There is a Zuni story, translated and transcribed by Dennis Tedlock (Finding the Center, University of Nebraska, 1972), of a ritual Yaaya dance that went awry. The Yaaya is led by dancers who impersonate Shumeekuli--spirit beings--of different colors. In this story, the dancer who impersonates the white Shumeekuli goes crazy--he runs away from the dance, and is only found three days later. When finally located, he is more spirit than human: “the mask/ was stuck/ to his face. / He was changing over.” The story then tells us that whenever someone impersonates the white Shumeekuli, “something will inevitably happen to his mind” as the spirit world contaminates the human world. It is for this reason that he came to be feared.
The speaker of Sami Shalom Chetrit’s poem, a letter to the adored Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish who died in 2008, comes to us as a kind of Jewish white Shumeekuli, one who narrates to us the experience of the mask sticking, the suffering of the constricted space between identity and personhood. One wants to feel the blank stare of personhood in Chetrit’s poem, even as one’s identity eclipses the person: Jew, Mizrahi, Levantine, Palestinian, Jew again: At moments the poem permits a kind of oceanic experience that permeates and effaces the distinction between Jew and Palestinian, between Chetrit and Darwish; at moments the poem looks out, but then, closes itself in the looking back, as history, identity, separation, creation, take back their space, adhere to a body that can no longer open itself to the world as itself.
Identity reels through “A Mural With No Wall,” as boundaries shift, and as the speaker grapples with oppositions: King David rides into Israel from Poland, turning the Mizrahim and the Arabs into the eyes of Goliath, as Goliath, now reversed, becomes a defender of his homeland, “busy with prayers and storytelling, baking bread and cracking olives,/ And other time-consuming, mind-sweetening, Arab activities of the heart.” But this dynamic in turn reverses itself as Jew settles into Jew, and defines the identity once and for all, of the Palestinian: “You are bound because I am unfettered. / Write it down. / Your shackles are my wings,” writes Chetrit, alluding to Darwish’s perhaps most famous poem, “Identity Card.”
“Write down! / I am an Arab / I have a name without a title” writes Darwish. A name without a title: like a mural without a wall one might say, one might have said, if a literal wall did not already usurp the metaphor. Yet perhaps "A Mural With No Wall" is a domain where the literal and the metaphorical trade places, and where their impossibility of co-existing is the narrative the poem suffers.
"A Mural With No Wall" comes from Sami Shalom Chetrit's recently published Jews (Cervena Brava), a selection of Chetrit's work translated from Hebrew into English.
A Mural With No Wall
A Qasida for Mahmoud Darwish1
It’s been a while that I’ve wanted to write to you, not about you,
And even now I don’t know where to start, from where
I can take words to face your eternal words, and I am in transit
Through the verse-houses of your poems, homeland of the words, folded into slim volume-cities
Of poetry which – I’ll be frank with you – fill me with envy recently;
Not that of a poet but of an exile: it is so yours, so fully yours,
I have no such homeland, neither in writing nor on earth
But do not pity me – that’s not it. When it comes down to it, I am the murderer
And a thousand petitions against the occupation won’t help me, I am the soldier
Who kills three pigeons again and again with a single shot
And it is a matter of habit –
It was me who shot the forsaken horse, alone beside the house that became my new home
And I who sealed its windows well against the keening of the yearning mourners
And I who sealed the well with armored concrete
That I should not see nor hear life from within the water
And what do I need an Arab horse or eternal Sabra cactus for?
You will find not even one Sabra cactus to soothe your soul in the sand dunes of Isdud2
Where we built a city for people who have never heard your name
Your name rubbed out in Moroccan and in Russian and in Ashdodian3 Hebrew,
To tell you the truth, Andalusia or not,
That’s how we do Andalusia in Ashdod, among the Jews,
And now they celebrate fifty years for it in a brand-new museum by the sea, exactly at the spot where
Nabi Younes, a fishing village, used to stand; and the exhibition holds
Not even one shred of lonely Arab horses and no Sabras
And children are taught the ancient history of the city
The Philistine, not the Palestinian, because museums are not about politics.
I read your poems as indictments and plea guilty to every single charge,
Each time anew, and my thousands of protests will not help here, against the elders of Zionism,
Nor the youngest, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, white and black – I am one of them
Because I am not one of you, that is the miserable bottom line;
I – who steals in and out of your thresholds as if it were my own –
Sipping from the Arab coffee,
Kicking at the jug and shouting ‘dirty Arab!’
Smashing each and every mirror so that I will not see in them
The face of my grandfather, puzzling back at me, in Arabic.
What do you mean Arabic? I am a Hebrew poet!
I am a jailor-poet, do not believe a word I say,
I am the jailor of myself and of my words
Whose wings are clipped, and of my sleep that wanders,
With no exact address to rest within,
And you were so right – the homeland is not a suitcase;
And you were so right – the homeland is a suitcase,
As the Jews can explain at the airport, you there!
What are you flying with the whole homeland in your suspicious suitcase?
