Fadwa Tuqan: A Romantic Feminist Poet and Reluctant Political Witness

Emaleah Shackleton
Web-based images of Fadwa Tuqan.
Fadwa Hafez Tuqan is perhaps the most famous and well-loved woman poet in Palestine. Fadwa would have loved to have kept writing poetry about personal and social subjects, but the political earthquakes of 1948 and 1967 turned her away from this course toward politics. Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s most eminent poet, considers the “1967 earthquake” to have made her stray away from her poetic bounds. 
In his eulogy, “Fadwa,” published in the latest issue of Al Karmel journal, Darwish masterfully captures her predicament of not being fully content with this change: “What does the poet do at the time of catastrophe? Suddenly the poet has to get out of himself to the outside, and poetry is the witness.” He adds, “She visited us in Haifa...a hostage seeking hostages, and read us her first poem about the new ordeal: ‘I will not cry.’ But she was crying like a dove. Love songs ceased to be the answer to hate and inhumanity – to the condition that prevents words from continuing their previous escape from their trap, to preventing the continuing search for ‘pure poetry,’ and to preventing the character from revealing his personality.”
Darwish also eulogized her as “our great sister,” writing that “She said farewell to her colleagues from the window of her home in Nablus just as she had said good-bye to dozens of loved ones and martyrs. Were it not for love, that love which is the condition of her life, she would have been Al-Khansa of the Arab-Palestinians in a country where death became the master of writing.” Yassir Arafat considered Fadwa Tuqan “Palestine’s great poetess” as he sent his condolences to her family following her recent death in mid-December.  
Tuqan is more than a mere national Palestinian symbol. Many scholars and observers find her life much richer, particularly citing her three-fold rebellion against her conservative upbringing, repressive society, and traditional genre in Arabic poetry and autobiography. She wrote and spoke candidly of her own life experiences, was a strong feminist voice in a male-dominated society, and added a humanist dimension to the Palestinian national struggle. Although there are other noteworthy Palestinian women poets, Tuqan was the first to dedicate her life to writing poetry.
 At a time when only men wrote and read poetry, Fadwa was not just a woman poet but a woman who dared to challenge patriarchal and male dominated society; and at a time when the art of autobiography (or “confessions,” as it translates in Arabic) was non-existent, Fadwa was unique not only in telling the world about herself and her family, but also in doing so as a woman. Modern Arabic literature lacked the daring honesty of her work, which tackled topics such as love and rebellion in a society that demanded obedience, writes Sakr Abou Fakhr in the Lebanese daily As Safir. Abou Fakhr, whose article was titled “The Mother of Palestinian Poetry,” goes on to say that her autobiography is one of the most beautiful books of confession, autobiography and revelation to have appeared in the last two decades of the 20th century; it is only rivaled by Muhammad Chokri’s “The Plain Bread” and Edward Said’s “Out of Place.”
Fadwa’s early childhood was a combination of bitterness and tragedy. She was born into an influential Palestinian family in the conservative city of Nablus around 1917, although the exact date of her birth remains unknown. Her autobiography, press reports and interviews reveal that her mother not only did not remember her birth date but did not want her in the first place, and even attempted to abort her. Her mother had very little to do with Fadwa during her early years; the young girl looked forward to colds and the flu because they were the only times her mother would dote on her. Otherwise, Fadwa came to know the “beautiful things” which were considered taboo in her own home through her aunt. “If I became attached to my aunt more than my mother, I became also more attached to my uncle, Al-Haj Hafez, more than my father,” according to her last interview with the London-based Arabic daily, Al Quds al-Arabi. She describes her uncle’s death in 1927 as “the first tragedy of loss I had known.” She went on to describe her uncle’s treatment of the family to be open and simple, saying that “he joked and participated in our childish games.” On the other hand, her father was strikingly different: “My father was cold and did not allow us an opportunity to get close to him.” Her father’s dual personality was perplexing to the young Fadwa, as he was quite open and warm toward her cousins but not to his own children. “He used to refer to me in the formal absent tense even if I was in the room,” she said, “He would say to my mother ‘tell the daughter to do this and that.’” 
