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Amid Violence in the Middle East, Palestinian American Poet Shares Work at Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies

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Lisa Suhair Majaj — an author and scholar of Arab American Literature — shared a collection of her poems at a Tuesday event at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Majaj, who was born in America and grew up in Jordan, shared 17 of her poems chronicling her life as a Palestinian American. Speaking to an audience of more than 30 people, she acknowledged the difficulty of the subject matter amidst the violence unfolding in Israel and Palestine.

“I have to say it feels almost impossible to be speaking right now at this time with so much destruction and grief, and poetry feels especially difficult,” she said. “Bertolt Brecht famously said, ‘What kind of times are these, when to talk about trees is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors.’”

She added that her identity as a Palestinian American adds a deeply emotional aspect to her work.

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“To write as a Palestinian means to bear witness to what is experienced and known, hidden or not hidden. It is to open oneself to tenderness and anguish alike, the deepest and most difficult of human experiences,” she said.

Amid campus-wide and nationwide discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Majaj added that not knowing who would attend the evening’s event made her focus on centering the material around Palestinian humanity.

“When I was trying to prepare this reading today, I didn’t know who would be here, I didn’t know who’s listening on Zoom, and I thought, ‘How will I put together material to make what I am trying to say not less threatening, but how can I prepare it, how can I say, we, too, are human?’” she said. “Our history is embedded in human bodies and we have human lives, we have people we love, people we grieve. These events that Palestinians have suffered for the last 75 years, they are done by humans, to humans.”

The poems spanned a number of pressing themes, including family, fear, war, trauma, and extreme violence. While not all of her poems are written in the first person, Majaj said that they all come from stories and experiences she is personally familiar with. In one of her poems, Majaj recalled a “surreal moment” in the 1982 Lebanon War when she narrowly avoided death while trying to flee the country.

Another poem, titled “What She Said” described what a Palestinian mother might say to her children in an attempt to keep them alive while living under occupation — denying them a normal childhood.

“She said / there’s no school today, / it’s a military invasion,” Majaj read.

Majaj also shared a poem titled “Conversation” which is formatted as a dialogue between two people. She referenced excuses given in defense of war while reminding readers of the innocence of many of the victims.

“What did you do while the children of Gaza / were dying? I argued with their killers. / What did you say?” she read.

Ultimately, Majaj shared that her intent behind writing poetry is to create a space that “somebody else can enter.” She said she feels that poetry is a unique medium that can reach people who would otherwise not interact with the region.

“All the news articles in the world will not reach people, all the statistics in the world will not reach people — so a poem is always very personal,” she said.

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