'Tear gas and tea': Mohammed El-Kurd's Rifqa brings tales of humour, life and resistance back to life

7 min read
13 October, 2021

Paying powerful homage to his Palestinian people's lives and struggles, while elegantly educating the reader, Mohammed El-Kurd's debut poetry collection, Rifqa, is a symbolic masterpiece.

In the book's afterword, the 23-year-old Palestinian activist and artist from occupied East Jerusalem's expulsion-threatened Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood describes his work as a "didactic [teaching] tool." Being crafted in the English language and having a USA-based publisher puts Rifqa's 'students' as primarily overseas readers.


El-Kurd's criticism of "humanization", as he dubs it – the insistence on Palestinians' innocence, peacefulness and vulnerability – takes on a particular significance. It is only through humanisation that importance is attached to Palestinians' freedom and, indeed, killing, the poet explains. Humanisation "is to 'women and children' Palestinians to death", something common among even well-intentioned Western audiences.

"A Palestinian man cannot just die," El-Kurd writes. "[H]is victimhood" requires some mitigating factor such as a disability to even have a chance of mattering.

If any text could draw out respect and acknowledgement of the Palestinian people's freedom from Israeli domination on its own terms, it is Rifqa.

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How could anyone fail to stand up and act when reading the tragic metaphor, "[Martyr] at the bar and he was gone in two shots"? El-Kurd provides no further details, doesn't take to insisting the martyr was uninvolved in any altercation and doesn't even leave his name. The dead's life had worth because it was a life – no justification is needed.

How could anyone not be moved to solidarity in Sheikh Jarrah Is Burning when El-Kurd says "[t]he pig calls me by my name before he asks for my ID" of an Israeli policeman? The cruelty deepens when he's denied access to his neighbourhood while "[t]he settlers walk in, no questions."

The poet understands politics is as much about emotion as it is logic, and his devastating way with words lets him deploy this knowledge in full. People need to be unsettled if they are to pause for a second and ponder on what's right.

From the "tear gas healed with yoghurt and onions" the writer later explains she used on demonstrators while in her eighties, to simply advising her grandson, "if we don’t laugh, we cry," this was a woman of strength

The collection is also described as an "ode to [El-Kurd's] late grandmother" of the same name, who passed away in June 2020, aged 103. Rifqa El-Kurd, born three decades before Israel, was emblematic of Palestine and its people's resistance – as the collection demonstrates.

Originally from Haifa, Rifqa could never return there following the Nakba, or "catastrophe", when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed, becoming refugees with Israel's 1948 formation – the 50th anniversary of which being Mohammed's birthdate and the subject of a poem itself.

Rifqa's exile from Haifa is told in an eponymous poem, and throughout the book, we learn much more.

From the "tear gas healed with yoghurt and onions" the writer later explains she used on demonstrators while in her eighties, to simply advising her grandson, "if we don’t laugh, we cry," this was a woman of strength.

Even as dementia set in towards the end, and Rifqa began to forget Mohammed's name, she still knew to say, "America is the reason," implicating Washington in her people's continued suffering.

Mohammed El-Kurd, Sheikh Jarrah activist and poet
Mohammed El-Kurd demands an end to ethnic cleansing [Getty]

Women are driving forces in this collection – from the old lady who quips, "Figs, bitch" when questioned about the contents of her bag by an Israeli soldier, to Maysoon, the poet's mother, whose birthing of Mohammed and his twin sister Muna is potently recounted.

The dual purpose of the book as both a political work and an adoring commemoration means it both explains the Palestinian fight for freedom and dismantles the all-too-common Western fetishisation of struggle. Often, Palestinians are shown as soulless agents of resistance – as symbols to be consumed – rather than people who resist but still have complex lives.

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In truth, "[i]n Palestine, / strangers / walk around with open purses / open pockets / open palms / trusting the ruckus will affect everything but the integrity / of those wrinkled around them," as goods are bought "and words wrapped with play."

