Episode 10: Of War and Words

Episode 10: Of War and Words

Discussing war, displacement and the power of self expression.

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Aja Monet: Hello, beautiful listeners. My name is Aja Monet. I'm a blue surrealist poet and organizer, dreamer, thinker, lover, liver. I'm here, present with you right now, and I'm the host of The Sound Bath, a podcast brought to you by Lush Cosmetics, where you'll be hearing conversations that cleanse. Thank you so much for being here with me today. This podcast explores what personal, social, and environmental care and wellbeing really mean in today's society. This show is designed to be listened to in the bath, so sit back and enjoy the conversation. And at the end, stick around for a beautiful, meditative, sonic sound bath. I am so excited because today I'm having a conversation with my dear friend poet and Palestinian activist, Mohammed El- Kurd.

I first met Mohammed in 2015, and I was on a delegation with a bunch of Black organizers, activists, and artists from across the country in the States. I met a young poet and I got to see his home, his family, his community, and his struggle for dignity and justice, and liberation for his people. And in that moment, a fellow poet to another poet, I just wanted to offer the solidarity of language and the solidarity of tender language, love of language. And in that, I offered this young boy my book and who knew? Who knew what would come of that? Years later, I find myself at a performance in New York, and I am reading a poem that I wrote about the first time I met Mohammed and what I learned about Palestine. The poem is called “The Giving Tree”. I'm in the middle of “The Giving Tree” and Mohammed's name actually shows up in the poem.

And I end the reading, and lo and behold, Mohammed shows up onstage with me in the audience. He was sitting in the audience. Imagine my surprise when I get to hug this young man who I first met in Palestine in occupied territory, who's now sitting in the audience while I get to read a poem about him. It was actually a very magical moment. Mohammed has become a dear friend. He would say a mentee, but in many ways, I feel like I'm mentored by him daily. And now, you know, his voice has taken on the world. We were there in Palestine to help advocate and listen to and amplify the voices of the people we were meeting, the Palestinian people who welcomed us into their homes, into their lives, and into their communities. And it’s so, I am honored. I am so proud to be one of the many, many, many who organized for Palestinians to be able to tell their own stories and to be able to be heard.

And it's such a dear honor of mine that Mohammed is here to tell his own story, to speak from his own perspective in his own voice, not just as the world sees him as an activist, but as my friend, as my comrade, and as a fellow poet and human being. I know you all will enjoy this conversation. My friend, Mohammed El- Kurd, I would love for you to introduce yourself as you choose to identify or how you see yourself in the world. Please, let our listeners know.


Mohammed El-Kurd: Well, hello, Aja. First of all, thank you. You are absolutely a mentor, and an influence, and a friend. My name’s Mohammed El- Kurd. I am a writer, poet, journalist, born and raised in Occupied Jerusalem Palestine, currently living in New York City. I am the Palestine correspondent for “The Nation”.


Aja Monet: Yes. Ah, well! It's so exciting just to hear your voice and, you know, so much of the internet and social media is a place where, as a writer, as a poet, someone that works with words and language, Twitter and Instagram are both platforms that actually do not do well at showing the depth of people's persons and personhood. It's such an honor to actually hear your voice and to be a part of sharing your voice. Because, as we say, you have a really sensual voice.


Mohammed El-Kurd: Thank you. Thank you.


Aja Monet: I mean, there's so much more to you than how the media has portrayed you. There's so much more to you than how the world talks about not just yourself, but most Palestinians. I know you as, first and foremost, as a poet. I know you as someone who's fighting for the dignity and integrity of your people, which I think any Palestinian, especially born in occupied territory, it's just a no brainer. But more deeply than that, you're a human being who has passions, and gifts, and dreams, and talent. And so I wanted to ask you, when did poetry take your heart? When did poetry become the thing that you felt was your calling, or your gift, or your purpose?


Mohammed El-Kurd: You know, there's plenty of ways I could answer this. And you know, there's a cliche of like, I use poetry to make sense of the world, which truly this was my avenue in which I made sense of the world, but also there are many instances where I felt like, "Oh, this is what I want to do." The first example I could recall would be my mother. My mother was a poet, and her and my father would play this game because she would publish in the local newspaper, and they'd play this game in which they would guess which one of her lines would be red penciled, which one of her lines would be censored. And then, you know, because the Palestinian newspapers at the time were controlled by the Israeli Military Censor, and they would bring back the poems and, you know, whoever won would get a prize or whatever. I just always found that activity fun.

