AN OPEN LETTER TO A UNITED STATES CONGRESSMAN CONCERNING THE FINAL SOLUTION OF THE INDIAN PROBLEM IN THE STATE OF ILLINOIS AND THE PALESTINIAN PROBLEM IN THE STATE OF ISRAEL


The remarkable open letter and the accompanying image below were first published in the Arab League’s New York-based magazine The Arab World (v. 15 n. 5 May 1969). For a thorough and critical account of the history Culhane recounts, do read Adam John Waterman’s study of Black Hawk’s rebellion, what precipitated it and its afterlife: “The Price of the Purchase: Black Hawk’s War and the Colonization of the Mississippi River Valley,” (PhD diss., New York University, 2008).

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"Chief Black Hawk of the Sauk Indians—an American fedayeen leader"


Dear Congressman Anderson:

I am addressing this letter to you because writing to your Congressman when you want to see justice done is an important part of the American Way of Life that we both were taught, growing up in the Rock River Valley of Northwestern Illinois. Of course, you aren't my Congressman anymore, because I live in Chicago; but we are what Malcolm X called "homeboys"— and I have proof that you have a conscience to appeal to, because of your integrity in casting the deciding vote that sent the Senate-approved Civil Rights Bill to the House floor at the exact moment when the funeral of Martin Luther King was beginning in Atlanta. Since we both were born and raised in Rockford, I could guess what you were going through when you told the Chicago Daily News that some of your leading supporters and campaign contributors called you to denounce your decision. I rejoiced when you replied: "My conscience tells me I've got to vote this way."

But that was in April of 1968. In February of last year, I had marked you down as a true descendant of the European settlers who chose to live in the Rock River Valley but refused to live with the people who were already there. I am referring, of course, to the Illinois Sesquicentennial Banquet in Winnebago County, at which I was toastmaster and you were the principle speaker. In your address, you told twelve hundred residents of the county that they should learn from the example of Israel, which had defeated all its Arab neighbors in six days the previous June. I wanted to reply that the Europeans who came to the Rock River Valley were way ahead of the Europeans who went to Israel in driving out and destroying an area's indigenous population; the job in our valley was already done; the Sauk were "extirpated"—but I didn't think it was my place as toastmaster to debate with the principal speaker. So I kept silent.

My conscience tells me I should not have kept silent. Congress is constantly being asked to vote on matters that affect the survival of the Palestinians who had been living upon that land for hundreds of years when the first Zionist settlers arrived from Europe. When you vote, do you remember what happened to the Indians of the Rock River Valley, who had been there for hundreds of years when our families arrived? Most people who know me imagine that I am a friend to the Palestinians in their fight to go back to their homes because my wife¹ is an Arab. I want to explain to you that I am with the Palestinians because my great-grandfather was an Irishman who settled in a valley that no European would even share with an Indian on terms of equality.

“I have very little hope that any appeal which I can make for the Indian will do any good.,” Sam Houston told Congress in 1857; but he let Congress know where he stood, anyway: “I am a friend to the Indian upon the principle that I am a friend to justice.” Well, sir, as a citizen of the United Sates, it is my duty to let the Congress know where I stand: I am a friend to the Palestinian upon the principle that I am a friend to justice; and I think you should be, too. Because, when I was being taught in Rockford schools that I should be prepared to die for the self-evident truth that “All men are created equal,” you were actually risking death fighting the Nazis who would not share Germany with German Jews.

The Sesquicentennial Banquet was a disillusioning experience for me. You remember that I introduced Chief John Winneshiek of the Winnebago Indians, the tribe our country is named after, and the descendants of Stephen Mack, the first white settler in out valley. I read up on Mack and the Winnebago in preparing my introductions, then realized that those who asked me be toastmaster would not want me to mention the real reason our county is named for that tribe. Stephen Mack induced the Winnebagos to betray their Indian brothers to the settlers from Europe.

Do you take your children to see the Black Hawk statue when Congress adjourns and you go back to Rockford? My father used to take our family for Sunday drives in our old Pontiac along Rock River to see Black Hawk. We kids used to fight to sit by the left-hand window in the back seat, ending up all crammed in the one corner, noses pressed to the glass, waiting and watching, mile after mile, until, suddenly, on a high bluff on the East bank, there it was: the towering stone statue of an Indian, wrapped in his blanket, gazing longingly across the river at the land where his people once lived.

