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"Silencing the Sea is good news: It ironically speaks of the redemptive power of the human word, as fractured as it can be, as opposed to the Divine word's.
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I went to other parts of the Arab world partly because the Arabic language does not and cannot abide by colonially inscribed borders of modern nation-states of the Middle East, and partly because Palestinian poets encouraged me not to segregate my study from the wider poetic scene of the Arab world, as their own lives have been under Israeli sovereignty. This range of interviews and observations made clear to me the extent to which the local pursuit of modernity through the literary comprises local expression of an otherwise broadly Arab and even global condition.

In pursuit of poets working in the three forms of literary Arabic poetry today, I conducted fifty-eight interviews with forty-seven poets, six of whom were women. Their ages ranged from eighteen to eighty-four. I also interviewed seven nonpoets: literary critics and poetry recipients. I attended twenty-four poetry events in the local Palestinian scene, mainly in Nazareth and in Tamra in the Galilee and in al-Taybeh in the center of the country.


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I also attended poetry events held during the thirty-fourth Cairo International Book Fair and a poetry evening in Amman. My investigation additionally included examinations of daily press and archival accounts of activities in the poetic field. Whereas in the daily press I reviewed reports on poetic activities in the local Palestinian and wider Arab scene, my archival work attended to poetic content and context: published verse and political-literary criticism and coverage. The contemporary and historic press offered a map of the local literary terrain and its actors, present and past.

Published by Khalil Al-Sakakini Institute, this periodical was edited by the late Mahmoud Darwish from until his death in , when it ceased publication. The latter two are Arabic weekly newspapers published in Israel. Finally, I made it a habit to read works by the poets whom I met, whether appearing in collections or in the press.

Only at the risk of inviting misunderstanding could an introduction omit caveats, and I present quite a few. First, I explain why I focus primarily on poets and only marginally on their poetic works and clarify that this approach implies no statement on my part about the ontological primacy of the author.

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Approached as subjects of the secular, poets in this study constitute the secular as it constitutes them. Second, on the selection of poets in this study a word is necessary. I was interested in poets as agents capable of articulating the practice of speaking and writing in society, irrespective of their standing in the literary establishment. Although all poets in the community in which I worked were invariably published in one or another literary outlet and the younger ones increasingly posted on the Web , a majority of my informants were unadorned by the literary establishment and unheard of beyond it, living in obscurity and marginality.

This point may be trivial to an anthropologist whose discipline does not require studying primarily if at all the fortified and famous in their field. Yet the established poets and literary critics I encountered expected literary judgment in my work and assessed its merits accordingly.

Khaled Furani, Silencing the Sea: Secular Rhythms in Palestinian Poetry

As with some I encountered in the field, certain readers of this book may be dismayed by my including nonacclaimed poets. Rather than sustaining some literary criterion, this work should be understood as an attempt by ethnographic means to dissociate from assumptions about the literary as a self-evident concept or self-sufficient realm. I set out in part to explore the different sensibilities, practices, conceptions, and traditions involved in legitimizing literary merit, not to demand them.

An objective of this work is to demonstrate the extraliterary salience permeating this putative literary merit while refusing to sequester analysis to specialized prosodic, linguistic, and literary forms of expertise. My third caveat relates to my giving preeminence to the materiality of form and therefore sound in poetry to the apparent exclusion of other poetic constituents, which may appear arbitrary at first.

Only the conclusion of this book actually analyzes the semantic and figurative content of poetic writing. Why should my investigation exclude other significant aspects of poetry, such as grammar, syntax, and style? The contingencies of disciplinary training are again part of the answer. My goal as an anthropologist has been to learn from poets themselves aspects of their work that are unavailable in their written compositions alone.

Another part of the answer has to do with the historically eminent position of sound and sound measurement, to be precise in making poetry and denoting its form, whether in Arabic or in any other poetic tradition. My final caveat addresses my focus on three literary forms, which do not completely exhaust the field of contemporary Arabic poetry. I focus on them to the exclusion of other emergent and even still unidentifiable forms of poetic work.

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This work also excludes the immensely rich tradition of oral poetry while acknowledging that a total severance between oral and literary Arabic is unattainable. Also unattainable is a binary and irreversible distinction between audial and visual forms. The modern shifts at the center of this study and the debates among poets over the modernity of their tradition are quintessentially situated within the literary immanence of Arab poetic production. It is this and only this kind of irrelevance of particular modern shifts to the world of colloquial Arabic poetry that accounts for my excluding it in this study.

No normative reasoning about the legitimacy of one kind of poetry over the other should be ascribed to my attention to literary as opposed to colloquial poetry. And now some notes on the parts and chapters of this book. My story opens with three Initiations. They aim to acquaint the reader with terms of reference necessary for comprehending the argument and the story through which it unfolds. The first, Secular Bewilderment, develops the argument about secularizing poetic forms.

