Reclaiming Spatial and Personal Interiors


This conversation between poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley and geographer Sabrien Amrov addresses the necessity of “making home” both physically and metaphorically, as well as the shortcomings of certain narratives that do Palestinians a disfavor by only considering them in relation to settler colonialism.

SABRIEN AMROV: I think, for me, it would be really interesting to hear your testimony, Victoria, of what it was like to be in Palestine as part of the PalFest for seven days. This year’s theme for the Festival was Urban Futures: Colonial Space Today — hinting at the parallels, reverberations and connections that exist globally. You are coming at this as poet, artist and writer. I think what’s really valuable about the festival is that you guys go there and you bear witness — and it’s not like there isn’t an abundance of people who go and do that, but to go as a poet — I feel like those kinds of insertions are valuable. What did you see, and what did it mean to you?

VICTORIA ADUKWEI BULLEY: I was happy to be there as part of the festival, and I was glad to have been invited because if I hadn’t been asked to come, I wouldn’t have known how to frame my being there. There’s wanting to go and see a situation somewhere so that you can see it for yourself and understand how things really work, but then once you’ve seen that and you step out, how do you transform that seeing into something more than just oh I was interested and I am still interested and I have this knowledge now but what do I do with it? I think being invited made it feel more like I was there in a purposeful sense that was about more than just my own interest. But I’m still really navigating, right now, in what way my being there can become something useful. And I say useful because I’m not entirely sure how useful poetry is. And I’m a writer and a poet and I like what I do, but I guess like anyone, you wonder if what you do is enough. I feel like the most useful thing I got out of the experience, so far, is (to use the word you used), testimony. When people ask me what it was like, it’s not so much oh yeah like I believe Palestine should be free. I could have said that without going. Being able to simply give first hand examples of things that I’ve seen, concrete examples; to compare and relate them to life over here in the U.K., and to draw them into proximity to things that our government is doing, to make things essentially less abstract, and to be a person who can say actually, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen X, Y, Z, and I would never have seen X, Y, Z, on the news, ever. And so yes, so far, the most I feel I can offer from it is that testimony and that sense that when I’m speaking to people it’s from a more embodied sureness that the situation there is abhorrent and rogue. I think in the U.K., there’s a culture of let’s not talk too much about this, but since coming back I’ve felt a lot more emboldened to push back against that.

We started out by crossing Allenby Bridge from Jordan into Jerusalem. From that point onwards, I’d never seen so many guns in my life. I’ve never seen someone being turned away from a border. Yes, your wife can enter, but no you can’t. Technically, I’ve never seen a border, physically, in the way that I saw that border — being on that coach moving from Jordan through the no man’s land. It was also so incredibly dystopian to see the casual dress of the guards there. A combination of plaid shirts, Doc Martens boots, and jeans. Like violence, but make it fashion.

All of this felt incredibly far from home for me, but it didn’t once I reminded myself that the machinery of the state is always international. And I feel that machinery in my own ways, being Black in Britain. What’s happening there is not as distant as geography might fool me into thinking if it’s the same mechanisms, the same goals, the same teargas, it’s the same surveillance systems; the money is British, the money is American, etc.; it’s actually very close to home.

Amrov Funambulist (2)
Details of Sabrien Amrov’s grandmother’s house in Doura, Al Khaleel. / Photo by Sabrien Amrov (2017).

SA: For me that point is super important. It’s important for us to highlight the reality of how rogue Israel-Palestine is, but sometimes we tend to exceptionalize it to a point that we can never relate to, when in fact what you’re doing now is super important, like no, it’s not particularly exceptional, by virtue of the way it’s connected with the rest of the machinery. That’s super important because it also grounds the notion that the possibility to change things is really not up to an extraordinary measure. Much of the demands of people asking not to be shot by police, asking not to be raided in their homes, demanding that they don’t have their homes stolen from them is not extraordinary. It’s absolutely ridiculous that we have to explain these positions.

