Lamis Khalilová: Dumplings with an Arabic sauce
Lamis Khalilová is half Czech and half Palestinian. She is the head of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the Metropolitan University in Prague and is a member of the board of directors of Amnesty International for the Czech Republic. The battle for human rights is something that she cares about passionately and she has taken a particular interest in the complex problems faced by women in many parts of the Middle East. Lamis Khalilová also writes poetry and took part in the Poetry Festival that was held in the Czech Republic last November. We have heard a few languages in this programme over the years, including Romany, Slovak, Romanian and Latvian, but when I met Lamis at her office, she began by reciting a poem in a language that we have not yet featured in Czech Books.
Iitadtu an uhibuka
Baada an anzalu assitara,
Iitadtu an uhibuka,
Baada raheeli ilkul,
wa itfaa´ al inara,
Iitadtu an uhibuka fee akhiri ardin fee masrah hayatee,
wa laken bijadara.
“It is a love poem in Arabic. The lines say: ‘I’ve become used to loving you. I’ve become used to loving you after everyone has left and after the show is over. I’ve become used to loving you during the autumn of my life, but in an excellent way.’ It was a reaction to a film I had seen.”
You write poems in Arabic and in English. Do you have a preferred language for writing in?
“It should be English, I’m afraid. I studied in English and I had my creative writing classes in English.”
So let’s hear an extract from one of your poems in English.
“This poem is about the situation in the Middle East and it’s fairly political.”
RESCUE US, BE OUR WAKE UP CALL
Come, appear and rise again
Be the long awaited savior
Rescue us from their disdain
The sound of children crying has been mixed with the Athan
And the bells of churches overlapped by CNN
They have even bombed our shelters
The holiest of our places
When our home is invaded/ And only the dead are safe
God's face has been tainted
And the beautiful eyes of a woman
Blood shot and afraid
The blows are so many
I tell you our bodies are numb and feel no pain
You were born in what was then communist Czechoslovakia and you grew up in the United Arab Emirates, and now you’re back again in the Czech Republic. The question of where you are at home must be a complicated one for you.
“I must say that I did have an identity crisis at a time in my life, but I love it here. The Czech Republic has become my home. It wasn’t that easy. Moving from the United Arab Emirates was quite challenging at first, but you make friends, you have a home and you have a nationality. I must say that legality – staying here, living here in a legal way, living here in a way that you don’t need to go to the police every year and renew your papers definitely helps. I am a Czech citizen and I’m very proud and happy about that, but I’m also an Arab Palestinian. That was also challenging at first.”
And is writing poetry part of the way you confront this challenge?
“Yes, it is a form of therapy, I must say, and I have to say that this poem was written during a very, very deep depression. I haven’t written since, which probably means I’m doing quite well now!”
Tell me a bit more about your childhood and upbringing.
“I was born here. My parents didn’t want to raise their child in communism, and since my father was a foreigner, they were allowed to travel out of the country and not to be considered immigrants. This basically means that they were allowed to come back every summer and see the family. So they decided to move to the United Arab Emirates. I grew up there and went to an international school, for which I am extremely grateful. My classmates were the sons and daughters of drivers, but also the sons and daughters of the royal family.”
And presumably you moved back to the Czech Republic after the fall of communism.
“Yes. I’m not that old.”
And you decided to study here.
“I realized I was Czech, but I was Czech during the holidays. I was Czech in the Emirates, whenever anyone would ask me, but I’d only spend something like thirty days every year here with my grandfather. He was alive at the time and I thought it was probably a good idea to come back here and live with him and get to know my country finally.”
Did you find Czechs welcoming to you, when you first came, or did it take some adapting?
“I had to adapt, I must say, but at the time things were very different from what they are like today.”
When was this?
“This was at the end of the ’90s. So things were different. It was hard to get someone to speak English and my Czech wasn’t very good, so I was cautious, I wouldn’t always want to speak in Czech, I wasn’t comfortable with that and it did take some adapting.”
