By: Peter Kolb – Staff Writer
Students for Justice in Palestine, with the help of other partners, hosted “Poetry Night With Remi Kanazi” in Sears Recital Hall Wednesday evening. Kanazi is a poet, writer and activist whose work has been featured on the likes of Al Jazeera, BBC and The New York Times. His book “Before the Next Bomb Drops: Rising up From Brooklyn to Palestine” is a collection of several of his poems and has received widespread acclaim. I sat down and asked him a few questions regarding his work.
If you had to describe your message and how you’re getting it across, what would you say for people who may not be familiar with you or your work?
Remi Kanazi: Sure, so I’m a spoken word poet, and for me, spoken word is a way to get a political message across through an entertainment medium … I’ll be speaking a lot about Israeli occupation and its system of apartheid and possession of the Palestinian people, militarism overseas. So, the drone bombing of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia, as well as structural racism in the United States. And so the kind of merging of your society and U.S. actions and policies through a cultural medium. I figured the average 19-year-old doesn’t want to read an op-ed or watch cable news, but they can more readily connect to spoken word or theater or hip-hop as a cultural way to get that message across.
What would you say is the most common misunderstanding about the stuff that you’re talking about?
Kanazi: Yeah, I think living in the U.S.—I’m a pretty leftist guy—you think that your biggest hurdle is right-wing racism. A lot of the times, it’s American apathy or ignorance to these kind of issues. I think when you look at from the so called liberal New York Times to Fox News you’re not getting a proper message about Palestine. You have people living under military occupation, they face checkpoints and a wall that cuts doctors off from offices and children off from schools and so I think that the basic reality of occupation, resource appropriation, land theft, isn’t talk about readily in the United States, as much as it would be in let’s say Canada, or the U.K. I think that, on the issue of Palestine, but not just the issue of Palestine. Black lives matter, undocumented communities, transphobia, I think across the spectrum the media doesn’t give a fair shake to a lot of really important critical issues of our time. Palestine happens to be one of those issues as well.
Do you ever see that getting better in America? Or is that rooted in our country?
Kanazi: No, I think the discourse is fundamentally shifting. When I first started performing on college campuses, there was maybe seven Students for Justice in Palestine chapters. Today, there’s more than 150. I think that when you look at the polls of 18-30-year-old men and women, it’s really shifting on the issue of Palestine. There’s more support and understanding of the Palestinian issue today than ever before. So when you look at the fact that even on action. … I think the coalition for support for Palestine, because we live in a country that gives Israel $3.4 billion in military aid, we send over weapons. So, we are uniquely complicit in that regard, when it comes to Palestine.
So what’s your writing process for these poems? Are they sort of spontaneous, where you just see something on the news and it fills you up and you get it out through poems? Or is it more predetermined and structured, where, ‘I want to write about this and this.’
Kanazi: It actually is usually both. In 2014, over 51 days, when Israel murdered 2,300 Palestinians, injured more than 10,000, shelled hospitals, mosques and schools—I mean there were images, there were videos, there were testimonies and reports. There was all of the things you were watching live, and so a month after the massacre, I started to construct a piece that was based on everything I was ingesting. So, it was kind of done then a stanza at a time as a structured format. For a piece like “This Divestment Bill Hurts My Feelings,” well, what are all the talking points against campus divestment? So, let’s deconstruct each one one by one almost like it’s an op-ed. Other times, somebody says something incredibly racist to you – you’re like, “wow that was incredibly racist.” I’m gonna write a poem in response. So, sometimes it can be a stream of thought; other times it’s more structured.
Going off of that poem “This Divestment Bill Hurts My Feelings,” I hear you talk about how the convenience of a privileged class takes precedent over stopping oppression. Could you touch on what you mean by that?
Kanazi: Well, look, it’s very easy to look away, but when you look at the fact that we give Israel $3.4 billion in military aid, send over Apache helicopters and hellfire missiles, we are not neutral in this situation. We are actively complicit and profiting off of oppression through our tax dollars, community investments and campus investments. So, what Palestinians are saying is, “Look, we’re not victims in need of aid. We’re people in need of freedom, and your actual society is investing and profiting off of that while standing in the way of that freedom.”
There seemed to be a negative connotation with the words “Middle East.” Do you think since 9/11, that sort of connotation has faded away a bit? Or have we not really made a lot of progress?
Kanazi: I think that it’s sort of morph and mutated in ways, right? I mean that kind of like anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, anti-brown bigotry that was so immediate post 9/11, it felt like there was a bit of waning during the fallout of the war in Iraq. People decided it was considered a mistake, but I think that the rise of anti-Muslim, anti-brown, anti-over there bigotry that has really taken place over the last few years, there’s been a sort of rise over the fascistic rhetoric. There’s been a rise in the open hatred. I mean, we’ve seen it throughout this election process, but it goes far beyond that. I mean we look at Trump and we blame him, but that has very much been enabled by the Republican party and also the Democratic party. When you look at the fact that it took over seven years for Barack Obama to visit a mosque, when you look at the fact that you may not be using the exact ‘war on terror’ rhetoric that the Bush administration was using, but you implemented NDAA, you were spying on communities, you were drone-bombing different countries, you were still really driving the core of these militaristic policies. So, I think that across the board, what passes for liberal across the U.S., is basic right-wing Reaganism.
So, what do you think needs to happen for your message to achieve its goal? Like as a member of the audience, what are you trying to have me do?
Kanazi: I would say, look, if you perform for a hundred people tonight and an extra few people come to the next [Students for Justice in Palestine] general body meeting, sign up for the list, learn more. I mean you don’t think that you’re a miracle-worker; you don’t think you’re moving mountains. You just hope that a few light switches go off, even if somebody walks by a poster in the student union the next day and says, “You know what, I’m gonna give it a second look.” Because when I talk to the audience, I’m like look it’s critical that we get active, that we organize. And your issue doesn’t have to be Palestine—that’s OK. If you’re working on feminist issues, queer issues, Black Lives Matter issues, those are critically important issues affecting millions of people today. So whether it’s two hours a week or two hours a month, get active and organize in whatever peaks your interest. Those small steps do create a big change. It’s operating with that mentality that those small steps do create a big wave. None of us are individually knocking down a wall, but when we come together we can see fundamental change. Not in a cliche Barack Obama way, but in a grassroots taking to the streets kind of way.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length.
Photo of Remi Kanazi courtesy of Students for Justice in Palestine UD Facebook page.