“The rich collection in this issue of Shahadat reflects Sousan Hammad’s unique approach to translation as a form of collective engagement and draws on the works of poets from urban milieus in Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and Lebanon that are transformed through the emotional force of poetry. From the poems of Najwan Darwish, set in an imaginary Haifa, and Alaa Khaled’s Alexandria, a city that exists in its own reveries, to the surreal dreamscape of northern Lebanon in Vénus Khoury-Ghata’s tales (translated from French by Marilyn Hacker), The City of Translation helps create, or recreate, the places that are constantly pursuing us.”
Today I remembered ‘Napoleon of Amman’. He was a legacy that stretched from my mother’s adolescence to my childhood summer visits to the city, a legacy that became a tourist attraction for all those passersby who encountered his brazen presence downtown; whether he was taking naps under the public sun, shouting curses at the king, or swearing new world orders. He was a bearded man with matted white hair. In profile, he had a handsome face and always stood like a Napoleonic statue. (Even when he wasn’t wearing the military costume.) The last time I saw him was at a downtown café several years back; I sat nearby, contemplating how I would walk over and congratulate him, maybe shake his hand, anything to show him my admiration – for he was the only person I knew who blasphemed the King in public. So when I told my friend that I was going over to say hello to Napoleon he laughed at me. “The last time I saw someone try and talk to him, Napoleon slapped the guy in the face.” Well, I thought, surely he wouldn’t hit a girl? And so I sat there and watched him from our table, hoping to get any kind of acknowledgement: a wink, a nod. But all he did was ruffle his matted hair.
It surprised me to learn you would carve your imperfect little heart and leave it for me in Jaffa. I found it on the shore, precisely where you told me to go in the note you wrote me. (Your sister handed me the letter at your funeral.) I am amazed at how the waves guided such a fragile object, especially with the unpredictability of the sea. Which brings me to my question: how did you carve it so perfectly? The fish must have gnawed at it because there is a gaping hole in the back. But I suppose that’s alright. You knew your heart would never be perfect after they tucked the pacemaker inside you. It took some negotiating to convince airport security to travel with your heart from Palestine to France, but I reasonably explained everything and the portly officer agreed to let me pass with your imperfect little heart in my pocket. It sits on my bookcase for now until I find a better place. I did what you told me and soaked it in salt water, but I fear your heart is exhausted. It is beginning to look like a rock.
The skyscrapers of __________ tower above H. – industrial giants of steel and glass and sky. Its capacity to capture signals is extremely good. This is because it is one of the highest points in a flat land: a fine metal pointer indicating the sky, and beyond that, space.
H. is surrounded by ancient structures and modern complexes, walls, wires, and air conditioning.
Movement detected: 12h27. 15/11/11, object, person, male, long, brown, garment, shoes, hair: short, face: dark.
H. feels a bit intimidated and out of place among the passers by. Then H. looks up and sees the street sign: David Ben-Gurion Place, and it feels like sudden, sharp bursts of pain, closely spaced, methodic even, pierce H’s skin, one after the other—one, two, three, four, five— tracing a round (a pentacle?), and then a weight as though something had been hung from H. A brief respite, and then another sequence of stabs, moving along horizontally as though tracing a script. This was aggression of a different sort, so unlike the pains H. had become accustomed to, the random punctures and lacerations of which H. still bear the scars—they ache and breathe the way old wounds do.
I try not to mourn my own death. I am a very good wall, I must say, though I am crumbling and old. I keep the past, and I keep it away from the present. I was chosen because I have always done what I’m told; if a building must come down for each person’s 15 square meters, I lose little sleep. Every day, I see in the streets absent worshipers flocking to the un-mosque; five times I listen to the unsounded call to prayer calling from the un-mosque. And everyday my silent, empty companion remains asleep, unconscious, un-alive.
Everything is between light and dark, but everything is both light and dark. Only very occasionally is this reception interrupted: powerful winds can cause dust clouds to form, mini-tornadoes that whip round and up to the very tip of the building, forcing the aerial to bend. H. stops to listen, and is reminded of home in ________.
