[This article is part of a roundtable that is a product of a public forum that Academics for Justice in Palestine (AJP) at UCSB held on 8 December 2023. To see all other entries in this roundtable, click here.]
Can We Talk About Palestine? Yes, in words. 
Words that are in danger of remaining unspoken when we say “It is too complicated” or “I don’t know enough about the issue” or “It is too divisive” or “It hurts my feelings.” It is critical commonplace that the unspoken as resounding silence indexes nothing less than a repressive apparatus: in this case, equivocations and silences about the war on Palestine in the U.S. arise from censorship reminiscent of McCarthyism. Censorship eddies in institutional modes (that journal article that was not published); in gaslighting, starting with the national leadership; and in tried and tested rhetorical gestures. The best-known gesture equates criticism of the Israeli state with antisemitism. It is a “master code” for silencing speech about Palestinian liberation that finds a companion in the present: “Do you condemn Hamas?” The form of the question compresses, even evacuates, any discussion of the 75-year-old war on Palestine—its complexities, its histories, its manifold timelines, all that we teach here at the university—by reducing that war to the current Israel-Hamas conflict. When we persist in speaking of the war on Palestine, of Palestinian lives, of Palestinian liberation, we defang what these rhetorical modes aim to suppress.
Can we talk about Palestine? Yes, in words that spell danger to those who will not countenance the world that words can conjure: the very idea of Free Palestine.
People living under colonial rule know this in their bones. I come from India, an “idea” spoken, painted, and sung long before “the people” found an institution as a sovereign state in 1947. If we date the idea of India formally to the launch of the Indian National Congress in 1885, we are talking 77 years of speaking about self-determination, freedom, liberation. An early visual trace of imagining India is to be found in Abanindranath Tagore’s modernist image of India as Bharatmata (1905) made to unsettle George Curzon’s partition of Bengal. Much can be said about the image of the culturally Hindu basis for India that it embodies came to be weaponized for a divisive politics by Hindu rightist regimes in the next decades; in its time, the painting had secular-modern resonance. My point, here, is less about the politics of this image, although its histories tell us much about cultural appropriation which is a hallmark of Hindu fascism today. Rather, I seek to emphasize the political power of speech acts that set in motion imagined communities to come. No wonder such conjurations generate fear in colonial quarters: we know this from strident attacks on the symbolic invocation to live freely in Israel-Palestine resonant in the phrase “from the river to the sea” at the current juncture.
Colonizers have known the power of such speech acts in their bones. British colonial histories are dotted with sedition laws and sedition trials. In my home state of Bengal, a village schoolmaster, Surya Sen (or Master-da as he was called), a revolutionary who led the armed struggle against the British, had his teeth smashed with a hammer in the jail before his execution in 1934. It was an instance of spectacular deterrence against those who dared speak of freedom. It is a violent image, but a necessary one for our times. In India today, sedition has been resurrected by a Hindu fascist regime that locks up journalists, artists, activists with impunity, and especially those who speak against India’s own open-air prison—Kashmir. And yet, contemporary artists continue to refute the Indian fantasy of Kashmir as a tourist destination for Indians when Kashmiris have been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in droves by the Indian state over three decades (ever since the imposition of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1990). Kashmiri artist Mir Suhail’s political cartoons approach everyday life under occupation with dark humor. Resonant of Palestinian lives in the occupied territories, one image mocks the plight of Kashmiris just before the “R-Day” (Republic Day) parades; constituted as security risks to the nation-state, Kashmiri find themselves under heavier surveillance on the eve of grand celebrations (see “Kashmir on R-Day”). Another, the opening image for the artist’s portfolio, features a postage stamp for a “country without a post office,” as the poet Aga Shahid Ali mournfully named his homeland, signaling a future when Kashmir’s severely curtailed communications infrastructures would be free of Indian control. The image of a red flag on a boat navigating turbulent waters in the stamp further suggests ongoing Kashmiri resistance to the Indian hegemon.
Trembling in the face of speech acts for what they might conjure—azadi/freedom for Kashmir?—colonial-fascist regimes recognize what words, images, and stories potentiate: a free people, the right to self-determine, the right to live beyond what Black critic Christina Sharpe names “premature and preventable death.” What then, can speaking of Palestinian life potentiate?
One direction comes from theories of speech as “happenings” between speaker and listener: we language together, as postcolonial critic Rey Chow calls it, for speaking-listening institutes an active relation in vocalic space. Today there are countless stories from Palestine: we need to proliferate listening posts for them. A powerful injunction comes from Mohamed El-Kurd, the Palestinian journalist and poet from Jerusalem. In “The Right to Speak for Ourselves” published in The Nation some weeks ago, El-Kurd criticizes the “politics of appeal” which makes some lives grievable and others not. He recalls the exhortations to amplify the death of Palestinian-American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh who was killed by an Israeli soldier while wearing the blue press vest in May 2022 because her death would jog the American conscience; meanwhile, 16-year-old boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir who lived across the street from El-Kurd, kidnapped and burnt alive by Israeli settlers, was a life simply folded into a statistic. El-Kurd’s point is not to not mourn Akleh, but to speak of Abu Khdeir as a life lived with difficulty, with aspiration, with a desire to survive—not just as another victim or potential terrorist. El-Kurd refers us to the great Edward Said’s 1984 essay, “The Permission to Narrate,” where Said writes of the inadmissibility of Palestinian “history, actuality, and aspiration” in Western public discourse; this erasure is historically recognizable as an imperial politics of delegitimization. He asks us to return to narrative: “Facts do not at all speak for themselves,” he insists, they require an “acceptable narrative absorb, to sustain, and circulate them.” The time is now to talk about Palestine in word, constantly and consistently. Time is now to listen to Palestinian narrations of life, of survival, of futurity.