Fadwa’s childhood outside home was painful as well. She attended school until the age of 13, but when a boy followed her to class and presented her with a flower, her strict father forbade her to return to school and thus Fadwa was cloistered in her home for the next period of her life. She remained functionally illiterate until her brother, the famous poet Ibrahim Tuqan, returned after he completed his studies at the American University in Beirut to take a teaching job in Palestine. One of his immediate tasks was to teach his sister at home. 
Her brother’s return in 1929 filled the emotional vacuum left by the death of her uncle. The first gift Fadwa had ever received was from him, and when he settled in Nablus, a new life began for her. Ibrahim, according to his sister, was aware of Fadwa’s intuitive interest in poetry and thus took it upon himself to guide her, giving her lessons in poetry and literature. She described her brother’s instruction in the Al Quds interview as being like “a return to a lost heaven.” This relationship between Fadwa and Ibrahim prepared her to write the first and the only book on him, according to As Safir Daily.
As Fadwa’s own poetic voice developed, she began to express her confinement. She addressed the position of women in Palestine in the 1920s and ’30s as well as their lack of educational and cultural opportunities. Her early work often combines elements of captivity and longing with elements from the natural world. She was initially influenced by the Mahjar poets – predominantly Lebanese ex-patriots living in America – and began writing in a romantic style that was personal, and at times, pastoral. In “The Seagull and the Negation of the Negation,” the Seagull arrives 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
Yet later in the poem, despite the darkness within her world and the suffocating, stifling atmosphere, the seagull does bring good news. 
…I know now 
That during hard times, standing in the tunnel of silence,
All things change.
The seed sprouts even in the heart of the dead,
Morning burst forth from darkness.
…the horizon parted, and the house greeted the light of day. 
The optimism in these lines can be read as describing the poet’s liberation from her restricted life. After her father’s death in 1948, which coincided with the Palestinian Nakba, Fadwa wrote, “When the roof fell on Palestine, the veil fell from the face of the Nablus women.” (Incidentally, Fadwa’s mother was the first woman in Nablus to lift the veil.) All at once, “young and educated women could mix freely with their male counterparts,” wrote Lawrence Joffe in The Guardian.
Yet despite her newfound liberty, Fadwa Tuqan did not feel at once entirely free. She described herself as “armless”; facing people outside her home was difficult as she did not feel herself to be experienced and resourceful, according to an Al Quds interview. “Books are not sufficient to know life and human relationships with all their complexities.”
Fadwa’s multiple difficulties and the struggle to overcome them was noted by Mahmoud Darwish, who writes that “Fadwa did not live as she desired,” adding that she did not want “everything explicit.” In “ambiguity,” Darwish writes, “there is interpretation. Whenever we met, she said to me: ‘How much I wish to discover my road to certain ambiguity in poetry.’ She sought ambiguity so she could say more than she said, or perhaps express what was repressed in her heart, for she believed that there is freedom in ambiguity and a poetic license that cannot be seduced by naming the obvious.”
In 1957 Tuqan wrote “I Found It,” a poem that is largely about internal self-discovery: “My soul found/ My soul.” The poem, which is imbued with a clear vision of her destiny, was written when Tuqan was in England, where she would study English literature at Oxford. She traveled extensively in Europe and the Middle East and her poetry came to be more visceral, “borrow[ing] motifs from her life in exile and mingling them with daring expressions of untrammeled sensuality,” wrote Joffe in The Guardian.
Not only was Fadwa Tuqan’s poetry becoming more experiential, it was also becoming more politicized. Despite the fact that she did not belong to any political party and was initially averse to writing political poems, her writing changed after 1967. Previously her father had tried to persuade her to write political poetry like the rousing call-to-arms style poems of her brother, but in her autobiography, “Mountainous Journey,” Fadwa recalls the resentment and indignation with which she met this encouragement. Having been forcibly left out of political discussion by her parents and thus brought up little acquainted with politics, she felt unable to express the experiences of her land and people. However, by the events of 1967 she was liberated and felt compelled to write about their consequences, Tuqan began a political life. She became a master of free verse, and of interweaving the individual voice with the national identity of Palestine. In “I Found It,” this analogy is implicit; being Palestinian is more than geographical, there is the sense that one carries the land in one’s soul. 