I grew up amongst that poetry and my mother reciting her poems to my dad and playing that. But then another moment would be in 2009 or 2008, I believe we had a demonstration and a friend of mine showed me “Def Poetry Jam”. I believe it was Suheir Hammad reading “First Writing Since”. And I was like, "Wow! I want to do this." And also, I would be remiss not to mention, when you gifted me your first poetry book when you visited our home in nine, in 2000 ... I almost said 19 something. In 2014. In 2014 and I still have, I told you this before, but I still have that book next to my bed. I've had it for many, many, many years next to my bed. Everywhere I moved, it's always continued to be like, by my side table. And those are like, the really the formative moments where I felt like poetry meant more than just words on a page. It had power, and it had the ability to kind of communicate, and document, and translate, and also help make a lot of inaccessible knowledge and inaccessible current events accessible to people, as well as theory, and ideology, and political standing.


Aja Monet: Yeah, yeah. It's so powerful to hear you say that because I think of someone like Darren Tator. And when people say poems, "Oh, what does a poem do, or what can a poem do in the world to really shift, or alter, or change the material conditions of people, right?" Here is a Palestinian poet who just is encouraging her people to resist, is encouraging her people to have dignity, and she becomes villainized and demonized for that. I think about Ilya Kaminsky, the poet from Ukraine. And he had, he's in the States, but he has an article that he just put out in “The New York Times” called “Poems in a Time of Crisis”. He basically explains a friend of his, who he reached out to, who remains in Odessa, and he's asking how could he help. And he says that as he asks, “How can I help?”, finally an older friend, a lifelong journalist writes back, "Putins come and go. If you want to help, send us some poems and essays. We are putting together a literary magazine." In the middle of war, he is asking for poems. And it gives me chills every time I think of that, because I wonder as someone who has been, and lived, and been brought up and born in perpetual war, what has poetry meant to not just you, but to the community and the people of Palestine? I think that there's so many incredible poets who are there. I would say, I would argue that the way people just casually speak is poetry, you know? Arabic, I don't know fully Arabic, but I know that the language is one of the most poetic languages in the world, you know. And so I wonder, in times of crisis, what role do you find poetry playing for you and the people you love, that you find dear to you?


Mohammed El-Kurd: Ah, wow! I mean, there's a lot to be said about how Palestinians speak, and how poetry and Arabic poetry has played a huge role in shaping our culture, shaping our narrative, shaping how we operate in the world. We are people that speak in similes and metaphors, and we use metaphors to understand our situation and our reality. One example I think about constantly was actually one of my favorite poets, Rashid Hussein who wrote a poem, it's a sardonic or a sarcastic poem called “God is a Refugee”. He wrote that poem in the '50s following an Israeli law called the Israeli Land Law, which effectively meant that 93% of all of historic Palestine was now state-owned by the Israeli government, which meant, all of the Palestinians are agricultural people, we are farmers, that meant that all of these Palestinians' livelihood was now state-owned. What this poet did is he kind of, in his poetry, he was able to buy the legal jargon. The inaccessibility of that legal jargon, the bureaucracy, he was able to kind of bypass all of these barriers that existed on a political and governmental level. With his poem that was very sarcastic, very conniving even, he was able to translate to the Palestinian farmers what that law effectively meant. And if you allow, I can read the first two lines from the poem.


Aja Monet: Yes. Please, please.


Mohammed El-Kurd: He goes, [foreign language00:11:20] So he goes, "God has now become a refugee, sir. You’ll confiscate even the carpet of the mosque and sell the church. It's his property too. And sell the caller of prayer in the black auction. Even our orphans, their father is absent. Confiscate our orphans then, sir." And you know, it's like a very, you know, it’s a shady poem, but it was able to translate this very complex law to these people that otherwise weren't able to understand the legal jargon. I think that's where the power of poetry lies. I don't think poetry is going to turn water into wine. I used to. I don't think I'm going to read a poem in front of the checkpoint and have the checkpoint be abolished. But I think poetry can be a step in that direction.


Aja Monet: Mm, you know, poetry alone cannot change the material conditions of an unjust society, but I challenge anyone to name a substantive freedom movement that does not have poetry. I see poetry as a tactic in the strategy for freedom, but much like rhetoric, it should never be our end goal. Do you see in any way, shape, or form the process of writing a poem as an organizing opportunity for communities?


