A CONVERSATION WITH SOPHIA AZEB, PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRUNO FERT
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Three years ago, you and I met to talk about the power of imagination in political struggle, and your idea of what we called back then the “no-state solution” for the future of Palestine. On December 23, 2016, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 that condemns the construction and existence of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. There seems to be a relative consensus among liberal media outlets and politicians on using the term of “colonization” when referring to these settlements. Although we should probably rejoice that organizing efforts such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign are indubitably one of the key elements behind the vote for such a resolution, I think that we both share a strong cautiousness about the sort of text that only conceives colonization through the very narrow spectrum of the “Palestinian occupied territories,” rather than through the totality of the Israeli apartheid in Palestine. Would you agree to say that the vision proposed by this resolution as well as the usual liberal narrative is a risky one, as it adopts the entire terminology of the so-called “two-state solution,” that would create a very precarious State of Palestine on a limited and fragmented piece of territory, and ultimately retroactively legitimize the colonial violence deployed against Palestinians since 1947?
SOPHIA AZEB: I think that you’re very right to be wary about something such as Resolution 2334 and how it positions the notion of colonization less as a process of domination that is on-going and more as an era, a historical timeline or a trajectory that has a beginning and an end. In fact, colonization is ever present and ever evolving in new and efficient ways, unfortunately. Although, as you said, we can also celebrate the resolution a bit and in this regard, I like what Noura Erakat wrote about shortly after the vote, which is that it presents an opportunity for Palestinians to further confront the occupation, rather than accommodate it, and we can think about how to challenge the Palestinian Authority here, since accommodation is pretty much what they have been pursuing for many years now.
My major concern is about how this resolution has been received by non-Palestinians, people from the mainstream realm. Many less-critical voices said that it presented an opportunity to talk about statehood and bringing the option of the “two-state solution” back to the table. As you and I discussed three years ago, not only is this so-called “solution” premised on two ethnostates — which is fundamentally wrong, inconceivable, and just impractical — but even a “one-state solution” presents the problem of how nation-states necessarily reproduce the violences of colonialism. For me, to address colonization in Palestine, it’s important to talk about the frameworks that we’ve learned from indigenous authors, scholars, thinkers, artists, etc. in the Americas and in the Pacific to envision and articulate what settler-colonialism is and what true liberation must be. There are similarities in our struggles and there are also differences insofar that Palestine, although Palestinian issues are far from being followed by a mainstream global audience, does have relatively more visibility than people for whom the process of achieving autonomy has been shattered continuously, as we see with the ongoing campaign and protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in particular. The very fact that indigenous people rally so hard to get even a little bit of attention paid to them speaks a lot to the differences in the visibility of colonizations worldwide, but also to the sustaining power that our cultures, traditions, and philosophies provide to our communities.
So I think that the case of Palestine is interesting because we have relatively more visibility than a lot of our indigenous relatives in other parts of the world, but we seem to fall into this trap of thinking that our particular endurance against long-standing colonial regimes (an imperial regime in the case of Israel) can be satisfied, to some extents, through a UN resolution, the possibility of statehood, or even access to establish new roads or new buildings. You work in architecture, Léopold, so you understand the power of the idea of building new futures, sometimes literally building, from the ground up, structures that symbolize permanence and belonging.
I’m sorry if I sound a bit disheartened — obviously, the elections in the U.S. have gotten me a little morose — but I think that at this point, when attempting to deconstruct colonization in Palestine, I’m getting a little anxious with the progressivist trap. On the other hand, I’m increasingly inspired by folks like Noura Erakat, the good writers of Jadaliyya, and others, who are really on-point about maintaining a constant vigilance as to how the question of colonization in Palestine and globally can lead into a false notion that it has an end point. I don’t think that it does; I think that the challenge is how we imagine our way through settler-colonialism in a way that leaves our humanity intact, that emphasizes how our struggles are intimately related to other struggles around the world, but also enables new possibilities to cohere in our minds and in the minds of future generations.
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Though it has been almost three years since we had our first conversation on this topic, can you tell us again about this beautiful idea of a “no-state solution,” in opposition, of course, to the so-called “two-state solution” and “one-state solution?” As you’ve been wonderfully proving just right now, the very notion of “solution” here is a dangerous illusion. And so, after doing this deconstructive exercise of the liberal narrative on the question, may I ask you to tell us again about this ‘constructivist’ vision of yours?
SOPHIA AZEB: Yes, although I have to say that it has become more and more difficult to think of the “no-state solution” as we referred to it last time. Because I am a Palestinian living in the diaspora (conservatively there are at least 6 million of us today in the world, and 5 million more who are refugees), with each violent onslaught and the psychological impact of Israeli apartheid on Palestinians that we witness, perhaps I have become a little bit more cynical about how we construct alternative futures for Palestine. Cynical might be too strong a word, but let’s say that although I become more cautious in my hopes for the potential for liberating ourselves beyond the form of a nation-state, I do ponder the relevance of those of us in the diaspora, looking from the outside-in and trying to observe and balance our many divergent voices. I’ve been trying to take my cues from what I glean from Palestinians “on the ground” themselves. I think that last time, we talked about Larissa Sansour, an artist whose work (Nation Estate, A Space Exodus, etc.) is so wonderfully evocative because it really addresses how statehood risks the implementation of the fundamental problems that the situation that Palestinians currently experience is built around. Obviously, because I am so inspired by Sarsour I am not discounting or denigrating at all the perspectives and positions of Palestinians in the diaspora. Clearly I am speaking as one at this very moment. But I’d like to mention some of the more tangible aspects of the imaginative futures that center Palestinians in Palestine in our diasporic conversations.
I think that now I look more to the constant energy of the villagers of Bil’in who protest the apartheid state weekly as an example of how to combat colonization through both practical and innovative means. The Bil’in protesters primary mechanisms are their bodies, which they make present when it’s inconvenient. This analysis is heavily borrowing from queer theory. I view the Bil’in protesters as mobilizing aberrant bodies, in this case their Palestinian bodies, to constantly be present and visible when the state only wants them to be visible for the purpose of violence and surveillance, but needs to make them invisible in such situations as being acknowledged in the United Nations, for instance. So the acknowledgement of Palestinians in a legal framework is certainly important to many, but I think that what makes me curious about now — and here again, I’m taking my cue from Palestinians who are in Palestine — is to see how, for instance, my family who lives in the occupied territories continuously asserts their presence in ways that are outrageous, funny, but also quiet. Simply being present, being visible to themselves, to one another in these spaces is utterly important to disrupt the notion that colonization has a beginning and an end in Palestine. The constant presence of Palestinians themselves, their visibility when they are supposed to be invisible, speaks to the moment where I find myself today, on January 20, 2017, inauguration day in the United States. Gosh, how is it to be in this moment, for those of us who are the most likely to be targeted by the incoming president and his regime, and how can we be visible when our very basic rights are being further threatened and further denied in the near future? I guess that experiencing this terrible situation — which, like settler colonialism and racism in Palestine is not new or unique in the United States — makes me even more in awe of the creative possibilities that Palestinians have imagined and experimented with for the past seventy years. I’m just amazed and astonished at how people who endure this brutal colonial regime have managed to keep themselves afloat, and not only afloat but also constantly working towards alternative futures.