Shlomi Hatuka interviewed by Sarah Sassoon
Sarah Sassoon: In a 2016 Forward Magazine article, Ayelet Tsabari described Ars Poetica as “the best party in town and the most significant cultural phenomenon in Israel today.” Can you tell me more about Ars Poetica and what it meant for Mizrahi writers?
Shlomi Hatuka: So I can speak for myself what Ars Poetica was for me. When I started writing and sending my poems out, some of my content was like African Americans’, but I was talking about racism in Israel. A very good friend warned me it would be very difficult: “Society will tag you. If you write one poem about Mizrahi discrimination, they will say this is you.”
Today everyone says giving Mizrahim a voice is so obvious, but it wasn’t obvious then. It was the opposite of obvious – it was, [Mizrahim,] why are you whining? There were some great Mizrahi writers, but they didn’t directly address Mizrahi discrimination because they’d find themselves shunned by the hegemonic, Israeli, literary scene. Either way, suppression or no suppression, I felt like I didn’t belong.
Adi Keissar, who established Ars Poetica, called me the first time she ran an event. It was so great I couldn’t believe it was happening, the thing I was looking for. Ars Poetica was like rapping. When you rap, you want to rap with friends. Some of us were at the beginning of our careers, and in a couple of years, we all wrote our first books. Most of the poems were written in this exchange, after the Arab Spring, and Daphne Leef’s social rights housing movement in 2011. We too were speaking up.
But from my point of view, Ars Poetica wasn’t just Mizrahim coming and speaking about poetry: it was about bringing poetry and speaking about racism. It was about telling the Ashkenazim, “You’re part of a very hard suppression,” and this was a big problem for anybody because they didn’t want art and poetry to be political. Because if it’s political, then they are the problem. I mean there was no question about political art if the message is Palestinian, but our message was, hey Ashkenazim, you are responsible for wrongdoings towards Mizrahim such as the kidnapping of babies; you were very racist; this is part of your heritage, and we need to speak about it so that it won’t come back. Ars Poetica was for the release of Mizrahi anger, on the cutting edge, about speaking back. Poetry wasn’t ten people in a library anymore. Ars Poetica was built on Facebook, it was like a stadium.
Whilst Ars Poetica is a historical period in my life, I also think it’s historical in Israeli literature. It opened the language to other forms of poetry. Until then poetry was restricted to the rhythms of hegemony. Poetry that’s cryptic and constrictive. If you can’t understand it’s not for you. We were one of the groups that opened up the language. We used other forms of poetry that nobody uses in Israel, for example, American influences and religious influences, like the Gemara, Song of Songs, piyutim, the form not just the content. People shouldn’t think we were just talking about racism, we were changing the language itself.
SS: The political infuses your life and your poetry. After Ars Poetica you began AMRAM, collecting testimonies from Yemenite and Mizrahi families whose children were kidnapped in the early 1950s in Israel. Can you tell us a bit about this and how it influenced your poetry?
SH: The Arabs have a word for what happened in 1948, they call it the Nakba. The Mizrahi population doesn’t have a word for what happened. Most of the time they were ashamed to talk about it. The kidnapping of the Yemenite and Mizrahi babies is an enormous trauma. It’s a huge and deeply humiliating meeting with Ashkenazim. It was brutal.
My aunt disappeared as a baby a couple of weeks after my grandmother gave birth to twins and refused the hospital staff’s request to give one baby away. This is why I am an activist. Because of this story.
Because of the stolen children affair, I set up AMRAM with Naama Katiee, interviewing fathers and mothers who lost their children.
My activism is mainly about breaking the traditional stereotype of a Mizrahi man; as either a criminal or someone who repairs your car. My poetry is more about the pain, history, and suffering. My first book, Mizrach Yoreach – Eastern Moon, is full of anger. I saw so much pain around me I couldn’t feel it any other way and my poems were very harsh, this is the amount of pain.
SS: Your latest two books, Island and Continent, are referred to as twins. You made a conscious choice to bring two new books out in 2020. Both are very different. In my reading of Ei – Island, you describe your personal journey to Crete, and in Yabeshet – Continent, which is a longer work, your poems are about family, gypsies, love, and car journeys which take us into the political but also the intensely personal. Can you comment on their differences?
