A Personal Reflection of A Poetry Reading With Ahmad Almallah

Photo Credit: Poetry Foundation

On Wednesday, Feb. 14, the award-winning Palestinian poet Ahmad Almallah came to campus for a session of poetry reading and conversation.

I arrived at the Scheuer Room right on time, only to find it already packed with people including students, professors, and visitors. Many were wearing the keffiyeh to show support for Palestine. There was not a single chair available. I had no choice but to stand against the wall in a corner along with a few other people. The chitchat went on for a bit longer until Visiting Assistant Professor of English Literature Moriel Rothman-Zecher took over the microphone for a short introduction, and after that it was all Ahmad. I was startled but delighted by his decision to plunge right into poetry reading. It was different from what I imagined, but this is my first time going to a poetry reading session of such size.

Ahmad started off with selections from his book Bitter English. I was slightly caught off guard by the speed we were moving at, but still I managed to catch what I thought was the ending of the first poem “…bitter English owes me a language.” Ahmad said that there is a lot about his mother in this book, in Bitter English. There is a lot about her struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease, and our struggle with her lost memory. He read the following lines from his poem Lines of Return aloud:

“Walk away, don’t look in,

inside, this is your blind spot, this is where you

split the atoms of disaster, this is where you

draw lines on lines on lines, this is where you

reach out for the lemon tree’s fruit, this is

where you recall the hand pricked by thorns.”

I am reminded of my own grandmother who is also suffering from Alzheimer’s, how she can’t even remember a single thing about me, or my mother, or anything. She doesn’t remember how she used to take me back home from kindergarten every day, how she likes to do this fear mongering trick on me about what happens to children when they run too far away from adults’ sights (it was hella scary just to be clear), and how she taught me how to become a pleonastic writer when we struggled for an hour to stretch a 300 words essay to 1,000 words to fit the requirement. Ahmad is right, “The past…the past is the present.”

A long pause followed. Perhaps to wait for the words to settle down among the crowd or perhaps he is making his own reflection of the poem in that very moment.

“I’m not quite sure how to deal with the word death,” he said after the pause. “Alternatively, I use the word disappearance. And after my mother’s disappearance from my life, I actually feel her presence much more in my life.”

Another pause.

“I’ll read another one from my traumatic childhood,” he said, chuckling slightly.


the law is clear, an eye
for an eye, an ear for an ear:

arms hold hands, hands
hold arms: and the stone

is raised in the air, then
here and here: bones

break in images:
there there, calm yourself

down, and down again:
hunted, now you can

haunt: the shatterings
underneath purple flesh

the blood pulsing from vein to
vein, and the spills that stain”

I decided to sit down. I couldn’t see the poet anymore. I could only hear his voice, but somehow that makes the words even more powerful.

“It is too convenient for the American readers for me to just translate the texts,” said Ahmad. “I’ve been opposed to translating Arabic texts into English. Not now. I’m not going to be this translator, this mediator. The only bit of translation I’ll be doing right now is to translate back from English to Arabic.”

Ahmad then went on to read a few poems written in Arabic. Many attendees who understood Arabic resonated with what was being said, but, for me as someone who does not understand the language, there is a special spell to it. There is always a feeling of magic hearing a story, a play, or a poem in another language. It feels very strange,yet personal. Paying more attention to the tones, the accentuations, the stresses, and the mere foreignness, it becomes something that you feel rather than hear. 

By now it was already an hour into the session and some started to leave. Ahmad was quick to see this and made a joke. Replying to himself about the joke, he said, “Jokes are still part of the culture! There’s irony in life, people.”

I am reminded of the phrase, “At the end of every tragedy is a comedy.” I can’t remember who said it or whether it’s right but it sort of fits this scene. People tend to have expectations of lamentations and mournings, expectations derived from social codes and reasonings. But that is not what lamentations need, because deep down in its nature are candid emotions that sprung to the mourner at that moment, whether they are tears, laughter or anger. 

We moved onto the panel session. A student in the audience asked Ahmad how poetry has changed for him over the past three months. 

“I really wasn’t writing that much over the last semester,” Ahmad said. “I became tired of being the enemy and I had to get out. I went to Spain and I felt so close to Palestine. Reading poetry is a way of refreshing your view of the war. It reminds me that there is still some sort of beauty in the world. At that point finding this beauty becomes a process to reaffirm life.” 

Ahmad went on to explain what that beauty is. “And the beauty that poetry seeks is not just this common sense of beauty. It seeks for an internal beauty. A piece of wood on the ground is not that visually appealing, but when you transform that through poetry to something else then you feel the beauty. It’s about how you turn that reality into beauty. Turning something that is present in everyday life into beauty, that is what I call beauty.”

Another audience member asked about the emotional burden Ahmad must have felt when reading these poems.

“I’m functioning on one to two hours of sleep. I have constant nightmares. I have these nightmares that take me back to Palestine where my mother’s grave was dug up by bulldozers. I just had to make sure that my mother’s grave is intact. It’s an act of resistance.”

Addressing what people should do for Palestine, Ahmad expressed his thoughts. “If you feel your emotions as you witness what’s going on in Palestine, it shows that you are human. It is not okay that after 100 days we now can say that we are used to it and so we should move on. That is not fine. And if you want to do something for Palestine, do it outside of the poem. Take it to the street. Just posting a few poems online is not enough.” 

He concluded the session with something about language that I find myself resonating with: “You want to save the language from itself, from the lies and deceptions that it is used to form. You want something that is yours out of that language.”

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