Haifa: to return or not to return
Adania Shibli - 18/07/2007
These days, when I get to thinking about events in Palestine, I end up pouring sesame paste into my coffee instead of sugar. I throw the coffee away and go to put the cup away in the cupboard, only to find I’ve put it in the fridge. Furious with myself I wrench open the door of the cupboard (yes, the cupboard!) and hurl the cup, stained with the undrinkable mixture, into a row of glasses, where it sustains a chip.
So I tend to be extremely hesitant when writing about Palestine. Perhaps what I write will be wrong, perhaps inappropriate, unfocussed or inadequate. A particular event or point of view may suddenly strike me, but when I try to nail it to the page it slips my grasp, like birds fluttering around in front of you: you creep so close you start to believe you can reach out and grab them, then they flit away out of sight.
Yet today, this morning, I have finally surrendered to my clumsy inadequacies, my failure to find the right words. I will write, even though it will, likely as not, end up being the exact opposite of what I intended. These stumbling words, confused, inadequate and shameful though they are, are all I have.
For some time now I have checking the news from, and about, Palestine every 15 minutes. Every 15 minutes I wake from my sleep wondering what’s going on in Palestine. It’s the profound pain of jilted lovers who stirred continually from their rest by thoughts of the one they have lost.
Friday night, July 6: I’m reading a short article by Pierre Abu Saab in the cultural pages of Al-Akhbar about Mahmoud Darwish’s impending visit to Haifa where he is due to give his first reading since he was exiled from the city. I had read about this visit in another newspaper article a few days before, and my comment at the time was, “Mahmoud Darwish has never been back to Haifa since he was exiled?”
The article calls on Darwish not to return. At this late hour on a Friday night I find myself agreeing, but not too strongly. These days I’m only interested in Gaza: Haifa can go to hell. Gaza: the word I mumble to myself day and night like a madman. Gaza: with its one and half million prisoners, locked away for years, ignored by all. Gaza: suspended on the very edge of the map, burdened by its misery, its poverty, overpopulation and war. Even the weather forecasts contrive to ignore Gaza. I go to sleep. When I awake I am ambushed by a profound sense of self-loathing, recalling how willingly I snuffled after events in Palestine, obsessed with finding another scapegoat to slaughter to the gods of civil war and fragmentation, nourishing and strengthening them even as we meekly accept our own deaths. What fatted calf has been offered up this time: one of Palestine’s literary symbols no less. I remember a story our religious studies teacher told us in Year 3 to convince us of the weakness and absurdity of religious belief in the pre-Islamic period, of those who fashioned images of their gods from dried dates then ate them when poverty and hunger struck.
I went over to my computer and sent an email to Pierre Abu Saab. His article began by stating that if the Rolling Stones had refused to play a concert in Israel as a result of the Palestinian campaign for a cultural boycott of the country, then Mahmoud Darwish shouldn’t go to Haifa. So for Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian, to become a true supporter of Palestine he needs to be transformed into an Englishman with a political conscience. He needs to treat the Palestine occupied in 1948, his homeland, as Israel, and the Palestinians who live there as Israelis. He must declare that Haifa is enemy territory. Don’t go back to Haifa. I write to Abu Saab in a temper and an hour later his reply comes back, urging me to write on the subject and mention Ghassan Kanafani, who was assassinated 35 years ago this week. Right… July 8… I’d completely forgotten… I take up the challenge and try to start writing, but am again paralyzed by an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. I’m not embarrassed because only last night I was nodding my head in agreement that Darwish should carried to the slaughtering block, but because I was attempting to exonerate myself for this drunken, sheep-like conformity. Worse than the agreement itself was my attempt to pretend it was forgiven. That I nodded at all suggests I’m just one part of the bitter, swarming masses, all infected with the disease of dissent and division. Yet to presume to rescue Darwish? Who am I to do that? My embarrassment deepens. I retreat into silence and cast my mind back over the 35 years that have transformed “returning to Haifa” into “don’t return to Haifa”. People don’t notice change when it’s gradual and slow, but when something turns into its polar opposite in the space of a night, things that have long been obscure become clear as day.
Why did Ghassan Kanafani write Returning to Haifa, and now we write “Don’t return to Haifa”?
In Returning to Haifa our Palestinian protagonist is transformed into an Israeli. Kanafani presents his version of a nightmare, perhaps his own personal nightmare, by showing that given the right circumstances the victim can become the killer. The novel confronts Palestinians with an existential question: What does it mean to be Palestinian? In a less direct form it poses a moral question about the individual’s responsibility for
human suffering and their ability to feel the pain of others regardless of nationality or religious affiliation.
Now, in 2007, we write, “Don’t return to Haifa,” a statement that asks nothing more than the old question: “Who are you with? Them or us?” This is not an existential question; it’s more like a simple equation. Place anything you like in the two spaces marked “with us” or “with them”, and you get the same result every time: betrayal. It can be anything: Fatah or Hamas, Gaza or Haifa, imprisoned until death or dead, elected corruptly or possessed of a corrupt legitimacy, your weariness or the weariness of others. Who are you with?
I pore over this question every day. Personally, I hate being unable to answer questions, but my inability to answer this one in particular is now my sole concern.
Without hesitation, without stumbling, I say coolly and calmly, “I am not with us” and I’ll stay that way so long as this is the only question on offer. I shall maintain my silence and, it seems, my sadness too.