I always thought Black Hawk was a Winnebago, because our county was  named for Winnebagos. Did you? I only found out in preparing for the Sesquicentennial celebration that he was a Sauk. I remember that you called upon the Swedish-American poet Carl Sandburg for the theme of you address, “Why a Memorial?” Did you ever read what Sandburg wrote about the Sauk?

“For hundreds of years,” Sandburg wrote, “the Sauk tribe hunted and fished in the rich prairie valley of the Rock River, and among the rocky hills and bluffs of northwestern Illinois; in the time of the falling leaves and the ghost shapes and the hazes of Indian summer, they had poles harvest corn in their little villages, and told the Great Spirit, Man-ee-doo, with songs, dances, and prayers, they were thankful it was good corn year.”

My back used to shiver when I looked up at that statue. Somehow, I suspected how we solved the Indian problem, even though the Rockford school system didn’t teach us how it was done. Maybe I suspected because one of our favorite childhood games was to “kill” all the redskins in the cornfield. Maybe I suspected because, as an Irish-American kid, I had heard the famous remark of that fighting Irishman and Civil War cavalry hero, General Phil Sheridan, when the Comanche chief was presented to him and said: “Me Toch-a-way, me good Indian.” You will recall that Sheridan replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” It became a favorite saying as we made our way West in a slightly altered version: “The only good Injun is a dead Injun.” Howard H. Packham, in Pontiac and the Indian Uprising explains that “Visions of our destiny did not include a healthy place for the Indians.” I think of this when I read that General Moshe Dayan has repeated Weizmann’s Vision of Israel as “a state as Jewish as England is English.” That does not seem to include a healthy place for the Palestinians.

Do you know how we solved our Indian Problem in the Rock River Valley? I didn’t, until last year; but I do now.

In 1804, Sauk leaders sold the land to the United States Government with the promise in writing that they could hunt and plant corn in Illinois until the lands were surveyed and opened up for settlers. Sam Houston was speaking of “treaties” like this when he told Congress that “we lend ourselves unintentionally to an unjust act of oppression upon the Indians by men who go and get their signatures to a treaty. The Indian’s mark is made; the employees of the government certify or witness it; and the Indians do not understand it for they do not know what is written.” Sandburg says Black Hawk “had seen the red man drink the fire water of the white man and then sign papers selling land.”

In 1829, the United States Government ordered the Sauk and Fox to leave the Rock River Valley. Some of them obeyed and crossed the Mississippi to Iowa; others stayed on, disregarding the order.

The Europeans took over vacated Indian property. They plowed land which had been ancient burial grounds of the Indians.

Seeing the land that they loved threatened, the Indians resorted to terrorism.

“Already his young men on fast ponies had circled among settlers along the Rock River,” wrote Sandburg, “leaving cabins in ashes and white men and women with their scalps torn out.”

(I think of these Indian terrorists when I read of Palestinian terrorists attacking kibbutzim. I read in Newsweek of kibbutzim established by Nahal, the Pioneer Youth Organization of the Israel Army, including Kfar Etzion in the west bank territory seized from Jordan. “Of course, we won’t give it up,” says Sandra Zusman, a 21-year-old American from Los Angeles. “Why should we? This isn’t Arab territory; it’s Jewish. Foreigners have been walking on our land all these years.”)

The American settlers asked the Illinois governor for help, complaining that the Indians “threaten out lives if we attempt to plant corn, and say that we have stolen their land fro them, and they are determined to exterminate us.”

The governor called up a volunteer army and march toward the Indians holding. Black Hawk, the Sauk war chief, gave up and joined his fellow tribesmen across the Mississippi.

In 1832, Black Hawk charged that European settlers had broken their written promises: white squatters had come fifty miles past the lines of settlement. He must have suspected by now that face-to-face negotiations and secure boundaries and iron-cald treaties and agreements with Indians were only temporary solutions as Western civilization worked out its “manifest destiny” in North America.