SH: When I published the two books, I knew I didn’t want to repeat myself from Mizrach Yareach, with so much anger about Mizrahi discrimination and oppression. So Continent doesn’t talk about it much and Island takes the story to the heart core, sad level, like the stolen babies.
I think in a way Continent is me wondering if I have a home or not, or what is home?
SS: You give the reader a lot to think about in your poems, but you root it in reality so that we feel it. The poem ‘Benjamin’ for example, works on two levels in the car and in the speaker’s thoughts. Can you comment on this?
SH: I really like to go in the car, and in my poems I like to take the reader on a journey. It’s all about the poem’s lens. I want them to forget what was the starting point. It’s so expected today how a poem looks. I want them to ask – where was I? What happened in the middle of all these things? Sometimes I like to take them on a tour in the middle of my mind, weird and dark and imaginative as it may be. I feel sometimes people need to read about this kind of inner mind to feel good about themselves and their imaginations.
Continent was an opportunity for me to do something very large. I wrote some poems which were long, 5-7 pages, but I didn’t care. I wanted to do something different. And I got compliments about changing the lens of a poem in that way, doing something different.
SS: Can you tell me more about writing Island? There’s a lot of sadness in it.
SH: I felt a very great sadness. It really broke me apart, taking testimonies with mothers and fathers. After talking and taking the testimonies of 500 families, I told them I can’t do it anymore. I escaped to Crete, and it was just beautiful. I went with sorrow and the minute I landed in Crete I sat in the car and started to cry because my burden was melting. This island was healing. It can hold you, it’s very simple but unique.
So the poems in Island were written sometimes one, maybe two sentences at a time, because I was broken, and it became about the kidnaps. Sometimes I felt like I was kidnapped metaphorically. I contemplated the relationship between parents and children, and also the military; what’s the difference between losing a child and missing a child? This is also something that Israeli society hides.
Like Freud explained about the mechanism of suppressing, Israeli society can’t suppress anymore dead, it can’t. They don’t talk about it, they’re just nationalistic. They’re afraid to talk about it. I address this in my poem ‘Open Letter’. I was talking to children this week, and when I talk about this poem the children say, “No you have to go to the army, you have to.” And I say, “Look how automatic you are, if you were a parent and lost a child, believe me you wouldn’t be so automatic.”
We need to ask what we can do for peace because the price is the most precious thing anyone can ever lose.
Also, I want to add, at the same time part of my healing was to write, and when I returned from Crete, I had my book. The word island in Hebrew, Ei – can mean many things. It’s an acronym for Eretz Israel. Many people call Israel an island because you need to take a plane to go abroad. Ei is also a negative, like “un-” – something absent. For example, Ei Higayon means illogical, signifying something missing, like the missing babies. So it was also an opportunity to play with words. It wasn’t by chance that I ended up on this island all alone. I believe Crete had to do with my journey so it appears in my poetry, its history in WWII with the explosive invasion of Nazi soldiers. Also Zorba the Greek and mythology feature, there are a lot of connections.
SS: Can you tell us how the two books speak to each other?
SH: Creating two books is me saying, hey we have divisible selves. This I explore in Continent. I don’t want people to see my bad thoughts, which are sometimes dark and not good to hear, but this is us. It’s like all food has garbage and you can make compost with this garbage.
To be an artist is to challenge the boundaries of my medium. It’s my nature to experiment. Like the famous Jazz saxophone player John Coltrane experimented. I also feel that beneath the poems is something else that comes with speaking, with talking, whispering, music, something that comes with telling our friends a joke, as I try to find other languages and expressions in the poems. I think I published two books, one very short, one very long, so they can speak to each other, and symbolize different things.
SS: In a Mekor Rishon interview you describe the poet as a type of terrorist. This really took me aback. Can you explain why you refer to yourself as a poet that way?
SH: The poet as a terrorist refers to my friend the poet Ya’akov Biton. Reading his book was like listening to someone digging a tunnel. At that time many people were talking about hearing tunnels dug near Gaza. And as poets we talk about topics such as family. Writing something like my poem, “Island of Knowing” brings up such difficult topics. Still, most people choose to engage with art because of the explosion it puts in their souls. So poets are terrorists, but we are welcomed with open arms.
SS: So poets are good terrorists?