Mohammed El-Kurd: Absolutely. Absolutely. I believe in any kind of writing, certainly poetry, there is this ability to transform public opinion, this ability to shape culture. And once you do shape public opinion and transform culture, you're able to then implement policies that adhere to that public opinion. Obviously it's easier said than done, but it's certainly doable. I know that my political education comes from the poets I read, just as much as it comes from the political theorist or the political thought leaders who existed. But I'm worry that I'm going to open a can of worms because I don't like talking about this too much, but with your poetry, I love everything you write.

But the thing that has been most powerful for me, reading your poetry, have actually been your love poems, to be able to read love poems that are like politically conscious but are also incredibly tender. I recall this line of yours, "You make my blood self- conscious." I think about that line all the time.


Aja Monet: Thank you for that. What I find to be powerful about poetry as I write poems in this time is the relationship that I have with poetry being a big part of my political practice, but also a part of my personal practice and my wellness as a human being, right? Like I can’t … You know, whether someone cared about my poetry or not, I would have to do it. It’s, you know, as we talked, one of the things we talked about in one of the other talks was like what our obsessions are and what are healthy and unhealthy obsessions. But I would say that poetry, for me, is one of my obsessions. Not because I'm so concerned with how people will receive it, but I'm concerned with what language can do, what language does to me as I'm working with it.


Mohammed El-Kurd: It's in your blood.


Aja Monet: Yeah, and how words hold a frequency, they hold a sound and energy, and they can transmute or, you know, transmute energy or transmute pain and these things, but also they can be weaponized. And I’ve been … You know, I know what it's like for words to be used against you, and I know what it's like for words to be used to uplift you and to encourage you. But to share a bit more is that there are moments when I do something with words that I'm like, "Wow!" And it's not even so much it's me. It's not the ego. It's not like, "Look at what I did." It's more like, “How did that, where did that come from?” You know, where is … It's sort of this conjuring. It’s this, when you sit at the page, you're sitting to be used, not so much to be convincing or to try to get people to, you know, necessarily agree or understand what you're saying. But I think that when you are sitting with it, it is, it does have this quality of scripture or sacredness that the average person, at least in America, the average American does not come to poetry with a sense of awe and sacredness to deeply understand, or uncover, or interpret even. Because I would say poetry is the painting of the interior world, right? So the way that we come to a painting and we're open to the abstractness of that, we're open to, “Well, how do I look at this, or how do I interpret what the artist intended?” I don't know if people come to poetry with that same humility and grace and like, “Let me be curious”, rather than words being used for just a mean to an end, if you will. We often use language, in the States at least and with English, as a transactional form of communicating, right? So how do I get across what I need and you understand me. And maybe if I'm a somewhat heightened individual or an enlightened individual, I'll be concerned with listening deeply. So yeah, this is part of I think the struggle with language. And then there's the parts where words fail us, right? I live for the moments where words fail me. And I wonder, what does that mean to you as someone who is a writer, someone who's a poet? What are other forms of language or communication that have fully engaged or enraptured you with meaning, and with depth, and with excitement?


Mohammed El-Kurd: Yeah, I mean, Palestinians particularly or people, oppressed people in general, we have to be very mindful and careful about our language because most of the time we are being accused and we are being put on the defense for our mere words and our mere sentiments. While other people's systemic violence and systemic violations go unchecked, institutional violations go unchecked, our language is constantly put on trial.


Aja Monet: And policed.


Mohammed El-Kurd: And policed, yes. I'm actually, like you said, you said you live for the moments in which language fails you. And I am very grateful for those moments in which I kind of escape those barriers and those limitations I have put for myself, the self-policing I have put myself, and I just expressed my rage and my anger in a way that doesn't adhere to that kind of policing. And so yeah, in that linguistic failure, there is so much to be grateful for. There is so much to be grateful for because it's human, and nuanced, and it's fully complex, and it's fully natural. But in terms of being excited by my words, you know, you said something about writing something and being impressed by it, but not saying like, "Wow, look at what wrote," but I absolutely think you should think like, "Wow, look at what I just wrote."

I don't think all of my poems are great, but sometimes I'll write a line and I'll like, "Wow! That's a bar. That's a bar right there." You know, I think you should be able to revel in that sometimes, ‘cause, you know, because most people are not going to come to that line that you know is absolutely fire and feel those flames. You know, they're not ...


Aja Monet: Mmm, yeah. Whoo, that's a real one, real truth.


Mohammed El-Kurd: That's a bar.


Aja Monet: That's a bar, in fact I think about our friendship and I think about just how honored I am to know you and then to see you grow and see you become such an important voice in the movement for freedom and dignity of Palestinian people. And I also see you as a child, you know, and as a brother, and as a deep, you know, co- conspirator. And I think about your grandmother, Rifqa, who is the title of your poetry book, and what she instilled in you and what are the values that you move with in the world.

