In her latest dispatch for our Artists Talk: Israel/Palestine series, Azareen Van der Vliet speaks to Raji Bathish, a Palestinian poet, novelist, screenplay writer and cultural activist born in Nazareth. Bathish’s work has been widely published across the Arab and Israeli-Palestinian worlds. He has published seven books up to date, the most recognized of which is titled A Room in Tel-Aviv published in 2007 by the Arab institute for Studies and Research, in Beirut. His short story “Life without Me ” is included in this month's issue of Words without Borders. Bathish’s poem “Rooms ” follows below in a translation by Chana Morgenstern.
Azareen Van der Vliet: Could you talk a little bit about how you identify yourself in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Raji Bathish: In my early thirties I identified as an Israeli-Palestinian, but once I came to understand the history of the conflict, of course, I began to identify strictly as a Palestinian.
AV: Could you describe some of the motifs or themes that come up in your work, or concerns regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that you tend to address often?
RB: As a Palestinian people there are some basic motifs that are forbidden to deconstruct. National narratives for example, and certainly the belief that Jerusalem has to be the capital. What I like to do in my writing is to shock people into seeing that there is a gap between the reality we live and current Palestinian beliefs. I like to work against the collective imagination, or collective expectations. In essence, we all write about the occupation of the land somehow, but the difference is how one chooses to write about it. I feel there is an expectation from the masses to be very patriotic, to write in clichés. But when you travel around the country, you see that the reality is one thing and the romantic expectation of the masses is another. This problem exists mainly among Palestinian refugees. Refugees in Syria and Lebanon, for example, have been forbidden to enter Palestine for sixty-three years, and they want you to keep memories of the Palestine of their times alive, to tell stories that reinforce what their fathers and grandfathers told them. Things like, “Palestine is heaven on earth and full of orange trees; it’s all green and the weather is amazing.” When you write about present-day Palestine its a shock for them. For example, a lot of Palestinians live in Tel Aviv, which is a very cosmopolitan city, but when a Palestinian chooses to write about Tel Aviv it’s a shock. The response tends to be: “Why do you write about the capital of the enemy?”
AV: Do you feel like writing as a Palestinian requires a different kind of language? Are there particular kinds of language you tend to employ in your writing?
RB: I think it’s a matter of building or creating a new language that reflects the complicated reality we live in. There is a plurality of identities and languages here. I’m not talking about the West Bank, I’m talking about Palestinians living in Israel. So, naturally, you have to invent a new language, a different language. I think the kind of dialogues I write in my stories are different from the dialogues I would write if I were living in the West Bank, or Syria, or Jordan. It’s different, but we have small elements in common. If I were a writer in Ramallah, for example, I would have a very similar dialogue with every person I meet. But here, if I have a dialogue with a Jewish lover or my mother or a friend, it’s different. We have a plurality of identities and voices, and we change from one to another depending on who we are speaking to.
AV: Do you feel that you have a community of writers here? If so, how do you organize yourselves as a community around literature?
RB: We don’t have a central city where we meet. Everyone lives all around the country, so it’s very difficult to meet. But we’ve just launched an online magazine titled Qadita. I think the journal will be key to community organizing. It is a rare project, in the sense that it is an independent Arab online magazine that includes cultural and political articles, literature, caricatures, blogs, cinema and theater reviews. There is also a section dedicated to gay writing, which I edit. The idea started about two years ago. The editors called everyone they knew and said, “We are tired of the political and religious pressure on writing here.” In general, people who run the Web sites and the magazines tend to be affiliated with political parties, such as Had’aa, the communist party, or the Balad party, so we wanted to establish a more independent platform.
AV: What would you say is one of the more formative political events that have shaped your writing?
RB: I have to say the Sabra and Shatila massacre which took place in Palestinian Refugee Camps in Beirut, in 1982, during the Lebanese Civil War. I was a young adult at the time, and seeing all the bodies on television really impacted me. I think, pretty quickly afterward, I started to lose faith in the idea of justice. The event turned out to be very formative for me as a writer. These days my favorite authors tend to be Milan Kundera, Jose Saramágo, Jean Genet; in terms of writers from the Arab world, I really like Salim Darka, Eyal Doumis, and Sam’al Abrahim. What these writers have in common is that they tend to write simple texts, from an artistic, technical point of view, but the content of their work tends to be very tough and shocking, and pretty cynical. They aren’t afraid of death or catastrophe, and I’m drawn to that, because as human beings we are not protected from death, or catastrophe, or war.
translated from Arabic by Chana Morgenstern.
I look in the mirror…
Where is my exile? Where is exile? Is it here or is it there?
Inside of or within this loneliness spotted suitcase
I look in the mirror…
And how can loneliness be an exile, and how can it be
With black oil and turbid water… a loneliness whose beginning I do not know
nor do I know its disappearance
Maybe my strangeness will dissolve at the foot of this wall
whose thorns I am now regarding
One wall at the borders of my exile and another at the foot of my strangeness
I have arrived at a room which drips everything that has passed, and turns it into piles of dust, into a perfume of dust that does not end, from which nothing passes but the loss of memory.