Suheir Hammad: A Biography

Jennifer Joseph, Kellie Leonce, Olivia Kahn, Stephanie Apollon

Ryan Gallagher

AP Literature Period 7

23 February 2010

Suheir Hammad: A Biography

I.  Breaking the Mold

Olivia Kahn

Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian-American poet known for her powerful political poetry.  She was born in October of 1973 in Amman, Jordan and mentions that Golda Meir had said, “I cannot sleep at night knowing how many Arab babies are being born this same night,” exactly one year before she was born. Her parents were refugees from Palestine, but they immigrated to Brooklyn, New York after her sister, Sabrine, was born in Beirut. Hammad was five years old at the time and said that she doesn’t remember much of her travels, but does say she can remember the violence that occurred there (Khan Part 1). 

Hammad is the eldest of five children, all of whom grew up in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Her parents were from the Tel-Aviv area, and neither of them had a strict Palestinian upbringing. Her family immigrated to New York because her parents didn’t have anymore “economic options” in the surrounding countries of Jordan and Lebanon (Knopf-Newman par.7).

            Her parents raised their family with the teachings of the Koran, and Hammad learned from an early age that the writings in this book were the “most perfect poetry in the world.”  Both her mother and her father had exhibited a strong interest in poetry and teaching the national anthems of Palestine to Hammad and her siblings. Her father had even described some of the national freedom fighters of Palestine as poets. However, despite their teachings, Hammad has said that she was never encouraged to write herself (Handal par. 8).

            Hammad carried the teachings of the Koran with her throughout her life and she developed her own interpretation of them, using these thoughts in her poetry. She was told stories of her grandparents and their lives in Palestine, understanding at an early age “a sense of loss,” because of the struggles her family went through with being evicted from several locations (“Palestinian Americans”). Her life in Brooklyn, Hammad has said, was not much different from the stories she heard about her parents’ life in the Middle East. She was a refugee, a “minority among minorities,” and grew up with visibly present violence from the immigrants all around her. Even though she hadn’t been to Palestine, she still didn’t feel that separation because the two places seemed the same in her mind (Khan Part 2).

            Hammad’s cultural and religious up-bringing left her feeling displaced wherever she went. This had a great impact on her, because as a mostly isolated child, she quickly developed a hobby of reading and writing. She was taught the origins of her family and what their life was like when they lived in Palestine. Her parents also told her of their hardships when they came to America. When Hammad would talk to the immigrant children in her neighborhood, she found that all of their stories sounded alike and she became interested in hearing more of their history (Brown par. 6).  This helped her to personalize her poems and develop a unique writing style. Hammad believes that the best type of writing is the kind that comes from ones’ own experiences, especially from culture and politics (Rodriguez par. 34).

            Hammad takes into account the situation of her people in Palestine. Although she doesn’t live there, she understands them and feels connected to them (Handal par. 6). As a female and a second generation American poet, she is also privileged because if she had lived in Palestine, she would never have gotten the chance to vocalize her poetry. Hammad is a strikingly strong woman because of all that she does with her poetry, in spite of the reputation the Muslim race has in America. In an interview with Laura Flanders, Hammad made it clear that she was aware of the thoughts and judgments imposed upon the Muslim race; she was aware of the fear that surrounded her people. However, she never lost faith in her religion and her culture, as can be seen in almost every one of her poems. Hammad notes that the inspiration for the title of her book, Breaking Poems, came from a devastating event between Palestine and Israel, when Israeli armies bombarded Lebanon. She describes her feelings around this as “broken” and “disillusioned,” unable to put the right words together (Flanders 13:00).  Her poems in this book are about the anger and the attacks Palestinian people have felt and endured.

