Photo credit: Rebecca Topakian

Photo credit: Rebecca Topakian



In Conversation With Karim Kattan
by A. K. Afferez



I met Karim back in grad school. By now, he's been published in several major online publications, both in French and English, started a PhD in comparative literature, and founded el-Atlal, an international artists’ and writers’ residency in Jericho, back in 2014. And yet, you won't hear him talking as much about what he's done as about what he's a part of. We talked about Jericho, about art in the time of occupation and building community - and the vital necessity to showcase Palestine as it is, rather than the fantasized image we've fashioned in our minds.

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.

Are there any specific difficulties regarding recording the history of the Palestinian diaspora?

Well, there’s an autobiographical aspect in the book, and it’s having the diaspora gather and tell stories, because that’s what it does, tell all kinds of pointless stories – love stories, who slept with whom, who was a resistant, and that priest who used to smuggle arms in his Mercedes, and so on… When you take them by themselves, they’re basically family stories, and they all involve skeletons in the closet. So all these personal stories come together to give a vision of Palestine, but it can never be a unified vision, and that’s the main difficulty, managing all these scattered stories.

Half of my family is diaspora, the other half is still in Palestine. The diaspora lives everywhere from L.A. to India. I’ve literally never been to a city where I had no family. But again, there’s no unified relationship. Some of my relatives have never been to Palestine. So the issue is that there’s a lot of confusion. We don’t really know whether Palestine is a symbol or a place, or which land or city we’re talking about. We’ve had a lot of trouble parsing the religious relationship to Palestine from the secular one. I mean, foreigners have trouble understanding just how secular Palestinians are, even nowadays with the occupation, when the nationalist narrative has seemingly become more important than the transnationalist one. We’ve also had trouble parsing our relationship to Jerusalem: Jerusalem is so important to Palestinian identity but it’s not everything – I’m from Bethlehem – and you get the feeling from international media that Palestinians are really into Jerusalem because it’s a holy site, but in fact it’s just that this used to be our capital city, so lots of personal stories are anchored there. It’s all about personal stories: even the nationalist narrative is a personal one, not a religious or a political one. Palestinians are not allowed to go to Jerusalem or to Israel, just on the West Bank, so in a sense I’m exiled from it. There’s a form of diaspora within the country itself. And there’s no real hope of return for a lot of people, since they have no sovereign rights and no control of borders…

There’s the French expression, le téléphone arabe, literally “the Arab phone,” the English equivalent is hearing something through the grapevine, and well it describes pretty much the ways the stories work for us: some of the stories I hear date back from before 1948, and I’ve heard them from people who heard them from other people and son on… There can be nothing that’s true in the story and yet, somehow, it is true, it works as a true story for me as a Palestinian. And I should add that Palestinians are the best at telling stories – no one can tell stories the way a Palestinian does, especially a Palestinian woman. It’s become a sort of defense mechanism, a way to retain a link to a place where we can’t go anymore. Most of the spaces we talk about have disappeared or been annexed by Israel. We’ve all lost orchards by the sea.

And there’s something about the sea and Palestinians, really. Palestinians are either people who work the land or fishermen. You go to Palestinian refugee camps, where no one’s ever seen the sea, but many of their songs and stories are still seafaring ones. Palestine is really the oldest cradle of stories.

Do you have any recommendations of Palestinian writers? This definitely makes me want to explore that literature.

Well, you have Raja Shehadeh, who writes memoirs, in English, and who connects all these issues together. But overall I’m not super familiar with Palestinian literature. At first, I rejected my Palestinian identity because I didn’t want it to define me, which was pointless because it does define me. So this had lead to a complex relationship – I ‘m a person from the diaspora, except I’m not a diaspora kid. I grew up in Palestine, I went to French school and my Arabic isn’t that great. So I’ve been separated from my country’s literature. Some of it is translated, but it’s also mostly an oral literature. Palestinians are poets especially; we have a real tradition of poetry that dates back for decades.

Photo credit: Rebecca Topakian

Photo credit: Rebecca Topakian

That gets me thinking about the constant supremacy of the written text over the oral one, which seems to be heavily linked to any colonizing process, no? When you’re colonizing a place, you want to eradicate local history, and when that history is transmitted orally, its erasure becomes all the easier: you just impose your own written text over it.

Yeah, definitely. The issue of colonization and language in Palestine is complex. Of course there was ethnic cleansing, but beyond that – basically Israel has heavily relied on the narrative of “making the desert blossom,” mainly through advances in technology. But one of the miracles of the Zionist state is that it created its own language: it single-handedly created modern Hebrew, which is fascinating, and linked, again, to that idea of making the desert blossom. Before, there was no single language, so there was no international community uniting Sephardic & Ashkenazi Jews, who haven’t experienced the history of anti-Semitism in the same way. Now, a degree of unification has been brought about, not because of the state of Israel but because of the language. But in order to create Hebrew, you had to make Palestine disappear – which you can see in the slogan, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” So I’m definitely not speaking with the authority of a historian but those are the symbols I see in the creation of Israel.

