On Making Art During Genocide
how are you doing?
The other day a friend texted me congratulating the release of Survival Takes A Wild Imagination, my last book, a book of poems, and perhaps my favorite book I’ve written to date. This book, perfectly depicted by my friend Arsh Raziuddin’s cover (I told her I wanted something red and ripe), really oozes me, front-to-back. Yet, when this friend texted me, congratulating me, I had completely forgotten that I had published a book and that I was on tour. So it came almost as a delayed surprise.
The last few weeks have felt liminal like I’m floating in between time and space. It’s been hard for me to do normal tasks like eat or sleep appropriately, I’m either running on no sleep or sleeping too much—basically, I’m extremely dysregulated. Most people who are close to me are subsisting on very little self-care (I mean this in the radical sense, not in the capitalist one) while we try to process the devastation in Gaza, many of us have been quietly going insane. There are the occasional videos, moments with others, where joy is felt for a momentary brief reprieve from witnessing genocide on your phone, but all the ways I’d distracted myself previously, are no more. You can’t shop your way out of this pain, no matter how much our governmental goons would love us to; reading or even watching things unrelated to my political education feels facetious. Needless-to-say, many of us are in the suspended throes of grief. My days are no longer mine anymore, now they’re dedicated to the people of Palestine.
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Every year since 2019, I’ve released a book. Even though in 2021, I technically only released the paperback of Like A Bird, it felt like the ~real release~ because I hadn’t gotten a traditional one the year before; the book was released months into the first year of the pandemic, & a month prior to the last U.S. presidential election. Inevitably, it was overshadowed by the world, and the spectacle of American politics.
Yet nothing can quite compare to this current moment of releasing something out into the world. Putting out Survival has felt like having to pay attention to a child’s needs that I don’t have time for… I guess I’d probably feel less guilty about abandoning a material thing than I ever would a child, yet I’m weirdly grateful for all the strange occurrences that have allowed me to entirely devote myself to Palestine in the last few weeks. I have had no other real responsibilities but this.
Earlier this year, certain things didn’t work out bookwise, and I wasn’t given a tour for Survival. I’m technically on my own tour right now, something I hobbled together via connections I already had or made through friends. Naturally, it’s felt more intentional to tour organically, it has also meant that I’m not at the behest of anyone else’s languaging or messaging but mine. This has felt like a huge relief.
These last few weeks, wherever I can, I speak about Gaza. I’m grateful to my dear friend Jazzi McGilbert of Reparations Club, who gave me the floor to speak candidly about Palestine during my launch, and I did. It was the day of the Al Shifa hospital bombing (when Israel was still playing the… Hamas did it card! This was before they went on to systematically target hospitals and schools and refugee camps with civilians in them) after 500 people, mainly children, were bombed to death.
It was October 17th, my mother’s birthday.
The day had an eerie resonance to it, but I’m glad that Rep Club gave me a place to speak the truth. A few weeks later, Stories in LA also let me do a reading/talk with my friend Gleb Wilson, a Stories bookseller, comrade, and old friend. All we did was talk about Palestine for 45 minutes, speaking to strategies moving forward for revolution, and how writing is an act of resistance.
If you went to my reading at Powell’s in Portland, you know I devoted my reading to Gaza; or maybe you were there at my reading and talk at Performance Space in New York where my dear friend Angela Dimayuga asked me to read a prayer that I had written for Gaza. Maybe you saw me in Toronto, at Type Books, where I spoke to the brilliant Jessica Kiasma, who is Congolese-Canadian, and a former student of my writing with vulnerability class, as we discussed overlaps of genocidal histories and the value of poems through moments of grave communal suffering. Or maybe you were even at the brief reading I did at the American Film Academy, after my friend Taz Ahmed invited me, where I read some poems before the screening of A Town Called Victoria, a documentary about a Texan town where a local mosque erupts in flames. I dedicated my poems and spoke briefly, yet ardently, about Gaza.
I have felt immensely grateful for all these instances where I get to do so. Where I am able to wield the poetic with the historical and current. I feel blessed to have the mic, particularly when so many others can’t.