            One of the most important characteristics to note about Hammad is that even with the stereotypes and the hate, she does not judge and she does not blame. In her poem, “Mike Check”, from her book ZaatarDiva, Hammad mentions how she is always checked at the airport during the ‘random’ passenger checks. She uses her anger that Americans display against the Muslim race to create strong poetry.  She writes about a moment or an experience through her own words and eyes. She understands how Americans “want to censor and degrade something as soon as [they] don’t understand it” and knows that it’s “discouraging” for poets to write about things that are outside of their “private sphere” (Rodriguez par. 23). This knowledge doesn’t stop her from writing what she feels. Hammad takes her freedom and her voice and writes her own story through poetry, a gift translated into several languages for the entire world.

 

II. For the Love of Poetry

Kellie Leonce

 After Suheir Hammad’s family immigrated to Brooklyn New York when she was five years old, Hammad was raised in New York until she was sixteen. While Hammad was in high school, her parents moved to Staten Island (“Suheir Hammad Biography”, par. 1). As a child dealing with immigration, Hammad’s parents’ view of education was blinded by typical jobs viewed as “successful” by society. She was limited to the professions of law and medicine, jobs with which that her parents were familiar. Hammad went against her parent’s wishes. She did not want to become a lawyer or a doctor. Instead, she pursued her dreams of becoming a writer. Following high school, Hammad enrolled in Hunter College. Her majors included Cross-Cultural Literature and Women’s Studies. Even as a young student, Hammad displayed a love for reading and writing. Her studies in college further enhanced Hammad in her style and perspective of writing. She was capable of focusing more on cultural differences in society, as well as gender differences at the same time (Steinem, sec. 1-2).

Hammad was heavily interested in learning and studying, but she felt as though “institutions [were] not here to serve the needs of poetry, which in many ways call [sic] for the questioning, if not the erasure of, authority and cannon” (Hammad, Email to Olivia Kahn).  In order to further get her message across and fill the void she had in her life through poetry and writing (Brown, sec. 1), Hammad focused more on her personal aspirations, and “did not graduate college” (Hammad, Email to Olivia Kahn).

 Suheir Hammad’s life in New York opened many doors after her immigration to the States with her parents. Growing up in New York, Hammad was exposed to many ethnicities and cultures. Hammad’s Palestinian upbringing contributed to her feelings of insecurity within her peers. She always felt like she was different from everyone else, like a “minority within a minority” because she was raised in a Black and Hispanic community. Her participation in an urban, hip-hop community influenced Hammad’s style and performance which was found in her own backyard (Khan, part 1).

Although Hammad’s experiences in New York brought her to where she is today, she also faced some difficulties in such a diverse community. Hammad’s “friends were the other kids who got picked on”. Because Hammad’s friends were even more different from their structured Hispanic and Black community, they were easy targets. The mentality of a “minority within a minority” applied to Hammad and her friends. She stated that she has “been thinking lately about how friendships can save our lives”. Hammad feels as though friends can be such a powerful energy to help overcome obstacles and is very thankful for them (Hammad, Email to Olivia Kahn).  Hammad currently lives in New York where she writes and performs poems on the HBO series Def Poetry Jam (Knopf-Newman, par. 3).

Hammad’s life in New York contributes greatly to her success in writing and performance. New York taught Hammad about cultural acceptance, and also influenced her to look deeper into her own appreciation of Palestine.

 

III.  Self Discovery

Stephanie Apollon

             Suheir Hammad’s love for literature is part of the foundation of her career as a writer. From the time Suheir Hammad was a little girl, she always loved to read. She first realized she could write when she was around the ages of seven to nine. She loved to read and had a fascination with different authors (Khan). Hammad was also influenced by her parent’s Arabic, The Quran, and hip hop music (Rodriguez).

            When Suheir Hammad was in her twenties, her poems had a sense of trying to find a connection with her heritage and also discovering her self identity. Along with that theme, many of Hammad’s poems have a very political stance to them (Brown).  When the series for Def Poetry was in production, Suheir Hammad was not at first chosen. She was asked for a video of her self reading her poems but she did not have any so by September 2001, other poets were chosen over her.  A week after the events of September 11th 2001, Hammad wrote a poem called, “First Writing Since” in New York and by the time she was on HBO her poem had been translated “into twelve languages, published in dozens of journals, and went around the world” (Khan).

