Imaginary homelands essa.., p.17

Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991, page 17


Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

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  It would be easier

  to catch fried fish in the milky way

  to plough the sea

  or to teach the alligator speech

  than to make us leave.*

  In part two, ‘Interiors’, which greatly develops the theme of the insider and the outsider, Edward refers to a change in the status of the Palestinians who are inside Palestine. Until recently, among the Palestinian community in general, there was a slight discounting of those who remained inside, as if they were somehow contaminated by the proximity of the Jews. Now, however, the situation has been inverted: those who go on living there, maintaining a Palestinian culture and obliging the world to recognize their existence, have acquired a greater status in the eyes of other Palestinians.

  This experience of being inside Palestinianness is presented as a series of codes which, though incomprehensible to outsiders, are instantly communicated by Palestinians when they meet one another. The only way in which to show your insiderness is precisely through the expression of those codes. There is a very funny incident in which Professor Said receives a letter, via a complete stranger, from a man who has built his Palestinian identity as a karate expert. ‘What was the message to me?’ Said asks. ‘First of all he was inside, and using the good offices of a sympathetic outsider to contact me, an insider who was now outside Jerusalem, the place of our common origin. That he wrote my name in English was as much a sign that he too could deal with the world I lived in as it was that he followed what I did. The time had come to demonstrate that the Edward Saids had better remember that we were being watched by karate experts. Karate does not stand for self-development but only for the repeated act of being a Palestinian expert. A Palestinian—it is as if the activity of repeating prevents us and others from skipping us or overlooking us entirely.’

  He then gives a number of other examples of repeating behaviour in order to make it Palestinian behaviour, and thus existing through that repetition. There also seems to be a compulsion to excess, illustrated in various ways, both tragic and comic, within the book. One of the problems of being Palestinian is that the idea of interior is regularly invaded by other people’s descriptions, by other people’s attempts to control what it is to occupy that space—whether it be Jordanian Arabs who say there is no difference between a Jordanian and a Palestinian, or Israelis who claim that the land is not Palestine but Israel.

  The third part, ‘Emergence’, and the fourth part, ‘Past and Future’, turn to a discussion of what it actually is or might be to be a Palestinian. There is also an account of the power to which Palestinians are subject, of the way in which even their names have been altered through the superimposition of Hebrew transliteration. As a mark of resistance, Palestinians are now seeking to reassert their identity by going back to the old Arabic forms: Abu Ammar, for example, instead of Yasser Arafat. On various occasions the very meaning of names has been changed. Thus the largest refugee camp in Lebanon, Ein el Hilwé, which is written with an ‘h’ in the Arabic transliteration, has become Ein el Khilwé in the Hebrew transliteration: a name which means ‘sweet spring’ has been turned into something like ‘spring in the empty place’. Said sees in this an allusion to mass graves and the regularly razed and not always rebuilt camps. ‘I also register the thought,’ he writes, ‘that Israel has indeed emptied the camp with its Palestinian wellspring.’

  The text goes on to talk about Zionism, which he addressed in his earlier book The Question of Palestine. We should note the difficulty in making any kind of critique of Zionism without being instantly charged with anti-Semitism. Clearly it is important to understand Zionism as a historical process, as existing in a context and having certain historical functions. A further idea in these later sections of the book is that, in the West, everyone has come to think of exile as a primarily literary and bourgeois state. Exiles appear to have chosen a middle-class situation in which great thoughts can be thought. In the case of the Palestinians, however, exile is a mass phenomenon: it is the mass that is exiled and not just the bourgeoisie.

  Finally Said poses a series of questions which come down to the original one of Palestinian existence: ‘What happens to landless people? However you exist in the world, what do you preserve of yourselves? What do you abandon?’ I find one passage particularly valuable, as it connects with many things I have been thinking about. ‘Our truest reality,’ he writes, ‘is expressed in the way we cross over from one place to another. We are migrants and perhaps hybrids, in but not of any situation in which we find ourselves. This is the deepest continuity of our lives as a nation in exile and constantly on the move.’ He also criticizes the great concentration of the Palestinian cause on its military expression, referring to the dangers of cultural loss or absence.

