on cultural resistance and anti-normalization

al jazeera not israeli terrorists outside day 2's venue for palestine festival of literature
al jazeera not israeli terrorists outside day 2's venue for palestine festival of literature

day two of the palestine festival of literature was far less dramatic than day one, thankfully. of course, this is because it was held at the khalil sakakini cultural center in ramallah and not at the palestinian national theatre in al quds (though it is scheduled to return there for the closing night’s ceremony). when i walked up to the center yesterday evening i noticed no israeli terrorist forces out front (see photographs of them in the festival’s flicker slide show and the video that i blogged about yesterday). instead there was an al jazeera crew that broadcast the first hour live. the evening began with a reading of a mahmoud darwish poem because he was one of the poets who helped to start this festival and he also used to have an office at the center when he worked on the literary journal al karmel. the first panel spoke about family in their writing–the panel was called “family: separated by life, rejoined by literature.” i was struck by the fact that the panel–carmen callil, jamal mahjoub, jeremy harding–somehow didn’t discuss palestine at all. ahdaf soueif has an essay from 2004 in her collection mezzaterra: fragments from the common ground that addresses this issue:

Last October I read at the centre, a beautiful nineteenth-century Ottoman villa donated by the Khalil Sakakini family and standing in the heart of Ramallah. The hall was full; people had braved the closures and come in from Jerusalem, the eighteen-kilomtre journey taking up to three hours. “We so rarely see anyone from the outside,” they said. “We need to breathe the fresh air.” Nobody wanted to talk about the “situation” or about the Israeli incursion into the town earlier that day which netted a fighter believed to be responsible for killing two soldiers; they just wanted to talk about fiction. (323)

soueif later adds to this by reflecting on that previous reading at the sakakini wondering:

Can a novelist or a poet ignore the situation? Is there room to write outside of the situation? [Mahmoud] Darwich has famously asserted his right to write about things that are not Palestine, his write to play, to be absurd. Yet in his obituary of (Palestinian poet) Fadwa Touqan who died last Novemeber he asks what the poet should do at a time of crisis? A time when he has to shift his focus from his inner self ot the world outside, when poetry has to bear witness. (324)

perhaps this was the case last night as well–that people just wanted to listen to writers talking about literature. but i couldn’t help wondering how one can discuss the subject of family in palestine and not also compare and discuss palestinian families or writers who write about palestinian families. when the opportunity came to ask a question i asked about their thoughts on palestinian families–both in the context of an nakba and the way that it separated palestinian families and also about new laws that prevent palestinians from the west bank from marrying palestinians in 1948 palestine as jonathan cook wrote in electronic intifada:

In approving an effective ban on marriages between Israelis and Palestinians this week, Israel’s Supreme Court has shut tighter the gates of the Jewish fortress the state of Israel is rapidly becoming. The judges’ decision, in the words of the country’s normally restrained Haaretz daily, was “shameful”.

By a wafer-thin majority, the highest court in the land ruled that an amendment passed in 2003 to the Nationality Law barring Palestinians from living with an Israeli spouse inside Israel — what in legal parlance is termed “family unification” — did not violate rights enshrined in the country’s Basic Laws.

And even if it did, the court added, the harm caused to the separated families was outweighed by the benefits of improved “security”. Israel, concluded the judges, was justified in closing the doors to residency for all Palestinians in order to block the entry of those few who might use marriage as a way to launch terror attacks.

Applications for family unification in Israel invariably come from Palestinians in the occupied territories who marry other Palestinians, often friends or relatives, with Israeli citizenship. One in five of Israel’s population is Palestinian by descent, a group, commonly referred to as Israeli Arabs, who managed to remain inside the Jewish state during the war of 1948 that established Israel.

the answer i received was not particularly satisfying, although jeremy harding did mention elias khoury’s brilliant novel gates of the sun which is an amazing epic novel about an nakba and the lebanese civil war and details the many ways that palestinian families have been separated as a result of the zionist entity’s existence.

