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Drops of Suheir Hammad: A Talk with a Palestinian Poet Born Black
By Nathalie Handal
She says that she avoids labels. She believes that we are here for a reason, and she feels that writing unifies her with God. She says that she is simply to be called Suheir.
Suheir Hammad was born October 1973 in Jordan to Palestinian refugee parents. Her family moved to Brooklyn, New York, when she was a child, and she grew up among numerous minority groups—Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, Dominicans, Haitians. Her profound desire to transcend cultural and religious barriers have given birth to a poet who unifies diversity. Hammad illustrates in a unique manner her different lives and her union with people of many cultures, with the world, with poetry, and with God. She says she remembers, “the first time I wrapped my hair in a gele, an African head wrap. Using material from Senegal, I wanted to wrap myself in the beauty of sisterhood. The ancestors remembered my name and whispered it to me under the material.” As she leads us to one of her most moving drops, drops of Palestine, she says, “My tears turned to stones...”
In the author’s note of your new memoir, "Drops Of This Story," you write: “Still my parents’ daughter, child of God, Palestinian, descendant of Africans, woman.” Your second book and first poetry collection is entitled "Born Palestinian, Born Black." Would you speak more about this relationship between being Arab and being Black?
I grew up in New York City, in Brooklyn, and I grew up around Puerto Rican people, Latino people, Black people, African-Americans. In the beginning to "Born Palestinian, Born Black," there is a section where it discusses the different meanings of the word black in different cultures. Audre Lorde,who was a famous African-American poet,discussed black as being a political identity as well as a cultural identity. Within the Palestinian culture we have the concept of black being a negative force,and it is seen that way all over the world. What the book tries to do is take back the negative energy that is associated with black, reclaim it,and say that this is something that is about survival, something that is positive.
You write about Palestine “...Longing for a land I have yet to feel under my feet.” What doesPalestine mean to you?
It is an association that I was born with. I don’t know what Palestine looks like, what Palestine tastes like, but it is something that is in your blood and we all carry ancestry around with us. As a child I was told that I was different from everyone else around me, I was Palestinian. I think that becoming a woman and understanding myself, being Palestinian becomes what I make it. I may not be like every other Palestinian and that is good. It is also something that I realize I have to claim for we are not living in a perfect society where we do not have to claim nationalities or religions.
You have spoken about growing up with music and getting “high off a beat” — Jazz, Arab music, Umm Kulthom, Abdel Halem Hafiz and so forth. Did you also grow up reading and listening to Arabic poetry. If so, who influenced you?
My parents would read the Koran to us which my mother described as the most perfect poetry in the world, and a lot of the nationalist songs that my father taught us as children were originally written as poems. He really influenced us in knowing that some of the greatest Palestinian freedom fighters were also poets. He would tell us war stories of PLO guerrilla fighters who would write between battles. But I certainly was not encouraged to write myself. I think it wasn’t until I got to college that I started reading Mahmoud Darwish on my own, Fadwa Touqan and other Palestinian writers, and that was only after I had heard about them from black writers, American writers who had read them and who had been influenced by them.
In the poem “Broken and Beirut,” you write, “I want to go home... I want to remember what I’ve never lived.” Right now, what do you want?
I want to deal with God... I want everyone to deal with God.
Speaking about Palestine in "Drops Of This Story," you say, “I’ll keep writing until I no longer need to.” Do you think you ever no longer need to write?
In relation to Palestine, I am not sure. But I need to change so one day I may be writing so that people recognize Palestine, the next day I may be writing specifically for Palestinians, recognizing ourselves, treating ourselves better, especially our women. When I was growing up no one had an idea of who Palestinians really were, apart from being seen as hijackers and sheiks. People don’t know the difference between different types of Arabic speaking people and that we do not all come from the same place. Therefore, in "Drops," there was this big need for me to say that first of all, I am not that different. I am just like you; I listen to the same music you listen to, I speak the same language. And where I am different it is not a bad difference.
Do you think you will ever find the end of a word?
I hope not. I pray not. But at the same time, I also see the act of creating as something we limit ourselves in. If a day comes that I am not writing, if writing is not fulfilling what I need, then I could dance that energy, sing that energy, make a beautiful flower arrangement because that’s really what the creating energy is. The creating energy is what makes us all divine... not equal to God but part of God. The word for me has been the most incredible medium for that, but I would hope that if I ever felt like I needed to do something else I could.
Today, what “wetness... pours onto [your] paper out of [your] pen?”
A novel... it also has a lot to do with water. It is really interesting. I didn’t realize until page 35 that there is an underlying theme of water in my larger work. It is also about a lot of music. I give thanks that I am writing because that dry feeling of not writing that is the dryness we as writers have to stay away from. Wet is so full of love, so full of energy, and after all, we all come from water. It is in water that I feel the healthiest. Water gives you a reflection... it is also cleansing. It is the first medium that you are ever really in; your mother’s womb, full of liquid. I think it is comforting... you get to grow inside yourself...
This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 3, No. 20 (Summer 1997)