To reap or cull what hope remains

'Il-Ħsad tal-Peprin: Poeżiji għal Gaża.' David Aloisio, John P. Portelli (eds.) (Horizons 2024).

Dedicated to the children of Gaza—the only hope left for Palestine—forty poems by forty Maltese authors make up this powerful book. Framing what I would call a memorial to the humanity of those whom the world conveniently ignores—the innocent people caught in the middle of endless and senseless carnage—are two poems by Ahmed Miqdad, a Palestinian poet who, before fleeing the bombing and killing, lived in Gaza City.

David Aloisio and John Portelli put this poetic collection together with both passion and compassion. Given the sheer horror of the situation, to say this is a collection that yet again expresses solidarity with the Palestinian people would diminish the very sense of meaning and context. It would sound too easy. Too prosaic. It would feel somehow expected and mainstream, where of course, it is always obligatory to weep with the mothers of Gaza, as we have done since the Nakba.

Yet there is nothing mainstream and less so expected in what these editors chose to curate and bring together. Their brief Preface is enough to signal that no real words can express the grief, anger and desperation—if not sheer helplessness and collective guilt—that everyone feels for the dead. As if a new culling season was signalled in the Middle East, Gaza never leaves our memory because its tragedy is recurrent. It is a place where it seems that no peace will ever come.

Those of us who have for decades expressed their indignation over war and occupation in a history which is cruel enough to exhaust any hope for humanity, know well how and why the massacre of October 7th, 2023 opened another cycle where Gaza would once more become the theatre of indescribable tragedy.

While corrupt and violent leaders still insist on making their excuses for waging carnage, the innocent will always bear the brunt. Yet beyond the rotten polities which only produce death piled upon more death, poets focus on the matter at hand: the death of the innocent child, the slaying of the mother, and the cruel absurdity of those whose weight and measure simply sideline any hope for reason and humanity. Have we indeed reaped or culled any hope that may be left?

A grim harvest

Il-Ħsad tal-Peprin opens with Ahmed Miqdad addressing death, showing his utmost disdain towards its pervasiveness, its droning sound of cruelty, its stench, as he breathes it “from the breeze of the morning in Gaza / and in the aroma of [his] morning coffee.” Miqdad pleads: “Dear Death, / That’s enough / Leave my mind / And disappear from my sight!” (Ahmed Miqdad, Dear Death)

I find it interesting how in Maltese, ħsad literally means harvest, but also implies a play on reaping and culling. In the image of the grim reaper, death culls life in the same way a farmer reaps wheat with a scythe. The additional image of the poppy is equally powerful: the poppy has, since the first World War, become a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice. A sacrifice which, in War memorials is only attributed to those who served in the military, when the victims of war are all of those who died, especially the innocents caught in the mayhem. The fact that pacifists are challenged for wearing a white poppy in response to the red poppy in November, goes to show how the memorialisation of the victims of death remains selective, not to mention how by default, war is glorified.

Be that as it may, the symbolism of the poppy—red and white—remains a stark reminder that War is always pure evil, even when the latter appears banal. Norbert Bugeja reminds us that as the history of exile is there to haunt us all, even louder do we hear Hannah Arendt warn us how evil learns to live “on the edge of the heart.” (Dan il-ġuvnott studja l-filosofija, / jafha bl-amment l-istorja tal-eżilju, / u l-kitba ta’ Arendt dwar meta l-ħażen / ukoll jitgħallem jgħix fit-truf tal-qalb. Norbert Bugeja, Qalandja). The poignancy of the poppy, however, might give us some solace even in tumultuous moments such as the moments of departure. For Therese Pace the fading poppy also signals unending love. In total despair, there must be hope. “Don’t cry my dear, the sun will rise for us.” (Tibkix, għażiż. / Għad tfiġġ ix-xemx għalina. Ħu ħsieb. / Ara fejn tmidd il-pass. / Jidbiel il-peprin. Imħabbti le. Therese Pace, Qalil dal-waqt).

