Reclaiming Language Inside Out: Our Maps, Words, Bodies, and Roots


Literature and poetry are, of course, at the core of PalFest, which means that the festival is the site of crucial conversations about the politics of language. We therefore asked poet Jehan Bseiso and writer Karim Kattan to discuss how they approach this question in their respective works.

KARIM KATTAN: In one of the poems that you wrote for Mada Masr, “Tahrir” (2019), you write: “In Beirut, you remind yourself that falling for an Arab means loving someone always a little bit broken.”

JEHAN BSEISO: Yes, it makes me think of something you said in a podcast episode of The Funambulist (2016). You said “Palestinians have the problem that they can’t forget that they are Palestinians.” It’s a little bit the issue I wanted to highlight with this poem: this dilemma always internally present. It’s in the language, it’s in the water, it’s in the land. I think our language is broken. It does not mean that it’s not beautiful, but it’s broken. Perhaps broken is a good place to start this conversation.

KK: I agree. You think that our language is broken and this makes me think that I wanted to ask you whether you only write in English.

JB: That’s right. I went to school in Jordan and at the university in Lebanon. I came to English and Arabic at the same time, until I was forced to choose by our education system. I love languages; I also don’t write in French but I read it and I feel at home with it, even though I don’t master it. I think that our language is definitely broken, because of the postcolonial education system, also because of something you write in your book Préliminaires pour un verger futur (2018), “À la maison on parle arabe, le français c’est pour l’école” (“At home we speak Arabic; French is for school”)… I had “arabe” at home and at school, but differently. And also English has occupied a lot of our expressions, and when I write it, I feel that I’m occupying the language. When I’m using transliterated Arabic words, I’m negotiating a space for us in English.

KK: Do you feel that you’re losing something by not writing in Arabic, or that you’re gaining something?

JB: Lately I feel that I’m losing something; it wasn’t like that a few years ago. My written and spoken Arabic is very good, but I’m just not finding my creative voice in it, yet. I had it and then I lost it. I definitely hope that I’ll have it again because it is a very rich and beautiful language and it makes me so sad that so many people of our generation do not master it. It makes me sad that I have to choose.

I wanted to talk to you about something. My family comes from Gaza — and you’ve been writing about Gaza —; it’s not just about language, it’s also about accents. I wrote about that in one of my first poems actually. Personally, I was very uncomfortable as I was raised in a home with an accent that was different than my context. If I reformulate your sentence, for me it would be: “À la maison on parle avec le fatha et à l’école le kasra” (“At home we speak with the fatha and at school with the kasra”). What about you?

KK: That’s really interesting. I think that my situation is slightly different because, of course, my spoken Arabic is fluent, but my written Arabic is really bad because I went to the French school in Jerusalem. I’m really m3a2ad, I have a complex,because it’s so bad. It comes with a lot of shame that I’m not able to master Arabic the way I want to, But mostly, and I don’t know if it’s the same for you, it’s not so much with regards to myself and my relationship to the language — I don’t fetichize language and I think that it’s fine not to be able to master it — but one of the things that I’m constantly thinking about is the question of the audience. Specifically because 
at this stage of my life, I tend to write more in French than in English and, of course, Palestine is not even remotely a francophone country. It means that whatever I’m writing is not geared towards a Palestinian audience and that I’m speaking to foreigners. This is the question I constantly ask myself, and I try to situate myself and understand what the point would be in speaking to foreigners. What the impact of doing this is and what kind of influence it creates. And you know that there are things that you can say to foreigners that you don’t necessarily need to talk about with your own people, and vice versa.