Um Amel, VJ. "Boys on the Beach OG Mosaic" (2014). Interactive digital art.
Can we talk about Palestine? Yes, in images.
Cascading, the images are impossibly harsh in this extensively visualized, live-streamed war coming at us on our phones, our computers, our television screens. One cannot say “I did not know what happened anymore” in our saturated media environments replete with images of violence, suffering, and death. As Nesrine Malik wrote in The Guardian a week ago, those images are “things we cannot unsee.” And what shall we do with all this visible evidence? Shall we let images pass us by? Will their cascade adversely desensitize us to suffering? Which ones will remain indelible as “after-image,” hanging like sensory impress upon our corneas, the image that refuses to go away? Historically, images of injured children do this psycho-semiotic work, classically iconic as they are of injustice. Remember Vietnamese-American photographer Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phúc running from napalm strikes in South Vietnam? Or Nilüfer Demir’s 2015 photograph of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi drowned on a beach in Bodrum, Turkey that visually crystallized the Syrian refugee crisis?
Responding to criticism of his will to document rather than to intervene, Ut protested he had stopped the van to take Phuc to a hospital. Unlike so many Palestinian children, Kim Phuc now lives in Canada, living to tell the tale. Aside from these ethics of documentation, other prohibitions abound around circulating such images—censure of watching too much, of amplifying bloodthirst. But at this moment, is there really a choice not to speak in images? After all, Palestinian journalists are literally dying in their speech acts: at the time of this writing, 117+ journalists have been killed covering Gaza since 7 October 2023 as opposed to 109 journalists killed worldwide in 2021-2022. (And I write in full realization that days, even hours, will make this count obsolete). To not witness their witness is the truly unethical act.
Time, then, to roll up our sleeves to keep watching and make sense of what we see. One provocation comes from Arielle Aisha Azoulay who asks us to venture beyond what the camera shutter cuts away—to probe, trace, and draw out the surroundings of the photograph. This is not historical context but what accompanies the images formally and technically privileged in the frame. As the physical situation of the photographer and photographed folds around the frame, unexpected traces linger as ungovernable contingencies: it may be that part-inaudible voice outside the frame of audiovisual documentary footage; that glance looking at something beyond the frame in a moving image; or a minor object sidelined in a photographic composition. These traces exhort us to speculate potential histories of images within different media formats. What happened to the Palestinian prisoner released in the prisoner exchange who fearfully speaks off camera? What social worlds of children can be imagined from that motley crew caught on TV who dragged a couch upon the rubble in Southern Gaza to be in each other’s company? To ask these questions is to pursue the potential histories of an image.
In that spirit, I offer one historical instance from the not-too-distant past: the image of the four Bakr boys (Ahed, Zakaria, Mohammed, and Ismail), aged 9-11 years, killed by Israeli naval forces in 2014. The image has been creatively treated by many, including our very own Professor Shereen Sakr in her 2023 book, Arabic Glitch (see Fig.2). At the time of the event, Shaimaa Hasanain’s sketch drew out what lay beyond the frame of the three boys in the photograph; it featured all four boys running at the shoreline. The image went viral, finding expression in different media forms: see, for instance, the collaboratively made tapestry, “Boys on the Beach, Gaza Assault, 16 July, 2014.” Such artifactual tracings memorialize the “before” to the image of death, catching lives lived with joy, the visual inversion emplacing the young Palestinians in their own land and waters. The frolic at the shoreline is equally an “after,” an image of futurity—of a time when missiles will not strike free, unoccupied Palestine. Photographs of the Bakr boys’ death are galling today as the IDF “thins” out the population in Gaza; but the image is also unforgettable in reminding us to archive and document, to trace and draw out, potential histories in the age of flooded corneas.
Can we speak about Palestine? We must in image, and word, and story.
We are in a media environment where the assault on Gaza is live-streamed. Spunky bloggers like Palestinian filmmaker Bisan Owda on Instagram post on carnage even as they anticipate their own coming death at any time. Such immediacy of live-streamed suffering compresses the vocalic space between speaker and listener. We stand to lose the very voice and image that have become daily companions in our mediated social universes. Suffering is no longer distant as we listen for Palestine.
 I’d like to acknowledge the contributions of my media colleagues (Laila Shreen Sakr, Mona Damluji, Shiva Balaghi and Bhaskar Sarkar) to the substance of this essay alongside my colleagues in the Academics for Justice in Palestine at UC Santa Barbara.
 Most notoriously, an early instance was President Biden’s aside that he did not believe the numbers of dead in Palestine (October 25, 2023) tabulated by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. The President later apologized for his remark, but the speech act had made its mark. The willingness to believe Israeli accounts, some of which journalists later verify as untrue, over Palestinian ones exposed a deep structure of racial devaluation.