Remi Kanazi: “Palestinians don’t need aid. They need freedom”

Remi Kanazi -  © Carlo Vivenzio

Remi Kanazi in the streets of Berchem. © Esma Alouet

Whether he’s performing one of his poems or sharing a thought on social media, the Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi always speaks out sharply against injustice. As he did when performing for the first time in Belgium, where he finished his European tour.

Remi Kanazi is known for his poetry collection titled ‘Poetic Injustice‘ in which he addresses  the occupation of Palestine, his grandparents who were dispossessed and displaced from their homeland in 1948, and other forms of injustice like racism. He also writes opinion pieces for media like Al Jazeera English and campaigns for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel.

I met him at Sharif’s, a sandwich bar in Berchem, Antwerp, near the cultural center where he performed the day before as a guest at an edition of the Belgian cultural event ‘Nuff Said. With another performance planned the following evening at an event organized by the islamic organisation Al Mawada, he had some time left to explain to why and how he uses art for his activism.

At your show last night you mixed poetry with a call for a cultural boycott of Israel. Do you use art as way to make it easier to influence people to engage in activism?

“I see poetry as a way in which I can get my message out using a cultural medium. One of my poems is called This Poem Will Not End Apartheid. It’s to say that art is not above politics, art is not going to get rid of the walls of Apartheid, but art can be used as a significant factor in challenging racism and patriarchy and systems of oppression. So art is an important tool to leverage against systems of oppression. Cultural resistance has always been at the forefront of these movements.”

This week it was Joy Harjo’s turn to get a call to not perform in Israel.

You’re on the organising committee for the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. An argument you often hear is that Israelis also deserve to have art and concerts. What is your response?

“When art is connected to state oppression, it is no longer simply just art. When you have Israeli ministers say we see no difference between culture and hasbara, which means propaganda, we should take them seriously. When an Israeli minister says we’re going to send theater groups and artists out to the world to present Israel’s pretty face, so they’re not seen solely in the context of war, we should take them seriously. When the foreign ministry makes artists sign contract as service providers to promote the policy interests of the state of Israel, we should take it seriously. This is not a boycott of individuals, this is a boycott of institutions. Cultural boycott was seen as an essential mechanism in stripping away the cloak of invincibility of the Apartheid regime in South Africa. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) call of South Africa was not to starve anyone, it was to tear the walls of Apartheid and it’s a similar situation in Palestine.”

Do you think the BDS campaign is advancing the struggle for a free Palestine or do you understand people who might be pessimistic about this approach?

“Specifically on cultural boycott, we’ve seen the cancellation of gigs by artists like Elvis Costello, Björk, Snoop Dogg, Bono, Santana, the Pixies, Klaxons, Gorillaz, Vanessa Paradis and Faithless. We’ve seen pro-active support for cultural boycott and BDS from Angela Davis, Alice Walker (author of The Color Purple) Roger Waters (founding member of Pink Floyd), and best-selling author Naomi Klein. 500 artists in Montreal signed onto BDS and cultural boycott, 240 artists did the same in Ireland, 140 in Switzerland, and another 200 did this in the US. South Africans have said: ‘7, 8 years on, your call for a boycott is much further ahead than ours was’. So when you take a snapshot of how things look today, it is very easy to be pessimistic. But when you compare it with ten years ago, I think there’s every reason to be positive.”

You voice your opinion not only when it’s about Palestine. At the show last night you offered us a very powerful poem about women’s rights. Do you hope that pro-Palestinian activists who might be conservative when it comes to feminism will be inspired to do something about women’s rights too?

“The important thing to understand is that Palestine is not the only issue. Palestinians aren’t special, what they are is no less deserving of freedom, justice and equality. I think that at the end of the day, we’re fighting against oppression wherever we see it. Whether it’s gender, whether it’s sexuality or state oppression, or a certain ethnicity being targeted. This is not about Palestine or about a flag. This is not about a nation state and not about a religion. This is about what is being done to a people. I challenge sexism and patriarchy and homophobia. When I say that I am anti racism and anti oppression, it doesn’t stop at colour lines. The notion that we can sideline rights based on someone’s sexuality or because of their gender is fundamentally ridiculous.”

no means no
but maybes
pervade society
through patriarchy
culture, magazines
blaming the victim
not believing the victim
she came forward
but we have more questions
for the victim

lives in a world of maybe
it’s easier to turn away
than to take a stance
no means no
that extends beyond
your mother or sister
no means no
what do you not understand
about the words that she’s saying

 a woman’s body
is a woman’s body
no means no
there’s nothing maybe
about rape

A part of the unpublished poem of Remi Kanazi about women’s rights.

