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169, May 2012 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Poet Rafeef Ziadah.

Poet Rafeef Ziadah: Teaching Life to the World
By Ahmad Jamil Azem
Thanks to social media, Rafeef Ziadeh has recently gained recognition and admiration among Palestinians and solidarity activists. Her poems, broadcast on YouTube clips, have spread quickly. Renowned film directors and writers have praised her work. Ken Loach, for example, has stated, “Rafeef’s poetry demands to be heard. She is powerful, emotional, and political. Please read her work and see her perform. You cannot then be indifferent to the Palestinian cause.”

A performance of her poem, “We Teach Life, Sir” has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. She wrote the poem following the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008/2009 after a Canadian journalist asked her, “Ms. Ziadah, don’t you think that everything would be resolved if you would just stop teaching so much hatred to your children?”

I met Rafeef at one of the events of the Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) in London, where she chaired a number of committees and organised events. I realised there was so much to discuss that I asked for an interview.

On the Boat
Rafeef Ziadah comes from a family of Palestinian refugees who were put on boats to Lebanon from Haifa in 1948, and who were among the 750,000 Palestinians expelled by Zionist groups and war. After surviving the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s and the Israeli invasion of Beirut in 1982, the family started a long journey, travelling around the world as stateless Palestinians.

When I asked her about the places she has lived, after some thought she responded, “It feels like I have lived everywhere, the typical life of a stateless Palestinian: Lebanon, Tunisia, Cyprus, and Greece. I did my master’s in the United States, my PhD studies in Canada, and now I teach in London. I have stood in too many visa lines and met too many people in airport immigration cells. This is the simplest way to put it.” She added, “I insisted on going on with my studies, despite many obstacles. Currently I am finishing up a PhD in political science from York University and working as a teaching fellow at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).”

When asked about her memories of Beirut, she replied, “My memories of early years in Lebanon are mainly of shelling and shelters. I witnessed the immense strength of Palestinians during that time, and a courage that I try to carry with me through everything I do.” She continued, “The first poem I ever memorised from beginning to end is Mahmoud Darwish’s Under Siege. In reality, I feel we Palestinians have been under siege since [that war]. Not much has changed, and we keep resisting giving up our rights.”

“Balestinian Beople”
Rafeef has a special style of performing on stage, mixing Arabic with English in an engaging way. She begins her poem, “All Shades of Anger,” by saying, “Allow me to speak my Arab tongue before they occupy my language as well.”

In her most well-known poem so far, Rafeef fearlessly tells the world that she spent a sleepless night exercising the difference between P and B, a common difficulty Arabic speakers have when learning English. I asked her if she really had this problem, and if she still has it.

She laughed and responded, “Yes, when I am upset or speaking fast, I still speak about the “rights of the Balestinian beoble.” For the longest time, I confused the words tourist and terrorist as well, which is not the best for a Palestinian learning English.”

First Performance After a Threat of Rape
Rafeef began learning English in high school. She has been writing poetry for as long as she can remember, but it was a personal attack that compelled her to start performing publicly. The incident occurred when she was a student in Canada and she was part of a direct action on her campus that re-enacted an Israeli checkpoint in which she was in the role of a Palestinian.

“One of the Zionists on campus kicked me while I was on the floor and said you deserve to be raped before you have your terrorist children,” she remembers vividly. “A week later I performed my poem, Shades of Anger for the first time.”

Justice and/or Peace
I mentioned to Rafeef that I had noticed that Palestinian activists, such as poet Remi Kanazi and Free Gaza founder Huwida Arraf, also concentrate on the idea of freedom and justice rather than “peace.” Remi said explicitly after a recent poetry event that his cause is justice and freedom, and peace is a consequence.

Rafeef commented, “The problem with the language of ‘peace’ in our circumstance is that it is usually about peace without any justice for Palestinians. ‘Peace’ according to Israel means having a docile population of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who are self-managed and quiet, while Israel can continue to control the borders, the economy, and the population.”

“Justice, however, would entail the right of return of Palestinian refugees who make up the majority of Palestinians,” she explained. “It would also require that we once again see Palestinians inside Israel as a central component of our struggle for freedom. Today, youth in refugee camps, in the occupied territories, inside ‘48 Palestine, and in the diaspora have seen the true meaning of the so-called ‘Peace Process,’ how it aimed to fragment the Palestinian population into isolated ghettos. We are pushing for a redefinition of our struggle in terms of justice for all Palestinians.”

After my interview with Rafeef, I continued to ponder her recurring stanza, “We teach life.” Rafeef is indeed teaching life to the world as she manages to go through all the difficulties. This new Palestinian generation-with their visions of struggle and life-is a generation that will defend their rights and insist on teaching life to the world.

Ahmad Jamil Azem is a visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge’s faculty of Asian and Middle East studies. He can be reached at Rafeef’s website is

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