawfiq Zayyad’s I Clasp Your Hands, Bury Your Dead and Arise, and Songs of Revolution and Rage; Samih al-Qasim’s My Blood in My Palm and The Falling of the Masks; and Mu’in Bseiso’s Palestine Notebook and Poems on Windowpanes. A markedly discursive, documentary style pervades most of these works, especially the poetry, which is natural and understandable in view of the realistic, social function of literature, which in the context of occupied peoples must be to rally and encourage. Here, the presence of the individual creative self shrinks to the point that its individual selfhood is denied, to be replaced exclusively by a self that is fully imbricated in its society. Where are those works now, and how are they seen?

These works are largely evoked today in the context of documenting and recording historical events; there is less focus on a deep immersion in their local quality, in terms of the fluency of their literary utterances, whether in poetry or prose form. Because in truth they are not literary utterances that spring directly out of the self, but utterances of the society which interacts with the self, even if they emerge looking as if they are the utterance of an isolated self. They are the utterances of society, which draw upon society’s suffering and are conditional upon the variables and changing conditions of society. Thus, they are a narrow form of suffering that is restricted to the convulsed circles of society’s discourse; they are sufferings immersed in the questions and anxieties of society. All of this diminishes the ability of the creative text to understand suffering as a human concern which originates with the individual, and the individual’s questions and anxieties, which is what qualifies it to transcend its local quality and pertain on an existential and human level.

Against this convulsive literary and linguistic backdrop, if it is correct to call it that, there was a single example singing outside the flock, in an alternative language that was open to new regions and differed from the discourse prevalent at the time: Palestinian writer, Rasmi Abu Ali, who very early on and at a time when the revolutionary atmosphere was reaching its apogée, produced work that was innovative in terms of linguistic structure and content.

Rasmi Abu Ali saw swathes of linguistic corruption, decadence and bureaucracy which were worth writing about, and this tendency to see the creative self as an individual, autonomous self brought about in his writings a new language, one that hovered at a distance from the language of the collective. His first story, “A Shorn-Whiskered Cat Called Rayyis,” offers a new image very different to the extremism of the fida’i and the victim that instead leans towards what is human, real and singular. This new offering was certainly problematic and caused resentment at the time to the point that one might describe it as a revolution against the revolution itself. Abu Ali and fellow writers who adopted this endeavor in their writings were subjected to exclusion, attacks and marginalization which continued for many years. It is probably fair to say that Rasmi Abu Ali’s early experiments were what laid the groundwork for the individualist trends in Palestinian literature with their absurdist tendencies that came later on.

Gaza’s Suffering and its New Language

In Gaza—which for the last fourteen years has endured a tightly-woven cluster of different kinds of pain as a result of the political situation, the cruelty it collectively experiences becoming more terrible by the day—we are obliged to ask how language and literature, poetry and prose, can comprehend suffering. Do language and literature reflect suffering the way society sees it, like a mirror, in the way that social criticism imagines them to? Or do they draw on autonomous, individual, perceptions which transcend the concept of suffering occurring as a result of political circumstances, and instead see suffering as connected to human existence, the human problem, human questions and human anxieties? How does all this impact the language that is used, and what kind of language forms under the impact of circumstances like these?

Khaled Jarada, Friends (2020)
120×90, Acrylic on Canvas

28 Magazine posed these and other related questions in a cultural project that aimed to re-read Gaza through several different axes. The first of several dialogues attempted to re-read Gaza in light of the philosophy of suffering in cultural action and production. I think it was a desire to understand the place in a new way—one that would challenge the standard assumptions offered by the perception of Gaza as a dark, besieged, miserable place—which prompted the magazine to open up a space to interrogate the philosophy of suffering in cultural action and production. This was particularly prompted by the widely-held view which ascribes the quality and vitality of Gazan cultural production, its aesthetics, and its ability to evoke engagement and impact, to the presence of suffering—suffering understood in relation to the complexity of the political moment and its impact on various domains of life. This view implicitly involves stereotyping the city that creates, because suffering is the motivation and driving force; suffering is responsible for all this artistic output, which ultimately means it is suffering itself that is creative, that writes, rather than the author. By this logic, that same self, were it hypothetically located in another place, would not have been able to produce cultural achievements of the same quality.