War is “one big mess” where “everything passes, comes down, in the acrid taste of a cancerous stomach” (tgħassida waħda/kollox jgħaddi/kollox jinżel/fil-qrusa/ ta’ stonku kkankrat. David Aloisio, Figolla għal Gaża). And even when we once cried “never again!” history’s eternal recurrence does not abate. The madness of Jenin now redounds in Rafah, where “if not in someone’s name, the dead are collected as they bury their children all over again” (Mhux f’ismu jekk f’Rafah qed jerfgħu l-mejta / u jidfnu ’l uliedhom għal darba darbtejn. John Aquilina, Linji minn Gaża).

Cruel games

The poet’s gaze is focused on the humanity of the dead while the inhumanity of war comes from the failed politics in whose violence there is no end. Clare Azzopardi urges for the truth to be told to children. These are the children buried under the rubble not with bombs or declarations, but with every word uttered by the corrupt (għidilhom ’l uliedek … aħna wkoll bil-gwerer tagħna … dan pajjiż ta’ nisa u tfal li ntradmu taħt bini li ġġarraf / mhux bil-bombi mhux bit-trombi imma b’kull kelma li ħarġet minn fomm il-korrotti). Tell them about the thirty thousand graves. Tell them that these are true wars. This is the same Palestinian syndrome which the poets had to flee. (għidilhom bis-sindromu Palestinjan fuq fomm kull poeta li telaq / għidilhom bit-tlieta u tletin elf qabar u elf ieħor magħhom / għidilhom li dawn huma l-gwerer ta’ vera. Clare Azzopardi, Għidilhom).

After the October massacre we had politicians solemnly declare and hastily commit to polities and alliances, only to quickly retreat into ambiguities as the dead piled up. Indeed, it was in the enfolding of mayhem with a heinous massacre evolving into a wider carnage that, to quote one of these esteemed leaders, no place was left for any “whataboutism”. As Patrick Sammut observes, Gaza is like a playground, where the powerful are playing a game of Tag. (U s-setgħana tal-Punent jilagħbu ħarba. Patrick Sammut, Fil-bitħa Gaża) The deadly result was that the children of Gaza could play no more (Illum il-logħba ntemmet ħesrem. Rita Saliba, It-tfal ta’ Gaża)

Once the rhetoric faded and the same esteemed leaders began to look like prats in their unwavering contradictions, the horror was clear. By then no excuse could be made, and no justification could find its legs. Yet beyond claiming to be on whatever “right side” is history entertained, the dead remain voiceless and those starving have nowhere else to flee.

Recalling the image of Etaaf, a Palestinian girl who hurriedly tries to bury her mother (Tiġri Etaaf biex tlaħħaq tidfen ’l ommha / kull sekonda ddub f’idejha.), Keith Borg quotes Marx, who reminds us of history’s recurrence from tragedy to farce (l-istorja tirrepeti lilha nnifisha:/ l-ewwel fi traġedja, imbagħad f’farsa. Keith Borg, Lil Gaża) Yet are we sure we know how history’s farce comes about? Isn’t there a cruel irony to the fact that history flags up its contradictions at the same time the polity tries to justify its barbarism? This leaves Philip Xuereb straddling and struggling with parallels in history, as in Gaza death does not seem to be written with indelible marks (Hawnhekk Gaża).

Gaza’s children

Mario Griscti reminds us how Gaza weeps for her children who, right from the womb, could drink nothing but dread (gaża tibki ’l uliedha / li xorbu kus l-imrar / sa minn ġuf ommhom. Mario Griscti, żbandoli mgħattna). Stephen Cachia brings to us the image of the daughter of Gaza buried under the rubble calling for her mother (Mirduma, bil-għatx u nofsha maħruqa, / it-tifla ta’ Gaża bdiet thewden u ssejjaħ lil ommha. Stephen Cachia, It-tifla ta’ Gaża). In Klara Vassallo’s running order, an homage to poet Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, the image is even more visceral. The mother holding the body of her dead daughter is staring at the blood that seeps through the white garment that covers her. (u waqt li tiċċassa lejn bintha mgħottija / tiddubita l-aħmar jixgħelx b’daqshekk urġenza meta / jitferra’ minn ġisem miksi abjad. / għax m’hemmx kliem biex tiddeskrivi / l-uġigħ tal-aħmar meta tħares lejh. Klara Vassallo, running order)