            Suheir Hammad was published at the age of twenty two (Khan).  Her first two books, Born Palestinian, Born Black and Drops of this Story focus mainly on her life growing up. In these books she reveals family experiences she lived through. From her book Born Black she wanted to send a message that was positive when reflecting on ones self. The title of the book, Born Black, all has to do with her message of empowerment. She states in an interview with Nathalie Handal that in Palestine and even around the world, being black was looked down upon. With this, she tries to empower the idea of being “born black” as a way of empowerment, and positivity (Handal). In her memoir, Drops of this Story, she exposes her life story and what it was like for her to grow up as a Palestinian-American which gives audiences a more candid look into her life. Other topics Suheir Hammad often focuses on in her poetry are issues such as sexism, violence and other challenges that women face (“Palestinian Americans: Suheir Hammad Poet and Author”). In her book, Breaking Poems, Hammad states that the Israeli bombardment of Lebanon is what influenced a new transition from her other books with a “bold and explosive style” creating a “new language” all her own (“Breaking Poems: Suheir Hammad”)

            Whenever Suheir Hammad reads a poem, she interprets the words however she hears it being said in her head. But Hammad also breads her own energy into her poems with her soul. Suheir Hammad also writes poems in order for them to sound the way she thinks. In her poem, “Break”, Hammad explained that she wanted a language to make sense so she wrote the poem to sound the way that she thinks inside her head (“Feature Suheir Hammad”). Not only are Suheir Hammad’s poems powerful in written form, but when Suheir Hammad reads her poems, she recites them with confidence and conviction bringing her poems to life. “I will not dance to your war drum / I will not lend my soul nor my bones to your war drum / I will not dance to your beating / I know that beat / it’s lifeless…” (“Def Poetry – Suheir Hammad – What I Will”).

            Suheir Hammad’s role in the Palestinian film, Salt of the Sea, is about an American girl who tries to go back to Palestine and is not allowed to have Palestinian citizenship.  Her role as an actress explores the experience the place has on her family. The movie has political inspiration from her own views while she also tries to find her self. In the movie class differences are explored, as well as Palestinian life through her character's love life, and confrontation with the privilege of her life (Tarachanksy). Through her film, she wishes to communicate an emotion to the audience which emphasizes her feminist ideals (Flanders). Suheir Hammad thought that she would never get the change to leave Brooklyn, New York, but because of her poetry, she had the opportunity to travel around the world and has been every place she’s wanted to go because of her poetry (Khan). For Suheir Hammad, her poetry helps her to make a connection between her and her culture. Unlike other poets, Hammad tries to be as raw as possible when speaking of her parent’s culture which is different from the rules of many other Palestinian poets. She does not allow herself to be restrained in her poetry, but rather stands up and state that she does not agree with certain aspects of her culture, while also embracing that culture at the same time (Brown). When Suheir Hammad writes, she has a sense of fearlessness that makes her poetry and all her confident writing enjoyable.

             

IV. Drops of Hammad

Jennifer Joseph

Suheir Hammad is a famous Palestinian-American poet who has won awards such as “The Audre Lorde Poetry Award, a Van Lier Fellowship, and a Sister of Fire Award (“Breaking Poems: Suheir Hammad”).  Suheir Hammad is also “the recent winner of a 2009 American Book Award” (Rodriguez, par. 1 sec.2).  Because of her writing, Suheir Hammad is also “the recipient of the Morris Center for Healing Poetry Award, a New York Mills Artist Residency, and an Emerging Artist Award from the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Institute at New York University… She has performed her work on Broadway in the Tony-award-winning Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam, as well as with several musical groups” (Knopf-Newman, par.2). Even though Hammad is only in her late thirties, she has already accomplished many important things as an uprising artist.

