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Benjamin Zephaniah: The Voice of Unheard Struggles and His Dream of a Free Palestine

In a world where we are said to communicate more, the world remained silent while slavery made money. When the Nazis began killing unionists, disabled people, homosexuals, left-handers, and Jews, the world remained silent. And now, in the global world, in the age of mass communication, while Palestinians are being eradicated, the world remains silent…”

Activist Benjamin Zephaniah, who recently passed away at the age of 65, penned the above words a few years ago. His poems became the talk of millions and now, following events in Palestine, these words have started to regain their vitality.

Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was an English writer, poet, actor, and musician. He was listed in The Times’ top 50 post-war writers in the UK in 2008. He was referred to as a “people’s poet” by Birmingham Mail.

Zephaniah once said, “When I was young, there were two things I really wanted to see: ‘A free South Africa’ and ‘A free Palestine.'” His wish was partially fulfilled. His first desire was achieved in a hard but arduous way by Nelson Mandela. After the legendary reggae musician Bob Marley’s death in 1982, Zephaniah provided vocals for the song ‘Free South Africa’ recorded by the Jamaican group The Wailers. Mandela listened to this song in Robben Island, where he was imprisoned, and during his first visit to the UK ten years after his release, he invited Zephaniah to host him in his honor.

However, Zephaniah’s wish regarding Palestine was never fulfilled. In April 1988, Zephaniah visited Palestine to learn about the liberation struggle of Palestinians under Israeli control. He compiled his experiences in the book ‘Rasta Time in Palestine’, published two years later. Opening the book, one is greeted with a photo of a young Zephaniah standing beside then South African President Nelson Mandela.

During his visit to Palestine, Zephaniah summarized the occupation as follows: “In Israel, there are very well-trained warriors with powerful weapons, and they are very worried about small children armed with stones. A Palestinian in Jordan told me never to call an Israeli a civilian. ‘They are all soldiers,’ he insisted. It was not hard to understand. Seeing so many people in uniform together was very strange… Couples sitting hand in hand on the wall or women shopping with their children during the day, and a machine gun strapped to their backs. It was a very strange sight.”

Zephaniah, describing a tragic incident at Shifa Hospital, mentioned that ‘two doctors had to work non-stop for three days.’ He relayed a story told by some patients and their relatives about a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was hit by a jeep driven by an Israeli woman, who then reversed over his legs three times. Shifa Hospital was bombed by Israeli forces on November 15. Along with healthcare staff, the hospital director Muhammed Abu Selmiya was abducted by soldiers.

Witnessing the horrific conditions in Gaza, Zephaniah wrote about the area’s events, likening them to ‘Nazi concentration camps’, and how Palestinians were abducted and led to an unknown fate after conflicts.

In contrast to the reckless racism of Israeli soldiers, Zephaniah’s book ‘Rasta Time in Palestine’ depicted the warmth, solidarity, and hospitality of the Palestinian people who ‘treated me like a king,’ in his own words. Despite the crushing weight of the occupation, the Palestinians never forgot to open their homes to him, and his passion for the Palestinian cause never waned over the years. His support for the UK’s Palestine Solidarity Campaign was unfortunately not mentioned in any memorial writings after his death.

Born in Birmingham to Barbadian and Jamaican parents, he had a tough childhood. Health problems continued to plague him in adulthood. Severe dyslexia led him to drop out of school in his early youth and pushed him into a life filled with minor crimes, including nearly being beaten to death in a police station.

In the latter part of his youth, Zephaniah realized that if he didn’t escape his environment, his end would be an early death. He moved to London and joined a group of poets and artists. Despite his patchy education and lack of higher education, he succeeded. His struggle with reading as a dyslexic did not hinder his determination to express himself.

Zephaniah had little tolerance for indirect expressions or statements. Whatever he wanted to say, he did so bluntly and directly to people’s faces. During the Thatcher era in the UK, he did not shy away from domestic politics. He closely followed global issues and won the admiration of the literary world. He received the BBC’s Young Playwright Award, was honored with 16 honorary doctorates, and won major awards in the Long Novel category for his second novel, ‘Refugee Boy.’ His refusal of the British Empire Medal in 2003 caused a stir. He said, “When I hear the word ‘Empire’; it makes me angry; it reminds me of slavery, of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalized.”

Unlike Palestinian academic and poet Refaat Alareer, whom I wrote about last week, Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah was not killed by an empire or its army. He left behind a treasure trove of books, music, and albums of words that will be respected for generations. However, his living voice, with its charming lisp and Caribbean-flavored Brummie accent, and his boundless compassion for the oppressed around the world, will be dearly missed.

Benjamin Zephaniah, along with a group of friends, liberated poetry from paper and brought it to the service of people. “I think poetry should be alive,” he once said, and added, “you should be able to dream with it.” With his poems, like the ‘legend’ that Palestinian Refaat Alareer dreamed of, a free Palestine….”

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YÜKSEL DURGUT is a journalist with a primary focus on global politics and foreign affairs. He serves as the Foreign Relations Director of the International Journalists Association e.V. and holds the position of Editor-in-Chief at Journalist Post.

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