Great artists that happen to be Muslims: Suheir Hammad

11 09 2010

There’s… adult language… in this. Viewer discretion is advised.

Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad is one of those writers that can take the wind out of you with the shear potency of her words.

She was born in Jordan to refugee parents who were expelled from Palestine. The family eventually settled in Brooklyn, New York, where Hammad grew up immersed in the hip hop culture blossoming in the city in the ’70s and ’80s.

I first heard about Hammad through HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. She’s absolutely brilliant. Today I thought I’d share one of my favorite poems of all time.

The poem she recites above, “First Writing Since,” is probably the single most insightful response to the attacks on September 11, 2001 that I’ve ever come across. (Here’s a text version.)

Hammad has written several books, including Born Palestinian, Born Black, Zaatar Diva, and Breaking Poems. She’s also been involved in several film projects, including a starring role in the movie Salt of This Sea.

Suheir Hammad at PalFest, May 4, 2010. Photo courtesy of PalFest on Flickr.

Reading and listening to Hammad’s incredible work has become something of a September 11 tradition for me. And now it’s that time again. The time when everyone will be marking what happened nine years ago on this date.

When passenger planes exploded in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania. When towers collapsed and fighters scrambled and the nation’s media held its breath. When hope and self-sacrifice found renewed, gritty meaning for nurses and firefighters and… all of us. When nearly 3,000 civilian lives were taken by evil.

…and more than 35 times as many civilian lives were taken in Iraq and Afghanistan during the two wars that followed. (Stats can be found here, here and here.)

You know me. The way I remember what happened in this country won’t have the same kind of militarism you might see elsewhere. Why does love of country have to so narrowly revolve around weapons and bloodshed? Isn’t there a lot more to love about who we are? Just look at Hammad; she is part of America’s character, too. We should all be as honest, compassionate and perceptive as she is.

Let’s remember by flexing our ability to empathize with those that, despite the supposed “clash of cultures,” are actually a lot like us.

Let’s remember from the perspective of those that get the short end of the stick. Let’s remember by asking the sorts of probing questions that challenge dominant assumptions and strengthen democratic energy and would make Socrates proud.

“Affirm life.”

More great poems/videos:

Suheir Hammad – What I Will

Suheir Hammad – Mike Check

A version of this post was originally published by the UC Association of Black Journalists.

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