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Winter 2019

'My Identity has Nothing to Do with the Language in Which I Write'

An interview with Jaffa poet Ayat Abu Shmeiss

(3582 words)

For years, I have been

Part A and part B

One side and the other

They are far apart

But I am close to both

Boker tov, how are you?

Alhamdulilla, walla,

Everything’s all right, walla

And it is also divided between

Salam Aleikum” and “Shabbat Shalom

These opposites are in opposition

And I am too

In this entanglement from head to toe

I am pulled in opposite directions

And will be severed in the end.

 

This poem, featured in Ayat Abu Shmeiss’ new book I Am Two, is all too symbolic. She is what the poem says she is: an observant Muslim from Jaffa, who writes in Hebrew without disavowing her Palestinian identity. Gentle and unobtrusive, her writing nonetheless challenges her religious and socially conservative background.

I meet her in Jaffa, where she was born, the second of four children, to Adnan, a hotel owner, and Naima, a caregiver. She still lives near her childhood home, with her husband Ahmed and their 14-year-old son Mahmoud. We sit in her study, a cozy little room, its placid tidiness slightly perturbed by a palpable end-of-term anxiety.

“I told you I have a deadline for my final paper and I’m under a lot of pressure,” she apologizes as she invites me to take a seat. “My adviser is very supportive, so I procrastinate.”

She is about to graduate from the Open University with a BA in political science—a subject she decided to study because she has been “into current affairs” recently. She works for a hotel chain, and has no plans beyond graduation. One thing is clear, though: “I will continue to write,” she says.

Janan Bsoul: How did you start writing?

Ayat Abu Shmeiss: I was a teenager, maybe 13 or 14. I kept a small notebook, where I wrote every day about love, school, and fights with my parents. You know, things that are on an adolescent’s mind. I wrote mainly poetry, which made me feel like there were no rules, no limits, no filters. I toyed with writing short stories, but never gave them to anyone.

JB: So you’ve been writing non-stop since the age of 13?

AAS: More or less. I took a short break after I got married and then came back to it. Quite a bit of material piled up, but I did nothing with it. Seven years later, in 2008, I started to attend a poetry workshop at the municipal library. I got good feedback and found that my writing had become better, both thematically and in terms of content and style.  Yonatan [Kunda, the poetry instructor] opened new horizons for me. Both at home and at the French Christian school I attended, politics and religion were taboo. At the beginning of every year, they’d hand out a yellow sheet of paper with all the topics we weren’t allowed to discuss. Politics and religion create conflicts, they said. At home, I had no time to take any interest in any of this because I was too busy studying. At the workshop, I felt the urge to engage in politics, and asked Yonatan whether I could write about politics and identity, and he said, “of course you can!” He said writing about politics and identity is more than welcome. It’s my voice, and it should be heard. That’s when I started emphasizing these themes in my poems.

 

In the most moral way in the world

I am being criticized

And it stacks up on my back

Like a mound of sand

And I will soon disappear

But I always, every time,

shake the sand off and look again

It’s impossible

It’s not written anywhere

And nobody prepared me

 

Despite being preoccupied with politics and identity, Abu Shmeiss writes exclusively in Hebrew. She has sustained a great deal of criticism for that, from Jews and Arabs alike.

JB: Why do you write exclusively in Hebrew?

AAS: My written Arabic is not good enough, not for Facebook and certainly not for poetry. The culture I consume is all in Hebrew as well. I went to a French school, where the level of teaching in Arabic was very low. Most of the subjects—geography, math, science, etc.—were taught in French, and the others were in Hebrew. I’ve been deprived of the basic tool of the Arabic language. I could revise my written Arabic and wait until I master it fully; but there are other languages I can write in, so why censor or delay my writing? Besides, I know it sounds strange, but I feel really comfortable writing in Hebrew.

JB: What does that mean?