Sandburg put it this way: “the white civilization of firearms, printed books, plows, and power looms was resolved on a no-compromise war with the redskin civilization of spears, eagle feathers, buffalo dances, and the art and tradition of the ambush.” You can tell by the way Sandburg equates printed books with eagle feathers and plows with buffalo dances which civilization he belongs to. He could have compared a written tradition to an oral tradition, and steel plows to a reverence for the land. The Sauk did raise corn, squash and beans—but mostly on the rich terraces of the river, where there was minimum of land clearing necessary.

When Black Hawk was defeated, he said: “the Rock River country is beautiful country. I loved it. I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did.” Only ten years later, Sarah Margaret Fuller, Emerson’s friend, visited the Rock River Country and complained that the dwellings of the new settlers “showed plainly that they had no thought beyond satisfying the grossest material wants.. .Seeing the traces of the Indians, who chose the most beautiful sites for their dwellings, and whose habits do not break in on that aspect of nature under which they were born, we feel as if they were the rightful lords of a beauty they forebore to deform.”

You will recall that the very year you started practicing law in Rockford, John C. Van Camp quit as city forester. Rockford’s municipal officials had been warned of the dangers of Dutch elm disease in 1953l the first case in our town had been detected in 1954, but the city had largely ignored Van Camp’s chemical control program. By the time you were serving Winnebago County as state’s attorney, elms were dying in what had been called “The Forest City” at the rate of 1,000 a month. It cost Rockford more that $1,250,000 to remove the dead trees. The Denuded City’s European-Americans had the technology but didn’t revere the land enough to use it. Had there been Indian voices in our city council, I’ll bet they would have fought to use Western technology to save trees, to end the pollution of the river they knew as a clear, sparkling, swiftly flowing stream, to clear the air of poisons bequeathed by industrialists and car owners to their own children.

Similarly, the Israelis have technology far superior to the Palestinians—and the Israelis refuse to sign the nuclear no-proliferation treaty. If their European know-how ends up poisoning the atmosphere for all, how can they claim to have loved the land? These are matters on which civilization must compromise.

For even though neither the Indian nor the Arab belongs Western civilization, both are human beings: reasoning animals.

“My reason teaches me,” wrote Black Hawk, “that land cannot be sold. The Great Spirit gave it to his children to live upon. So long as they occupy and cultivate it they have a right to the soil. Nothing can be sold but such things as can be carried away.”

Therefore, in 1832, Black Hawk and his followers returned to the Rock River Valley, Saying the treaty was not legal.

“They had not planned to make war, apparently intending to go to Wisconsin and plant crops,” says they Sesquicentennial edition of “Illinois, Land of Lincoln.” Sandburg paints the picture:

“And Black Hawk himself was leading his paint-face warriors, with strings of eagle feather down their heads and shoulders, with rifles and tomahawks, up the Rock River, telling settler, “We come to plant corn,’ saying also, ‘Land cannot be sold.’”

Black Hawk was then 65 years old.

“When troops fired on and killed two braves carrying a flag of truce, the Black Hawk War began,” admits the Sesquicentennial history of Illinois for children.

And now I came across a paragraph in the Sesquicentennial history of Rockford and Winnebago Country that made me sad to be called upon to introduce the little band of modern-day Winnebagos, with strings of Eagle Feathers down their heads and shoulders, who had been asked to perform a friendship dance for the crowd.

The paragraph said:

“(Stephen) Mack was forced to flee… during the Black Hawk War after he dissuaded the Winnebagos from joining Black Hawk’s Sauk and Fox warriors in their losing fight with the white soldiers. He spent the duration of the war in the Chicago garrison at Fort Dearborn, and, on his return, set up a new trading post at the confluence of the Rock and Pecatonica Rivers. He took possession of 1,00 acres of land in this are in 1835....”

I suspect we honor more than the first white settler in the county in honoring Stephen Mack.

Black Hawk’s warriors, brave as they were, could not seem to beat the white men. Explained Sandburg:

“Black Hawk did not know then that the white man had ambushed him by a white man’s way of ambush, that Sioux and Winnebago Indians acting as guides for his army were in the pay of the whites and had led his army on the wrong roads.” 

