Standing Before the Ruins of Al-Birweh
Mahmoud Darwish (trans. Sinan Antoon)
Like birds, I tread lightly on the earth’s skin
so as not to wake the dead
I shut the door to my emotions to become my other
I don’t feel that I am a stone sighing
as it longs for a cloud
Thus I tread as if I am a tourist
and a correspondent for a foreign newspaper
Of this place I choose the wind
I choose absence to describe it
Absence sat, neutral, around me
The crow saw it
Halt, my two companions!
Let us experience this place our own way:
Here, a sky fell on a stone and bled it
so that anemones would bloom in the spring
(Where is my song now?)
Here, the gazelle broke the glass of my window
so that I would follow it
(So where is my song now?)
Here, the magical morning butterflies carried the path to my school
(So where is my song now?)
Here I saddled a horse to fly to my stars
(So where is my song now?)
I say to my two companions:
Stop so that I may weigh the place
and its emptiness with Jahili odes
full of horses and departure
For every rhyme we will pitch a tent
For every home to be stormed by the wind,
there is a rhyme
But I am the son of my first tale
My milk is warm in my mother’s breast
The bed is swung by two tiny birds
My father is building my tomorrow with his two hands
I didn’t grow up and so did not go to exile
The tourist says: Wait for the dove to finish its cooing!
I say: It knows me and I know it, but the letter has not arrived
The journalist interrupts my secret song:
Do you see that dairy factory behind that strong pine tree?
I say: No, I only see the gazelle at the window
He says: What about the modern roads on the rubble of houses?
I say: No, I don’t see them
I only see the garden under them
and I see the cobweb
He says: Dry your two tears with a handful of fresh grass
I say: That is my other crying over my past
The tourist says: The visit is over
I haven’t found anything to photograph except a ghost
I say: I see absence with all its instruments
I touch it and hear it. It lifts me high
I see the ends of the distant skies
Whenever I die I notice
I am born again and I return
from absence to absence
Bandar Alsaeed (BA): In Becoming Palestine, you draw on the work of several Palestinian artists to explore their engagement with the idea of the archive. How did you come to this project and what do we gain from a better understanding of the way these artists compel us to reimagine the archive's potential?
Gil Hochberg (GH): I should begin by saying that I came to this project without planning to write a book on archives, or a study that engaged with the archive in any way. Before and above being a scholar, I have always been someone who has a deep appreciation for art and literature. In other words, I've always held the assumption that there is a world of cultural production out there—made up of writers, painters, dancers, etc.—that has a lot to teach us scholars. I came to this project as a serious student of these cultural products—I study them in the sense that they are teachers, and I use what I learn from them as a point of departure for my scholarly inquiry.
The process of writing this book began with an interest in the work of Palestinian artist Jumana Manna, whose film, A Magical Substance Flows into Me (2015), is covered in the first chapter of the book. What sparked my initial fascination was how, in a film about pre-1948 Palestinian musicians, this young Palestinian filmmaker finds herself drawn to an obscure, seemingly minor German-Jewish ethnomusicologist named Robert Lachmann (whom I later discovered was not a minor figure at all in his native Germany) and the archive he left behind. I wondered what could have made her own “archive fever” fixate on this figure in particular. I realized that through her engagement with Lachmann's material, Manna was creating a very different kind of archive, something that felt living as opposed to enclosed and dead. A “living archive,” which runs counter to the very logic of archiving. To archive, or to say something belongs to the archive, is to enclose that something within a "past" that is totally sealed off from the present. The past becomes a coffin. Instead, Manna's archive was constructing a different kind of temporality: it juxtaposed the temporality of the nation to one that was, not necessarily anti-nationalist, but one simultaneously beyond, before, and after the nation. Jumana's act of taking the folders out of the Israeli national archives and re-presenting its contents not as part of pre-history of Israel, but as part of a completely different story about the relationship between past, present, and future (a future Palestine) asks important questions about what it means to think of the archive as a living organism. It offers an alternative way of approaching the archive by resisting the temptation to find something anchoring within it, that is, something that carries the weight of fact, of truth.
The other artists I study in the remaining chapters of the book are also preoccupied with very similar questions about temporality and acts of archiving, and, although these artists are not directly in dialogue, what they collectively teach us, I think, at the most basic level, is that art—by which I mean all forms of creative reflection—matters in the sense that we continue to learn from it about how to subvert the pulse of the present, a present that is under the sway of both nationalism and the global market. At the same time, these artists do not adopt a celebratory attitude toward these subversive possibilities. They are, following Emile Habibi, "pessoptimist" in the sense that they imagine the possibility of alternative access to knowledge, while recognizing that their freedom from both the market and nation-states, is, of course, only a relative one. These texts, invite us to imagine otherwise. Our job, I strongly believe, is to imagine. To imagine is to refuse to accept that the pragmatic and the so-called “realistic” are the only frameworks available for politics. To imagine is to insist that there is more.