Ultimately, these explanations are all well and good inasmuch as they rely on theories of social criticism, which, as we have seen, link artistic creation necessarily to the suffering in society, and hold creation thus to be a reflection of this suffering, but does literary production, in particular, substantiate this? Is it true?

Anyone examining the work of young poets in Gaza will in fact see the opposite in that amidst the overwhelming blackness, the work presents the self first and foremost, along with all the elements—motives, conflicts, struggles, questions and anxieties—that interplay within this self. This is a body of work which re-builds, re-destroys, re-presents and re-constitutes things based first on itself, a self which gazes, sees and interacts consciously and unconsciously with itself and with the other. It is a body of work which distances itself from the functionalism of the street and its demands, or the counsel of external voices. I will demonstrate this further with reference to three collections of poetry.

The first example is the work of the poet Nidal al-Faq’awi and his collection entitled Afternoon: Poems to the Shoemakers’ Cart (Amman, al-Ahliyya, 2017). The following is from Nidal al-Faq’awi’s poem, “Chores”:

I spend the day at meagre chores

That matter to none but me

I seek hardship by accompanying a donkey climbing a mountain of noon

I bolt to comfort dogs that have reveled in barking since eve

I hide behind plastic smiles that I know as the palm of my hand

And I cheat my noble despair with laughter [2]

This indicates that the poems in the collection are internally motivated, arising out of the creative self and its own endeavor rather than echoing or responding to the surroundings, and in fact attempts to collide with those surroundings, or with the reader.

In a Funeral for a Master of Sleights of Hand (Amman, al-Ahliyya, 2019), Anis Ghunayma commences the collection with this poem, “Greetings”:

Greetings, world with no purpose–

You men, women, children,

You wild beasts–

My twenties,

The scars of the heart–

All ye wounds…

You poets,

Greetings to you, kind sirs–

Always foes…forever friends.

Who knows

Perhaps we could be an ancient anthem

And no matter

How high we stand

We are far from a footing…

Perchance we only are

But images of us,

Put out by water

Even before we could glance our reflections.[3]

This stanza clearly substantiates the idea that the poetry in the poet’s collection is the result of an individual combination of vocabulary that comes out of cruelty and sadness in their individual, autonomous manifestations. And thereby, it is an individual and private form of expression which articulates the private questions and concerns of the creative self. This selfhood then connects to the human and the universal i.e., in its universality it is of a higher order and possesses a sustained poetic vitality capable of approaching the global, the cosmic, the human and the universal.

When asked about the nature of suffering in his poetry, how it relates to events in society, and how each poem situates itself in relation thereto, the author, Anis Ghunayma, answers:

“Any work of poetry is a mixture between the condition of the self and the many layers of accretions which make up the poet’s relationship with the world. Each poem has its individual character, and it might be sparked by any given thing, at any given time. I feel that what I write only goes along with the daily rhythm of life inasmuch as it mixes with the emotions it represents, which are mostly stale.I believe that poetry has an individual character, and I define poetry as a thing which refuses, which is not harmonious, as pain, suffering, harshness and anger… All the vocabularies of sadness and depression are a living poetic wellspring in the face of existence. A poet is someone who makes no distinction between famine and war, whether it happens in Gaza or Baghdad or Addis Ababa, and when the poet writes, they place the world in front of them and fire the bullet immediately.”

Hamed Ashour’s collection, Wounds Test Themselves (Amman, al-Ahliyya, 2018), shows the poet addressing a door in the poem, “Oh Brother Door”:

My brother door,

Like you

I complain of scant standing

Of meagre talk.

Rest, little one

Nothing will come of any good, now.