  Professor Said periodically receives threats to his safety from the Jewish Defense League in America, and I think it is important for us to appreciate that to be a Palestinian in New York—in many ways the Palestinian—is not the easiest of fates.

  One of my sisters was repeatedly asked in California where she came from. When she said ‘Pakistan’ most people seemed to have no idea what this meant. One American said: ‘Oh, yes, Pakestine!’ and immediately started talking about his Jewish friends. It is impossible to overestimate the consequences of American ignorance on world affairs. When I was at the PEN Congress in New York in 1986, the American writer Cynthia Ozick took it upon herself to circulate a petition which described Chancellor Kreisky of Austria as an anti-Semite. Why was he an anti-Semite—this man who is himself a Jew and has given refuge to tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of Jews leaving the Soviet Union? Because he had had a conversation with Yasser Arafat. The alarming thing is that this petition, on the face of it quite absurd, should have been taken so seriously by participants at the congress. There was even a moment when I felt nervously that since no one else seemed to be speaking for Palestine, I might have to myself. But the defence came from Pierre Trudeau of all people, who spoke very movingly about the Palestinian cause. These are some of the extraordinary things that happen in New York. Edward, you are the man on the spot. Is it getting worse or better? How does it feel?

  EDWARD SAID: Well, I think it is getting worse. First of all, most people in New York who feel strongly about Palestine and Palestinians have had no direct experience at all. They think of them essentially in terms of what they have seen on television: bomb scares, murders and what the Secretary of State and others call terrorism. This produces a kind of groundless passion, so that when I am introduced to someone who may have heard of me, they react in a very strange way that suggests ‘maybe you’re not as bad as you seem.’ The fact that I speak English, and do it reasonably well, adds to the complications, and most people eventually concentrate on my work as an English professor for the rest of the conversation. But you do feel a new kind of violence around you which is a result of 1982. An important break with the past occurred then, both for people who have supported Israel in the United States, and for people like us, for whom the destruction of Beirut, our Beirut, was the end of an era. Most of the time you can feel that you are leading a normal life, but every so often you are brought up against a threat or an allusion to something which is deeply unpleasant. You always feel outside in some way.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: Has there been any change in your ability to publish or talk about the Palestinian issue?

  EDWARD SAID: To some extent. This is one issue on which, as you know, there is a left-right break in America, and there are still a few groups, a few people—like Chomsky or Alexander Cockburn—who are willing to raise it publicly. But most people tend to think that it is better left to the crazies. There are fewer hospitable places, and you end up publishing for a smaller audience. Ironically, you also become tokenized, so that whenever there is a hijacking or some such incident, I get phone-calls from the media asking me to come along and comment. It’s a very strange feeling to be seen as a kind of representative of terrorism. You’re treated like a diplomat of terrorism,
with a place at the table. I remember one occasion, though, when I was invited to a television debate with the Israeli ambassador—I think it was about the Achille Lauro incident. Not only would he not sit in the same room with me; he wanted to be in a different building, so as not to be contaminated by my presence. The interviewer said to the national audience: ‘You know, Professor Said and Ambassador Netanyahu refuse to speak to each other, the Israeli ambassador won’t speak to him and he won’t …’ But then I interrupted and said: ‘No, no, I am perfectly willing to speak to him, but he won’t …’ The moderator replied: ‘Well, I stand corrected. Mr Ambassador, why won’t you speak to Professor Said?’ ‘Because he wants to kill me.’ The moderator, without batting an eyelid, urged: ‘Oh really, tell us about it.’ And the ambassador went on about how Palestinians want to kill the Israelis, and so on. It was really a totally absurd situation.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: You say you don’t like calling it a Palestinian diaspora. Why is that?

