"You have to stand on ruins. You have to meet people who were wounded."

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Needto Know



Issue9: The Missing Body

Issue8: The Lily

Issue7: Passages

Issue6: No More Tears

A quick list to poets featured in this issue:

Quan Barry

Cal Bedient

Joshua Bell

Nadia Colburn

Carolina Ebeid

Odysseas Elytis

Nathalie Handal

Connie Hershey

Timothy Liu

Drago Stambuk

Franz Wright

A Conversation With Bei Dao

Interview by
Susan Kelly De-Witt

Bei Dao is currently the Mackey Professor of Creative Writing at Beloit College. He has been a Stanford Presidential lecturer, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and he is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His work has been translated into twenty-five languages. He is the Editor-in-chief of the Chinese literary magazine Today. His most recent volume of poetry, At The Sky’s Edge, was published by New Directions in 2001.

Bei Dao recently visited Palestine as part of a delegation for the International Parliament of Writers; I asked if I could interview him about his experience there. The group, traveling at the request of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, included Bei Dao and seven others—Nigerian Nobelist Wole Soyinka, Italian novelist Vincenzo Consolo, South African poet Breyten Brytenbach, Portuguese Nobelist Jose Saramago, American novelist Russell Banks (president of the IPW), Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo and French writer Christian Salmon. A week after his return, I met with him in a small university town café. There was soft jazz in the background. While we talked, sunlight poured in through the restaurant’s double glass doors and students milled peacefully outside on the shop-lined streets.

Bei Dao, before you went to Palestine, you were following the news reports here, to prepare for your trip. Can you give me an example of how what you saw differed from what the media reports had prepared you for?

I think first, we never really conceived such a horrible picture. You never really see—on CNN, you never really see the bloody picture. Maybe it’s kind of a moral problem. Americans don’t want to show violence on TV. I don’t think it’s really censorship like in communist countries—quite different from that. But I call it soft censorship. And another problem, you know, intellectuals here. The media rarely publishes intellectuals’ opinions. The intellectual’s social role—their influence—has shrunk.

During the Vietnam War, intellectuals here were very outspoken.

Yeah, of course—

But more recently-few here have been very vocal about Rwanda either.

Probably I think that most American intellectuals are, you know… connected with institutions. Because they have very good jobs, very good lives, but they’ve lost… they’ve lost interest…

They’ve lost passion.

I know that in your own life, you have seen a lot of political violence and upheaval. How was this different?

It’s hard to piece together if you just read the newspapers and watch TV—because it’s staggering—a whole new… When you’re there, you can really feel this palpable atmosphere, of desperation. People--especially in Gaza--have no hope. It’s like a big concentration camp there. The people there are dying. You know, the only—the one main road is occupied by Israeli soldiers. Only Israeli settlers can get through there!

So the main road to the Gaza Strip is occupied by Israel, but what does that mean for the average Palestinian?

You know, checkpoints. 99% of the population there is Palestinian—but they have to struggle along the local roads— they have to pass certain checkpoints by 5:00 p.m. or they can’t get home.

They’re stuck if it’s after 5:00?

On our trip, we met with a group of poets and writers in Gaza. One Palestinian poet wanted to stay with us for the rest of the meeting, which lasted into the evening. Because of that, he couldn’t go home. It was after 5:00 and he couldn’t get through the checkpoint. No one can get home after that, unless you are an Israeli.

Another experience—we were at the border between Egypt and Palestine, on the Palestinian side. 400 houses had been destroyed there over a period of a few months.

In the night, around two o'clock in the morning… the houses were bulldozed to create a buffer zone. It happened at night and in the early morning. Many people were wounded. Many were homeless, living in the streets when we were there.

In some areas they gave the people only forty minutes to gather their things before destroying their homes. Can you imagine how hard that is?

Did they think the people were hiding terrorists in their houses? Was that the official reason?

No. As I said, it was… simply to create a buffer zone between the countries. You know, we rode in a UN car, so we were special—we could get special permission to go anywhere. We could get through the checkpoints. But people were lined up—everything was a jumble—the long lines of cars—waiting for hours and hours. This is a normal life there! So that is different from how the media people portray it. The media filters the truth—certain truths—so we get a selective truth.

Did you find that soldiers were purposely intimidating to the people…you know...threatening them, poking guns in people’s faces?

