If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Jericho as you feel/see it?
I see Jericho emerging on the horizon when we are driving toward it from Bethlehem. It quivers, multiplies in shapes and colors: the flatness of the desert and the squares that, assembled, make the city; the ochre cliffs and mountains, the sun burning white, the orchards and groves—all green and yellow and orange with palms, bananas, oranges; the sea further off to the right, dead blue, and high in the sky the red dot of the cable car that goes all the way up to the Mount of Temptation and back. This is the first global image of Jericho you get as you drive along the highway. Then you cross over into its world, where the colors of the desert suddenly give way to the vibrant colors of the city.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
Decades ago, my family would go buy our fruits and vegetables from an orchard in Jericho every Sunday. I remember a sheltering green, and bursts of orange and red everywhere. A woman named Yousfieh lived there. I thought she was ancient, but she could have been young—I just instinctively assumed she was as old as the trees around her.
After we stopped going, I lost track. I never found this garden again. Losing it was like losing even more of my memory of my grandmother, so I cherish the small, intricate details that remain—for example, that one day Yousfieh gave us a loofah and it was the most exciting thing we’d ever seen!
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
I don’t know if I notice things that others don’t notice. I’m not that attentive . . . The city itself goes unnoticed by most visitors: it is either a transit city, as it is located at the start of the grueling border crossing to Jordan, which Palestinians must use to travel anywhere else in the world; or as a city of leisure, where Palestinians from other cities come to lounge and rest. So it’s perceived as these two extremes: travel and immobility. We rarely engage with the city itself, but rather look outward toward the border or inward toward the resorts and parks and pools. In a way, the rest often goes unnoticed.
The most persistent aspect of Jericho, to me, is its difference within Palestine: it does not look like the rest of the country and thus becomes a place within to travel without.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
It is a city very much rooted in oral storytelling, and it has a tradition of poetry. That’s where the writers are; they are not read but heard. Find them in any coffee shop or maybe let them tell you your fortune in a coffee cup tucked away in a secret garden. It happens more often than you think.
Is there a place here you return to often?
There is one street I love. It winds between the banana groves, the palm orchards, and the sycamore trees and is lined with the ruins of extravagant villas; I assume these belonged to families from the Palestinian diaspora, who built them in a fever and then left the country behind, along with their dreams of leisure and refuge, of creating a little Miami in Palestine, a resort where there is barely a sea . . .
As opposed to the villas built during the current craze, which are generic, lifeless, and very much out of touch, these houses are exuberant and colorful and exactly where they should be. You cannot identify their style or era because they are a patchwork of periods, imaginations, desires. It’s a sad street, but also an exciting one. I wish I could inhabit, revive, and tell stories about each of these houses.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
There is a place that is not yet an iconic literary spot but could become one: the short-lived Oasis Casino of Jericho stands derelict and tantalizing at the southern entrance of the city. It crystallizes so much of the story of Palestine in the 1990s, its possibilities, pitfalls, dreams, and nightmares. Someone should write a novel. One night at the casino . . . The casino is a literary icon waiting for its writer.
That such a casino should stand empty and shuttered for decades, existing only in its sign, in this city of the moon god, standing near the place where once Sodom, Gomorrah, and all the cities of the plain stood, is the stuff of literary iconography.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Jericho is, at times, a concatenation of gardens, private and public, where things hide. It is a city of hiding. In a world of enforced transparency and readability, Jericho provides lush and deep gardens where no one can find you.
Jericho’s visible tropicality excites me. It challenges my imagination of geography, it gives the entrancing possibility of being elsewhere, even here where the occupation reduces our mobility to nothing.
Where does passion live here?
On the outskirts—when the desert becomes Jericho or Jericho becomes the desert. It’s a city that thrives on thresholds, spatial but also temporal. Jericho appears to me in its passion when it is twilit, full of the possibilities of night. It is, after all, the city of the moon—and although this is today merely a moniker, you’d be hard-pressed to miss the pagan and lunar aura the city takes on once the sun has set.
What is the title of one of your works about Jericho and what inspired it exactly?
A few years ago, I wrote a science fiction short story called “A Map of the End.” The protagonist removes himself from the world to a convent in an unnamed desert, near an oasis city. The world is ending, and he decides to draw a map of everything before it disappears. He spends his days at his desk, drawing and watching the oasis city, its twinkling lights, its casino as the only horizon he obsessively tries to draw, and he asks himself how he can manage to capture it, “this oasis-city, purloined from the world as it is, stolen from itself.” This story features Jericho at its horizon, its edge, and its heart.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Jericho does an outside exist?”
Jericho is so radically different. Being in it feels like being in a geodesic dome, in an outside-inside Palestine. You’re in and you’re out. Close, but removed. Exposed and sheltered. Here, but elsewhere.
Karim Kattan is a writer. He holds a doctoral degree in comparative literature from Paris Nanterre University. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Préliminaires pour un verger futur (2017), and a novel, Le Palais des deux collines (2021), which were both published by the Tunis-based Éditions Elyzad. In English, his articles and short stories have been widely published in literary reviews and magazines, including the Paris Review, Strange Horizons, the Magazine of Fantasy & Science-Fiction, +972 Magazine, Translunar Travelers Lounge, the Funambulist, and more. His writing has been featured in various art spaces, exhibitions, and biennales, including the MMAG Foundation in Amman, Bétonsalon in Paris, B7L9 in Tunis, Arquetopia in Puebla, Mophradat in Athens, Art Kulte in Rabat, the Berlinale Forum in Berlin, Frac des Pays de la Loire in Carquefou, and the 58th Venice Biennale.
Copyright © 2023 by Karim Kattan. All rights reserved.