These are unbearable images. But perhaps, one way of ever containing this hopelessness is found in sheer compassion, which Maria Grech Ganado extends to Selah Hajras, the three-year-old girl who was sent to Malta for medical care. In her love and sheer humanity, the poet is honest. She can only wish and hope that the little one will, “wearing a pretty dress”, forget the misery of her “past in rags”. (Maria Grech Ganado, Selah Hajras)

Faith

In history’s recurrence of despair and hope, the narratives of faith return to us, overlapping. In this collection of poems, one couldn’t help noticing how the formative imaginary of the biblical, which the Maltese grew up with as Insara (a word only used in Maltese to indicate Christians as “Nazarenes”) plays a major role in the poetic imaginary. This is poignant but not unexpected. We have always regarded the Middle Eastern terrain as being akin to (if not an integral part of) our own terrain. Sharing the same sea, in the sheer act of being Maltese one cannot miss the same genetic stream which binds Arabs, Jews and Christians together. Being Maltese, as we think of Gaza, and as we see images from its seabound approach to the sky and the whiteness of its builds, we cannot be forgiven if something of the familiar comes to mind (Dalgħodu, fuq xatt taħt żifna palm, / imdieheb, ħieles, f’għodwa xemx xitwija (Leslie Vassallo, Bin ix-xtut. Minn Birżebbuġa sa Gaża).

The Mediterranean’s, and with it that of the Middle East, is a history that remains of the now. There is no past to Abraham, Moses, or Mohammed, as there will always be a present to Jesus. And while the Islamic heritage, like that of its Jewish siblings, was mostly buried in the Maltese memory (often with disdain and totally embarrassing incorrectness), the claims we have by dint of our tongue and faith could never be concealed. Jesus cries alone with Gaza in his sight (B’Gaża f’għajnejh / Ġesù jgiddem difrejh / u jibki waħdu. Louis Briffa, Ħajku), while the Mother of All Sorrows carries the children of Gaza just like she carried her son and wept. (Id-Duluri ta’ żmienna / iġġorr it-tfal ta’ Gaża / bil-polvri mal-gażaża. Amanda Busuttil, Id-Duluri ta’ żmienna) Likewise, in a Christian church in Bethlehem a monk throws incense at the Baby Jesus blanketed in a keffiyeh as he sleeps on rubble (solitarja / patri jinċensa Bambin imfisqi f’keffiyeh / mistrieħ fuq ġebel mirżuħ. Elena Cardona, Bethlehem)

Carmel Cauchi appears to lament with Jesus on how while he could bring his friend Lazarus to life, he couldn’t but cry and rage over the thousands mercilessly slaughtered. (Int kont reġġajt lil Lazzru mal-ħajjin, / ’ma jien nista’ biss nagħli, / ninkedd u f’qalbi nagħdab / għal dawn l-eluf b’kefrija maqtulin. Carmel G. Cauchi, Instema’ leħen f’Rama). The lament and the rage come on the edge of faith and cannot but question whose god is their death serving. Alfred Grech’s poem Gaza brings us to the sight of a new memorial erected to innocent blood, which whispers in deaf ears and asks everyone: why did they die and to which god are they sacrificed? (Il-mafkar ġdid ikun id-demm bla ħtija / Li jfesfes f’widnejn torox versi ġodda / Jistaqsi lil kulħadd: għaliex inqatlu, / Fuq liema artal tad-debħa, għal liema alla? Alfred Grech, Gaża) The sad truth is, that for those children to whom no land was said to be promised, no god was there to attend to the sacrifice (wlied art / li ebda alla / ma indenja jwiegħed. Terence Portelli, Inshallah).