And I wanted you to share with us a bit of some of the things that you learned from your grandmother about, I guess I would say, wellness and protecting yourself as much as you fight for your community and your people, what are the things that she instilled in you about taking care of yourself and taking care of your wellbeing as a human being in the world, you know? What are some of the things that you miss the most or that you loved about the intimate day-to-day experiences with her that really taught you the value of human life and dignity and the connection between us?


Mohammed El-Kurd: First of all, to those listening who like “Rifqa”, I will say that had it not been for Aja, that book would've never been published. I don't even know if it would have ever been actually written. I remember me reading a poem years and years ago, and I remember the encouraging words you gave me to write that book and a few years later, but also I remember the amazing fight in advocacy you put up for my book to be published. And for that, I'm forever grateful and indebted. In terms of Rifqa, my grandmother, and the lessons she gave me, I think the most valuable was a lesson about dignity and about self-respect, and always operating from a place of self-respect, right? How can I be satisfied with my person? How can I be satisfied with myself and say that I'm leading a life that I'm content with?

There are these pillars that my grandmother has put for herself, like being an honest person, being a strong person, not giving a damn and always saying the truth and always, always operating from a place of dignity and self-respect and keeping one's head high, and being completely unabashed and unafraid of living in your own truth, regardless of what anybody in the world says. And I think that has prepped me like nothing else for the trials and tribulations of today, being in the public eye, being constantly behind a wagging finger, or being constantly shoved into a corner, forced to explain or defend myself. If I didn't have my grandmother who just turned her nose up into the clouds and didn't care, I wouldn't have my personality today. You know, those are lessons.

You know, we talk about self-respect and we talk about dignity as if they are these easily accessible skills that one could acquire, but there they're certainly not, especially when you're living in a system that, in my case and in the case of Palestinians at large and Palestinian men, forces you to be shrinked and forces you to be smaller, and tells you you have no freedom of movement, no freedom of expression, no freedom of opinion, no freedom of anything. Those are things that my grandmother has defied by herself through her own philosophies, using whatever tools she needed. And she passed away with her head held high. And just to circle back to the book, you know, I think the book is okay, but the foreword of the book is like 10 times better than anything else in the book and that's because Aja wrote it, so.


Aja Monet: You're far too kind, and-


Mohammed El-Kurd: No. It's just facts.


Aja Monet: and seeing as I am a Leo, I ain't going, you know, turn it away.


Mohammed El-Kurd: No, no, no, no. It's just facts.


Aja Monet: You know, I just, I, yeah, I think about what I learned from visiting Palestine and sitting and eating, and sharing, and loving with Palestinian people is that oppressed people everywhere have a sense of human decency and dignity that I've not seen from any of the most, quote, unquote, in how it-


Mohammed El-Kurd: Civilized.


Aja Monet: civilized, you know, or Western colonial structures and powers that be. I think that they unfortunately are denied their own humanity in the process of oppressing. You know, and so what I've witnessed from those who are oppressed is the sense of, as you've said, this unabashed will to continue to define and reiterate what living actually means. It's always the people who have the least that give the most, and that's one of the things no matter where I've traveled, or what place I've been, or whose home I've gone to, it's fascinating to me, right? I mean,, and when you say give, what does it mean to truly give? What does it mean to truly show up and to stand in dignity with people who you're in solidarity with? And so I wanted to ask you, what does solidarity mean for you and your wellness? I see solidarity as a big part of my wellness practice.

I don't think I can be sane or well in the world if I do not find myself in camaraderie and in fellowship with other people who have experience and who struggle as I do with the ways of the world, with the ways of those who oppress people in the world. I understand that struggle to resist that. And for me, when I find others who are still holding their head high, still showing up fully, and present, and fighting back and showing themselves up, like to me, that is a form of wellness. So I wanted to ask you, what has solidarity meant for you and your wellness practice.


