Karim Kattan meditates on the ways that the West Bank barrier constrains not only the movement of Palestinians, but their memories and political imaginaries. With Bethlehem as a starting point, he navigates a political and physical topography ordered by the architecture of apartheid occupation but nevertheless brimming with new grammars and political possibility.
I sometimes try to remember what my hometown of Bethlehem looked like before the apartheid wall, erected by Israel, became one of the defining features of its horizon (the other is the settlement of Har Homa perched upon Jabal Abu Ghneim, a suburb of Babylonian proportions). It feels like an important exercise, a sort of discipline of recollection: I have no memory of the roads and houses now hidden from view behind the wall, nor do I properly remember the forest that was razed to build Har Homa. One has defined my days and my relationship to the sun — the wall and the shade it provides on my walk from my home to the city center — and the other my nights — Har Homa, twinkling in the darkness around it, like an alien spaceship moored in Palestine. If the wall or the settlement disappeared overnight, I would be left completely disoriented.
The wall is arguably one of the most monumental aspects of the occupation: it is, in many ways, iconic. It manifests the occupation’s brutal dominion over land and horizon, and, by extension, over time and history. It reshuffles all futures into precisely patterned impossibilities. And so, as if my memory had been wiped clean, I do not remember: the Bethlehem that is not besieged by an apartheid wall does not exist, and will never exist anymore, neither in real life, nor in my head. As a writer of fiction, it is an unsettling and curious phenomenon to have an area of one’s imagination completely blank. This part of the map has been scrubbed away and is irretrievable.
The wall speaks to our imagination: concrete that shrouds the sky and towers over the human beings treated like cattle underneath. It is a convenient placeholder for the magnitude of apartheid and colonization. Yet, the workings of the Israeli machine are not usually monumental. The wall is an aspect of Israeli power — and not necessarily the most important one. Indeed, one of its most brilliant achievements is that it is self-effacing, even unassertive in day-to-day life. It is a silent conquest stretching over moments and decades. When videos of brutality are circulated on the Internet, or when the machine is caught in a lie, or when Israel engages in spectacular destruction, it is a failure of this unassertiveness, which allows the Israeli state to operate in what it calls “peace.”
The monumental aspects of Israeli dominion are often those best known to a foreign audience, who can imagine now what the wall is, or how settlements loom over the cities of the West Bank or can picture well what an Israeli soldier harassing a Palestinian child looks like or see in their minds Gaza as a uniquely devastated landscape. These are monuments and ruins of power that are hard to miss — or can only be missed by those who do not want to see. But they are so effective on a daily basis that, eventually, the wall becomes a natural aspect of the landscape, like a sunset, and a settlement swells with the ease of a thunderstorm. One of the functions of the wall, and of settlements, is to remove all imaginations of possibles, and to naturalize domination. This happens quietly, over years of discipline and shaping of narrative. It starts with the monumental, but seeps into the unassuming and the minutiae, where the relentlessness of the occupation lies. Building a settlement requires a complex variety of mechanisms, including Palestinian labor, land theft, displacement, and violence. It is not eventful, nor truly perceptible unless one knows exactly how cities of the West Bank are progressively besieged, cut off from one another, by proliferating settlements and how every hill has been turned into an outpost for further colonization.
Providing a full, eloquent, and embodied picture of Palestine in writing is a challenge. Colonization excises the territory, and amputates our imagination, our relationship to time and space. A military checkpoint is a reminder that landscapes can be removed at any instant; that here land ends and subjugation begins. It is a marker and a threat, not only an obstacle to movement. These aspects, the minutiae, are not events.
But Palestine only enters the news cycle when events occur. When they subside, and only the uneventfulness of occupation remains, Palestine disappears from view. Therefore, we only have foreign witnesses on a global scale, when something supposedly exceptional happens. There is a common assumption that no news is good news, that in the absence of headlines Palestine has reverted to an acceptable status quo, to peaceful uneventfulness.
This is a challenge to Palestinian narration: how to describe and talk about the details of the occupation once Palestine has left the news cycle? How to create newness within the constant barrage of sameness, violent as it is, that is imposed by the occupation? Details of colonization are boring and too numerous to hold someone’s attention for long. How do I provide a coherent description of all of it, of everything in its entirety? How can I express enormity, especially when it is lodged in the details, in facial surveillance, in the routine update of an ID card, in the complicated acrobatics one has to deal with to register a newborn?
Sometimes, when I exercise my memory of places long gone, I remember a specific street, which is now hidden behind the wall. It is one of my only memories of that wall-less Bethlehem. I do not recall much about it, except that it was lined with flowers in spring, and that it seemed to coil round the neck of the hills, growing longer until it reached the ends of the earth, like a road of promise. In recent months, thanks to the tireless advocacy and creativity of Palestinians, new vocabularies are breaking through the mainstream, where this seemed unthinkable just two years ago — the increased recognition of apartheid, based on years of legal work by Palestinians, is the most striking example of the past year. It would be naïve to conclude that vocabulary and narration alone can bring about change. They do, however, shift the playing field dramatically: by recognizing that Israel is a comprehensive state of apartheid, not only in the West Bank, as is usually thought, but throughout its treatment of Palestinians everywhere, the settler colonial nature of this project becomes evident. And younger generations of creatives and activists, such as Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd, join the older ones in emphasizing those words, and the narratives they imply, on a public stage. It is difficult to balance the urgency of the struggle — erasure, death, and expropriation happen daily — with the timelines imposed by the outside world. Palestinians, as they yearn for safety and freedom, are also expected to be academics and lawyers and artists and historians and eloquent speakers, all at the same time, as if, barring that, their voices were not worthy of being heard, nor their lives of being protected. As if, indeed, we only deserved to live if we had the skills to prove why. As if freedom and safety were privileges rather than rights.
And so, we are throwing away, yet again, the language and concepts and timelines that were imposed upon us, that wasteland of ideas, so that our words, our realities, and our imaginations can flourish. We will speak as we speak, and name things for precisely what they are. And it feels like that road stretching to the horizon: Palestinian creativity, this year, seems to be reaching new heights in how it expresses, illustrates, and accounts for colonization, and how it moves beyond it. It speaks with urgency, conviction, and precision, regardless of what the world is willing to hear.
The road behind the wall is not a metaphor (metaphors can be traps; a misplaced poeticization of brutality), nor is that erstwhile Bethlehem completely gone. I know it still exists, though my imagination has lost the ability to picture it. The monumentality of the wall, of settlements, of the entire colonial enterprise, relies on imposing silence — on naturalizing itself; and on making us forget what exists on the other side. If the wall cannot collapse — it is, after all, a part of us now, just as colonialism is a defining feature of our history — it must gradually uncover the road behind it. Our uncompromising vocabulary and our fiction are tools to testify to the existence of this road and, when memory fails, to reinvent it as many times as necessary, until we are free. ■