This piece appeared in Guernica magazine in December 2015.
Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. Let me rest my road against a stone.
Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. Let me see an end to this journey.
Mahmoud Darwish, ‘We Travel Like All People’
Over the past few months, the amplification of the routine violence in which Palestinians have lived for decades has thrown up a new set of linguistic hot potatoes. I’ve been especially struck by claims of ‘incitement’, which my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘that which rouses to action; a stimulus, incentive, spur.’ This useful noun used to enjoy common ownership but lately appears to have been requisitioned for exclusive use by the Israeli cabinet and the U.S. House of Representatives.
Over the last two weeks alone, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely has begun pressing Silicon Valley executives to pull online videos of Palestinians being shot by Israeli occupation forces, while her government shut down three Palestinian radio stations in Hebron and launched an Orwellian review of Tel Aviv’s Nakba film festival, lest any of the images or words presented in these outlets 'incite' Palestinian violence.
Although I remain perplexed by its mysterious precision of the 'I know it when I see it' variety, my own investigations have narrowed its definition down as follows: when uttered by a Palestinian leader, any noun, verb, adjective, punctuated by a pause, comma hyphen, animated by an underscore, exclamation mark, in any order whatsoever, constitutes the 'incitement' which propels young men and women to pick up stones or knives with which to assault Israeli settlers and heavily armed soldiers.
By contrast, I’ve noticed that neither the failure to prosecute the murders of Ali, Saad and Riham Dawabshe, nor forty-eight years of occupation of Palestinian land meet the rigors of this revised definition. This is also true of the epidemic of settler attacks on Palestinian olive farmers while Israeli occupation soldiers stand idly by or the incarceration of Palestinian children, not to mention the daily expansion of illegal settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes.
Hebron buses intended only for Israelis
A few weeks ago, a six year-old Palestinian boy was detained by Israeli forces in Bethlehem, along with the ten children who were arrested in East Jerusalem the same day. Two of them were nine, the eldest fourteen. In 2011, half a dozen Palestinian 'Freedom Riders' were arrested for travelling on Hebron buses intended only for Israelis. In Old Hebron, 400 settlers are kept safe by 2,000 Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians are barred from Shuhada Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. Those who live on the street have had their doors welded shut and access their homes via adjacent properties or alleyways.
In 2013, the writer and Hebrew University lecturer David Shulman wrote, 'a visit to Hebron eats into one’s soul'; just imagine what it does to the souls of the Palestinians who live there? Still, we’re told, the only permissible response to this Jim Crow-inspired ugliness is acceptance; anything else is ‘incitement.’ [Note: since this essay was published, Prof. Shulman was awarded the Israel Prize for his research into Indian languages and culture. He donated the prize to Ta’ayush, an organisation that seeks equality for Palestinians.]
The boundaries of permissible speech
This reformulation was formalized by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee which did AIPAC proud on November fifth, passing a resolution condemning Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s 'incitement' of Palestinian youth. The vote followed a committee hearing with the smugly un-ironic name 'Words Have Consequences.'
Questions such as these about the ownership of language and the boundaries of permissible speech, were already on my mind when I arrived at 'Rethinking Trauma and Resilience in the Context of Political Violence', a conference here in London in November about the psychosocial impact of Israel’s sustained aggression against the Palestinian people. The event was organized by the UK Palestine Mental Health Network, of which I’m a member, and other groups and it’s where I came across Brian Barber, founding director of the Center for the Study of Youth and Political Violence at the University of Tennessee.
A rather melancholy fellow, Dr. Barber described two key findings that emerged from his interviews with Palestinians who had been youths during the first Intifada, which began in 1987. First, he said, their chronicles routinely included accounts of Israel’s 'persistent, indignity-violating humiliation' of Palestinians, from random house searches to indiscriminate harassment at checkpoints. This 'brutal form of psychic violence' is often overlooked by experts on war and trauma, said Dr. Barber.
Who has been crushed by whom
Dr. Barber also told us that the Palestinians he interviewed repeatedly used the same handful of analogous words to describe their current feelings about life under occupation. 'Broken,' 'destroyed', 'shaken up' and 'crushed' appeared on a screen behind him. At that point, a Jungian psychoanalyst, Heba Zaphiriou-Zarifi, interjected that in Arabic the adjective 'crushed' doesn’t merely connote a state like bored, say, or hungry. Instead, she said, 'crushed' bears within it the notion of being acted upon; as such it invites the listener to contemplate just who has been crushed by whom.
Besides the linguistic clarity it provided, Zaphiriou-Zarifi’s contribution was a reminder that while words themselves can be said to wield power, they nonetheless remain stand-ins for the dialectic between subject and object, the self and other. Of course, colonialism is always a lopsided affair, sustained by whatever works while it works, and abandoned when its utility is exhausted. In the case of Israel/Palestine, if historic entitlement loses its force, call it security or anti-Semitism, call them a 'cancer', call their children 'snakes' or 'cockroaches', call them an 'invented' people, desecrate the Holocaust.
These are the means by which words and the narratives they weave reconstitute the oppressed as the oppressor, and pave the way for all manner of savagery.
Against the backdrop of these perverse, inverted narratives, the recurrence of 'crushed' and similar states of destruction troubled me especially, for it exposed the depleted condition of sumud, a pivotal concept meaning ‘steadfast perseverance’ that has characterized and animated the Palestinian resistance since 1967. In fact, sumud has been reformulated many times over, shedding connotations and acquiring new ones as facts on the ground change. Here’s an interpretation from Abdelfattah Abusrour, founder of the Al Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center, which appeared in Jerusalem Quarterly:
Sumud is continuing living in Palestine, laughing, enjoying life, falling in love, getting married, having children. Sumud is also continuing your studies outside, to get a diploma, to come back here. Defending values is sumud. Building a house, a beautiful one and thinking that we are here to stay, even when the Israelis are demolishing this house, and then build a new and even more beautiful one than before—that is also sumud. That I am here is sumud. To reclaim that you are a human being and defending your humanity is sumud.
