Poetry: Mohammed El-Kurd’s “Rifqa” Reviewed

15 October, 2021
Mohammed and Muna el-Kurd at their home in Sheikh Jar­rah, Jerusalem (pho­to cour­tesy Tanya Hab­jouqa for The Times Magazine).


Rifqa, poems by Mohammed el-Kurd
Hay­mar­ket Books (Sept. 2021)
ISBN: 9781642595864


India Hixon Radfar

Poet Mohammed El-Kurd often plays by pair­ing his words, thus dou­bling or halv­ing their mean­ings. He is him­self a twin. You could eas­i­ly miss it. Three short lines hold the sto­ry: “I /and my sister/ were born,” two infants born into the dichoto­my of Israel and Pales­tine on the 50th remem­brance day of the Nak­ba. “You are the orphan,” “You are the womb.” Mohammed and his sis­ter shared their nutri­ents in the womb but entered a world where one group is try­ing to take all the nutri­ents from the oth­er with­out real­ly think­ing how that will end. The Nak­ba, or Cat­a­stro­phe, is cel­e­brat­ed the day after Israel com­mem­o­rates its Inde­pen­dence Day.

There is con­flict out­side the hos­pi­tal on the day Mohammed and his sis­ter are born; the words of protest and lib­er­a­tion chants are retal­i­at­ed against in sig­nif­i­cant ways. Peo­ple die right out­side the hos­pi­tal on the day Mohammed and his sis­ter are born. “Birth lasts longer than death./ In Pales­tine death is sudden,/instant,/constant,/ hap­pens in between breaths.”

Rifqa is avail­able from Hay­mar­ket Books.

I had already formed a hypoth­e­sis about Mohammed’s dou­bling from the very first moment I saw the book’s title. Rifqa is the Ara­bic spelling of a name I have also seen translit­er­at­ed from the Hebrew as Rif­ka, or Riv­ka. I did not yet know that Rifqa is also the name of Mohammed’s grandmother.

It turns out that the Ara­bic ver­sion is a com­mon name for girls. It means kind­ness, gen­tle­ness, com­pa­ny, com­pan­ion­ship. As I get to know Mohammed’s grand­moth­er through his poems, I appre­ci­ate the choice of name. But this Rifqa also has a tough side: she is an activist fight­ing tire­less­ly for her cause, becom­ing harsh when she must in order to achieve a more last­ing and uni­ver­sal kindness.

Ara­bic words often have their twin in Hebrew, and the Hebrew def­i­n­i­tion of Riv­ka takes the mind some time to get around. Riv­ka is no longer a com­mon girl’s name in Hebrew by the way; in fact, it hasn’t been used much in the past 100 years. The name Rebec­ca is a form of Riv­ka, which has the spe­cif­ic mean­ing of  “to bind.” Rifqa el-Kurd was alive 100 years ago and sure­ly knew girls around her age who were named Rif­ka or Riv­ka. But as her grand­son was grow­ing up, he prob­a­bly did not.

Rifqa El-Kurd and her fam­i­ly had to leave their house in Haifa in 1948 on the day of the Nak­ba. And they had to keep mov­ing after that until they final­ly land­ed in what they hoped would be their per­ma­nent home in East Jerusalem. Rifqa expe­ri­enced mul­ti­ple cat­a­stro­phes in her life but also much suc­cess as an activist until her death at the amaz­ing age of 103. Her grand­son doesn’t tell us the day and year she died. In ways, he can’t believe she is gone, and he still can’t write her eulo­gy. This book is not her eulo­gy. Instead, as he tells us in his after­ward, she just always ends up in a lot of his poems. She was the ulti­mate fight­er. “Even in the face of evic­tion, mon­e­tary pun­ish­ment, tens of tri­als, and threats of impris­on­ment, she per­sist­ed. ‘I will only agree to leave Sheikh Jar­rah to go back to my Haifa house that I was forced to flee in 1948,’ she famous­ly said, demand­ing her right of return.”

