Who Will We Be When We Are Free? On Palestine and Futurity



Five years after the beginning of a conversation with The Funambulist, Sophia Azeb continues to reflect for us on the futures of Palestine. While we have talked in the past about what she calls “the no-state solution,” she focuses here on what Palestinianness will mean when Palestine is free.


There are in every part of the world men who search.

I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. […]

In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.

I am a part of Being to the degree that I go beyond it.” (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 1952)

The boy went back to his family there, in the distance, in a distance he did not find there in the distance. My grandfather died with his gaze fixed on a land imprisoned behind a fence. A land whose skin they have changed from wheat, sesame, maize, watermelons, and honeydews to tough apples.” (Mahmoud Darwish, “Memory for Forgetfulness,” 1995)

What if we became Palestinians, together, in catastrophe? That we have been formed and effaced in catastrophe, that our community — the Palestinians, so broadly imagined — comes to know itself and ourselves as Palestinian(s), again and again, through the forever-catastrophe? What if it is also true that our Palestinianness continuously manifests itself in our suspended state of catastrophe? Might we understand ourselves as always in the process of becoming Palestinian?

What if the meaning of the disaster was our Palestinianness? These provocations are not a question of our existence as Palestinians. It is not an affirmation or acknowledgement of the genocidal claim that “there is no such thing [person, people, us?] as a Palestinian,” an assertion borne of a particular settler colonial ideology and of the Occupation which continues to structure our catastrophe. Rather, the purpose of asking such a question is attuned to a future-oriented praxis of Being — of being Palestinian. It is a declaration that our Palestinianness will not always be tied to the Nakba. How we make meaning of ourselves and our being as Palestinian when we are no longer beholden to understanding ourselves in the shadows of disaster is not just a passing whim, a theoretical exercise. To ask how and who we are now and who will be when we are free insists that our future-selves are always in sight, that our freedom is always in sight.

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From the Dead Sea… / Photo by unbluebass (2018).

In Constantine Zurayk’s The Meaning of the Disaster (1948), the Syrian intellectual and occasional diplomat asserted that the Nakba revealed and exacerbated fissures between Arab peoples, nations, and thought. There were many and fiery speeches condemning the partition of historic Palestine from all across the Arabic- and non-Arabic speaking world, and yet many and subtler failures to prevent such a violence from occurring. “These forgotten ones, disconnected from the social fabric,” our great poet Mahmoud Darwish writes of Palestinian refugees, “these outcasts, deprived of work and equal rights, are at the same time expected to applaud their oppression because it provides them with the blessings of memory […] he must remain the Other to his Arab brothers because he is pledged to liberation.” The Nakba disinherited us from ourselves and the land alike, and the questions that accompanied our disinheritance are questions still. Where are the Palestinians to go? How and when would we be permitted to return? Where will we return? What do we do — who will we be — in the meantime? What was central in this moment of many disasters, Zurayk believed, was for the “thinker” to “shoulder the leadership of opinion,” to order thought and determine what future course of actions may be taken for Palestinian liberation, and return, to be realized.

But thinking across catastrophe posed a major problem for the Palestinians and their Arab and non-Arab allies, Zurayk acknowledged: “The fact is that not only were hundreds of thousands of the people of that unfortunate country scattered from their homes, and not only do they wander about helplessly, but also their thoughts and their opinions, as well as the thoughts of their compatriots throughout the area, have been scattered and forced to wander.” It is not only our bodies and communities thrust into placelessness. Our thoughts and opinions have also been scattered and forced to wander. We and our ways of knowing ourselves and the world after disaster wander still, an entire diaspora unmoored, as diaspora is always an unmooring. Some of us are refugees, still. Some of us remain, still. Some of us are exiles, still. We all live in the shadow of catastrophe, but we do not all bear the unending urgency of the continuous catastrophe equally. In the midst of this, who are to be our “thinkers”? Who will order our thought? Who do we become? Who have we decided to be? How will we be free?

A commonly prescribed antidote to the near-total exile — and, make no mistake, the Occupation’s deliberate fracturing of Palestinian peoples and lands, from Gaza, to the Golan, to Jericho, has made exiles of us all — prompted by such a disaster is nationalism: the claim of belonging to place, an affirmation of home. A cuisine? A flag? “The homeland is not a dish of rice and lentils.” But we already know that nationalism is a placebo, and Edward Said cogently attests to this in “Reflections on Exile” (2000): “In a very acute sense exile is a solitude experienced outside the group: the deprivations felt at not being with others in the communal habitation.” These deprivations cannot be recovered through nationalism, itself a reproduction of the violence endemic to the modern nation-state. I have argued before that we must refuse to be recognized as Palestinians within the confines and language of such a nation-state… we make space, not states.