VAB: That’s it really. I also valued hearing the experiences of members of the PalFest team. I really would like to go back. It was surprising how safe I felt when we went to Bethlehem. That sudden lack of guns and Israeli authorities made me able to relax. And then we were in Ramallah as well, which also felt very secure. We were able to walk through the hills and feel the land again. All in all, it was an intense week, and so when Léopold suggested doing a Funambulist issue, I was very much in favor of it, but I was also reticent because I knew that I would be processing what I’d seen for some time, and that I still have much to learn, and that I don’t want to do a hot take.

SA: I also do think there’s something valuable about you sharing at the affective level. You asked me about my background when we prepared this conversation, so I can perhaps get into that. I used to do international relations, and a lot of it involved studying security. My Master thesis was about the security sector reform in the West Bank I spent six months conducting research, interviewing Palestinian government officials, Israel security personal, and international donor practionners about the logic behind programs like Security Sector Reform — which are supposedly meant to establish good governance practice and how it operates under occupation. Now, I’m doing my PhD in human geography in something different. Initially, I was going to extend my previous work about militarization when I first began in 2016, but by the time Trump got elected, I was so tired of talking about how the state is violent towards Brown bodies and in what ways. I had been away from academia for so long that I had forgotten how sometimes even progressive academics get off on listening to that violence. At some level, we are consuming these evidences of pain, and suffering and oppression in ways that erase people’s personhood. As a Palestinian who grew up in the western education system, this wasn’t necessarily news to me, because I was always faced with some denial of our stories, our histories, our versions of events — but somehow, with everything that was going on in the world, I couldn’t see myself exhibiting more evidence of things we already know. There is a level a voyeurism for me that I was kinda over.

I think that’s what prompted me to want to write about Palestinian homes in the way that I wrote about them, because not every space is a space of violence and not every space is an extension of the occupation and even if the state makes it an extension of the occupation through and by its discursive practices, that’s not why people make home. People don’t make home to resist the occupation. Their existence isn’t a reaction to the occupation. But the occupation keeps attacking them. And that’s also not why people matter. People don’t just matter because they are resisting. People may accuse you of creating a romanticization of everyday life, but they’ve completely disallowed Palestinians or marginalized peoples to have that way of being, which is completely part of their everyday life.

I also wanted to emphasize that Israel doesn’t only attack Palestinian homes only as a form of punishment for a crime, or because the homes happen to be in the way of state expansionist project. This happens and is extremely well documented, but I don’t think that’s all there is to it. There is always something else beyond what some have called pragmatic calculations. I want people to recognize the power that home produces with and for people, and how that makes the settler colonial state nervous and anxious. There is a perverted enjoyment that comes with the process of destroying home, of announcing to Palestinians that they are receiving a house eviction. There is an enjoyment that the Israeli security apparatus enjoys in this humiliation and we should call that out. Thinking about intimacy, about the power the home holds and generates — with all its ambivalence in terms of family politics, the stories of abuse, domestic violence, invisible labor — all these things matter, but they don’t negate the fact that home is central beyond just shelter and housing. It is part and parcel of the way communities and societies web their worlds together. There is an entire life to be articulated away from technicalities that I felt was lacking.

VAB: Yes, completely. I think that’s so crucial because we have lives before we have struggles. We are here, and then things are imposed upon us. But we’re here first, right?

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In the house of the author’s family in Doura, Hebron/Al Khaleel. / All photographs by Sabrien Amrov (2017).

SA: Yeah! Absolutely. It’s a question of where the frame begins and where does it end and who gets to choose what. One writer that really helped me think about seeing in these terms is Ariella Azoulay. She argues that “cropping the frame is a decisive factor in determining what is visible in the photograph, but contrary to the status we usually accord to it, framing itself does not have the last word or occupy sovereign position with respect to the visible.” I love that she shakes the spectator and forces them to understand that they have a position of power that they need to stop abusing. I love that she believes a lot can happen in a state of excess or lack. But I think what drew me most in her work is her focus on the invisible. I love that she insists that what is invisible is not always invisible because it is not 
materially there, but because we do not try to see it.

