She needs to tell us what lies outside this ‘common’ and name what is inhuman, what cannot be permitted to go on in the name of any commonness
If you were not you and I were not I
we might be friends
– Mahmoud Darwish, from State of Siege
By invoking the figure of Mahmoud Darwish among her reasons for not joining the cultural boycott of Israel, JK Rowling has managed to incite lovers of Darwish and friends of Palestine.
According to Rowling, what she learnt from Darwish’s poetry is that “art civilises, challenges, and reminds us of our common humanity.”
On slightest inspection, the language of this understanding of art crumbles on its own presumptions.
Art is no longer understood as a civilising tool, the way it was propagated by colonialist imagination. Art can very well be an un-civilising, or if you like, a de-civilising tool of cultural expression as well.
Those who faced colonialism in the previous centuries have known how the civilising mission of colonial art and a corresponding barbarity of the regime which produced it went hand in hand. There is a cultural arrogance inherent in the discourse of civilising anything, including art.
Next we come to the phrase “common humanity”.
The justification behind a civilising mission, and by extension colonialism, was always derived from the idea of humanity. Humanity was white and European. And “others” in the colonies had to be brought up to the level of European humanity, through colonialism. It was quite a neatly argued logic once the definitions were set on one’s own terms.
Within this logic, the word “common” is also another trick in the name of universalism to fabricate a consensus around values that has always oppressed and ignored the problem of the “uncommon”, of otherness, of heterogeneity.
It is against the history and politics of segregation and discrimination in the name of promoting universalism that the politics of difference came into being.
The emphasis of difference need not necessarily mean the dismissal of a possible universal spirit that can be today accepted in the name of a ‘common humanity’. But whenever the use of that phrase is used as a superficial means to whitewash something as politically significant as a violent occupation, it is necessary to resist and critique such an attempt. The appeal to humanity cannot take us back to old times. From one century to the next, history has moved from colonies to settlements. Only terminologies of conquest have undergone a change.
Even if one may be persuaded for a moment to accept Rowling’s use of the phrase “common humanity” in its ethical and genuinely all-encompassing spirit, and agree Darwish’s poetry does speak to everyone irrespective of their cultural location, it is impossible to overlook the specificity of Darwish’s work and imagination.
That specificity is clear in Darwish’s assertion of his Arab identity, and how as a Palestinian, his identity is under enough threat for his poetry to try asserting it. Darwish’s poetry is often a dialogue with the Israeli, but where he questions the Israeli for denying the Palestinian his place under his own sun, to stand on his own soil, to grow his olives and inhale the fragrance of jasmine, without trepidation.
Darwish poetically called the Israel-Palestine conflict a “struggle between two memories”. He also added, Israeli poets (including Yehuda Amichai, a poet he admired, and who admired Darwish) were using landscape and history for their own benefit, “based on my destroyed identity.” Darwish acknowledged there is a “competition” towards ownership. Amichai, for instance, is carefully silent on naming the conflict. In his poems, the Arab appears fleetingly, only as a shadow, quasi-mystical figure rather than as a real historical subject. He erases the question of land. Why is Amichai’s otherwise brilliant poetry on love, war and Jewishness, silent on Palestine?
Impossibility of poetry
As we know from Samar Abdallah’s film, Writers on the Borders (2004), as much as from countless other films, writings and reports, the Israeli state has barbed Palestinian life, massacred its olive trees, destroyed its economy and ensured daily humiliation. All this besides houses being ransacked and broken and lives being taken.
Hamas has been for a long time a bad excuse Israel has held on to to impossibly defend its growing list of crimes against the Palestinians. In Abdallah’s film, the late Portuguese writer José Saramago says he received a note from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying how he was a victim of the “cheap propaganda” of the Palestinians. To which Saramago famously replied, he preferred to be the victim of the Palestinians’ cheap propaganda rather than a victim of Israel’s “expensive propaganda”.
Rowling should tell us under which constraints of ‘common humanity’ was Darwish under house arrest when writers from all across the world – including Wole Soyinka, Bei Dao, Breyten Breytenbach, Juan Goytisolo, Vincenzo Consolo and others – went to visit him in 2004? Three days after the writers left, Israel’s tanks occupied Ramallah, and its soldiers broke into the famous Kassaba theatre where Darwish recited his poems along with the others.
As the French writer, Christian Salmon, tells us in Abdallah’s film, the soldiers entered the theatre in the dark, “tearing down the curtains, breaking the lights, overturning the seats, as if it were essential to tear it to pieces the possibility of a rediscovered language.”
Which legal, moral, cultural and national compulsion prompted such a barbaric decree and act? If Darwish, reading a poem in the theatre that spoke of cultivating hope was appealing to our ‘common humanity’, what does the retaliatory act of the soldiers suggest? Simply that the Israeli regime has no compunction in damaging a place where poetry is read. What ‘common humanity’ will be served by endorsing and participating in the cultural activities of a nation which wouldn’t let a people have a theatre for reading poetry and other cultural activities?
That the situation in Palestine has only worsened since then also finds confirmation in Najwan Darwish’s poetry. Najwan is no relative of Mahmoud, and his collection Nothing More to Lose (NYRB Poets, 2014) is a testament of how further violence has ripped apart the heart of any reconciliation. In one of Najwan’s poems he writes:
In the 1930s it occurred to the Nazis
to put their victims in gas chambers
Today’s executioners are more professional
They put the gas chambers
in their victims.
If Saramago’s comparison of Palestine with Auschwitz in 2004 had drawn a lot of opposition and outcry, how does one read Najwan’s lines? Perhaps it is a bit obfuscating to compare one horror with another, and call it by the same name. Horrors aren’t translatable events, they are unrepeatable. But it is also true that a particular horror that occurred in history may sometimes remind us of the transgressions of our moral limits only in its comparison to a violence resembling horror that is taking place in the world at present.
The 150 signatories who have chosen to join the cultural boycott of Israel have acknowledged the name of that horror today is Palestine. To sign up is to assert a politics of difference and a politics of protest – against all that is happening in the name of past victimhood. Those who speak of ‘common humanity’ need to tell us what lies outside this common and name what is inhuman – what cannot be permitted to go on in the name of any commonness. Or else, we will keep allowing barbarism to flourish under the very nose of our ‘humanity’.
Manash Bhattacharjee is a poet, writer and political science scholar. His first collection of poetry, Ghalib’s Tomb and Other Poems (2013), was published by The London Magazine. He is currently Adjunct Professor in the School of Culture and Creative Expressions at Ambedkar University, New Delhi.