|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.
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.”
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.
I am from Asia
the Land of blood and hope
of heroes making history
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
|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.
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.
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.