This writing seeks to analyse the representation of the Palestinian disaster through the eyes of the Palestinian witness. This witness is the Palestinian who writes about his country in poems. This witness is the Palestinian who draws paintings of her ancestors in their living misery. This witness is the aid worker who works in Palestine and learns something new about the psychology of Palestinians every day.
When one hears of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, the images of either bombed buildings or bomb shelters comes to mind- whichever way one’s preferences swing. Usually the tendency lies in publicising the victims’ side of the story. However, because this catastrophe is so controversial, most victims have lost their place in our judgements. While it was fairly easy for the world to quickly identify ISIS as a terror group and the displaced Yazidis as their victims, somehow Palestine was not afforded this luxury. For most of the world’s leaders, the focus has not been on the collective violence afflicted on the Palestinian population, but rather the question: Who is right?
In us determining the morality of it all, Palestine has lost a place for grievance. What has emerged amidst the fight for land, the interruption to life, the loss of it, the mourning on both sides, and the politics is a “collapsed Palestinian space”. This collapsed space refers to the sanctity of human life that was dismissed starting from the Nakba and then time and time again, has been beaten down, broken, stepped on. This collapsed space has now become Palestinian, it has come to identify with the quality of being a Palestinian. For a Palestinian, the quality of existing means a daily confrontation with death, harassment and not the chance to express it or move beyond it all. This paper thus seeks to answer these questions with as much coherence as possible, as intermingled and difficult as they are: the collapsed Palestinian space- that is the loss of sanctity of Palestinian life-, expression within this space, and finally some speculation on what the future holds.
The Palestinian space has three important qualities in how we must assess it: In its representation, its relativeness, and the quality of its near-extinction. All three are connected to each other, in that the biased representation causes the space to be presented as being relative, and because one side is stronger than the other, the entire space is threatened. This threatened space continues to receive biased representation.
The Palestinian catastrophe is referred to as the Israel- Palestine conflict. Notice the use of the word conflict. This implies a two-sided, fairly balanced fight. In reality, this is not so because Palestinians have no “agency” to begin with (Huffington Post, I Travelled to Palestine), and also no protection like Israel does with advanced military and police forces. This is a fight of a civilian population against an armed oppressor, the destruction of an indigenous population and their history, collective punishment on anybody who dares identify with the word Palestine. Thus, it is not appropriate to call this one-sided affair a conflict as there is no existing balance of forces or even possibility of it.
That the Palestinian space is relative is an important fact to digest before we can fully grasp the very concept of the collapsed space. It became relative the moment western news channels began propagating one-sided news valuing Israeli life over a Palestinian life-or fifty- or irrelevant news to deflect attention from the crimes being committed. (See Vocativ’s Life and Love in an Israeli Bomb Shelter; and Haaretz’s Selfies in the bomb shelter: How Israelis cope when rockets fall) Palestine is seen in terms of its relationship with Israel and all its actions. Because both people claim the land, it appears that both automatically have the right to represent the situation associated with it- even if one’s claim is illegal and not justified. Since Israel has more authority and privilege in the eyes of the world than Palestine does- or almost all of it- this issue is a one-sided affair. Was a Palestinian wedding party attacked last night? Well, it is justified because today an Israeli soldier was hit by a stone by the Palestinian teenager he was assaulting. Palestine is not seen in its wholeness, its definite-ness anymore. It can’t be a stand-alone entity because it will always be relative to the existence of Israel. Simply due to its very existence, that is the existence of the word Palestine, it has entered into a conflict with the words Israel, Zionism, Jews, Semitism, justice. Justice! None of these may exist if Palestine does. Why must one be seen in terms of the other?
This relativeness becomes problematic when both sides claim the right to representation because the truth gets distorted- victims become oppressors and the oppressors become victims. Justice is shoved into the back seat because oppressors are not hiding in the shadows and denying their actions, but continuing to commit crimes with impunity with innumerous justifications for them going all the way back to the late nineteenth century when the Zionist movement was founded. By the way, the Zionist movement originated in the late 1880s, so the argument that Israel was a necessary creation because of Hitler, Aushwitz etc. have no claim to history or logic.
