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An Interview with Shahd Mahnavi: on poetry as activism, Palestine and hope


We interviewed Shahd Mahnavi, poet and artist, and recent performer on the t'ARTopia stage. Shahd uses her poetry to campaign for freedom in Palestine and to find solace and to connect. We spoke to her about how she accesses her creativity, her universal message and how people can support the Palestinian cause.



How do poems come to you? Can you tell us more about what inspires your writing, and what your creative process is?


I have undergone numerous changes in my life, experiencing both highs and lows. I have encountered pain, abandonment, and loss, only to break and rise again. My writing emanates from a place of deep emotion, reflecting the profound experiences that have shaped me. Without enduring suffering, I would not have evolved to my present self. Growing up in a creative environment, I began writing at a young age, driven by my love and passion for nurturing my creative side. I believe in our shared humanity and perceive the world through a unique lens, finding beauty and deep connections in everything around me. When I sit at my desk, surrounded by the flickering light of candles and the soothing aroma of incense, I am transported to a different realm. Visions play out in my mind with vivid clarity, engaging my senses and allowing me to escape without needing to close my eyes.



You speak several languages. Do you write and perform in several languages too? If so, does the language you are writing in impact what and how you write?


I wish I could write in Arabic, but currently, I only write in English. Despite English not being my first language, I am dedicated to constantly honing my writing skills and educating myself. I find joy in learning new words daily, firmly believing that there is always space for personal growth. I am even considering delving into the art of Arabic poetry.


While English is not my native tongue, it does not hinder my poetic expression. I am able to envision precisely what I wish to convey in my writing, and I embrace the learning process that comes with it. This journey of self-expression through poetry is both beautiful and fulfilling to me.



When you perform your delivery is deeply melodic and poems almost turn into songs. What does performing feel like for you?


I immerse myself fully into my poetry, sensing the emotions of those around me. It's as if I can empathise with their joys, pains, and life experiences. In this space, I find solace and a sense of belonging, recognising that while everyone's pain may stem from different reasons, we all share a common thread. I embrace and cherish every individual, and when I step forward to perform, my objective is to convey a universal message: that as human beings, we possess emotions and deserve mutual respect. 


With profound love and acceptance, I aspire to spread messages of peace and foster understanding among all. My goal is to offer these sentiments to everyone, creating a harmonious connection that transcends boundaries. That’s what it’s all about for me.



Your art and your activism are deeply entwined. Was this always the case? What part do you think poetry can play in politics?

 

I was born and raised in Jerusalem, where my father was a prominent political figure. I vividly remember him sharing his poetry on stage, using it as a powerful tool to speak out against oppression. Interestingly, despite initially considering a path in business, I came to realise that deep down, I was suppressing my true essence. As the daughter of my father, I feel a natural pull to carry on his legacy through poetry. My goal is to showcase the diversity of humanity and emphasise the importance of education, acceptance, and working together for a more harmonious world.


When it comes to the intersection of poetry and politics, I firmly believe that poetry can play a significant role. It serves as a form of freedom of speech, allowing individuals to express their thoughts and emotions while aiming to create a profound impact on society. Throughout history, numerous poets, like the renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, have left a lasting influence on political discourse through their work.




You are incredibly busy, and your energy seems boundless. How do you manage this constant flux of performance and creativity?


My creativity is what breathes life into me, fuelling my energy and igniting my spirit. The moment I immerse myself in writing, I feel whole and revitalised. I extend this creative spark by incorporating music and crafting videos to enhance my performances. I aim for my audience not only to visualise my words but also to witness visuals that complement the message conveyed. Bringing this multimedia dimension to my poetry brings immense joy as I connect with people's hearts and raise awareness. This fulfilling process fuels my passion and keeps me inspired to continue sharing my artistic endeavour’s.


 

Your work is extremely important and needs to be heard and experienced far and wide. It could be seen as a massive responsibility. Is that how you perceive it? If so, how do you manage that?


I embarked on this journey with no expectation of gains along the way. It became a part of me, seamlessly intertwined in my being. The process has brought me immense joy and fulfilment, as I strive to be a positive influence in a compassionate, peaceful, and accepting manner. It is truly an honour for me if I could share my voice on a global scale, showcasing the inherent peaceful and loving nature of humanity. My mission is to amplify the voices of the marginalised, promote understanding, and cultivate empathy among all.