That’s the most basic irresponsibility, step aside please, I
The security screener dressed up as a Middle Eastern intellectual
Desperately seeking his homeland inside an Arab suitcase,
And me, all the words of love and agony that I have written and that I have yet to write and also all those
That beat against my temples, that I will never write,
Even they will never be salvation for me and for you
As in my life I embody your death,
You are suffocated because I breathe,
You are hungry because I eat,
You are bound because I am unfettered,
Write it down,
Your shackles are my wings
And how am I to write you words of peace, of coexistence, ya’ani ta’ayush4,
Even if I buy myself a suitcase just like yours and travel far away from here,
And I have traveled so, so far away from here, and it does not go away, this thing,
As an Arab intellectual once told me with a madman’s bluntness:
“How can you insist on being with the Jews?”
I laughed at him, what do you mean, how? I am a Jew, I do not know how to be something else,
What insolence! I am a Jew, not a Zionist but a Jew, I have been a Jew since the dawn of the Mugrabi man,
And perhaps I did not really understand until my son grew up and became a lad who reads for himself and hears things on his own...
And one day, when I told him sadly how far he is going from us, from the Jews, he shook me off politely:
“What do you want from me? You said get up, we have to go to America to run away from the Hebron Jew,
But you can’t, because there are no other Jews in the
world... you are running away from yourself, Dad.”
And I sat and wept bitterly; I so envy his freedom,
I so would like to take leave of my knowledge, my mind, my consciousness...
And so, dear Arab poet, I write to you in Hebrew,
And so, painter of eternal words, I paint for you in Jewish,
A mural I have no wall for, nor will I ever,
As I have come to detest your land and my land has always cast me out,
And I live in exile on motes of air, not here nor there,
Closing my eyes, touching, not touching...
How you fall asleep and the Jew inside me creeps up with words
To make you feel guilty, to wheedle compassion out of you,
And Ecclesiastes and all of his vanity of vanities will not help you here,
Nor will the Song of Songs nor the poetry of poetries,
Even the Messiah himself will not save you from me and me from you,
Because I have killed him this morning,
I rise every day to kill him anew,
To put off the end of everything,
For on this day atonement shall be made for you...
For on this day he shall rise above the fear of heights and depths
And he will come a-running to me on the waves of the roiling bog,
On this day the worlds will be upturned and then I will stand
Before my grandfather and my son and look them in the eye and say Enough!
The tapestry of my life is Jewish lies in Arabic embroidery,
And it is not that I took your life and made it mine,
But rather your life was once your life until King David came from Poland
And knocked us both down with just one sling shot,
As if we were the eyes of that same Goliath,
A single Polish shot did us both in,
As we were busy with prayers and storytelling, baking bread and cracking olives,
And other time-consuming, mind-sweetening, Arab activities of the heart,
But the King desired me and raised me up
To life, like Elisha, with a single vodka-filled blow, and sent me upon you,
Sent me free and cried: The Arab is dead! The Arab is dead! Long live the new Jew!
Write it down,
I was born Jewish out of your death, the death of the Arab in me,
And then we danced a bracing Hora and the Polack waives my grandfather’s beard
And points at my dark skin and sings: Here is where I came from, this is where I hail from,
this is my home!
And I was filled with new Jewish pride and sharp wolves’ teeth and you – rooh min houn!5
You refused to remove yourself from my eyes, watching to the Western horizon...
You became my enemy, who peeks anew at me from the mirror every morning,
And I spit and curse and kill you and kill you again,
To rebirth myself a renovated Jew,
And do not mistake me, I am not here to replace you,
I am not an Orientalist, I am Orienatal, ya’ani a Mizrahi Jew,
There is no atonement or redemption for me, not in this lifetime,
Perhaps on the day that your three companions overcome their fear of heights,
Lo’, those inquirers into the secret of life –
Gilgamesh, Solomon, and Yeshua6 (Jesus, King of the Jews) –
And descend from the top branches of the tree of life down to the land of the end of all,
On that day, which will nevermore come,
I will tear the mask off my face,
Benevolent of countenance and soul,
And be who I am,
Whoever I am I will be,
A Jew with no Jews,
An Arab with no Arabs,
A suitcase with no homeland,
A homeland with no suitcase,
A painter with no words,
A poet with no paint,
A wall with no mural,
A mural with no wall.
-translated by Dena Shunra
1. Mahmud Darwish is the most renowned Palestinian national poet.
2. The Palestinian village of Isdud was occupied and destroyed by Israel in 1948. The residents were made refugees.
3. The Israeli city of Ashdod was founded approximately at the site of the demolished village Isdud. Immigrants flown in from Morocco (1950s-1960s), and from Russia (1970s-1990s) were settled there. It became renowned for being a developing town, although it’s the fifth biggest city in Israel.
4. Ya’ani is Arabic for “in other words”. Ta’ayus is Arabic for coexistence.
5. Rooh min houn is an Arabic phrase known to most Israelis. It “go away from here”, and it’s used broadly by soldiers toward Palestinians.
6. Yeshua is one of the Hebrew forms for the name Jesus. Many Jews refuse even to mention this form.
Photo: An excerpt from Mahmoud Darwish's poem "Mural" printed bilingually in Arabic with Hebrew translation, in Neve Shalom Cemetery.
Sami Shalom Chetrit is a poet, scholar and filmmaker. His recent poetry book Jews was published by Cervena Brava, Boston in 2014. his Recent documentary film Shattered Rhymes - the life and poetry of Erez Bitton came out in 2014. Chetrit is a professor of Hebrew and Middle Eastern studies at Queens College, CUNY.