Najat Rahman, In the Wake of the Poetic: Palestinian Artists after Darwish. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Najat Rahman (NR): This book was conceived as a tribute to Mahmoud Darwish after his passing away. I found the most appropriate way for me to pay homage to the poet was to write about Palestinian artists in his wake who have proliferated on the international scene in the last two decades. Initially, I thought I would focus exclusively on a new generation of Palestinian poets, a work I had begun in 2000. There are so many compelling voices that merit substantial and sustained attention, some of whom I evoke in my work, like Abdul Raheem Shaikh and Mahmoud Abu Hashhash. These are poets who have forged their unique voices as they contended with a strong poetic tradition (Darwish, Qasim, Zayyad) while remaining connected to that tradition. As I was not expecting a wide-ranging dialogue between artists and the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, although such a phenomenon is finally not so surprising, I widened the scope of the project to include not only poets but performance and visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians. I also included a French-German artist, Till Roeskens, who collaborated with the Palestinians of Aida Camp. In fact, the engagement with Darwish’s legacy by artists is not confined solely to Palestinian or Arab ones. I recently learned of a traveling art exhibit by an art collective in Colorado around the work of Darwish. It is one of many.
One art installation crystallized this project for me. I came across a young artist’s installation in al-Bireh in the winter of 2009, where the artist was carrying on a dialogue with Darwish. Although I had been observing visual artists evoking Darwish and engaging with his work, it had not occurred to me to deliberately consider visual, cinematic, and performance art as visual counterparts to his poetry, as well as the writing of other Palestinian authors, to explore this dialogue and intersection between his poetry and their art. The stunning recognition of Palestinian artists for their innovative work, work that is often intermedial, multilingual, and diasporic, also propelled me to consider this exciting development.
I was also conscious of a passing away of a number of intellectuals and writers of Darwish’s generation who struggled through intellectual and creative work for a free voice, for home, for the ability to be and to create. The passing away of Emil Habiby, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Tawfiq Zayyad, Fadwa Tuqan, Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Edward Said, and later Samih al-Qasim happened almost within a span of a decade. The voices of Said and Abu-Lughod were particularly critical for those of us in the diaspora. They were fine examples of thinkers that intervened in the present. Said seemed to recognize in his reading of Mona Hatoum and Emily Jacir how art may be increasingly the displaced space not only for true politics but also for free thought.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
NR: Ilan Pappé has argued that the 1990s have heralded a new period of creativity in the wake of the Oslo Accords, “as a result of the decentralization of the Palestinian political scene.” I wanted to explore through the different artistic media the aesthetics and politics of Palestinian art “post-Oslo” in poetry, film, and performative and visual art, as well as highlight its significant presence on the international scene. Following particularly from Jacques Rancière, Judith Butler, and Giorgio Agamben, I was interested in examining a series of questions. If, according to Rancière, very little, if any, politics exists today, is art the displaced place for it? Is Palestinian art reconfiguring art as true politics? How does Palestinian art negotiate this relation between aesthetics and politics, without collapsing them into one another or negating their relation? How does the diasporic inform the national? How are we to understand these diverse articulations of belonging in diasporic contexts and “without the conditions of belonging”?
I argue that Palestinian art, local and diasporic, articulates an aesthetic founded on loss, dispersion, dispossession, and transformation. It interrupts dominant regimes, constituting acts of dissension and intervention, reinscribing belonging, orienting it toward solidarity and future. In this context, I look at the work of artists and writers such as Suheir Hammad, Ghassan Zaqtan, Elia Suleiman, Mona Hatoum, Sharif Waked, Eman Haram, and others. For instance, Suheir Hammad’s Breaking Poems (2008), which pays tribute to the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, engages Darwish in many instances through interpretation of some of his verses, interrupting monolingual readings, reinscribing belonging in a diasporic space of poetry and of solidarity, as she evokes other dispossessed peoples. As she marks a passage between her poetry and that of Darwish, her poetic language is one that inhabits and is inhabited by both languages, English and Arabic, an English constituted by Arabic. She evokes such poems in Limatha Tarakta al-Hisana Wahidan (Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?) as “A Rhythm for Mu‘allaqat…,” when the poetic voice proclaims:
I am my language
This language of mine pendants from stars encircling the
embraces of the beloved: migrated
They took the place and migrated
they took the words and the fallen heart migrated with them
This is rendered in the verses of Hammad, in the poem “Break (Me)” as:
ana my language always broken all
ways lost ana my language wa
i miss my people
Hammad continues a poetry interrupted with the death of Darwish in 2008, the same year as the publication of her book Breaking Poems. It presents poetic creation as a significant act of interpretation and subject reformation.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
NR: I hope this book will fortify even more the interest in the many exciting artists and writers in Palestine and in the diaspora. These are artists who, despite their many divergences, have created an aesthetic and poetic space of transformation where belonging, memory, loss, dispossession are inscribed. I also hope that their engagement (and that of other artists) with Darwish’s work reminds us why poetry matters, why Darwish`s voice is a living voice. In an expanding occupation, language has become a casualty to violence, distortion, and disconnection. Poetry, on the other hand, teaches measure, meaning, truth, beauty, feeling, relation.