Hammad uses her poetry to show her perspective toward the world. Through her poetry and books she is able to communicate with the reader or listener to show her political views. She is able to demonstrate the struggles faced by those forced to leave their homes and their attempt at reclaiming power that they feel they have lost through the confusion. In Christopher Brown’s interview with Suheir Hammad, she speaks of her childhood as a Palestinian woman, “And so this idea that my parents gave me this entire history of displacement and the refugee crisis around the world… then I would go to school and not only would this narrative not exist, the narrative that was put in place was the opposite of it—the idea that the Palestinians were inherently violent and that they were inherently anti-Jewish” (Brown, par.6). She feels that many people just group those from different cultures in a cluster and she uses her art to show the world things that they’ve often overlooked when it comes to foreigners such as Palestinians. In her poems she is able to channel things from her life such as relating to women’s struggle.

Hammad uses her creativity to connect with members of society. In one of her interviews with Christopher Brown, she elaborates on her view on living in a predominately black community by saying “If you are a woman or a man of color, you are at a disadvantage under White male supremacy” (Brown, par.16). She incorporates both her life and that of the reader in her poetry. She believes that through reading people can gain knowledge, which would help them get a better understanding of political movements around them.  She continues, “So many people are being monitored—their personal and public lives are being monitored…” (Brown, par.19). Based on the interview with Brown, Hammad seems to feel that here in America things are changing for the worse because people are losing some of their liberties.

Hammad fights for what she believes. For instance, through her writing she attempts to make a change. In “A Talk with Palestinian Poet Born Black”, one of the things that was said about her books is that, “What the book tries to do is take back the negative energy that is associated with black, reclaim it, and say that this is something that is about survival—something that is positive” (Handal, par.4).  Her political and social views are very direct in her books and poems, and she is able to capture people’s attention to talk about things that matter. She merges different cultures through her work and she finds a way to make them connect.

 

 Works Cited

 

Avery, Camden. "Def Jam Poet, Activists Packs List." The Brown Daily Herald. 12 April 2009. 25 January 2010.

"Breaking Poems: Suheir Hammad." Cypher Books. 22 Oct. 2008. 

Brown, Christopher. Interview with Suheir Hammad. The Electronic Intifada. Jun. 2006. 25 Jan. 2010. 

“Def Poetry - Suheir Hammad - What I Will.” 2007. Youtube. 25 Jan 2010.

“Feature Suheir Hammad.” Youtube. 2008. 25 Jan. 2010.

Flanders, Laura. Interview with Suheir Hammad. "Breaking Poems and Breaking Stereotypes: An Interview with Suheir Hammad." Current. 2008. 25 Jan 2010.

Hammad, Suheir. "No Subject." E-mail to Olivia Kahn. 9 Feb. 2010.

Hammad, Suheir. Zaatar Diva. New York: Cypher Books, 2006.

Handal, Nathalie. Interview with Suheir Hammad. “Drops of Suheir Hammad: A Talk With A Palestinian Poet Born Black.” Aljadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts. 1997. 25 Jan. 2010.

Khan, Riz. Interview with Suheir Hammad. “One on One: Suheir Hammad.” Youtube. 29 March 2009. 25 Jan. 2010.

Khan, Riz. Interview with Suheir Hammad. “One on One: Suheir Hammad (Part 2).” Youtube. 29 March 2009. 25 Jan. 2010.

Knopf-Newman, Marcy. Interview with Suheir Hammad. “Interview with Suheir Hammad.” Goliath. Dec. 2006. 25 Jan. 2010.

"Palestinian Americans: Suheir Hammad Poet and Author." Institute For The Middle East. 25 January 2010. 

Rodriguez, John. Interview with Suheir Hammad. “Suheir Hammad: A Diva Supreme.” Mosaic Magazine. Jan. 2007. 25 Jan. 2010.

"Suheir Hammad Biography." Famous Poems and Poets.  4 Feb. 2010.

Steinem, Gloria. Interview with Suheir Hammad. In Conversation: Gloria Steinem and Suheir Hammad. New York Magazine. Sep. 2008. 25 Jan. 2010.

Tarachansky, Lia. Interview with Suheir Hammad. Youtube. 2008. 25 Jan 2010.

 

 

 

 

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