“Exile is No Country” by Lisa Suhair Majaj

Lisa Suhair Majaj


for Sabra and Shatila

The trees burned first, ablaze in the inferno of exile.
The tsunami of death drowned the ones washed up by exile.
Soldiers surrounded the camps, then set up flares for the killers.
Knives shone in the dark, a steely passage to exile.
The killers hated them because they were in their land.
They came because they were refugees, forced into exile.
The alleys were littered with bodies, knifed, machine-gunned.
The corpses twisted in choreographed despair: oh exile!
Dust settled thick on the broken stones. Flies clustered everywhere.
Wrecked buildings marked the camp’s collapse into exile.
The reporters stopped counting bodies after they reached a hundred.
Children and grandparents sprawled in death’s terrible exile.
The orchestrators watched through binoculars as the murderers worked.
They wanted the victims dead, not just in exile.
Youth taken by surprise fell like crumpled puppets, limbs outflung.
Blood pooled beneath their bodies, staining the dirt of exile.
Pregnant women lay with their bellies slashed open—
babes torn from their wombs, condemned to a lifeless exile.
The bodies piled up in stacks: horses and corpses.
Bulldozers scooped the dead to rubble-filled exile.
Word traveled across oceans in time for the evening news.
TV corpses brought the dead to their families in echoes of exile.
Hands flung wide, mourners still clutch at the broken air.
Their lungs struggle for breath in the vacuum of exile.
Who will comfort the children of Sabra, the mothers of Shatila?
What light can they find in the ravaged lanes of exile?
At the port there is no boat waiting, only sailors with dirges.
Memory sinks to the depths, carrying the grief of exile.
The days and the years glided away with my loved ones.
Oh Palestinians, it is a departure without return from exile!

from Poets Respond
September 24, 2023


Lisa Suhair Majaj: “In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, led by Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. In September, as Israeli soldiers watched through binoculars and lit flares to light the dark, Christian militias friendly to Israel massacred thousands of Palestinian civilians at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut. Palestinian fighters had already been evacuated and the camps were defenseless. A UN commission of inquiry found Israel and several individuals, including Sharon, bore responsibility for the massacres. I was a college student in Beirut 1978-1982, and evacuated out during the invasion (our refugee boat was arrested and taken to Israel by an Israeli navy ship for interrogation). By September I had settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for graduate school. When the massacre happened I was stunned by the images of bloated bodies on the TV screen. There was no context for my grief on that calm campus of grass and squirrels. Later I learned that someone I knew learned her uncle had died when she saw his corpse on a pile of bodies in the lane of the camp on the evening news. This year marks 41 years since the massacre. News agencies in various places in the world marked the anniversary. Reading the news from the distance of decades, now on the island of Cyprus—the place my refugee boat brought me to at last during my evacuation in 1982—I found my anguish rising potent as ever: over the massacres, and over the fact that Palestinians are still exiles. The italicized lines in the poem are from a lament by a Palestinian woman after the massacres of Sabra and Shatila, quoted in Laleh Khalili, Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration, 2007.”

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