Palestinian poet and activist Rafeef Ziadah grew up a refugee in Lebanon and took to performing after a racist attacker in New York kicked her in the stomach and told her she deserved to be raped before she gave birth to more terrorists. For Ziadah, then, there is no separation between art and politics; they are interwoven in her work.
Ziadah, 36, now lives in London and has just released a spoken word album, Hadeel, in collaboration with Phil Mansur, an Australian/Palestinian activist and songwriter. Her impassioned poem We Teach Life, Sir went viral after it was posted to YouTube and has nearly one million views.
However powerful her poetry is on YouTube, the dynamism and lyrical pulse of Ziadah’s elegantly anger- infused poems are even more evocative in person.
Performing in the Spailpín Fánach in Cork as part of an Irish tour that included tea at Áras an Uachtaráin and leading the annual famine walk in Louisburg, Co Mayo, Ziadah provoked an emotion-laden hush in the audience on more than one occasion.
There’s no light touch for Ziadah, who uses repetition to underscore her strongest lines: “I am an Arab woman of colour and we come in all shades of anger,” came the refrain of Shades of Anger.
The collaboration with Mansur accentuated the intuitive musicality of Ziadah’s delivery. Poems like Sieges built on Ziadah’s complex hip-hop-inspired rhythms with guitar and occasional beat tracks.
Mansur opened with solo songs of his own, well-crafted but somehow troubling; “I left my heart in Palestine,” sang Mansur, and you were reminded that Ireland has trodden this path and forged a national identity through art.
There’s no better year to be reminded of that, but the pitfalls are plain; romanticising the homeland is the peril of those in exile. The place becomes inviolable in memory, sacrosanct.
But Ziadah’s versatility and playful delight in language constantly refreshes; one poem referred to her mispronunciation of the word “heir” while attaining Canadian citizenship, and the audience were in on her subversive glee in swearing allegiance to “the Queen and her mighty, mighty hairs.”
- Rafeef Ziadah will perform in the International Literature Festival on Sunday in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.