Little known Canadian-Palestinian performance poet, Rafeef Ziadah, has already received worldwide recognition for her work at 30 years of age, most notably from film director, Ken Loach who said: “Rafeef’s poetry demands to be heard. She is powerful, emotional, political. Please read her work and see her perform”.
Ms. Ziadah’s is highly thought of in the birthplace of her grandparents – Palestine. By popular vote, she was chosen to represent Palestine at ‘Poetry Parnassus Festival’ at the South Bank Centre in London. The Arts Council in Ontario also recognised her talents in awarding her a grant to create her debut performance poetry album ‘Hadeel’.
Ziadah was in Sandinos, Derry recently for the cultural concert tour “Commemorating Al Nakba - Celebrating Palestine”. We met in a city centre apartment to discuss the tour and the message it is bringing to a Derry audience.
While waiting patiently outside the apartment for her to arrive, I recognise her approaching among an oncoming group of five. I had seen her image several times on social media so, happily I cry out, “Hi Rafeef?” With a gentle smile she replies “yes, I am Rafeef”.
On first impressions, not the passionate personality who performed ‘we teach life sir’ in London last November, a performance that received over 215,000 hits on YouTube.
However, on the stairway up to the apartment, as we discuss Palestine and her poetry, the passion re-emerges. She passionately explains the message behind the concerts that recently visited Cork, Dublin, Belfast and Derry on the Irish leg of a tour that also included the UK.
She explains: “The tour commemorates what Palestinians call ‘Nakba’ week - Arabic for catastrophe, which marks the 64th anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel, when over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled”.
Among those expelled were her grandparents. They never returned. The right for refugees to return and the struggle of the Palestinian people are the key messages of the tour. They are the driving forces behind Ziadah’s poetry.
She excitedly explains what it means to her and other Palestinians. She explains what it means to be performing in Derry and Ireland. “Ireland has a special place in the hearts of Palestinians”.
She jokes: “We believe Ireland was mistakenly located and should be down here with us”. On a more serious note, “the tour was planned at the time of mass hunger strikes in Palestinian prisons”. She pauses: “What country understands hunger strikes like Ireland”?
On the tour with Ms. Ziadah was singer, Terez Sliman, a Palestinian citizen of Israel; Phil Mansour, a Lebanese-Australian singer-songwriter and musician; Yazin, from the occupied Golan Heights. It was “a very unique collaboration”, says Ziadah.
For the first time ever she worked with Phil Monsour, who performed his CD ‘Ghosts of Deir Yassin’. The CD says “we are no longer living in the fear, we are going to return” says Ziadah.
Mansour presented his set and Ziadah played guitar with him as part of her performance poetry. The rest was a mix of Arabic songs, written by Sliman, and English poetry, written by Ziadah and integrated with Yazin’s music.
Ziadah was pleased with the response from the Derry audience. She feels it was so positive due to “the musicality of Arabic words mixed with English poetry so the audience can understand where we are coming from”.
She says: “It is very hard to explain, it’s something you need to see to grasp the fullness of it”. However, she adds: “It is very unique and very theatrical but also very political at the same time”.
Palestinian art cannot be purely art “as nothing in our life is not political” she says. Ziadah feels a strong need to assert herself through art. She explains that art is about “asserting culture and identity and culture that is being destroyed”.
So how did she get started on this road? Ziadah says “she always wrote poetry” although she didn’t perform until her University years in Toronto. Despite growing up in Lebanon in the early 1980s in the middle of the war, it was Toronto, Canada where she first experienced real hatred.
It happened when Ziadah, and her fellow students, were working on a creative art scene, using a mock Israeli checkpoint.
Ziadah and her fellow students played the parts of Israeli soldiers and Palestinian citizens.
In the middle of a scene, whilst lying on the ground, she was attacked by a young Jewish student. He kicked her in the stomach and yelled: “You deserve to be raped before you have your terrorist children”. One week later she performed her poem “Shades of anger”.
Ziadah’s work was also influenced by Palestinian poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Tokan and Ghassan Kanafani. A childhood growing up during the Lebanon war meant she experienced a great deal of trauma so, “getting it out on paper was very important”.
Ken Loach’s praise may raise her profile but the bread and roses issues of Palestine will ensure her work is always heard.
What does she hope the legacy of this tour will be? “To get the Palestinian story, on a day to day basis, out there and publicise the normalisation of violence against Palestinians”.
Ziadah is equally passionate about the cultural boycott of Israel and is indeed a signatory to the campaign. She hopes it will counter the “de facto boycott” that exists against Palestinian artists and serve as a “wake-up call to Israel”.
“The boycott is working, Israel is taking notice and we have received support from South African artists who understand apartheid”, she says.
And recent political criticism of the cultural boycott? She cools her passion and plainly replies: “It shows where their priorities are”.