Writing as resistance: Palestinian poets on creating in wartime

Columbus-based writers Sara Abou Rashed, Mandy Shunnarah and Dalal Shalash on everything from the power of language to how they’ve approached their craft in these challenging, grief-filled times.
From left to right: Sara Abou Rashed, Mandy Shunnarah and Dalal Shalash
From left to right: Sara Abou Rashed, Mandy Shunnarah and Dalal ShalashCourtesy the writers

In recent months, Columbus poet Sara Abou Rashed has wrestled with what it means to be a Palestinian writer in wartime. There will be long stretches where Rashed gives everything that she has in putting pen to paper, intent on using her poems and essays to represent and lift up Gaza and Palestine. These outpourings will then be met by weeks where she feels helpless, believing her writing can do little to staunch the relentless violence in Gaza, which has seen more than 28,000 people killed in Israeli attacks since October. 

“So many of us are using writing for resistance,” Rashed said via Zoom in early February. “I envy people who write for pleasure and who write with luxury, because I personally have only ever written with mission. ... I feel such a responsibility toward writing, and it’s such an honorable thing that I want to do it with this mission in mind. I want it to change something of the world.”

What began as Israel’s retaliation to the surprise Hamas siege of Oct. 7 – an attack that killed around 1,200 Israelis and saw more than 240 taken hostage – has since spiraled into a humanitarian crisis, with more than 1.9 Palestinians displaced and now facing famine amid severe shortfalls in humanitarian aid.

The growing death toll in Gaza includes at least 13 Palestinian poets and writers, along with more than 85 journalists and media workers. And in the past four months, all or parts of Gaza’s 12 universities have been bombed and mostly destroyed, in addition to more than 375 schools and numerous cultural heritage sites, including museums, libraries and archives.

“The thing that Israel understands is that culture grows stronger with every generation, and so their mission is to kill it, and to get rid of it all,” said the Columbus poet and journalist Mandy Shunnarah, who is Palestinian. “That’s how you genocide a people. It’s not just murdering them. It’s erasing everything they believe in and everything they create, too.”

Like Rashed, Shunnarah has struggled to find a way forward with their own work in recent months, navigating a deep depression brought on by the assault on Gaza and exacerbated by a divorce and the reality that people Shunnarah previously considered allies haven’t turned up in support of Palestine. Shunnarah also expressed a fear for their safety, owing to an uptick in attacks against Palestinian Americans, which have manifested in the messages received by the writer via social media. “In speaking out [for Palestine], I’ve gotten death threats and had people call me everything but a Child of God in my DMs and on the internet,” Shunnarah said. 

In the weeks before he was killed in an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza, poet Refaat Alareer reposted his 2011 poem “If I Must Die” to X (formerly Twitter), his words coming to serve as a self-penned eulogy in the wake of his death. “If I must die/You must live/To tell my story,” Alareer wrote.

The poet's words have continued to echo with Palestinian writers across the globe, including here in Columbus. In a series of early February interviews, Rashed, Shunnarah and Dalal Shalash reflected on the work Palestinian writers are called to in this moment, as well as the ways the ongoing siege in Gaza has impacted their views on everything from the power of language to shape narrative to how they've chosen to approach their craft in these sorrow-filled times.

Rashed recently penned an essay for Poetry Wales unpacking the killing of Alareer and the continued resonance of the poet's death for an upcoming collection exploring the concept of human rights. “And my essay ended up [asking] what does it mean to be a Palestinian writer? And what do we expect of poetry?” Rashed said. “And I think we expect too much. But I also think we’re right to. … I’ve had moments where I wonder if I’ve done enough for Palestine, and then I wonder if enough is even attainable. And I’ve experienced emotions from rage to grief to utter hopelessness to a lot of hope.”