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… to the Mediterranean Sea in Gaza… / Photo by Marcin Monko (2007).

Within Said’s proclamation that “exile is a jealous state,” the layered meanings of “state” is accidental and opportune. Exile is a jealous state, Said argues, for exile does not compel us to share in our humanity with others. Exile prompts an unreasonable austerity of being. Though Said specifically identifies the “Zionist Jews and Arab Palestinians” — are Israeli Jews always Zionists? are Palestinians always Arab? Where is the slippage in the midst of all these signifiers? — as inhabiting two, mutually intolerant (though unevenly empowered) communities in the face of their respective exiles, I believe “the least attractive aspects of being in exile” which emerge from the state of exile — “an exaggerated sense of group solidarity, and a passionate hostility to outsiders, even those who may in fact be in the same predicament as you” — also colors the state (in the absence of a State) of our Palestinianness. What if there is not enough freedom for all of us? Who constitutes “us”?

Who have we become, as Palestinians, in the wake of the enduring catastrophe? I am a fellaha, the daughter and granddaughter of Palestinian farmers. My relatives are not refugees, though they endured — with many scars (and some dead eyes) — the conditions of the forever-disaster. These Palestinians, my Palestinians — illiterate, undereducated, impoverished, though still in possession of our land, our olives, ourselves — chose to leave exile under Occupation to settle in exile, as settlers, in Turtle Island. But exile is a jealous state. We make more exiles. We reproduce the conditions of exile everywhere we land. We do this with one another, too. “Where is your family from” is a question frequently asked by Palestinians of other Palestinians. It is a familiar question, a demonstration of our mutual understanding and community. But we do not always understand one another, and we are not always in community, and the question also reveals our wariness of one another.

“We are from this place — a place of the land you are from, too,” we answer.

“I do not know this place,” we have often said.

“This place is a place known to us, in the place known to us both.”

“I do not know this place.”


Maybe we know our memories differently. This is not a violence of not knowing, it is not a disaster. It is simply the stratification present within and between our own ways of knowing Palestine and being Palestinian: we do not always know each other very well, we people of a place that is no place. It is one paradox of exile, or, as Mahmoud Darwish murmurs to himself: “I resemble you, yet I do not become you. I become you, yet I do not resemble you.” Cast over our Palestinianness — a Palestinianness formed in the disaster — is the fear of uttering aloud that we are not Palestinian in the same ways. Deeper still, in the soil feeding the roots of this knowledge, we might find a stubborn attachment to the politics of scarcity that the catastrophe wrought — that my freedom may not include your freedom, that our freedom is or will be contingent on the un-freedom of others. Sometimes, this is not a fear, but a fact. Who are the Palestinians in the Americas who supported murderous dictatorships and fascist violence, from Chile to Honduras, in the 20th century? Who are the Palestinians in the U.S. and Canada who do not recognize that Black Lives Matter? Who are the Palestinians in Palestine who build settlements that look like those other settlements, scarring the land? Who are we who refuse to declare and devote ourselves to the axiom, as Indigenous political organization The Red Nation’s Principles of Unity make clear, that capitalism and colonialism must die “for our Earth and relatives to live”? We do not know these Palestinians, but we are Palestinians too. Are we not Palestinians, together, always Palestinian? Why can’t we say aloud that our Palestinianness, born of disaster, did not inscribe upon us a map toward liberation? What does it mean to know that our catastrophe did not animate our collective investment in all justice, in everyone’s justice? We are people, after all. Our faults are the faults of the world. We are people. We may just not be A People. Not yet. We are, after all, always in the process of becoming Palestinians…

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“Untitled.” / Photo by Sohail Salem (2016)

Such realities — nationalism, racism, classism, other other-isms which reproduce themselves (that we reproduce, ourselves) in so many contexts and in so many places — make it difficult to understand ourselves, together, as “Palestinians.” Palestinian, Arab, Bedouin, Black, Druze, African, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and yet out of the side of our mouths or the mouths of our khalo or sitti comes, quiet and matter of fact, that terrible, normal violence, “‘abid…”, so long a shadow looms over those who have always been landless among us, the poor and poorer, the raced and racialized. Exile is a jealous state. Our romance with the fellaheen is acute in our literature, poetry, song, scholarship, and when we cast our gaze back to the terrible injustice she faces in the bilad, but so absent as we descend into sujud, casting our judgement on the faded thobes and frayed tatreez of the working class and poor in our own communities and the broken accents in our own segregated mosques, here, in these other kind of homes.