The gaze can produce invisibility. There is a responsibility on both the spectator and the producer of the image here. And if we, in our way of seeing people and how we access people, if we acknowledge that part of people, then when a family comes and steals a home and puts up a flag, I think we could understand the degree and impact of such a practice much more than if we were just like oh Palestinians are resisting the theft of their homes. Like if a writer in her narration doesn’t consider that Palestinians families were living there, built a home, had a living room, had a bird that came in the morning at breakfast, had these small daily things that made the place home, then… that act of stealing the house is more than just a tragedy of loss of shelter. It’s a life. So that was the kind of shift that I made. I felt that there was so much in the world that was happening, but the way that we were talking about it — at least in Canada and in U.S. news — it was just like it was entertainment. It didn’t feel like we were getting to a point where we got people to say: what the hell are we doing? It was more like oh that’s sad, this kid is drowning. You know what I mean? And that’s why, oftentimes, that’s why people don’t like when people talk about the affective. Maybe you don’t have that problem in writer circles or poetry circles, but academics, you do. For me, I think the affective is extremely powerful, especially when we talk about either Palestinians, or anybody, actually, who is not white. We only think in terms of survival, of fighting for life, fear, unsafe and all that lexicon, and that’s problematic.

VAB: This is so timely for me. One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about recently — particularly as a result of 
moving house — is that I feel like I’ve been able to get some quiet. I feel like my life is something that I’m sculpting now, and I’m kind of tuning things down. One thing that I find challenging right now about how we present the work that we do as writers, as artists, etc, is that a lot of it is so loud, a lot of it is, as you say, about what we’re fighting, or what we’re in spite of. And actually, and I’ve always felt this way, even though it doesn’t feel cool, but it’s as if we’re saying that if the work that we do does not explicitly mark itself as being part of the struggle, or against some injustice, then it can’t possibly be transformative — it can’t possibly have some kind of edifying function in helping us to actually have wholesome lives.

There are two books I’m thinking of here: one is adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism (2019). She really places an emphasis on the affective, asking how do things feel. Not just what does liberation look like? Not just asking what pictures pop into our heads, no, instead: what does your body feel like? What is joy? What do you like to eat? How do you want to be touched? And then another book, recommended to me by a brilliant DJ scholar named Lynnée Denise, The Sovereignty of Quiet (2012), by Kevin Quashie. The whole gist of the book is that when we think about Blackness, we always think about Blackness as being struggle or dissent, and even in the joyful imaginings of Blackness, we always see it as something quite loud and extroverted, and out there — whether it’s how we dance or how we speak. Quashie opens the book by talking about the 1968 Olympics where those two Black athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stood on the podium doing the Black Power salute. And he speaks about how they stood there, both of them with their heads bowed, one of them with their eyes closed. No one mentions the interiority of that moment or thinks to allow them an inner life. The attention went solely onto the fact that they were making this big, big, big, statement. And so I think, yes, we must reclaim these interior moments. Because if everything that we do is about saying this is for the struggle, this is for the culture, then well, we don’t have an interior any more. Do you know what I mean?

SA: I 100% agree, and I think that sometimes it gets even worse in that when you attempt to do it, the woke people come at you: we have our social, economical problems, there’s no time for self-actualization. And I think that’s extremely problematic. So people on the margins don’t think about self-actualization? They don’t think about being — like questions of who you are, and how you are in the world, and how you walk the earth? You can’t have this linear perception of time where it’s like oh, when we get our liberation, then we’ll think about those things. It doesn’t function that way, you know? We’re not on this linear path where we can’t think about interiority until we get to some point. And that’s a replica and an internalization of that modernization discourse that was imposed on colonized people. You know what I mean?

