Maryam S. Griffin, Vehicles of Decolonization: Public Transit in the Palestinian West Bank (Temple University Press, 2022). In the series Critical Race, Indigeneity, and Relationality, edited by Antonio T. Tiongson Jr., Danika Medak-Saltzman, Ikyo Day, and Shanté Paradigm Smalls.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Maryam S. Griffin (MSG): My impulse to write this book emerged from the quite basic observation, made on my first visit to Palestine, that, while I had read a lot of analysis about Israel’s total immobilization of Palestinians, Palestinians were moving around anyway. This movement can be dangerous, cumbersome, costly, inefficient, unpredictable, and slow, but it is also clearly irrepressible and deserves recognition and analysis in its own right. I noticed that public transportation in particular operated in such a way as to reject and overcome the attempted containment of Palestinian life in the post-Oslo shards of fragmented Palestinian territory. It is a mobile site where people collectively develop and negotiate mobility on their own terms, but of course it is a contested site. The collective movement of Palestinians is a target of Israeli control because denying self-determined movement to Palestinians is useful and necessary for Israel’s settler colonial drive to take Palestinian land and destroy the Palestinian people. Yet the perseverance of collective Palestinian movement represents a constellation of people power—its exercise, its constitutive relationships, its circulation—that will outlast colonial domination. Oftentimes, the Palestinian liberation struggle is framed as a set of intentionally political practices that resist an onslaught of Israeli domination. But through this research about the means of collective movement, I argue that the endurance of Palestine issues from an interconnected constellation of mundane practices, political actions, and imaginative visions.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MSG: Vehicles of Decolonization presents an interdisciplinary examination of collective Palestinian mobility via public transportation as a site of social struggle, through which Israel deepens its settler colonialism in the West Bank and Palestinian communities refuse that project in implicit and explicit ways. Proceeding from the premise that settler domination is never complete, the book illuminates a mobile map of active decolonization as Palestinians reinhabit the land through self-determined movement.
The first two chapters trace the development of Israel’s enclosures strategy in the West Bank, focused on controlling Palestinian movement through diffused bordering processes. Chapters three to five analyze different Palestinian engagements with public transit—quotidian, activist, and artistic—as exercises of self-determined mobility, where the practices of knowledge circulation, communal care, social reconnection, and meaningful territorial inhabitation evince the endurance of Palestinian life on Palestinian land.
In carrying out these analyses, I draw together insights from critical border studies, critical mobility studies, Indigenous studies, Black studies, settler colonial studies, resistance studies, and, of course, Palestine studies. All of these fields offer resonant insights to and with one another that can refine our understanding of the significance of mobility to decolonization and the interrelation of different modes of people power.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
MSG: Another strand of my work—one that I worked on previously but that remains an ongoing scholarly interest of mine—is the way Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) people engage with the process of their racialization in the United States. I previously published research into a particular campaign of SWANA college students who organized to change their racial categorization on the University of California admissions application, moving themselves from the ”White” box and into their own “SWANA” box. While this book, at first glance, deals with an entirely different topic, I see them as connected. Both projects are animated by questions about the interactions between state power and people’s movements, whether physical or social. And both seek to highlight the resilience and genius of ordinary people who navigate terrains of intensifying state control in order to forge new models for living their lives in peace.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MSG: I sincerely hope for a diverse readership for this book, as I attempted to write it by drawing together a variety of existing conversations and in a style that is accessible to many. I hope that the book will contribute to the ongoing impact of Palestine scholarship that pairs precise and unflinching diagnoses of multimodal Israeli domination with a full-throated accounting of active and transformational Palestinian steadfastness.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MSG: I have begun a few different projects that grow out of my intellectual journey to write this book. Most directly related, I am now building on the book’s inquiry that focused on im/mobilization mostly in the interior of historical Palestine (and specifically in the West Bank) by exploring the history of Israel’s concerted destruction of the means of Palestinian international movement. As the Israeli settler colonial project has deepened on Palestinian land, it has attempted to make the figure of the Palestinian international traveler obsolete, replacing it with the eternal refugee. I am also pursuing this new line of inquiry through a creative analysis of a pilgrimage I once took to locate the site of my Lebanese great great-uncle’s printing press in Haifa, a family history that evinces a past in which Palestine was integrated into the region, and one that juxtaposes the relative ease of circulation in and out of Palestine with the fragmentation and im/mobilization that Israel imposes today.
J: What is your favorite chapter in the book and why?