In “My Sad City” Nablus is personified, holding its breath, choking on the day of Zionist occupation. Yet Fadwa Tuqan does what her late poet brother could not, palpably expressing a maternal sadness for the state of her nation and of humanity at large. In “Eytan in the Steel Trap,” Tuqan speaks of the loss of innocence of a young Israeli child on a kibbutz.
Eytan my child,
You are the victim, drowning in lies,
And like you, Eytan, the harbor is sunk in a sea of lies
With the head of a dragon 
And a thousand arms
Alas, alas!
If only you could remain the child, the human being!
Sadly, the child is born into the “steel trap,” the man-made edifice of thought that will reshape and mutate his innocent human life. Tuqan expands upon this idea in “Song of Becoming,” where young, innocent children play at fighting and sadly grow into their weapons.
They’re only boys
Who used to frolic and play
Launching rainbowed kites
Whistling, leaping,
Trading easy laughter and jokes
Dueling with branches pretending, to be great heroes in history.
Now suddenly they’ve grown, 
grown more than the years of a normal life…
They’ve grown to become trees
Plunging deep roots into the earth,
Stretching high towards the sun…
These children eventually “face sullen tanks with streams of stones” becoming “the worshiped and the worshipers” and eventually “their torn limbs merge with the stuff of our earth.” While celebrating sacrifice, the poem also laments the loss of innocence explored in “Eytan” from another perspective. By establishing (here with beautiful arboreal metaphors) links in the common humanity of both peoples, and through associations with living and dead Palestinian poets, we know Fadwa was a champion of peaceful co-existence of the two peoples and was certainly admired by members of both. “Young Arab Americans read her work to rediscover their roots; Israeli and Jewish feminists divined a sympathetic resonance from their sister across the ‘green line,’” wrote Joffe in The Guardian.
In remembering Fadwa, Mahmoud Darwish, who knew and visited with her, offers a very perceptive analysis of her poetry, especially dealing with her link between the individual/romantic and the political: “It is true that Fadwa wrote poetry about the Palestinian tragedy, and why would she not! But her subdued voice was different: it was the voice in love, in pain, the contemplative, and the lonely, which does not resemble another voice; she was simultaneously in and out of the group.” 
Fadwa’s poetry cannot be reduced to politics and agitation, although her poet brother certainly occupied that role. Again, Darwish remains unrivaled in capturing the essence of Fadwa’s poetry: “She was contemporary with the Nakba poets and was not part of them; she was contemporary with the Arab modernist poets and was not part of them; and she was a contemporary with the resistance poets and was not part of them. She kept up her own poetic identity. And she also maintained what resembles the ‘constant’ in poetry – that is the romantic tendency. And she also guarded what resembles the ‘constant’ in romanticism – love.”
Fadwa Tuqan published eight collections of poems: “My Brother Ibrahim” (1946), “Alone with the Days” (1952), “I Found It” (1958), “Danos Love” (1960), “Before the Closed Door” (1967), “The Night and the Riders” (1969), “Alone on the Summit of the World” (1973), “July and the Other Anthem” (1989), and “The Last Toronda” (2000).  She also wrote two books, “Mountainous Journey: A Poet’s Autobiography” (1990) and “The More Difficult Journey” (1993). 
Fadwa Tuqan received the International Poetry Prize in Palermo, Italy, as well as awards in Greece and Jordan, the Jerusalem Award for Culture and Arts from the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1990, the United Arab Emirates Award, and the Honorary Palestine Prize for Poetry in 1996. Her work has been translated into English and Farsi.

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, No. 45 Fall 2003.

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