Perhaps it’s every poet’s secret fantasy to have a minor riot break out at their reading, demonstrating once and for all how poetry makes things happen – how poetry matters in the gritty world, not just in the closed, air-conditioned reading room, hermetically sealed from outside forces.
My first week back in Israel/Palestine after fifteen years in the Bay Area and Toronto included a bike accident, an apocalyptic dust storm, intensely sweet purple-red tomatoes, a poetry riot. A week between countries in a dream-like delirium, and the poetry-reading riot in the middle of it, which I keep coming back to especially in relation to recent American discussions about literary activism, such as Amy King’s panel and critiques such as this. The distinction between “literary activism” and “activism activism” got especially muddled for me this week when poets and activists blurred together, switched identities.
Many of the responses and counter-responses to Amy King’s panel were premised on the idea that activism is the right thing to do (“marches, counter marches, clinic defenses, and on the ground actions” in King’s words) that a supportive community is good, that we are singing the right battle cry. But the poetry riot I witnessed in Tel-Aviv made me consider how hard it is to have certainty about our poetry activism; perhaps we sometimes sing the battle cry out of tune, despite our good intentions?
But I am jumping ahead of myself. I want to give some background to the poetry riot without drawing any absolute conclusions or prescriptions, in an attempt to enlarge the conversation, to listen beyond “certain protections” that allow one to be heard, as King says, “simply for being perceived as white, male, heterosexual, able, American.” Here’s a view from overseas, from a decidedly un-American landscape, in kissing distance of Egypt and Syria, ISIS and the afterglow of the Arab Spring, a tiny place that the poet Roy Chicky Arad imagines in a poem as an aircraft carrier, an unmoored ship carrying 101 canons, 101 Mirage planes, and 101 nuclear missile heads, an unsinkable floating fortress which is itself irrevocably implicated in a morass of American political and capitalist interests; a location that is hyper-complicit with racist structures, a view from the provinces of Empire.
An uncanny border runs through the city of Tel Aviv: in the south, in the neighborhoods surrounding the new(ish) Central Bus Station – a behemoth of a planning disaster – the streets and houses are dilapidated and mostly shade less, flooded with refugees from Sudan and Eritrea (124 hours drive from here, according to google maps) who cluster in the parks and crowded small apartments, or sit at the plastic tables outside corner kiosks, drinking beer or smoking on water-pipes. Also there are small corner synagogues, Turkish and Georgian bakeries, activists biking around in asymmetrical haircuts, art openings on Thursdays (beautiful close-up color photographs of cow intestines that look like flowers) and trans Arab prostitutes walking in between graffitied industrial buildings, approaching the slowing cars. Further south is Jaffa, an Arab city on the coast of the Mediterranean, much damaged in the war of ’48, overrun with Jewish development projects and gentrification. The masses of refugees in South Tel-Aviv are a planning disaster; a symptom of government and municipal policies that are hostile to refugees and mostly indifferent to the struggles of the local residents.
The North, only a few kilometres away, is a first world country with all the amenities, giant glassy malls (H & M!) and upscale food markets, bursting with exotic seafood and artisanal bread, air-conditioned buses with the newest automated fare dispensers, private hospitals, well marked bike lanes, boasting a majority of Ashkenazi Jews. It’s no wonder that these terrible gaps incite rage, especially the rage of the old-time residents of the neighborhoods, primarily Jews from Arab countries and from former Soviet Republics who were settled here by the state starting in the fifties.
Book launches and other high-culture events generally happen at venues uptown, near the concert halls and movie theatres, the offices of the municipality and boutique hotels, in walking distance of seafront property. Roy Chicky Arad, a poet-provocateur in the poetry scene since the nineties, the founder of an influential poetry journal, but also in recent years an A-class journalist for Haaretz reporting on social injustices, decided to launch his eighth book, The Aircraft Carrier, in an unconventional setting, in the tough working class neighborhood of Ha-tikvah (literally “the hope”), in storefront Yemenite restaurant, within the covered vegetable market.
