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Artist Profile: Tayseer Abu Odeh on the Need for Poetry in Exile

Tayseer Abu Odeh sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss literature and poetry in exile.
Tayseer Abu Odeh sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss literature and poetry in exile. By Courtesy of Tayseer Abu Odeh
By Sean Wang Zi-Ming, Crimson Staff Writer

For Dr. Tayseer Abu Odeh, Palestinian liberation and the struggle of exile has been a constant theme throughout his work. As a Jordan-Palestinian writer of poetry and fiction, as a translator, and as an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Al-Ahliyya Amman University in Jordan, he stresses the important role of literature in representation.

In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Tayseer discussed grappling with creative projects on Gaza, Palestine, and his own representations of exile. To portray such complicated and painful experiences is difficult, but in his view, necessary.

“When it comes to the meaning and implications of poetry, I wouldn't say it's something luxurious, it's always important,” Tayseer said. “Because the connection between the aesthetic and the political is so important and cannot be undermined simply when it comes to our own personal and collective issues.”

Writing and translating across English and Arabic is one way Tayseer approaches the “linguistic, cultural and existential stance of exile.” Being bilingual has given him access to different times, spaces, cultures, and perspectives. Most of all, it fuels his work in trying to foster “cultural and political dialogue” — a necessary response to the perennial marginalization of non-Western cultures and states.

Another source of inspiration for his work is his identity as a Jordan-Palestinian who has never been able to return to Palestine. Clarifying this complex position of being “torn between two impossible identities,” Tayseer explains that he was born in Jordan after his parents were expelled from Palestine during the Nakba in 1948.

“I always feel that my own stance, my own condition, has been formulated as an outcome, as a byproduct of this Nakba,” Tayseer said, explaining the relationship between his experiences and his creative pursuits. “So when it comes to exile, I wouldn't fetishize it. I wouldn't overstate exile. But I would open up a kind of poetic intellectual dialogue with exile.”

Even so, representing a historically marginalized people experiencing a worldwide diaspora comes with its difficulties. Tayseer describes having to navigate between universal suffering and localized experiences. Additionally, since Tayseer cannot return to Palestine, all of what he knows about the country was narrated to him through his parents and grandparents.

“Palestine is not an idea. It’s a historical fact,” Tayseer said, explaining his approach to writing about Palestine. “But at the same time, you need to reimagine Palestine, through the lens of poetry and through the lens of culture, and through the lens of even research as well.”

For Tayseer, poetry is necessary to “articulate your role as an oppressed.” It is a medium he describes as providing an “aesthetic utopian agency.” Despite this, he does not place poetry on a pedestal. His view of poetry balances both a recognition of its importance as well as its shortfalls. He does not overestimate poetry’s practical implications, or lack thereof.

“I know it's utopian because you cannot liberate a country by poetry. You cannot change the status quo by a piece of poem,” he explained. “But at least the poem would speak to the suffering, to the melancholy, to the mourning of those people who are lost, who are killed and murdered by the colonizer on a daily basis.”

Tayseer finds his intellectual and creative pursuits inextricably linked. While he admits that the work of confronting oppression can be intimidating, he is steadfast in his conviction that academics must wrestle with these pressing issues.

“It’s my intellectual and ethical duty to speak truth to power in the first place,” Tayseer said. “You can’t change the world overnight, but at least you are required to resist, and you are required to open up more avenues of what we call ‘intellectual agencies,’ counter narratives, to all forms of oppression and even the idea of surveillance.”

Even while Tayseer describes himself as a “writer in the making,” he emphasizes the importance of writing with conscience not just in his own work, but for writers and thinkers everywhere.

“Speaking truth to power is not easy. It's not an easy job,” Tayseer said. “But at least you as a writer, as a poet, you have to make your conscience awake. Because in order to be awakened by the nightmare of history, you have to articulate the various forms of oppression taking place in Palestine and elsewhere as well.”

—Staff writer Sean Wang Zi-Ming can be reached at sean.wangzi-ming@thecrimson.com.

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