What would you say to fans who disagree?

“I’m not here to pat anyone on the back or massage anyone’s ego. I began writing as bombs dropped on Gaza. The sheer brutality of Zionism pushed me to write. Sexual violence is underreported in the US and people are treated as second class [citizens] because of their sexuality. There should be no shame or second guessing in combating all forms of oppression. I’m going to keep writing about women’s issues and gay rights and the rights of all people, even when it’s uncomfortable, because at the end of the day Palestine has always been an uncomfortable issue. It’s always been the issue that’s ignored, and we all should be challenging oppression within our communities, no matter what form it comes in.”

Which communities do you mean?

“I work a lot within the activist community where I see a lot of groups that act like they’re beyond racism, beyond sexism and beyond homophobia when they’re not. Sexism is something that exists throughout this world, in all communities, and it needs to be challenged. So I think that the notion that Arabs and Muslims are backwards, sexist animals, while Western born white people are enlightened, is an absolutely bogus and racist concept. Sexism and patriarchy are a global problem that we all need to be addressing and attacking. Especially men, men of the world need to be addressing it, calling it out, and not stay sitting on their hands. Sitting on your hands is a form of silence and a form of enabling oppression.”

So you’ll never filter things out in your performance?

“The only time I censor my work is when there are a lot of kids around, I won’t swear as much. If there are a lot of children in the audience, I won’t do the poem on rape because it’s really sexually graphic. But I would never silence myself or misrepresent who I am or what I stand for.”


People call you an angry poet. Even today a person told me you have a lot of anger in a video where you talk about Palestine. Does that bother you?

“I’m classified and labeled as the angry or political poet, but I perform and write with a lot of hope. It’s very easy to call someone angry. If someone bombed your family, stole your house, you’d be angry too. The problem is never the emotion, it is what do we do with it the emotion. Anger isn’t the problem and you can channel it in a positive way. I’m not just saying ‘I’m angry, fuck the world’. I don’t even like the word anger. I’m passionate. These are issues that I care about because I want to see a better world.

Martin Luther King was called ‘angry’ and much worse when he was talking about the Vietnam war or talking about class struggle in America, it is a slur used against leaders as well as activists and organizers. When you looked at the struggle in South Africa it wasn’t ‘angry black people that just can’t get along with white people’. Feminists also get called ‘angry women’. There’s a lot of privilege that comes with not being angry. My goal is to activate people, even if they are already in solidarity with the cause. You want them to take that next step. There was a time when I didn’t take that next step.”

What can be that next step?

“When I first started as a poet, I wrote a lot about growing up Palestinian in America and vague concepts of a free Palestine. That was important in my growth as a poet and activist. But after a while I started to feel a void and so I started teaching workshops, I began experimenting with new types of work, broadening my vision, and challenging myself as a writer. After that I started working on BDS because I didn’t feel fully activated. Not everyone is going to work and organise on a BDS campaign, but there are so many ways we can show support. Whether it is supporting a local organisation, helping build a website, running a Facebook or Twitter account for the organisation, helping draft letters, edit letters or helping a new organisation that needs to professionalise. It is also important to bring out Palestinians who speak about Palestine.”

You mean like what the Belgian ‘Nuff Said and Al Mawada did: inviting you to speak here for a Belgian audience?

“Too often we rely on a non-Palestinian voice because they are seen as more ‘palatable’. We can’t feed into this racism. Solidarity voices are important, it is essential to build with a broad spectrum of communities, and the diversity of voices coming out for Palestinian rights is one of our strengths. Yet we can’t silence or push aside the Palestinian voice. We need to continue to bring out voices from Palestine, to create platforms, not obstacles for, the Palestinian voice and narrative.

The BDS call is coming from Palestinian civil society. It calls on those around the world to cut their society’s complicity with Israeli apartheid, occupation, and ethnic cleansing, to challenge violations of international law and crimes against humanity. We are not doing Palestinians any favors. They are not victims in need of aid, they are an occupied and oppressed people in need of freedom. Our tax dollars, weapons manufacturers and politicians are standing in the way of that freedom. It is essential that we do something about it, it is essential that we challenge systems of oppression, it is essential that people across the globe stand for Palestinian rights and stand on the right side of history. We can’t simply sit around the kitchen table and talk about all the bad things happening in the world. If we want to see change, we need to be an active part of the process for change.”

Written by Hasna Ankal
Cover photo: ©  Carlo Vivenzio


This post is also available in: Dutch