 

Despite everything that’s wrong in the world, you seem to carry so much hope, and that translates into your work too. Could you tell us how you access that hope and how you think other people could find a bit more hope, too?

 

Hope resides within us, beginning with self-love. Prior to seeking change elsewhere, we must first transform ourselves . Awakening each day with a sense of self-worth, grasping our purpose, and engaging in continuous learning and growth. It is through making mistakes and learning from them that we evolve. As long as we are alive  we have the capacity to learn, our journey of personal development persists. Refuse to settle for your current circumstances; progress forward armed with newfound knowledge.


Hope permeates everything, from the gentle sway of trees to the genuine smiles on people's faces. In fact, I penned a poem titled "Hope," affirming that hope exists in every sight we behold.



Some of the people fighting against the Palestinian cause try to justify this by saying that queer people wouldn’t be welcome there, and so shouldn’t support its struggle. Yet here you are, writing poems for queer people, fundraising for Gaza alongside queer people. How does it feel to prove them wrong? Is there anything you’d like to say to those people?


It is a fundamental belief of mine that individuals like me exist to educate and demonstrate the diversity of humanity. While good and bad people exist everywhere, there is never justification for the brutalisation of innocent lives. Though I may not be accepted in certain circles, it is essential to uphold principles of humanity and justice. By fostering change through collective education, we can transcend differences and promote understanding. Instead of combatting those who differ from us, we must approach situations with a calm and empathetic mindset.


My stance emphasises the commonality shared by all individuals as fellow human beings. Regardless of background, race, or gender, my perspective remains rooted in acceptance and love for all. It is not my place to pass judgment on others; rather, I choose to embrace diversity and support personal happiness and authenticity. In a world where rejection and resistance may be encountered, it is crucial to remember our shared humanity and extend empathy to all, regardless of their identity or beliefs.



For people who want to join you in supporting the Palestinian cause, what can they do? How can they help?


Educate yourself, engage with Palestinian individuals, and listen to their stories. Gaining a comprehensive understanding is crucial. Avoid being one-sided; broaden your perspective. Get involved in fundraising efforts, understanding that we, like everyone else in the world, desire peace. We seek recognition as humans with the same rights as all. You can assist by continuously speaking out against the oppression and injustice faced by the Palestinian people.


 

What’s next for you, and where would you like your art to take you?


I aim to contribute, to offer, through my art, in uniting people worldwide. When individuals view me as a Palestinian poet-artist, I wish for them to associate love, peace, and acceptance with my identity. I aspire to change the worldwide perception of Palestinians so that they are seen as humans deserving of freedom and love.


 

Do you have a message for our t’ART readers?


Thank you for taking the time to read my interview. I encourage each of you to let your passion drive positive change in your environment. Every individual has the right to freedom, and it is essential to recognise and support the Palestinian people in their pursuit of identity acknowledgment and the freedom they deserve. We can relate to the challenges of facing oppression and rejection based on our identity.


It is crucial to educate ourselves about the world around us. When witnessing injustices on our screens, reflect on how you would feel if the same circumstances were affecting you or your loved ones.


I also commend your courage in remaining authentic and not allowing others to diminish your spirit. I have faced obstacles due to not being fully accepted for who I am, but with self-love, we can overcome any challenge that arises.


 

Shahd Mahnavi is a Palestinian poet and entrepreneur, born and raised in Jerusalem. Growing up in a creative household with poet parents, she developed a deep love for writing, art, and singing from a young age. Upon turning 18, she moved to the UK to further her studies. Shahd successfully started her own businesses and was awarded the prestigious “High Street Hero” by Wandsworth Women Enterprise in 2023. Today, she utilises poetry as a powerful medium to address oppression and injustice, amplifying the voice of the Palestinian people.


She has actively participated in numerous events since October, dedicated to raising money for Gaza. She has been attending 3 to 4 events per week for the past 4 months, putting in her time and effort to support this cause. Through her involvement in these events, she has helped contribute to the overall fundraising efforts, which have successfully raised over half a million pounds. She remains committed and continues to attend many more events to make a positive impact.


Additionally, she is currently working on an EP set to be released in the spring. Furthermore, she has been recognised as a writer-in-residence with Swerve Magazine in Ireland. Moreover, this year she will be featured in a documentary called “Palestinians in London.”

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