The Poetry Project

On Rifqa by Mohammed el-Kurd

Nameera Bajwa

Mohammed el-Kurd, in his debut poetry collection Rifqa, traces a genealogy of Palestinian solidarity and survival through the memory of his late grandmother Rifqa el-Kurd. By writing in both narrative and prose, el-Kurd eulogizes the unyielding matriarch of his family. His words—rooted in both ancestral and historical memory—weave together the memory of Rifqa with the history of Palestinian resistance itself. The two become interchangeable, their histories indistinguishable. Rifqa is Palestine and Palestine is Rifqa.

If “poetry is a home for the dispossessed,” as aja monet argues in the foreword, then Rifqa is a return from exile, a reaching towards home.

El-Kurd writes, “I cried not for the house but for the memories I could have had inside it.” And in thinking of this allegorical house, Saidiya Hartman’s words come to mind: “Is perception most acute precisely at the very moment when everything to which one has belonged falls away? Is this why ‘the mother country’ is most sweet in the mouth of those gone, missing, left, taken, exiled? Is the moment one recognizes a home as the home the very same moment in which you lose it?”

The project of Rifqa nestles between el-Kurd’s recognition of the loss of his home and the call to return to it. El-Kurd places us neither here nor there; not at the point of origin (is there just one?) nor at its end (is there even one?) as he ameliorates through the pain of his people’s exile and displacement at the hands of the Zionist apartheid state. El-Kurd orients us in the direction of the home, and Rifqa is just that—a reaching toward home. This reality is not yet realized, and this future has not yet come to fruition. Rifqa is an attempt at freedom through stretching both back and forward in time towards home.

For el-Kurd, home is specifically his native Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where most families who—like the el-Kurds—had long resettled since armed Zionist settlers forcibly displaced them in 1948 during the Nakba. In thinking through el-Kurd’s home in Sheikh Jarrah, an intensely contested and militarized space threatened by Zionist projects of land acquisition, we see the neighborhood become a symbol for the entire occupation itself.

In the second poem of the book, “Who Lives in Sheikh Jarrah,” we are made witness to the ongoing dispossession of Sheikh Jarrah. The title of the poem is lifted from a 2010 New York Times article written with the same name by columnist Kai Bird. Bifurcated into two halves, the poem is a meticulous repurposing of the original New York Times article. Its syntax is fashioned from sentence fragments; the poem is perhaps haunted more by the words which are missing than by the ones that tangibly appear on the page. At the very center of the poem, a headline half written by hand and half written in print reads:

xxColonialism in

Jerusalem killed xxxthe


El-Kurd deconstructs the original 2010 Kai Bird article into sentence fragments, and then from its guttural remains sutures the historical and familial memory of Sheikh Jarrah into the body of a poem. El-Kurd’s title, identical to Bird’s, has a more ambitious purpose than simply ironizing the style of reportage that he described, during a November 2023 protest in front of the Times building, as the “passivity” and “passive voice” of the American journal of record. Repurposing the language of a cultural and ideological opponent, el-Kurd is undermining the once unquestioned authority with which the Times feeds the American public a highly biased, distorted version of events in Palestine—one sustained through an ostensibly neutral narrative that in fact legitimates the occupation, apartheid, and dispossession the Zionist project is founded upon. He asks us to consider the various means through which cultural institutions of the United States either run with or against the grain of imperialist desire. At heart, the stakes of the fight that el-Kurd initiates with the Times is a battle over reality: who gets to name it, and what processes of violence and forms of restitution they make possible for others to see and move towards.

El-Kurd’s poems, scattered across the page, make use of a spatial disorientation that evokes Fanon’s words in Wretched of the Earth: “The colonial world is a compartmentalized world … a world divided into two.” The bifurcated structure of the poem and the disordered spatial orientation of the words mirrors the bifurcated “colonial world” Fanon speaks of here. Its spatially disordered structure becomes allegorical for the occupation of Sheikh Jarrah and the very disordered nature of colonial violence itself. Captured in the way the poem evokes the literal, material occupation of half of the el-Kurd family home, divided into two by Zionist settlers, much like the colonial world is “a compartmentalized world divided into two.”

The project of apartheid—an Afrikaans word literally translated to “segregating, setting apart”—is undergirded by what Fanon described as a Manichean logic that structures a colonized society. Fanon explores how this Manichean world constructs a dichotomy between settler & native, colonizer and colonized, enslaver and enslaved; a dialectic marked by antagonistic aims and projects.

Through evoking this Manichean relationship to space and society, the poem subverts the project of apartheid by spatially disorienting the language in the body of the poem. The way Israeli apartheid, like any colonial power, is undergirded by a Manichean dichotomy of native/settler is further disrupted by the structure of the poem. By intentionally disrupting the bifurcated dualistic structure of the poem, we see how el-Kurd asserts a Palestinian subjecthood as beyond the reaches of modernity and its systematizing impulses. It is only by “penetrating its geographical configuration and classification,” Fanon writes, that “we shall be able to delineate the backbone on which the decolonized society is reorganized.” In other words, the disordered structure of the poem is allegorical for the process by which a “decolonized society is reorganized.”

xxxxSheikh Jarrah xxxxxxxxmy youth is


xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxrazed by Israeli


And yet, even as he traces the very materially violent history of his family’s dispossession, el-Kurd refuses to thematically foreground victimhood as the only narrative that matters. He proudly asserts a Palestinian agency and resistance—one that is both inseparable from and always contentious with Israeli settler colonial violence and the many fictions it propagates to substantiate its claim to indigenous land. By refashioning the words from the article and the author’s Zionist sympathies into a poem, el-Kurd resists the sanitization of Palestinian history that appears in The New York Times alongside other journalistic mouthpieces for U.S. imperialism.

