So, where are you right now, what have you been working on?
Right now I’m in Switzerland, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s country. Hemingway’s too, he stayed for a while right near here. I’m taking a break from Paris (which has become really awful) to do some work on other stuff – two books I’m writing, one in French and the other in English.
That sounds exciting…
For the one in French, the general idea is a 1st-person, nonfiction… ‘thing’ about Palestine and exile. So basically what I’m writing in my Facebook posts, but expanded. As for the novel in English, it’s something I just started writing, and, well, it has to be in English for some reason, but the gist of it is that it’s a sci-fi novel about Palestine. At first, it was supposed to be in French, and about a Palestinian colony on Mars, with all the play on the different connotations of the French word colonie – settlement and sci-fi colony – the complex dynamics of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. The way it’s supposed to work now is that the protagonist is essentially an empty shell and compiles different histories of the Palestinian diaspora. It’s set in a time when nothing exists anymore in the Middle East, not even Israel, and so the protagonist sets about collecting fragments and anecdotes about Palestine from a future perspective, people who have heard about Palestine from their ancestors – in this sense, he is creating within himself an encyclopedia of what Palestine used to be.
This interest for the future is really new in the Arab world – Palestine in particular is obsessed with our past, because we have had to justify that we existed, but over the past few years, there has been work made about the future of Palestine, everything from utopias to dystopias. And those sci-fi visions of Palestine speak to a lot of contemporary issues that we didn’t have before. So it wasn’t really a conscious choice for it to be sci-fi, it just had to be – it’s a genre that allows for a lot of things to be addressed with a lot of distance. For example, within the framework of the novel, as I said, there’s nothing left in the Middle East, and no one really knows the history of Palestine, so everyone speaks about it as if it belonged to some kind of Golden Age which is obviously not true. They never name the occupying party or the nature of the conflict; they never address their Arab bodies. In that way, sci-fi enacts a conscious erasure that has us thinking about that act of erasing.
I never knew that, about Hebrew – and that’s fascinating, a language recreated out of thin air. It reminds me of what Cathy Park Hong did in Dance Dance Revolution, creating the Desert Creole, which basically uses English grammar and syntax and then culls vocabulary and pronunciation from many different world languages and dialects, some of them dead. And that language is supposed to be a lingua franca, spoken by all, but each with their own individual inflections.
Yes, it was basically just this one guy who recreated Hebrew, taking all kinds of Mediterranean dialects and languages, and combining them with old Hebrew. It was meant to work as a lingua franca, and now there’s millions of native speakers of a language that was created 100 years ago.
So intrinsic to Hebrew is a sense of a common Mediterranean identity, no? And that’s definitely something I feel very ambivalently about. Because I have strong Mediterranean roots as well – France, Algeria, Spain, Malta… but while it seems like a nice idea, that of a common Mediterranean identity, it also feels quite artificial to a certain extent.
I think there’s no shared history, obviously, but there is a shared relationship to history. And this may be a bit obsolete, but also a certain shared sense of honor and a shared actualization of a kind of patriarchy that’s specific to the Mediterranean. So a form of patriarchy defined by space (and not so much by Islam, unlike what many believe). But yes, a shared relationship to history that’s often an ambivalent one: either silence or a surplus of narratives. You’ve got present-day descendants of Pieds-Noirs (*Christian and Jewish people who lived in Algeria during French colonial rule until the country’s independence) who have never known anything about their family history before the return back to France, or if they have, they’ve just heard quaint stories about life in Algeria. And this silence is heavy. As they say, everyone’s got a great-aunt who committed suicide in an HLM (*rent-controlled housing in France). So in the Mediterranean, we relate to the past through an overkill of narratives of past that go hand in hand with total silence. But the Mediterranean can offer a lot of things. As an image it’s still pretty important, especially when you got all those people dying there, trying to get across. We’re looking right now at the failure of multiculturalism in the Mediterranean space, but we shouldn’t accept it.
Yes. I guess the question is, as usual – how do you create a sense of community without erasing the very different material histories that compose it?
Right. Well, you have to find points of contact. Things are starting to exist, and notably you have the relationship between African American & Palestinian communities, which is really interesting. They have a shared relationship to public space, and the ways it can be dangerous, as well as to police forces. You’ve got Angela Davis who’s become very vocal about Palestine; we’re seeing her now speaking about it a lot. And these transnational points of contact, they’re responses to what you would call the globalization of security. Israel is a pioneer, it’s basically got the equivalent of Silicon Valley, with lots of technological startups, it’s really at the vanguard of everything technological. And so it’s creating and defining the vocabulary of the new ultra-security state, it’s the laboratory for that, for the globalization of what a security state should be. To be able to respond to that, you have to start creating these transnational sharing experiences.
But in the case of Palestine, there’s a clear failure of the political discourse – and we should have known it wouldn’t work because people aren’t rational beings, they’re sentimental beings – so the only thing left to do is to tell personal stories about other people who are close to you. This brings me back in a way to the first-person narrative that I’m writing – it’s like, I’m fine with doing it on Facebook, but what’s the point in doing it in book form? It just sounds narcissist and self-centered, but now I’m just owning up to it. And in fact, come to think of it, you don’t have a lot of first-person narratives from a Palestinian perspective that aren’t framed in political terms, so it would bring something different.
So Palestinians realized that they don’t have a voice, political or otherwise. And they assume that they’ll be ignored anyway, so for a long time all that mattered was that political discourse. But now a lot of young people, young women especially, are actually coming back and starting all kinds of projects that go beyond this internal political discourse, as well as the one that’s imposed from the outside. And this movement of coming back is spearheaded by young women, which is fantastic because it goes completely against the usual discourse about women in Palestine. They do endure lots of constraints on their bodies that are imposed by both Israel and Palestine, but they do have lots of freedoms as well, and they are certainly making a place for themselves.