AAS: When I write in Hebrew I feel at home. It may sound strange, but when I started writing, as an adolescent, I wrote in Hebrew. Not just poems. In my journal I’d write in Hebrew as well. We didn’t have Whatsapp back then, but I sent notes and letters to my classmates, and they were all in Hebrew (although we communicated verbally in Arabic), and I don’t remember anyone saying anything. When I showed my writing to my high school teachers, I was never asked why it was in Hebrew and not in Arabic. It might be because I’m from Jaffa. Growing up in a mixed city, where Hebrew has become normalized and has been almost fully adopted by the Arab population, most likely had an impact. Regardless of that, when I started writing I wanted to choose a language I could use, and Hebrew was one. I didn’t really consider its other aspects and layers, I just treated it as my language, like Arabic was my language. Maybe if someone had made a remark then I would have paid attention, but nobody ever did. And then, after I published my first book, someone asked me whether writing in Hebrew wasn’t tantamount to sleeping with the enemy. That question left me speechless.

JB: Isn’t it like sleeping with the enemy?

AAS: I still think about it from time to time, even though it happened five years ago. I don’t know who’s right. That question was very unsettling, but I think there’s no point in claiming ownership over a language. Languages are a part of our identity; but if I’m comfortable writing in a certain language, why shouldn’t I? And let’s be honest, I’m not the only one. Plenty of Arab writers who live in France write in French. It’s true that the Israeli context is different, hence the indignation that my choice has sparked, but I think that it’s human to write in a language that’s not ours, even one that belongs to our enemies or those who inflicted historical injustices on us, if we are raised with it and it’s embedded in our education and day-to-day life. The same that it is with French in North Africa, for example.

I got good feedback from people and nobody said I wrote in a language that is “not mine.” A few have commented, critically, that I write in the language of the enemy, but they were just a handful.

JB: The gap between your writing in Hebrew and your Arab name does make some people uncomfortable. Can you see why?

AAS: These people squirm on purpose, they just want it to be that way. In all honesty, I’m done explaining and justifying my choice to write in Hebrew. People can pass judgement all they want. I almost never get invited to Arabic poetry readings. One time I was invited, and told them [the organizers] I’d read in Hebrew because it’s difficult for me to read in Arabic in front of an audience. The organizers called me a few hours before the event started, to  ask me to read in Arabic, so I tried to practice a bit and felt pathetic. I ended up not reading. It hurt because I do have my identity, and it has nothing to do with the language in which I write. The excessive focus on language is superficial, because it overlooks the content of my poetry and the messages I’m trying to put across. If I wrote in Arabic but never mentioned the Nakba and the occupation, would that be OK? It wouldn’t either, would it? I’m taking it on the other way around—using “their” language to tell my story and convey my positions and identity. For some time I’ve tried not to pigeonhole myself, not always successfully. It’s always easy to label and categorize people according to ethnicity, nationality, etc., but I’ve decided to try and transcend this because it distracts us from the main issues.

 

Despite all this, Abu Shmeiss has a chip on her shoulder. Her last book begins with the following passage, entitled “Traitor”:

I commit treason in the dark at night

And in broad daylight

I commit treason in hiding

And in public

Visible to whoever wants to see

I commit treason all the time

I am a traitor to both of them

A traitor to my roots

A traitor to my country of residence

A traitor to all of you

To your heart

To your eyes

An occupier and a traitor

And always defiant.

 

AAS: I wrote this poem when I was sick of justifying myself. I wanted to say that whatever I do and whatever I say, I will still be a traitor. For the Israelis, I am a traitor by virtue of being Palestinian. For the Palestinians, I’m a traitor because I write in Hebrew. And to tell you the truth? I think I really am a traitor because I’m faithful to neither side. As a child I always considered myself Israeli, even though my grandmother was from Gaza. And when she or my father spoke about it I wasn’t really interested, not until I finished high school and joined the workshop, where I suddenly became aware my Palestinian identity.

JB: Was this discovery brought about by the creative process?