BA: You describe the interventions these artists make as occurring within a context of archival fever in relation to Palestine that is mobilized by both nostalgia and a vision of (an often nationalist) utopia. Yet, your book does not call to discard the idea of the archive, nor, it seems, the idea of archival "recovery" that animates these nostalgic/nationalist logics. What function does "recovery" (of a narrative of peoplehood, of origin, of loss, etc.) serve in such a context?
GH: You are correct that the book is not a call to throw the baby out with the bathwater. On the contrary, it is a call to expand the notion of the archive. But nor am I trying to say “let's replace our focus on the national archive with other minor or marginalized archives.” I think the latter is important and many of the projects that have accessed these kinds of archives have been transformative for many groups that recognize that, today, not having an archive is equivalent to nonexistence. People like Saidiya Hartman, for example, have realized that, to tell the story of turn-of-the-century working-class African American women, she could not rely solely on the existing archive, which is comprised mainly of police reports in which these women are targeted and criminalized. The porousness of this archive led her, instead, to practice what she calls “critical fabulation,” a method of imagining these voices and writing them into the archive. Here, the notion of recovery is one of filling in the gaps that remain within that archive. That is a modality I admire very much, but it is not what I am trying to do in Becoming Palestine.
The reason for this is because the question of Palestine, it seems, is no longer a question of a lack of archival material. There is, arguably, an oversaturation of archival information. My contribution is not to say that the recovery of, for example, stolen books, films, or documents from the PLO archives or Palestinian homes during the Nakba, is no longer important; quite the opposite, the continued significance of such recoveries are precisely why I do not call to discard the concept of the archive in its entirety. Instead, I argue that we should rethink the temporality of the archive in the sense that we should read the present as an archive. This is because what I call the act of “digging” into, or revealing of, the past filters already into pre-given hegemonic narratives about how to read that past, and in turn, how to stop reading the present. The options here are quite limited, and there always remains a burden of proof underlining this way of engaging with the archive. The question I pose is: what if we move away from the burden of proof in the archive to the act engaging the archive without this desire to see, as Darwish does in his poem, where he refuses to see.
To turn the present into an archive is sometimes to resist the temptation to see (to fit what we see into pre-given narratives) and sometimes it is to see differently, as Ruanne Abou-Rahme and Basel Abbas do in their “Archive of the Copy,” which I study in chapter four of the book. The goal is to shift the time of the archive, to shift our archival fever into the present to better engage with it in a manner that exceeds digging into what the present has already determined is an archive.
BA: I'm curious about the title of your book, Becoming Palestine. There seem to be at least three ways of describing the concept of “becoming” in your book, as a temporality, as a modality of archiving, and as an epistemology, that is, as a way of thinking about potentiality. What do you mean by “becoming Palestine” and why did you choose it as the title of this study?
GH: I chose this title partly to point to the fact that this is a descriptive text, not a programmatic one. It is to point to the fact that there is a process of “becoming” that we are already a part of, and which is exemplified by the work of these artists. Since we are in the midst of “becoming,” we cannot reflect on it as a finished product, we can only be a part of it, and my book is an attempt to contribute to that process.
The process of becoming Palestine is a direct erasure of the entity we know as Israel. I am aware, however, that eliminating Israel from the title cannot possibly erase the objective reality of Israel's existence as a settler-colonial state that oppresses and marginalizes Palestinians—it is not a speech-act borne of fantasy. It is, however, to say that as we become Palestine, which, I repeat, is a process we are already in the midst of, the very raison d'être of this entity called Israel is necessarily eliminated. It is a question of time.
On the other hand, and some readers may find this argument less appealing, I am not saying that to become Palestine is to return to an image of, say, pre-Nakba Palestine—it is not a revivalist process where Palestine becomes again. Rather, I use “becoming” in the Deleuzian sense to mean that “becoming” cannot refer to an identity that is already there. That identity must remain in a process of realization. “Becoming” here is opposed to a notion of return where it is already known in advance what one is returning to. The choice of title is intended to underlie the anti-historical nature of the book, which is not to say that history does not matter, but to say that we should discard the teleology inherent in the process of return to a past we access through the prism of the present, where the ghosts are already known. This is one of the merits of Darwish's poem, where he suspends the act of seeing, refuses the clarity of knowing precisely where these remnants of al-Birweh's past lie, as well as the means of accessing them.
BA: You devote two chapters to the relationship between archaeology and the archive. Could you say more about the nature of this relationship and what is the role of archaeological knowledge in a project that seeks to engage with the archive, not as a corpse as you put it, but as a way of focusing on future potentiality?
GH: In those chapters, I'm not trying to make a large claim about archaeology in general. They are, rather, a way of dealing seriously with the fact that in the context of Palestine, archaeology has been elevated to a status that, as I mention in the book, is comparable perhaps only to Greece in terms of its role in producing and reproducing state authority. In both cases, archaeology is not quite a claim on the past so much as it is a way of validating the present.
