On January 26, I attended an event hosted called “Let It Be a Tale” by members of the UBC Okanagan community and the Faculty for Palestine. During the event, the Palestinian poem “Mawtini,” written by the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Tuqan during the British occupation of Palestine was shared, while smiles on faces appeared around the room. This is not the official national anthem of Palestine, but some people regard it as such. Additionally, we listened to an individual who read a poem in Arabic, and witnessed other students amplify the voices of Palestinian poets by reciting poems they found taped to the wall around us. Together, we heard stories of family members who are currently in Jerusalem, and heard students talk about how beautiful Palestine was and still is.
Throughout the event, Palestinian students and students in solidarity with them read out poetry by Palestinian poets. Words echoed in the lecture hall in which we gathered, and it was evident that these students felt relieved and happy to be with community and happy to express words without having to justify their identities and experiences with statistics, and having to define words like “genocide,” and being historians.
Earlier that day, a group of concerned students hosted a silent protest on campus in the courtyard. I knew I was in the right place when I saw a student wearing a keffiyeh as well as a student holding a large Palestinian flag. The flag was big and towered over us, but all I could think was that she was holding that flag like it was second nature. To most students fighting for Palestinian rights and for Palestinian students themselves, this has in fact been second nature to them.
The poetry event that occurred later that day was an illustration of Palestinian joy and was a moment — for me at least — that allowed me to get an idea of what Palestinian culture and heritage really are in a more personal way, directly from the lived experiences of other students.
At the start of the event, I noticed a table at the front of the lecture hall, with “@UBCDivest” on it. It had paper and a prewritten script taped to the table, which was for letter writing for the President of UBC, as well as a computer with a webpage open to UBC Divest’s email campaign, which, at the time of writing, currently has 1212 letters sent, both asking the university to divest from several companies that are funding the illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.
A student named Haneen, who was one of the organizers for the event, had invited me to cover the event as a press member from The Phoenix team, although I was already originally going to attend anyway. I sent him a list of interview questions via text.
I asked him what being Palestinian means to him. He said this:
“As a Palestinian myself: Palestine and being Palestinian means everything to me. It is the unshakeable core of my identity and the origin of every part of who I am, every positive aspect of who I am comes from Palestine. And no matter how far I am from the land, I am always going to be an extension of it. I find myself deeply rooted in our land and deeply invested in our people because of how beautiful our people are and our cause is and how just it is and how important liberation is.”
I also asked him why he decided to host an event like this, and he told me:
“As part of the organizing team for the event, it was really important for us to host an event like this in order to honor the Palestinian voices. I think the world often depicts Palestinians as perpetual victims and neglects to honor the fact that we have some amazing intellectuals — that we contribute to the world, and to academia, and writing in many different ways. Like I think taking a moment to appreciate what Palestinians create is really really important in a world where everyone just focuses on what is destroyed.”
I also asked Haneen about the importance of holding spaces like these for Palestinians to engage in narrative therapy, and he responded by saying:
“I think we don’t often hold spaces for Palestinian voices, even on the news when we hear people talk about what is happening . . . we don’t often hear them from Palestinians, we don’t often see Palestinians interviewed, and if they are, they are interrogated as opposed to given a chance to speak. Palestinian voices — even when talking about the topic of Palestine — are suppressed by the world, mainstream media, and all these other systemic institutions that degrade us and minimize our voices.”
The poetry event was inspired by Refaat Alareer’s poem “If I Must Die,” which goes like this:
“IF I MUST DIE”
BY REFAAT ALAREER
If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze—
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself—
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up above
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale
Alareer’s poem was printed on little white kites we were instructed to attach ribbon tails to. The story of the poem itself is a devastating one, and I encourage readers to read the story behind it.
I interviewed various people at the event, but one individual particularly stuck out to me. A student named Ashley, in the field of Social Work, read her friend Mustafa’s poem with a strong, clear voice in order to center Palestinian voices no matter where they are in the world. Regarding why she read Mustafa’s poem, she said this:
“I knew how much Palestine means to my friend Mustafa, and I knew how much the event meant to all Palestinians, whether they were present or not. I figured there would be no way to pay greater respect to the purpose and the intention of that event than to ask Mustafa if he would like to present his poetry, and he was so happy that I had asked. He was surprised that I had even asked. Can you believe it? He just was like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you thought to ask me.’ And I’m like, ‘This is the world we live in, you know?’ We live in a world where Palestinians feel they are not Palestinian enough, if they haven’t experienced displacement or feared death on a daily, they feel they are not valid or worthy of having their words heard by others. So that’s why I reached out to him because I knew he uses poetry as a form of narrative therapy.”
This conversation led us into a deeper discussion about poetry as narrative therapy. Ashley commented on narrative therapy further by telling me:
“There's a lot to be said from narratives. Like, poetry, is a form of narrative therapy, and narrative therapy is a very important way of coming to terms with trauma. It’s very important work in order to decolonize your experiences because everything that you think about is — even very much without your conscious knowledge — based in a subconscious colonial narrative. So narrative therapy, I would say, and I would argue, is one of the most prominent forms of decolonial approaches to westernized therapy.”
She also commented on why she thought the event was important by stating:
“The poetry event was important in that sense because it was like an act of decolonizing. And that's so powerful, and so many people came together, and so many people were willing to listen and, like, even if you just came and . . . that’s all you took from it, being there, that’s still an act of resistance. So what I see as what represents Palestine and Palestinians today is that living is resistance, breathing and telling your story, and having other people listen to your words, is an act of resistance. That resistance fuels and propels future Palestinians forward.”
