Refaat Alareer’s ‘If I Must Die’ – ARABLIT & ARABLIT QUARTERLY


By Salih J Altoma 

“And in Gaza and the West Bank, a new generation of poets persists. The most famous, of course, is Refaat Alareer, who was murdered by an Israeli bomb in December 2023, and whose poem “If I Must Die” has rapidly become one of the most read and translated of the 21st century.” -Alex Skopic / Current Affairs (Jan/Feb 2024).

“Refaat’s poem, viewed 33 million times on Twitter, is the most famous poem written in my lifetime.” -Ken Chen/Nation (June 3, 2024).

1

“If I Must Die” stands out as only one of the early poems that leading Palestinian academic and poet Refaat Alareer (1979-2023) chose to write in English (not in Arabic, his native language). According to an interview published in Global Rights International Magazine in June 2018 and reprinted in the Kurdish newspaper ANF NEWS on October 19, 2018, Alareer began to write in English in 2008 during Israel’s offensive on Gaza. He seems to have felt obliged, to use his words, “to write back in English to reach out to the world to educate people about Palestine and save them from the dominant Israeli multi-million-dollar campaigns of misinformation.”

Alareer repeatedly considered and promoted the use of English as a primary tool of expression not only for his creative works, but as an effective means to reach directly (not through translation) a worldwide audience. He stated in the interview:

“… as much as I believe [in], and love, translation, I also believe that we need to train ourselves to express our concerns in the target language, here English…. Palestinians who are able to speak for themselves in other languages should do that directly.”

Alareer also made other references, in this interview, to his poems, his experience writing poetry, and the hope that he would be able to publish some of his creative works, saying:

“I am hoping I will invest more time and efforts into writing fiction and poetry. I have few unfinished texts that I am hoping to bring out to the world.”

Unfortunately, Alareer had no chance in his lifetime to see any of his poems published in a collection. It is only after his death that a posthumous collection of his poems and other writings is expected to be issued by OR Books (in London) in September 2024 under the title If I Must Die.

2

There is no doubt Alareer’s unique choice of English for his poems has contributed to the instant and direct reception of his “If I Must Die” across the world. No other Palestinian or Arabic poem in English translation has captured a comparable worldwide attention or empathetic response within a short time after its publication.

It was in the aftermath of Alareer’s tragic death in an Israeli air strike (December 6, 2023) that his poem went viral in America and around the world. It has since reached millions of readers and viewers by various means:

* Social media

* Newspapers and other publications, including recent dissertations

* Multiple translations (more than 100 languages)

* Public gatherings, vigils, or forums

* Artistic adaptations, poems, and other forms.

3

Given the fact that the poem spreads primarily by oral transmission with no publisher involved to promote it or track its circulation, we have no way to document its readership, although figures in the millions (10-30 million) have been suggested in writings relevant to the poem, such as it “has now been viewed almost 30 million times (Jonathan Edwards, December 14, 2023).

It is possible to use Google’s search for estimated figures, which vary from day to day, or any time you initiate it within a day. (A search on “If I Must Die” on February 26, 2023, for example,  yielded about 1,130,000 results in contrast to 560,000 results  on June 12, 2024.) This is not to suggest that Google’s figures represent only the circulation of Alareer’s poem. They include many similar or related titles; but they do help us have a broad view of the poem’s circulation.

Other indications that confirm the poem’s unusual circulation include the recent statement by Ken Chen “Refaat’s poem, viewed 33 million times on Twitter, is the most famous poem written in my lifetime,” or Alex Skopic’ s  reference to “If I Must Die” as “ one of the most read and translated of the 21st century” century.”

There are other databases which document “If I Must Die”’s global circulation within a brief period such as “Access World News” and “Nexis Uni.” The latter, as an example, provides access to hundreds of articles published in worldwide newspapers and other publications beginning with December 7, 2023 and through June 7, 2024.

4

Such references and remarks underscore the universal appeal of Alareer’s poem and its ability to resonate in different ways with diverse audiences. But they overlook its history by assuming, with rare exceptions, that “If I Must Die” was his last poem or that he wrote it weeks or days before his death. For recent examples, see:

…professor Refaat Alareer — so haunted by the daily devastation and the likelihood he and his own family would be targeted that in his final weeks, he wrote a poem called “If I must Die”—. Philadelphia Daily News April 9, 2024.

The event also included the reading of poem “If I Must Die” by Refaat Alareer, written weeks before he was killed in an airstrike. | Miami Hurricane, The: University of Miami April 3, 2024.

What has been missing from such comments is a historical perspective of two facts relevant to Alareer’s postings of “If I Must Die.”

First, as a poet, Alareer posted no fewer than 14 resistance-related poems, and some of his own translations, between 2011 and 2023. Another important fact is Alareer’s insistence on singling out “If I Must Die” as a symbol of his unyielding resistance to Israel’s oppressive occupation of his Palestinian homeland. He did so by posting or publishing the poem on at least three occasions: 2011-12, 2014, and 2023.