VAB: Absolutely. It’s like you’re not working hard enough. Why aren’t you working? And actually, I agree, it’s too linear, it’s not sustainable, and I also don’t think it’s realistic. Our care for this is not about knowing that in our lifetime, everything is going to be fine. We’re not doing these things, or thinking in these ways, or caring in these ways because we know it’s going to work or we know we’re going to see it all. But I feel that, in my life, because I’m working regardless of what fruits I will see, it is imperative that I claim some sense of what’s interior to me, or what’s joyful, and idiosyncratic and playful and nebulous within me. What an utter waste of soul and life, otherwise. We are here, so let’s really be here, and let’s be here fully. Which makes me wonder, what does it mean to make home somewhere? How have you made home?

SA: For me, this question is complicated because at 30 today, I’ve been jumping from one place to another since forever. I’ll say this though: I was born and raised in Montreal to Palestinian parents and my father always refused to buy a house so every four to five years, we would just move from one place to another — always in Montreal, but different parts of the city. Then my university years came, and I was jumping from Ottawa to Ramallah to Ankara, Istanbul, to Toronto, and now back in Istanbul. But it’s almost as though my parents never tried to make a home in Canada (today they wouldn’t even be able to afford it) because, in their minds, their home was always somewhere else, right? They kind of transferred this feeling of don’t get too comfortable… and I kind of feel like I always grappled with this, until now — I got tired of not getting comfortable. So, I never really felt settled in one place until now as an adult, I took a conscious decision that I wanted to make home. That I wanted to buy proper furniture and decorate the way I see fit; pick out the drapes and the pillows, the lighting fixture, the colors and so on and so forth. I think because it gets tiring not to feel still sometimes. And honestly, I absolutely love making home, I love that my place is my place — so I can’t imagine how it feels for someone who has really invested time and money and sweat into making home and see it disappear in a moment captured for the world to see and continue to be complicit. And I absolutely indulge the importance of extending home to broader terrains like language and the tongues we carry and do not carry, and home as another person, another human — I get how these area also important, but people also need an actual physical place and homes are targeted the way they are by colonial powers, all of these scales of home are under threat.

VAB: This is such a richly layered answer. Thank you for this. One of the things you’ve said here that really lingers with me is the needfulness of having a solid, concrete dwelling place to call home. We take it for granted that such a basic, foundational thing can be so out of reach. It seems that in this current age of so much displacement and diasporic living, we have grown accustomed to the thought of home being something that’s beyond physical — it’s become something one remembers, or something one feels, a faith system or cosmology, or a language one speaks or doesn’t speak, as you say. But ultimately the reality is that home is always also an actual place and with it, a set of conditions that any creature lives within. And so yes, the bar must really be low if we’re losing sight of that. It makes me think of how, for indigenous peoples across the world, the name of a language and the name of a place and the name of the people who speak that language and dwell in that place was usually the same. It’s exactly that way in my own heritage. You are Ga, speak Ga, and you live in Ga-Mashie, which is what we know today as Accra, in Ghana. For centuries, or thousands of years in many cases, you have that unquestionable link between people, toponym and logonym. The time for which that has been interrupted through imperialism and colonialism is comparably so recent, and that disruption has been so devastatingly effective. But ultimately, whether we are talking about settler-colonial displacement or inner-city displacement through gentrification, that sense of home-scarcity is widespread.
I have another question for you. You talked to me about infrastructures of intimacy, how would you sum up what you mean when you say that? [cf. Sabrien Amrov, “Palestinian Homes: Infrastructures of Intimacy and the Politics of Representation” in The Funambulist 17 Weaponized Infrastructure, May-June 2018]

SA: Infrastructure of intimacy is a concept I use as a learning tool to help me counter and investigate the alienation that Palestinians are subjected to regarding the relationship they forge and maintain with the places​ and spaces they inhabit​. ​When I first came across the ​terms​ it was from writer Ara Wilson who insists that there is a relationship between the intimate and the infrastructural that sheds light on how power operates in both tangible and intangible, visible and invisible ways. Intimacy here is not just about the domestic, the personal, or the separation of the private and public — it creates public worlds, Wilson tells us — and I push a little further to say, how we talk and describe these relationships also produces versions of people that can be quite limiting and counter-productive.