MSG: I see chapter three, “The People on the Bus: Routes (and Roots) of Mobile Commoning,” as the heart of the book because it presents a detailed analysis of transit as a “vehicle of decolonization” and of the many ways that the ordinary operation of Palestinian public transportation fosters and preserves meaningful connections among Palestinian people and land. And yet my favorite chapter is chapter five, “Speculative Art and the Ghosts of Palestinian Transit Past-Present-Future,” in which I explore artistic renderings of Palestinian public transportation and argue that they illuminate the interdependence of decolonization and freedom of movement across space and time. The reason this chapter is my favorite is that it allowed me to alleviate two related frustrations. One frustration came from the fact that, because Israel has fragmented different geographies of Palestinian life such that their experiences of collective mobility are related but nonetheless distinct (and because Israel eventually limited my own mobility), it was necessary to focus most of my research on the Palestinian West Bank. And yet the West Bank must be understood as one integral component (artificially excised though it may have become) of broader historical Palestine. Any consideration of Palestinian decolonization, and indeed any analysis of the project of Israeli settler colonialism that continues to target Palestine for elimination, must account for all of historical Palestine. The second frustration emerged from the difficulty of imagining liberated futures from within the confines of supposedly pragmatic political logics that tend to structure many conversations about the Palestinian struggle. I found, unsurprisingly, that some Palestinian artists have transcended the confines causing both of my frustrations to offer a direct and clear practice of imaginative decolonization by haunting the colonized landscape with specters of freely mobile Palestinians across all of Palestine.
Excerpt from the book (from the Conclusion, pp. 157-161)
One particular strand of the “resistance” scholarship, a term I use for convenience but whose insufficiency is a central debate in that very literature, examines the political import of small-scale everyday acts. This strand has extended to the study of mundane activities in Palestine. On the importance of recognizing such activity as “resistance,” Timothy Seidel (2019) argues that such a conceptual move illuminates the everyday nature of Israeli rule in the West Bank, as well as anticipating and rejecting efforts to invalidate Palestinian resistance as decontextualized violence (pp. 731– 732). An examination of the political dimensions of everyday resistance also avoids frameworks that dismiss it as mere passivity, a label that can also be dehumanizing. I suggest that, in addition to defending Palestinian political life against continued efforts to invalidate it in all its forms, a consideration of the decolonial nature of everyday engagements with transit illuminates the ways that the politics of mundane activity intertwine with more explicitly political actions and, together, cultivate alternative patterns of Indigenous life that exceed the limits of settler colonialism.
In his study of “street politics” in multiple urban centers in the Middle East, Asef Bayat (2010) notes the “epidemic potential” of street politics evident in numerous moments when “a small demonstration . . . grow[s] into a massive exhibition of solidarity” (p. 12). He explains that the circulation of people in the public spaces of the city establish “latent communication with one another by recognizing their mutual interests and shared sentiments” (p. 12). I contend that the operation of West Bank transit and the recognition of mutual interests and shared sentiments that it fosters—about the power of exercising self-determined mobility across colonized space—can and do feed into the direct political expressions of activists and artists.
By examining these distinct and interrelated forms of people power at one site of their expression, public transportation, I mean to suggest that they are related components in an overall process of decolonization. In particular, I argue that the mundane, political, and artistic engagements with public transit I have discussed in this book make up a constellation of decolonizing activity, a repertoire of self-determination practices. Considering these practices together illuminates the ebb-and-flow dynamics of decolonization that actively respond to political opportunities as they open and close. When the Israeli military intensifies its closure to lock down Palestinian life, as it did during the second Intifada, public transit vehicles and routes united Palestinians in fugitive defiance and resilience, even though it also created opportunities for internal price gouging. These exercises of collective mobility across the terrain subject to border-enclosures continue to influence the operation of a more regulated and regularized transit system after the loosening of lockdown. Collective self-determined mobility via transit generates friction with settler colonial im/mobilization, and Palestinian activists then identify moments when they can use this friction to create sparks or spectacles for multiple audiences. Although their physical movement may be constrained, these sparks call for nuanced solidarity with Palestinian decolonization across divided Palestinian communities and beyond to global comrades. Palestinian artists, in turn, recognize collective Palestinian movement via public transportation as a site to further crystallize the drive to decolonize in their creative representations of Palestinian self-determined mobility through time and space.
Furthermore, one might consider the links between Palestinian public transit engagement as vehicles of decolonization and other exercises of self-determined movement in contravention of Israeli settler colonialism that extend beyond the boundaries of the West Bank. I discussed in Chapter 5 some connections to the system of mobility enabled by the underground tunnels in and out of Gaza. Another set of resilient engagements with collective mobility can be seen in the networks that move West Bank Palestinians across the Apartheid Wall, in contravention of the border-enclosures strategy to which it contributes. Yara Sharif (2017) has generatively conceived of this system that responds to the “blurry boundaries” of the occupation as “community patterns of capturing spaces” that become the basis for an “architecture of resistance” (pp. 59–62, 69). The stealth nature of such crossings echoes the routes of the second Intifada’s off-road taxis discussed in Chapter 3. I propose that we consider all of these vehicles of collective movement in contravention of the settler colonial enclosures together to reveal a moving map of active decolonization as Palestinians continue to harness the means of mobility to exercise self-determined relationships with and on their land across the entire territory of Palestine.
