Last Thursday, over 70 attendees from UC Davis and the Sacramento area arrived at Olson Hall for “Poetic Resistance,” a reading hosted by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The event featured a spoken-word performance by renowned Palestinian-American poet Remi Kanazi and an open discussion led by Professor Sunaina Maira of the Asian American Studies Department at UC Davis.
Kanazi’s voice rang loudly in the modestly sized classroom. He described his style as “angry poetry,” often pacing around the stage and gesturing animatedly towards the audience.
His poetry discusses political themes such as human rights, social policy and Arab-American identity and often takes inspiration from current events.
“Not every 19-year-old wants to read an op-ed, but they might listen to hip-hop and poetry,” Kanazi said.
Flanked by a traditional Arab “kufiyah” and a podium adorned with the flag of the Palestinian movement, Kanazi recalled how his background influenced his artistic career and motivated him to rediscover his roots.
“My maternal grandmother was from Jaffa, and her stories were filled with memories from her homeland,” Kanazi said. “She played an important role as I began to be interested in my heritage.”
Kanazi was inspired to write after he saw Def Jam Poetry on Broadway in 2004 and when he was introduced to progressive politics at the University of Massachusetts. His writing intensified after 9/11 to combat the “vitriolic language” and racism that many Middle Eastern Americans face.
“Sometimes I would talk to someone and they would say something incredibly racist so I would think to myself, ‘Hey, I’m going to write a poem about you,’” Kanazi said.
The event is part of Kanazi’s nationwide campus tour in support of the controversial Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Kanazi’s appearance at UC Davis was a result of collaboration between himself, SJP and Maira, who is also affiliated with the BDS movement.
The campaign urges for various forms of commercial boycott in protest of Israel’s actions in its conflict with Palestine. During the discussion period, Maira introduced an academic boycott of Israeli universities and academics in protest of what she considers a disregard for freedom of expression.
“As an American scholar, critique of Israel is subject to punitive measures,” Maira said. “They are subjected to harassment by their peers and colleagues.”
Although BDS is a campaign targeted towards Israel, Maira describes how it is part of a larger movement for civil rights.
“It is important to make connections with our different movements,” Maira said. “We are coming together in the same way that we are working against the UC budget cuts.”
Kanazi’s poems also make references to civil rights figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to bridge cultural and temporal difference between progressive movements.
“I’m not an ethnocentrist; it’s not about nationalism,” Kanazi said. “It’s that system of oppression we’re fighting against, whether it’s fighting mass incarceration or what the War on Drugs is doing to people.”
The reading was SJP’s final event of the academic year, which saw the shifting of the club’s function from spreading awareness to actively participating in the BDS campaign to promote Palestinian rights.
“With the boycott, we are trying to take our goals a step further and not just leaving it after awareness” said Lyla Rayyan, co-president of SJP and senior international relations and communications major.
Despite initial difficulties in securing funding and departmental sponsorship for the event, Rayyan considers “Poetic Resistance” a success.
“I think that what is great about Remi is that he is able to take art, culture and politics and show us that they can come together,” Rayyan said.
JUSTIN ABRAHAM can be reached at email@example.com.