Zena: The Sea is Big

By: Nadia Abuelezam

Meeting Zena Agha was a complete coincidence.

A few weeks before the 2015 Palestinians, Live! event in Boston, I received a Facebook message from one of Zena’s friends asking me if there was an opportunity for Zena to tell her story. At that point in time, I had a full line up of storytellers, so I couldn’t offer Zena a storytelling slot. I spent some time watching YouTube videos of Zena’s previous poetry performances and talks and was mesmerized. I messaged Zena and asked if she would be willing to perform a poem at the event. I will never regret that decision. Zena closed the show with her performance of her poem “Palestine” (which you can actually hear in #12: Zena). Her performance really helped me understand the power of poetry and the amazing grace that Zena is able to relay on stage. Since the performance we’ve been in close contact and I consider her to be a wonderful friend.

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Zena’s episode is eclectic. It contains audio from many different settings, places, and times. I think this represents the transcendence of Zena’s message and poetry. Her poetry can impact people in so many different ways, from so many different backgrounds, and in so many different locations. Zena’s poetry (and performances) remind the listener of the complexity of the Palestinian, immigrant, and refugee experience. Although she claims to write most of the poems she performs in 5-10 minutes after important events or moments in her life, Zena’s poetry has been translated into multiple languages and analyzed by scholars and students in multiple settings. Her poetry has transcended its original purpose and scope.

We’ve featured poets in multiple episodes of Palestinians Podcast (#10: Jehan). I think there’s something special about poetry that manages to convey the Palestinian experience. Poetry has existed for a long time in the Arab world and has been particularly important to the Palestinian cause. Mahmoud Darwish, one of the most famous Palestinian poets of all time frequently wrote about the anguish and hope in the Palestinian people. One such poem is “To Our Land”:

To our land,

and it is the one near the word of god,

a ceiling of clouds

To our land,

and it is the one far from the adjectives of nouns,

the map of absence

To our land,

and it is the one tiny as a sesame seed,

a heavenly horizon … and a hidden chasm

To our land,

and it is the one poor as a grouse’s wings,

holy books … and an identity wound

To our land,

and it is the one surrounded with torn hills,

the ambush of a new past

To our land, and it is a prize of war,

the freedom to die from longing and burning

and our land, in its bloodied night,

is a jewel that glimmers for the far upon the far

and illuminates what’s outside it …

As for us, inside,

we suffocate more!

I am very grateful for the chance and the opportunity to know Zena on a personal level. She has taught me a great deal about balance in life, importance of internal reflection, and the precision of language. As a young woman with a passion for Palestine, poetry, and her mum (as she calls her), I think we can learn a great deal about living through her poetry and her work. She is definitely a woman to watch for as she finished her scholarly work. We are proud of Zena. Palestine is proud of Zena. Zena makes poetry proud.