The future Palestinian present

This piece was initially published on Mangal Media on August 25th, 2019.

Palestine +100 edited by Basma Ghalayini, Comma Press, July 2019

Still from from Larissa Sansour’s “Nation Estate”. Reproduced by kind permission of the artist

There is a concept coined by the Lebanese writer Walid Sadek which denotes a present endlessly postponed by the lack of pasts and futures. He calls it ‘the protracted now’. Since discovering it in his The Ruin to Come, Essays from a Protracted War, I have been carrying this concept around with me, like an overweight suitcase that I’d rather check in at the nearest counter than shove it in the overhead compartment as I fly over fictional borders that harm real people. During the flight, it is checked in and, in those few hours, past and future exist in perfectly linear forms as places I leave from and places I go to. This, of course, does not last. The plane lands, the border acknowledges me with its usual disdain and I pick up my suitcase. And, just like that, the protracted now is back.

Reading the science fiction anthology Palestine+100, edited by Basma Ghalayini and written by 12 Palestinian writers, I couldn’t help but feel that the writers were also carrying an overweight suitcase with them. Theirs is a different protracted now, however, brought about not by a lack of a coherent past (as might be argued in the Lebanese case) but, on the contrary, from the past’s overwhelming presence. As Ghalayini explained in her introductory words, this relationship with time is why science fiction is not a common genre among Palestinian writers: “The cruel present (and the traumatic past) have too firm a grip on Palestinian writers’ imaginations for fanciful ventures into possible futures.”

This makes Palestine+100 all the more remarkable. Set in 2048, 100 years after the Nakba (Arabic for Catastrophe), the mass expulsion of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs (around 80% of the population) by Zionist forces during the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, the contributors of Palestine+100 have imagined different scenarios for what that year might look like. The uniqueness of their different visions speaks to both their skills as established writers and to the inherently uncertain nature of a Palestinian future.

We start the book with Song of the Birds by Saleem Haddad and are immediately grounded in reality as the story is written in memory of Mohanned Younis, a 22-year old Palestinian writer from Gaza who asphyxiated himself in 2017. In Song of the Birds, set one year after Ziad, Aya’s brother, hanged himself, we see a family broken by suicide. Aya soon finds herself dreaming of Ziad, and progressively realises that her dreams aren’t just dreams. We experience Aya’s realisations as her dreams are revealed to be at least partly based in reality: In one dream, she sees children lying lifeless on the beach with a punctured football nearby, a likely reference to two events during the 2014 Israeli war on Gaza. This, in turn, makes Ziad’s appearances in Aya’s dreams all the more pertinent, as he reveals the nature of the world around her.

Song of the Birds could be categorized as ‘postwar’ science fiction since ‘the conflict’, by all appearances, has ended. But it is the very nature of some of these stories that the very category of ‘postwar’ is questioned. Is the conflict over? What does it mean? What happened to the Palestinians? What’s Israel? These are questions that are not always answered in Palestine+100. At the same time, they are not meant to be answered. Rather, the writers can be seen as experimenting with a reality-defying impossibility, namely a Palestinian future. These past few years seem to have increasingly consolidated the Israeli drive to erase the Palestinian past and present. If the state succeeds, what of the Palestinian future?

One story offers a possible answer: The Association by Samir El-Youssef (tr. Ralph Cormack). Here, we see memory turned into a weapon in the context of a 68-year-old historian’s murder. Set 20 years after the so-called 2028 Agreement ended the Eighty Year War, a journalist named Zaid decides to investigate the murder after reading about a piece of paper lying next to his body with a small circle drawn on it. As he investigates, he finds the circle a few more times and encounters some people dissatisfied with the Agreement. The fundamental logic underpinning the Agreement is that forgetting is better than remembering. The phrase “Don’t talk about what happened before” is repeated by everyone in Israel/Palestine, although it should be noted that neither ‘Israel’ nor ‘Palestine’ is mentioned in this story. Only cities (Jerusalem, Gaza), streets (Shohada Street) and bars (Bar Mokhtar) are mentioned by name. This speaks to the local/universal (so-called glocalization) quality of Palestinian literature, and perhaps good literature more broadly.

The ‘eighty years war’ – 1948 to 2028 – reminds me of ‘the events’, the term used to describe the Lebanese civil war between 1975 and 1990, and the refusal to talk about ‘what happened before’ reminds me of the ‘no victor, no vanquished’ formula imposed on Lebanon’s population after the war. If no one won, who lost? If no one lost, who won? If no one lost and no one won, what was/were the war(s) about? 28 years after the end of the Lebanese civil war, these questions are still strongly discouraged. In The Association, events that happened between 1948 and 2028 in Israel/Palestine can’t be discussed, and a historian finds himself murdered for that reason: he is among the few who dared to explore what happened before 2028.