The shadows appear to give definition while at the same time flatten it. H. is warmed by the experience, and though H. can only see a corner of the sky and a few tufts of plants, they give an impression of power; it is they who constitute the sacredness of the land. They have long root memory. And if the city were deserted they would belong there too.
Movement out of view, rotation: 180 degrees, small object, out of view: 2h37 – 12/11/11.
H. is both elated and bereft.
I will no longer divide, I will no longer keep out, I will no longer conceal the truth. I will no longer, then, be a wall, and I will fall… I will sacrifice my existence so that my friend can again exist, because one reality negates the other. I only hope that as an un-wall I can keep offering the mosque the same lonely company its un-being has given me.
Facing away from camera, figure walks over iron barrier, towards dwelling, enters it: 12h30 – 15/11/11
H. breathes a sigh of relief.
That ever-present feeling of dissolution, of crumbling away into dust, a gradual shedding of my burden that will only cease when I myself am gone. Which may occur sooner than anticipated. I have heard whispers. They say I am no longer needed, no longer welcome in this land.
Movement out of view, rotation: 93 degrees.
A man in a blue day coat walks toward the main entrance gate of Père Lachaise. I walk behind and pause as he asks the gatekeeper for a map in a thick-accented English. When he goes on, I light a cigarette and acknowledge the gatekeeper with a nod, unaware that I have made a decision to follow this stranger with the map. I imagine the title of the map to be something like Tomb With a View, it opens up into an illustrated guidebook with information on tour packages. I know nothing of this cemetery’s history, apart that famous people live here. I come up with various marketing strategies and ideas as if I own the place. How could I attract more tourists? I could make a tomb with a little window that people could rent for a night. If I put several of these around the grave of Jim Morrison or Édith Piaf, I could make an easy thousand a night.
After this brief reflection, I decide to lose the man in the blue day coat. He walks too slow and I am unnerved by the high gray wall, prison-like, surrounding the cemetery. I have no particular desire to get to know who lives here, and apart from observing the people around me, which quickly bores me, I am suddenly wandering without a motive.
I deal with a momentary crisis as I confront a particular anxiety that tends to flare in the space of death. Perhaps it is not anxiety after all, but comfort in the certainty of knowing where I will be after my death. I am all too familiar with cemeteries. Not comfortable, but familiar. As a child, near my house in suburban Houston, I once discovered a forgotten cemetery from the 1920s, where members of a small family were buried together. I told only my sister. Together, we would ride our bicycles to this enchanted Texas forest and tell stories over their graves. One of the buried was a child, only 4 or 5 years old when she died. My sister said it was the plague that killed them. I said they were murdered. We never bothered to know the history of the cemetery or who the family was. For all I know there are children, today, trampling over their weed-hidden graves, oblivious of what lays beneath them.
Just like here, where pilgrims everywhere trample over graves. Some are crying over the dead they never knew, and some are strolling in a meditation.
In Nazareth, I lived a bone’s throw from the town’s oldest cemetery. When a person died, a ritual ensued that began at the mosque and ended in the cemetery. The procession always passed my home and it was nearly impossible to not know it was happening, for it was the local imam, always leading the procession in song, whose powerful voice came to captivate me. So spectacular was his voice that I developed a curious attachment to these processions. The coffin, perched on the shoulders of men, always followed the imam. I longed to participate but I never saw women in the crowd. Interpreters of Islam claim women are forbidden to attend funerals. I once asked my mother why and she said it is because women wail too loudly. And although I never participated in a funeral, I spent a lot of time in the cemetery near my apartment. It was a place I frequented to write. It was where I went when I needed privacy. Most graves were disarranged and unmarked, distinguished only by a rock.
But here, at Père Lachaise, routine determines action. Flowers are placed, tears are shed, photos are captured. And as for Edith and Jim? They are still singing: Why do you leave us at the edges of cities?
