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A Rose from Jericho: Israeli and Palestinian Poetry

ISSUE:  Summer 2008

May 15 of this year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of Israel—and the start of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This struggle has now encompassed the Arab-Israeli War (1948), the Six-Day War (1967), the Lebanon War (1982), the First Intifada (1987–1993), and the Second Intifada (2000–present). The following collection of poems from eleven Israelis and Palestinians offers an intimate look at the life of this region in conflict—but through a smaller and more personal lens than most news media allow. While each of these poems is politically conscious in some way, many delve into less predictable territory: sex, death, television, ghosts, memory, and resurrection.

My own understanding of this project has grown since its inception a year ago. As I contacted poets thousands of miles away and began to assemble their work, I assumed that a political dialogue would naturally emerge by juxtaposing the contributions of Palestinian poets with those from Israeli poets. So much contemporary Israeli and Palestinian literature that I’d read seemed to lend itself to such politicized treatment—from Yehuda Amichai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb” to Ghassan Kanafani’s “Men in the Sun.”

Indeed, when the work started arriving, I could have found enough excellent work to assemble a collection strictly of political poems. But the more I read, the more I realized that even when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the stated text of a poem, it is often the poem’s subtext—and always its context. Shai Dotan’s first poem in the collection, “One Minute,” depicts the guilt of a border-patrolling soldier who has just killed an innocent Arab. But his second poem is a sequence of six descriptions of a pear, written in homage to Wallace Stevens. I felt it important not to portray Dotan only as a poet who writes about border patrol, just as he should not be represented as a poet interested merely in the aesthetic. The fact is, Dotan is both.

Likewise, throughout this collection, I have sought to present multiple facets of these gifted and challenging poets, to gather intimate and substantive glimpses of conflict—poems that put a human face to generations of warfare—but also to adequately represent the quality and diversity of the literary life of the region. In the lyric portrait of Amir Or, the ghostly amnesia of Ghassan Zaqtan, the angry protest of Rami Saari, the manic eroticism of Yael Globerman, we see also the private and interior lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

This collection is named after its final image, at the end of Mahmoud Darwish’s sprawling poem, “With the Mist So Dense on the Bridge.” A female soldier on patrol pleads to her lover across the night sky, “Promise me nothing, / do not send me a rose from Jericho!” The Jericho Rose, also known as the Resurrection Plant, is renowned for its ability to survive as a lifeless, dehydrated tumbleweed, drifting across the desert for years until it eventually reaches a water source and blossoms into the green and flowering plant it once was.

Who is this woman soldier appearing so abruptly, inexplicably for two stanzas after a dozen pages of oblique dialogue between two men? To what side does she belong? In the fractured world of this poem, where even identity and location are ambiguous, the possibility of resolution, like the flowering of the Jericho Rose, is too uncertain, too painful to bear. Darwish’s poem captures the mood of many in the collection—an endless and confusing wait for something that is implicit but unspoken, a hope that cannot be directly expressed but only hinted at in symbols.



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