Weeks before the event, Arad invited his Facebook friends to step out of their comfort zone, and take bus #16 to Ha-tikvah neighborhood, where he now lives. The Saloof (named for a type of Yemenite pita) had never before hosted a book launch and Arad wanted to create a cultural event in what he dubbed “the East End of Tel-Aviv.” Everything about the launch was an attempt to break free of the image of a poetry reading as high culture, as a polite and boring event – Arad made sure to include figures from outside the poetry world, such as Barak Cohen, a lawyer and an activist whose organization “Going to the Bankers,” attempts to break the ruthless anonymity of financial institutions by confronting bankers and their family members in their own environments; another super-controversial figure at the launch was the performance artist Natali Cohen Vaxberg, who was recently arrested for posting a video in which she defecates on national flags, including the Israeli flag.
I arrived with my hand in a home-made sling, at best a pirate-like look, slightly disheveled by immigration, scanning the crowd for familiar faces, my first foray into the scene. At night the vegetable market was mostly closed; the restaurant spilling out into the street was decorated with multi-colored balloons like a birthday party. The happy crowd milled around buying lemonade and almond drink from giant dispensers, parting reluctantly for passing cars or motorcycles. After following the Israeli poetry scene from afar on Facebook it was funny to remember how small it actually is. All those different warring factions are after all the same thirty people: the latest genderqueer poet in a skirt and beard was standing next to the kingmaking editor of the “culture and literature” section of Haaretz, a tall man in glasses with milky frames and an impeccably tied ascot, who recently threw a highly publicized dinner party for Bibi and Sarah Netanyahu in an inscrutably ironic fuck-you gesture to the leftist literati.
Also, leaning against a parked car were a handful of poets from Ars-Poetica, a group of Mizrahi Jewish poets who recently declared poetry-war against Ashkenazi hegemonies. Their name is a pun and a reclaiming: in Hebrew slang, which mostly comes from Arabic, “Ars” is a pimp, or what Ashkenazis call Mizrahi Jewish men, implying a low-class, dolled-up masculinity. Roy Hassan’s poem “The Land of Ashkenaz,” speaks to the way in which the Ashkenazi hegemonic culture shaped and deformed the identity of Mizrahi Jews: “And yet I built myself a library/ of Ashkenazi poetry and literature/ like an Atheist reading scriptures/ to know how not to think/ to know how not to write.” Also on the scene: women in impossibly high heels, a cluster of sun-burned grizzled men, like a poetry motorcycle gang, studded with nose rings. One of the poems in Arad’s The Aircraft Carrier perfectly encapsulates the tiny, self-important scene: “The coffee cup is perched upon the saucer/and under it the table/ and under it the state.”
The reading seemed to start but it was quite impossible to hear if you weren’t inside the restaurant, and I tried to inch my way forward into the sticky crowd. My partner had the closest shave in the crowd, thirty shekels from Georgian barber at the corner, (alas, we are not quite Tel-Avivi yet) and he introduced me to the singer Yael Birnbaum and we talked poets and musicians. She later did an amazing rap version of a poem about fascism. I ran into someone I went to college with, and she was beautiful with wrinkles around her eyes, thinking of moving here to Ha-tikvah, says she isn’t doing anything now, seems tired of fighting the good fight. At first the demonstrators who converged on the poetry reading seemed to be part of the show, the multi-colored balloons, the staff of the Saloof who clapped and serenaded each reader as they came to the stage, half supportive, half mocking.
In a later post Arad described the moment as “a perfect day yielding to a terrible storm” but to me the moment seemed almost orchestrated, and my first reaction was one of delight when I saw the women yelling in identical black t-shirts, the man carrying a giant blue and white flag, the woman drumming on a pot wearing a silver-foil party hat. The signs reading “War war war” seemed like a parody of a demonstration, and I half-wondered how Arad managed to pull off – all those extra actors spilling out of a hidden corner! In any case I was so glad I left the house despite the heat and disorientation and my various bruises.