Finally, with his back to the Mississippi, Black Hawk offered to surrender, at the same time trying to get his people across the Mississippi and back into Iowa. The United States gunboat, Warrior, fired on the rafts until most of the women and children and old people they were carrying were dead of wounds or downed. Then the U.S. slaughtered the Indians braves who had tried to surrender. Black Hawk escaped by the settlers to bring him in as prisoner and they did.

Now, there’s a tribe to name a country after.

After the massacre which our history books call the “Battle” of Bad Axe, Black Hawk was taken as a prisoner to Washington, to meet President Andrew Jackson. Each was nearly 70 years old. If Old Hickory understood the first sentence the Indian said to him, he must be among the very few member of Western civilization who have ever understood it when it wasn’t spoken by a fellow Westerner. Black Hawk said:

“I—am—a man—and you—are—another.”

And he explained himself in words that could be used by any old Palestinian today who is being condemned by the Western press for ceasing to be “an Arab moderate.” Black Hawk said:

“I took up the hatchet to avenge injuries which could no longer be borne. Had I borne them longer my people would have said, ‘Black Hawk is a squaw; he is too old to be a chief; he is no Sauk.’ This caused me to raise the war-whoop. I say no more of it; all is known to you.”

In Look Magazine last September 17, a “refugee expert” named Ira Hirschman wrote that “the American taxpayer, in the name of humanitarianism, has unwittingly written a blank check that is helping to develop a permanent Arab refugee body.” Yet in Time Magazine, last December 13, the mother of a dead Palestinian refugee who had left the camp to fight to regain his homeland, said: “I am proud that he did not die in this camp. The foreign press comes here and takes our pictures standing in food queues, and they publish them and say ‘Look at this nation of beggars.’ This is no life. I am proud to send my second son to replace the first, and I am already preparing my eight-year old boy for the day when he can fight too.” In that same issue, the Israelis claimed to have killed or captured 2,650 fedayeen.

It looks to me like the Indian’s dilemma: damned if you remain on your reservation; killed or captured if you try to go back home. Black Hawk’s farewell words about sum it up:

“You have taken me prisoner with all my warriors—I fought hard. But Your guns were well aimed. The bullets flew like birds in the air, and whizzed by our ears like the wind through the trees in the winter. My warriors fell around me, it began to look dismal. I saw my evil day at hand. The sun rose dim on us in the morning, and at night, it sunk in dark cloud, and looked like a ball of fire.. That was the last sun that shone on Black Hawk. His heart is dead, and he no longer beats quick in his bosom. He is now a prisoner to the white man; they will do with him as they wish. But he can stand torture, and is not afraid of death. He is no coward!”

“Black Hawk is an Indian—farewell, my nation! Black Hawk tried to save you , and avenge your wrongs. He has been taken prisoner, and his plans are stopped. He can do no more. He is near his end. His sun is setting, and he will rise no more. Farewell to Black Hawk!”

On the 20th anniversary of the creation of Israel las year, Newsweek wrote a piece in which it said, “The country’s founding fathers though of the Jewish state as a European outpost in the Middle East. And in 1968, few successful Israelis see any reason to change that concept. ‘I’m perfectly happy being a foreign body in the Middle East,’ says a Tel Aviv accountant. ‘I’ve seen how the Arabs live, and I can’ see why anyone would expect us to become like that.’”

I, too, have seen how the Arabs live. A Palestinian family lives across the hall from us while the father of family earns his Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago.² I agree with the man from Tel Aviv. No fair-minded person would grant the right of a community to exist on the land of its ancestors—be it Palestinian Jew, Palestinian Arab, or North American Sauk. Palestine in 1917 had an over 90 percent indigenous, rooted and homogenous Arab population. As late as 1947, the Arabs in Palestine were still in the majority. In 1948, at the age of ten, my neighbor fled his home in Jerusalem when the bullets of the European settlers began to whizz about his ears like the wind through the trees in the winter.

