Palestinian poet Hafiza Ibrahim on writing, identity and leaving her homeland

Al Hafiza talks to ELL. Pic: Annie Gouk

Al Hafiza talks to ELL. Pic: Annie Gouk

Following the recent nation-wide student walkouts in support of migrants, Eastlondonlines spoke to Hafiza Ibrahim, 50, a published poet, Goldsmiths student and Palestinian refugee.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been raging since the mid-20th century, and it was to escape this that Ibrahim left her home in Acre, in what is now northern Israel.

Having moved to England over 15 years ago, Ibrahim has never been back to her home country. “I would have to apply as a guest, and I can’t go there as a tourist. It would hit me badly,” she said, adding: “I have no family there any more.”

However, she would like her four children to visit someday – two of whom were born in Lebanon and two in England – so they can learn about their heritage.

It’s this kind of multicultural background that gives people what Ibrahim calls “cultural capital” in such a diverse society as London, and it forms a large part of her own identity.

“I’m not Western. I’ve got pride in my culture and my traditions – but that doesn’t mean I’m not integrated. I won’t melt here or be diluted, but I will be like a colour in a rainbow.”

Ibrahim can’t help but use such vibrant language. “I’ve always written poetry, since god knows when. Coming here with kids, by the time I settled down I wanted to talk to the world. But no one listens to what I write in Arabic – so I took English qualifications and then joined a creative writing course.”

It wasn’t always easy: “Everyone was English but me, they were English to the core, and they all used such sophisticated language.” She didn’t let that get her down, however. “I didn’t give in. I was the warrior in the class. I exist, I’m there, and that’s it – I’ve got so much to say.”

Ibrahim channels her own experiences in her writing.  “I write when I’m stirred up. It could be bad or good, but I have to be moved”, she said. In the class, “I wrote about fear. At the end my teacher said I had added so much to their perception of what fear is.”

You can hear Ibrahim’s moving poem about her experiences of fear below.

Despite the hardships she’s been through, Ibrahim maintains an unwaveringly positive attitude. “When you face death on a daily basis, you enjoy every little thing in life, you appreciate it.”

Her drive to make the most out of life led to her studying education and cultural studies at Goldsmiths. Once her children had flown the nest, she decided “My role as a mother has finished, but my life hasn’t finished. So I’m having another go.” Now in her second year, Ibrahim said: “I feel alive here.”

This move back to education has been especially important for Ibrahim, who explained that despite having a full scholarship, “because of the war I couldn’t go to university.”

Having lost her father – who was shot by Israeli soldiers – Ibrahim’s mother wasn’t willing to let her travel through the five checkpoints to reach the university.

“That was devastating. It’s my future and it was behind these walls. It was decided for me, and that future was finished.” Brimming with tears, she went on: “I can’t get over that devastation even now.”

“Education is the best thing if you want a fresh start. I’m enjoying my time here. I have so much love in my heart, I have time and I have energy – I want to use them wisely.”

“In my mind I would like to go and design projects for children after devastation, who have had a strong experience in their life like losing their home and their family. I know the United Nations care about food and shelter, but I want to do something to restore their culture and their pride in their traditions.”

At the university, Ibrahim has said she feels understood. “In Goldsmiths I don’t have to explain myself – they’re very aware. I feel supported.”

“It’s like I’m inside a bunch of flowers – we all have different colours and zest, but we’re all together.”

By Annie Gouk and Amalia Illgner

Follow Annie on Twitter @anniegouk

Follow Amalia on Twitter @amaliaillgner

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