Daniel Monterescu and Haim Hazan, Twilight Nationalism: Politics of Existence at Life’s End (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Daniel Monterescu and Haim Hazan (DM & HH): This book stems out of a long personal, intellectual, and political fascination with the time of life, the time of the nation, and the time of the city. Speaking of and for the city, however, is a chronicle of foretold failure. As Italo Calvino notes in his Invisible Cities:
The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.
We, therefore, have attempted to read the city and its citizens as a palimpsest of successive owners, subjects, and bystanders. The violently divergent histories of Jaffa, a binational city of contention, cannot be erased from memory and place, but are rather impregnated in uncanny manners. The return of the repressed springs out with a vengeance from the interstices. However, the voice of the repressed is commonly silenced by hegemonic narratives of self and nation as well as by identity politics in public discourse and academic scholarship. When heard, this voice is often faint and feeble, cracked and incoherent. In this book, we seek to recoup the incongruities of these narratives and tell the tale of these historical scratches, indentations, and scrolls.
Following the lead of subaltern studies, oral history, and memory studies, we sought to listen to the inchoate orally transmitted knowledge that is fast disappearing right before our eyes, as the Nakba generation and the cohort of elderly Jewish immigrants wither away. Our only working assumption was that they have a significant story to tell, and speak truth to power. Jaffa’s elderly of all walks of life, Jews, Palestinians, Muslim, Christian, Ashkenazi, and Mizrahi, rich and poor, appeared to us as oracles of the city and prophets of rage of the nation. They are, as we see them, alchemists of culture, turning the narrative stuff of life into golden memory and stories of resilience.
The resulting life story accounts were iconoclastic, and at times baffling and disturbing. Idiosyncratic though as they were, they encapsulated a whole world of lifelong projects, themes, and tribulations. Turning microhistorical glimpses into macrohistorical insights, they produced minor literature consisting of fragmented rhythms of life. This kind of research prescribes a unique methodological sensibility. Our interlocutors and their families all had a say in its making. We took heed of their interpretation of times past, present and future, and did our best to faithfully and humbly transmit it to the reader. The historical circumstances of this project, which started at the height of the al-Aqsa intifada and the October 2000 events, were equally consequential. We therefore sought to provide an alternative and sober reading of the realities underlying colonial domination, police brutality, and ethnic violence.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
DM & HH: Twilight nationalism is not only a poetic idiom to depict the eclipse of identity politics at the end of life, but also a metaphor for the rickety and mercurial use of any inalienable asset of theory, discourse, or worldview. It suggests that there is a chink in the armor of any intellectual pursuit lodged in a seemingly solid state of some received disciplinary wisdom. What we witnessed in Jaffa shook up our taken-for-granted knowledge concerning the staunch adherence of peoples embroiled in a longstanding national dispute to loyalties and commitment to their respective collectivities as well as our presumptions about the dwelling of the elderly on their past memories. Instead we were confronted with a surge of vitality, cultural innovation, and personal fortitude that authorized our interlocutors to re-author their lives in a manner that freed their world from defunct allegiances and mythical stories of belonging. In fact, the accounts we recorded were, given the tragic experiences that shaped the lives of the narrators, unexpectedly courageous and hopeful. It is still baffling whether that sense of agency is due to their deep disenchantment of old myths and current bonds, to the emotionally levelling effect of old age, or, perhaps to their shattered dreams of national pride without the prejudice of later life. The reader is invited to ponder over this quandary.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
DM & HH: Twilight Nationalism is the fruit of intellectual synergy and dialogue between two anthropologists. Haim brought his research experience in the anthropology of old age to bear on the life exigencies of Jaffa’s elderly. In contrast with his previous theorization of quiddity and strategic essentialism developed in his book Against Hybridity, here he rather stresses the failure of the logic of purification in explaining everyday life. However, both liquidity and quiddity could be conceived of as effective strategies to confront the irreversibility and anomie at life’s end. Daniel, born and raised in Jaffa, reflects on his family history in the city by interviewing his own mother, among other protagonists. His experience growing up amidst such political controversy nurtured him as an apprentice "stranger"—a fundamental sensibility which he turned into a profession as an anthropologist. It was, however, his studies at the catholic Collège des Frères, where he learned Arabic and French, and where he was often the only Jew in class, that enabled him to develop his observation skills and multifocal approach to the city. While his previous book, Jaffa Shared and Shattered, focused mainly on the spatial history of the city and the struggles over gentrification and Judaization, here he focuses on the tension between biographical and collective memory from critical intimate distance.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
DM & HH: The book is an empirical engagement with Mahmoud Darwish’s powerful poem in A State of Siege: “Me or him” / Thus begins the war / But it ends with an awkward encounter: / “Me and him.” We aim to start a scholarly and public conversation about everyday binationalism and its discontents. We sought to break away from the run-of-the-mill paradigm of “methodological nationalism” that presumes primordiality as a default state of nationalism. We follow the lead of Edward Said who, in After the Last Sky, searches for a new language that defines the discontinuity of Palestinian experience:
Most literary critics in Israel and the West focus on what is said . . . But it is form that should be looked at. Our characteristic mode, then, is not a narrative, in which scenes take place seriatim, but rather broken narratives, fragmentary compositions, and self-consciously staged testimonials, in which the narrative voice keeps stumbling over itself, its obligations, its limitations.
