Poet Tusiata Avia wrestles with how to reconcile protesting war and Israeli friendships. (Photo: RNZ)

“I’ve been doing a strange dance with my Israeli friends since the beginning of this war,” writes Tusiata Avia.

 

Another message comes. This is what I’ve been avoiding for weeks. I’ve seen his email and it’s been sitting in my inbox unopened. It feels like a tiny bomb.

I’ve been doing a strange dance with my Israeli friends since the beginning of this war. After the first flurry of messages, a number of phrases are now stuck in my head:

“I can’t feel for the Palestinians, I’m with my tribe,” from one friend.

“At least it’s brought us all together,” from another.

“And then there’s Gaza,” the only words on the subject, from another.

In 1996, I lived in Egypt, on the Sinai peninsula, for a year. Israeli tourists came often to dive in the Red Sea and visit the small town I lived in. Every three months, I would take the three-hour drive to the Israeli border to renew my Egyptian visa. Each trip, I’d spend some time wandering in Israel and Palestine. I visited the friends I’d made in Egypt and I made new friends.

Later, when I lived in London, I returned again and again to visit those friends. The last time I was in Israel, I was there as a poet for the 2006 Jerusalem Poetry Festival.

So, I have some dear Israeli friends who go back a long way and now I’m not sure what to do.

In Sāmoan, we have a concept: the vā. The vā, in a nutshell, is the relational space between. My vā with each of my Israeli friends is different, of course, but there is a very dark shadow that sits across each one now. The collective vā is muddied. What is the right thing to do?

In 2015, my poem, I cannot write a poem about Gaza, was published in Israel. One or two long conversations with one or two friends resulted in permanent silence. The vā was broken. Another friend translated that poem (and a number of my poems over the years) into Hebrew. It’s out there in Poetry Place somewhere.

I finally open the message. My friend asks me if I will put together a book of my poems for translation into Hebrew and publication in Israel. He asks me to remember that there are liberal humans in Israel who oppose the destruction of Gaza. He tells me, rather oddly, that depressed (poetry-reading) people in Israel need cheering up. They are praying for hope.

If you know my poetry, you know it’s not for the cheering up of depressed Israelis. My poetry is not for the cheering up of colonisers and genociders of any stripe — in Aotearoa, in Australia, in Mother-England or Father-America.

For those with a stake in colonisation, my poems usually provoke anything from recognition to discomfort to denial (and accusations of racism) to hate mail and death threats.

I’m not here to cheer up anyone who has blood on their hands. Or anyone who is determined to be blind to the bloody hands around them. For those in Israel who are opposed to the genocide just over the border, I can only imagine how they live with that each day.

My friends of my age in Israel are former IDF soldiers (nearly everyone is). My friends who weren’t soldiers are the parents of soldiers.

I’m not saying I have answers. I have no answers. The other day a woman in Atlanta set herself on fire in protest outside the Israeli consulate. I’m not saying for one moment that anyone should do that.

What do we do as individual humans who live in Israel or Aotearoa or Atlanta or anywhere in the world? It’s easier perhaps to take to the streets and protest.

Let me rephrase that. It’s easier for me, because I’m not the teenager at the front of the line, face-to-face with the police and with possible injury or imprisonment. I’m not in a country where protesting may end in my death. I’m an advocate for public protest, but, I’m the middle-aged woman on crutches at the protest reading the poem before the group sets off to face whatever there is to face. Or not face.

Protesting is easier for me because it exists in a different vā. When I’m protesting, I am not kanohi ki te kanohi with dear friends of 20 years with 31,000 dead Palestinians between us.

What is the right thing to do?

Izzeldin Abuelaish, a friend, activist and the author of I will not Hate, models keeping dialogue open. Do I maintain the vā with my Israeli friends? Enter into back and forward online arguments? Keep writing poems and hope they read them in English? Register the dead who lie in our vā by refusing to publish in Israel?

What will a book of poetry in Hebrew achieve? Not all my poems are about Gaza. My poems these days are largely about colonisation and racism. Is that a good enough reason? Will my book land in Israel — with the Gaza poem at its centre — like a tiny bomb? Or is publishing in Israel while genocide rages just across the border an insensitive, and at worst, immoral act?

I’ve spent today reading about BDS and talking to my bestie in Germany, where things regarding Israel resemble a sort of insanity. Among the many madnesses, artists and venues relying on funding from the government (which is, like the government here, the biggest funder of the arts) have been pressured with blacklisting, shutdown, exclusion and accusations of antisemitism for even the mildest of criticisms of Israel or its current actions. Jewish artists are not exempt.

I am often unwell with seizures, so, we get a lot of Uber Eats. Even though my daughter loves junk food, we don’t order McDonalds or KFC or Pizza Hut. It’s a tiny thing we can do.

BDS is more than not eating Maccas, it’s also a cultural ban. A boycott by artists. So, after talking this through with my bestie, who is much wiser than me, I am ready.

Now, it’s time to enter the vā again. Now it’s time to not allow my poems to be translated or published in Israel. I hope that the vā will hold between my friend and me. Until the day the genocide stops, until Palestinians in Gaza can eat enough, drink enough, find proper shelter again and bury their dead with dignity.

Then, we can talk about poetry.

 

Tusiata Avia (Sāmoan-Pālagi) is an acclaimed poet, performer and writer who lives in Christchurch. She is the author of five poetry books and two stage shows (based on her books). Her show, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt tours in Australia 6-20 April. Her second show The Savage Coloniser Show will play in Aotearoa later this year. Tusiata was awarded the 2024 Prime Minister’s Award for Literature Poetry earlier this year.

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