Mohammed El-Kurd: Solidarity and wellness to me means, you know, giving me a few extra days to answer the email. I think it means, you know, having compassion for one another and understanding that we are human beings, especially regarding in movement building and in spaces where organizers are and people who are trying to go against mainstream status quo or against a mainstream media narrative. We often neglect to remember that we are not institutionally backed the same way that corporate media institutions are. We are not institutionally or monetarily backed the way these armies are. And we tend to be a little bit too hard on one another and solidarity has manifested itself for me in that. And I'm completely and will forever be indebted all of my friends who've offered me a helping hand through, you know, this past year, my world has kind of been flipped up upside down. And I have had more visibility and more access than I have ever had, but I've also had way more, to put it very simply, emails, right, thousands of emails than I’ve ever had. And just seeing how many people were willing to help and be there for me during those difficult times has been incredibly, incredibly amazing. I think, you know, the concept of wellness and self-care has been bastardized a little bit in the past few decades. My first encounter with self-care has been reading “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde, but then I don't think much of what we're seeing today in the world, like the billboards about these really expensive products that would offer you this kind of peace of mind is really what self-care is meant to be. And you know, I think if I were to define it for myself, I would say self-care and wellness is really just using the tools available for you and using the community available to you to take care of yourself and make sure you're in a good place. You know, I grew up in Palestine and our culture is very, very much against the I, the letter I, right? Like (speaks foreign language), myself, is actually a frowned upon. We have many sayings about, like, you say myself and I ask God forgiveness for saying myself, right? So I grew up in that kind of excessively modest culture. And I remember, I take planes all the time, and when the pilot talks about, you know, make sure you put your mask on first before putting it on your child, and I've always struggled. I was like, “Why? I wanna put it on my kid first.” I don't have a kid obviously, but I wanna put it on my kid first. And I think in the past few months, I'm kind of realizing why it's really important to put your mask on first before you try to put it on others.


Aja Monet: Yeah, interesting. So you now have changed. You shifted.


Mohammed El-Kurd: I think so.


Aja Monet: What do you think is necessary for a society to fully have a value around self-care? Do you see a separation between ... You know, for me, I think one of the conversations we continue going back to with this podcast is around that care implies both the self and the collective, in my mind. And that somehow words have been bastardized to the point where we have now had to add all these additives, and self, and radical, and all these things, right, to emphasize something that I guess maybe people are implying is not there in the word care. And I wanted to ask you, what do you see is implied in the word care? What are the things that you see as tenents of care in your life, in your community, in your society?


Mohammed El-Kurd: You know, I think everyone deserves a good, you know, skincare routine and so on and so forth. But I think above all of this, there is this like class divide, right? I think self-care to a lot of people means a roof over their head. It means a meal, three meals a day. It means some kind of money in the bank. It means education. It means healthcare. Those are the things that are missing so much in our society. In the United States particularly, all of the people on the, all of the people on the street facing this houselessness epidemic, this is where a movement for care and wellness could be really, really fruitful. I do fully believe, especially increasingly in the past few months, I do fully believe in the idea of what you're saying about care being contingent on the self, as well as the collective.

But I would be also remiss not to mention this chasm in which self-care seems to be something that's only offered to a certain class of people. Like you said, all of these different words and additives we add to it, those additives, those add-ons are kind of like not, they're not for everyday people who have those kind of financial hardships, or mental hardships, or health hardships. A society in which self-care, and care in general and wellness in general, can be the standard is a society where everybody is fed and everybody has a roof over their head.


Aja Monet: Mm, yeah. Woo! Praise that. Affirm. Affirm. Affirm. Hallelujah. Mohammed, I love you and I want you to know that ... yes. AH, so great. I love you. I have one last question for you and it's a question I ask everyone at the end of every conversation. And my question is, what sound or sounds bring you the most calm, peace of mind, sense of wellness in your life?


Mohammed El-Kurd: Without hesitation, very intense, loud, Arabic pop music. Like trash top 40, like looked frowned upon Arabic music that older generations are like, "Oh my God, I can't believe this is the state-of-the-art now." That really brings me peace. I love that shit.


Aja Monet: Okay. Well, that sounds great. Ah, thank you, Mo.


Mohammed El-Kurd: Thank you so much. Thank you so, so much. I really appreciate you. And I just wanna say, when you invited me to do this podcast, I'm not going to lie, I was like, I'm not the best person to be talking about self-care. But you know, this is, we're on a journey, and I really appreciate you and I love you. You'll always be my friend, but you'll always, always be my teacher. Thank you.


Aja Monet: Oh, I love you. Thank you. And yeah we're all figuring it out. I'm not the best person either. As I'm having these conversations, I think I'm learning more and more what healing looks like and what it can be and how to complicate my own relationship to that is just even having these conversations with people I love. And thankfully, I got encouraged to do this so that I can have these conversations and think about how do we support each other in being more intentional about wellness, not just for the sake of ourselves, but for the sake of the people we love and the society we wanna see, the society we want to dream in, and be in, and exist in. I hope that these conversations become some sort of tool for yourself, but also for those listening. I'm so grateful for you. I love you. Thank you.

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