When the war was ended, he was not allowed to return. Once, interviewing Abba Eban for the Chicago Daily News, I asked him why Israel wouldn’t let such Palestinians go back to their homes. He told me that they would constitute a Fifth Column inside the state. Coming in a Cambridge accent from a man who was born in South Africa, such a comment about families that had lived in Palestine for seven hundred years and more seemed to me either racial or religious discrimination; I wasn’t sure which. I take it old Sam Houston had the same problem when made his appeal in Congress for the Indians:

“The senator from Indiana says that in ancient times Moses received a command to go and drive the Canaanites and Moabites out of the land of Canaan, and that Joshua subsequently made the experiment of incorporating one tribe of the heathen with the Israelites, but it finally had to be killed off. Therefore, the senator concludes, the Cherokees cannot be civilized. There may have been something statesman like in the policy, but I do not discover the morality of it.”

I will say, however, that there is no analogy between the two cases. The people of Judea who were killed or exterminated by the original Israelites were idolaters, and the object was to keep the people of Israel free from the taint of idols and idolatry under the command of Providence, and therefore the extermination in his dispensation became, in their view, necessary. But the Cherokees never have been idolaters, neither have the Palestinian Muslims, nor the Palestinian Christians. They all believe in one Great Spirit—in Allah—in Yahweh—in God. Yahweh is recorded to have said, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house.” That was considered one of the top ten commandments in the Judeo-Christian heritage, when I was a kid in Rockford, Illinois.

There is a leading family in Rockford that we both know. Their forefathers left their home on the Polish-Russian border at the turn of the century and came to the Rock River Valley. They prospered in business and a member of the third generation of that family to live in our own is now president of their firm. Their religion is Judaism as mine is Roman Catholicism and as you are an Evangelical. Tell me, if you can, why it is just that a member of this family could emigrate from Rockford to Israel under the Jewish right of return and live in the house of my Palestinian neighbor, because the Palestinian’s religion isn’t Judaism. My neighbor wants his seven-year-old son to grow up in Jerusalem. Isn’t religious discrimination by Israel presenting this? Weren’t you and I taught religious discrimination is wrong?

When you were fighting the Nazis in France and I was supporting you by buying defense stamps in schools in Rockford, I was taught to applaud a people’s resistance to occupation. Why does that apply to the French resistance to the Nazis, but not the Palestinian resistance to the Israelis?

How can democracy be government of the people, by the people and for the people, if it excludes Indians and Palestinians. Aren’t the United States and Israel democracies—or aren’t Indians and Palestinians people?

Why is every moral value I was taught in our hometown null and void if applied to Indians or Arabs—or Negroes?

In fact, Congressman, we were not even taught, as schoolchildren, about the massacre at Bad Ax. I learned about it while preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the State of Illinois. It’s the reason my ancestors and yours could move into what Sandburg called “land made safe for white settlers since the Black Hawk war put the Indians west of the Mississippi.”

Oh, it’s all the past you can say. But it’s still going on there today. If we do not raise our voices against injustice in Palestine, how can we be sure we would have raised our voices against injustice in the Rock River Valley?

Congressman Anderson, my homeboy, maybe someday you’ll take your children on a pilgrimage to our Christian holy places in the Middle East and find that sentimental Israelis have erected a magnificent statue of the Noble Palestinian, wrapped in his UN blanket, staring longingly across the Jordan at land that once was his home. You and I know this is possible, because we have seen the high bluff overlooking Rock River, where we torchbearers of Western civilization made just such a gesture, once we had conclusively demonstrated our superiority to the indigenous population by “extirpating” them.

Sincerely,

John Culhane³

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¹. Hind Rassam Culhane. 
². Tarif Khalidi. 
³. Culhane (1934-2015) was an American journalist turned historian of animation.
 


BETWEEN GAZA AND THE THIRD WORLD

Mu'in Bseiso, Suhail Idriss, and Mahmoud Darwish in the New Delhi airport for the Fourth Afro-Asian Writers Conference. Al-Adab 17:12 (1970).



My main intention is that the English, the German, the American, the Russian, and the Chinese will read me and that their lungs will fill with a love for Palestine.

— Mu’in Bseiso¹

After all these years that I spent with the Palestinians, I became one of them.    

Faiz Ahmed Faiz²

For most, Gaza—like the rest of the Middle East—is a place of dying, not thinking. Gazans rarely have the opportunity to write their own histories. It is rarer still that a Gazan is afforded the opportunity to account for themselves in public. Gazans are merciselly slandered and their attempts to achieve freedom are met with Israeli bullets and bombs. But Gaza is also home to writers. Intellectuals who fight. Students who study despite their confinement. Gazan writers confront their own pasts under conditions of resolute unfreedom and they demand a different world. Gaza’s past is little known and rarely studied, but it is a revolutionary past rich of ideas and movement, not simply death and destitution.