In this world, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza lasted 20 years – 2007 to 2027 – so, presumably, the lifting of the blockade, and whatever replaced it, was part of the 2028 Agreement. The truth of the blockade is proclaimed by a group, Jidar (which means ‘wall’), described as among “dozens of different extremist groups”. Another group, Jozoor (‘roots’) is concerned with the “history of land reclamations”, a reference to the on-going (as of 2019) destruction of Palestinian houses by Israeli occupation forces. Another group, Mathaf (‘museum’), focused on preserving the memory of the occupation. Another group still, Harb (‘war’), emphasized the “mysterious” operations Cast Lead and Protective Edge, the respective Israeli names to the 2008–09 and 2014 wars. That they are described as extremists speaks to the militarization of history that the Israeli government is so dependent on today. More importantly, they describe themselves as opponents to the Agreement in the name of memory. Why, they ask, should peace come at the cost of losing the right to remember? These groups’ details are lacking, pushing the reader to wonder what kind of peace is afraid of facts. More importantly, just as novelists use historical events to shine a light on the present, the authors of Palestine+100 explore possible futures for the same reason. If we accept the protracted now thesis, this makes a lot of sense. Science fiction here expands the boundaries of what is imaginable, thus unshackling Palestinian writers from the choice between security and peace.

If what Ghalayini says is true, namely that Palestinian authors (she listed Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and Ghassan Kanafani) have “all felt obligated” to remember the Nakba because “they have a cultural duty to remember it”, doesn’t that present an obstacle to the creativity of writers? Ghalayini argues that the past “is everything to a Palestinian writer; it is the only thing that makes their current existence and their identity meaningful.” But after reading Palestine+100, I can only conclude that some of the writers seem to have different answers. Ziad, the main character in Saleem Haddad’s The Song of Birds appears to challenge that idea. Ziad tells his sister Aya that we, the Arabs, “are trapped in the rose-tinted memories of our ancestors” and that our generation in particular ‘is imprisoned by our parents’ nostalgia”. Here, Palestinians’ dependence on collective memory makes them vulnerable, and that vulnerability has been harnessed by the state of Israel to create a simulation of a liberated Palestine. Most notably, people cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is not. To write, to remember, because one feels a duty to do so can be exhausting, and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing that the occupied, the exiled and those in-between can also fail. But even in failure, a way out is possible. Ziad tells Aya to pay attention to the song of the birds as their loops can expose the simulation.

It is notable that alternative realities feature so prominently in this collection. In Majd Kayyal’s N (tr. Thoraya El-Rayes), Israel and Palestine occupy the same geographic space. However, it is not a One-State Solution that Kayyal portrays, but a world where two alternative realities co-exist. One can even travel between the Israeli world and the Palestinian world, but only if one was born after the Agreement. As in The Association and The Song of Birds, the Israelis and Palestinians in N live in a post-war world. We don’t know when the Agreement was passed in N, but we do know one of its conditions: “Both parties shall refrain from commemorating the hostilities that occurred between them, or any part thereof.” Here, too, the past is rendered taboo. From a Palestinian perspective, this is an Israeli attitude best exemplified through the widespread denial of the Nakba among Israelis.

Speaking of Israelis, their relative absence in most stories will, I suppose, be the most surprising aspect of this book to many readers. Palestinian fiction regularly features Israelis and, contrary to popular belief, often does so with great nuance. Ghassan Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, first published in 1970, is arguably the most famous one: Mariam, the Israeli woman living in Said and Safeyya’s former house is portrayed as a complex person, ashamed of how Palestinians were treated. This was, and perhaps still is, the best-kept open secret of Palestinian literature: The “Other”, the Israeli, is not unknown. To borrow from James Baldwin, the Israelis never had to look at Palestinians, but Palestinians have always had to look at Israelis.

But being aware that individual Israelis inhabit complexity does not change the fact that the state of Israel has been in the business of erasing Palestinian history since 1948. To this day, the Israeli Defence Ministry goes through Israel’s national archives to remove historic documents related to the Nakba, even violating the country’s own laws to do so. The goal is fairly straightforward: by removing archival evidence, historians’ footnotes become claims that can be contested by the state, both in the realm of politics and of law. Yehiel Horev, head of the Defense Ministry’s security department from 1986 to 2007, said so himself: “When the state imposes confidentiality, the published work is weakened because he doesn’t have the document.”

Thus, the Israeli state continues its war on the Palestinian past through censorship and on the Palestinian present through violence. This gives science fiction a creative potential that has yet to be truly explored: that of creating a new imaginary. The Palestinian future is the only temporal realm that the Israeli state cannot shoot, bomb, or erase. Whether or not this imaginary ends up stuck in the protracted now, it is too soon to tell. But by creating these new imaginaries, the writers allow readers to temporarily escape the protracted now. In those imagined moments, political hope is possible as linear time is restored. The past can be past without dominating the present, and the present can be acted upon to create a better future. The question remains, however, whether that overweight suitcase that we are forced to collect upon arrival can ever be discarded. Are new imaginaries enough to unshackle Palestinian politics from the Israeli-imposed protracted now? I suspect not, for new Israeli imaginaries would also be required.