JB: You know Karim, it’s funny that you use this word “shame” — I can relate to it. In my case I master Arabic as a reader so I’m comfortable expressing, talking, sharing, saying what I like, etc. and nobody can make me uncomfortable in Arabic. But I was having a conversation with a writer — I don’t think that we should name him here —, we were walking on the corniche in Beirut — I know that it sounds like a poem already ! — and he was telling me You guys are not doing anybody any favors by writing in English! You’re using the language of the Master; that’s not what we need… he had a very strong opinion. I understand where he’s coming from and I’m a really big fan of his program of how his use of literary classical Arabic is attracting the younger generation by making it accessible, but I’m not on the same page. The Arabic language is so rich and full of many layers; classical arabic, the modern standard Arabic, the “white language” —the lughat bayda’ that we use for media — it’s not really accented, it’s not complex— and then there is the argot, the vernacular Arabic and that differs. Most of our generation today feel at home in vernacular Arabic and they don’t feel at home in classical Arabic.

KK: Ever since I published my book in French, one of the questions that always arise whenever I’m doing a book reading or whatever, is Why don’t you write in Arabic? At first, my go-to answer that arose from my shame was Unfortunately I do not master the language enough to write in Arabic. And eventually I realized — and I know that many people would disagree with this, and, of course, it’s legitimate to disagree with this — that the language that I do not master is classical Arabic, which is, to me, a foreign language, and that could also be seen as an imperialist and colonial language, like French and English. All of a sudden I realized Oh my language is Palestinian. I really want to write a book at some point in Palestinian, and I’m able to do this. This is my language.

Although standard Arabic allows for a lot of beautiful things to happen, especially in terms of communication between different people that otherwise do not speak the same language, there is a reclaiming of the languages that people are at home with, and those languages are the one that are called “dialects.” Whenever you are having a conversation in classical Arabic, you’re being told that you speak a presque-language (“almost-language”), something that is sort of a language, but not exactly. There is this really beautiful language on the horizon that you can practically touch, but not really, and it will never be yours and whatever you’re speaking is a dumb-down version of it.

Bseiso & Kattan Funambulist (1)
Views of Gaza in the 1950s.

JB: That resonates so so much, and I would like to bring in the body, because I think that there is also a very corporeal element to language. You wrote that you did not know your grandmother. I’ve been lucky enough to have met and gotten to know my maternal and paternal grandfathers and my maternal grandmother, who has my name, who is with us today, and I hope for much longer. When I listen to her talking I know that the way she pronounces words is her own kind of language, and I know will be extinct after she is no longer with us and that makes me sad. It’s a pronunciation that my mother has for a few specific words. My mother was born in Gaza, she says things in a dialect that I only know by hearing my mother say them and herself only knows it by hearing her mother say them. What happens to all of this after is really complicated. I could be in a hospital in Beirut, ready to do an X-ray, which happened a few months ago, and from only one word that somebody would say, I’d know that he’s Palestinian and maybe even from Gaza. Because he said that word. This is an amazing recognition. It’s like our languages are saying hello to each other even if we don’t speak to each other. That’s why I’m talking about the body because when something is beyond words, it’s in the body.

Bseiso & Kattan Funambulist (2)
View of Bethlehem in the 1950s.

KK: What you’re saying really reverberates for me as well. I have not known one of my grandmothers, but I’ve known the other — she died a few years ago — and she and my grandfather spoke a very specific Arabic that came from Bethlehem. And my grandfather in particular had all these words, that my Mom still uses. But they completely disappear with me and, although I recognize these words, I would never spontaneously use them. Those are words that even comes from Ottoman, you know like words for “bathroom.” They are Ottoman words!

Going back to my question about your work in English, I wanted to ask you: who are you writing for?

JB: The answer to this question might be a bit less complex than in your case writing in French specifically because, as you said, Palestine is not a francophone country. Writing in French is more lonely if I think of the question of a regional audience or even a local audience. I think that we bring who we are to the language: your identity, your history, your narrative, and how it comes alive in your characters. I’m not saying that as Palestinians we only have to write about Palestine but the question is that as a Palestinian writer, how do you find yourself in topics and how does it always come back to Palestine. For me, most of the time, it always comes back to Palestine, but I have to say that I’m actively looking for other spaces too, because I need it.