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In a review of his poetry from the 1960s, the late Egyptian critic and novelist Radwa Ashour argued that Mu’in Bseiso’s poetry was first and foremost concerned with politics and society. Bseiso, Ashour wrote, “is not interested in metaphysical questions in the least.”³ Bseiso is perhaps Gaza’s best known writer. And, like many Arab intellectuals in the twentieth century, Bseiso was a communist. It was through communism that Bseiso encountered the world.

Born in Shuja'iyya, Gaza in 1926 Bseiso died in London in 1984, en route to Moscow. He wrote poetry, plays, memoirs, and journalism over the course of his long life. His plays, including one on Che Guevara, another on the Zanj Rebellion, and one on the Biblical story of Samson and Delilah, were allegories of the Palestinian experience. His poetry, like that of Mahmoud Darwish, Rashid Hussein, and Samih al-Qasim, was poetry of resistance, or struggle. In one memoir originally published in four parts in Shuʼun Filastiniyah [Palestinian Affairs], the Palestine Liberation Organization’s journal—which was then edited by Mahmoud Darwish, who had first met Bseiso in Cairo and was a close friend of his—Bseiso describes his early forays into poetry and politics. Translated into English by Saleh Omar and published in the United States in 1980 by the Association of Arab American Graduates’ (AAUG) Medina Press as Descent into the Water: Palestinian Notes from Arab Exile, this memoir is the only piece of Bseiso’s prolific output—outside of a few stray poems in anthologies of Palestinian literature—that is available in English. It is an important document of secular confrontation with Islamist politics as well as an eloquent example of Palestinian prison literature that deserves to be widely read. “The cell,” Bseiso writes in the memoir, “is the Palestinian’s bedroom.”  




In the 1940s, Bseiso began publishing poems in the Mandate’s newspapers.⁴ In 1948, he enrolled in the literature department at the American University of Cairo. He published his first collection of poetry al-Ma’raka in 1952. In Descent into Water, Bseiso writes that “al-Ma’raka…constituted my credentials as a Palestinian to the Iraqi Communists.” “No Communist party,” he continues, “was committed to poetry more than theirs. That party was a lung of poetry.” Bseiso had gone to Iraq on a teaching contract. There, besides his connections with Iraqi Communist Party, he befriended the renowned Turkish poet Nazim Hikmat. Bseiso would later fill a collection of poems entitled Filastin fi al-Qalb with epigraphs from Hikmat’s poetry. In 1953, Bseiso returned to Gaza and became the secretary of the Palestine Communist Party in Gaza, involving himself in efforts to organize workers and resist plans to resettle refugees in the Sinai. It’s this political activity, which in 1959, following the establishment of the United Arab Republic and the banning of political parties in Egypt, that Bseiso was arrested. Bseiso describes in his memoir how the Muslim Brotherhood worked with the secret police and the “chauvinists” to find and arrest communists (many of them teachers in Gaza’s schools, like Bseiso and his future wife Sahba al-Barbari, who was also arrested in those early months of 1959). “As soon as the crusade began,” Bseiso writes of the raids against the communists, “the Muslim Brothers took over all the minarets in Gaza, Khan Yunis, Rafah, and Deir al-Balah.”

Bseiso continues:

And from the minarets they shouted, not "Allahu Akbar!" but "Down with Communism!"… The Muslim Brothers had not raised the Qur'an against the Baghdad Pact, nor against Israel occupation. They had not raised it for the return of Egyptian administration to Gaza, not to celebrate the United Arab Republic or the July 14 Revolution in Iraq. But now they raised the Qur'an high and shouted: "Your Qur'an is in danger! Down with communism!"… The Qur'an is in danger only when it is raised by these, who defile it by bringing it to the chambers of the director of secret police and the director of Intelligence.