inside khalil sakakini cultural center
inside khalil sakakini cultural center

the second panel was on an entirely different subject. it was called “registering change: landscape and architecture.” this one featured rachel holmes, suad amiry, michael palin, and raja shehadeh. amiry, whose hilarious and amazing memoir sharon and my mother-in-law discussed her forthcoming book, murad murad, and read a bit from it (in a highly performative and entertaining fashion). the book is a about a treacherous journey she took, passing as a man, with palestinian workers who try to get work in the zionist entity. amiry is an architect and preservationist who founded riwaq and also talked about the accidental nature that led to her becoming a writer. likewise shehadeh is a lawyer most widely know as the founder of the human rights organization al haq. and because of his more recent book of essays, palestinian walks: forays into a vanishing landscape, he seems to increasingly be associated with these hikes he takes. he read from a chapter of that book last night. and this was fitting because yesterday the writers visiting here went on one of his hikes in the afternoon (click here to see photographs). i have been on one of these amazing hikes (these should definitely be called hikes not walks) for my birthday and photographed it and blogged it at the time. palin whose writing i’m not familiar with, although i am familiar with his work as an actor, also read one of his books, around the world in 80 days. the conversation on this panel was far more interesting, to me, given that it was more political and i prefer political art. i particularly thought it was interesting when amiry talked about time and space in palestine. she was speaking about it in real terms: the way that one often gets lost because every 10 or 20 days the roads, roundabouts, checkpoints all change. and shehadeh also talked about how much the area around ramallah has changed in the few years since he published palestinian walks because now 12 zionist colonies encircle ramallah on its palestinian land. amiry added to this the way that time is measured in relation to checkpoints, meaning that one thinks about distance by calculating how long it will take to get somewhere based on how many known checkpoints–and the flying checkpoints that might pop up that day–there are from point a to point b. the paragraph i quoted above from soueif makes use of this as a reference point, too. but also time and space are important elements in narrative so there thinking about this issue is doubly relevant in the context of this conference.

ahdaf soueif, carmen callil, jamal mahjoub, jeremy harding
ahdaf soueif, carmen callil, jamal mahjoub, jeremy harding

on the way home last night two of my friends from al quds who drove me to the beit lahem checkpoint were talking about the fact that they wished different writers–and more palestinian writers–had been chosen. one friend was wishing sahar khalifeh was there in particular. i am actually just finishing up her novel the image, the icon, and the covenant, which is an amazing tale about a man, ibrahim, from al quds who leaves the old city, where he is from, to avoid marrying a woman his parents wish him to marry. he moves to a nearby village to work as a teacher with the dream of one day becoming a writer. he is muslim and he falls in love with a christian woman in the village, mariam, with whom he has a love affair. she becomes pregnant in the midst of an naksa and ibrahim winds up in jordan and then the united states, before coming back to al quds after oslo. the end of the novel is about his quest to reconnect with miriam and their son michael. but there are so many different writers who could be here, who might be here next year, and the point of this annual event is to bring new people every year as well as some, like suheir hammad and ahdaf soueif, who return each year. it also seems to me that one of the points of organizing this conference is to connect palestinian writers with all kinds of writers from around the world. and, hopefully, from my vantage point, these writers will speak and write about palestine until their last dying breath.

rachel holmes, raja shehadeh, suad amiry, michael palin
rachel holmes, raja shehadeh, suad amiry, michael palin

in one of soueif’s previous trips to palestine she wrote about meeting with various writers here (you can read part of the article by clicking on this link to download it as a pdf). she met with liana badr, one of my favorite writers and i blogged about her novel the eye of the mirror, which i read about a month ago. in it soueif also wrote about adania shibli, hassan khader, and mourid barghouti whose beautiful memoir i saw ramallah was translated into english by soueif. for me the most important part of the essay was when she discussed the issue of normalization with zionist terrorist colonist writers. the answers soueif got from her palestinian colleagues were revealing, i think. i think it is important to look at this discussion in her essay especially given the cultural boycott of the zionist entity. of course boycott is not the same as anti-normalization. but for me the two go hand-in-hand, which is why i refuse to meet, speak, participate in any activity with anyone who lives on palestinian colonized land whether in a colony in al quds or yaffa. still, there are those who seem to think that “dialogue” will lead to change. there are those whose heads are so high in the clouds that they think it is possible to be a zionist colonist and be a leftist (this is, however, an oxymoron). with these political opinions that i hold, here is what i found interesting in what soueif wrote:

[David] Grossman describes how in the early 1990s he organised a group which met for three years “secretly under the umbrella of some foreign embassies.” But, he says “there’s almost no contact now between Israeli and Palestinian writers’ because of “hints from Arafat” to the Palestinian writers “not to contribute to the normalisation of Israel.” He also believes that Palestinian writes thought Israeli writers “could change the politics here and when they saw what we couldn’t deliver…they despaired the possibility of doing something with us.”