On the question of English, I can describe something that happened in Bethlehem. And I should pause here just to say that, as I was born in the U.S., I have a U.S. passport and it’s funny because it’s only with a foreign passport that I was able to access my home. So the same goes with foreign tongues: sometimes, it’s only through a foreign language that I’m able to access certain feelings and words. That’s how I see it: how the U.S. passport brought me to Palestine, and also how I find myself in English. I was reading poems in a university in Bethlehem and I wanted to share my poems about the war on Gaza in 2014 in particular. I was so nervous that the perspective I bring would not resonate; one of my poems is titled “Gaza from the Diaspora” — and I’m a diaspora product! I had a million préjugés and a million assumptions and because I had nothing else prepared, I read my Gaza poems, and I believe the students were really moved. Gaza is a few kilometers away from where we were all sitting — the occupation makes it seem as if it’s not the case but it is — and they’re closer to Gaza than I ever was. That the audience wouldn’t connect was an assumption that I made and then I realized that it is not my responsibility to decide who my audience is. It is not up to me to decide who is moved or not, to exclude. Every day I’m surprised about who the audience can be, from a Norwegian composer to a young student in Yemen. Indeed, I wish that more people could read you in English, 
or that more people could read both of us in Arabic, but for now here we are and I am sure that we don’t know how far these words travel.

KK: Yes, absolutely. Whenever I write a piece in English, it doesn’t necessarily travel more, but it travels differently, than something that is written in French. Its zone of influence is really different. It’s interesting what you were saying about the audience, because — maybe it is because I write in French — but I’m also for instance keenly aware of, let’s say that in the case of some domestic or inner policies that could concern Palestinian society itself, I won’t necessarily address them in French. Sometimes I keep myself from doing it as I am aware of the way they would be received in a French speaking context and the way they would be read, and the way they might be instrumentalized or misunderstood by the French. So without censoring myself I am always a bit aware these areas of things that are complicated, and these are the areas in which I would actually love to write in Arabic. As what you were saying, you’re actively looking for other spaces, and I am doing the same as well, but it always comes back to Palestine whether we want it or not. It is impossible to do it any other way. And there are days where I find that absolutely fantastic, and there are days where I find that absolutely depressing, and I never know which it is. Did you manage to find new places of writing that don’t necessarily go back to Palestine?

JB: Yes, but even when my words fly away from Palestine they still go to our region. So the “Tahrir” poem that you mentioned, it’s about Palestine and everything else around it, because it’s all connected. Also, I sometimes say that I can start writing a poem about heartbreak and it can end up about occupation. And this is just from the little heartbreak to the big heartbreak. And I’m at peace with that. In an interview about the role of the poet, Solmaz Sharif an Iranian poet who I met in PalFest in 2017 says “clichéd bad writing often means clichéd bad politics.” I have been challenged several times on the limitations of “political poetry” as a genre but I don’t see it that way.

KK: I agree, I don’t think that any writing can be non political, even when it says or the writer explicitly says that they are not political, they are being very political, and usually in the wrongest sense of politics. But whether you like it or not, you will always be put in a box, I have experienced this over and over again to be assigned an identity and a set of problematics and questions that might be yours but also sometimes aren’t or aren’t necessarily the problematics that you are looking to explore in your writing that you might be exploring elsewhere, and not necessarily in the writing. It is always a struggle to create a space in regards to some Western audiences, and sometimes some Arabic-speaking audiences, to create a space where whatever voice you try to create somehow can be just what it is.

JB: There is this question that I think fits to our conversation and to the context, that I wanted to ask you. Karim, what is for you the relationship between maps and language? Is there a relationship?

Bseiso & Kattan Funambulist (3)
Outside of Jericho, the desert. / Photo by Léopold Lambert (2010).