Hope

Yet even when Joe Friggieri asks who would bring back the dream of peace and bounty (Min se jġibhielna lura / din il-ħolma? Gaża 2024), in the very sense of history as that of the perpetual now, there remains hope. Even when it seems that there are no more vineyards or olive trees to be downed and destroyed in the valley of Elah, some hope remains. Just as the mystery of salvation seems to have been imprinted in our poetic imaginary together with that regional presence which we share, Charlò Camilleri does not seem to give up. Let the olive tree (that powerful symbol of Mediterranean longevity) give us succour while anointing and healing all peoples. (ħa jqum / Żebbuġa felħana / b’fergħatha kennija, / u żejtha duwa, / hena tal-ġnus. Charlò Camilleri, Ma baqax)

However, we must also remember that the promised hope of redemption comes with a price tag as it could never afford us with any quick consolation. Charles Flores’s sense of hope has a different complexion, marked by the dark hallmark of human cruelty. And while the army of occupation, with the Americans’ blessing, delectates in song and nonsense, there will be a time when the people will march into freedom. (Waqt li l-suldati bil-barka tal-Amerikani / jkantaw u jiżfnu / ma’ melodiji mhux magħrufa, / daharhom lejn it-tankijiet armati sa snienhom, / l-irġiel għadhom jistennew / il-mument li jimmarċjaw għall-ħelsien. Charles Flores, Issa l-waqt)

Form and Time

Gaza’s history lesson is quite grim. Those seeking a way out of the predicament of geography, language and history will be disappointed. As Antoine Cassar navigates the morphology of a place whose sounds and tongues move across the scribbling of Latin, Hebrew and Arabic, he warns us that while there is always the possibility of travel, not without paradox we are most likely confronted by an inability to engage with forms that come and go. Gaza refuses to simply yield its form to those who seek to mould it in their own image. History incessantly wants to shape Gaza, but Gaza will never yield. (Ghażża mhijiex forma / ta’ tmun ta’ dgħajsa / li tista’ tmewweġ biss / lil hawn mix-xefaq. Antoine Cassar, Kontralezzjoni – QiTâʿ Ghażżah)

The same happens with a time that keeps changing as if it were a conjurer, where five minutes are turned into five clumsy centuries. (F’din l-art, il-ħin jinbidel bħal saħħara. Ħames minuti / jafu jespandu, isiru ħames sekli guffaġni. Claudia Gauci, X’għedtlu dakinhar li xtralek pasta?) Like all horizons that recede the more we think we come close to them, Gaza awakens us to a world of stark contrasts and haunting aporias—like closed gates that, nonetheless, remain the only point of entrance.

The lattice work which in one part of the world is like a canopy that gives us shade and lets in a breeze, in Gaza becomes a canopy of bombs and destruction. (Fuq din in-naħa tad-dinja / kannizzata ta’ dwieli / arja friska … Fuq dik in-naħa tad-dinja / kannizzata ta’ bombi / arja densa / soffokanti. Priscilla Cassar, Dinjiet differenti) Likewise the dialectic of opposites comes clear in Jesmond Sharples’s Tifla b’għasfur f’idha where freedom and flight play against each other with not much hope of redemption. This sense of contradiction is equally internalized just as the light seems to go silent and with it any hope for Rafah where there only remains a memory of children playing ball. (Meta d-dawl jiskot, / bħat-tama ta’ Rafah fil-bogħod – / ħolma bierda / li ssikket gwerra. / Jibqa’ biss memorja: / fl-imsieraħ il-logħob tal-ballun. Justin Schembri, Meta d-dawl jiskot)

It is as if the world is insisting, time and time again, that we look again and again and again. There, we realize that we cannot simply wish away the pain that makes us. Recalling the sense of rest by which the Sanskrit word Shavasana enters us into a world of total empathy, Marthese Fenech invites us to consider how “Only a constellation of scars … When / When / When / New phrases have been born to describe / A wounded child with no surviving family” (Marthese Fenech, Shavasana).

