At the Bankstown Poetry Slam, there was poetry – and there was Plestia.
The spoken word grand slam drew an audience of more than 2,000 people to Sydney’s Town Hall on Monday night, many wearing kheffiye in solidarity with the Gazan star act, Plestia Alaqad, whose sudden rise to global prominence has been set against the most brutal of backdrops.
The 22-year-old was propelled into the limelight after 7 October, when, as an aspiring journalist in Gaza, she began filming and sharing the effects of Israeli bombardment. Her social media feeds documenting life in the Palestinian territory fast became a record of the devastation of her home city. On 9 October, a video which captured her unflinching composure as bombs fell nearby saw her Instagram followers swell from about 3,700 into the hundreds of thousands. She now has 4.8m subscribers.
With her influence came concerns about the safety of her family and in late November, with the help of an uncle in Melbourne, she fled with her mother, sister and grandmother, arriving in Australia some 45 days after the war began. She is now living with relatives in Melbourne.
Before she had said a word as the poetry competition’s feature performer, the audience was on its feet, giving Alaqad a standing ovation.
“Only in Gaza, you sleep counting rockets rather than stars”, she recountedto the audience when their applause had died down.
“In Gaza you sleep in your house and you wake up under the rubble … In Gaza, you have family and friends. The next day you are on your own.
“Only in Gaza, people celebrate birthdays while bombs echo in the background … Only in Gaza, despite the pain, people remain, not only survivors but warriors.”
Alaqad began writing poetry in middle school, she said, with the written word helping her cope as she watched entire neighbourhoods being razed by the Israeli military.
Her “press” flak jacket and helmet long gone – handed back to Press House-Palestine when she learnt they may make her a target rather than offering protection – she wore the gold Gaza pendant so familiar to her worldwide audience as she declaimed a handful of her own poems. One recalled sitting in the corner of a hospital room while a child screamed and the sound of bombs got closer.
Reading from a diary she managed to purchase as food and water supplies in the enclave dwindled, she described living in “literal hell”.
“I remember saying to my colleagues two weeks ago that we would soon be eating leaves, but now it doesn’t feel like a joke any more.
“We will never get used to [massacres],” she wrote. “I never get used to seeing my people being killed … I can’t find any words to describe my feeling or what is happening.”
The words she found on Monday left many in tears. As an event that has at its heart south-western Sydney’s multicultural community – Bankstown has hosted a number of pro-Palestinian protests since 7 October and 25% of its population is Islamic, according to census data – many of the evening’s performances centred on the injustices of war.
A young poet from the winning act, Halab Collab, riffed on the cost of living and the cost of lives in conflict.
“What is the cost of living in the world I am meant to grow up in?” the child asked.
Journalism student Amelie Zreika, 19, from Sydney, began following Alaqad soon after 9 October.
“She’s inspirational, it’s been a very emotional evening,” Zreika said after the event as throngs of fans crowded around Alaqad, waiting for selfies with the new celebrity. “She showed the reality of what she was experiencing, through the eyes of a young woman, someone our age. Without her, we wouldn’t see that.”
Sara Mansour, Bankstown Poetry Slam co-founder and artistic director, said the event, which began in 2013, “exists to celebrate the power of creative expression and to give space for the beautiful voices in our community to be heard”.
The event has grown into the largest regular poetry slam in the country, each month pitting poets of all ages against one another. At the grand slam, judges including 2023 Australian Poetry Slam co-champion Rob Waters and writer and lawyer Sara M Saleh critiqued the seven teams made up of the previous 12 months’ 28 winners.
The winning acts, ARAB, AI and Halal Collab, shared a prize of $8,000 between them.