KK: I love this question. I’m not sure how to answer it. Actually, in my PhD on the desert, I have been studying maps a lot and the way a certain sort of map as an imperial tool — Matthew H. Edney writes that maps allowed colonial powers “to transform land into territory” and therefore to be able to take over territory. I was really interested in that, and we also know that maps are an imperial tool, and at the same time, the work of people like Léopold does show that maps can also be subverted in many ways. They have a lot of potential. My first pieces of writing, as a kid,were actually maps. I’m using the term writing in the broadest sense as possible. I loved to draw maps of things, whether it’s imaginary worlds, or real places, but I would always spend most of my time as a kid and teenager drawing maps on paper (on Microsoft Paint!). These maps also were a way of creating narratives and stories in a way that is not necessarily linear, but in a way that is much more physical that enables a different type of creativity. Of course it is related to the current territory that is usually called Palestine that is this set of breadcrumbs that remain where we are, and that has strictly no coherence and no unity in terms of geography — not in terms of community. I think it is always a way to create a narrative in a place where there’s a lot of disruption. What do you think in your case, is there a clear relation between language and maps?

JB: It is conflicted because I am so fascinated by maps, but I have no sense of orientation. Anywhere! Not in Amman where I was raised; not in Beirut where I have been either visiting, working or living since 2000; not anywhere I go — once I got lost walking a straight line. It is not possible, but at the same time I am very fascinated. I read a lot about them, and recently I was in Germany in a museum looking at old maps, and there was one with Jerusalem at the center. And just the whole process of how maps were done, land was discovered and divided, and things cut up until now, when I think of Syrian refugees on one border of Jordan and the idea of no mans land is also something that gets me a bit like what you said presque-langue, “no man’s land” often makes me think of “no man’s language,” so for me, they are very interlinked. And also personal maps, including specificities of where you were born, where you travel, I would say France seems to be part of your personal map since you have been there in 2007, Beirut is definitely part of my personal map.

KK: Did you ever draw your own personal maps?

JB: No, but now I want to so thank you! My personal map is probably the only one I can try to not get lost in.

KK: You know I also have a pretty bad sense of orientation in general but especially in a place where I sort of grew up and I know (or rather I’m supposed to know) very well, the only place where I always get lost no matter how hard I try not to: Jerusalem’s old city. I know it well, I’ve been there countless times, but I get lost. And I don’t just get lost, I get lost in ways that makes me feel that I just emerged on a new continent and I have no idea where things are and what’s happening. It’s a striking thing and I have always wanted to write about that; this constant sense of désorientation — and I’m going to make a generalization here — that we have. And you know, we say “to orient oneself” or “to desorient oneself” because, for the longest time, the point that was used as a reference (just like the North currently is) was the Orient. So when you lose it, this is when you’re disoriented.


JB: Amazing! I never connected these two words together! I have a question for you. Don’t kill me for it, but going back to your PhD, What language does the desert speak? Arabic, English, French…?

KK: Well, you know, in literature and elsewhere, the desert as scientific object, as well as an object of aesthetics, 
was invented, created, produced by the Europeans, and specifically by the British and the French, and particularly by the French. One of the things that I found out in my research is how, in this regard — not with regards to the actual desert — how French the desert is! How French in the sense that it became one of the major political tools of colonialism in a lot of different ways; in the elaboration of the modern “art of war” in the desert, in the nuclear testing in the desert but also in literature. I studied texts from the 19th century and from the post-colonial era and one of the things that struck me was the continuity between the two eras. For instance, Algerian writers who write in French about the desert in the second half of the 20th century would use — probably without even realizing it — metaphors, analogies and words to speak about the desert that were first used by French travelers in the 19th century. That’s not all of course, there are many people who talk about the desert in many ways, especially people who are from the desert. So in the end it’s less about the language that the desert speaks and more about the language that the desert is spoken of I’m not sure what to make of this to be honest but that’s one of my intuitions. Do you have a relation to the desert yourself?

JB: That’s the thing you know: I always thought that I had to choose, between mountains, the sea, the desert. Only recently did I start to think of the desert as a creative space because I always wanted something I did not have or did not see. Also, I was very tired of the desert trope and the way it is represented, the “Lawrence of Arabia desert,” the exoticization of the desert and felt that it alienated me. And just recently, thanks to conversations with Mojave poet Natalie Diaz and the way she talks about the desert I am reconsidering the way I see it.