As a means of countering these darker headspaces, Rashed said she has more often found herself centering the light in new works, a number of which she termed love poems, her verses more lyrical, more musical and more fragmented than those written even just six months ago. “I’ve always believed poetry can change the world, and now I believe it even more,” said Rashed, who has long embraced the form as resistance, tracing it back through her bloodlines. “I’ve been told that I write with againstness, meaning I write against the occupation, against erasure, against forgetting. And I think I trace that to the contexts from which I emerge, as a Palestinian refugee in Syria. … I trace the resistance in my writing to my lineage and to the powerful women in my life who tell stories, and to my grandmother, from whom almost every poem of mine begins.”

Shalash, in contrast, has leaned away from poetry and short stories (her favored form) in recent months, centering her activist work in the newly born Palestine Liberation Movement and focusing her writing on politically targeted op-eds meant to draw attention to the larger crisis unfolding in Gaza. Writing, Shalash said, has always been a place of solace, but it has begun to take a more outward form, shaped in part by her activist work. 

“Instead of being creative and working on a poem or a short story, I find myself picking up research to write an op-ed,” said Shalash. “I was actually having a conversation about this with one of my mentors. … And he talked about how, when it comes to defining movements like what’s happening in Gaza, the best thing a person can do is implement their own individualistic talents and ideas. If a poet is writing poems about what is happening, that is how they are best helping the movement. I know dancers – I’m decently tapped into the dance department at OSU – who have put on performances honoring Gaza. So, if I thought my talents were better suited to writing poetry than they were op-eds, I think I would focus on that. However, I’m an activist and an organizer as well as a poet, and ultimately where I feel I’m best fitted now is within that political realm.”

As with others interviewed, Shalash said she has become increasingly aware of the power language has to shape larger narratives, and how the responsibility for killings can be erased by the passive voice. Such is the case when TV news reporters attribute the death of a Palestinian child by Israeli gunfire to “a stray bullet” that “finds its way into” a van and kills “a 3- or 4-year-old young lady.”

There are effectively two wars currently being waged on Gaza, Rashed said, one by Israel and a second by the media, in which Palestinian deaths are often described as circumstantial rather than the result of explicit actions. “We’re seeing even the most objective news outlets throw ethics and ethical reporting out the window when it comes to Palestinians,” said Rashed, who referenced a recent essay by Fargo Nissim Tbakhi in which Tbakhi details how writers and publications regularly make decisions regarding language, and how this language can in turn be used to shape government policy.

In recent months, Shunnarah has written several poems based on similar media-related observations, taking an increasingly political stance in response to what they described as an unfolding genocide.

“I have this passion for words, and I’m Palestinian, so I need to do something with that,” Shunnarah said. “I need to do what good I can within the limited sphere of influence I have. And I’m not naive enough to think my words can stop a genocide or bring people back. But if I can help soothe a Palestinian who’s grieving the loss of someone they love or educate a non-Palestinian person about the plight of our people, then I really want to do that.  If you can hear someone’s stories or see their art, you’re able to see their inherent humanity, which makes them harder to hate. I know the occupation likes to call Palestinians ‘animals’ … but what separates humans from animals is we have higher thinking, and we can make these connections and we can tell these stories in a way other creatures cannot. So, if making art can help convince people that Palestinians are human, then I want to dedicate my life to that task.”

All three interviewed described a similar weight to creating in this moment, sharing the challenge of navigating deep ravines of sadness that can open up and threaten to consume. “There’s a particular grief and hopelessness Palestinians are feeling, particularly in Western countries, where we’re watching our government carte blanche give weapons to the occupation with tax dollars we paid to them,” Shunnarah said.

And yet, none shied from the sense of responsibility inherent to these times, expressing a determination to carry forward in this grief and to continue to put pen to paper while holding to the promise of better days ahead.

“That beauty and that tenderness, if we lose it, it’s our loss,” Rashed said. “For me, I think this is an opportunity to find light and community and to keep thinking about a future where this has come to an end. And what does that look like? And have we sat down and considered what if we actually win in the end? What if one day there is no other war on Gaza? And what does that look like? … And then, it has to be said that I would not trade being Palestinian for anything in the world, because we are such lovely and generous and hospitable people. Even in all of this, we still find ways to live. In Gaza, some people are still getting married in tents. People are still buying flowers for each other. And there are still moments of love and intimacy and tenderness and, yes, joy.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News