The pigeon, always present in this prose, believes not in hibernation. Perched on a bookshelf of a room not his, he coos, with his comrades, only when it is dark. The battle starts promptly when you turn on the light. You see that he has destroyed all your novels, including your cherished lamp. You call for help. He interrupts you with doctrines of an -ism, claiming the house was his long before yours, and points at the historical proof: shit, two-feet thick, that is crusted on the ground. You repudiate mythology and tell him it is not convincing, and that building a wall made of shit is an even greater fabrication. You try sweetly to negotiate with him: I stay, but you can have the roof. You tell him he can have the satellites and ledges, and any other rooftop crevice to perch and shit on. You think you have convinced him; but, when you later turn on the light, you find that he is now perched on the window, ready to announce an air strike of shit and piss. You throw a book at him, the only weapon you can find, and you think you have killed him. But right when you are about to celebrate victory, he swarms at you with a combative impulse, knocking you down to the ground. His contempt does not subdue you, but you happen to be tired: a fatigue convincing enough for you to believe that the only solution is to obtain a reconciliation with the pigeon.
I never asked for her name. It wasn’t until today that I remembered her at all.
It was May 15, (the date of the Nakba) and an exhibition was organized by a friend of mine who had been collecting household items from historic Saffuriyeh. One could politely call them antiques: the irons and scissors, mirrors and pots, carpets and jewelry, but that word seems too pretentious. These items were much more meaningful, for they laid bare a history one could never forget: items that were left behind when the villagers of Saffuriyeh fled their homes in 1948. Thousands waited, wanting to go back, but the village was surrounded by unfamiliar people brandishing weapons and divine manifestations. They waited and waited, but for each day the people waited the feeling of indignation became more unbearable. And so, one day, the people went back into their homes and took back what was theirs – their brushes and clothing, food and canisters, pipes and cutlery – all that they could hold was carried away to their itinerant homes in nearby Nazareth.
There she was, walking around the room singing and smiling. When she saw an old pair of brass scissors that once belonged to a barber of Saffuriyeh she looked around for acknowledgement then picked the scissors up and pretended to cut her hair, which was loosely covered by a white scarf.
A crowd gathered around her, and so began her monologue: I am 77 years old (or is it 81?) and I was born here. No matter that she was unaware of her age, for her memory of everything else was acute. With pride and humor, she told us stories about her childhood in her birthplace, Saffuriyeh: a village in the north of Palestine that was once surrounded by innumerable trees. Today, it is a colony named Tzippori where Jewish-Israeli settlers live inside the ravaged memories of homes not theirs. She retracted the statement about her age. I don’t know how old I am, I don’t know when I was born, she said. I imagined what the empty inscription on her tombstone would inevitably say. When people ask me how old my father was when he died, I respond with hesitancy and a vague number. He never had a birth certificate, like the lady in the scarf. We calculated that he may have been born in the late ‘30’s or early ’40’s, but we never precisely knew.
Saffuriyeh – that is my town, the lady in the scarf said. I lived there, we lived there. We had a home but it’s gone now. The lady stopped talking and went back to her reflective nature. Her clothes looked big on her. She looked like a little girl dressed in her father’s coat and mother’s heels. A costume, one would assume, of the archetypal shrunken matriarch. She smiled that joyful smile again and began to sing.
How odd it must have been for her to step into that room, I thought. It was decorated precisely as it would have been 62 years ago. Did she know it was all fabricated? No matter. This is her time to play. And so she picked up and put down all the pieces that lay bare on the shelves, whether it was the oversized mortar that was once used to pound herbs, or the hair comb that looked like it had been made in haste – she played and played as if the world was on pause in 1948, singing all along. I pictured my mother standing in our kitchen wearing a floral dress and singing as she did when she cleaned or cooked. I searched for my memories as she searched for hers. There were moments when the time and space confused her, but onward she went gazing at the broken memories surrounding her. Pay no heed to the fluorescent lights above your head or the fabricated landscape outside the window. Pay no heed, I wanted to tell her. But I never did. I never even asked for her name.