Even in This Is Why We Dance, as El-Kurd watches television during Israel's deadly 2008 bombing of the Gaza Strip, his sorrow for his nation and its cause is not the whole picture.

The "Egyptian belly dance music" weaved into his media-consuming "ritual" depicts a life that, while lived in the backdrop of Israeli occupation, can never be defined by it. Palestinians have their own interests, desires and experiences – their own lives – seen even in something as normal as music on a screen.

That doesn't mean El-Kurd seeks to make the occupation normal – the opposite is true.

He laments the "constant Nakbas / tragedy pillowed and bedroomed / made normal: mornings of mourning / on a breakfast table".

The juxtaposition of "tear gas and tea" at this meal demands the reader accept these things have no place together, and that Palestinian families' everyday existences should not be such.

Rifqa is not a collection attempting to be neutral with its language. In his afterword, El-Kurd is clear he was previously in error by toning down his criticism of Israel, substituting the English "state" where Arabic's "entity" usually appears, for example.

"This phenomenon is common among writers writing about Palestine, writers who worship the mythology of objectivity instead of satirizing it," as if attempting dispassion in these most passionate circumstances will win approval for his people, El-Kurd notes.

This critique is poetically expressed in Kroger, where "[w]hat is a fact in Arabic / is debatable in English, / contentious. Thing is, I couldn't care less."

The writer continues, defiantly. "Say evict / & I'll still say theft. / hyperlink them to death."

The consequences of this theft are apparent in the second poem, Who lives in Sheikh Jarrah? An "[e]rasure" of an opinion piece from 2010 which bore this headline, as a footnote indicates, the missing words can be taken variously.

In a heart-wrenching moment, he reveals the antidepressant "Zoloft makes my face swell up / a choice between sanity and slimness," asking "What does that say about me?"

Perhaps they represent missing Palestinian residents? Or, more likely, they signify the Palestinian voices omitted by the initial New York Times writer, something El-Kurd previously tackled in his own op-ed, and a common media failing. Adding his own original, half-pencilled, half-typed remark to the text, the poem tells us, "Colonialism in Jerusalem killed the peace." Discovering what else the press glosses over is down to the reader.

Rifqa often finds itself set in the USA, where El-Kurd spent four years. Atlanta, the capital of Georgia, where he went to university, features prominently.

The challenges of Palestinian life in the States are clear. In one case, as "Syn / sleeps next to [him]," El-Kurd "want[s] to kiss her back". However, pro-Israel voices are "bullying the network / for having [him]". As such, he is forced to craft emails, rather than his poetry.

More of the author's personal life comes through in Autobiography, where El-Kurd recounts his childhood: from "tire slashing" at 11 to "sulk[ing]" and losing his capacity for "play" by his mid-teens.

In a heart-wrenching moment, he reveals the antidepressant "Zoloft makes my face swell up / a choice between sanity and slimness," asking "What does that say about me?"

Elsewhere, he recounts his relationship with faith.

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On a technical level, several words crop up repeatedly throughout the collection, such as "spine" and "throat", each time taking the reader's mind back to their previous uses.

When in Sheikh Jarrah Is Burning, El-Kurd laments that "Zionist philanthropy carves out its home in my spine", describing the takeover of his neighbourhood, the reader might be reminded of the "snipers to [El-Kurd's] spine" much earlier in the book.

Perhaps they instead think of Elderly Woman and "her spine, spin[ing]" El-Kurd after they've gone through an Israeli checkpoint together.

Likewise, each whiff of "jasmine" harkens back to "Palestine's Jasmine" or "Palestine's jasmine tree", as Rifqa, who we learn was fond of the flower, has been called by her grandson and others. Each time, tales of her humour, life and resistance are brought back to life.

The imagery sears Rifqa – woman and message if they were not one already – firmly into the mind. This book was "publish[ed] to honor and immortalize" El-Kurd's grandmother. That being the aim, the writer has succeeded.

Nick McAlpin is a staff journalist at The New Arab.

Follow him on Twitter: @NickGMcAlpin