SH: If there is such a thing. If you hear about terrorists, you run away, but if you hear about an artist you think about someone who can hurt you in a good way. Hurt you to be open, not to be ending, but to begin something. It’s also a little joke, Ya’akov Biton and I, we look like terrorists. We are stopped in airports all the time. So it has a double meaning.
SS: You mention your poem “Island of Knowing,” as a poem about difficult family relationships. This poem struck me as a poem full of pain and vulnerability. How do you write about such personal and vulnerable subjects?
SH: If you want to be a writer, you don’t have any other choice. Like a joke, a real story a friend told me. She began seeing a psychologist and when she told her mother, her mother said, “Alright but just don’t talk about the family.”
This is the same thing.
SS: Can you tell me about the greatest influences on your writing?
SH: I mentioned John Coltrane, he influenced me personally. When I first heard “Kind of Blue,” I bought myself a saxophone and began playing intensively in my twenties. When I listen to Coltrane, I feel like I’m being carried to a peak, like a peak of a tree; the logical and the emotional together. This is the magic. We can’t explain it. Coltrane was so great, everyone liked him not just because he was a brilliant technician but because he knew how to tell a story. Making us think about and explore music, but with so much emotion. I think this is what makes people thrilled about art. As an artist, you’d better have emotion, not just thoughts.
Then for six or seven years I didn’t write, I almost forgot about it, I was just plain thinking about jazz, and then I heard Notorious B.I.G. and this is the second time my life changed. The moment I heard him, I think it was “Juicy”, the well-known anthem of hip-hop I started writing. I’m telling you at that same moment I wrote my first adult poems. I was fascinated; it was like Coltrane, but with words.
Another deep influence is the Gemara. The sages write the maximum with minimum words, like poetry. And the Bible, the Song of Songs, has imagination. It’s something great. Imagination is a powerful part of my life, which for me began with reading Enid Blyton as a child. Also Mahmoud Darwish, Muhammad Ali, and Seamus Heaney are powerful inspirations.
SS: Can you share with me what your writing process is? How do you write day to day?
SH: I’m afraid to talk about it. I don’t want the magic to disappear. [Laughs] But there’s a deep connection with music and cinema and other fields of arts, not just poetry, and soccer, I like soccer very much. I think soccer is very much like poetry. To be an excellent player, you need to know how to play excellent players. Being aware of other writers can help you find your way.
Although I think it’s more important to find your voice than to know every other writer. There’s no substitute for your own voice. Although, I also like to try other voices. If you think of Yona Wallach, her voice is unique, and she is very strong and deep, but the voice sounds like Yona Wallach. I like my voice to be different. I like to change as much as I can. It’s very hard, even for a talented musician, to find their voice in a specific piece. Sometimes they need to change the reed.
SS: Do you think you’ve found your voice?
SH: Sometimes, but as I told you I’m always trying to change it, although I believe if someone reads my work they will find one voice. I’ve had a very long journey finding myself. Creating awareness in my body and my mind through meditation and qigong. I am Yemenite but I’m very eastern. I’m Jewish but very anti-religion – unless it’s soccer, of course.
Three Poems by Shlomi Hatuka, translated by Sarah Sassoon
Island of Knowing
After hearing the cries
and seeing him strike out
I don’t know
if I was born from love.
After seeing the police
coming and going, victims
who rebelled and were jailed for it,
after I discovered the true nature
of neighbors and uncles,
I don’t know
if I was born from love.
And now that I have seen love,
I don’t know if I would have wanted
to be born.
I reached the desert
of dried tears.
I met farmers growing crops in dying sand dunes
who know: harvested things
continue to grow in hearts.
Like the man who endlessly sketches his beloved’s breasts
in this prison called life,
like the woman who grows girls
in her lap while the moon and the sun
patrol around her.
I didn’t want to set foot there
but I couldn’t run away,
pain is patient
as a booby trap.
My dreams rebelled against me in this place
and awoke me from my sleep.
All day I patrol
on the lookout so people won’t invade, won’t land
on the shores of my limbs, so they won’t notice
the dry, brown terrain, whose borders are fingernails,
hair, cliffs and fjords
vulnerable points, entrances
flowing, leaking, and breathing.
Continent, how alike we are.
They exploited us, mined our treasures
and didn’t thank us. Worse, were those who filled us with trash
which doesn’t decompose, and all our lives we struggle to clean.
