A Bird is Not a Stone is thought provoking, honest and often deeply uncomfortable. This collection was written by twenty-five of the foremost Palestinian literary voices, four of them women, perhaps a reflection of gender-based disparity existing within the country. Since the Israeli occupation, which began in 1967, Palestine is a nation besieged. The erratic construction of barriers segregating the West Bank has resulted in the displacement of many Palestinians; occupation, oppression and uncertainty has led to much personal anxiety about their future. This collection voices the social, cultural and political impact of the occupation in poetry.
A Bird is Not a Stone is a true labour of love. Roughly 80 poems, painstakingly translated from Arabic into English, Scots, Scots Gaelic or Shetlandic, use the “bridge” method where each poem, first translated into English in a very literal form, is then reinterpreted by a Scots poet. Prominent literary figures such as Liz Lochead, Jackie Kay and John Glenday have reinterpreted the poems successfully into new pieces, whilst remaining faithful to their original spirit. Each poem therefore is a significant creation, both in the original language and the final translation, expanding poetic dialogue at an international level, and bringing together disparate cultures. In so doing, cultural borders are transcended, helping those of us living in the west gain a unique perspective of what life may be for those in Palestine today.
Unsurprisingly, conflict is perhaps at the heart of most of these poems. Nonetheless, the poets’ thematic concerns range widely – between notions of family, identity, religion, explorations of the past and hopes for the present and future. Some poems have a contemplative voice, whilst others such as Tareq al-Karmy’s “Not only Rivers”, express themselves boldly, as if needing to be heard urgently:
Roads die when peoples’ hopes, fears,
wishes, traffic, no longer flow through them,
unlike rivers which are not made by fishes.
Blood is a recurring symbol throughout, offered poignantly in both life-giving and life-taking contexts. Sometimes, blood is cast as the source of life, a link to family, the community and land:
Here is the poet.
He will start at the end of creation
from blood’s embrace.
(“The Poet”, Omar Shabanah)
In this poem, Shabanah appears to situate himself in the blood of his people, which in turn, becomes a manifestation of the land itself.
Blood is, of course, also seen elsewhere literally, as the product of violence and cruelty, and a bad omen:
they are utterly murderous
they are proud of their murders, they are drinkers of blood
(“Enemy”, Yousef Al-Mahmoud)
Although this anthology has been forged from the pain of Palestine’s situation, poets also explore the human capacity to adapt that in a war zone helps the stricken move forward. Sami Muhanna finds solace in the “poetry of [God’s] vision” where “love is large enough” to heal all wounds. In Al-Karmy’s “Poverty”, humour is used to leaven his frustration by saying that “[a]ll the Viagra in the world/ won’t/ make the economy/ stand up”. This anthology is attentive to all aspects of the contemporary Palestinian experience, expressing it in ways, which are both accessible and tangible.
A Bird is Not a Stone successfully gives voice to Palestinians: “Poetry flips things upside-down. It grants failure a wing and throws it into the sky”. While each poet is different and each very differently reinterpreted, they are unified by one attribute: honesty. Each poem communicates the people’s reality, be it broken or hopeful. If one of the aims of the book is to raise consciousness of the Palestinian plight amongst Scots, then undeniably that is achieved. However, this is also a powerful work which experiments with the capabilities of translation. Unquestionably too, this is no mere work of propaganda, however justified. Both in the original Arabic and in these new tongues, this is the real thing – this is poetry.