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.

This side of Palestine you’re describing sounds incredible – and it’s rarely the one we get on the news, unfortunately – this Palestine as what we call in French a vivier, a breeding ground literally in English, of projects. And you’re spearheading one as well – el-Atlal.

Yes – el-Atlal is a residency project in Jericho for artists, writers & researchers. It was founded in the summer of 2014, so it’s quite young, and we’re looking to eventually build a physical place, which would embody the spirit of el-Atlal. In the meantime, we’re holding regular residencies, and right now we’re prepping for one in October-November.

Choosing Jericho is quite significant. In Palestine, the local cultural production happens in this golden triangle of culture: Ramallah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem. The rest is basically on the fringes of this triangle, and even though there are lots of foundations and tons of artists, there’s no real investment in culture from the Palestinian authority. So the idea behind el-Atlal was at first to create a space that wasn’t defined by politics in the traditional sense. Usually when you have artists coming to Palestine, they already know what they want to do and where they’re headed, because they already have a specific image of Palestine in mind. Here instead, we’re trying to reach out to people who don’t know Palestine, who might be coming for Jericho for any other reason to go to any other residency elsewhere.

And Jericho is on the fringes. It’s this small village, at the crossroads of many different things. I often say that Jericho doesn’t look like Palestine because Palestine is a lot of hills and olive trees, it’s very green, it’s not a desert. But Jericho is in the desert, it’s an oasis in the Judean desert, an Orientalist fever dream basically. But that’s not what Palestine looks like. Jericho is a space that answers Orientalist narrative, albeit in a strange and complex way, whereas Palestine in general is not. Jericho is also the only space with an African Palestinian community. And the usual signs of occupation aren’t there either – there’s no separation wall, no checkpoints. So it’s this exceedingly weird space that accumulates superlatives – it’s the oldest city in the world, or the longest continually inhabited city, and the lowest city below sea level – Jericho literally makes you dizzy with a burst of oxygen. You have May Odeh there, who’s a Palestinian producer and filmmaker and who’s creating the Jericho international film festival. So there is this cultural possibility in Jericho that’s really important, and the city is a literal breath of fresh air.

And in this space, what we wanted to do was to be not within but next to politics, if that makes sense. For example, Palestinians already love investing public spaces – we organize lots of festivals – but it’s an ambiguous relationship, because public space is also dangerous for us. So the idea was to bring art to public space, to reclaim public spaces. We’re also really keen on opening things up, even if that seems more like a buzzword than anything – so opening up art, writing & research to each other. (And I really want to insist on the presence of writers, because art residencies are very fashionable right now, but the writers and researchers end up often ignored in this field.) Even the way we think about the architecture of the place is about opening up borders (décloisonner, in French, removing the inner partitions). And you can also see that with our team: we’re all very young, and coming from different fields (architecture, academia, cultural entrepreneurship). So we don’t really have a lot of experience, but we do have the strength of new blood.

So we’re not political in the sense that we don’t want foreign artists to come here with a specific political purpose, because the work produced here is going to be political anyway.

To give you a practical example of our relationship to politics: we had our launch in Paris in January 2015 and we were preparing our first residency in October 2015. It was a huge thing, which we had to cancel because of what was happening in Palestine at the time. We ended up developing a branch of el-Atlal in Amman, Jordan, near the Dead Sea from where you can kind of see Jericho, and which can welcome artists from any nationality (because Arab artists can’t come into Palestine). So our very first residency last year was spent “in exile” in Amman.

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Photo credit: AAU Anastas

Photo credit: AAU Anastas

So the perception I get of Jericho from the various texts you’ve written about it, and what you’re telling me now, is that it has this fantastical quality to it, which kind of reminds me of what we were saying about sci-fi worlds, but in any case, it gives the impression of a place that evades the usual methods of representation.

Jericho definitely possesses that otherworldly quality. I have no idea why. People have very different reactions to Jericho; I love it, my grandmother loved Jericho, she rented a house there; and my grandfather hated it. Going there was torture for him but he went anyway because he loved my grandmother (and you never argue with a Palestinian woman; you do what she tells you to do). So my grandfather would call it Jericho-les-Puces, Jericho-and-Fleas. But yes, it is indeed both otherworldly and earthy, a place of possibilities. I know I speak about Jericho a lot; people who go there are either extremely underwhelmed or extremely overwhelmed – but no one can be indifferent.

Jericho-les-Puces, which I find quite funny, makes me think of a flea market actually – les puces in French – this weird place that deals in nostalgia and kitsch, where you can find everything, and where you’re kind of seeking to redefine your relationship to the past.