There are obvious examples here like the way in which Israeli propaganda insists that Palestinians don’t have homes, but rather use their houses are sites of plotting and organized violence; justifying the destruction and theft of these places. But there are also the inconspicuous manifestations, like when a photojournalist is only interested in capturing the home of Palestinian after an Israeli demolition or during an Israeli night attack. The goal of this type of documentation is, of course, to show the world the perverseness of Israeli violence, but I think we ​are ​also doing a great disfavor by only disseminating and caring for Palestinian life only when it is in contact with Israeli violence. Then we make it seem as though settler colonialism is totalizing. But is not. It is always incomplete.

If part of decolonizing literally and metaphorically (I hope) the spaces and lives of Palestinians from Israeli occupation is to think about transformative futures, then I don’t see how we can achieve this by imposing binary images of the relationship of Palestinians and their homes: either as a site of disaster and destruction, or of resistance, that is still part and parcel of the same narrative of violence and warfare. I am inviting the idea that we need to reevaluate how we produce subjectivities because when we leave a lot of what is not about 
colonial confrontation, we lose important pieces and this turns us into selective knowledge producers. So, part of the work the concept is pushing is to alter the way we see to disrupt this economy of perception.

Part of the work was also personal. As someone who was raised in a Palestinian home, who visits family in Al Khaleel​ (Hebron)​ every so often, to tell people like hey, not everything Palestinian do is a reaction to Israel and if you keep producing knowledge in the arts, literature, academia, and journalism that pays attention only to when we are resisting, then you are missing a lot of story.​ I wanted to question that position: why are you only interested in me when I am suffering? Why are you only paying attention to me when it hurts? This intimacy is certainly not new or foreign to Palestinians, it just seems not obvious to people looking at us that it’s there and I think its problematic. The infrastructure of intimacy opens the conceptual window for me at least to ask these questions. ​

VAB: Thinking of intimate spaces, and about how invasions of the home affect how intimacy occurs between loved ones within homes, how can our homes can be seen as extensions of our bodies?

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In the house of the author’s family in Doura, Hebron/Al Khaleel. / All photographs by Sabrien Amrov (2017).

SA: I think this question is important, especially for the story that many Palestinian share with their homes. A very fundamental part of home as infrastructure of intimacy is the practice of building home, in every sense of the word. For example, most Palestinians build their own homes, they will help put the infrastructure together with a team of construction workers they might hire, and sometimes, the entire family is the construction team. I’ll give you an example, I have 14 maternal uncles in the outskirts of Al Khaleel, and they all participated in the building of their homes. My older cousins who went to work in places abroad, even them, would come back every summer and build their own place. Often times, these homes where an extra floor on top of their parents house, or some type of extension from the main house. And this isn’t just about the bricks and the electricity wires — it’s also about people picking their furniture, deciding on which room will go where, where will the best patio be, how big should the windows be, etc. People reflect themselves in the places they create and these places live inside people too — and that has been robbed from them, first by the Israeli state, but then by us when we center Palestinian everyday life in this frame of disaster or confrontation. Today in East Jerusalem for example, the Israeli state gives an option for Palestinians who can’t afford the state-sanctioned demolition to just do it on their own. Al Jazeera had a couple of years ago spoken to the residents that had to do this, and one of them said “The first hammer blow feels like you’re hitting yourself.” Like you are hitting yourself.

VAB: Right. I hear that so deeply. Going back to what you were saying earlier about wanting to make your own space really made me think about my experience of moving out of my parents’ home recently. Being in that process of making home has made it so clear to me what having a space does for your mind and body. That sense of putting artwork up on the wall, arranging your own bookcase, or choosing and buying the sofa that you relax into at the end of a day. There is an extent to which we could fool ourselves into thinking that these small things are irrelevant in the bigger picture, but they are neither small nor irrelevant, and the picture lacks them when they are not there. It is through these things that a house becomes a home at all. My partner and I just spent a week sanding and re-varnishing a secondhand table that we have. Neither of us are carpenters or experts at this kind of thing, and all that time we had no table to eat at or even leave to receipts on, because the wood wasn’t finished. The kitchen was less of a kitchen for the whole of that time. Now that everything is finished and the table is back, when I wake up to write, the very work that I produce is written at a table that I restored with my own two hands. All of this seems somehow so mundane, but it’s deceptively crucial — the sense that our bodies have a place to be and simultaneously create in relation to the environment around them. And that our bodies know a measure of safety and agency within that relation.