Yet, there has also been a part of me, through all this, that’s worried about the future of my work. Will I ever sell another book, again? The above video is of Jinan Chehade, a law student who was just fired from a law firm she was about to work at over things she had written about Palestine on her social media. Watch the video, she really expresses the layers of hypocrisy when people at her former (almost) workplace are writing hateful things about Palestinians, or raising money from the IDF (I’ve heard about this at other law firms recently, firsthand from friends) yet none of them are reprimanded… yet even just exclaiming Israel is committing genocide… is enough to fire someone and have them lose their job…
I knew I’d personally lose friends, acquaintances and possibly even work, as well. I’m not in the business of having fake alliances, so I’ve accepted this as a byproduct of speaking what I believe is true. Not my truth, but the universal truth, a moral compass so to speak. So, I believe this time has been extremely clarifying to see who really wants to fight for fairness, and who will happily make all the provisions in the world to stop several groups of people from accessing the same thing everyone deserves to have access to: fairness, humanity, dignity… are these things ever really up for debate?
So maybe my righteousness has allowed me to keep moving forward, even if I feel nervous or scared to take the next step, a step into the unknown each day. It’s hard not to be shaken by stories like Wadea Al-Fayoum, who was a precious 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy who was stabbed to death by his landlord; or Talat Jehan Khan, a 52-year-old Muslim woman who was also stabbed to death; or Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed who were shot at for wearing keffiyehs and speaking Arabic… All this was in the last few weeks, and these are all just cases in America. This doesn’t even take in the over 15,000 (some accounts are saying 20,000+) martyrs that have been confirmed (in Gaza alone, this doesn’t even include the West Bank) almost half of whom are children — let alone the 175 that were just murdered last night, after the ceasefire ended. Where do we go from here? How can I, or anyone, be silent?
The other day, my partner Rami and I went to the grocery store. They’re Palestinian, and wear a keffiyeh most places, and just recently I’ve realized how visible we are in spaces, and how vulnerable this makes us. A white man came up to them hurriedly and and mumbled Free Palestine in the vegetable aisle, and we both looked and smiled at each other after, not out of gratitude, but at the surprise. I can’t help but always be near them, or know where they are, so I can put my body in front of theirs if need be. It’s made me conscientious in a new way.
I think of their body, but also my body, two queer Muslim bodies against the world. It feels powerful to be together in this, yet it also feels terrifying at times, the gravity of what we are fighting is terrifying and yet entirely faceable.
A couple of days ago my literary agent sent me an email saying she had gotten an anonymous email about my posts about Israel. She wrote:
Even though I already knew this was going to happen, it felt strange to receive this email. It’s shocking the lengths Zionists will go to ruin people’s careers... like sir, there is a literal genocide going on, is this the best use of your time? But, I’ve also been prepared for a long time to talk about Israel publicly, so I wasn’t that shocked either. I’ve always had a lot of Arab and Palestinian friends as well as Jewish friends, so in that sense, I also knew, from first-hand experience, how similar and overlapping we all are, and also what the Zionists talking points are for Israel. My position about Palestine has been informed by all my lived experiences, as well as my liberation work, which is why I speak so valiantly and uncompromisingly. I feel ready to debate anyone who wants to debate with me. I have been ready for this fight my whole life, so there’s a righteous rage that’s been running through me.
Then I look at venerable Palestinian thinkers like Noura Erakat and Rashid Khalidi who are so poised as they speak, and it has made me wonder if my anger is a disservice to my journalistic work. I remember that when my dad a few weeks ago told me to write about Palestine and to write with truth, he also told me to write without emotion. Yet anger consumes me as I watch one side debate the humanity of the other, while all the other side demands is a right to humanity, and freedom. It’s so maddening. Yet, if you show an iota of anger, you suddenly prove your own discrepancy. My passion and rage is misread as something else, when all it is the grief of watching Palestinians not be given any dignity. Even in death.
This recent essay by Mohammed El Kurd entitled, “A Right To Speak For Ourselves,” thankfully came as a salve when I read it just a few days ago. In The Nation, he writes: “And I am honestly grateful for my disdain, because it reminds me that I am human. I am grateful for my rage, because it reminds me of my ability to react naturally to injustice. I am grateful for the opportunity to be flippant, to satirize and ridicule my impenetrable, indelible occupier. So, I invite you all to interrogate your biases as you leave this lecture, to interrogate what makes you want to qualify a Palestinian’s humanity. And I invite you, again, to be brave.”
