Dear reader, this text is published in the spirit of open-access as part of our new project entitled The Funambulist Correspondents. Every week for a bit over a year, we will publish a text written by one of our 28 commissioned correspondents in as many places of the world. The project is made possible through generous support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.
Are we alive? Are we free? These questions are not mere abstractions: they are, at times, the crux of what living and surviving as a Palestinian in the world is. When thinking of Palestine as a potential nation — as a people converging somehow — I often have trouble envisioning a unified whole. By the very nature of colonial rule, Palestine is divided into an archipelago of territories, people, and administrative situations all controlled by Israel, the regime which decides who can come and who can go, who can live, where, and why. Within this far-flung reality — these islands of us, separated even when we are physically close — it’s often difficult to intuitively form a cohesive notion of what Palestine could mean.
Growing up in Palestine, or in exile from it, a body becomes accustomed to abuse and impossibility as a default, and to a world that is shrunk physically and emotionally. We deal with assaults not only to our physical safety, but also to the shapes of our imaginations. There is no easy way to get to the heart of the matter. I often visualize this Palestine — this nation, this land, this imaginary and real community — as a threshold, a beginning, always deferred. As a people striving for liberation, we are always on the verge of it. It is far from a pleasant state of being: it is a postponement of justice into an abstract future. It renders hope meaningless, as time extends into infinity, and we jokingly remember that, in 1950, someone’s grandfather said matter-of-factly: “They won’t stay around more than a couple of years.” The oft-repeated paradox of the temporary becoming permanent robs us from meaning, and instead fixes us into a weird, theological futurity: what are decades in the face of the time of God, or the time of legend, which are both ineluctable? Therefore, if you believe in neither God nor legends, it requires a daily dose of discipline to just not give up or scoff at the words of the believers.
In Potential History (2020), Ariella Aïsha Azoulay emphasizes how, under imperial rule, “there is no longer a common world to care for but only scattered enclaves to protect.” She further states that to “attend to the recurrent moment of original violence […] involves rehearsals of avoidance, abstention, nonaction, stepping back, and losing ground.” Israeli violence against Palestinians is recurring, constant, and unrelenting. It knows no pause since it is engineered into the landscape in the form of settlements, checkpoints, and the attendant apparatus of colonization. It is neither new, nor do its elements ever really change. Every day, every year is more of the same. Worse, often. More precise, deadlier, yes. But always the same. Testifying to it, sharing its effects, its images, its architecture is essential, not only to raise awareness (though many of us gave up long ago on believing this has any use), but also to constitute a body of evidence, an archive, for the present and for the future. Yet, here too, one feels a weariness amongst us. Sharing horror upon horror can only go so far. This violence, in its most mundane or ruthless form, has a specific function beyond dispossession and destruction. It keeps us busy. Much like the whole architecture of occupation, with its administrative machine which shifts and changes every day — rewarding those who pay the most attention to its intricacies, and punishing those who don’t or can’t, and compromising everyone within it — is a tool of oppression whose purpose is to waste our time.
Time wasted is time not spent breathing, imagining, thinking, and being human. It is time spent negotiating impossibilities. We are ensnared in a state of tension, the body and mind always steeling themselves against further abuse. And with this tension comes a never-ending inquiry, the curiosity of survival. To survive, we have to research and understand daily the shifting and unpredictable administrative, military, judicial, cultural, social, geopolitical apparatuses used by Israel to shrink our worlds. This tension and this inquiry steal time from us: time to create other solidarities, to think or to invent.
Within this decades-old urgency that is Palestine, many of us struggle with how to create pockets where we can move beyond reaction and into creation of presents and futures; where we can retreat, avoid, abstain, step back, lose ground to disentangle our condition. To take stock of ourselves, and be able to move forward. This possibility is effectively canceled by the Israeli machine’s constant onslaught. In this, we are imprisoned within urgency: as if crisis were our only mode of being. It is often easy — inevitable, in fact, to survive — to start thinking of it as a natural part of our lifeworld, a thunderstorm that one must simply weather and cope with. And meanwhile, to look for some solace in the state of threshold, gathering the remains of our emotional and physical fullness.
How do we move beyond this palliative threshold, and where do we go? How do we create transformative possibilities? I imagine, often, a land repaired and cared for. I am not entirely sure what this would look like, nor what it means, nor how it can happen — if ever. But for me it constitutes the starting point. To wrestle time back from the colonial hands that take it away from us, to breathe, and to imagine how this archipelago can become a continent.
Most of our time is spent discussing papers, documents, mobility: how to avoid this, how to navigate that, how to survive, and how to live a life most normal. I currently live outside of Palestine: I spend an inordinate amount of time, for instance, thinking about how I would travel back if someone from my family were to suddenly die. I have imagined, more than once, how grief must be complicated to carry over Allenby Bridge, a border crossing as confusing as it is hostile to us. And I lose my breath, as if trying to prevent that specific disorientation. So, I try to retreat, when and if I can, to better be able to grasp the colonial machine in its entirety. I try to breathe. I try to de-normalize it. I try to allow myself, sometimes, to stop thinking in the past tense, the future tense, or the interrogative mode. And islands, far-flung or not, can converge in these moments, becoming a repaired continent of possibilities, when we say it as if it were true. We are alive. We are here. We are free.