Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Haifa’s ‘path of poetry’

This is the second (possibly last, not sure yet) post expanding on some of the points from Khaled Furani’s Silencing the Sea which I couldn’t shoehorn into the proper review article.

Haifa, the city now in northern Israel, is often held up as an example of successful co-existence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. It has numerous co-existence and cross-cultural organisations, and one of the best-known public manifestations of this narrative is the ‘path of poetry’ through the Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi Nisnas. The ‘path’ consists of laminated boards, perhaps A0 size, bearing poetry by Arab and Jewish writers in both Arabic and Hebrew. It is just one strand in the selection of art which is scattered throughout Wadi Nisnas; sculptures, paintings and collages adorn walls, rooftops and windows across the neighbourhood.

This is generally put across – at least in Israeli and Western narratives – as an attractive example of co-existence, a combining of the picturesque old stone houses of the area with modern artistic productions by both Palestinians and Jews and a mixing of the continuing everyday environment of the vegetable shops and hummus stalls of the Wadi’s market with cultural artefacts.

Furani, himself a native of Haifa, has some different, and I think much more accurate, things to say about what Wadi Nisnas and its ‘path of poetry’ represent in modern Israel:

“This path was sponsored by the Haifa Municipality as well as the Arab-Jewish Beit Hagefen, a cultural centre in the city’s Arab section that buttresses state denial of Palestinians, better known as ‘co-existence’ between Arabs and Jews. None of the co-existence activities take place in Jewish neighbourhoods. Welcoming occurs only on the Arab side of town. Not only are Jews not asked to welcome co-existence activities of any sort in their own neighbourhoods, but they are also invited to co-exist with ‘Arabs’, as distinct from ‘Palestinians’. Given the vast geographic region to which the term Arab applies, this distinction connotes an ethereality of belonging that seems to allay Jewish anxiety over rootedness in the land, nourished as it is today by the deracination of native Palestinian existence”. [page 92]

Later on, Furani points out that:

“Poems are by both Arab and Jewish poets, women and men. There are modern and contemporary poems, that is, free verse and prose poetry; none are classical. Moreover, none of the featured Arab poets is from the 1967 occupied part of Palestine, thus allowing identity to trail behind the borders of national sovereignty. This is in keeping with the Zionist dismemberment of any viable form of Palestinian memory, economy, literature, or political entity. Memory, including the memory of Palestinian poetry, is a site of contestation in the struggle of national sovereignties… I reflected how it was very thoughtful of those who had arranged the display of green and white posters, all laminated and bilingual, to locate the works of such notable poets as Darwish, al-Qasim and Zayyad in front of the building housing the newspaper that had nurtured their beginnings, al-Ittihad, the Israeli communist daily newspaper and the only (barely) surviving Arab daily in Israel”.[page 199]

Perhaps 15 minutes’ walk from Wadi Nisnas, towards and slightly along the sea-line, is another old Palestinian neighbourhood of Haifa – or the remains of one. Slowly being encroached upon by shiny new glass-and-concrete edifices are the crumbling remnants of homes, bathhouses and other buildings too ramshackle to identify, but often still bearing the remains of ornate ironwork or beautiful carved stone. Wadi Nisnas, with its ‘co-existence’ art and weekend Israeli visitors who come to see the ‘other’ and eat hummus and felafel, is apparently the only ‘Arab quarter’ that Haifa needs. The rest of the city’s Palestinian heritage, controlled by the Israeli state’s ‘custodian of absentee property’, can be left to rot until it falls, clearing the ground for more glittering new developments.

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