This makes Palestinian writers into Arafat’s tools. It also makes them politically naive, first to meet with Israeli writers in “foreign embassies” then expect them to change the policies of their state. So I asked the Palestinian writers I spoke to how they viewed Israeli writers. Their immediate response was literary…. (326)

of course the ironic thing in the above part of this essay is the notion that ‘arafat pushed palestinian writers not to normalize when it is ‘arafat himself who produced the normalization known as oslo. but what is important here is the assertion that there have been meetings among zionist terrorist colonist writers and palestinian writers and nothing has ever changed. on the following page soueif’s writing about hassan khader’s non-fiction illustrates one reason why that is the case:

Khader has written a book about the crisis of identity in Israeli literature: “Their works tell you more about them than the statements they give to the press. [Amos] Oz, for example, is a declared lover of peace–maybe he really does love peace. But his works show a racist attitude to Arabs and Palestinians. [A.B.] Yehoshua transforms Jewish existential crises into narrative forms and looks for fictive solutions which are at odds with his declared political stands. (326)

importantly, it is mourid barghouti who addresses the serious problem with expecting anything from these zionist terrorist colonist writers and does so by comparing these writers to white south african writers:

Mourid Barghouti puts it more trenchantly: “They all carry a whiff of the establishment. Look at South Africa: the white writers who allied themselves with the liberation movement rejected apartheid, clearly and publicly. Some of them joined the ANC. As long as the Israeli artist subscribes to the official Israeli narrative, there is a great big hole in the heart of his ‘alliance’ with the Palestinians. You cannot hold on to your ideological position and then join the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Palestinians. The ones with the kindly hearts–there are many of those, we meet them, we talk to them. Politically, it leads nowhere. It does them a lot of good–the Israelis–it eases their consciences, it pays dividends, it plays well on the world stage. It does nothing for the Palestinians.” (328)

unfortunately, barghouti is mistaken in the fact that there so-called “kind” colonists who live on palestinian land and terrorize them on a daily basis. i don’t see how one can be a thief and a murderer and also kind. in any case, aside from that one problematic remark, what he shows here is essential: that normalization leads to the illusion that the zionist entity has a left, which it doesn’t, or that they will actually do something. they haven’t. they don’t. they won’t. soueif continues:

What comes across in many of the statements given by Israeli writers is that they are against the occupation for their own sakes; for the harm it is doing to Israeli society, to the Israeli image and to the Israeli psyche. While this is legitimate it does somewhat overshadow their concern for the overall inhuman injustice of the situation. It’s hard to imagine, say Nadine Gordimer, being more concerned for the image and psyche of South Africa’s whites than for the injustice of apartheid and the damage done to all the people of her country–white and black. (329-330)

to be sure, i feel the same way about many american writers and others in the anti-war movement. many of these people are far more concerned about what american imperialism and its related wars are doing to americans rather than how it is terrorizing and murdering iraqis, palestinians, afghans, and pakistanis. the same is true with the u.s. partner in crime. i would not be against normalization with some zionist colonists if they behaved like some white south africans who actively worked against apartheid on all levels, including in armed resistance. but there are no zionist colonists who are here working in that capacity to dismantle the jewish state. this is one of the huge differences between apartheid south africa and the zionist entity. soueif quotes khader again on other similar comparisons:

Israeli writers, Khader says, are facing more and more a situation similar to that of French writers at the time of the Algerian war of independence and American writers at the time of Vietnam: “Should they take a stand against colonialism or should they agree to be a cosmetic instrument for it? They have not yet made up their minds.

The problem is that the occupation–which Israeli writers are against and which they think is so bad for the Israeli soul–has now been shown (by Israeli historians among others) to be the natural continuation of the Zionist project in Palestine. If hundreds of Palestinian homes are being demolished today, entire villages were erased in 1948. Is it possible to be against the occupation and hold on to the idea of Israel’s noble origins? Well, yes, if the Palestinians will agree to subscribe to the liberal Israeli view that all was well until 2000, until 1993, until 1967–any date, really, apart from 1948. But the Palestinians cannot agree to that because it is a denial of their history and a betrayal of half their nation. (330)

on a related note, in an addendum to this essay, soueif poses a few statements by the leading israeli terrorist colonist writers and asks the palestinian writers in her article to respond to their statements. one of the statements posed is by david grossman who seems to think that the intifada has created more anti-semitism in the muslim world. barghouti’s response is telling:

If the original Zionist project had worked and they had colonized part of Uganda, you would not have heard anything about anti-Semitism in the Islamic world. If there had been a conflict it would have been characterized as white vs. black and we would have watched it on TV along with the rest of the world. (333-334)

these palestinian writers, like so many other palestinian writers, use their words to illustrate vividly that the situation in palestine is about colonialism. and this is what is being resisted. and this is why, personally, i think that we need boycott and anti-normalization completely. thankfully there is no normalization here, at least to my knowledge. there are no zionist colonist terrorist writers here speaking. and i do not believe any have been at the festival. but we also need resistance–more of it. i continue to be upset that the yabous sponsors of the event chose to be passive and move everyone to the french cultural center the other night rather than resisting and staying. i really think that staying would have made such an important statement and yielded important results for palestinians as people who resist on all levels. the final night of the festival is scheduled to be at al hakawati again. i hope that if the same thing happens, and i assume that it will, that the people choose to ignore yabous and remain in their theatre and assert their rights to have their culture, their land, their spaces at whatever cost.

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