Examinations of mundane sites of resistant or resilient activities might appear “romanticizing.” Indeed, Lila Abu-Lughod (1990) diagnosed and responded to this concern, suggesting that studies of resistance are more productively deployed as “diagnostics of power” (i.e., domination) and its contextualized particularities. Yet in the case of Indigenous modes of living, a singular focus on the instrumental value of people’s everyday activities as a lens for understanding domination can have the adverse effect of reinforcing the self-declared supremacy of settler colonialism. Recognizing instead how these activities both instantiate and anticipate alternative modes of life, beyond dispossession and displacement, challenges the settler colonial myth of its own completeness and permanence. By avoiding the “grave error” of “mistak[ing] the conceits of authority and the ambitions of the powerful for the realities of people’s worldly existence” (A. Gordon, 2004, p. 210), this approach highlights the incompleteness of settler colonialism and the fact that it is the reactive (or resistant) force against the resilient indigeneity it is constantly attempting to uproot and eliminate (see, e.g., Barakat, 2018; Goeman, 2014; Kauanui, 2016; Wolfe, 2006).
In an early conversation about this book, an editor suggested the title “Vehicles of Resistance,” a phrase that is clever, evocative, and lyrical. It is for these reasons that I regret I could not use it, but as I reflected on my fieldwork, I realized that “resistance” was an insufficient word for what I have sought to highlight. In terms of mundane transit operation, this resilient mode of inter- and intracity travel did not take the form of traditional resistance. Instead, it comprised a set of activities whose intention was primarily practical, but whose significance in and for a politically overdetermined landscape was palpable. Then, while considering other forms of engagement with public transit that were more intentionally political but invested in something beyond opposition, I came to recognize a repertoire of decolonization. Taken together, these engagements advance a collective (re)assertion of self-determination through resilient relations of mobility that link people, life, and land.
This is different from a demand for self-determined movement. A demand is addressed to an audience from which action is expected. Instead, these repertoires of self-determined mobility are an exercise without waiting for a demand to be recognized or fulfilled. This is reminiscent of the exercised self-determination of the Zapatistas (Speed & Reyes, 2005; Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, 1996) or the activities in/of the utopian margins curated by the keeper of The Hawthorn Archive (2018), Avery Gordon (particularly in the files “the scandal of the qualitative difference” and “a means of preparation”). Locating the current study in relation to these literatures suggests that exercises of self-determination can take place alongside active struggles, e.g., resistance, against limitations on that self-determination. In other words, the systematic denial of self-determination does not negate the fact of its practice. But where self-determination is exercised in spite of its denial, that practice is more than, or even different from, opposition. Here, the goal is to “audaciously assert” an unauthorized autonomy (Gordon, 2018, p. viii).
We might consider what is being practiced, created, preserved, prefigured, and claimed (or reclaimed) not only in opposition to domination but also beyond it. For example, Gerald Vizenor (1999, 2000) links Native “transmotion,” “survivance,” and sovereignty into an aesthetic theory to address how movement animates and is animated by the exercise of a “sui generis sovereignty” (1999, p. 15). This “sovereignty” is not nationalistic but rather an assemblage of collective narratives that “[renounce] . . . dominance, tragedy, and victimry” (p. vii). For Vizenor, at the core of survivance, which includes transmotion as one of its forms, is an “active sense of presence” (p. vii). Vizenor’s survivance resonates with Bayat’s (2010) “art of presence,” which connotes “the courage and creativity to assert collective will in spite of all odds, to circumvent constraints, utilizing what is available and discovering new spaces within which to make oneself heard, seen, felt, and realized” (p. 26). These repertoires of self-determined presence are bound up in the collective movement of people according to their own motivations, which navigates but is not wholly constrained by the forces of im/mobilization, whether colonial or national (or both). And, reading Vizenor and Bayat together, the significance of this “active presence” in motion emits from the fact that it materializes robust if fugitive social relations that endure dominant efforts to impose separation, alienation, and victimization.
Returning to the concept of transformative sumud that I addressed in the Introduction, we can see a connection between Palestinian survivance and active presence. Although it has reflected many different definitions, the core of sumud is the steadfastness that enables Palestinians to stay and live in Palestine. My proposal to consider engagements with public transit as expressions of transformative sumud underscores how self-determined collective movement contributes to this project of staying, of practicing the art of active presence, of survivance in motion.