As you, I am weary of my loneliness,

Weary of my tongue bound to my throat,

And of the croaking song I make

As I artfully open my arms

To those eluding their sorrows.[4]

The poem exposes the personal tone of the writing and the internal rhythm that drives and determines the presence of the poetic text, and presents a different and experimental form for the world, a new perception based on the personal that moves towards a new presentation of a new form.

Anybody reading these three poetic works, all of which belong to the prose poetry genre, as well as other works of poetry and prose, will notice the ways in which the texts offer a new presentation of internal suffering, which includes poetic experiments that balance the tangible and the abstract. These offer highly personal images of life, the self and existence within varying poetic worlds.

The rich written experiences of the late Palestinian short story writer, Mohanad Younis, display multiple illuminations that indicate how his prose is not far off from what I write earlier on subjectivity, and the movement from the self until it converges with the broader context in an attempt to rebuild an open language. This is a choice through which writing comes forth from a new space and a new language birthed from their personal experiences. To reach this language is to reach new meanings that are contrived by deeply listening to the rhythm of the inner world.

The foregoing does not necessarily mean that the poetic text / new language has enacted a rupture between itself and its society; it simply emerges first and foremost from itself, and this self is not external to its society but nevertheless refuses to be a mere echo of that society. It is a self which believes that the function of poetry/language is simply poetry/language itself: poetry as a singular utterance with its own concerns, questions, modes, and treatment which re-presents things in accordance with that self.

In his short story, “Forgetfullness,” Mohanad Younis writes about an imagined meeting with the lost ‘father.’ The prose flows with high vulnerability in a text that starts with the self, but can engage with the collective, clashing with it as it reconstructs the questions that this confrontation dictates.

Mohanad Younis writes:

I remember perfectly the day I met you for the first time. I was in secondary school and all the way there – as I usually do on the way to significant meetings – I was imagining how it would be when we finally meet. I went even further in imagining conversation and expected scenarios of our meeting. You shook my hand warmly, then held my face in the palms of your hands. You looked at me, saying to yourself: How did the little blond boy, who jumped up to be able to see the sea from the window, become a young man of my height? Then, you pulled me into your arms, into the hug you deprived me of, for years. You held me warmly trying to sweep away all these years of complicated details between a father and his son. The warmth of you was gentle, the grip of your arms, harsh. In truth, you did nothing of this, and I imagined, after reaching out my hand to shake yours and we sat for a short while, you asking me how I was, there was another part to our meeting where I will watch what remains of it, that which never took place. [5]

You can only listen to the creative self, tending to it and interacting with its rhythms. Implicitly within this understanding, the poetic/linguistic utterance takes on a vitality that makes it a product of its time and place that is worthy of all times and places, rather than a prisoner of that time and place. Listening, as illustrated above, allows for an opportunity to rediscover meaning through an open language and diction birthed from the self and interacting with it. Contemplating language accordingly is a more vibrant contemplation as it is experienced as a growing body, one that sails away and develops as a complex context made up of self-experiences and the experience of the other that can intersect, merge, or repel one another, diverging to take another trajectory. In this way, language is not a closed-off structure bound to an already present social or ideological hypothesis, rather it is infinite, more free and more aligned with what is real and thus more readily attuned for limitless expanses.

[1] The Naksa, or the defeat, is the name for the war between Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Israel in the Six-Day War that took place in June of 1967 resulting in Palestinians losing the remainder of their land after Israeli victory.

[2] Nidal al-Faq’awi, Afternoon: Poems to the Shoemakers’ Cart (Amman, al-Ahliyya, 2017), earned first place in the Poetry category in 2015 in the A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Culture and Arts Programme’s Young Writer of the Year Award.

[3] Anis Ghunayma’s, Funeral for a Master of Sleights of Hand (Amman, al-Ahliyya, 2019), won first prize in the same competition in 2017.

[4] Hamed Ashour’s, Wounds Test Themselves (Amman, al-Ahliyya, 2018), received special mention in the Young Writer of the Year category of A.M. Qattan Foundation’s Culture and Arts Programme.

[5] Mohanad Younis, Leaves of Fall, Khatti Publishing House, Gaza, 2018.