"No one is illegal and no one wants to die in the Mediterranean"

Bart Grugeon
Rafeef Ziadah, Palestinian poet

As a "child of the occupation" of Palestine, Ziadah has lived her whole life in exile. Born in a refugee camp in Lebanon, she grew up in Tunisia and later moved to Canada and then to the UK. Her performance poetry, inspired by Arabic traditions and contemporary urban styles, is an expression of her personal life and that of her people. The poem she performed after the bombing on Gaza in 2008 – "We teach life, Sir" – went viral within days of its release. She recently gave a recital following a round table organized by the UOC’s research group Catalan Literature, Publishing World and Society at the Alcools Festival, in Barcelona. In this interview with the UOC, Ziadah explains how her artistic work has been affected by the fate of the Palestinian people, and she connects this to migration today.


Your poetry of the spoken word has an unusual format. You perform life readings, often mixed with music, and with a strong political message. How did you develop this style?

The form that I use is a mixture that draws upon the Arabic tradition of storytelling, Arabic poetry, a bit of hip hop, and also dub poetry – a form of performance poetry of Jamaican origin. I often explain that my writing is a reflection of my life in exile, because living in exile is always very hard, but it produces interesting things.

Could you tell us something more about your life in exile?

My family are Palestinian refugees who settled in Lebanon; I'm third-generation. My grandparents were expelled from their homeland in 1948, during the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba, which took place 71 years ago. We never had passports or legal documents; after Lebanon we were just getting deported from one country to the next, so I've lived in a lot of countries. My longest periods have been spent in Tunisia, Greece, Canada, and now the UK. I only got a passport about four years ago. Before that I was completely undocumented. I couldn't travel freely, and I couldn't get funding to do my poetry either, which is why I only produced albums. I could only apply to become a real artist once I had documents.

What drives you to make your poems?

It's definitely an intense combination of various things. I feel a responsibility to tell the story of other people, of my family, who have never been able to tell their story. But it also comes from feelings of anger. There's a stereotype of the angry Arab woman, and at one point I just said that it's very legitimate that we're angry, and I decided to explain it, to own this anger, and to express it, as I did in the poem "Shades of Anger". I also have feelings of sorrow for having lost our home and being undocumented, which means being considered illegal in this world. All these feelings come together in my poems. In "Passport", for instance, I talk about the difference it made when I suddenly had a piece of paper that is supposed to define me as a human being, and how that changes life completely.

Do your poems help you to connect to your Palestinian roots and to your people living in diaspora?

Absolutely. It's a way to create community through art. I end up meeting lots of Palestinians and hearing from a lot of them. My poems are almost like a cry in a dark room, and I see the answer that comes back to me. By standing up and saying: "I exist", other people feel empowered to say the same, and we find each other that way. We wouldn't be able to survive if we weren't surviving as a collective. We need to have a collective memory, to tell the stories, to feel the loss together. It's a way of helping us survive. I think humans generally survive together. I also hear from people that aren’t necessarily Palestinians and who went through a story similar to my own. One of the poems I wrote is about working in a coffee shop with different women – refugees – from different parts of the Middle East, and we really became a family, because each of us had a story of having to leave a home behind. The Palestinian struggle in itself is a human struggle for liberation. So I always feel a connection with other people who are fighting for freedom.

Does the Palestinian community living in diaspora have a strong "online" or virtual connection?

Palestinian refugees live scattered all over the world. The first refugee camps after the Nakba in 1948 were reconstructed like the original villages in Palestine, so people created their home in a different way, but still lived almost in the same collective as they did back home. When you have about six generations that have been born into refugee camps, that camp is also a home. My refugee camp in Lebanon was destroyed, as were many others, and the members of the camp ended up in different parts of the world, from Australia to the US. Thanks to Facebook, we are finding each other again. My family had never seen a picture of my grandmother, and someone else on the other side of the world shared that picture in the group. That was really moving, but it is still a virtual connection. I like the physicality of a community, of being able to meet and have dinner together and talk to each other. As long as there are refugees being denied the right of return, it means the Nakba continues.

What do you think about the way Europe is dealing with the increasing amount of people that are trying to migrate here?

I personally think it's outrageous how it's being dealt with, and I will never understand how we recognize humans by a piece of paper. If you have the right document, you are human; if you don't have the right document, you are subhuman and you deserve to drown in the Mediterranean. As a human being, I will never understand this. I think that in, maybe, 100 years from now, people will be speaking about this current moment as we do now about slavery, and consider it unethical and wrong. But I would like the change to happen before 100 years have passed. I would like to change our perception, make people  understand that no one is illegal. We have to understand the root causes of why people leave their homes.

What are the root causes?

No one willingly wants to go and die in the Mediterranean. No one willingly wants to give up everything in their life, unless they are really forced to. People flee, not just because of war. They also flee economic situations. I think, essentially, the way capitalism functions has to do with constant wars and constant economic crises, so people are leaving because of war and they're leaving because of poverty. And until we have an economic system that's more just, we're going to be stuck in these situations where some people are considered subhuman and others are considered as being above human. That's really what it comes down to.

If you’ve lived through so many difficulties, where do you find the strength and the belief to move on?

What I find really important is to ground myself in the beauty of the small things of how people survive. It's not the big platitudes and massive books that you read, it's the strength that you get from the simple acts of people's survival. In my life, generations of women have ensured that I had a loving environment that helped me to survive whatever happened, that made me believe in my own strength, in who I am. In the refugee camps, I’ve seen many women sustaining their families, ensuring that there is food and that children go to school. This resilience and survival in its most beautiful and basic form is really inspiring and remarkable to me. Even in the hardest situations, people are still capable of loving.