Mohammed’s experience of losing his home and village in Sheikh Jarrah to settlers is not comparable to what I’m experiencing. I can’t begin to fathom what he moves through each day, but I have also witnessed, first-hand, his humor and resistance in his mere existence. But I also see the rage, the rage of having to live a life where you are forced to liberate yourself, and fight for the liberation of your people.
I always think of this quote from Assata Shakur:
“I hate war, and I hate having to struggle. I honestly do because I wish I had been born into a world where it was unnecessary. This context of struggle and being a warrior and being a struggler has been forced on me by oppression. Otherwise, I would be a sculptor, or a gardener, carpenter - You know, I would be free to be so much more… I guess part of me or a part of who I am, a part of what I do is being a warrior - a reluctant warrior, a reluctant struggle. But I do it, because I’m committed to life.”
This quote makes me think of Mohammed, who was thrust into the public eye when he was the main character of short-doc Your Neighborhood, in 2013, about him and his family’s life in Sheikh Jarrah, and the travesty of losing his home to settlers at age fourteen. It’s crazy inducing that these records have been documented for decades, yet so many people still question the cruetly of Palestinian life. For the last ten years, Mohammed’s been forced to become a spokesperson for an entire cause. When I remember him, and all the lives that everyday Palestinians have to endure in the West Bank or Gaza, the Bisans, Motazs, Plestias and Hinds, all the people who sacrifice their life each day, because there is no other choice, I remember that direct action means that I must always be brave, to fight alongside my Palestinian siblings.
Being threatened via my literary agent by an anonymous person feels odd, sure. I don’t understand the desire for anyone who has differing perspectives to try and get another person they don’t agree with fired. If someone was truly anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic (and controversial opinion, I think they’re the same thing) would be one thing, as anti-Semitism is truly on the rise, but I’m not seeing it from Arabs and Muslims, I’m seeing it from white supremacists, you know, the people who created anti-Semitism and all other forms of racism…
The shame of all of this is that anyone who has pro-Palestinian beliefs (including anti-Zionist Jews) are seen as anti-Semitic, while Christian Zionists, who by definition of their own proclamation, only want Jews in Palestine, to sacrifice them… but that’s not seen as anti-Semitic? It’s very very confusing.
This is from The Jewish Virtual Library, “The dispensationalist view of the Bible is that the Old Testament is foreshadowing for what will occur in the New Testament and, at the end, Jesus returns to reign on Earth after an epic battle between good and evil. Israel plays a central role in the dispensationalist view of the end of the world. The establishment of Israel in 1948 was seen as a milestone to many dispensationalists on the path toward Jesus’ return. In their minds, now that the Jews again had regained their homeland, all Jews were able to return to Israel, just as had been prophesied in the Bible. As described in the Book of Revelation, there is an epic battle that will take place in Israel after it is reestablished — Armaggedon — in which it is prophesied that good will finally triumph over evil. However, in the process, two-thirds of the Jews in Israel die and the other third are converted to Christianity. Jesus then returns to Earth to rule for 1,000 years as king.”
Joe Biden has openly admitted that he is a Christian Zionist.
Isn’t it interesting that the people who brought us the Holocaust also want to bring all the Jews to Palestine… and nobody thinks that suspect at all… Yet, the fact that I’m saying Palestine should be free… and giving examples of why, backed by every human rights organization in the world, including the goddamn fucking United Nations… I should lose my career? It’s pretty wild what lengths people will go to defend their own cruelty. But, that to me, is whiteness.
I am remembering an excerpt of Who Is Wellness For? that I read on the CIIS podcast last year: “Why has whiteness made the playing field so dirty, with such high stakes and yet such low standards? Why isn’t the measure of a successful society how well we care for each other, and how can we possibly believe that programming people to think only for themselves could result in holistically positive results?”