Palestine is also a place where archaeology and textual-cultural imagination unite and mutually feed off each other. Nadia Abu El Haj is the authority on this matter and has done remarkable work from which I have learned a great deal. When we are repeatedly told that new archaeological discoveries have been made, we must keep in mind that we are reading particular textual narratives into material findings. The relationship between the two is dialectic; it is not that we have a text, on the one hand, and we find the evidence of the truth of that text in archaeological material, on the other. The cycle of interpretation is so hermetic that the kinds of interventions made by Larissa Sansour, Ruanne Abou-Rahme, and Basel Abbas are especially significant. The question they pose through their art is: what happens when one does not draw a coherent link between the finding of the object, the hermetic seal in the so-called Judeo-Christian narrative, and the claims of the present, which are manifested as a claim of exclusive ownership of the land?
The other aspect of archaeology relevant in the question of Palestine is that, in practice, archaeology has gone hand in hand with the erasure of Palestine, for it is only after the destruction of Palestinian villages that the act of digging can begin in earnest. It is in this sense that archaeological work has a direct connection to the present. Archaeologists continue to disrupt the present in the West Bank, in Hebron, in Jerusalem, digging. Digging thus directly operates as a counterforce, call it “anti-becoming.” I think these artists' engagement with the archaeological modality helps us to understand that digging for historical truths is not our only way to find the answers we seek. On the contrary, digging is often a way to bury the present with dust.
BA: In the opening chapter, Robert Lachmann's desire for Palestinian-Jewish coexistence presented Palestine as a depoliticized space devoid of the reality of occupation and settler-colonialism, a fallacy that continues to underpin such desires today. In addition to challenging notions of nationalist purity, how might the archival imagination you describe help us to avoid some of the pitfalls of this idea of coexistence as an apolitical aim and how did Jumanna Manna complicate this notion in her film, A Magical Substance Flows Into Me?
GH: Jumanna cleverly complicates this idea of coexistence in a particular scene involving a Jewish-Moroccan singer who sings in darija. The singer presents herself as an Arab Jew who is antagonistic to coexistence in the sense you describe; her preference is simply to perform in public singing spaces in Fez, and at no point is she presented in the film as someone who bridges cultures or "coexists" in any sense. I do not think Lachmann himself was invested in this idea to a significant extent either as he only lived in Palestine for about four years before his death. He was more of a traditional German Orientalist who valued cultural authenticity above all else; for example, he was committed to the idea that Arabic music had to remain untainted by foreign influences in order to remain pure.
In a broader sense, however, this question is an important one for considering the arguments presented in my book. If we take the idea of “becoming” seriously, the stakes of the political terrain would have to change. Practically, this would not mean the elimination of difference, but, perhaps, a recirculation of differences. There are, today, more than the two identities posited by the coexistence discourse—“Palestinian” and “Jew”—and the reality on the ground requires attention to these other kinds of differences. There are Ethiopian Jews, Sudanese and East Asian communities, and many others, whose subject positions are not always aligned with this binary identitarian formation.
What I mean by “becoming” is a reshuffling of the cards. This is one of the aspects that makes Jumanna's film so brilliant; while she is aware that the Orientalist archive is not a reliable one, she refuses to simply throw it away. When I say our duty is to imagine, it is not to come up with the answers—that would be the end of imagination! Nor do I view imagination as a convenient shortcut. On the contrary, I think it is extremely difficult to create anti-identitarian imaginaries without succumbing to post-Subject fantasies. I only mean to point out that in the process of becoming, there are options that we do not know about in advance and the only commitment one should have is to be open to these possibilities. What is certain, however, is that the idea of an apolitical coexistence that refuses to reckon with and address the past and ongoing violence and ethnic cleansing against Palestinians is not one of those options.
BA: In the afterword to your book, you state that becoming Palestine is not a theoretical exercise but a political question. The artists you present have all exhibited an archival imagination that is directed toward the future rather than the past, yet they are also part of a certain class background and privilege which has offered them opportunities inaccessible to many Palestinians. To what extent is this archival imagination reflected in class terms? How does one's class position affect one's ability, to paraphrase Edward Said, to refuse to narrate?
GH: Everyone has the ability to imagine. For some, the price of imagination is higher than for others. It is also true that one must have time to imagine—those who work night and day, or live in a state of fear for one's life or for one's family, likely don’t have the luxury of spending much time imagining otherwise. Still, I refuse to accept the division between those who do the thinking and those who are simply living beings. I am not one to join Giorgio Agamben’s desire to identify the ground zero of the Homo Sacer. I think it is very dangerous to establish oneself as the thinking subject who can identify and name those who are “life only.” Although it does not always occur under ideal conditions, imagination, I insist, is part and parcel of all life, including the unimaginably horrid life of the non-speaking subaltern. It is important to me that we do not succumb to the cynicism that artistic expression should be seen as inauthentic or useless if it does not emerge from an acute hardship. I fully reject the idea that marginality, oppression, and abjecthood are the only positions from which meaningful political interventions can be made (the extreme response to Spivak’s Can the Subaltern Speak?). The bigger question, I suppose, is what does one do with imagination, when and if, one has the privilege.