And what about your studies here?
“I started studying medicine and I didn’t finish that course, I’m afraid. I thought there was no point in continuing something I wasn’t going to do. I wasn’t going to practice medicine. I started working with Amnesty International as a volunteer, and that broadened my perspective to lots of other fields and interests. Then I moved to a completely different field and today I work at the Metropolitan University in Prague and I head the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, and I am also a board member at Amnesty.”
We often hear about a clash of cultures between the western world and the Arab world. In a way you embody the meeting of those two worlds, and to talk in your case about a cultural clash would be to talk of an inner conflict. Do you feel that?
“I’m not schizophrenic, if that’s your question. There’s definitely not a clash inside of me. It’s very natural. It comes naturally for me to eat “knedlíky” – Czech dumplings – at home with Arabic sauce. I don’t believe in a clash of civilizations. I do believe in the uneducated, in people who have not been shown the other side of the story. There are villages in the Czech Republic, in Poland, but also in Syria and Egypt, that have never met someone from a different culture, from a different race, a different religion, and that is the problem, I think.”
Living in Prague, which is a city which also has a long Jewish history, which ended with the tragedy of the Holocaust, do you feel that this has given you a greater insight into the psychology of the people of Israel?
“I’m very pragmatic. I don’t think that the existence of Israel means that Israel occupies Palestine proper. I understand the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza as an occupation that needs to stop and I believe in the necessity of establishing a Palestinian state. Living in Prague has indeed changed my perspective on many things. I’m very sad to say I had not ever heard of the Holocaust until I moved here. We were just not taught about the Holocaust at school in our history class. But I’ve met Israeli students here in Prague and on exchange courses and workshops, and it’s not very different there. And they’re so close geographically to where the problems are. It’s just about half-an-hour’s drive, but they don’t know any Palestinians, and I think that is the secret of the whole thing – if they meet more, if they discuss more, if they see that they are both human, that they both have their fears, their happiness and their aspirations, then things become much easier.
“That said, when the extreme right-wing demonstrations happened here – in November I think – I went to the Jewish Quarter and I defended the Jewish Quarter. I don’t see that as a conflict of interest as a Palestinian. Yes, I’m a Czech and I’m a Palestinian, but Judaism is a religion and also a culture, and I think it would be very near-sighted to be apathetic to such racial discrimination, and incitement to religious and ethnic hatred. It could turn round and look you in the face very soon.”
LOVE BEHIND ENEMY LINES
When our countries are at war
And I wish you weren't behind enemy lines
When doing the right thing is sticking to your kind
When love means betrayal in people's eyes
When our holy books are the fuel they burn us with
When people get gunned down for their accents
Your favorite food stops being cooked, it can give you away
That is when my love, I wish I was from Zimbabwe and you were from my tribe
I wish we were blind, deaf and dumb, you would be my only one
Tell me please, what have they gained
They've killed each other, gone insane
They're tarnished with a neighbor's blood
The world is upside down
I can’t see the light
We said this would never happen, we also said we’d change it
We're older, but we were wiser then
Now we’re hiding, each in his den
When I'm not an apple and you're not an orange
When its not a challenge but only the norm
When our fights are silly and not existential
I want to be a Gandhi, will you be a Tagore
In that poem there is a line “We’re old, but we were wiser then”. It sounds rather pessimistic. Are you by nature a pessimist? From talking to you, you sound to be optimistic.
“I am optimistic, but I think for some reason when I start writing a poem I become more serious than I should be perhaps – though I’m not sure about that. I am an optimist. I believe in a better future. I believe that we can change things and that is basically why I do what I do. I am for dialogue, I am an advocate of human rights, I know that the more dialogue we have, the easier it will be to attain change. So definitely I’m not a pessimist.”
You said that you only write poetry when you are feeling unhappy, so perhaps I should end by saying that I hope we won’t have the opportunity to read more of your poetry! But I do think that would be a shame.
“I’ll try to be more optimistic in my poetry. How about that?”