Poetry International Poetry International

Ayat Abou Shmeiss

Ayat Abou Shmeiss

Ayat Abou Shmeiss

(Israel, 1984)
“I wish I could cry fire/ and every time I cried/ you’d burn” writes Palestinian-Israeli poet Ayat Abou Shmeiss in her second book of poetry in Hebrew, perhaps about love or perhaps about society.

In a recent article in the Tel Aviv Review of Books, interviewer Jnan Bsoul notes that Abou Shmeiss, “an observant Muslim from Jaffa, writes in Hebrew without disavowing her Palestinian identity. Gentle and unobtrusive, her writing nonetheless challenges her religious and socially conservative background”.  And the larger community in which she lives.

The opening poem in Abou Shmeiss's first book, A basket of mute tongues, has been described by poetry critic Ilan Berkowitz as a successsful “cry of protest from the standpoint of silence":
I drag the words
I haven’t learned yet
my language drowns
two storms
like the sea in winter
I can’t snare
a single word with my palate
raise my voice like a fishing rod
and bear a basket
filled with tongues mute as fish
that I place
on the counter
in your kitchen

                                                                    [tr. LK]

Abou Shmeiss, an Arab-speaker who writes in Hebrew in part because she was educated in that language, and in French, at a Christian school in Jaffa, married at 17 and is the mother of a high school student.

Like many poets, she has been writing since she was a teen. In her second book, her subjects include an examination of her life as the mother of [only] one child (“sorry/ to disappoint”), and as a student at the Open University, where she is now finishing a degree in political science. The poet has a clear grasp of her position. “I’m this
and that” she told Bsoul.

I am neither 100 percent Palestinian nor 100 percent Israeli. I am two halves – the problem is that these two halves never become one. They are incompatible. But I’ve made my peace with this. I write for every human being on this planet, whatever you choose to call her. Everyone harbors personal conflicts and splits, so everyone can connect to what I write, whether it’s about identity, homeland, or belonging.

In I am divided in two she writes:

...when I face the establishment with my documents and papers
they choose to ignore them and see
only my language
my spoken language
my Arab eyes
my Moslem tongue
sometimes I quarrel with myself
force her to choose
but she cries
tells me one doesn’t choose
between father and mother             

               [tr. LK]

Update: In December 2019, Abou Shmeiss was awarded the Shulamit Aloni Prize for emerging artists, earmarked for those whose creative work advances human rights, social justice and co-existence. In January 2020, Haaretz poetry columnist Ilan Berkowitz selected "If I were a Jewish mother" as the most significant Israeli poem of the decade.
© Lisa Katz
BOOKS bilingual Hebrew/Arabic
Sal malay safot shotekote/A basket of mute tongues Tel Aviv, Mitan, 2013
Ani zeh shenayam/I am two  Tel Aviv, Mitan, 2018

In English
Complete interview in the Tel Aviv Review of Books

In Hebrew
VIDEOS: The poet reads
My language is drowning
Two poems at Ars Poetica

Gemeente Rotterdam
Nederlands Letterenfonds
Stichting Van Beuningen Peterich-fonds
Ludo Pieters Gastschrijver Fonds
Lira fonds
LantarenVenster – Verhalenhuis Belvédère