Palestinian poet articulates liberation: SJP hosts activist Mohammed El-Kurd

Rose Hills Theater overflowed with attendees eager to hear Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd speak on his new book “Rifqa.” (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

On Thursday night, Palestinian writer and activist Mohammed El-Kurd read poems from his debut book “Rifqa” and answered questions from a packed Rose Hills Theater in an event hosted by Claremont Students for Justice in Palestine.

In 2009, 11-year-old El-Kurd had part of his family home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of occupied East Jerusalem taken over by Israeli settlers. Even at such a young age, he didn’t let the injustice happen silently. With his twin sister Muna, El-Kurd recorded videos documenting Israeli settlers’ impact on the neighborhood, which The Guardian published in 2011.

After attending college in the United States, El-Kurd returned to Palestine in 2021 to protest ongoing attempts to evict residents of Sheikh Jarrah. He rose to prominence speaking out against Israeli occupation of Palestine on major news outlets and social media, and in 2021 Time Magazine recognized him as one of the 100 most influential people of the year for “helping to prompt an international shift in rhetoric in regard to Israel and Palestine.”

El-Kurd’s visit to the 5Cs this week wasn’t his first. In 2018, he performed at a poetry reading at Scripps. This time, El-Kurd’s visit came during his press tour for “Rifqa.” Having known a former SJP chair, El-Kurd reached out to the club about visiting two weeks before the event, according to SJP co-chair Carrie Zaremba PO ’23. The details were only finalized and announced the Monday before the event.

The poetry El-Kurd read on Thursday night centered around the impact of the violence of Israeli occupation on his life and community.

His opening poem, “In Jerusalem,” describes the experience of growing numb to violence in the area until the question “fireworks or bombs” triggers laughter — “the most tragic of disasters / are those that cause laughter,” the poem concludes.

El-Kurd smiles and chuckles on stage.
“I get most inspired by [my family] because they are faced with such detrimental challenges to say the least and they are able to face those challenges with satire, with laughter,” El-Kurd told students Thursday evening. “Laughter is the thing that has most often inspired me these past few years.”(Anna Choi • The Student Life)
“Born on Nakba day” centered around the fact that El-Kurd was born on the fiftieth anniversary of the forced displacement of more than 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. “Outside the hospital room / protests, burnt rubber…stones thrown onto tanks / tanks imprinted with US flags…the liberation chants outside the hospital room / told my mother / to push,” El-Kurd read.

In a third poem, “Three Women,” El-Kurd drew parallels between a homeless woman giving birth under a bridge in Atlanta to a Palestinian woman prevented from giving birth in a hospital by an Israeli military checkpoint. “The soldier tells her a chance at an ambulance / is nonexistent, passage requires permit. / The women, fury-filled and shaking, / tell her to push. / She pushes out a security threat; / its first sight is a bullet hole.”

The gravity of El-Kurd’s poetry contrasted with the bursts of jokes and laughter that filled the space between readings. “Did you like it?” he asked after one poem. “I got it published in this book for some reason … it’s honestly overpriced for a poetry book, it’s only 80 pages. I wouldn’t buy it.”

A resonating theme of Thursday’s event was the power of poetry to be a tool for Palestinian resistance and self-determination. In particular, El-Kurd noted that Palestinian poets “push the envelope of what is socially acceptable to defend our people’s right to resist, to feel anything they want.”

“In poetry you can say a lot that you couldn’t say on CNN,” El-Kurd said. “I don’t think I’m going to read a poem in front of a checkpoint and watch it collapse … [but] I do think poetry, especially in the Palestinian tradition has contributed historically to narrating your own self determination.”

“In poetry you can say a lot that you couldn’t say on CNN. I don’t think I’m going to read a poem in front of a checkpoint and watch it collapse … [but] I do think poetry, especially in the Palestinian tradition has contributed historically to narrating your own self determination.” —Mohammed El-Kurd

El-Kurd added that he draws inspiration from Rashid Hussein, a Palestinian poet whose works in the 1940s-60s helped define the Palestinian tradition of protest poetry that El-Kurd continues.

