The withdrawal of an invitation to Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd from a conference organised by the German cultural nonprofit Goethe-Institut in Hamburg, Germany, has drawn a sharp reaction from the British-Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif.
On June 21, the author of ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’ (2008), ‘Our Lady of Alice Bhatti’ (2011), and ‘Red Birds’ (2018), announced on Twitter that he was “withdrawing from (the)…conference where they first invited and then disinvited…Mohammed El Kurd. Reason is even more offensive. Apparently Kurd is not respectful enough towards Israel. How do you say bugger off in German?”
The ‘Beyond the Lone Offender – Dynamics of the Global Right’ summit scheduled to be held between June 23 and 26, will “focus on the impact of far-right movements and their global entanglements”. The Goethe-Institut had announced its decision to disinvite El-Kurd on Twitter on June 17: “After some consideration, the Goethe-Institut decided that Mohammed El-Kurd was not an appropriate speaker for this forum: in previous posts on social media, he had made several comments about Israel in a way the Goethe-Institut does not find acceptable…”
Twenty-four-year-old El-Kurd is a poet-activist from Palestine who grew up in the predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem. He was 11 when part of his family home was taken over by Israeli settlers. In 2013, he was the protagonist of a documentary film, ‘My Neighbourhood’, by documentary filmmakers Julia Bacha of Brazil, and American Rebekah Wingert-Jab.
El-Kurd and his twin sister Muna began documenting the forced evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and putting them on social media to spread awareness of the human impact of the crisis in the region. Together, the siblings have millions of followers on social media. They were briefly arrested last year by Israeli security forces for their role in protests against possible evictions in East Jerusalem.
El-Kurd rose to prominence early last year after his interviews to American news organisations such as CNN and NBC, in which he spoke of the need to alter the ways in which the Israel-Palestine violence and the forcible occupation of territory is framed by mainstream media, went viral.
“To start with, it’s not really an eviction, it’s forced ethnic displacement to be accurate, because an eviction implies legal authority while the Israeli occupation has no legitimate jurisdiction over the eastern parts of occupied Jerusalem under international law…” he told CNN.
El-Kurd later reached out to the American news magazine The Nation, requesting them to create a dedicated Palestine department in the organisation. Kurd is currently the magazine’s Palestine correspondent, a role that was created for him.
Education and writing
El-Kurd has studied poetry at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, US. He was pursuing an MFA in poetry at Brooklyn College, New York, in 2021 when escalating violence in the Gaza Strip took him back to Palestine.
In 2019, his spoken-word album, Bellydancing on Wounds, came out. His debut collection of poems, Rifqa, was published last year by Haymarket Books to favourable reviews.
In her review in LARB, Palestinian-American poet and editor Summer Farah wrote, “Rifqa beautifully explores the ways colonialism alters our navigation of time and space — a few miles of travel can take a lifetime, an event that occurred 73 years ago is happening for the first time tomorrow, and the city from which you fled can be recreated where you land. In El-Kurd’s work, there are reverberations of Palestinian visionaries that came before him.”
Unlike his twin, El-Kurd chooses to write in English to take his concerns to a wider audience.
In a post titled “An Attempt at a Simple Understanding of Privilege” that was published on the online platform Medium in November 2016, El-Kurd wrote, “Growing up in Jerusalem, Palestine, I had a totally different understanding of what is ‘normal’. To me, and to a lot of Palestinian children, ‘checkpoints’ and barriers seemed universal; having military troops attend your house and strip you of your blankets was perfectly natural; policemen were always the bad guys; basic human rights and freedom of movement were luxuries; being denied the right to erect a home on your own land was a norm; and the so-called bizarre and extraordinary was our everyday reality. Simply because we only had one version of reality, so no comparisons were made. Not once in my early life did I think ‘this is not how things are supposed to be.’”
When he became aware of the degrees of privilege that separated individuals, El-Kurd wrote that he could no longer remain impervious to it. “I am under-privileged by nationality and privileged by the opportunities I have been offered. I am obliged to use this status in a constructive way that prevents me from falling into the trap of self-indulgence and denial. The system of privilege, in all its forms, must be dismantled. We must consider a new dynamic, once again, which redefines privilege in light of necessities and luxuries,” he wrote in the same piece.