Rafeef Ziadah’s poem “We Teach Life, Sir,” argues Jason Lamchek, is more than “another indictment of the Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza,” but also a tale of “the campaigner’s frustrations over the delimiting ways by which these atrocious events are told to the world.”
Campaigning by various human rights organizations has produced a body of powerful works that effectively communicate the experience of violence in all corners of the world. Exploiting the same hyper-media technologies used to wage war, activists produce blogs and docu-visual narratives about distant sufferings combining literary, visual and cinematic forms (called “neo-visual” or “para-novelistic”). Humanities scholars like Debjani Ganguly have taken note of their importance, arguing that human rights campaigning has critically transformed the form and “moral purchase” of literary genres such as the contemporary novel. She notes how the graphic novel and a readership attuned to the realities of suffering elsewhere are linked to the proliferation of images of distant suffering as a result of human rights work.
One such work is a poem written and powerfully recited by Rafeef Ziadah, a campaigner for Palestinian rights, entitled “We Teach Life, Sir” which has gone viral as a videoclip on the internet. Ziadah comes from a family of Palestinian refugees who were forced to leave Haifa for Lebanon in 1948, and for many years lived a stateless existence. She is now studying for a PhD in political science at York University, Canada while working as a teaching fellow at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. The poem was written following the Israel attack on Gaza in 2008/2009 and after she was interviewed by a Canadian journalist who asked her a question that triggered in her the emotions conveyed in this poem. I have seen Ziadah’s performance four times already, and each time, its power to move me has not diminished. What is interesting about this poem is that it simultaneously comments on the graphic violence in the real world as well as the more subtle violence of the medium in which the experiences of violence are communicated. The poem is not just another indictment of the Israeli attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, but also tells of the campaigner’s frustrations over the delimiting ways by which these atrocious events are told to the world.
As a campaigner, Ziadah is well aware of the importance of Western media as vehicle to publicize the plight of Palestinians. She accepts the necessity of speaking and writing in sound-bites and within word limits, and of providing statistics and citations to UN resolutions in order to come across as credible and reasonable. But while this is a job that is performed miles away from the violence, we get a sense of its risks and hazards when Ziadah confronts the following question from a journalist. ”[H]e asked me, Ms. Ziadah, don’t you think that everything would be resolved if you would just stop teaching so much hatred to your children?” Ziadah must smile, have patience and respond in a tone and language that are out of joint with her anger and rage. The Palestinian campaigner’s job of representing the massacre of Palestinians within the allowable frames of the Western media is an unenviable one. The way that she comports herself before the journalist will affect how the massacre of which she speaks will be reported; appearing before the media, she herself must literally embody the massacre. “Today my body is a TV’d massacre“, the poem’s opening line, sums up this feeling.
If she ever mentions “apartheid” or “occupation” in her response, then they would dismiss her as a hater of Jews. She is counseled to keep her response “non-political”:
“We just want to tell people about you and your people so give us a human story./ … You have to help me as a journalist to help you tell your story which is not a political story./ … How about you give us a story of a woman in Gaza who needs medication?/ How about you?/ Do you have enough bone-broken limbs to cover the sun?/ Hand me over your dead and give me the list of their names in one thousand two hundred word limits.”
Ziadah’s poetic rendition of this encounter with the journalist distills a number of insights into the mediated relationship between the Western spectator and the massacred Palestinians. The humans in the “human stories” which the media are interested in are only human bodies, not really Palestinians, because they are abstracted from their political context and other particular qualities, including agency. The “human” is thus the woman in Gaza who needs medication, the masses with broken limbs, and the dead assembled as names in a list. The “humans” in these human stories are what Giorgio Agamben called “bare lives”; that is to say, barely breathing and almost dead, if not already dead. These are the humans with whom the spectator could (be allowed to) relate with and accord sympathy to. They might even be said to have “human rights”.
While the human rights campaigner champions the rights of all Palestinians, the journalist is only interested in the rights of helpless victims. (“How about you give us a story of a woman in Gaza who needs medication?”) Hannah Arendt once derided the concept of “human rights” as “the rights of those without rights”, that is to say, the rights of people who have no effective political community which could guarantee and realize them. The philosophical “human rights” of stateless refugees, for example, are essentially different from the rights of Englishmen. The human rights of the poor victims in which the journalist was concerned are those rights that can be charitably given in the same way used clothes or medicine are given, by those who have such things in full supply to those who lack them. If Ziadah had “enough bone-broken limbs to cover the sun”, then the media might be interested in helping her. The stories of other more fully human Palestinians, i.e., those alive and well like the campaigner Ziadah and engaged in political struggles and tasks, are to the journalist not “human stories” but “political stories”. (“…give us a human story…not a political story”) They will take longer than the 1,200-word limit to express and are thus harder for spectators to take interest in, understand and consume. The brand of “human” rights that these other Palestinians want exceeds mere sympathy and charity, these being the exorbitant demands for territorial sovereignty and self-determination.
In this poem, the campaigner is able to tell a “political story” which is also a “human story”, and it is the story of the campaigner herself, her anger and her protest. But because the campaigner could not completely disengage from the media, her sense of frustration is real. It is not only that she cannot express her personal anger and rage within the sound bites and word limits allowed her, nor is it the language and tone demanded of her by her engagement with Western media. It goes beyond her own sense of being silenced by media, to the silence of the intended audience of her campaigning, presumably national governments and international organizations. (“Is anyone out there?/ Will anyone listen?“). She is frustrated because she knows that this campaigning exercise is bound to produce, if at all, results that will hardly matter in the end. (“No sound-bite will fix this.“) In an angry line, she sounds like she has given up on speaking to the world: “And let me just tell you, there’s nothing your UN resolutions have ever done about this.” Here is a campaigner for whom UN resolutions are normally essential tools that inscribe the violations against Palestinians in the legal language of a formidable global institution, thus amplifying their calls for justice. To call them ”your UN resolutions” is to distance oneself from the tools of the campaigner, as if to give up (perhaps only momentarily) on campaigning itself. Ziadah tells us herself that she’d rather just comfort the Palestinians in refugee camps, “cover their ears so they wouldn’t have to hear the sound of bombing for the rest of their life“. In comparison to such gestures which bring comfort, campaigning against the bombing through the media seems vain.
Nevertheless, Ziadah carries on with a fake smile. “We teach life, sir,” was her calculated reply to the journalist’s prejudice-laden question. Her rage and despondency notwithstanding, Ziadah the campaigner complies with the rules of the game. She could not really “teach life” by peddling images of the dead to a media that fosters spectatorship. What it takes to promote the Palestinians’ right to live in the fullness which makes life worthy of its name, as Ziadah powerfully illustrates, are not media sound bites but poetry.Debjani Ganguly, “Hypermediated Deathworlds: New wars, the world novel and exorbitant witnessing” (seminar, October 20, 2012, Research School for Humanities and Arts, Australian National University) Ahmad Jamil Azem, “Poet Rafeef Ziadah: Teaching Life to the World”, This Week in Palestine, issue no. 169, May 2012 (online: http://www.thisweekinpalestine.com/details.php?id=3712&ed=206&edid=206) Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights”, Social Engineering no. 15 (2008):90-95. Jacques Rancierre, “Who Is the Subject of the Rights of Man?” The South Atlantic Quarterly vol. 103, no. 2 (2004): 297–310.