AAS: You might say so. I knew all sorts of things about our history and our narrative but I never delved into it in earnest, and of course I never learned about it in school. And then when I honed my inclination to write about politics and identity, I started to go into the thick of it. It made me believe that I was 100 percent Palestinian, to the bone; but at that moment I had a revelation, and I realized that reality was indeed more complicated. I’m this and that. I am two. I am neither 100 percent Palestinian nor 100 percent Israeli. I am two halves—the problem is that these two halves never become one. They are incompatible. But I’ve made my peace with this. I write for every human being on this planet, whatever you choose to call her. Everyone harbors personal conflicts and splits, so everyone can connect to what I write, whether it’s about identity, homeland, or belonging.

JB: Your two books were published both in the Hebrew original and in an Arabic translation. Was that an attempt to fend off criticism?

AAS: No, it was just a personal choice. The publication of my first book was a dream come true, and I thought to myself that at the end of the day I’m Arab and I can’t forego my language. I do write in Hebrew, but it’s still important for me that my poetry will have an existence in Arabic because Arabic is a part of me. The translation of my first book was so painful that I vowed never to do it again, but then I found myself doing the same thing with my second book. I simply thought it would be bizarre for my poetry not to be published in Arabic.

JB: You say you feel at home in Hebrew, but you’ve recently written in a blog post: “There are some issues I feel uncomfortable writing about, for fear of how some Jews would react […] Not always can I freely criticize my society in Hebrew, because I feel some people on the other side are waiting for someone to point out our flaws, so that they could criticize us from a patronizing place.” Doesn’t that make you feel alienated from Hebrew, that Hebrew, in some ways, censors you?

AAS: In this blog post, I was referring mainly to things I write on Facebook, where I write in no uncertain terms, freely and critically. My poems, however, are more ambivalent. Censorship exists, of course. But it is not imposed by the language, rather by Jewish society. I sometimes feel uncomfortable criticizing my society in the Jews’ language, because some of them are eagerly waiting to co-opt an Arab criticizing her own society, allowing them to say, “See? Even the Arabs themselves are aware of their flaws!” But it applies to Facebook posts more than to works of literature that sometimes need to be read more than once to be understood.”

 

Abu Shmeiss is deeply involved in community work in her native Jaffa, especially with women’s empowerment causes. For several years, she has worked with young women-at-risk, and often takes to Facebook to raise awareness of local social issues, as well as to share thoughts about the inspiring women she has met.

AAS: Throughout my life I’ve written mainly for myself, and saw writing as a hobby or a tool for personal improvement. However, since my first book came out I have found out it has had an impact on people around me, and that it makes them think—and sometimes, to think differently about the world. Once, I led a writing workshop, and one of the participants said to me: “Since I met you, my whole way of thinking has changed.” She was talking about politics and identity, and was referring to the fact that she never thought about these issues, and that binary definitions had always been imposed on her. She said that it was only through my poems that she became connected to her multilayered identity, comprised of Palestinian elements but also with a certain affinity for Israel, because we live here in a “mixed” city. It was very flattering. It gave me a lot of confidence about the ability of my art to make an impact and even offer guidance.

JB: How does your engagement with the community come about? Do you lead workshops?

AAS: I led two sessions for at-risk girls in Jaffa. It wasn’t easy.

JB: Why?

AAS: Because these girls have no-one to talk to, and for them life is a constant struggle. Suddenly, they had the opportunity to express themselves and to talk to someone. Also, the things they write about are also very difficult to witness. I also had to deal with discipline quite a lot, but ultimately it was a very interesting experience. We published a small collection of their poetry, with a launch event that was very emotional. But it was also a challenging experience that opened my eyes to the fact that, although I am a private person, I have responsibility for others. It required a lot from me, I had to weigh my words very carefully. For example, I couldn’t quite let myself go and talk about being true to oneself, because these girls came from broken homes. I can’t talk to them about freedom and pursuing your dreams, because if they go home with these ideas they’ll be beaten up by their parents or brothers. One needs to empower them, but to do so very carefully.

JB: Do you craft your writing for these purposes in any way?

