Maurice Ebileeni, Being There, Being Here: Palestinian Writings in the World (Syracuse University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Maurice Ebileeni (ME): To put it in very simple terms, I wanted to make room in the Palestinian story for people like myself. I am definitively Palestinian in the sense that both of my parents come from the Galilean Palestinian village of Tarshiha—now part of Israel. Today, I live in Tarshiha with my wife and children. I speak, albeit a bit accented, a Palestinian dialect of Arabic. However, in some ways I am also a newcomer insofar as I was born and raised in Copenhagen and only settled down in Tarshiha as a young adult. I have always found it easier to speak and read in Danish. My cultural tastes are still relatively Scandinavian. And I am still very connected to my former homeland.
I cannot claim that I would qualify for citizenship in the Palestinian nation as my story and my cultural make-up does not exactly fit conventional notions of what we would associate with what it means to be Palestinian. My identity is not shaped by the refugee experience or the occupation. Growing up in Copenhagen was not defined as exilic or diasporic. Completely ignorant of the ongoing public discussions about defining “Danishness” and the general notion that “brown skin” could never become genuinely Danish, I just thought of myself as a Dane—a Dane with Arab parents.
It was only at an advanced stage in my graduate studies, by then already living in Israel, that I began to view my identity through conceptual frameworks that would make sense. Names of writers such as Yahya Hassan (Denmark), Susan Muaddi Darraj (United States), Lina Meruane (Chile), and Sayed Kashua (Israel) would pop up on my screen while I was deeply immersed in writing my doctoral dissertation on Joseph Conrad, William Faulkner, and psychoanalysis. I started to realize that there were people out in the world—both “there” and “here”—who were just as (un)qualified for Palestinian citizenship as I was.
This revelation led to more searches and more discoveries of Palestinian writers and artists from across the world whose experiences and works could not easily be boxed into conventional narratives of Palestine—conventional narratives that were largely conceived in Arabic. In writing this book, I wanted to address this lacuna. I wanted to show that in order to fully understand the proliferations of the Palestinian experience, we would need to look beyond the local and beyond the Arabic language.
J : What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
ME: It primarily focuses on how the writing about Palestine in different languages has led to different imaginings of a homeland. Different generations writing about Palestine in different languages from different locations have created a matrix of very different versions of a homeland which do not necessarily correspond with one another.
Being There, Being Here also addresses the historical trajectories that have led to the creation of today’s diverse Palestinian communities both locally and globally. It looks into how the identities of these communities have been shaped by the circumstances of these trajectories as well as by the current social and political conditions in which they exist. To understand what the Palestinian text talks about in English, Danish, Hebrew, Spanish, or Arabic, we need to first understand the histories and the present circumstances of the cultural environments in which these texts are being conceived.
For example, the status of Palestinian authors in Israel differs from that of their counterparts in Europe and the Americas. They are a special case in that they do not belong to a migrant community, but to the country’s indigenous Arab population. They have citizenship under Israeli law. However, while enduring the perils of relative cultural and geographic isolation from their Palestinian counterparts “outside” Israel, they are also generally viewed as culturally and nationally inferior by the country’s Jewish majority. Similarly, Anglophone Palestinian writings are inseparable from the instrumental role played by the British (territorial) empire and the US-led (non-territorial) powers—respectively since the mid-eighteenth century and World War II—in shaping the history as well as the current conditions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to longstanding Orientalist discourses.
In comparison, writings from Latin America differ yet again from their counterparts in Europe and North America. The majority of Palestinian communities in Latin America were founded as a result of the waves of Arab emigration from Palestine between 1870 and 1930. Migrants were predominantly Christian merchants from the Bethlehem region, Jerusalem, Taybeh, and Ramallah who wished to escape the Ottoman rule. Today’s descendants of these migration waves generally belong to middle- and upper-social classes and are well-represented among political and business elites (representing, for once, a “successful” Palestinian story). Consequently, they do not easily fit into the national narrative shaped by experiences of exile in the Arab world, dispossession, and life under the Israeli military occupation. Furthermore, whereas Palestinian writers residing in Europe and the Americas may generally be defined as exiles or émigrés, they basically belong to historically different waves of migration. Europe and North America variedly host exiles who have escaped either the perils of Israeli occupation or the dire conditions of refugee camps in Arab countries.
