photo provided by Farah Chamma
The very first time I met Farah was at the university cafeteria. In fact, I saw her thick, curly mane before actually seeing her. She is the kind of person with an inquisitive spark in her eyes that you know for sure the moment you meet her: She has got to be someone fascinating.
I was right: She is a budding twenty year-old Palestinian poet well known in the poetry scene of the United Arab Emirates. Like everyone else, my curiosity rocketed when I learnt that she took off her veil (the hijab) a year after putting it on. What does it mean to be Palestinian? What does the veil mean in Islam? These are the first questions that came up in my mind. In reality, however, Farah would much prefer people to see her as someone more than a just Palestinian who tried to wear the veil. We often forget that a Palestinian is not just a Palestinian, and Islam is not just about the veil. To kick off the interview, I asked Farah to describe herself with three adjectives. She said she was “calm, pensive, and my favorite is existential”. But why existential? “I am always in a state of questioning and doubting everything.” I said it is a very philosophical attitude, and perfectly suited to the fact that she is now finishing her second year of philosophy and sociology at the Paris-Sorbonne University of Abu Dhabi. Philosophy teaches you to analyze the core of the problem, the enjeu, like how the French put it.
“When you study philosophy, you learn to put in question everything. It can be very tiring though, because it is always easier to just go with the flow. That is what most people do.” Indeed, philosophy is epitomized by the Cartesian table rase : to clear up obsolete ideas and put up new ones. But Farah just wouldn’t let go, “so do we have to put up new ideas?”
“The Veil Year”
It is hard not to ask Farah about religion, when you know that she had put on the veil knowing that her own mother is strongly against it, and took it off a year later. Yet she maintains that “The veil year was one of the most thought provoking years of my life.” Interesting. So what is the role of religion in your life? “It is the center of my life. When I was 14 or 15, I used to do everything people said I should do in Islam.”
This doesn’t seem very coherent to the critical mind of a philosopher, I thought. “I used to not put nail polish because you can’t pray with it, these kinds of little rules that people say to be religious, but then you really don’t know. You have customs and traditions that become rules in religions.”This is especially true in the Middle East, where culture and religion are almost inseparable.
“But when I wore the veil I started to feel that what I was doing isn’t right. We are told to wear it only when there are men around, so I was assuming that men are animals, but they are not, and I hated this idea.” An unusual situation forced her to rethink the meaning of such regions practice that she thought the most difficult to accomplish. “One day a girl came up to me to say that she liked me, in the romantic sense. Then what should I do now? There is no rule that tells you to wear the veil in front of a lesbian.”
This embarrassing dilemma became a turning point in Farah’s search for faith. “I walked on the beach in Brazil wearing the veil and people were so shocked! Here they say you should wear it in order to not seek attention, but in Brazil you would seek all the attention with it.” Realizing that religion has to be put back into its time and context, she finally decided to take off the veil, and was very glad to have done so. It is not as easy as taking off a hat, when her mother stopped talking to her for one week when she started wearing it, whereas some of her friends stopped talking to her when she took it off again. An act that was meant to be a proof of faith has turned out to be a reflection on faith. “I started to distinguish between faith and religion. I think faith is something universal and human, anyone can believe in something. I can believe in God, others can believe in something else, even non-believers believe.”
She admits that her question of religion does not bring her more reassurance, but she is sincere in her questions and simply wants “to be able to sleep at night believing in something I feel comfortable with.” But it is not easy as she would like it to be. “It is very difficult to talk about this. I won’t tell this to a journalist because it is too controversial, especially in this country. People would react very negatively if they hear you say that you are doubting Islam. But here don’t they always say that people are free in their religious convictions? Yes, but not when you are from Islam. You can’t talk about doubt freely.”
The Emirates welcome people of different convictions, but any criticism of Islam remains a criminal offence. Farah realizes that the country only allows room for faith, but little for doubt. “The Quran tells you doubt is okay, but people don’t. It is ironic.” She believes nevertheless that doubt allows her to become more intimate with her religion, and it is the road to true faith. “When you doubt, you start to read very attentively. I don’t read the Quran because I have to, but because I want to understand it.”
However, Farah believes there are worse things than doubt. “Indifference, because your mind becomes stagnant. Like agnostics, they are like, ‘maybe, maybe not’, but they don’t work to get to somewhere.” Like all things, Farah believes the most important is to question and to learn. “When you are eager to learn, no one can blame you, no one can tell you what you are doing is wrong. ”
She is after all a true lover of knowledge and wisdom. Her words reminded me of a myth from ancient China : a man ran for days and then years to chase after the sun because he wanted to find out where it went every evening. The wooden cane he planted into the soil just before he died of thirst and fatigue finally grew into the forests of the world, and his body became the mountains. I think it is a beautiful story.