SA: I know your work centers language and mother tongues, and I am wondering, there had to be a revelation about the intimate through the process of translating poems from your mother tongue to English — that they were perhaps both familiarity and strangeness at the same time?

Adukwei Bulley Funambulist (1)
Recording the video series MOTHER TONGUES by Victoria Adukwei Bulley.

VAB: My relationship to the Ga language, which my parents both speak but I do not (yet), is definitely a mixture of familiarity and strangeness. I like the mix of these because I think the perfect blend of closeness and distance is what creates space for us to be respectfully curious about what surrounds us. I have heard Ga my whole life, 
which means that I can recognize it spoken by strangers even though I won’t know what’s being said. To be fair, I can also do that with French. But the process of making the MOTHER TONGUES films was a beautiful one. In a nutshell, MOTHER TONGUES is a poetry, film and translation project that sees poets ask their mothers to translate a poem into their mothers’ first language. A short film is then made, featuring a conversation between mother and daughter, before you hear the translated version from the mother, and the English original from the daughter. I think the true meaningfulness of it for me was in how it encouraged myself and the other poets, each of African heritage, to exist with our mothers as artistic collaborators. And I think that had a stunningly humanizing effect upon all of us involved, because, again, as immigrants we buy into this sense of our lives being all about the hustle and the move up and out of struggle; all longing and exile. And ultimately, that is a real and undeniable reality. But my point here speaks to what you’ve said about how we live and create beyond that paradigm, and what we learn about ourselves in that process. We are each familiar with our mothers, but there was a strangeness of working with them as co-conspirators in making a piece of art, and that strangeness was a moving and invaluable one.

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Poet Theresa Lola and her mother Clare about Yoruba language. / Still from MOTHER TONGUES by Victoria Adukwei Bulley.

SA: Yes, I guess broadening the scope of how we read our lives demands that we rethink interiority beyond this idea of “not here nor there” What does interiority mean to you? How does it concern both the interior of the self as well as the interior of the home — these two spaces blend and relate, how so?

VAB: Interiority to me is a way of describing a more inward-facing sense of being. In particular, when we consider ideas of Blackness, or Black culture(s) — in all its vastness and differences — we often think of its expressiveness. We call to mind our histories of outward resistance and we think of the significations within Blackness for statements and acts of dissent. On top of this is also the way that Blackness is so commodified, capitalized upon, often by others, and sometimes by ourselves as Black people. I guess what draws me to thinking around ideas of interiority is the question of what we keep to ourselves. Not even what we withhold, as that in itself is a resistance — an act in reaction to. But simply what — throughout all times and experiences, good or bad — belongs beautifully to us? Whether that be the fluidity of our desires, or the playfulness of our thoughts, I’m interested in that inner life which sometimes gets subsumed under everything else. These are not acts of resistance, necessarily, but by their nature and on their own terms they are, self-evidently, resistant. The interior is a great source of power, joy, and creative life — and that remembering that it exists at all is in itself revolutionary.

SA: “What we keep to ourselves”; that is really important. You are bringing an approach to invisibility I think that is really compelling. Ariella Azoulay is telling us the invisibility is sometimes produced by the gaze — almost an illusion that can absolutely be countered. You are saying that invisibility can also be something that we choose not to show at times, and in other instances, it is simply not possible to show because not everything that is real can be shown. The way we make sense of ourselves and our lives doesn’t have to be understood all the time to be valid. That acknowledgement of the power in what we don’t see is important to me and in a world obsessed with the materiality of things, it gets lost from our minds, like intimacy. ■