In the poem “Por­trait of My Nose,” El-Kurd writes “My grandmother’s is beau­ti­ful, mine is/ one nose away from beau­ty.” The book is Mohammed’s trib­ute to Rifqa. There is deep love between grand­moth­er and grand­son. He is on her path. She is in his poems even while he is study­ing in Amer­i­ca. Some­times he wants to hide his thoughts from her when he is not proud of them. In Amer­i­ca, Mohammed’s fam­i­ly is acute­ly absent to him. So is the anger and dri­ve Rifqa taught him to chan­nel into activism ever since he was a child.

Even in the face of evic­tion, mon­e­tary pun­ish­ment, tens of tri­als, and threats of impris­on­ment, she per­sist­ed. ‘I will only agree to leave Sheikh Jar­rah to go back to my Haifa house that I was forced to flee in 1948,’ she famous­ly said, demand­ing her right of return.

Mohammed shows us how he becomes despon­dent when he is away from the fight. “Despair with­out peo­ple tastes dif­fer­ent than col­lec­tive despair.” He does not make it home to Pales­tine in time to see his grand­moth­er before she dies. Rifqa is gone, yet anoth­er rift in Mohammed’s life.

Mohammed’s grand­moth­er and inspi­ra­tion, Rifqa al-Kurd (pho­to cour­tesy Amany Khalifa).

100 years ago, when Mohammed’s grand­moth­er was at the begin­ning of her life, the Hebrew name Rif­ka would have made more sense to use for an Israeli girl with a Jew­ish back­ground. The Lev­ant was bound togeth­er then, it was coher­ing, peo­ple coex­ist­ed. Maybe we have almost for­got­ten this oth­er mean­ing of the word ‘to bind’: that we can also bind kind­ly, com­pan­ion­ably. Now the peo­ple of the Lev­ant have most­ly lost their bond. At the very least, there is a gigan­tic rift, and the mean­ing of a name flips to its twin, becom­ing ‘to hold and restrict by force.’ Who would name their daugh­ter after a polit­i­cal and moral bind? Who would name her with a word that also means ‘to wrap around with some­thing’, ‘to enclose or cov­er’ as a cap­tor might? 

Mohammed tells us that he was 12 when he start­ed writ­ing his first “typo-rid­den” poems, as he calls them. His moth­er is a poet who was get­ting pub­lished as well as cen­sured in Israel’s lit­er­ary jour­nals at the time. But there is anoth­er impor­tant event that hap­pened in Mohammed’s life when he was 12.  This is the one that I think pushed him towards the halv­ing and dou­bling of his words. I am speak­ing of the 2009 con­fis­ca­tion of half of the El-Kurd home in Sheikh Jar­rah, East Jerusalem by some set­tlers. Mohammed’s grand­moth­er tried every­thing she could in the courts to get the set­tlers out, to get their house back, but they still lost half of it and end­ed up hav­ing to live with the set­tlers, actu­al­ly shar­ing half of their home, the lives of the two fam­i­lies “sep­a­rat­ed only by dry­wall.” The El-Kurd fam­i­ly became inter­na­tion­al­ly known for this and Rifqa used the fame of her home as an inter­na­tion­al plat­form for her work as an activist. Mohammed’s life had been changed irrev­o­ca­bly from that moment on. 

Often what is most dis­ori­ent­ing in life is most beau­ti­fuI in poet­ry. Some­times El-Kurd’s twin­ning dou­bles, as in “toma­toes and cucum­ber,” the per­fect com­bi­na­tion, but some­times it halves: “Tear gas and tea” — words that are uncom­fort­able to hear togeth­er, words that tear at each oth­er. I per­son­al­ly find as an Amer­i­can read­er that the poems in Part One emote a sur­pris­ing beau­ty. Lat­er, Mohammed wants to dis­own these poems, but I am extreme­ly glad he includes them here. They are not his typo-rid­den poems of twelve, but six­teen or sev­en­teen, and he is already approach­ing mas­ter­ful in them. Too timid, he cri­tiques them lat­er: “Eng­lish calls sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty tacky.”