When this relativeness threatens to destroy the Palestinian side of the story, it threatens the Palestinian space as victims are turned into oppressors. The consequences of this collapsed space is that Palestine threatens to disappear from history. Palestinians become “insignificant residual victims of … [their own] history.”
Myths have been a common mechanism used to manipulate Palestinian history. According to Barthes, “myth does not deny things… simply it purifies them, it makes them innocent, it gives them a natural and eternal justification.” In the process of the construction of a mythical land and ancient people, a glorious Nakba as a “splendid act of conquest” Palestinian voice has been stolen. One researcher discovered that a high school history book in Israel had simply removed, “magically imagined away” Palestine from Israel. The past has been re-represented, conveniently reframed.
So, what does the witness do if he has ceased to exist anymore? By virtue of the claim that they were never really there in 1948, the previous generation of Palestinians have long been written away. They would cease to exist as witnesses because they were never there.
Ahmad Sa’di mentions in his Nakba, secret army documents documenting rapes that were never shown to the public, particularly one where the victim’s relative was first shot to death, and then she gang raped by soldiers for the next few days. There is no possibility for Celan’s three-forked road here, because there were no witnesses to the rapes. Palestinian space is being “written asunder” (Celan, 89) as geography books in Israeli schools do not mention the existence of Palestine prior to the Nakba. (Note: Paul Celan’s three-forked road says there are three people: the oppressor, the victim, and the witness. And though this phenomena of his was in the context of a particular poem that he wrote, we can extend this a bit to situations of catastrophe where these three individuals exist.)
What are the consequences of the Palestinian space existing with the three qualities mentioned above? Collapsed space. Because the space for expression, even the desire to live is so taken away, the strongest forms of hope emerge from the darkness in the form of witnesses. These witnesses, in the context of this paper, are painters and poets.
Can there be a quest for meaning, to relinquish what is left of life now? Is there even space for it amidst the horror of it all? Poetry responds to catastrophe by being a means for expression as well as by acting as a witness. Darwish’s poetry magnificently does both, having been borne out of a catastrophe that denies his subject matter, Palestine’s very existence. Jacques Derrida says poetry has a singular relation to and with language- each event takes place in a language. And Darwish’s poetry is a witness to each event. His poetry responds to the catastrophe by revealing what others have been unable to see because, as with any good poetry, he has such a way with words that he puts emotions into words and does justice to them. He humanizes emotion to make it visible. He promises of hope in the darkest of times and the dark is witness to the surrounding despair. He gives personality to the mightiest aspects of nature such as “downslope[s] of hills” to the smallest such as “fence flowers” (Darwish, 121) making them witness to all that transpires in front of them. He makes the dead spring to life, mythologizes them, and makes them witnesses of the life they see around them. He makes grief beat with unfettered passion, instead of the slow, wave-like feeling it comes with. He asserts that the inhumane soldier insults the country’s history with his every illegal step in the dirt, and that the dirt he steps on is a witness to the soldier’s unjust, trampling presence.
For him, to die is not to lose, but to enter beyond:
On the brink of death he says:
I have no foothold in me left to lose,
I am free near my freedom and my tomorrow is in my hand..