The backs of their T-shirts: “What do we really want?/ Give us back our “neighborhoods”/ What do we want?/ Give us back our lives.” More signs: “Ha-tikvah neighborhood = the neighborhood of despair” and “Deportation Now!” and “Lefties go home!” A delirium of language. Ostensibly the Jewish Mizrahi residents of the neighborhood demonstrated against the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, and against the left-wing Ashkenazi activist-gentrifiers, who speak in the name of humanism for the non-Jewish refugees. Reality, though, gets more complicated. Rumors I’ve heard since: Sheffi Paz, the leader of the activist group, is actually an Ashkenazi woman who moved to south Tel-Aviv so she could have an elevator, she hired a consulting firm who recommended she target Ashkenazi leftists, the people at the demonstration are not from the neighborhood. Also rumors there are criminal gangs among the refugees, you can buy hash from refugees on Neve Sha’anan street, (they get it from Bedouins in the Sinai), you can buy sex with refugees on Chlenov street…
On a small boulevard I saw a man sleeping on the grass right outside the picture window of the living room, bathed in light, decorated for the New Year.
At the Saloof the demonstrators raised their voices, mingling in the crowd. “Look at how they’ve come here to look at us, like animals in a zoo,” an older religious woman of the anti-poetry contingent said. Pre-teens climbed up on the empty vegetable carts, blowing loud whistles. Someone screamed and I couldn’t see what happened. Apparently a beer bottle or vodka bottle was smashed near Natali Cohen Vaxberg, who was in real danger from the crowd, and had to be smuggled out. “What just happened?” a woman asked me. The privilege of tall men who can see what you can’t. People put their hands to their mouths. It felt dangerous but it also felt…awkward, as if this was just a giant misunderstanding; the Mizrahi neighborhood activists, led by an Ashkenazi woman, demonstrating against the poets who they thought had descended on the neighborhood in shiny Mercedes, but who were themselves mostly impoverished activists, many of whom themselves were Mizrahi Jews! Yaakov Biton, a poet I’ve been translating in recent years, told me this was a moment of shaatnez, a biblical word for the improper mixing of categories. We talked a little about the book of Hosea, the disease of the patriarchy, leaning on a car, but it was difficult to focus in the midst of it all.
At some point the police arrived. At some point they declared the demonstration an unlawful gathering. The demonstrators reconvened across the street. The poetry reading went on, seemingly indifferent. Stragglers from the demonstration evaded the police to listen to the poetry reading. Aharon Shabtai, a well known older Ashkenazi poet, spoke loud enough that I could hear: “Chicky is nice! Chicky is fun!” as if trying to convince the demonstrators of their misunderstanding. But the poets stood in small groups, no united front, and hardly anyone that I could see addressed the demonstrators or their claims directly. Maybe the past months of demonstrations by this group had taught people that confrontation plays into their hands? Doesn’t the government just adore these moments of staged conflict, pitting residents against refugees, while the true overlords eat juicy steaks in a quiet air-conditioned restaurants on the other side of the highway, or spends the awful weeks of August heat in some cooler European climate going shopping?
There was a clear feeling of personal danger. I was scared of talking to the demonstrators. The police later made some arrests. There were rumors of violence. “The police stopped me; they thought I was one of the demonstrators!” said one of the grizzled biker-types into his cell phone “I take that as a compliment!” Roy Hassan read the poem “Love,” which describes a kind of dirty summer love affair in the Sinai, singing it as a chant, as liturgy, while the demonstrators yelled outside, a babble of angry voices. A recurring claim: “You Ashkenazis don’t know what it’s like. I’d like to put an apartment full of refugees in your neighborhood and see how you like it.” Bibi Netanyahu said, we have no demographic depth to absorb refugees, alluding to the “demographic problem” – the fear that the Palestinians will one day outnumber the Jews within Israel, and it will be completely unable to sustain its frayed claim to be both Jewish and democratic.
