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BOOKS Inspirational life of Tawfiq Zayyad, poet, activist and politician

JOHN GREEN recommends a new biography of the Palestinian communist

The Optimist: A Social Biography of Tawfiq Zayyad
by Tamir Sorek
(Stanford University Press, £20.99)

THIS is an unusual biography of Tawfiq Zayyad, not least because it is about a Palestinian communist and is written by a US-based, Jewish-Israeli social scientist.

The renowned Palestinian poet and activist was a leading member of the Israeli Communist Party for over four decades and was elected mayor of Nazareth before becoming a member of the Israeli Knesset, serving for 18 years. He died in 1994 at the age of 85.

The book's author Tamir Sorek openly questions his right as an Israeli Jew and non-communist to write such a biography. But his admiration and respect for Zayyad, even though he never met him, is unquestionable and he was given full access to Zayyad’s family and comrades and exhaustively mined many archival sources.

This sympathetic and informative biography is a welcome celebration of his memory as well as a valuable contribution to our understanding of Palestinian history.

As a political activist and poet, Zayyad helped his generation to play a key role in shaping Palestine’s national identity. Poetry became a major avenue of political expression and mobilisation and no other poet of his time became so intensively involved in politics or developed such a long and successful political career as Zayyad.

As a teenager, he already threw himself into the anti-colonialist struggle and, once he began working, saw the need for trade unions and to understand class struggle, which drew him irresistibly to Marxism. National identification among Palestinians like Zayyad only came about through this struggle. During the 1960s, he gained considerable public prestige for his unapologetic style, courage in confronting the authorities and fierce nationalist poetry.

The times Zayyad lived through are akin to a first-hand history of Palestine, from earlier colonial times through the British mandate to the establishment and expansion of the Israeli state. In response to the Balfour Declaration, at the first Palestinian-Arab Congress in Jerusalem in 1919 a letter of protest was formulated condemning the zionist movement but proclaiming solidarity with the Jews of Palestine.

The Palestine Communist Party, formed in the 1920s, began as a worker-based group among Jewish immigrants. In 1921, it was declared an illegal party and the British occupiers waged a relentless propaganda campaign against communism using major Palestinian newspapers.

By mid-1931, only 50 or so of its estimated 300 members were Arab but this proportion grew with time and the party had its first Arab secretary by 1934. The turning point was the great revolt against the British mandate in 1936, demanding Arab independence and an end to Jewish immigration and land purchase. The party’s role in this struggle brought it increased credibility and popularity.

During the British occupation, Nazareth, where Zayyad lived and was active, had a strong working class. Most Nazarenes were employed in war-related industries and many went to Haifa to work in the city’s oil refineries, railway workshops and other industries.

As a youngster, Zayyad could not afford to buy books, but a progressive bookseller in the town gave him free access to his shelves and the young man devoured everything he could lay his hands on.

Within the Communist Party at that time, Zayyad was one of the very few who was genuinely working class, most members being from the educated and relatively affluent strata. He would became a leading member of the Arab Workers Congress in Nazareth.

In 1947, the United Nations’ approval of plans for a Jewish and a Palestinian state, which were supported by the Soviet Union, threw the Arabs into disarray.

In the war of resistance (Nakba) that erupted following the UN decision, over 750,000 Palestinians were uprooted and hundreds of villages depopulated as Israeli forces cleared large areas of the territory, including land beyond that allocated to them by the UN. A fifth of Nazareth’s population became refugees.

In his battles on behalf of his fellow Palestinians, Zayyad was arrested on several occasions, beaten, tortured and imprisoned. From his arrest in Arraba in 1954 until he became a member of the Knesset in 1974, the military government and police frequently restricted his freedom. They also carried out a determined campaign to prevent a communist being elected mayor of Nazareth in 1954.

Following the war, Nazareth had become home to the largest concentration of Arab Palestinians within the armistice line and a major site for political activism, so it wa regarded by the Israeli authorities as a security threat and kept under close surveillance. Many thousands of Arabs who were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge outside the territory designated as Israel had no Israeli ID and so were refused the right of return.

The collapse of Palestinian society and economy in the aftermath of the Nakba had enormous repercussions. From then on, the Palestinian Arabs and the Communist Party were obliged to tread a narrow path of activity between the boundaries of legitimacy and legality, as well as between their revolutionary ideology and the mundane but urgent needs of their constituency.

After the Nakba, the only organisation that could legally mobilise political resistance was the Communist Party. Because it recognised Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish-Israeli people, it was tolerated and would become, as Sorek says, “the major engine for mobilising resistance and its fuel was poetry.”

Zayyad saw his poetry as integral to the struggle. He objected to the idea of poetry being a mirror to reflect life because, as he put it, “a mirror does not create a single job.” He saw it more as a weapon. His poetry has travelled far beyond Palestine and a number of his poems have been set to music and sung by leading Arab performers.

Uncompromising in his protest against injustice towards the Palestinian people, Zayyad was always committed to a universal vision of Arab-Jewish fraternity. He was an exceptional leader and this biography provides not only a compelling portrait of the man himself but also an informed narrative of Palestinians in Israel.

What I Deny and What I Do Not Deny

I do not deny any right
Whatever it would be
Of your Jews, Israel
Because among them
I have comrades in arms
I would walk with them
Until the last step
To obtain our common bright future.
I do not deny the right of the other peoples
To be in a state of their own
To build it as they wish
They could divide it into more than one state
Make it heaven or hell
Paint it any colour they wish
Make it a dough, and to bake it into a loaf and eat it
If they so wish.

Tawfiq Zayyad


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