Fluent in four languages, Farah’s linguistic passion cultivates her poetry, but she dislikes the idea of nationality, which is undetachable from language, and referred to it as “A passport, an identity card, no less.” in her poem The Nationality. Being Palestinian, however, is her national identity, but not her nationality. She belongs to all those who are born refugees, denied a natural nationality. While nationality is taken for granted by most people, Palestinians are stateless – they are denied the right to return to their homeland since the exodus of the wars of 1948 and 1967, and every benefit that people who belong to a nation enjoy.
In the same poem, Farah also denounces the lack of political goodwill from Arab states to shelter their fellow Muslim brothers and sisters exiled from Palestine, as opposed to the warm welcome she received from the Brazilian government. Farah is just one out of millions. “It is a phenomenon to want to get foreign papers with the unstable situation in the Arab world. It is about securing you life, because you can’t travel when you have Palestinian documents. At some point you just feel how unfair it is.” The tragedy of the permanent conflict is the fact that she, among others, remains as refugees even when she is born outside and after the wars.
Farah expresses the burden she has inherited from her identity as “My Arab identity antagonizes me / It melts in my chest like ice, as another Cold War”. Although she is glad to be able to finally obtain a passport, she feels alienated and does not identify to the new Brazilian nationality that she expects to receive. Like “an alien in this endless exile / A lost flock bird”.
To her, the concept of nationality is therefore ultimately inadequate to contain what streams from a nation, its history, and its people.
On the Palestinian question, Farah is caught between two contradictory forces: it is something that is close to her, and yet she also looks to distance herself from it. Does the death of Sharon mean something to you? I asked. “You mean, the fact that he is officially dead? (laughs) well it didn’t mean anything to me. In my childhood memories he seemed like an unpleasant man, a monster. I didn’t really understand. They just said we should speak good of the dead. ‘Sharon is dead. Good.’ I loved this joke.”
Despite her distance from the “real” Palestine, because she has never been to her homeland, she thinks it is necessary to redraw from her own identity in the understanding of the issue. “I try to forget that I am Palestinian and to focus onto the conflict itself from an objective point of view.”
Like what you said in your poem, you wish there were no nationalities. “Yes. It is not because I speak the Palestinian accent or eat Palestinian food that makes me pro Palestine.” Farah is the daughter of her history, but her distance from it may give the Palestinian cause a form of power that is even stronger than one’s sense of identity to it. “When you really love a country, it is because you have been there and you feel nostalgia. But I have never lived there, so Palestine is a dream to me, something I read about or saw on TV. I am trying to understand it as a non-Palestinian.”
In her poetry, she wrote: “I am no Palestinian / and that is exactly what made the Palestinian in me”. But if a problem is seen objectively and from different points of view then wouldn’t some people say it is wrong, while others say it is right? “If you are a person looking for justice and not for the victory of one side, if you are not biased, it is so easy to be pro Palestine.” In her poetry, Farah’s often takes inspiration from things that touch her personally: the veil, Palestine, nationality and identity. Poetry is however something that goes beyond such scope in her life.
“[Poetry] encourages me to read and to write more, and to work on myself as a person. It has become a way of life, I have a poetry event almost every week.” When asked if poetry might be intimidating to some people,Farah answers that it has to be suited to its audience, and a good poet should be mindful of what its audience would be interested in. T
o her, spoken words is a poetic form that is shorter and more precise than its theatrical counterpart, easier to be written and filmed, and faster to spread on social media, therefore fundamentally more powerful than other traditional literary forms that might be intimidating to some people. “We would just go to a café and do spoken words, so it is very casual and close to the audience.”
Having written more than seven poems about Palestine, Farah nevertheless said she would never want to limit her subject to just one. “I have written a lot on the Palestinian subject and I told myself that’s boring. Limiting it to one subject will limit my creativity.”
An albatross, not a nombriliste
As an ending note, I asked Farah what animal she would like to become. She said she would like to become a bird, but she doesn’t know which type. Then we tried to figure it out together: definitely not a lovebird, nor a swan, because it is too feminine. She finally settled on the albatross, “something graceful that flies over the sea.”
This suits her wanderlust pretty well, as she said herself, “It is always better to unstabilize yourself. Move whenever you feel stable. Keep on doing new things even when you are stable. Your mind will see things from different perspectives and it keeps you from being nombriliste, someone always looking at his own bellybutton. I want to move once every few months or a few years. But I am always worried about the visa, enshallah.”
Farah had planned to host a series of poetry workshops in Morocco this week, but she didn’t get her visa just a few days before her expected departure. Then several hundreds of her Internet fans started a petition to the Moroccan consulate and, almost miraculously, her visa was issued the night before her departure. It seems like the albatross is finally getting some luck, or maybe blessing, with her visas. I hope it will keep flowing.
Check out her most viewed poetry performance on Youtube :
and her Facebook fanpage: https://www.facebook.com/farahchammaofficial