  EDWARD SAID: I suppose there is a sense in which, as one man wrote in a note to me from Jerusalem, we are ‘the Jews of the Arab world’. But I think our experience is really quite different and beyond such attempts to draw parallels. Perhaps its dimension is much more modest. In any case the idea that there is a kind of redemptive homeland doesn’t answer to my view of things.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: So let me put to you your own question. Do you exist? And if so, what proof do you have? In what sense is there a Palestinian nation?

  EDWARD SAID: First of all, in the sense that a lot of people have memories or show great interest in looking into the past for a sign of coherent community. Many, too—especially younger-generation scholars—are trying to discover things about the Palestinian political and cultural experience that mark it off from the rest of the Arab world. Secondly, there is the tradition of setting up replicas of Palestinian organizations in places as far afield as Australia or South America. It is quite remarkable that people will come to live in, say, Youngstown, Ohio—a town I don’t know, but you can imagine what it’s like—and remain on top of the latest events in Beirut or the current disagreements between the Popular Front and Al Fatah, and yet not even know the name of the mayor of Youngstown or how he is elected. Maybe they will just assume that he is put there by somebody rather than being elected. Finally, you can see from Jean Mohr’s pictures that the Palestinians are a people who move a lot, who are always carrying bags from one place to another. This gives us a further sense of identity as a people. And we say it loudly enough, repetitiously enough and stridently enough, strong in the knowledge that they haven’t been able to get rid of us. It is a great feeling—call it positive or pessoptimistic—to wake up in the morning and say: ‘Well they didn’t bump me off.’

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: To illustrate this point that things could be worse, you tell the story of a mother whose son died very soon after his wedding. While the bride is still mourning she says: ‘Thank God it has happened in this way and not in another way!’ The bride then gets very angry and says: ‘How dare you say that! What could possibly be a worse way?’ But the mother-in-law replies: ‘Well, you know, if he grew old and you left him for another man and then he died, that could be worse. So it’s better that he dies now.’

  EDWARD SAID: Exactly. You are always inventing worse scenarios.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: It’s very difficult to work out whether this is optimism or pessimism. That’s why it is called pessoptimism. Would you like to say something now about the codes by which Palestinians exist and recognize each other and about the idea of repetition and excess as a way of existing?

  EDWARD SAID: Let me tell you another story that will show you what I mean. A close friend of mine once came to my house and stayed overnight. In the morning we had breakfast, which included yogurt cheese with a special herb, za’atar. This combination probably exists all over the Arab world, and certainly in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. But my friend said: ‘There, you see. It’s a sign of a Palestinian home that it has za’atar in it.’ Being a poet, he then expatiated at great and tedious length on Palestinian cuisine, which is generally very much like Lebanese and Syrian cuisine, and by the end of the morning we were both convinced that we had a totally distinct national cuisine.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: So, because a Palestinian chooses to do something it becomes the Palestinian thing to do?

  EDWARD SAID: That’s absolutely right. But even among Palestinians there are certain code words that define which camp or group the speaker comes from; whether from the Popular Front, which believes in the complete liberation of Palestine, or from the Fatah, which believes in a negotiated settlement. They will choose a different set of words when they talk about national liberation. Then there are the regional accents. It is very strange indeed to meet a Palestinian kid in Lebanon who was born in some refugee camp and has never been to Palestine but who carries the inflections of Haifa, or Jaffa, in his Lebanese Arabic.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: Let us turn to the idea of excess. You talk about how you find yourself obliged to carry too much luggage wherever you go. But more seriously, I remember that dialogue between a captured Palestinian guerrilla and an Israeli broadcaster in which the guerrilla appears to be implicating himself in the most heinous crimes but is in fact sending up the entire event by a colossal excess of apologies. The broadcaster is too tuned into his own set of attitudes to realize what is going on.