5

The poem was first posted on Alareer’s blog In Gaza, My Gaza (November 27, 2011). It was reposted soon after on the American website Mondoweiss (January 16, 2012). Alareer seems to have intended also to reach a British audience by publishing the same poem in London’s magazine Global Poetry (December 16, 2012).

The next time Alareer published his poem was in 2014, in a special issue of Biography (University of Hawaii), dedicated to “Life in Occupied Palestine.” It was not printed as a separate item and is thus not listed in the table of contents. He chose to use it as a conclusion of his paper “Gaza Writes Back: Narrating Palestine,” in which he expressed his highly idealistic vision of a peaceful co-existence between Palestinians and Jews. The poem follows immediately his final lines:

I want my children to plan, rather than worry about, their future and to draw beaches or fields of blue skies and a sun in the corner, not warships, pillars of smoke, warplanes, and guns. Hopefully, the stories of Gaza Writes Back will help bring my daughter Shymaa and Viola* together and give them consolation and solace to continue the struggle until Palestine is free. Until then, I will continue telling her stories.

As the recent tragic news revealed, Shymaa (sometimes written as Shaima), a pillar of his vision, was assassinated in an Israeli airstrike on April 26, 2024, along with her husband and their 2-month-old son.

6

Despite such repeated postings, “If I Must Die” received little attention prior to Alareer’s martyrdom in 2023, apart from comments or reactions published on Alareer’s own blogs or the poem’s first postings (2011 and 2012) cited earlier: Mondoweiss  and Global Poetry.

Mondoweiss (2012) includes about 30 comments which deserve to be noted. For they represent, in my view, an overlooked early attempt to address the poem’s central themes and issues: death, children and kites, resistance to Israel’s decades of occupation, total blockade, and wars. Only a few illustrative comments are quoted here:

* “ … Israel is not exactly offering life if one submits. they want them gone after all. death is always nearby in Gaza but the spirit of life there is like no other place I have ever been on earth.”

* “Young men and women should not be facing deadly, oppressive, inhuman occupation on daily basis. They do. Death becomes something they see much too often.”

* “Yes, wonderful poem. The kite is a symbol of hope flying in the face of grave sky.”

*  “. I have read extensively about the German invasion of Russia during WWII. What is so amazing about many stories is the willingness of the Russian people, mostly their youth, to choose death over their own defeat. You guys are forcing that same choice on the Palestinians.”

*“When I die” evokes various romantic poems on which East and Central Europeans were raised.”

As suggested in the previous comment, the poem’s evocative power was noted or implied in references to American and Hungarian and Ukrainian poems or songs of resistance including “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay. The latter linkage becomes a recurrent theme following Alareer’s martyrdom on December 6, 2023.

In contrast to Mondoweiss, Global Poetry, as a journal, was known for its focus on “a culture of nonviolence” and for its dedication to poetry that celebrates “the capacity of the human spirit to overcome obstacles and find creative, nonviolent solutions to conflicts …” as its general statement of aims indicates. It published Alareer’s poem “If I Must Die” on December 16, 2012 under the tag “Nonkilling” to indicate the poem’s  nonviolent orientation within the context of “Israel and Palestine Conflict.”

We have no sources to document Alareer’s knowledge about the journal or his familiarity with its mission or the concept of “nonkilling.”  The term “nonkilling” was defined, by the American scientist Glen Paige (1929-2017) as: “nonkilling poetry explores the spirit and practice of how to prevent, respond to, and to improve individual, social, and global well being beyond killing.”

But we can assume that Alareer, as a former student in London pursuing his MA degree, was familiar with the journal or the concept and was perhaps motivated by the focus on nonviolence to submit “If I Must Die” to the journal. He published in the same journal a second poem, “Mom,” on August 4, 2012.

7

In brief, having in mind such an early (2012) positive, though limited, reception, it seems rather surprising that Alareer was not referred to as a poet nor was his famous poem “If I Must Die” cited or discussed during the period preceding his death. It’s surprising because Alareer was widely noted during the same period, for his contributions in multiple areas. He was noted as an outstanding academic renowned for his teaching English poetry and many of his lectures on English poetry and poets are still accessible in videos online; as an inspiring mentor of young creative writers; as the editor of Gaza Writes Back: Short Stories from Young Writers in Gaza, Palestine (2014) and co-editor of Gaza Unsilenced (2015); and as a prolific and tireless blogger sharing his resistance writings with thousands of his followers from 2008 until the last days of his life in December 2023. It is regrettable that, prior to Alareer’s death, none of these and other titles referred to him as a poet or included references to “If I Must Die.”

It is only after his death that the word “poet” became his primary identifying title, often associated with his famous poem,If I Must Die.”

Salih J. Altoma is Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He has served as director of Middle Eastern Studies and chair of the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department. His many publications in Arabic and English include Modern Arabic Literature in Translation: A Companion, The Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature (2000 ed.) On Arabic-Western Literary Relations, and Iraq’s Modern Arabic Literature: A Guide to English Translations since 1950.

 



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