Scrapped together in the months of February and March Internet Automatism and Israeli Apartheid is a pseudo-project inspired by artist Rene Magritte. Magritte would spend days playing (surrealist) automatism with his comrades in an effort to find titles for his paintings. This is done simply — or not – by writing material that is non-idiomatic and improvised. Angered by the state of Israel’s continuous provocations, I then took the ideas of automatism and loosely paired it with the Kubler-Ross model and the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What emerged was non-linear and (some say) nonsensical. I wanted to pretend that I was passing around a blank page to selected comrades, and each time the ‘paper’ was passed to the next person, it was “folded” — meaning the e-mail that appeared in her or his inbox did not display the previous person’s written material. The finished product proved that nothing is ever definitive. Some responded months after I sent the email, others completely ignored, and, inevitably, I forgot about the experiment…until now. So, to begin the automatism, I started with a speech that informed the terminally ill patient of its, his, or her dire and consequential death:
You are slowly dying, Israel. Your racialized Zionism continues to be a threat to the moral stability of Israeli nationalism. Jewish-Israelis are fleeing back to their home countries, kids are refusing to join the army, and many people are asking themselves what this is all worth. The continued existence of a Jewish supremacist/racist settler-colony is being delegitimized and the world is uncovering the truth of your apartheid policies.
The reactions are pasted below, anonymously.
Denial: I am not an apartheid state.
Anger: I want to kill more Palestinians, annex more of their land, and appropriate more from their culture!
Bargaining: What if I give the Arabs their very own state? But it must be demilitarized, and I have to control the borders, air, and land.
Depression: I am only defending myself, but everyone hates me and delegitimizes my existence.
Acceptance: I am an apartheid state and I need to cover it up.
Denial: Zionism is not threatening the moral stability of Israeli nationalism.
Anger: I will just have to dramatically increase the amount of money I spend into making sure everyone else believes that as well.
Bargaining: I should loosen up some of the laws on the Arab-Israelis to make it look like they are part of our society.
Depression: There is no way to maintain Jewish hegemony and coexist with a rapidly increasing non-Jewish presence within our borders.
Acceptance: Maybe we are threatening moral stability by excluding others, but so what? We have suffered enough. Never again.
Oh wall of all walls. The way you cut and carve the landscape to caress that which you hold most dear. The towering obstacle you provide those who tend to your loving foundation. What is thy ultimate objective? Why split the whole that supports you best?
Oh wall of all walls, when will you learn? What of your ancestors and their deeds which were ultimately failures? Your brick and mortar are no match for the fluid which seeps a dark burgundy and stains your structure. The grit, moistened by those who dare pass before, now crumbles as the rains from heaven reveal your inevitable demise.
Oh wall of all walls, why do you bother, when you know you crack the earth upon which you must stand?
Denial: I am a wall and there is nothing you can do to surmount me.
Anger: I will stand here and wreak havoc on your daily lives and make it impossible for you to be as one, divided you are conquered!!
Bargaining: OK I will take down part of my wall, and this in turn justifies the existence of the rest.
Depression: I was only built out of necessity and now i am covered in epithet and cacography. Why am I so ugly?
Acceptance: There is no purpose to my existence, as history has shown us time and time again that I only cork an already shaken champagne bottle.
Denial: I arrived to an empty desert. “Them” Bedouins attacked me from seven directions! oh! the horrid memory! They then ran away when I gloriously fought back, I won. I secured my walls.
Anger: I won’t forget! I won’t forgive! I kill to live!! (How could they make me kill their kids?!)
Bargaining: WELL!! I leave them this vast desert! They keep this entire tiny Oasis.
Depression: How can I ever give back what is rightfully mine (I have supporting divine documents)…..
Acceptance: My name is Israel, I am a born serial war criminal, I must live with my nature, and I deserve to be loved.
Denial: This is my homeland, my holy land and I am of the chosen people.
Anger: What are these “bedouin” gentiles doing on my land? I will kill and oppress them and make life hell for these subhumans who are trying to take over my holy land.
Bargaining: Perhaps I can trick the world into thinking that they are the terrorists and that way I don’t actually have to face the horrors that I have done.
Depression: I can’t understand why people don’t see that this is Jewish land and that only Jews have rights to this land.
Acceptance: I am a settler colonialist that has been oppressing and ethnically cleansing another group of human beings.
