Poet Speaks for Peace

On Tuesday, April 19, Santa Monica College hosted the brilliant Palestinian-American poet and political activist Suheir Hammad for a vibrant evening of language and liberation.

What might be stronger than a voice that reaches out to souls, a voice that reaches for consciousness with passion, a passion for words and rhymes and a passion for humanity?

Under a horde of applause and an embalming mix of incense odors, many SMC students, as well as outsiders, gathered together in the Cayton Center to share contemporary poetry filled with a strong sense of political, social and cultural reflections.

"She is phenomenal, she lifts up and improves consciousness of people through art and poetry," said Jeronimo Saldana, president of Santa Monica College's Associated Students, who believes that a "real leader" is not necessarily a president, but a poet or an artist who manages to raise awareness among others.

"What is important is not what you say sometimes, but the fact that you are saying it," said Hammad, who believes that every story is valid and every perspective is important. In addition, the poet thinks that the Palestinian and Israeli peace process will not germ until American foreign policies in the Middle East change and she stresses the drastic significance for students to learn to analyze and think critically. "I don't want you to think like me, I just want you to question," she said.

Born in Amman, the capital of Jordan, Hammad moved to Brooklyn, New York, an emblematic city of many immigrants, with her parents when she was 5 years old. The 32- year-old Palestinian-American poet grew up with hip hop culture and a Muslim background. Her love for the Arab and English languages has made her one of the first renowned Palestinian poets in U.S artistic space. Among many awards, Hammad twice received the Audre Lorde Writing Award from Hunter College, as well as a Tony Award for Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. The artist has traveled the world performing and her writings have been published in many periodicals. Some of her famous works include "Born Palestinian, Born Black" and "Drops of this Story." In addition, a journal about the poet's recent everyday experiences while in Palestine will soon be available on her website.

During Hammad's mesmerizing presentation at SMC, the reality and profoundness of her verses managed to touch an enthusiastic and absorbed audience with powerful messages. As the poet talked about racial profiling, war, intolerance, genocide, fear, love, life, death, identity crisis, cultural uprooting and differences, her voice eloquently carried her emotions as she entangled and glided with her poetry from melancholic, soothing whispers to louder and sharper tones.

"It is important to hear poets like her. She opens eyes in ways that others can't. She is the voice of social justice and oppressed people," said Haithem El-Zabri, a fan of Hammad.

Amidst the various subjects the poet addressed, the resistant and defiant artist started her lecture with a poem referring to discriminatory and abusive airport control post 9/11. She then went on with a poem relating to her love for Brooklyn that "always makes room." Another piece was read regarding the U.S. naturalization of her mother who was, as her first verse indicated, "Certified natural complexion medium, not too sweet not too high." In another poem Hammad addressed the strong solidarity that she has shared with American and European Jews convinced that there is hope for love and unity between Muslim, Jews and Catholics.

The poet also recounted with humility and rhymes her encounter in New Orleans with a U.S. soldier who had just returned back from Iraq. During her lecture, Hammad encouraged people to respect the military and look beyond the uniform. "I hope all the soldiers come home," Hammad decisively said, to a cheering crowd.

Finally, Hammad ended with a poem dedicated to the children of Palestine, consuming the room with a silence filled with emotions. Inspired by a television news broadcast of a little Palestinian boy falling dead, shot by soldiers and randomly cut by commercials right after the camera broadcasted his death, the poet opened her first verse with Arabic lyrics that she sang with a trembling melancholic voice.

But if Hammad succeeded in enthralling amazed listeners with the strength and sharpness of her words she was not the sole talented artist inviting the public to poetically think and analyze burning social issues that evening.

Hammad was preceded by two other gifted poets who shared the same passion for their art and the same concern for social justice.

The evening began with applause for the crystal voice of a 25-year-old artist called Skim, from New York as well. Skim incorporates Korean folk drum, meaningful rhymes, hip hop, reggae and blues music as a whole and uses it as a powerful mean to reach out and heal communities and troubled youth such as juvenile hall pensioners.

Noni Limar, the 24-year-old artistic director of an Arts Outreach Program, Equal Opportunity Productions, followed Skim. She works with youth of color creating original work around issues of identity, community, and youth empowerment. She also works with the Latino Theater Company and is currently working on Pan-African issues from a global perspective with Colors of the Diaspora in which she recently performed at SMC. The three poems Limar read were respectively entitled "Weapon for Word," "40 Acres," and "I am not an American."

These two artists set the mood for an inspiring evening at SMC where poetry shook political, social and spiritual awareness. For more information on Suheir Hammad you can vist her website at www.suheirhammad.com, visit www.denevents.com to obtain more information about the work of Skim and www.colorsofthediaspora.com for Noni Limar.