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.

Article published in The Funambulist 27 (January-February 2020) Learning with Palestine. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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?