And there were things that shone so bright we thought they were eternal,
but in a few hours were devoured. How innocent of sin
we were when storms forged heart-deep and struck without mercy.
There were days water wept through us, into the chasms,
and days we showered love freely.
And it happened to both of us, we were suddenly cut off
from the part we thought was our body, an extension of flesh,
spurned and swept from us, concealed from our eyes.
Forces whose significance we misunderstood, shifting tectonic plates,
earth’s heart fluctuations forcing us to wander.
Just as it was discovered, two continents were once one land,
with the same fossils found across both oceans,
this is how we recognize old lovers, alone
with shared memories.
And today we’re unsure what’s approaching
we tremble before melting glaciers.
Will the water rise above and cover us completely
or lift us so we cleave to another body
in order to survive. We know, only couples march
a victory parade, love is the only conqueror
we agree to accept.
And there are those who trespass
without asking: dreams
like immigrants waiting for darkness,
wanderers camouflaged from the eye, in a rickety dinghy,
rowing from the day’s edge to the day’s shore,
we struggle to decipher their strange languages,
many drown without memory, nameless
in the mighty sea which doesn’t disclose ink.
We are prepared to get involved with what we
aren’t prepared to touch, supplicants
say something, they knock on our doors
without being heard.
We are frightened
to look into their eyes,
the fear is to see ourselves,
our neediness, our despair. The fear
that they’ll blur the borders
of who we are.
This is why I say,
all day I patrol, on the lookout
so no one infiltrates
but I can’t hold
on until night and
and in night’s no man’s land:
As an Iraqi-Jewish writer obsessed with garlic, cardamom, and refugee tent camps, I’m constantly looking out for Mizrachi voices in Israeli literature. Feeding my obsession, my friend introduced me to Yemenite poet Shlomi Hatuka, whom I discovered is also a social activist, math teacher and swinging musician.
Hatuka’s poetry books, Yareach Mizrach – Eastern Moon (2014), Ei – Island (2020), and Yabeshet – Continent (2020), each in their own way, thunder with the message that Mizrahim are no longer silent or second-class. ‘The twins’, as his two latest books are nicknamed, invite us into Hatuka’s imagination and reality of island and continent. Where the island is Israel, Crete and the human condition, and his worded landscape explores what it is to be a citizen of the world. Hatuka’s poetry in ‘the twins’ reads like a rhythmic jazz journey, sounding the notes of liturgical mourning for theYemenite and Mizrahi babies, stolen in Israel in the 1950’s, as well as the lyrical lament of what love is or isn’t under ever-fresh moons.
As an activist poet, Hatuka’s vision of equality has contributed in reshaping the Israeli literary scene. He established Tangiers Publishing, a literary cultural project which provides Israeli poets and writers accessible publishing opportunities. He also hosts “Brit Milah”, an influential literary podcast on KAN, where Hatuka interviews Israeli poets, asking hard questions which reveal the private process of poetry to the public. Hatuka is also well-known for his popular podcast series “Hatuka and Hassan”, broadcasted with poet Roy Hassan.
Another social project of Hatuka’s is AMRAM, a Mizrahi association, founded to raise awareness about the inherent racism in Israeli, white male, Ashkenazi hegemony. One of their major activities is recording testimonies about the stolen Yemenite and Mizrahi babies.
I wasn’t sure what to expect meeting a man whose poetry reads like a tender, humorous yet crashing, saxophone solo. But interviewing Hatuka at Hansen House under the cool shade of Jerusalem olive trees was like hanging out with a tall, hip-hop, baseball cap wearing, contemplative brother. So it was only natural that we shared a chopped Israeli salad with charred, tahini drizzled eggplant, and bagged the uneaten, seeded bread to take home. Eating the Mizrahi way, where food is shared and bread cherished as much as friendship.
After speaking to this gentle, passionate poet who professes in his poetry, “to have arrived at this place/ in my life that I love trees/ more than people”, I was left with a complex taste of poetic possibility. How intergenerational loss can be transformed into thoughtful art, serious engagement and cultural rejuvenation; informing more than the past, but bravely reimagining our future.
I’m happy to share the interview here, in Halah, followed by three of Shlomi’s poems from his new poetry collections that I translated from Hebrew into English.