“Much of the exile’s life is taken up with compensating for disorienting loss by creating a new world to rule,” Said muses, “It is not surprising that so many exiles seem to be novelists, chess players, political activists, and intellectuals.” Is this also why so many Palestinians come to know each other and ourselves across and through these same, privileged terrains? Why am I citing Edward Said instead of my grandfather? Did they not, alike, know exile? Are they not, alike, Palestinian? Why do I think I even have the right to ask these questions…?

“I came, but did not arrive.

I came, but did not return!”

When Mahmoud Darwish asks, “what does it mean for a Palestinian to be a poet and what does it mean for a poet to be Palestinian?” he also frames for us a way to complicate our attachment to our catastrophe as the foundation of our community. What does it mean for a Palestinian and a poet to be free? What does it mean to be Palestinian? We may have become Palestinian, together, Palestinians, in the moment of disaster, but we are not beholden to structure our epistemologies and aesthetics and politics solely within the architecture of this catastrophe. “The poetry of exile is not what exile says to you, but what you say to it, one rival of another. Exile, too, is hospital to difference and harmony. So fashion yourself out of yourself.” We must be held to account for one another. We must be held to account for drawing the borders of Palestine around us so thick, so permanent, that we forgot to hold open the doors for the dispossessed in whose dispossession we participate.

Who will we be when we are free? I have found something like a Palestinian in Darwish’s 2006 self-elegy, In the Presence of Absence (masterfully translated by the Iraqi poet, novelist, and scholar Sinan Antoon — witness our exiles fuse and lay bare all of our wounds, and power!). Is Palestinianness a feeling? “He who was born in a country that does not exist…does not exist either. If you say, metaphorically, that you are from no place, you are told: There is no place for no place.” Exile renders us placeless, and yet: are we not reflections of one another, for one other, our Palestinianness always an invented set of relations we deploy to understand who we are? How might we embrace our own invention, from the catastrophe, in order to craft our futures? Our exile reveals where we are absent, but we have always been able to see one another and our relations. We must also know one another as layered and contradictory. Our future selves are always in the making. We make space for new reflections every day. Our futures are in us. We are our own futures.

Darwish contends that our poetry is not beholden to the Nakba, and yet: has this poetry not also continuously given us our name? “Palestinian,” a lyric of life, also enduring. We name ourselves in the face of being unnamed every day! Let us to continue to name ourselves, and invest in this naming — our name — our future, free, not only of our catastrophe, but from the amputation of ourselves, our Palestinianness, our plurality. “What will you write without exile? What will you write without the occupation?” Darwish responds, without hesitation: “I will write better.” We need not “apologize for an existence which has not yet come into being.” Who we have become in the midst of our enduring catastrophe, signaled by Zurayk as our estrangements made plain, is the thought. It is we all who are the thinkers. And to know ourselves as Palestinians, we must think beyond our Being. We will think better when we do not presume that our commonality, as Palestinians formed in catastrophe, has remained common. We have been unequivocally estranged from a place, but we may exercise our future freedom by also recognizing the instruments and costs of our estrangements from one another.

From exile in Beirut, Darwish recounts: “‘You’re aliens here,’ they say to them there. ‘You’re aliens here,’ they say to them here. And between here and there they stretched their bodies like a vibrating bow until death celebrated itself through them.” What if we make of our exile, and of all the paradoxes of our exile, a cacophony of Palestinianness? Not a lamentation, but zaghareet. A qanun, rather than a bow. What if we ask, as Darwish asks, “Are you what you were, or what are you now?” This would require forgetting, some might say. This could further separate us from our memories, these memories we have gathered and cultivated and curated and archived because no one else would, and because others have tried to destroy our memories. But it is not forgetting to remember that our exile, born of catastrophe, compels us to remain stuck-in-placelessness. We do not draw upon our memories to resurrect them, whole and untouched. We plant and water and tend to our memories in order to inspire our practice of living alongside them, the future-Palestinians and our memories — all of them, all we distinct and diverse and divergent Palestinians with our memories, a garden of memories to tend to while we grow another world anew.

Antoon writes in the preface for In the Presence of Absence that his translation “is an act of love for Darwish.” Translation as an act of love — love as an act of love. An act, as love. Our action, as love. The land’s skin has changed. So have we. This essay might be a self-elegy for who we are throughout our continuing catastrophe. I would like it also to be a memory of our future freedom. We will continue to know how to be Palestinian, together, when we are free. We will know better how to be Palestinian, together, as we are free.