This is also a personal book, one that inscribes my voice, as I read and consider an aesthetic phenomenon. Having faced the challenges of relating a story of loss and dispossession that is ongoing, a story that need not negate others, I felt I needed another language to tell it. It is an effort at such a language, a common language. It is nonetheless connected to my work on Assia Djebar. Djebar’s innovative use of narrative form and cinematic language were very much grounded in a reading of history and in a quest for aesthetic and political freedom. Darwish and Djebar both expressed a “longing of a century,” were readers of a present, while also looking toward a future.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NR: I just completed another project, with Gayatri Devi, Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema. This is an edited volume published by Wayne State University Press this past December. It explores the emancipatory possibilities of humor, especially in contexts of collective loss and state violence.
As I began my academic career with my work on Mahmoud Darwish and Assia Djebar, I would like to return to Djebar, who also passed away this year. Like Edward Said, Djebar wrote compellingly on the fundamental relation between interpretation and freedom. In all her work, but especially in Loin de Médine: Filles d’Ismaël (Far from Medina) and L’Amour, la fantasia (Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade), Djebar patiently reflects on the political stakes of interpretation, on the work of interpretation as a necessary path to individual and collective freedom. In “Nationalism, Human Rights, and Interpretation,” Said wrote: “There is hardly an instance when the connection between freedom and interpretation is as urgent, as literally concrete, as it is for the Palestinian people…a large part of whose existence and fate has been interpreted away in the West in order to deny us the same freedom and interpretation granted Israeli Jews…The time has finally come to join and recognize these two peoples together as indeed their common actuality in historic Palestine already has joined them together. Only then can interpretation be for, rather than only about, freedom.”
Excerpts from In the Wake of the Poetic: Palestinian Artists after Darwish
Jacques Rancière reminds us that politics is “the cluster of perceptions and practices that shape this common world…a way of framing, among sensory data, a specific sphere of experience…a partition of the sensible, of the visible and the sayable.” Politics emerges also as a particular speech act performed when those excluded or subordinated speak out in “a struggle to have one’s voice heard and oneself recognized.”
Mona Hatoum, The Negotiating Table (1983), enacts a politics of remembering and belonging. A powerful, macabre, and visceral image reveals a corpse shrouded and lying on the surface of a wooden table: murdered, possibly tortured, and yet it breathes—a living death. Absent political figures are missing on the opposing empty chairs; the installation announces art as preoccupied with death in its violent forms and with the death of politics. Hatoum, speaking about The Negotiating Table, explains: “I was lying on a table, my body covered with entrails, bandages, and blood and wrapped up in a body bag. There were chairs around the table and sound tapes of speeches of Western leaders talking about peace. It was basically a juxtaposition of two elements, one referring to the physical reality and brutality of the situation and the other to the way it is represented and dealt with in the West.”
What is common life becomes this mutilated body; what is on the table and what cannot be easily ignored is precisely this violence, and yet it is not addressed by the rhetoric of official political speeches that pretend to be the only viable discourses. Rancière highlights how dissensual speech is transformed into private noise and excluded from the political space, a predicament of being “loud and muted,” in the words of Suheir Hammad. Rancière writes: “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by…not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse.”
The Negotiating Table evokes a primary language that announces there is violence, there is death, there is loss in the present, which has to be acknowledged and addressed...and which the art will not allow to be covered over with official discourses. Hammad expresses in her poems the predicament of those asked to adopt a language in contradiction to their lived lives: “We no longer know language,” she writes in Breaking Poems. She suggests that the very discourse about Palestine is occupied: “humiliate a people distract the rest / … / …new world old words / this ain’t living / words are against us /there is a math only subtracts” (19). Hammad demands a new language, a “break into language insurgent” (39). The poetic or artistic experience becomes an antidote to a discourse that has served as a math of dispossession. She writes: “language can’t math me / i experience exponentially” (23). This art of experience (as well as of expression) counters this “math a myth wa language a lie” (35). Dispossession as a math of subtraction was…perpetuated by consensual political discourses that separate and classify into hierarchies of identity and power. This art by Hammad, Hatoum, Haram, the refugees of Camp Aida, Hany Abu Assad, Elia Suleiman, Sharif Waked, Emily Jacir, and others is one that names the violence, pierces through the din of discourses.
Hatoum made this performance in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 1982 perpetrated by the Lebanese Christian Phalange forces under Israel’s watch. Hatoum calls this horrific event “the most shattering experience of my life.” One could also fast forward and consider this image in relation to the period after Beirut, especially after the Oslo Accords (and after Gaza), where such speeches continued and were amplified at the same rate as that of increased aggressive settlements and violence.
Hatoum, who was born in Beirut and lives in London, combines the visuals of the absent political partners in the wake of dreadful violence and the sound of empty speeches about peace and negotiation. Hatoum’s art makes a claim on the present and is in this sense a thing of the future. The Negotiating Table becomes emblematic of this recent Palestinian art, a commencement and a commandment, “a new way of framing a specific experience.”
[Excerpted from Najat Rahman, In the Wake of the Poetic: Palestinian Artists after Darwish, by permission of the author. © 2015 Syracuse University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]