However defined, for Palestinians sumud is embodied in the olive tree whose cockled trunk and extensive root system represent the Palestinian love affair with the land, an ardor which undoubtedly explains the sadistic glee with which Israeli settlers destroy these centuries-old living emblems, symbolically crushing the steadfastness that has marked the Palestinian resistance.
‘I am the lover & the land is the beloved’
Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s poet laureate, brought his people’s love affair with the land to vivid life in much of his work, including his 1967 poem 'Diary of a Palestinian Wound' where he writes:
O brave-faced wound
my homeland isn’t a suitcase
& I’m not a traveller
I am the lover & the land is the beloved
Affecting metaphors aside, you needn’t dig deeply into Darwish’s oeuvre to find evidence of his ambivalence about the power of words, and even an explicit disavowal of that power. For instance, in 'On Poetry' he writes:
If only these poems were
a chisel in the hand of the proletariat
a grenade in the palm of the struggler
If only these poems were
If only these poems were
a plough in the hand of the peasant
or a shirt or a door or a key
If only these poems were
His conception of verse devoid of either utility or agency, illustrated here through a string of sturdy nouns and a clause that never ends, is captured more elliptically in 'State of Siege' when Darwish cautions:
To a reader: Do not trust the poem
The daughter of absence
It is neither intuition nor is it
But rather, the sense of the abyss
I spent much of the summer of 2006 reading Darwish as I researched and wrote 'Cultural Intifada', my Master’s dissertation about art and political resistance in Palestine, while Israel laid siege to Gaza in Operation 'Summer Rains'. I felt tremendous sorrow when he died unexpectedly in August 2008, four months before the next Israeli blitz of Gaza, Operation 'Cast Lead.' And thanks to J.K. Rowling, Darwish has been much on my mind again lately as I’ve watched the daily executions of Palestinian youth in the streets of Hebron and East Jerusalem, the weekly razing of Palestinian homes, and the detention of scores of Palestinian children.
Recently, the Harry Potter author fronted a clutch of public figures, including several British politicians, to denounce academic and cultural boycotts of Israeli institutions. Under the banner ‘Culture for Coexistence’ her group alleged that only ‘cultural bridges’ will build ‘peace’ between Israelis and Palestinians. When challenged on this flaccid claim, Rowling’s gambit was to invoke Darwish.
Banning poets from the Republic
The ploy struck me as artfully insolent, for Darwish was not blind to the limitations of his medium. Sure, he was a thorn in the side of the Israeli authorities who kept him under house arrest for years. Indeed, as we’ve just seen in Saudi Arabia, where the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh has been sentenced to death, those who wield power recognize the unruly force of words to 'disrupt the order and hierarchy of the soul' thereby disrupting 'the order and hierarchy of political authority as well', as the philosopher Judith Butler puts it. In the face of this force, she says, Plato wanted to ban poets from the Republic outright.
Still, as any student of his work can tell you, while Darwish acknowledged that acts of imagining can flout the reductiveness of the Palestinian identity, ('If I write love poems, I resist the conditions that don’t allow me to write love poems', he once said) he never conceived of them as the exclusive currency in some mythical 'negotiation' between his own exiled and occupied people and their swaggering, hyper-militarized occupier. For Darwish, poetry was a gesture not a debate, and the pen was neither mightier nor feebler than the sword. The pen was the pen, the poet the poet, and the soldier the soldier. If they were useful at all, words were metaphorical instruments, sometimes blunt and at others devastating, but neither weapons nor tools of a make-believe reconciliation.
I’m sure that to some these thoughts will seem dubious, sacrilegious even. After all, we’re talking about the secular humanist scribe of Palestine’s hopes, its suffering and its rage, author of its 1988 Declaration of Independence. Nonetheless, for me Darwish’s poetic consciousness is a compelling prototype of the fraught battleground between art and political struggle. As he told the journalist Adam Shatz in a New York Times interview, his exalted status did little to palliate the frustration of being ‘read before I write’.
‘My readers expect something from me, but I write as a poet,' he said. 'So when I write love poetry, they think it’s about Palestine. That’s nice, but it’s just one aspect of my work.'
Fragments of the broken and brutalized self
If Darwish’s poetry is a stand-in for anything, then, it’s the refusal to submit to the denial of Palestinian humanity in all its facets. It is both a bridge uniting fragments of the broken and brutalized self, and a mirror with which to see them. It is sumud.
Still, the “cultural bridges” affair reminds us that language has always been wielded with savage ruthlessness in the relentless moral and political siege that enables and emboldens Israel’s expansionist project. After all, 'a land without a people for a people without a land' are eleven words that together sought to disappear indigenous Palestinians long before the first gun was fired or the first village razed during the Nakba.
Indeed, those who defend Israeli ambitions expend much energy denying even the basic terms of reference that might constitute the beginnings of a dialogue. There was no Palestine, there is no occupation, there are no war crimes, and the twenty-five feet high concrete separation wall is merely a 'fence'. They insist instead on their own lexicon of 'terrorists', 'security' and 'God’s will'.
On the other hand, I heard an Israeli remark at a lecture recently that it doesn’t matter whether we call the current eruption of violence in Israel/Palestine an 'intifada' or a 'banana'. Its name, he said, neither elucidates the sentiments or situation that propel it nor determines its contours or outcome. For now, then, let us call it 'the sense of the abyss' and leave Darwish to rest in peace.