Yet even the sight of ants walking busily while remaining oblivious of what is to become of them, could bring one to tears (iqabbiżli d-dmugħ in-nemel miexi – Simone Inguanez, fuq siġġu jżaqżaq). Perhaps to reveal what in his Ħajku, Omar Seguna depicts as a cry of a girl which conceals the blood under the rubble, a state has not yet been found sufficient and strong enough to allay the grieving mother. Is this because, as Matthew Schembri intimates, all appears to be normal, (u hawn aħna / hekk/ donnu kollox normali) when in fact it never was? Or is it because all we can hope for is to make sense, every now and then, though we never know what to make of Gaza? (kif kultant nippruvaw naqbdu tarf insibu truf. Leanne Ellul, x’naqbad ngħidlek fuq gaża?)

Weight

It sounds almost absurd to remind everyone that reading such a collection of poems is not easy. The challenge is not as obvious as it sounds. Indeed, the horror of Gaza—over which even words to describe it seem to imply a presumption of guilt, association, excuse or even legitimation—left us all speechless. Comparative statistics aside, Gaza has raised the stakes, perhaps even more than any other recent conflict, be it current or past, forgotten or ignored. This is because Gaza is a reminder of a cruel historical recurrence, an impasse which crosses generations and with which newer generations find themselves engaged with.

The poems in this volume share similar predicaments. Some come across as bold and enraged. Some focus on contained yet no less poignant stories, where the imaginary takes one into the quotidianity of the parent losing a child, the agonizing mother and the devastated father, the stoic, the desperate, and maybe those who still hope to stay alive. Others take a longer view, almost straddling centuries if not epochs and eras carrying with them the gesture of epics and some semblance of history’s longue durée, the wider arc of humanity’s arduous story.

Depending on one’s own focus on this tremendous tragedy, some poems make very uneasy reading. I must admit that I found myself struggling with a few, which, while different in character, expected me as a reader to carry a weight which I either found too heavy to bear, or far too overwhelming to even consider. I was particularly taken in this sense by Walid Nabhan’s Gaża fuq il-Golgota, John Portelli’s Titwiliet minn Gaża, and Karl Schembri’s Fejn ħallejtha r-rota meta ħrabt?. In these poems one finds a high degree of personal investment, where one could almost imagine the persona of the poet in the middle of Gaza. This is not only because all three poets have been physically in the Middle East for personal or professional reasons, but where their poetic form takes a first person positioning which could not be missed.

Other poems, such as Albert Marshall’s Xalom and Andrew Sciberras’s Palestina equally lent a certain weight in terms of what one could call “volume”, not in particular terms of length and traction, but in what they seem to imply—which is left to the reader to consider or reject. The point here is that all poems in this book have their specificity even when they appear to be moved by the same place and the same set of events over a longer period than the current war.

Beauty

Yet even when singing its elegies, poetry also claims the specificity of aesthetic form, and this book regales us with some of the finest, from very brief yet lyrical moments such as Poet Laureate Maria Grech Ganado’s beautiful Selah Hajras, to Tarcisio Zarb’s exquisite Dal-beċċun plebew ta’ Gaża, and Achille Mizzi’s commanding and canonical Karba tal-Palestina. Finding beauty in poetry that deals with the abject and horrific may sound odd and misplaced, but here we are also regaled with what the poetics of form could offer. Here, I declare my formative admiration towards these three poets’ work, which has been with me since I was in high school, and where I have found not only a bounty of aesthetic inspiration to last me even now that I am in my sixties, but where, as a schoolboy, thanks to them, I had my first encounter with a deeper sense and quality of engagement with the world.

David Aloisio and John Portelli deserve all our admiration for curating this book of impossible words. I say impossible out of respect for those who made them real, and more so for those who still find in the tragedy of human strife the hope to stay alive. And this hope is perhaps best embraced by the poet whose agony in Gaza is the most tangible of all contributors—Ahmed Miqdad whose Hymns of Peace conclude this wonderful book: “Behold, children flying kites / yonder over the mountains of north / playfully yearning for freedom, / as a hymn of peace.”

Undoubtedly, hope is there to be reaped, especially when it appears to have been culled forever.

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