My Love Poems Are the Most Palestinian Thing About Me

“If I write love poems, I resist the conditions that don’t allow me to write love poems.”
— Mahmoud Darwish 

Last summer, I began writing love poems in earnest. I’ve been enamored with romantic love for as long as I can remember, though last summer is when I unequivocally knew I was in love—and the person I found myself in the throes of ardor for was not my husband. The heady torrent of feeling poured out of me on the page, and for once, I didn’t loathe my love poems. 

Despite knowing I wanted to be a writer since I was five and orienting myself toward that North Star ever since, I’ve struggled with love poems. The depth of feeling has always been there, but I seemed only to articulate it in terms that were too cloying, too saccharine, and too submissive and surrendering in the unmooring headrush of emotion. I’ve been too sincere in the wrong ways—too focused on the unnameable qualities that drew me, at times inexplicably, to the object of my affection and not sincere enough in investigating the intricacies of my attraction. I focused on the big yet ethereal and ephemeral parts of infatuation that I mistook for love—the butterflies-in-the-stomach sensation, the blush of warmth when you see them across the way, and the tunnel vision when they’re talking to you, like nothing else in the world matters—rather than the everyday acts of intimacy that make for lasting relationships.

In my Western poetry workshops, this type of sentimentality, especially in a love poem, would earn me red ink slashes through entire stanzas of my drafts. The poems most often praised as ones we should emulate were about topics other than love, in which the poet had inserted themselves into some larger, more universal phenomenon and, in doing so, made the experience personal. But what is more universal and personal than one’s experience of love?

Because I’m Palestinian, I put off reading Palestinian literature for many years. This might seem counterintuitive, but it felt too close to home and too near to my lived experience. I wanted to see the world through books, and I felt I couldn’t do that if I only read about others like myself. But when I moved out of Alabama and away from my family, the community of Palestinians from Ramallah who had immigrated to the Birmingham area, and the larger Levantine community in the area, I found myself drawn to Palestinian literature in a way I’d never been before. In particular, I took to Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s national poet. If I was finally going to read Palestinian literature, I should start with our most beloved writer. 

While Darwish wrote abundantly about the pain of exile, the yearning to return to the homeland, and the agony of military occupation, he was also a prolific writer of love poems. Particularly sentimental ones, too—he wrote unflinchingly longing lines like “They asked ‘Do you love her to death?’ I said ‘Speak of her over my grave and watch how she brings me back to life,’” and “You are killing me and you are keeping me from dying. That is love,” and “And you became like coffee, in the deliciousness, and the bitterness, and the addiction.” When it comes to Darwish, readers the world over adore him all the more for the intensity of his sincerity and the rawness with which he described the fathoms of his love. Yet, in so many Western poetry workshops—not to mention literary magazines and poetry publishers—even the word “love” is discouraged. 

In Arabic, the language in which Darwish originally wrote, there are twenty-four words for varying degrees of love. There are distinct words for the love of burning desire, the love that keeps you awake at night, the love that drives you to madness, the love that feels like falling, even the love that manifests as grief, and many more. When I consider the richness of Arabic and the vastness of vocabulary from which Darwish had to draw, it makes sense why his poems would be so beloved throughout the Arab world, where he first gained traction as a writer of note. 

My sedo and taita—two of the Arabic words for grandfather and grandmother—were so maligned for their accents when they immigrated from Ramallah to the U.S. that they refused to teach their children or grandchildren Arabic, ensuring we would sound as “American” as anyone else. Although I’m unable to read Darwish in his original tongue, knowing what I know of the sheer volume of words in Arabic versus English, I’m certain Darwish’s words have been flattened by the lack of expansiveness in the vocabulary of the latter. 

It is no wonder, then, that love poems originally written in English are inevitably flattened too. This is not to say there are no good English language love poets—there are!—only that they must work all the harder at articulating love. With such limited lingual resources, it’s a momentous challenge to write love poems when “love” is used to express the heart’s deepest affection and also admiration for a fashionable pair of shoes. How could a word we hear so often and in so many varied contexts beyond romantic love not invariably lose its meaning? And not come to feel cloying when applied to a stranger in a poem whom the vast majority of readers do not know and do not care for themselves?

Still, I cannot quell the urge to try, and that is one of the hallmarks of my Palestinianness. Loving requires hope to function—any giver of love runs the risk that their beloved may not love them back, but the possibility that it might be reciprocated is what keeps them willing to embrace love when the conditions present themselves. Even when there is no specific person to be the object of desire, anyone willing to love must hold out hope that such a person will appear. “Hopeless romantic”—at least in this context—is an oxymoron born of outsider cynicism—hope is inherent in love.

Hope, too, is intrinsic to Palestinians. How else could we go on? Even before this current and most fast-paced genocide, Gaza has been destroyed by conquerors ten times throughout its history, and Palestine as a whole was occupied by the British before the Zionists, and the Ottoman Empire before them. Each time, our people have persevered—which is not to say that we haven’t suffered great losses, but that we have so much hope in the value of living that we will not go quietly to extinction. 

And yet, when most people in the Western world think of Palestinians, our abundant love and hopefulness are not top of mind. When I meet someone new and tell them I’m Palestinian, the most common response is, “I’m so sorry about the occupation.” 

This isn’t a bad or wrong thing to say, and I certainly prefer that to some hateful alternative, but I long for a response that’s more aligned with my full humanity. So much of the news around my people is about our suffering, dispossession, and genocide at the hands of Zionists, but as humans, we experience the full range of emotions—including love, joy, hope, and happiness. Yet, we’re so often reduced to our struggles for basic human rights and longing for a homeland we can’t safely return to. 

As such, I challenged myself to write about love in a sincere, authentic way because I want people to understand us beyond the conditions forced upon us. What about the conditions we chose, the ones we want? Everyone wants to feel love, but so often, at least for us and other marginalized people, that seemingly universal experience is clouded by destruction. 

I decided that every time I perform my poems about Palestine at readings, I will also incorporate my love poems into the performance. This is not to make the audience more comfortable or to make me more palatable to them, but so the audience will see me as a full person. 

In doing so, I learned that my love poems, perhaps even more than my poems explicitly about Palestine, are the most Palestinian thing about me. Every love poem is a Palestine poem, and every Palestine poem is a love poem. 

Here, too, I’m reminded of more of Darwish’s words:  “Out of my ignorance, I called you a homeland and I forgot that my homelands are taken away.” Love and Palestine are inextricably linked, and regardless of what Western sensibilities say about how love poems should or should not be written, in the millennia of tradition of my people, I owe it to myself to keep trying.