KK: Something to consider as well is the Israeli discourse of “making the desert bloom,” this whole myth of Palestine as a desert when Palestine is everything but a desert! The only desert we have is tiny, something that people who have real deserts in their country would be laughing at! So we don’t want to participate to this myth.

JB: We talked about spaces and maps, for which there is an inside and an outside. This is also true for language. For me, you are an “inside Palestinian” even if you might believe that there are elements of you more outside. Since I am the only person in my immediate family who was able to go there: I definitely see myself as an “outside Palestinian.” but the truth is probably somewhere in the middle between all those insides and outsides.

KK: Yeah, we have all these “insides” and “outsides,” and “insides” and outsides”… inside and outside of the country itself and sometimes you get mixed up and you don’t even remember what people mean by inside and outside. Some Palestinian of the “inside” and here I mean Palestinians from the West Bank for instance have a sort of supicion regarding Palestinians from the diaspora — and what I mean by diaspora are people who, like me, have a relatively easy possibility of moving in and out — perhaps they don’t know what they’re talking about, or they don’t have the answers that we have, etc. and this has a repercussion within the country itself in the way that for a very long time there’s been a competition between, say, Palestinians from the West Bank and Palestinians from the shamal, from the North of Israel where we feel that they look down on us and they feel that we don’t include them… There are always those small points of friction that I’m actively trying to overcome from all these different “insides” and “outsides.”

And yet, despite these insides and outsides, one of the things I love about Palestine is the way that Palestinian society in the broadest sense constantly suprises me by its inclusiveness and its awareness that Palestinian identity is multifaceted and that there is no litmus test about what makes you a real Palestinian or not a real Palestinian. Whenever I speak about that, I always think of one of my absolute favorite paintings in the world: one of the last paintings that Palestinian artist Vladimir Tamari made before he passed, which is called View of Mount Fuji Seen from Tokyo and Peace Bird over Jerusalem (2012). Vladimir Tamari used to live in Tokyo and as the name of the painting you suggest, you have a view of Mount Fuji with Tokyo on the foreground and in the background you see Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock and an explosion of colors. To me it is not only an absolutely beautiful painting but it also encompasses the possibility of what being Palestinian is. Whenever I look at this painting I think Oh I should not feel that I’m not being Palestinian enough because being Palestinian can accommodate a lot of identities at the same time.

Vladimir Tamari Funambulist
Mount Fuji Seen From Tokyo and Peace Bird Over Jerusalem, painting by Vladimir Tamari (March 8, 2012). / Courtesy of Mariam and Mona Tamari.

JB: I fully agree, it’s very expansive. I love how you did what we all ought to do more, from wars to breakups, which is to define things. What do we mean when we say “diaspora”? What do we mean when we say “inside”? What do we mean when we say “outside”? It is absolutely fine for all these terms to have all their different meanings, but it is very important that when we’re talking that I know what you mean when you’re using the words to mean what you mean. Even if it’s a presque-langue, even if when you’re explaining it won’t ever be exactly what you mean… we don’t do that enough. For the purpose of this conversation this is what I mean, and perhaps tomorrow I will use the same word to mean something else! I’m really convinced that if people were doing that more, from wars to breakups, it will be a better world.

And to come back to questions of “insides” and “outsides,” it’s true that I was so nervous, I was so scared when I finally came to Palestine for the first time. I wrote about “all the layers of exile and return” because they are layers. Every time I leave Palestine, I feel a sense of exile, and every time I come back, I feel a sense of return. It’s never complete and each time is different. Vladimir Tamari’s painting really communicates that to me: how we are everywhere, but at the same time connected. It is rooted and it is multi-centric. And if it wasn’t we would not survive. If it wasn’t we would not be here having this conversation.

KK: This is a beautiful conclusion. Rooted and multi-centric, and rooted in the multi-centers. And the word you use, expansive, is the right one I feel. It is an expansive identity.

JB: And for that, we need a language that also expands! A little bit of Arabic, a little bit of English, a little bit of French; it is bricolage, we need a language that can expand, not one that is about limitations and choices and censors and restrictions. Let’s define so that we understand each other, but let’s let the language expands! ■