I’d never thought of that actually – but there’s definitely some of that too. And another thing is, Jericho is also very empty – it’s not the bazaar or the souk. The old city is actually the ruins of a very, very old city. So there’s that.

I’ve got this story, which, to me, represents quite well the spirit of Jericho. Three very good friends live there – one of them is this Catholic Arab priest, who’s originally Lebanese. He runs a school, and he’s adored in the city. The second one is the imam of one of the biggest mosques in Jericho, and he’s pretty conservative. And the third one is this old man who’s a communist leader and an atheist. And these three are friends – they meet up every night to eat together and smoke shisha and talk about politics. I really want to have a talk with these guys and have them tell me about what Jericho means to them.

That sounds like a beginning of a joke – a Catholic priest, an imam, and a communist leader walk into a bar…

It does, doesn’t it? I’ve never seen together but I’d love to. So once, I ran into the imam and the priest having lunch. Just before I leave, the imam turns to me – and he knows I’m Catholic from Bethlehem – and he says, “have you ever seen this, an imam and a priest having lunch together in a non political way?” And the answer is no, never. So I may just be reading into this, but it seems like this is the kind of thing that could only happen in Jericho. These two men really associate the possibility of that relationship they’re having, of what’s happening between them, with Jericho.

As you said, Jericho is a place brimming with possibilities – and a fertile ground, a terreau, for cultural productions.

We actually do use the word terreau a lot to describe what’s going there. So I have another story: I was back in Bethlehem and it was really weird, because I was going to my yoga class – we’re really getting into yoga in Palestine because it presents us with different ways to reclaim the body and the very idea of movement – and after that, I met up with a young performance artist, and then with this young designer, in this super hipstery coffee shop in Bethlehem, where most of the patrons are local Palestinians, though there’s also a great deal of foreigners, and I was thinking, this all kinda feels like Brooklyn. And there’s a marathon happening right now, too; it’s in its third or fourth year, and it’s actually becoming a huge event, with international visibility. The idea is that you can’t actually run a full marathon in Palestine because of the wall, so the runners have to run laps – and it’s such a smart and simple idea, when you think of it. So all the coffee shops and the restaurants are open with all these pre-marathon menus with carbs or whatever you’re supposed to eat before a marathon. This whole thing is obviously very political, but there’s no political jargon involved; people are just really excited about it. Last year, the guy who finished first was from Gaza, and this spoke volumes. The point is, we’re able to do this in conditions that should render it impossible; it should not happen and yet it does. There’s an attempt at creating a sense of community. Whether it works or not is another question, but at the very least, it creates hope.

These are such great anecdotes, because in the mainstream foreign discourse, Palestinians are shown either as terrorists or victims relying on foreign powers, but in both cases it’s a dehumanizing and reductive perspective that doesn’t take into account the daily life there. It makes us forget that they’re people, who keep on doing all the ordinary daily things that humans do, who are into arts and sports, who go to festivals and coffee shops…

Yes, and the truth is, we’re bored of the usual depictions of Palestinians. And that’s perhaps why there are now so many narratives about the future in Palestine – because you only see a person as human if you consider that they have a future. So talking about our future, asserting it, is a way of talking about our humanity. We know we can’t stop the settlements. So how do you respond to that? One of the ways is to remind the world that it’s people’s lives that are at stake.

Yes. And I feel that showcasing the ways people live on a daily basis – it just focuses more on the open-endedness of things, the fact that life is messy and contradictory and you can’t easily write preformatted narratives about everything, no? It helps us shift away from one-sided discourses that deal in the esthicization of exile and fragmentation – because that’s another thing I’ve noticed, this sort of romanticization of the migrant condition. It’s so easy, to dream of exile, when you’re not the one who has to deal with actually crossing borders.

Yes, we absolutely need to showcase the mess, because everything is shifting all the time. You can’t have any type of unified discourse about something that’s so complex and constantly evolving. Even the political discourse within Palestine is not unified.

What Palestinians want first and foremost is the luxury of forgetting that they’re Palestinians. Because we’re never allowed to stop thinking about exile. And it’s unbalanced – because, come to think about it, most Israeli artists are clueless about us. We’re nothing to them and they’re everything to us in a sense.

So the UN has recognized Palestine as an observer state in 2012; and a few months ago they pulled up the Palestinian flag. And I hate flags and everything about national anthems, but I couldn’t help but feel touched by the existence of this. It reminds me of this interview with Darwish I read, where the interviewer asks him something to the effect of How can you be a nationalist when you’re a poet, when nation states are obsolete, etc. Darwish’s answer is spot-on: he basically tells him: yes, I know, just give us a state. The moment we have a state we’ll throw it out of the window.