# 1: The Palestinian Libertine
And what of the Palestinian woman bent on proving herself as liberated? She uses sex and sexuality. Let me promptly tell you where she stands.
“I love the hallucinogenic feeling of the flame on my tongue and fingertips.”
To her, being open sexually defies all conventional standards of the Palestinian woman; it defies being traditional; it, for her, means freedom. Their circles are incestuous. She sleeps with she, and he with her. Of course, this caricature plays only with the sons and daughters of elite fathers. She keeps to her performance by manifesting her anxieties and talking about prohibitions, mostly. Her life is tragic, she insists on what is factual: that history barely mentions her; not because it is the truth but because she is hindered, somewhat, by her two lovers.
Depending on her mood and victim, she exoticizes her story to those she seeks to seduce – a Bedouin from the Galillee, an unwanted child from Kufr Kar’eh, a descendent of Armenia, or a black African from Jerusalem (if she’s tanned enough.) No matter that nobody takes her seriously. She is unshackled and happens to be tired of being a woman – only she does not know how to say this.
Tattooed on each of her breasts is an ant: one queen ant and one worker ant. This is a reminder, she will say, that the empire needs constant suckling.
# 2: The Arabist Journalist
She wears white linen, smokes duty-free Marlboros, and sips her beer at a pseudo-Italian café called Pronto.
“Where there’s a church, there’s a liquor store,” she says with conviction, as if revealing a secret.
Holding her cigarette with a hand of fragility, she talks in a melancholic voice, a voice that tells you she’s been far from home for too long. She is alone. Her hair is tied. She looks as if she would be inspired by T.E. Lawrence. Carrying a plastic bottle filled with vodka in her purse, she insists on speaking in Orientalized Arabic – a process that deconstructs the very concept of phonetics. Twelve years it’s been since the porous red-faced woman left her Ford truck in the driveway of her rural East Coast home; she says this while convincing a young Palestinian man that “it’s all worth it”, that her work in the Middle East has helped people.
I watch her from a nearby table and all I can think of is that blue alien in the Avatar movie that everyone shamelessly talks about. They say he helps to liberate the natives, I say it’s a bunch of neo-imperialist propaganda.
“You know what I’d give for a hot dog and some ketchup?”
Aha!, her true motives come out. She files and flies, day in and day out, forgetting her story by sunset after fishing for stupor from the sky. It’s the “conflict” they will say, same shit different day.
# 3: The American Fetishist
I know nothing detailed, nothing perfectly true and substantial about her. All that I know is from what her words and actions tell me. She keeps up to the demands of a different reality, one made of the mind and the imagination. And so it is that I absorbed this assemblage – a sudden barge of repeated and self-righteous virtual imagining – in a land of contradictions where caricatures seek to “become” in a land under siege.
A composite being emerges in a burnt orange scarf that covers her mopped hair – an article worn, she surmises, to display her cultural sensitivity. Dressed in neo-colonialist sartorial, a white linen tunic and Jesus sandals, she came to the Bank to work with a solidarity movement. No, I mean to study Iran. Iran? Why come to Palestine to study Iran? Never mind you – I was abandoned by my Iranian father you see? And my mother made sure I learned Arabic. Arabic? Iranians do not speak Arabic, dear. Never mind you – I found my love, and want to help develop this land.
It does not matter to us, dear fetishist, if you offer extreme courtesy and rush to wash the dirty foot of that wretched atheist. Fulfillment will not be found here.
Her idealisms are a reaction to the intifada stories told from a male Palestinian perspective wrapped in romanticizations. Influenced by the heat and violence, and their tragedies of being Palestinian, the man wearing the red Che shirt and keffiyeh – the Palestinian Romeo – self-aggrandizes a collective past, exploiting a people’s sorrow. He likes his women crusty. No matter. You fit the role. The activist-cum-fetishist pities the man, and asks to comfort him in bed. Amidst the political adventures she unravels herself in, she starts to love – unreal, lopsided love. But once she catches a glimpse of her newfound pet tarsier whispering his tragedies to another woman, a Swedish NGO worker probably, she ventures on to the next tragedy, only this time told in three acts, not nine.