Fadwa Tuqan was the fearless voice of Palestine in times of strife

Hassan Rahmeh

Middle East Monitor  /  August 14, 2023

Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003) wasn’t just a poet; she was an emblem of resistance, the embodiment of rebellion against not just one, but multiple constricting forces. Born in 1917 in the shimmering sands of Nablus, her poetic voice arose resounding with both grace and grit.

Diving into the annals of her publications — My Brother Ibrahim (1946), Alone with The Days (1952), Give Us Love (1960) up to Before the Closed Door (1967) — we can trace the gripping journey of a Palestinian spirit in turbulence. These works encapsulate a transition in the collective consciousness of Palestine: from the hollowness of despair to the unyielding spirit of sumud: steadfastness.

The written word, in its myriad forms, has always been a potent tool, weaving tales, igniting revolutions and stirring souls. Yet, certain voices transcend even this mighty medium, resonating with a force that’s near impossible to distil into mere letters on paper. Fadwa Tuqan was one such voice.

Describing the impact of her poetry as just influential or profound would be, to put it mildly, an understatement. Her words did not merely make statements; they embodied a movement, echoed the collective heartbeat of a people, and channeled the raw energies of a land embroiled in conflict.

Israeli General Moshe Dayan testified to the sheer power of Tuqan’s verses. A military leader skilled in the art of combat, he compared the experience of reading her poetry to confronting twenty enemy commandos. This speaks volumes, and underscores the idea that poetry, in the right hands, can be as formidable as an army. The emotions, the narratives, the resistance contained within her words could unsettle even the steeliest of warriors.

What made Tuqan’s poetry so compelling? It was the vigour; the unabashed boldness with which she tackled issues such as the fearless confrontation of oppressors, and the undying spirit of resistance. She wove her experiences, the collective Palestinian struggle and her personal defiance against societal norms into verses that were both tender and fierce.

The vitality of her work was also undeniable. Her poems pulsated with life, reverberating with the hopes, dreams, agonies and aspirations of the Palestinian people. She breathed life into every verse, making them leap off the page, demanding to be felt, understood and remembered.

And, finally, the strength. Not just in her choice of words, but also in the silences between them. Tuqan’s poems carried an undercurrent of unyielding resilience. They stood tall, undeterred by the challenges of the times, reflecting the unwavering spirit of a woman and a nation in the face of adversity.

In essence, while words might provide a glimpse into Fadwa Tuqan’s genius, her true essence was something that permeates deeper, echoing in the heartbeats of all those who find resonance in her undying spirit.

Yet to categorize Tuqan as merely a voice for Palestinian nationalism would be to limit the vast canvas of her influence. She rose, not only against the pressing forces of an orthodox upbringing and a suffocating societal structure, but also to redefine the contours of conventional Arabic poetry and autobiography.

In a landscape dominated by the male voice, Tuqan stood out, not just as a female poet, but as a revolutionary spirit. Her audacity in challenging the entrenched patriarchal norms was unparalleled. She was the beacon of hope for many, choosing to narrate her life’s tales in a time when the concept of autobiography, or as it is called in Arabic, “confessions”, was almost alien.

Among the numerous gems she left behind, “Longing Inspired by the Law of Gravity” remains poignant, reflecting her deep yearning, juxtaposed against the harsh realities of life. The poem resonates with warlike imagery, emphasizing the perennial quest for Palestinian identity and the enduring dream of return:

Time’s out and I’m home alone with the shadow I cast 

Gone is the law of the universe, scattered by frivolous fate  

Nothing to hold down my things … 

Tuqan was a feminist in a male-centric world, and a humanist amidst the nationalistic surge of the Palestinian movement; she remains an inspiration. As the first Palestinian woman poet, she dared to defy, dared to dream, and dared to narrate the unspoken tales of many. Her legacy, a testament to the indomitable spirit of a woman who chose the pen over silence, even in times of overwhelming catastrophe.

In the intertwining lanes of Nablus, amidst the tumult of patriarchal norms and the pressing weight of occupation, Fadwa Tuqan found her voice. A voice that rose from the depths of confinement, challenging every edifice of power, every bastion of oppression. Through her poetic craft, she would go on to become a symbol of the free-spirited revolution, bridging the intimate struggles of Palestinian women with the broader struggle against colonial hegemony.

One such work that beautifully highlights Tuqan’s spirit is “The Seagull and the Negation of the Negation”. This evocative piece sees a seagull, symbolic of news or perhaps hope, arriving at the poet’s window:

It knocked at my dark window, and in the gasping silence quivered  

“Bird, is it good news you bring?” 

It divulged its secret, yet breathed not a word

And the seagull disappeared

The seagull’s silent communication resonates deeply with the voiceless cries of many, reflecting the dichotomy of hope and despair. Is the bird’s visit symbolic of fleeting hope or a forewarning? This ambiguity is emblematic of Tuqan’s craft, urging readers to reflect, ponder and question.

Fadwa Tuqan’s decision to communicate her imprisonment, both personal and societal, via poetry was an act of rebellion in itself. Here was a woman who chose to confront both the patriarchal structures that sought to confine her and the occupational forces that aimed to erase her identity.

To remember Fadwa Tuqan is to celebrate a legacy of resistance against forces, seen and unseen, that sought to stifle the human spirit. Through her words, she continues to inspire generations, reminding us of the relentless power of the human spirit and the enduring call for freedom.

Hassan Rahmeh is a university lecturer, independent researcher and writer