As an individual trying to find ways to be in solidarity with Palestinians, and to show my denouncement of the genocide being committed against them by the Israeli government, I often get caught up in the survival and the resistance of Palestinians. However, after this event happened I found more representations of Palestinians everywhere on social media. I found myself searching for more Arabic food, and came across recipes that are often consumed in the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon) since we ate a food called Manakish, which is flatbread topped with a za’atar spice blend and olive oil, at the event.
I also asked Haneen what he wants people to know about Palestinians, and he said:
“I mean, Palestinians are actually a very educated demographic despite the challenges they face, and I think that piece of information is something that not most people know for example despite the fact that the Westbank is under military occupation and the fact that Gaza is — and has been under siege and blockade and has been an open-air prison for the last 16 years — the literacy rate in both Gaza and the Westbank is really high, it’s some of the highest literacy rates in the world. And you’d be surprised when you hear that you know? You’d think that a people occupied, brutalized and attacked would not have such a focus on education, but we do. I believe the last statistic was that 97.7 per cent of the Palestinians in occupied Palestine are literate and that the majority of those who are illiterate are the elderly. So we value writing, and words, and education, and knowledge as part of a cornerstone of our culture and of our society and highlighting just a sliver of that by reading these poems is really important to me personally.”
“I think people have a very misconstrued idea of what Palestine is and what Palestine represents and who we are and what we have been,” he added. “It's through things like writing and art that we can amplify our ideas of who we are more clearly and more eloquently in ways that hopefully the world will listen to. So I hope this event inspires the people who attended it to take the time to listen to Palestinian voices more actively and more attentively.”
To me, this is a great commentary on narrative therapy, without actually stating it. If I had to define narrative therapy I would say that narrative therapy is a way of therapizing through storytelling, which can be in the form of poetry and oral traditions like spoken word or just oral traditions in general. This event engaged with my own definition of narrative therapy to the furthest extent.
For example, Haneen read a poem by Rafeef Ziadah called “If My Words,” in which she states:
“If my words can stop this
I would scream back this Gasoline
Taste in my throat for four weeks now
I would write my spine disfigured
Like maps of Palestine and stand tall
At the top of my lungs scream
Make them stop, make them stop
Please, someone, make them stop”
We also listened to an individual who read a poem in Arabic, and witnessed other students amplify the voices of Palestinian poets by reciting poems they found taped to the wall around us.
Narrative therapy is about speaking the truth, decolonizing, and bringing community together through words — and I think this event just did just that.
When I asked what Haneen wanted people to know Palestinian art and poetry, he told me:
“When it comes to Palestinian art and poetry in general, I would love people to know more about our histories of it and our contributions to the world. Not just during bombardments. We have art forms, and oral traditions, and poetry that date back centuries and are incredibly beautiful. For example, our traditional Tatreez [embroidery]. I think I would really appreciate it if people began to understand that we are people of a culture and of history. And culture and history are embedded strongly with art, and poetry, and writing, and words.”
Haneen gave me an excellent example of a specific artistic tradition that comes from Palestinian culture:
“. . . I noticed during Christmas time here [in Kelowna] a lot of people wearing Christmas clothes, Christmas decorations, and all those kinds of things, and there's this specific pattern of design I see quite frequently,” he said. “It's plastered almost everywhere — and a lot of people probably think it's a star, or a snowflake, or maybe they never put consideration into what that design is. But it's actually a Palestinian Tatreez or embroidery motif that dates back centuries. That specific motif represents the Bethlehem star, and so during the festive season I walk around and see people wearing this design, a symbol of history in [the] Palestinian Tatreez that dates back centuries and centuries, and it occurs to me that none of these people understand what they are wearing. That they don’t understand the connection between Palestine, and Christianity, and Judaism, and Islam and every other major thing that [has] occurred in the world. Our history is deep, and our culture is deep.”
Lastly, I wanted to know why other students felt this event was important. I walked around the event and met a student named Soha and an individual named Nishat. I asked them what they learned and why they thought this event was important. Soha — also a speaker at this event — told me this:
“This event was very important to me, and it was something I was glad to be able to help with, even in the smallest ways possible. I think that sometimes the identity of Palestine is so deeply entrenched with the political and with suffering that we forget that there are people, with dreams, hopes, and who dream of beauty just like us. That’s why this event is so important and why I wanted to come! Also, as an English major, it’s been disappointing to see academia’s silence at the erasure of universities situated in Gaza and wider Palestine, and not considering Palestinian literature and poetry as important, which is why I think this was a great and important event to have on campus, to commemorate that and act as an archive.”
Regarding how this event spoke to students, Nishat told me this event reminded her of poetry’s unique power to evoke core human emotions and inspire imagination. She also commented further by stating:
“The experience of hearing poetry in Arabic, accompanied by translations, was deeply moving. This has reignited my interest in poetry and its ability to transcend language barriers. The power of storytelling at this event was transformative. It inspired me to create symbols of hope, like white kites, especially during bleak times. These acts symbolize a resurgence of love and hope above the surrounding gloom.”
“Moving forward, this event has encouraged me to be loud and very vocal for my support for Palestine, to engage in tough conversations, and make sure everyone knows that there is no liberation for any of us without Palestinian liberation,” she affirmed.
Overall, at “Let It Be a Tale,” I learned that narrative therapy is a key factor for survival when it comes to marginalized communities — whether it’s the queer community or a racialized community. This event has demonstrated to me the vast talents of Palestinians did not just originate from moments of survival under occupation. It also taught me that words are not just words, they are revolutionary, and they hold power that we can use to change the narrative written about Palestinians by North America, the Israeli government, and occupational forces.
I encourage other students to stand in solidarity by using your words in this very way. If you engage in poetry, art, or any kind of art, you should strive for the same kind of solidarity as well.