AAS: Most of what I write is intended to be read by women, young and old. Women are my target audience. I write about feminism, love and women’s issues.

JB: Do you consider yourself an agent of change?

AAS: I think my personal history allows me to write about these things because I don’t want Arab women, especially from Jaffa, to follow the same trajectory that I did. I married young, dropped out of school at 17, and during my first years of marriage I stayed at home and did nothing. In the beginning, I dedicated myself entirely to my partner, and then to him and my son. Today, at 34, I recognize that this was a mistake. I say this because I care: I don’t want other women to be in that place.

 

Abu Shmeiss’ life story is not dissimilar to that of other Arab women who had a conservative upbringing. She went to university many years after leaving high school, already a married woman and a mother of an adolescent.

AAS: It took me some time. I got married at 17 and did absolutely nothing for a long time after that. When my son, Mahmoud, started going to daycare, I got a job with a credit card company, and five years after that I switched to customer service at Clalit Health Services. There, it dawned on me that I must have a degree to be able to do something more meaningful.

JB: Were you married against your will?

AAS: Not at all. I grew up in a very conservative environment. I couldn’t go out by myself, travel alone, have any kind of relationship with boys. My family is very religious. I met my partner at a family banquet. We fell in love at first sight, and he came to ask for my hand in marriage. It was all very fortuitous. I felt it was an opportunity to move out of my parents’ house. It was a perfectly pleasant place to live but I felt suffocated. I thought to myself that getting married would enable me to travel, have sex in a way that religion allows, maybe even find a job, because my father had prohibited me from going to work and I didn’t want to fight him over that. Getting married seemed to open doors to doing what I wanted to do, so I got married. My husband wasn’t religious but that’s exactly what I was looking for, I didn’t want someone religious. A year later I gave birth to Mahmoud and he took over my life. It was insane, because I was barely 18 but I had the responsibilities of a 35-year-old woman. I’m sometimes taken aback by the memory of what I endured, and regret to an extent having married so young. I know many girls who marry young but I think it’s a terrible thing. When a young woman gets married, she effaces so many aspects of her own personality and self. My partner loves me a lot, but it took him some time to support what I do. He refused to let me work because he said that it’s up to the man to provide for his family. We argued a lot about this, but [because] he loves me he let me have it my way. It sounds like I’m grateful to him for letting me have a job and I was in the beginning, because his acquiescence was conditional. It could only be at certain hours: I couldn’t attend staff nights, there had to be freshly cooked food on the table every day, and the house had to be clean. He said: “You save the money you earn and if anyone asks you do not provide for our family.’ I put my head down and played by his rules for five long years. It took me a long time to find a way to be gainfully employed and creative—the person I am today—and I don’t want this to happen to other girls.

JB: How did it affect your writing? Do you feel that it dampened your creative impulses?

AAS: Not exactly, because I did continue to write. After I got married, many good things began to come out. Naturally, part of it was because I had matured, but my marriage certainly didn’t dampen my creativity; on the contrary, I felt a greater urge to write. I can’t say categorically that if I had remained single I’d have had more creative leeway. My husband has never been opposed to my writing and my activism, but married life has its limitations. When I told him that I wanted to compile my materials into something big, he said “Come on, what can you possibly do with them?” He didn’t take any interest in my writing for a long time, but that has changed. He is very supportive, but sometimes teases me: “What’s all this nonsense? What on earth are you writing?” When I’m invited to festivals and readings, he says “OK, as long as it’s Jaffa or Tel Aviv”; and when it’s somewhere else he says, “What gives? Why can’t they come to Jaffa?” So I think that this aspect of things is one thing that has been affected by my marriage.

JB: So if you were single your literary activity, rather than your writing per se, would be affected.

AAS: It would give me more room for maneuver, and would help me get the word out. How else would people know about your work? You write, that’s true. But it’s not enough to reach people. If you don’t go to readings or get people to talk about you, nobody will be aware of your writing.

JB: So what do you do for PR?

AAS: I’m quite bad at it, to be honest.

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