Things were fairly peaceful in Gaza at that point because Gaza is like a big concentration camp. No one can really get out. We met a Palestinian poet there—the last time he made it to Jerusalem was 1987!

Because of the restrictions.

Yeah, you know—Jerusalem is only an hour’s drive but nobody really can get there. The Gaza is only 360 square kilometers—so small! People living on top of each other, in poverty. And no one can get out of there.

I know you keep referring to it as a concentration camp—I see that Jose Saramago made that same comparison and has been criticized for it. (The article with responses appeared in Autodafe'.)

Yes, because Saramago mentions the Holocaust—but Holocaust is—Holocaust means so much more than concentration camp.

The suicide bomber, the young woman--her parents were unaware that she planned to blow herself up. They were quoted in the paper, as saying they would have tried to stop her. They said they would have told her not to do it. Did you get a sense of the attitude toward the suicide bombers there?

Hmmm… Yes, because the whole atmosphere is of desperation, you know— If you walk on the streets, you can see these pictures of the suicide bombers on the walls—they’re up there in glory. People are really proud of them. Once when we visited some ruins, we heard this loud noise—you know, this MUSIC and this NOISE—and so we, Soyinka, Goytisolo and, walked toward it, and all these people were there. We heard shouting and could see slogans being waved. It turned out to be the funeral party for one of the martyrs. A young man invited us in.

A celebration?

Yeah, people were drinking and eating, and they invited us to his (the martyr’s) funeral lunch. We declined and they insisted. We declined again, and finally we left. That was very… very surreal. But when I was there I began to get a sense of why… of not only the poverty, but the humiliation they face every day. The humiliation really drives them crazy. Going through checkpoints--every day! You know, searched by soldiers. I don’t believe in people blowing themselves up, killing others. But I understand why they feel they must do this…

I can understand their feeling of desperation.

I read the news story in the New York Times about the second suicide bomber who killed twenty-five people…at a party…


Everybody was so proud of him over there. Neighbors congratulated each other. I can’t be a moral judge, but I can understand what prompts them to participate in this dilemma.

How do you feel the experience changed you—if it did change you--after your own history as an exiled poet?

I grew up hearing about Arafat. The Chinese government supported his PLO movement.

So your vision of the struggle there was shaped by your government’s endorsement of Arafat when you were a young person?

Yes, but in my imagination it’s really hard to gather what this conflict now is really about.

I think as a writer you have to travel there to understand what the struggle actually is. You have to stand on ruins. You have to meet people who were wounded. Then you can talk about it.

So I’ve been writing about this trip. After this visit, after this experience… My heart is really kind of broken.

You met with Arafat, in his compound, right?

Yes. He met with a number of us there. We were scheduled to meet for a half-hour, but we ended up staying an entire hour. I was able to say to him, "You know, you were a hero when I was little."

I then asked him, "Do you still keep your ideals?" So many years, so many difficulties have passed.

He answered, "Yes." He pointed to a picture on his wall, of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. [The Temple Mount is sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians, and is the site of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, and contains the old Wailing Wall. It was annexed by Israel in1967.]

He told me his childhood home was very near the Wailing Wall. He prayed there every day, alongside Jewish children. To live side by side with people of other faiths… He said, that is his ideal.

--Because, of course, extremism is a problem for him too. Hamas doesn’t obey him. He can’t really control his own people.

If you wanted me to say only one thing about your experience there, what would it be?

As a poet as well as a human being, everyone should respond to important common events—because the world is only one.

There is a poem in my book, Old Snow. I read this poem in Ramallah when I was there. Here it is:


The great advance
is checked
by an ingenious gear

The man who gets gunpowder from dreams
also gets salt on his wounds
and gods’ voices
the remainder is only farewell
farewell snow
gleams in the night sky

(reprinted from Old Snow, translated by Bonnie S. McDougall and Chen Maiping. New Directions, 1991.)

Susan Kelly-DeWitt's work has appeared recently in Poetry, Prairie Schooner and North American Review, among others. She is the author of three chapbooks, A Camellia for Judy (Frith Press, 1998), Feather's Hand (Swan Scythe Press, 2000) and
To A Small Moth, released by Poets Corner Press in 2001. Her full-length collection, Egrets Along the Yolo Causeway and Other Poems is currently seeking a publisher. She is on the creative writing faculty of UC Davis Extension, and is Associate Editor of Swan Scythe Press and a contributing editor for Perihelion.