Lastly, the narratives of recent Danish texts—such as the late Yahya Hassan’s two self-titled poetry collections Yahya Hassan (2013) and Yahya Hassan 2 (2019), Ahmad Mahmoud’s Sort Land: Fortællinger fra Ghettoen (“Black Country: Stories from the Ghetto,” 2015), and Abdel Aziz Mahmoud’s Hvor Taler Du Flot Dansk (“How Wonderfully You Speak Danish,” 2016)—cannot be separated from contemporary public discussions on the problems of immigration, assimilation, and the “parallel societies” evolving in certain “ethnic” neighborhoods such as Nørrebro in Copenhagen, Vollsmose near Odense, and Gellerrup at the heart of Århus. My point is that as a result of decades of displacement, the Palestinian story has—within distinct lingual and social environments—proliferated in multiple directions and, as a result, has been compelled to grapple with different cultural and political conditions.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
ME: I would say that the key concept which connects my first book, Conrad, Faulkner, and the Problem of Nonsense,and Being There, Being Here is displacement.
In hindsight, I think my initial attraction to modernist literature was based in seeing authors such as Conrad, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Faulkner as being—to borrow Edward Said’s famous term—“out of place”: Conrad, a Polish immigrant, who decided to write in English; Joyce, a self-exiled Irishman, whose imagination really never left Dublin; Woolf, a late Victorian woman, who wanted to bend the laws of physics for writing to talk about gender; and Faulkner, a citizen of the defeated south (the wrong America), who with the power of words transformed the southern tragedy into beautiful and disturbing art.
Modernist experimentation could only have happened in these deterritorialized terrains, outside the mainstream. These writers did not only want to write stories, but to change how we write stories for the purpose of saying something different. This, I believe, connects to Palestinian literature in that this literature is created by people whose homeland was planned to be wiped off the map. Palestinians write—and have always written—from positions of deterritorialization. The Palestinian text carries with it legacies of historical foreign rules; it is today created under occupation, in refugee camps, under siege, in the various diasporas, and it even holds Israeli citizenship. Historically, the world has yet to witness the birth of a Palestinian text conceived by a Palestinian writer in a free and independent Palestine. In short, the Palestinian text is a creature of displacement, similar to the modernist text in its early phases.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
ME: First of all, I, of course, hope that everyone interested in diaspora and immigration studies, postcolonial and globalization theory, as well as Palestine and Israel studies will read Being There, Being Here. However, I also hope it will reach audiences outside academia, particularly Palestinian audiences and activists.
Second, Being There, Being Here is written in English, but I will be searching for ways to translate it into Arabic and also Hebrew. I think it is particularly urgent that readers of Arabic become aware of the Palestinian communities outside the Arab world and expand the discussion about Palestine beyond the occupation. One of the main aims of my book is to show that the so-called “two-state solution” did not really offer any form of solution to the majority of the existing Palestinian communities. Refugees were erased from the equation; Palestinians in Israel were left to grapple with an impossible Israeli reality; Palestinians in the various diasporas—both in Arab nations and abroad—were prevented from officially claiming a homeland in what was supposed to become Palestine, and so forth. The Oslo agreements only proposed an experimental framework for how to continue controlling the lives of Palestinians living inside Israel-Palestine while preserving the illusion of normalcy for the Israeli population, and yet it seems today that the question of Palestine has exclusively come down to the issue of the occupation. I hope that Being There, Being Here, in focusing on all Palestinian communities across the world and their different histories, will present a comprehensive snapshot of the Palestinian situation in its multiple segments.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
ME: At the moment, I am working on an article on Palestinian futurism. But I am becoming increasingly interested in how we are learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through social media, streaming services, and search engines. It seems that today’s algorithmic reality has generated a new form of subjectivity with specific physiological and cognitive features through which we learn about and engage with politics and knowledge in general. Our online selves constantly “comment,” “like,” “react,” or “share” in relation to the constant inflow of information and I think these recently acquired “skills” are shaping how we grapple with political questions such as the Palestinian question. It is still very early to formulate anything substantial about this project; I can only say with certainty that I am interested in how Palestine is behaving in the digital conditions set by the very sophisticated algorithms running our lives.
Excerpt from the book (from the Preface, pp. xi – xiii)
In 1868, the unknown “nine years old or thereabouts” Konrad Korzeniowski “while looking at a map of Africa of the time,” put his finger on “the blank space then representing the unresolved mystery of the continent” and promised himself “when I grow up, I shall go there!” It seems now to be common knowledge in literary circles that many years later, Korzeniowski’s adult alter ego Joseph Conrad immortalizes this call in Heart of Darkness (1902) through the fictional Charlie Marlow before he engages on his journey to the Congo and confronts the “dangers” of the continent. I am beginning with this reference to Conrad because while writing Being There, Being Here, Marlow’s words resonated to me in Erez Kreisler’s (former head of the Misgav Regional Council in the north of Israel) descriptions of the Galilee in a recent Ha’aretz article about the monitoring of Israeli housing regulations to maintain a dividing line between the area’s Jewish and Arab inhabitants. Kreisler, who claims to be “in favor of life together, but on the basis of some sort of structure and framework,” explains that he arrived in the Galilee in 1989 when “the image of the Galilee was that of an enfeebled, wretched, even dangerous region.” With these few words, Kreisler transformed the birthplace of my parents, my wife, and my three children into — to put it in Conradian terms — “one of those dark places on earth,” and severely inflamed my awareness of my status as a “person of color.”