Bseiso summoned the language and symbols of Islam in the defense of his political principles. Progressive intellectuals in the Middle East were not interested in denying the historical and literary world of Islam, rather they reworked it in the interest of their politics. Bseiso’s play on the Zanj Rebellion is notable. By writing about the Zanj—a slave revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate—not on the glory of the caliphs, Bseiso was subverting the Islamic history as much as he was writing it. The Muslim past was not obscure to Bseiso, it was part of the language and poetry that he cherished. Even in prison his ideological struggle continued. He succinctly recounts one encounter with a notable Islamist: “Sayyid Qutb stopped before my cell. I asked him to send us some cigarettes. He said: “Read the Qur’an!’”

But Bseiso was more than a poet, playwright, memoirist and activist. During the 1970s and 80s, while living in Beirut, Bseiso was a regular contributor to pan-Arab and international publications, especially al-Usbu’ al-Arabi, where he had a regular column. Bseiso’s covered everything from European culture to Palestinian literature and American politics. At the time al-Usbu’ al-Arabi opened every issue with a Nizar Qibanni poem and closed with an editorial by Ghada al-Samman, a formidable line up of contributors for any general interest magazine. Bseiso’s uncollected Usbu’ al-Arabi columns are a testament to his place in the political and cultural milieu of Beirut’s much remembered 60s and 70s.

In an article on “The Palestinian Hamlet,” Bseiso compares the Palestinian condition to that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in a move characteristic of his corpus of occasional writings. Bseiso often drew on world literature and history to make his political points about Palestinians or the Arab revolution. He often summoned the example of Native Americans when talking about Palestinian dispossession. In “Hamlet al-Falistini,” Bseiso argues that while Shakespeare’s Hamlet may have had to face his own struggles, existential and otherwise, he is nothing compared to the Palestinian Hamlet that is imprisoned, tortured, and has a price on his head.⁵ Other articles by Bseiso in al-Usbu’ al-Arabi over the years covered the work of Franz Kafka, the Zanj rebellion, the history of Delhi, the plight of Palestinian children in refugee camps who are paraded around when Western relief organizations bring them tattered clothes, the black comedy of the Watergate scandal, and how old poets, like ancient ruins, must be preserved. Bseiso wrote as an ideologue, a pedagogue and poet in his columns. His articles often took the form of fictional stories. Bseiso’s writing, including his opposition to Zionism and Islamism, emerged out of world when Arabic literature was undergoing experimentation and Arab politics was in constant flux, as secularism, communism, and other ideologies were under threat. Always, his commitments were internationalist. “The great Palestinian revolution that started in 1956,” Bseiso wrote in his Hamlet article, “was a revolution for the world.” Out of Gaza, Bseiso wrote for the world.

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I am from Asia
the Land of blood and hope
of heroes making history
defying decrees

The land of fire
forging furnace of freedom fighters
the birthplace of rebels against gods
I am from Asia rising from ashes
a son of flames

— Rashid Hussein
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A collection of Faiz's poems in Arabic translation. Published by Bseiso's Spartacus Press in Beirut.

On January 22, 1980, at Beirut’s Hotel Beau Rivage, Hussein Mrouwe, Adonis, Yasser Arafat, George Habash along with Bseiso, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and other international writers including the South African novelist Alex La Guma met for a reception in honor of the formal inauguration of Lotus Magazine’s new editorial office in Beirut.⁶ Founded in March 1968 in Cairo, Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings, the magazine of the Afro-Asian Writers’ Association (founded 10 years earlier in 1958) had moved to Beirut in the late 1970s following “President Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel and the consequent Arab boycott of Egypt.”⁷ Lotus was funded by the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic and edited and contributed to by writers across Third World.

In 1978, Faiz escaped the house arrest that had been imposed on him by Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who had declared martial law following a coup in 1977. He was made the editor of Lotus by the Afro-Asian Writers Association, which in 1976 had awarded him its highest prize, and began his exile in Beirut. Adeeb Khalid writes that “this sojourn drew [Faiz] deep into the Palestinian struggle and gained him the personal friendship of Yasser Arafat (to whom Faiz dedicated his last collection, Mire Dil, Mire Musaafir).”⁸ Bseiso was also living in Beirut at the time and became the deputy editor of the magazine. In her memoir, Faiz’s wife Alys recounts Faiz’s closeness with Bseiso and how Beirut during the war was both chaotic and productive for Faiz, who wrote some of his best known poems there.⁹ It was also a time of exile and homesickness, as Edward Said recounts in his essay “Reflections on Exile,” when he met Faiz in Beirut and listened to him read his verses as Eqbal Ahmed translated.¹⁰ In a small office in Ras Beirut, Faiz and Bseiso produced a magazine of global importance.