Sheffi Paz, the leader of the “neighborhood” activists, was arrested and quickly released that night. This was the third demonstration she organized this August against the refugees. In reflecting on the demonstration, she writes (also on Facebook), “The demonstration in Ha-tikvah neighborhood was the saddest of all. Very few men. Many women, children, elderly folk. A heavy feeling of almost-defeat. This is what occupation looks like. This is what survival looks like…the people who remain walk among the shadows, feel like a minority…” Paz goes on to describe the women demonstrators, whose skin is wrinkled and marked by their painful lives, framing the demonstration as a moment of empowerment. In a moment of surreal doublespeak, the demonstrators are resisting occupation by the dark-skinned “shadows.” I am struck by the incongruity in affect: the rage and sorrow of the demonstrators against the light heartedness of the poets and the restaurant festooned in balloons. However, as Arad writes in a post after the event, this seeming joie de vivre is a carefully practiced balancing act, a precarious politics:
“This is life in Israel, this is what the book is about, the ability to totter about in the bitter and the sweet that this wonderful-terrible country provides. We are suffocating in the plastic of an Egg Surprise, but at least it’s an Egg Surprise. Life stinks, and as a starting point I have chosen to love this life and to stink with it, to love the love, like you’d say in a pop song. To resist this American aircraft carrier, the floating navy undefeated in the Middle East, and also to understand that it’s already part of me, to enjoy the waves it makes alongside the struggle against it, because I am that aircraft carrier…The Aircraft Carrier contains no vowel markings, but the demonstration was a kind of vowelized-annotation of the text: I was the furious reader and also the furious demonstrator against the reader, I was the inciter who was not one of the locals, and I was the incited teenager, and also the man on the side, and also the African woman refugee who doesn’t understand what is going on, what are the sides, her eyes rolling in fear and she is scared for her life (the picture of the dead Syrian child on the beach haunts me) – though she is the kind of reason for this party, and I was also the policeman and I was also the flag. We are all part of the deal.”
Arad’s talent is to stay consistently balanced within the moral chaos. For him, “joy and love and multiplicity won, at least in this battle. It can’t be helped, I love everyone.” As for me, I sped off in a taxi when things got heated up, didn’t witness the arrests in person. Forgive me, the smell of Canada is still on my clothes, even as the pavements of South Tel-Aviv were grounded into my knee and elbow this week. The cab driver on the way home said they shouldn’t have done a poetry reading in Ha-tikvah, serves them right. Poetry registered as a mark of gentrification – something condescending, like out of touch opera singers hitting the high notes at the vegetable market. He wasn’t convinced by my appealed to the Jewish poets of Al-Andalus, the authors of most of our prayers. It’s not the same. Poetry is something from a sealed reading room that should stay in that reading room and stop bothering people with real troubles. But poetry also functioned as a seismograph, attempting to register the fascism swirling all around in the coffee, the salad, the lemonade and almond drinks.
Arad’s poem says it best:
sweet fascism in coffee;
is good in salad, with fennel.
I’ll stuff high-speed fascism
into my shoes
and put the sluggish one in the garden
to eat mice.
The city is so beautiful!
The dresses are so short!
The coffee is so sweet!
The salad is so green!
and there are no mice in the garden
Later the dust storm from Syria came in, casting a eerie sepia light for days, making it hard to breathe, covering all of us in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, and Egypt – poets and non-poets. There are theories that the is the unfarmed top soil of Syrian lands, there are theories that these particles are the only kinds of suffering that can get through the blocked borders, crying out to us, there are theories that this dust storm is a demonstration of the universe against the leaders who act in the name of “demographic depth.” The dust covered us, obscuring any clear vision.
Yosefa Raz was raised in Jerusalem, and has lived in the Bay Area and in Toronto, where she helped found the Contemporary Poetry Research Group, a research & reading collective. Her poetry and translations have appeared in World Literature Today, ZYZZYVA, Try!, Tikkun, Zeek, and Where Eagles Dare. She is the author of the poetry book In Exchange for a Homeland (Swan Scythe Press 2004), the chapbook All these years practicing while momentous changes were happening all around (Gavia Immer 2015) and co-translator of Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores (Wayne State University Press 2015). She is currently thinking a lot about poetry, prophecy, and politics.
Featured Image Credit: Sivan Shtang