It presents my sense of the relevance of secularism and secularization to this study, the notion of the secular I employ, and how I concretely register the secular in the world of modernizing poets. The second and third initiations place the story I want to tell in axes of time and place, respectively. Rhythms and Rulers acquaints the nonspecialist reader with knowledge of pivotal terms, techniques, and personae in the history of the Arabic poetic tradition, who are also evoked by poets in their narratives.

To help graft this technical knowledge onto the fabric of life forms to which Arabic poetry belongs, I follow one prominent line of drama in the history of Arabic poetry: the encounter between the poet and political authority. The Land of the Poem presents a particular poetic field and its political prominence: the scene of Palestinian poetry festivals under the first Israeli military regime — This history provides an important setting for positioning the ethnographic narratives that follow.

I also show the earliest cracks out of which free verse erupted onto and arose from this particular scene.

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After Initiations, the core ethnographic narration is organized into three parts, according to the three poetic forms inhabiting the literary scene. In naming these parts, I point to the paradigmatic practice, the grammar, as it were, in the sonic edifice of each form. While The Song, The Picture, and The Dream aim to delineate the retreat of sound and the ascendancy of visualization and obscure visualization at that , in no way should the practices they represent be taken as mutually exclusive.

Within this tripartite discussion lives another one. Each ethnographic part consists of three chapters whose narratives each focus on one of three relations, which figured prominently in my conversations with poets: their relation to poetic tradition, to rhythm, and to a reading or listening public. These chapters are sequenced to express an escalating intensity in secularizing forms whereby poets view the measuring of sounds as increasingly obsolete and simultaneously express a greater mistrust of the audience. While the ethnographic narratives explore form, largely through what poets say about it and principally about its sound properties, the conclusion shifts to an analysis of content.

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It also deviates from ethnographic interviews and observations to pursue a close and critical reading of poetic selections. To effectively demonstrate this inseparability between form and content, I have chosen to focus on certain highly influential writings by Adonis in free verse primarily and to a lesser extent in prose forms , who championed the cause of Arab modern secularity.

Although Adonis is not Palestinian, his work has had a significant influence on the Palestinian and wider Arabic poetic scene. Poets themselves, to be sure, did not repeatedly invoke it, yet secularism was profoundly assumed in the ways they sought to modernize their tradition and make it relevant to their world. However, the secular as a dominant presence, as a hegemonic mode of knowing and living the real of the modern world, also reverberates in what poets say they wanted to do in their poems. It lives among modernizing poets in what Taylor , p.

I, in turn, approach the secular as a force that goes far beyond the nonreligious and constitutes particular formations of being and knowing in the modern world. It is exactly in poets assuming the secular that I realized its power during my fieldwork. I have come to consider its silence as a paradoxical sign of its dominant presence in the modern world. Its power does not simply lie in its ability to be evoked by poets, to appear as vestments they wear or in pronouncements they make about a literary agency opposing religious authority or tradition in the public realm, although it is there as well.

It was natural and self-evident for certain poets in this study to posit poetry as distinct from religion, writing as more powerful than reciting, and historical time as sovereign over all others e. The moments when the secular commits itself to silence are no less significant than the moments during which it surfaces in speech. Such moments of silence occur frequently when secular poets write mythically.

In fact, poets resort to religious scriptures and ancient myths of the Middle East in distinct ways that are not even possible for traditional poets. I found it bewildering that poets want to claim for history as opposed to, say, myth, or rationality as opposed to irrationality, an authoritative role in public life.

But they prolifically use mythical signs, religious references, and seemingly illogical and nonrealistic constructions in their poetic compositions. The turn from versified to prose rhythms of poetry; the attendant changes in conceptions of poetic tradition, public, and agency; and a distinct resort to religious signs in poetry constitute a complex of secular shifts, effects, and consequences.

They are not secular because poets declare them as such nor only because poets embed them in declarations for a separation between poetry and religion, or politics and religion, or for keeping Islam and religious authority generally within a private sphere of personal belief about the supernatural. The secularity of these shifts resides in what poets do with words and in what they want their words to do , which profoundly resonates with the modern and contingent career of the secular as an ontology and epistemology of distancing from what or whom it anoints as the religious.

One of the curious things secular poets do with words is evoke the mythical. In transforming poetic concepts and practices, the secular in modern Arabic poetry has not simply banished the religious; it has also come to depend on it. Poets evoke and mostly presume the secular as they conceive boundaries of their tradition and yet resort to its other, the religious, in their rhythmical and figurative practices. Furthermore, while poets advocate a non-sacred language—and accordingly aspire to have ordinary, prosaic roles in society—they charge their acts of writing with extraordinarily redemptive capabilities.

The act of writing redeems liberates them from the prose and perishability of life. In and of itself, writing becomes an act of salvation to which secular poets aspire in the face of oblivion. Such aspects of this apparent secular quandary may not be peculiar only to modern poets. Reasons exist to believe it is a quandary of the secular itself. My account modestly aims to point to the possibility that something like this quandary could exist elsewhere and to advocate for the pursuit of other studies on this question.