The “staged testimonials” we document exalt and bemoan “Jaffa, the Bride of Palestine, that is no more.” They signal the entry into the forked paths of nationalism, where our protagonists meander. Nation and state, they teach us, are not sui generis but rather contingent upon personal reflections and dismembered memories, hailed, defied, dismissed, and forever negotiated as templates for identity formation. Escaping the mythscape, the elders of Jaffa tell a story of resistance and resilience, for the creative chaos of the city and against the destructive order of nationalism. Living as strangers in the “Mother of the Stranger” (umm al-gharib), theirs is a saga of multiple marginality, coupled with a struggle for survival. Rather than seeing like a state, they see like a city, thus recognizing that it is not a miniature state, but rather an order of an entirely different type. The book already came out in Hebrew and will hopefully be published in Arabic.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DM & HH: Daniel is currently working on European policies of immobilization and exclusion targeting refugees who arrived through the notorious “Balkan route.” While for most of his career he was invested in understanding the social worlds of the Palestinian minority and the Jewish majority in Israel, he recently started a new project on the Jewish revival movements in Europe. Changing the perspective and looking at Jews now from the position of a vulnerable minority in cities like Budapest, Berlin, and Krakow is eye opening. It allows us to reflect on the predicament of racialized minorities in Europe, the Middle East and beyond. He positions the presence of Jews in relation to Europe’s two other alterities: the Roma and the refugees. Thus, for instance, looking at the reaction of Jewish diaspora communities to the refugee crisis provides a profound insight on the historical Jewish struggle to balance cosmopolitan aspirations and existential fears of dissolution. Daniel is also completing a manuscript on indigenous Palestinian wine and Israeli appropriation of Palestinian food heritage.
Haim is working on the suicidal consequences of shame and shaming in Israeli culture. Based on an extensive media research his new book shows how selected cases of suicide are publicly used as social seismograph for moral issues and predicaments. Nationalism, governmentality, and statehood are at the core of the analysis.
Excerpt from the Book
From the Introduction: Towards Twilight Nationalism: Narratives of Disenchantment (pages 1-4)
Since the 1990s Gabi ‘Abed, social worker, amateur dramatist, and Jaffa Arab activist, has been staging a one-man show – the story of an elderly Palestinian called Samed ‘Abd al-Baqi al-Maslub [literally, the crucified who remains steadfast]. Dressed in a traditional Arab robe, his head covered by a large skullcap, holding a stout walking stick and bearing a wooden cross on his chest, the old man addresses the audience: “Once we were landlords, and now we no more than protected tenants.” The personal testimony he shares with the audience in both Hebrew and Arabic offers a glimpse into the tragic annals of the entire Palestinian community:
I remember that in 1948 our peace of mind vanished all at once. There was shooting and bombing all around us… they began to scare people, they gave out pictures of rape, of murder, of blood. Mayhem broke out, people didn’t know what to do…, they wanted to escape and didn’t know where. The Arab leaders came [laughs sardonically] – Arab leaders my foot! They told the people “Brothers, fear not. These are only a handful of Jewish gangs. We shall eliminate them. Leave Jaffa, only for a fortnight, no longer.” The people trusted them, they were naïve. They abandoned everything... and took the key with them [laughs bitterly]. They keep the keys to this day… and 55 years have now passed and they still hope to return.
Dwelling on the past glory of Jaffa ‘Abed binds past and present together as he proceeds to lament:
Jaffa, Yafa, was Palestine’s cultural, political, and commercial center. Is there anyone who doesn’t know the Jaffa port? They used to call Jaffa umm al-gharib, which means Mother of the Stranger, because foreigners of all places and religions would come there to work. When the Jews came [in 1948] they made us share houses with them. We lived together, but the Jaffa of old is no more. When Jaffa was built up they called her ‘arus al-bahr, Bride of the Sea. She really was very beautiful. Not as you see her today, but nonetheless, she remains enchanting.
