There’s No Place Like Home: An Afternoon of Palestinian Poetry and Art

The Great March of Return by Steve Sabella

The Great March of Return by Steve Sabella

By Mike Maggio

This past month, the Westmoreland Congregational Church hosted “Visions of Home: An Afternoon of Palestinian Poetry and Art.” The purpose: to help raise money for a peacemaking pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine. Four pilgrims will join with like-minded individuals from other denominations to establish interfaith connections and to meet Israelis and Palestinians who are seeking a path to peace. All donations from the event, along with funds raised through the Olive Oil Ministry, a network of 23 DC-based congregations that sells olive oil and food products to support families in Palestine, go towards supporting this lofty mission.

The other purpose: to give voice to the Palestinian diaspora and to bring awareness to the often-desperate situation facing residents in the Palestinian territories on a daily basis. For while the plight of the Palestinians is often depicted in sweeping terms by the media, this event was geared towards allowing individuals to speak, through poetry and art, their personal pain as well as their collective sense of hope. 

Zeina Azzam, Palestinian-American writer, editor, poet and activist

Zeina Azzam, Palestinian-American writer, editor, poet and activist

“Visions of Home” was organized by Maryn Goodson, a member of the Middle East Committee at Westmoreland Congregational Church, a group that came into existence in 1978. Zeina Azzam, a Palestinian-American writer, editor, poet and activist, assisted Goodson with the programming which featured Azzam reading from both her own work and from the work of well-known Palestinian poet Rashid Hussein. Other readers included Samar Najia, whose family fled Jerusalem during what Palestinians refer to as the 1948 Nakba (disaster,) leaving behind their house and their wealth and seeking refuge in Egypt; the Rev. Laura Martin, Associate Pastor at Rock Spring UCC in Arlington, whose poetry has been featured on buses as part of Arlington’s Moving Words project; and Kealey McEvoy, Coordinator of Congregational Life and Spiritual Formation at Westmoreland and one of the four pilgrims headed to the region.  A special presentation included a bilingual reading from an Arabic-English poetry chapbook called “Where Am I From.”

The theme of the afternoon: home and identity. And the underlying sentiment: hope, a longing to return to the homeland and a yearning for peace and reconciliation as in “They Ask Me About Palestine” by Palestinian poet Mohammed Arafat:

We have the same beautiful capital with a golden dome

that lights with the sun when it appears in the east,

where worshippers gather from everywhere.

Friday’s call for prayers merge into Sunday’s church bells.

In the same capital, we have Muslims, Christians and Jews

who drink the same carob, eat the same hummus,

speak the same Arabic.

Or in these lines from “In the Land,” by Rashid Hussein, read by Azzam, a poem which speaks of the land and what it means to be a Palestinian in the diaspora:

Even when I sleep

the land comes near me

in my dream.

I smuggle its wild thyme

between exiles

I sing its stones

I will even sweat blood

from my veins.

In fact, if there is one common thread the ties together all the poems that were read, it is identity with the land: identity with the bounty that it provides and with the tenuous hold that the Palestinians have on what is constantly being appropriated by the occupying forces.

While all of the poems that were read cling to hope, many are also imbued with a tinge of bitterness and a hint of sadness, feelings that constantly accompany those in exile, whether that exile be in a refugee camp in Palestine or Lebanon or in the suburbs of Washington DC. For since 1948, more than 4000 Palestinian villages have been destroyed creating a flood of refugees – individuals with no viable passports and, often, with no identifying papers whatsoever -- who have been scattered throughout the world. And as the occupation continues to claim more land, the pressure on the native population and on the very identity that defines who they are as a people increases, creating a tenuous nation that is losing its sense of belonging.  It is this feeling of ghurba – of foreignness, of longing for one’s country, of feeling a stranger even in one’s own land – that permeates daily life for Palestinians worldwide and that inspires the poetry and art work of modern Palestinian artists and intellectuals.

These lines, perhaps, from “Sadness in the City” by Omnia Ghassan, sum up this feeling of political dysphoria:

There is sadness in this city:

in its bumpy streets,

in a cloudless sky that’s empty

of all the opposites of sorrow

in the lamps with no power,

in the darkness that mirrors our daily lives,

in the depths of a sea that embraces both loved ones

and the tears of those who lost them.

And to add to the tragedy that is the Palestinian reality, there is the separation: the building of walls that isolates village from village and forces Palestinians to go through checkpoints just to get to school or to work or even to visit a neighbor, a theme that dominates Kaeley McEvoy’s “What These Walls Do:”

These walls separate the water from the river.

These walls make hearts change colors.

These walls tear brother from sister,

toddler from mother, father from daughter.

And, later in the poem:

These walls conflate security with sin.

They make a mother from Gaza wait 7 hours for a doctor,

and a father from Ferguson kneel at his son’s grave.

Poetry is just one mode of expression that Palestinians use to express their plight. Art is another and, perhaps, an even more potent medium. And so “Visions of Home” featured a slideshow and lecture on Palestinian artists by Dagmar Painter. Painter, who has curated exhibitions in Cairo, Paris and London, is the curator of the Jerusalem Fund’s Gallery of Al-Quds. Her presentation surveyed artwork from the days of the Ottomans up to the present, and included samples from performance artist Mona Hatoum, Kamal Boulatta, whose work combines abstract art with calligraphy, and writer and artist Steve Seballa whose “The Great March of Return” is a collage of photographs of the Gazans who have been protesting the Israeli Occupation since 2018. Dagmar’s talk reminded everyone of the rich Palestinian cultural heritage that was once a major presence in Palestine and which now manifests itself throughout the diaspora. This heritage includes a rich tapestry of styles and approaches including painting, sculpture and collage. And, as to be expected, the Palestinian contemporaries deal with hope, despair, identity and home: all defining what it means to be a Palestinian today.

    “Visions of Home” was a rich cultural experience for a worthy cause: peace and reconciliation. And while the Arabic refreshments – baklava and ma’amoul (a pastry shell filled with dates and nuts)– were a welcome treat, it was the art and poetry and the comradery of the congregation that provided true nourishment. 


Mike Maggio has published fiction, poetry, reviews and Arabic translations in journals and anthologies in the United States and abroad. His work has appeared in such places as PhoebeApalachee QuarterlyAtticus ReviewPotomac Review, PleaidesBlack Bear ReviewThe Arabesques ReviewPig Iron , Washington Independent Review of Books and many others.