In “Bulldozers Undoing God,” el-Kurd begins with an ode to Mahfoutha Ishtayyeh, a Palestinian elder who chained herself to an olive tree to protest its cutting down. Locating us at the site of this event, the poem begins: “A chain is corseting / the tree’s waist and hers, / flesh in flesh, / olive skin on olive skin.”

The poem, undergirded by this haptic melding of Ishtayyeh’s flesh with the olive tree, gestures toward an embodiment rooted in both body and the land. Reminding us of the stakes which accompany the occupation by writing “In Jerusalem, every footstep is a grave,” but also reminding us that “every grandmother is a Jerusalem.” That love and loss go hand in hand.

This was only love:

her skeleton is that of the tree’s,

roots stitched into land into identity.

Separations is like

unmaking love

ungluing names to places

undoing God.

A pulling pressure, soldiered:

occupiers occupy her limbs,

untangling a grandmother.

A soldier as old as a leaf born yesterdayxx

pulls a trigger on a woman older than his heritage.xxxx

Two martyrs fall.xx




Using a lexicon of loss, the poem defines Palestinian subjecthood as inseparable from the earth. In this synesthetic blurring of land and language, bodies in bondage, and ancestral and historical memory, the poem asserts a Palestinian sovereignty beyond the confines of the nation-state defined instead as one literally rooted in the land.

This thematic convergence of exile and resistance is perhaps most personified in the book’s namesake: Rifqa el-Kurd. “Rifqa,” the titular poem, begins with Mohammed recalling his grandmother’s past rather than his own. Rooted in Rifqa’s memories, the poem traces the many times she was forcibly displaced from her home and exiled from her country by the Zionist state apparatus. By tracing familial histories of dispossession, Mohammed el-Kurd links Rifqa’s exile in the original Nakba in 1948 to the occupation of Rifqa el-Kurd’s home in Sheikh Jarrah by Zionist settlers in 2020.

The historical undertaking that Mohammed el-Kurd embarks on in Rifqa recalls Saidiya Hartman’s claim that “every generation confronts the task of choosing its past … inheritances are chosen as much as they are passed on.” As witnesses to this genocide, we cannot ignore the past that created today’s horrific reality. In choosing our past, we must recall a Palestine that predates October 7, 2023, one that predates the aftermath of 1967, and 1948, and Theodor Herzl and Zionism itself.

It makes sense, then, that for Mohammed el-Kurd, his inheritance (and ours by virtue of this shared struggle) is the memory of his grandmother and the long history of Palestinian exile and resistance she comes to represent. As the inheritors of Rifqa el-Kurd’s life, we, Mohammed el-Kurd’s readers, are tasked with fighting for the future of a freed Palestine that Rifqa never witnessed come to fruition.

Like el-Kurd reminds us in the final poem of the book, “Farewell, Palestine’s Jasmine,”: “Some people cannot exist in the past tense.”

Some people cannot exist in the past tense.

Palestine will be free, and Palestine is saving us. The Palestinian fight for liberation is at last unmasking the concrete connections among the different factions and interests who have joined together to maintain occupation and apartheid and enact this latest round of genocidal violence. Newly radicalized people are researching and witnessing how private investment security firms and other wartime profiteers net billions off this genocide and many others; how American weapons, unwillingly paid for by a constituency overwhelmingly calling for a ceasefire, funds this decimation of an entire people; and how Israel, in its assault on Gaza and poisoning of the water, has enacted an ecological destruction worse than the carbon footprint of more than twenty small countries combined. People who want to join el-Kurd in the fight for justice and liberation are already thinking strategically about how to break up this alliance of forces in order to make possible a liberated world where the life of everyone between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean sea is deeply worth living.

Natalie Diaz’s words in Postcolonial Love Poem come to mind: “Do you think the water will forget what we have done? What we continue to do?” Do you think the land will forget what we have done? Or rather, failed to do? What we continue to fail to do?

We watch—day by day, country by country—as calls for a ceasefire multiply while the world watches in abject horror at the decimation of Gaza. Perhaps most importantly, Palestine is saving us because Palestine is radicalizing the global population at an unprecedented rate.

Palestine is not a relic of an ancient past reaching toward an end, nor is Palestine a victim of modernity’s encroachment on indigenous peoples and ways of life. Palestine is alive and breathing and fighting. Even in death, Rifqa, and el-Kurd’s memory of her, unravels this Orientalizing genocidal Zionist narrative which locates Palestine as a place of the past. It is the inheritance of Rifqa el-Kurd’s past, and the way Mohammed el-Kurd eulogizes her, that orients us towards a future in which Palestine is free.

#275 – Winter 2024