The street actor personifies the ethos of Palestinian Jaffa’s collective memory, portraying its people as the innocent victims of the perfidious Arab elites, Jewish violence and cunning, and historical and economic forces they could not control. Palestinian Jaffa of the dramatic ethos is an earthly paradise, the Fertile Crescent’s crowning jewel. But no more: this mythical, romantic, utopian bride of the sea is inaccessible to the young audience, who are fed only second-hand reports and rumors. ‘Abed, the old witness, offers a momentary glimpse into the memory zone that is Jaffa, at once close at hand and illusive. The choice of an old man is of course no coincidence. The Palestinian elder is traditionally considered an agent and a guardian of memory capable of providing a first-hand testimonial. The old man appears as the ultimate victim, yet he is also Samed – a survivor who clings to his town and heritage. To this cultural bedrock, ‘Abed adds a further layer of Christian iconography, portraying the elderly witness as the bearer of the collective cross. Sumud, or persistence, however is hard to live by. As a principle of steadfast communal survival, it paradoxically evokes what Khaled Furani aptly defined as “fortitude in the occupied and frailty in the occupier… a tragic sensibility that claims an ethical form of power (and freedom) through powerlessness”. This tragic irony could account for the popularity of the play throughout Israel’s Palestinian and Jewish communities and beyond. The power of the play thus derives from the shadow memory casts over the hardships of the mundane. The momentary solace and acute identification it offers its audience accentuates the gulf between the dreamt-of and the lived-in, thereby safeguarding Palestinian national memory. However, in city life marked by the copresence of the political Other, how could the lived experience of Palestinian Jaffa residents be reconciled with that transcendental image? How does one cope with such irreconcilable tension between the memory of past life and the exigencies of everyday living, between myth and reality?
The binational city forges a shared arena of interaction, communication and conflict, far removed from the ideals of what Edward Said dubbed “the myths of imagination”.The following vignette invites the reader to get acquainted with such an encounter. Safiyya Dabbah and Hanna Swissa, two elderly neighbors living in the Jaffa C. (Yafo Gimel) neighborhood, meet daily over breakfast. Safiyya, a Muslim woman in her nineties, was widowed thirty years ago and today lives on her own in a dilapidated shanty only a few steps from the apartment building where Hanna lives. Hanna is a Jewish Moroccan woman in her seventies who has been widowed for twenty years. Despite the class differences between Safiyya and Hanna, which are metaphorically embodied in the buildings they inhabit—a ramshackle hut on the one hand and a tidy apartment building on the other—the two elderly women found a common ground they use to nourish their symbiotic friendship: both came from strict patriarchal families (Safiyya’s husband used to forbid her to leave the house, while Hanna’s husband was jealous and violent) and both gained considerable personal freedom after their husbands’ deaths; both speak Arabic and share a common cultural background; both are going through the experience of aging; and they live in geographical and functional proximity next to each other. While Hanna, aided by her welfare-funded housekeeper, shows concern for Safiyya, whose means are more limited, by supplying the food for their daily rendezvous, Safiyya keeps Hanna company and makes this pleasant morning routine possible.
The political and social reality that brought Safiyya and Hanna together has constituted in Jaffa an unexpected “contact zone” of contrived coexistence — a social medium that both separates and relates the city’s Jewish and Arab inhabitants. In this book we focus on this ambivalent encounter between strangers through the analysis of life stories recorded by ten of Jaffa’s elderly residents—Arab and Jewish, male and female, rich and poor. Between the dreamt-of vision that Gabi ‘Abed projects and the lived-in pragmatism that binds Safiyya Dabah to Hanna Swissa spans a space of friendship and alienation in the shadow of nationalism.
In the agonistic landscape of Palestine/Israel, nowhere has been more continuously inflected by the tension between intimate proximity and visceral violence than binational milieux, such as the city of Jaffa. The dangerous liaisons of urban cohabitation between Jews and Palestinians set the scene for a personal and political encounter that allows individuals to challenge dominant notions of nationalism.
Against the backdrop of a century-long conflict between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements, the everyday experience of lived space and neighborly relations in the politically and culturally contested urban setting of ethnically mixed cities reenacts both connectivity and hostility. While most scholars conceptualize both Palestinian and Jewish national collective identities as separate and antagonistic projects – indeed as independent ideologies of autochthony defined only by the negation and exclusion of the other – we throw into relief instead the relations of mutual determination between these communities often rendered invisible in nationalism studies. While the notions of nation and person in Israel/Palestine have been reduced to collective narratives of conflict, revenge, survival and redemption, we propose to view the political through the personal in order to reveal the correlation between life trajectories and the construction of cultural identities.