I will enter, in a little while my life
and become born free and parentless… (Darwish, 123)
Derrida says that a poem is a witness because of its duties- of “signing, sealing, revealing, unsealing.” (2) Darwish’s poetry gives “verbal security” in “[the Palestinian space] out of control” (Ibid) by its very existence, by having been written down and thus rebels against inhumane and Zionist ideology. His poems talk of the constant fight for human dignity in the face of Israeli brunt, portraying Palestine as a fighter, not the victim. :
A country on the verge of dawn,
we won’t disagree
on the martyrs’ share of the land,
they are equals here… (Darwish, 131)
He recognises the impact of the disaster on the poet and all who seek to represent it:
Our losses: from two martyrs to eight
and ten wounded…
in addition to the structural defect
that will afflict the poem and the play and the incomplete painting. (Darwish, 137)
Darwish creates space for voice in his powerful poems to open up the collapsed space. He gives space to the other. He has such a way of thinking of the other that in his address to him, he gives him space to be. There is no hierarchy in Darwish’s poem. He places the other on the same foothold as him to make him realise the magnanimity of the crime he is committing:
(To a killer:) If you’d contemplated the victim’s face
and thought, you would have remembered your mother in the gas chamber…
and changed your mind: this isn’t how identity is reclaimed! (Darwish, 131)
Derrida says that poetry goes beyond being a witness, in the grander scheme of things, in the bigger picture, it serves as testimony. That is testimony to a terrible event that has happened. His concern arises though when the testimony is forced into becoming a “demonstrable theoretical truth.” When this has happened, it has lost its singularity, its stand-apart quality, its right to be called testimony because it has lost its “value” with the need to be shown as “proof”. The experience which is “in principle, singular and irreplaceable” starts to be broken down, be analysed by psychologists, lawyers, judges, journalists, when it should remain how it is- “singular and irreplaceable.” It becomes generalised and a collective experience. While the experience is collective- in that others within the range of the catastrophe suffer under it too, it is also not collective in that everyone’s reception of it is different, because of varying closeness of relationships with who or what was at the receiving end, and because the threshold of pain is different and it intertwines differently with past life experiences and individual personalities.
Nevertheless, by preventing poetry from becoming testimony, there is a limitation being imposed on poetry by making it apolitical. His argument that it must not become an “absolute certain[ty]” raises a question then about what the alternative is if poetry is not allowed to become testimony, it is not allowed to testify.
Let us complicate this further more. What if poetry, especially Darwish’s poetry, is an example of Celan’s three-forked road? I mentioned above the various things of nature, the dirt the soldier stepped on, the dark all being witnesses in Darwish’s poetry. They are “present as a third” but they are also present as witnesses to the events. Is it necessary to separate the two- the witness and the victim? For Celan and Derrida’s theory, yes; but I do not find it so when talking about Darwish. Injustice is being done to the land being repossessed, at the same time this land is also transcendent, it is so much, and acts as a witness. It does not disappear but gets manipulated and distorted (yet another injustice!) but it still does not disappear.* Because it is being “written asunder” but also not, at the same time, it functions as two of the paths on the three-forked road.
There is a certain placelessness about Palestine. This is evident in Darwish’s poetry too which constantly seeks to find a land or something tangible to hold on to. There is a theme of unresolved mourning:
My speech besieges me in sleep,
my speech that I have not yet said,
it writes me then leaves me searching
for the remnants of my sleep… (Darwish, 129)
How does one think of poetry within the collapsed space now? It has certainly been a way out, a good mechanism for dealing with frustrations, but how effective is it? And is it not limited to a few, the gifted? Poems are “spaces of hope.” Because the “land is getting smaller and smaller”, perhaps poetry virtually expands it (Ibid), especially Darwish’s poetry. Nature is a frequent theme in his writing, and when he conjures up many hills and glorious sunsets, he also gives a sense that they still belong to Palestine, even that they are all his in that very moment- even though it is not possible to own them. Darwish commands a presence through his going beyond limitations that language provides. He is not untranslatable as Derrida claims Celan is (or as cryptic), but he, like Celan, is beyond translation. Somebody once said that things get lost in translation(Unknown author), and this is especially true with Darwish. Due to his poetry, what emerges from this collapsed space is further hope. Because of its relation to affect, his poetry entices, it calls attention, it sanctifies human dignity, it unseals, it does something with collapsed space that nothing else can do: it does all of these things, and then it asks: Do you dare stand with the oppressor?