  EDWARD SAID: Yes. It was in 1982 in southern Lebanon, when Israeli radio would often put captured guerrillas on the air as a form of psychological warfare. But in the case you are talking about, no one was deceived. In fact, the Palestinians in Beirut made a cassette recording of the whole show and played it back in the evening as a way of entertaining people. Let me translate a sample:

  Israeli broadcaster: Your name?

  Captured Palestinian: Ahmed Abdul Hamid Abu Site.

  Israeli: What is your movement name?

  Palestinian: My movement name is Abu Lell [which in English means Father of Night, with a rather threatening, horrible sound to it].

  Israeli: Tell me, Mr Abu Lell, to which terrorist organization do you belong?

  Palestinian: I belong to the Popular Front for the Liberation … I mean terrorization of Palestine.

  Israeli: And when did you get involved in the terrorist organization?

  Palestinian: When I first became aware of terrorism.

  Israeli: What was your mission in South Lebanon?

  Palestinian: My mission was terrorism. In other words, we would enter villages and just terrorize the occupants. And whenever there were women and children in particular, we would terrorize everything, and all we did was terrorism.

  Israeli: And did you practise terrorism out of belief in a cause or just for money?

  Palestinian: No, just for money. What kind of cause is this anyway? Is there still a cause? We sold out a long time ago.

  Israeli: Tell me … where do the terrorist organizations get their money?

  Palestinian: From anyone who has spare money for terrorism.

  Israeli: What is your opinion of the terrorist Arafat?

  Palestinian: I swear that he is the greatest terrorist of all. He is the one who sold us and the cause out. His whole life is terrorism. [Of course, to a Palestinian this could mean that he is the most committed of all, but it sounds as if he is just a total sellout.]

  Israeli: What is your opinion of the way in which the Israeli defence forces have conducted themselves?

  Palestinian: On my honour, we thank the Israeli defence forces for their good treatment of each terrorist.

  Israeli: Do you have any advice for other terrorists, who are still terrorizing the IDF?

  Palestinian: My advice to them is to surrender their arms to the IDF. What they will find there is the best possible treatment.

  Israeli: Lastly, Mr Terrorist, would you like to send a message to your family?

  Palestinian: I would like to assure my family and friends that I am in good health. I would also like to thank t
he enemy broadcasting facility for letting me speak out like this.

  Israeli: You mean the Voice of Israel?

  Palestinian: Yes, yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Yes of course, sir.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: And this went out over the air?

  EDWARD SAID: Absolutely. It was put out on a daily basis, and recorded in Beirut and played back to the guerrillas. It’s a very funny and wonderful story.

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: You also talk about a photo article in a fashion magazine, under the headline ‘Terrorist Culture’, which claims that the Palestinians are not really Palestinians because they have simply hijacked Arab dress and renamed it Palestinian.

  EDWARD SAID: We do it all the time!

  SALMAN RUSHDIE: The article also claims that this supposedly distinctive dress is not that of the people but of the upper middle class. Referring to the American author of the article, Sharon Churcher, you write: ‘In the larger scheme of things … she is somebody doing a hack job on a hack fashion magazine.’ And yet, you say you feel the need to go right back to the beginning, to explain the whole history of Palestine in order to unmake Sharon Churcher’s lie and show that this is in fact genuinely popular Palestinian dress. Doesn’t this need to go back again and again over the same story become tiring?

  EDWARD SAID: It does, but you do it anyway. It is like trying to find the magical moment when everything starts, as in Midnight’s Children. You know midnight, and so you go back. But it is very hard to do that because you have to work out everything and get past a lot of questions in the daily press about why Palestinians don’t just stay where they are and stop causing trouble. That immediately launches you into a tremendous harangue, as you explain to people: ‘My mother was born in Nazareth, my father was born in Jerusalem …’ The interesting thing is that there seems to be nothing in the world which sustains the story: unless you go on telling it, it will just drop and disappear.

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