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The international dimensions of the Palestinian struggle for freedom are now well known. Its resonance in a global arena of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements—Cuba, Algeria, and Vietnam, most especially—is perhaps best exemplified by a statement penned by Darwish in 1973: “In the conscience of the people of the world, the torch has been passed from Vietnam to us.”¹¹ The political and emotional resonance between Palestine and Vietnam is laid bare in an anecdote about Ghassan Kanafani, who, at a 1966 meeting of the Afro-Asian Writer’ Association in China, burst into tears after a North Vietnamese writer distributed shrapnel from an American fighter jet shot down the week before. So moved by this, Kanafani did not read his prepared speech and said he had nothing of such magnitude to offer, but promised to do so at the next meeting.¹² And in a recent book, Maha Nassar has shown how Palestinians living inside Israel—the “forgotten Palestinians,” in Illan Pappe’s words—also connected their plight to global movements and summoned the figures and slogans of the Third World.¹³ Less well known, at least for scholars of the Middle East, is the extent to which Palestine as a symbol was deeply resonant for Urdu poets. Not just Bseiso’s friend Faiz, but generations of Urdu poets have expressed solidarity with Palestine in their verse, as the late Shahab Ahmed once documented.¹⁴ As the Pakistani poet Habib Jalib once proclaimed, “O earth of Palestine! I, too, am yours!”

After leaving Pakistan, Faiz said that the country “was sold to imperialists.” Zia-ul-Haq was supported by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Today’s Middle East, like yesterday’s, is entangled in the politics of empire. Gazans face an Israel that can count on unwavering American support and Arab acquiescence. Consequently, the situation in Gaza today is worse than it ever was. But the Gazan past cannot be buried under the rubble of the present. The courageous resistance of the many Gazans dreaming of return and of freedom is not an aberration. Gaza’s history of revolution has echoed across the world before. And it will again. Hattal nasr.  
  
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¹. Cited in: Mustafa al-Farisi, “Ila Mu’in Bseiso,” al-Fikir 6 (March 1, 1985). 
². Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Living World (Tunis: Lotus Book Series, 1987) 79. 
³. Radwa Ashour, “Qir’ah fi Shi’r Mu’in Bseiso,” al-Majalah 156 (December 1, 1969) 99. 
⁴. Khalid Walid Abu-Ahmed, “Bidayat Mu’in Bseiso fi Sahfat al-mahliya,” http://web.nli.org.il/sites/nlis/ar/jrayed/Pages/mo3in-bseso.aspx 
⁵. Mu’in Bseiso, “Hamlet al-Filistini,” al-Usbu’ al-Arabi n. 793 (June 10, 1974) 58. 
⁶. “Inauguration of the Editorial Office of Lotus Magazine in Beirut,” Lotus: Afro-Asian Writings v. 44/45 no. 2/3 (1980), p. 117-118. 
⁷. Hala Halim, ““Lotus, the Afro-Asian Nexus, and Global South Comparatism,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 32:3 (2012), p. 566. Halim’s article focuses on the Cairo period of the journal. 
⁸. Adeeb Khalid, “The Life and Work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz,” The Annual of Urdu Studies (2008), p. 262-263. 
⁹. Alys Faiz, Over My Shoulder (Lahore: The Frontier Post, 1993). 
¹⁰. Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000) 174. 
¹¹. Cited in “Yasser Arafat in Berlin," Journal of Palestine Studies Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973) 168. Originally published in Shu’un Filastiniya. 
¹². George Hajjar, Kanafani: Symbol of Palestine (Beirut, 1974) 71. 
¹³. Maha Nassar, Brothers Apart: Palestinian Citizens of Israel and the Arab World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2o17). 
¹⁴. Shahab Ahmed, “The Poetics of Solidarity: Palestine in Modern Urdu Poetry,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 18 (1998), pp. 29-64.