A few weeks ago, Mondoweiss (the Israeli newspaper!) reported that the IOF killed Israeli civilians and military personnel on and after October 7th. The Israeli hostages are another perfect example of people who are willing to call Netanyahu out and have even asked for what most Palestinians have been asking for as well: free Palestinian land, free all political prisoners, permanent ceasefire and end the occupation now. Yet, all we are ever told, or hear from Isaac Herzog or whatever puppet wants to be the genocidal mouthpiece for the Israeli government, is that the Palestinians always break their promises, while the Israelis speak of peace talks and build new settlements. I am thinking of the infamous Ghassan Kanafani quote: “You don’t exactly mean “peace talks,” you mean capitulation, surrendering.”
We have always been told that the Palestinians resort to violence… but as Kanafani also said once, in the same interview, “People usually fight for something.” Through all the lies the Israeli government has been propagating, for decades now, while completely evading international law or critique, this is the story we’ve been told again and again: that Palestinians bring it on themselves. That they’re so violent, uncivilized savages who can’t even work toward peace! They can’t even stop fighting! This is while the IOF destroys hospital after school after hospital after school after hospital after refugee camp, again. They release prisoners, many of whom were literal children and teenagers (or what The Guardian calls them, “people under 18”) while they take even more children as prisoners in the West Bank. Interestingly enough, Human Rights Watch published this in August, so months before October 7th, that there was an uptick of arrests among children in the West Bank. According to Defense for Children of Palestine, “Each year approximately 500-700 Palestinian children, some as young as 12 years old, are detained and prosecuted in the Israeli military court system. The most common charge is stone throwing.”
It’s interesting how Israel always disputes these numbers, especially anything that comes out of Palestine. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the IOF has strong ties to police departments in America. This Times of Israel piece about the ADL funding such trips is a great start! Much like how primarily Black (and Latinx) communities are targeted in America, with higher arrest rates for petty crimes, like drug or marijuana use or possession, all of these discretionary measures we are told are “law.” We also know that this is a way you keep a community small, you criminalize them, and you keep their necks under a very large and powerful shoe, justifying it by saying the people you oppress and repress are savages.
The British doctor Ghassan Abu Sitta explains in the interview below that the Israelis are targeting homes, hospitals and schools so Gazans may never return back to their homes. It’s to make the conditions of their former lives unlivable. All of these are genocidal acts, by the way. This is also another way to occupy. With reports coming out that Netanyahu knew about Hamas’ attack a year ago… it makes you wonder, why did they let this all happen? Their plan was always to sieze Gaza. Yet, any indigenous scholar will tell you, land grabbing can never bring peace. And what it most certainly won’t bring you is silence.
Sometimes, I think of how I’m going to have a career alongside people who cannot even fathom the genocidal rampage of the IOF and Israeli government, murdering twenty thousand people in two months. The divide of who believes what is real is obvious, and I keep thinking of the insult. Of the dead premature babies, of the thousands of dead children, I’m continually shocked by the mental gymnastics that so many people who are perfectly OK defending their own self interest, despite the apparent and obvious fascism that’s trickled through to every corner of this issue. It’s weird to see liberals, en masse, cave to the holes in their own theories.
It’s way easier to think all of it is propaganda on the Palestinian side, and that would be heartbreaking if wasn’t the very same denial we’ve witnessed for the past 75 years. Mohammed Nazzal, a child prisoner who was just released, says he was severely beaten in prison, without trial and did not know why he was even in prison. He was just interviewed about his beatings by the BBC, and while there are several other accounts in the piece, it also goes on to explain why Israel denies culpability, and how they, essentially, keep manipulating the truth case after case after case.
We are talking about fairness here, it’s actually very very clear. Yet do you condemn Hamas rings hollow in my brain… while the people asking this question refuse to answer do you condemn occupation? Do you condemn genocide? It’s so wild that everyone keeps evading the elephant in the room… The side causing the most harm refuses to acknowledge that the playing field is not honest; this is one of the oppressor’s main tactics, to gaslight and to continue to deny any responsibility.
So I go in and out of feeling nervous about my future. With mass documentation on the other side, there are still many who seem to be in denial about what’s coming. Yet liberation is upon us, and many of us have been fighting for this for many years. So when I remember my larger mission, of why I came here, I feel salved by the resilience that’s in my bones. The resilience that my ancestors gave me after my grandparents survived a genocide, then when my parents did, too.
