Samih al-Qasim: Long Ashes of Memory

Samih al-Qasim is one of the most prominent poets from 1948 Palestine whose name is associated with revolution and resistance. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

His name is associated with the poetry of revolution and resistance. In It Is Just An Ashtray he tells his life story as a boy, an activist, and a poet. He recounts his battles under occupation, his political camaraderie with Mahmoud Darwish, and his debates with Israelis.

In It Is Just An Ashtray (Dar Raya – Haifa), Samih al-Qasim (b.1939) writes his life story with a sense of humor and sarcasm.

“It is not an autobiography, it is an attempt to restore pictures from my memory, old, black, and white pictures,” says the Palestinian poet at the beginning of his book. He then goes on to display pictures that he has picked from the album of his life story.

In his memoir as in his life, al-Qasim managed to become more than a poet. He became a public personality and man of society.

In a long monologue with himself, the poet recounts his life’s story, starting with his parents and passing by comrades and poets that he met along the way. His narrative allocates a special place for fellow Communist Mahmoud Darwish and the political camaraderie that brought them together.

It is a life that the poet has lived to the fullest and with a sense of humor too. There are stories with famous writers, artists, poets, and the generals of politics…as well as the generals of the enemy.

Such anecdotes include a lunch invitation at the home of the Algerian leader Ahmed Ben Bella in Paris, a coincidental meeting with Yitzhak Rabin at an embassy, and al-Qasim’s musings about killing David Ben Gurion in a valley.

The story is told in a first-person narrative seamlessly inlaid with wit and with the fluency of a seasoned and scathing journalist.

One section in the book is about his time in Moscow and the oddities of the Soviet era. “I was in Moscow…Arabs and Egyptians would come visit me at the hotel. Among them was [Egyptian actress] Soad Hosny. When I saw her many suitcases filled with gifts, I jokingly commented, ‘what a bourgeois artist!’ Hosny immediately shot back, paying me back twofold, ‘I’m bourgeois? Look what I got you as a gift. It’s Lenin in person!’”

Al-Qasim tells the story of being a boy and a poet battling reality in occupied Palestine and riding his literary fame to the capitals of the world.

He recounts his entry into the Israeli Communist Party and the circumstances of his exit after he was accused of “nationalist chauvinism.”

He touches on “Arab-Jewish brotherhood” even though it was not welcomed by the other side. “One day I was marching in a large protest in Haifa and I was chanting with protesters ‘Jewish-Arab Brotherhood.’ Suddenly a Jewish Israeli challenged me from across the side walk yelling ‘this will never happen. There will be no such brotherhood!’” al-Qasim says, adding, “In a flash…I told that provocative person ‘hell if I care’ and continued on my way marching enthusiastically…”

He also recounts his TV encounter with Ehud Olmert. “Olmert and I were on a Hebrew TV show about Jerusalem when he was mayor of ‘Israeli’ Jerusalem before he became prime minister. I went back in time to the city’s earliest history, to the times of the Jebusites and the Canaanites and presented conclusive evidence about the invalidity of the myth of the lost Temple. Olmert threatened to walk off the set when I proved that the Jebusites and Canaanites are of Arab origin. Were it not for the intervention of the presenter, he would not have continued the discussion as he was boiling with anger.”

Al-Qasim’s debates with Zionist politicians were not restricted to television shows. He recounts the following story that gives a sense of the public personality he was.

“It’s a given that one would admire purebred Arabian horses…When I was invited to watch an Arabian horse show at peace activist and journalist Uri Arieli’s farm, I went with my wife and children. There were many prominent Arab and Jewish figures present. Among them were Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak. Peres asked me what are the names of my children. When I mentioned the name Yasser, he made an attention-grabbing theatrical move saying ‘Welcome my friend Yasser, let’s continue our discussion.’ In deference to the host’s request, I gave a speech in Arabic and Hebrew. As soon as I was done, Barak, who was sitting next to Peres, jumped up and warmly shook my hand saying: ‘I agree with every word you said about peace and equality. If I become prime minister one day, I will surprise you with the far-reaching and comprehensive reforms…Barak later became prime minister. And he surprised you alright but in the opposite direction.”

Al-Qasim ends his memoir with a confession and a plea. “Because you don’t claim infallibility and you don’t profess perfection, you leave in the last part of this spontaneous revelation that is unaffected and unpretentious room for a final word…And there you are, preoccupied with the need to prepare for life and the need to prepare for death but you know that relief must be near as much as you know that you are from life to death and from death to life and from sand to sand and from dust to dust and from water to water and from ashes to ashes and from wheat to roses. And from everything and anything to it, to the ashtray, it’s nothing but an ashtray. It’s an ashtray. It is just an ashtray!”

Two Books of Poetry

Samih al-Qasim is one of the most prominent poets from 1948 Palestine whose name is associated with revolution and resistance. He was born in Rameh, Acre province in 1939 and studied at the schools of Rameh and Nazareth. He became politically active in the Israeli Communist Party before eventually leaving it. He worked in journalism and established the newspaper Kul al-Arab (All Arabs) in Nazareth and to this day is still its honorary editor.

He has published many books of poetry, the last of which are Obsessions with the Rituals of Grandchildren and Collage 3 that came out few days ago from The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing in cooperation with Kul-Shei’ (Everything) Library in Haifa.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Samih al-Qasim, Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine, poetry, writer, Kul al-Arab

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