Bedouin poet Muhammad al-Hajaya entreats US Secretary of State John Kerry to work fast to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and establish a Palestinian state.
When I found out that US Secretary of State John Kerry was giving a talk to Harvard students at the Belfer Center today, I told Bedouin poet Muhammad al-Hajaya, whom I’d just translated a poem about Kerry with, and urged him to write Kerry a poem. Hajaya asked me what he should write about, and I told him the first thing that came to my mind: urge Kerry to use the chaos in the Middle East to create a Palestinian state. Now, I had no idea how Kerry would do that or what justification Hajaya would give Kerry to do that. But Hajaya ran with it, and the poem below is what we have—a treasury of popular Arab political analysis, with all its donkeys and admonitions and balls of dough.
Hajaya chose the word for evil, sharr, as this poem’s unifying word: Dickens-like, Hajaya recalls evils past, present, and future if Kerry doesn’t act fast to establish a Palestinian state. The words that follow “evil” in the rhyme scheme—secret, lose, grow, free, gladden—are full of associations made only if you hear them all rhyme together. Or take the rhyming words in the second hemistichs (halves of the lines): defeat, ministry, skill, bitterness, path, decision, loss, business, worthiness, civilization. Hajaya is not dealing with petty issues—this is a poem of kings and armies and the fate of the world!
So you’re saying there’s a chance!
Hajaya, as I’ve written elsewhere, has unwavering faith in his poetry’s power to sway political leaders. After Hajaya and I translated this poem, he asked me to read it aloud to Kerry at the event. Kerry might not think much of it then, Hajaya said. But Kerry might, say, recall the poem before he fell asleep, be influenced, and work to change things.
For Hajaya’s sake, I emailed the Belfer Center and asked if I could read Secretary Kerry the poem during the Q&A and ask a follow-up question or, barring that, have a copy delivered to him. The Belfer Center’s answer was a categorical no.
I don’t fault the Belfer Center for not wanting a poem by a Bedouin tribesman from a village in southern Jordan to be read at their event. The irony is, though, that if anyone deserves a direct line to Kerry, if anyone deserves to be heard out tonight in a “conversation about Iran, Russia, Syria, and the world,” it is this Bedouin poet from southern Jordan, the voice of disenfranchised, marginalized Sunni Arabs, many of whom are so fed up with the Arab world’s divisions and defeats that they’re joining ISIS out of desperation.
The Middle East’s Evil
Another aspect of the evil that ties this poem together is the evil that’s tearing the Arab world apart. Apart from the Arabs’ division into 22 countries, each one of those countries has internal divisions such that building Arab power is impossible.
To Hajaya, the Middle East’s chaos resembles scattered pieces of dough that need skilled hands to form them back into a ball and, to follow the metaphor, put it on the fire and cover it with coals (as the Bedouin make ‘arbud bread, for example). The bread would be the New Middle East, which Condoleezza Rice first mentioned in 2006 and which has been in Middle Eastern media and on Middle Eastern minds for the last decade.
As the most powerful man in the State Department, Kerry has a golden opportunity before him, Hajaya thinks. But Hajaya warns that if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t solved soon, both Jews and Arabs will “drink a bitter draught,” or, as he explained it, suffer more destruction, killing, and sadness.
Their Last Best Chance?
Why else is now Kerry’s last best chance, especially when people have been saying that for a while? Because now, more than ever, Israeli Jews are scared out of their minds from the recent terrorist stabbings of civilians, policemen, and soldiers. And the Arabs are weaker and more divided than ever. A Palestinian state would make the Arabs feel strong again. They wouldn’t go about “proving their strength” by killing innocent people, an act of desperation on par with joining ISIS.
Hajaya explains why peace hasn’t been reached by drawing on the Bedouin tradition’s rich stock of animal metaphors to compare Abbas and Netanyahu to two donkeys. The former goes when you tell it “giddy up” (in Arabic, hirr), and the latter is deaf and blind and thus can’t take Uncle Sam’s orders. This take on things is a bit cynical: if Abbas weren’t such a lackey of the West, he wouldn’t be so pliable and wouldn’t not “think of his own gain or loss.” But to Hajaya, he is, so peace is possible. Now if only Netanyahu heard and obeyed so well. As little respect as Hajaya has for Abbas and Netanyahu, Hajaya has even less for Hamas, whom he asks Kerry to destroy for using the Palestinian issue to its own benefit.
Hajaya leaves the strongest argument for the end of the poem: by delaying the establishment of a Palestinian state, Kerry is giving terrorism one more reason to exist. This new terrorism, Hajaya avers, seeks to “destroy human civilization.” If the US is really committed to fighting terrorism or, to use Obama’s belabored language, to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS and its likes, then why is it biding its time and not doing anything about establishing a Palestinian state?
With humility—after all, he’s addressing the most powerful man in the State Department—Hajaya ends the poem by telling Kerry that the advice he’s giving the Secretary of State is just his own personal opinion, and that Kerry’s free to do as he chooses.
“Unite your Jews and the Arabs!”
By Muhammad Fanatil al-Hajaya
Translated by William Tamplin
October 11, 2015
In the shadow of violent chaos, all of it evil
In the time of the Arabs’ division and defeat
Oh Kerry, hear my advice and keep it a secret
Oh Kerry, ever the State Department’s power!
The Middle East is scattered pieces of dough
And needs skilled hands to reshape it
A golden opportunity—nothing like it’s yet occurred
And if it’s lost, Jews and Arabs will drink a bitter draught
Unite your Jews and the Arabs—do not delay!
And peace, which has stumbled in its way—guide it!
Embolden Obama, tell him “forward march!”
In this time especially must he take the decision
Our donkey of peace trots if you tell it “giddy-up”
But the Israelis’ donkey is deaf and blind
Our donkey—Abbas—if you tell him “march!”
Will march, and won’t think of his own gain or loss
While the situation’s a tilt-a-whirl, found them a state
And destroy Hamas, profiting off the Palestinian’s suffering
If you found them a state and gladden the world
You’ll take—and deserve—a Nobel Prize
If you don’t, everyone will be a loser
And blood on both sides will pour
As the march of terrorism rises and grows
And seeks to end human civilization
This is advice, and you, my friend, are free
But hear my words, dear Secretary of State
وحد يهودك والعرب
في ضل فوضى عارمه كلها شر
وفي وقت تشتيت العرب وانكساره
يا كيري اسمع كلمتي واكتم السر
ما دمت يا كيري كبير الوزاره
الشرق الاوسط كالعجين المبعثر
يريد ايدي تصنعه في مهاره
فرصه ثمينه مثلها قبل ما مر
وان ضاعت الفرصه شربنا المراره
وحد يهودك والعرب لا تأخر
وقود السلام اللي تعثر مساره
شجع اوباما قول له معتدل سر
ولازم بهذا الوقت ياخذ قراره
حمارنا يمشي اذا قلت له حر
وحمارهم اطرم وعميا ابصاره
حمارنا عباس ان قلت له سر
يمشي وما فكر بربح وخساره
اسس لهم دوله ترا الوضع يفتر
وخرب على شلة حماس التجاره
ان تم هذا الامر والعالم انسر
جائزة نوبل تاخذه في جداره
وان ما حصل هذا ترا الكل يخسر
ويسيل دم الجانبين بغزاره
ومسيرة الارهاب تصعد وتكبر
ويمكن نهايتها دمار الحضاره
هاذي نصيحة وانت يا صاحبي حر
واسمع كلامي يا كبير الوزاره