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Zeina Azzam at her home in Alexandria, Virginia.
Christopher Tyree
Virginia Center for Investigativ
Zeina Azzam at her home in Alexandria, Virginia.

Alexandria’s poet laureate, Zeina Azzam, has gone viral with her poetry capturing the pain and uncertainty of surviving conflict in Gaza.

By Leah Small

Virginia Center for Investigative Journalism at WHRO



“Because I tend the fig tree as earnestly as the dogwood and the pine

 Because cinnamon and anise, cumin and cardamom inhabit my shelves and senses Because I bake both baklava and blueberry pie for my family


I am an Arab American


Because poems by Mahmoud Darwish and Lucille Clifton are my daily bread 

Because both Ibn Khaldun and Howard Zinn explain the world to me

Because I'm awed by the blueness of the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea”

— Zeina Azzam, “I’m an Arab American”

Zeina Azzam, a Palestinian American who is poet laureate of Alexandria,writes longingly about her ancestral home in Palestinewhile celebrating her American identity, often peppering her English poetry with Arabic. Azzam, 68, came to the U.S. at the age of 10 after living in Homs, Syria and Beirut.

Her parents fled their home in Haifa in 1948 when Zionist paramilitary forces drove more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes to establish the Israeli state. The Zionists were largely European Jews who themselves suffered through centuries of displacement, antisemitism, and genocide.

This mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians is called Al Nakba, or The Catastrophe, and ignited a refugee crisis that’s lasted decades. Today, Israeli settlements continue to displace Palestinians in the West Bank. This history has fueled both Israel and Hamas to conduct violent strikes and retaliations.

Next month, VCIJ at WHRO will profile an Israeli-American.

Azzam has made a colorful and happy home in Alexandria, decorated with cultural emblems from the Arab World, fig trees and jasmine plants.

Her poem, “Write My Name,” has gone viral with its vivid description of children surviving in war-torn Gaza. Azzam read the poem before the United Nations Palestinian Rights Committee, and the verse has been translated into multiple languages.

Speaking independently, not as the Poet Laureate of Alexandria, she shared stories about her life as a child of refugees in America, Al Nakba, the Israeli-Hamas War and her hope for the future.


This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

My parents are both Palestinians, from Nazareth, in historic Palestine. My family, on both sides, traces back their ancestry for hundreds of years in Nazareth.

My parents were married in the mid 1940s and moved to Haifa, which is a coastal city, and they had my oldest brother in 1946. My father was working in shipping on the Mediterranean. My parents became refugees in 1948. They were lucky in that they didn't end up in refugee camps.

It was such a huge time of displacement in their lives. They left everything behind and they had to start all over again from nothing. My father had to find work. Ours is not a unique story, but it's my family's story.

Right before they fled, they saw their neighbor in a pool of blood on the street. They were holding my brother, who was two, and they were at the back door. They were saying, if the militias come to get us in the front door, we'll go out the back. If we see them in the back, we'll go out the front. They were literally fleeing for their lives.

My mother lived until she was 95. Bless her heart. And during the last few years, she had dementia. It was very sad, she started having these hallucinations at that age that someone was taking over her house. I look back and I cannot believe how much my parents just were steadfast in moving forward. They were going to take care of us. They were going to make money and facilitate our lives.

My parents started a new life in Syria in 1948, and then they moved to Lebanon, where my father found a job. We came here to the U.S. as immigrants and we started again. We moved to the U.S. when I was ten years old. We moved to upstate New York, to a town called Delmar, then to Albany, New York. That's where I had my teen years until I went to college.

So back when I was ten, that was in the late 60s, we didn't have the kind of diversity that we have now. I mean, we had it, but we didn't. People were not sensitized to the importance of diversity and the respect and dignity that you offered other communities.

Very few Arab Americans, and certainly very few Palestinians, were living in our area. We did experience some discrimination. I remember those people would say to me, “oh, you're Palestinian, where's your gun?”

At the same time, you always find people who are kind and who are good people and you make friends. Despite the treatment some people would give us, there were other people who were good, nice and kind.

I think for a long time I felt it was sort of a liability that I had two cultures and I had two languages. It was not a source of strength for me. Not that I ever wanted to hide it, I was always proud of being Palestinian, of being Arab.

But as I grew older, I really began to understand that this background I had, and these perspectives that were honed over the years, were such assets really in how I look at the world. It has given me such a broad and profound way of looking at people who are marginalized in society.

I wanted to work in a field where I could actually use the two pieces of my identity. That’s kind of what I did for my whole professional life. I worked for 27 years at Georgetown University, at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

One of the huge premises behind this place is to bring an understanding of the Arab world and Islam to American society. And I worked for many years as a director of outreach, which meant that I would reach out to K through 12 teachers in the DC metropolitan area.

I feel optimistic, and I think we are in a very different place after 9-11, than ten years ago even. But I can't help but look at where we are now in terms of Gaza and Palestine. On the one hand, it's amazing to me how there's a whole youth movement that wants to champion Palestinian rights, who are really so upset about what's going on and about the genocide.

I've volunteered since 2016 for a program called, We Are Not Numbers. Basically, young people from Gaza are learning to express themselves in stories and essays. They are paired with a writer or an editor here in the States or in Europe, who serves as a mentor for them.

One of the youths is actually living in northern Gaza. And he's in the famine. He and his family are starving. He sends me voice messages every week or two and just gives me an update on what's going on.

It's heartbreaking to get his messages because I feel like, What can I do? I can't do anything for him. So, I just write. I send voice messages back to him and try to be a little uplifting. But more importantly, I talk about him. I talk about Ahmed. I've written poems about him.

I'm a poet. I live in that space of feelings. I'm not a politician. I just want people to see each other's humanity. We all have human rights. Israelis have human rights, of course, too. I'm not just talking about Palestinians.

Read more of Zeina Azzam's poetry here.

Reach Leah Small at leahmariesmall@gmail.com.