With his poetry, El-Kurd hopes to “affect public opinion and thus public policy, and affect the way that we are impacted as oppressed people and not just Palestinians.”

El-Kurd gives the example of fighting the “fabricated nuance” of Israeli occupation. To the narrative of evictions being real estate issues, El-Kurd rebukes, “when you think about a real-estate dispute … your mind does not go to a hyper-militarized force collaborating with a settler organization that is based largely in the United States that is backed by billionaires. That is not what an eviction looks like. That is forced ethnic displacement.”

El-Kurd’s neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah has been the focus of media attention not because its residents’ struggles are unique — “all of us in Jerusalem, have been facing very similar threats of expulsion,” El-Kurd said — but because “we were able to articulate [our experiences] in a way that matches reality and articulation was able to penetrate the mainstream news cycle … we were talking about this in the framework of settler colonialism because there is no other way to expand a settler from Long Island squatting in my house.”

But constantly putting his experiences in the spotlight has taken a toll on El-Kurd, he said. 

“More hard than the prospect of forced displacement was that I have to tweet about it, I have to tell people about the tragedy,” El-Kurd said. “I called out of work for a few days. I called out of school and I decided to rest for a few days because…[it’s a] huge burden to have to put yourself front and center.”

SJP committee chair Sarah Burch PO ’22 said she appreciated El-Kurd for bringing a perspective intimately affected by the violence of Israeli occupation to campus.

“[El-Kurd’s] most intimate life has been invaded by this system of settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing,” she said. “It’s not something that you can learn about from reading an article, or even reading a book, you really have to hear direct testimony.”

On his part, El-Kurd applauded SJP for its persistence in the face of backlash. “What is carrying the Palestinian movement in the diaspora, particularly in the United States, is student organization,” El-Kurd said. “SJP organizations are the backbone of our movement.”

El-Kurd’s visit comes at a time when the Claremont SJP chapter has seen a significant increase in student participation, corresponding to a general increase in awareness of the Palestine liberation movement, according to Burch and Zaremba.

In particular, Burch reflects that younger students are more politically engaged. 

“The growing international consensus around Israeli state practices as ethnic cleansing and as apartheid, and the growing amount of media attention in conjunction … has really shifted people’s understanding of, ‘what is the baseline that you come into college knowing and thinking?’” she said.

Zaremba added that other movements’ solidarity with Palestine liberation is a factor. 

“Especially because it’s so well connected to other issues like queer liberation, indigenouous justice, land back and divest … you have a lot of people who come to this work through other issues,” she said. Burch also cited specific catalysts like the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020 and the escalation in violence between Palestine and Israel in May and June 2021 as contributors to student political engagement.

​​Jordan Bollag PZ ‘23 has been a member of SJP for more than a year and said he was moved by El-Kurd’s mention early on in the event on the importance of student mobilization.

“It’s really good to hear him talk about how SJP clubs are important in the Palestinian struggle … in political clubs, it can be hard [to feel like] you’re really having an impact,” he said.

Claremont SJP’s current priority is the implementation of “Boycott, Divest, Sanctions” at the Claremont schools, according to Birch. In April 2021, the Associated Students of Pomona College passed a resolution co-authored by SJP banning internal spending on companies contributing to Israeli occupation. SJP is now working to ensure the implementation of this policy at Pomona, as well as seek the passage of similar resolutions at the other 5C schools, according to Birch.

Though academic institutions appear engaged with liberation, decolonization, and resistance movements, they often do so only in theoretical ways, “[not thinking] for once that we are actually living through liberation movements for people who are oppressed in this country,” El-Kurd said. It’s easy to look at past atrocities with a sense of moral clarity, but there was no such clarity in the moment, El-Kurd pointed out, citing slavery and the holocaust as examples.

El-Kurd concluded the event by calling on academic communities to break out of their abstractions.

“My call for universities in this country is to take a moral stance, to lead the country into this moral clarity that is so lacking from our community and in academia,” he said. “Because I believe we as Palestinians deserve to see our homeland liberated within our lifetime and not after we are long gone.”

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