It is not to claim that I had not stood face to face with my “otherness” before. Nonetheless, for many years, the repercussions of those encounters were remarkably faint. Born and raised in Copenhagen by Arab immigrants, my “color” was a constant mark of distinction, but it was still the 80s and my presence among my Danish peers was still viewed as “exotic” rather than “threatening.” I grew up as a native speaker of Danish, a devout lover of leverpostej and remoulade, and a loyal fan of Dennis Jürgensen’s youth novels. Surely, I was occasionally reminded of “where I originally came from” insofar as my Danish education could, of course, never be fully realized due to my “exotic” roots. I can, however, not recall a single instance of such evocations that stuck or caused any recognizable long-term damage to my character (if such a thing is possible). It was a relatively happy childhood and, although I was rarely targeted, it is only in retrospect that I understand the severity of derogatory colloquialisms such as “fremmedarbejder,” “indvandrer,” and “perker.” During those years, I possessed an innate ability to brush off the impact of such verbal assaults — that same ability that I, in adulthood, have further honed to brush off the tremors of terms and expressions employed in the mainstream Israeli discourse regarding the country’s Arab citizens (the community with which I am affiliated today). For some enigmatic reason, I have never felt that I belonged in those targeted minority groups. Kreisler’s words did not exactly unsettle this ability, but rather they complemented a process that had started some years earlier. My so-called ability was severely diminished during the period between 2014 and 2017 when I won a Martin Buber postdoctoral fellowship at the Hebrew University and I had to stay overnight in Jerusalem during weekdays to work from my office. Daily interactions with Jewish and German colleagues at the Hebrew University revealed an Israeli reality that I had not encountered while living in Tarshiha since I had moved to Israel nearly two decades earlier.
Although Israel always configured as a major presence ever since I can remember, up until the point of my postdoctoral studies, I had somehow succeeded in not really seeing or understanding what Israel represents. The annual three-hour trip from the Lydda airport (Ben Gurion airport) to Tarshiha — which marked the start of the summer vacation — never opened my eyes to the complex reality between Tel Aviv and this distant Galilean village since I always managed to sleep through the ride. As far as to how my young mind conceptualized the world then, Tarshiha was Israel and Israel was Tarshiha. Herzilya, Netanya, Haifa, Acre, and Naharyia did not exist insofar as they never entered my field of vision or imagination. I recall my mother waking me up when we’d arrive at the entrance to Tarshiha and ascend the curvy main street past the Mosque, the Roman Catholic church and then the Greek Orthodox one, before we reached our destination — the upper quarter of the village where both my paternal and maternal families resided and where we would stay for the next four weeks.
Years later when I, as a young adult, moved to Israel for my university studies, my decision was based in those childhood memories — the joy associated with those summer vacations. Strangely as it may seem, I simply did not think about the political implications of what it would be like to live in Israel as an Arab citizen. During my undergraduate studies at the University of Haifa, I stuck with my Danish peers between classes. I arrived during a period when the glamor of the signing of the Oslo Agreement was still at large and political activity on the mixed campus in Haifa appeared more-or-less civilized. The controversial Arab (and today exiled) intellectual Azmi Bishara was being courted by the Israeli media as the next big thing, and this first actual encounter with Israel of the 90s outside Tarshiha convinced me that the place seemed by and large habitable.
In 1995, I stood among the crowds outside the Church of Nativity on Christmas Eve witnessing Yasser Arafat’s historic arrival in Bethlehem. To be honest, I felt excited but my excitement was not rooted in national sentiments — it was rather a sensation a tourist might experience, seeing the Sistine Chapel for the first time. During the following years, my impressions remained intact despite having experienced the October Riots and the Second Intifada in 2000, and the Second Lebanon War (with short-range missiles raining over the Galilee while I was carrying my then one-year old son) in 2006. On television, I watched the Israeli military declare three consecutive wars on the population of Gaza, killing thousands of Palestinians. I saw the mainstream Israeli political discourse moving further and further to the right, anticipating the election of one extreme government after another, and still I did not get it. It was only when I arrived in Jerusalem as a postdoctoral researcher I started to understand my place in all of this. In Tarshiha among relatives and friends, I was “al-danimarki” (the Dane). In Jerusalem, I became the Arab — a Palestinian Arab.