There are four parts to the book that pro­ceed chrono­log­i­cal­ly. Some­where along that chronol­o­gy, prob­a­bly in col­lege in Atlanta and def­i­nite­ly in grad­u­ate school for poet­ry in Brook­lyn, he feels he knows more about poet­ry than he did when he was sev­en­teen. But what do we ever real­ly know about writ­ing a poem? At what age do we learn it? Where? Who teach­es us? Start­ing his book with his ear­ly poems is a brave and good place to begin.

Mohammed El-Kurd is an inter­na­tion­al­ly-tour­ing poet and writer from Jerusalem, Pales­tine. His work has been fea­tured in The Guardian, This Week In Pales­tine, Al-Jazeera Eng­lish, The Nation, and the forth­com­ing Vac­u­um­ing Away Fire anthol­o­gy, among oth­ers. Mohammed grad­u­at­ed from the Savan­nah Col­lege of Art and Design with a B.F.A. in Writ­ing, where he cre­at­ed Rad­i­cal Blan­kets, an award-win­ning mul­ti­me­dia poet­ry mag­a­zine. He is cur­rent­ly pur­su­ing an M.F.A. in Poet­ry from Brook­lyn Col­lege. His poet­ry-oud album, Bel­ly­danc­ing On Wounds, was released in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pales­tin­ian musi­cal artist Claris­sa Bitar. Apart from poet­ry and writ­ing, el-Kurd is a visu­al artist, print­mak­er, and most recent­ly, co-design­er of a fash­ion col­lec­tion with Ser­bian design­er Tina Gancev. Mohammed has spent his under­grad­u­ate week­ends per­form­ing poet­ry at cam­pus­es and cul­tur­al cen­ters across the Unit­ed States and hopes to con­tin­ue in the post-COVID-19 era.

It is true that lat­er his poems become more com­plex. He takes on new forms, tries new things. “I’m bored with the metaphors,” he states in the first poem of Part Two, weary of the words he used in Part One. Of course he is. Of course his poet­ry will have to change in America.

By Part Three he has stopped writ­ing exclu­sive­ly about home. By Part Four he finds him­self apol­o­giz­ing for the lib­er­ties he is tak­ing with his syn­tax to those back home: “My apolo­gies for my invert­ed syntax/ I am reluc­tant to say what I write about.” He is start­ing to hide in his poems, as so many Amer­i­can poets do. Is this what an Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion has taught him?

After quot­ing Nic­ki Minaj at the begin­ning of a poem about his time in Atlanta, he writes, “Female rap is the high­est form of poet­ry.” In New York he says, “I have nev­er once felt free any­where,” “Bike through Brooklyn:/ Jew­ish neighborhoods/ Radio Israel.”

He sees his grand­moth­er again for the last time before she dies, but her mind is already more poet­ic than lucid. She may not be sure who he is, but when he tells her that he is study­ing in Amer­i­ca, she says “Why Amer­i­ca? Be care­ful! Tell them,/ Amer­i­ca is the reason.”

By the end of Part Four, in a poem called “Bush,” El-Kurd writes “Shoe to the head./ I’ve nev­er felt pride/like this.” In a poem enti­tled “Why Do You Speak of the Nak­ba At the Par­ty?(after Rashid Hus­sein)”, the last line sim­ply reads “Oh,/I for­got to tell you, I spoke of the mas­sacre at the par­ty.” His humor is back. “If we don’t laugh, we cry,” Rifqa often said. Lat­er on in that same poem called “Bush,” he says of an Iraq war vet­er­an he meets, “They think they’re the only ones/ with PTSD.” Then, of him­self and his peo­ple, he dec­i­mates us by writ­ing “we live like walk­ing debris.”

At 24, Mohammed El-Kurd is already a poet of note. He is also a visu­al artist, and an activist like Rifqa. He has syn­the­sized and over­come his Amer­i­can edu­ca­tion in poet­ry. He no longer feels like he has to hide in his words.