It’s also the experience of being in a relationship with a Palestinian person. Witnessing Rami be shaken to their core, every day, through this all has impacted me beyond comprehension. I can’t fathom the totality of what they experience, so I try to hold and maintain my grief elsewhere. But I feel for them, I try and hold what I can for them.
I don’t have much chill anymore, I mean I never did, arguably, but now… I really have none. I can’t do small talk anymore. Like, at all. I refuse to do it. I can’t reply to so many texts from friends because I feel distant from people. I get completely taken aback and slightly annoyed if anyone wants to talk to me about anything other than Palestine. It’s been my central conversation for the last seven weeks. Yet, this is who I am. I am impassioned and intense.
It’s disconcerting to see how many folks still are comfortable being immersed in the capitalistic desire to look away. How hungry people are to go back to “normal”…
Over the last few years, I’ve been humbled by the lifespan of a book, and how folks can find you years later, yet still have such a resonant connection to the work. So, remembering that, it has felt almost easy to let go of this book, knowing it has the power to meet me where I need to be met, as well. It can be a book that serves both myself, as well as the public, which is always the hope. Survival also feels like a clear reflection of where I am in this present moment, so even if I’m not directly talking about it at a book event or out in the world, it’s always present. With a title like survival takes a wild imagination during a genocide where imagination is being directly targeted, with the mass murder of children (this is what this “war” will go down as) the book feels apt and and in direct conversation with the times. I’m grateful for my own keen observant mind that has allowed me to explore, to push myself further intellectually, to be challenged. These newsletters are a reflection of those very findings. It’s a place for me to speak politically and personally, and for that I thank you. If you have bought and read the book, thank you. I really can’t do this without your help, especially as precarious times continue, and very real people are trying to silence me, among many.
Yet we cannot be silenced.
This is something that reverberates through me every day.
Thank you for being here, and reading this far.
May you use your rage for good today. May you be brave.
I’m going to take a moment here to ask for your support.
Hundreds of you have subscribed in the last few weeks and many more of you have read my last few newsletters, thank you. This information about Palestine is an act of service, but at the same time, this is my livelihood, and financial support is so necessary right now, more than ever before. I want to make this information free for working class folks, Palestinian, Black and Indigenous folks who can’t support me. But for the rest of you, I ask for your generosity. Out of the many hundreds of you that recently subscribed only about 50 of you became paid subscribers, so I would like to encourage you to support me with a monthly or annual subscription! $5 is cheaper than an oat latte under inflation, but it will make my day to have your support.
Last thing to say, if you were following my work during the pandemic, you would have seen Studio Ānanda circulating, a social art practice, that’s an ever-evolving space of arrival for me. Through SĀ, we dropped our AstroTees, a play on this idea of sports jerseys, that uses astrology as a template. The originals were brilliantly designed by Sonia Prabhu and were a hit, and over the past few months I’d been getting many requests for these shirts again, but they were limited edition, so I decided to make a new version, this time helmed by the brilliant Roshan Ramesh.
So please check out the new AstroTees, buy, share and support us! I’m trying to expand my art practice to explore other things outside of writing. I don’t necessarily feel entirely safe in my career right now, and I long to find ways that are creative and stimulating, whilst also being meaningful and a different kind of service. I think there’s something powerful in beautiful things, and I believe beautiful things should also have a purpose. These shirts are totemic as well as instructional, laced together with numerology and astrological symbology, and each sign also has an individual haiku written by yours truly swirling across it.
Full transparency, Roshan will also make a 25% cut of the sales of the shirt, and 10% will be going to Awaj Foundation, a foundation created by a former Bangladeshi garment and child worker, Nazma Akter, to create a foundation that protects other garment workers. “Awaj Foundation is driven by the vision of decent work, dignified lives and gender equity in the industrial sectors of Bangladesh.” 15% will also go to me for writing the haikus + design, and 50% will go to Studio Ānanda. This is a community effort endeavored to think about art or design objects that are created fairly and honorably. All of the shirts use natural dyes and will be printed and made locally in California.
We ship internationally and pre-orders end tomorrow PST, so please buy your shirts soon <333 Thank you for your support, it really helps me, and the people in my community, survive every day. Thank you.
How To Cure A Ghost is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.