Here my argument in the form of a narrative points only to the need for a sequel on its quandaries. My understanding of the secular that enables this argument is different from the all too common view that secularism is that which is outside religion, or even inimical to it.

It is also common to think of secularization as a sacredness-stripping force. According to this concept, the secular is not to be reduced either to a political doctrine that requires the separation of religion and politics secularism or to a sociological thesis and a particular historical process secularization , which has been crucial for creating the self-image of the modern era rational, intellectual, worldly, disenchanted, and scientific; Casanova, Rather, the secular lives in the grammar of our modern being and forms, not only beliefs theistic or otherwise , but also in conditions in which—and this is a crucial point for my argument—experiences of the oneness of human action splinters into autonomous realms.

This useful distinction marks the secular as constituting the real and is therefore irreducible to a thesis, theory, doctrine, or perspective.


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  5. As an epistemic-ontological category, the secular opens inquiry into how secular poets articulate as natural their particular need for founding the realm of poetry as an autonomous archipelago. Anthropology can be an apt home for nursing skepticism towards certitudes in modern Western reason—for example, the secular announcing its world as real and the religious world it has exiled as illusory or less than real. J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

    KF: I hope this book will be read not just by specialists and experts. The words, lives, and struggles of the poets should appeal to anyone able to hear the rhythms that arrive and vanish in the world. As for impact, I wish for this book, or rather its story, to provide impetus for generating other and more developed stories about secularism, Islam, the Arab world, and Palestine, with adequate attention more adequate than I was able to provide to the salience of language in them all.

    KF: I can think of two effects that my location as an anthropologist has had on the writing of this book. First, there were moments when it put me in trouble with poets. As an anthropologist I had neither the tools nor the predilection for appraising literary merit or using it as a criterion for inclusion or exclusion of poets in the study. Since the beginning of my fieldwork, I have not believed in the autonomy or ontological priority of the literary.

    Yet certain poets found this approach disturbing. A second effect has to do with the substance of writing. There is very little poetry in the book itself, and in fact little theory as well, in a post-Comtean, positivist sense of the word. My primary material of analysis has been stories poets related to me in conversations. As an anthropologist, I sought to limn their life-worlds from their words. Lately, I have been focusing on the formation of anthropology itself as a modern discipline.

    While Silencing the Sea investigates some ways in which the secular has formed modern Arabic poetic sensibilities, I am now studying how the secular has constituted a particular swath of reason in the modern West, in this case the anthropological.

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    These questions are some of those driving this new project. Before Dahbour evacuated during the war, his family had owned a bakery and a house that he was able to return to for the first time in the early s, after the Oslo Accords. When they lost their home in , Dahbour, his siblings, his parents, and his blind grandmother found themselves in a hut in a refugee camp near Hems, Syria; he describes the camp as not fit for human existence.

    That is where his struggle to survive and to imagine began. And he keeps returning to that place of imagination with tantalizing pangs of pain; for example, he rebukes his father in his book Here, There :. What has my father feared so that his sins committed the act of a swallow if he only were to say: slaughter my child…but did not leave who knows perhaps I would have become Ishmael or his green bird, or…nothing even nothing has a meaning and eminence in its soil.

    Deprived of electricity, family gatherings in the evenings focused on story-telling. Words, that is, sounds still came before images. His father, who eked out a living from washing the dead and reciting the Quran at their burials, asked him to read from a fading yellow book when he was in fourth grade. But he knows enough today to evoke it as a text in consonance with the academically oriented literary scene. It is also the name used by what may be the largest remaining public for poets: professional literary critics.

    His mother, able and resourceful for her family and neighbors, saved him with her stories about a magical, parallel city called Haifa. She also told him that there was no need for swings for which he could not pay, not even with bread, which substituted for money among penniless kids on the Eid. She reminded him that the Carmel Mountain in Haifa moves when children mount it. When clothes were torn and shoes split open, she asked him not to care about clothes, for in Haifa clothes were impervious to rain. There, she told him, rain fell only on plants and soil, not on humans. Her stories became the soil that nursed his ability to create, his poiesis.

    At the start of his sixties when I met him in the winter of , Dahbour was living and working in the ancient city of modern refugees, Gaza, the inferno of Palestinian existence, where military occupation meets military response, almost the only place where occupation is not normalized, as it overwhelmingly has become elsewhere in Palestine, and where the violence of Palestinian against Palestinian was then surpassing that of the occupation.

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    There he resided with his wife and children, one of them a student in the United States. He had returned to Gaza after studying in Baghdad, after living in Tunisia for some time, and after the Oslo Accords, along with many PNA functionaries. In this way Haifa has stayed with him and he with her. But it was neither in Haifa nor in Gaza where we met.