Book Review: The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination

Greg Burris, The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019).*

*Book two in the Insubordinate Spaces series edited by George Lipsitz.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Greg Burris (GB): Early on in Azza El-Hassan’s documentary Kings and Extras, the director interviews several women on the streets of Ramallah and asks their opinion about the lost Palestinian film archive. One of them responds with a reprimand: “Now is not the time to be thinking about cinema.” I have heard these sentiments expressed by a host of people from a variety of backgrounds. In hyper-political situations like that of Palestine, culture—including film and media—is often written off as being unimportant or secondary to the urgent issues of settler-colonialist oppression. The Palestinian Idea is my attempt to answer this common objection. To put my central contention in the most succinct terms possible, culture—including film and media—has a utopian dimension. It is one of the key places where our revolutionary dreams already inhabit the present. This is even true—or even especially true—in a context as urgent and violent as that of contemporary Palestine.

Those of us who are interested in Palestinian cinema are no longer burdened by the need to simply document its existence.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

GB: The Palestinian Idea looks at a range of media forms and objects—from the simple light bulb to social media. However, my primary examples come from the cinema, and I include detailed analyses of several films, including Annemarie Jacir’s first two features Salt of This Sea and When I Saw You and Mais Darwazah’s documentary My Love Awaits Me by the Sea. Palestinian cinema has recently hit something of a stride, but for many years, the literature on it has struggled to keep up. I am happy this situation is changing, and The Palestinian Idea joins a growing canon of books on Palestinian cinema that includes volumes by authors like Kay Dickinson, Terri Ginsberg, Kamran Rastegar, and Nadia Yaqub. Those of us who are interested in Palestinian cinema are no longer burdened by the need to simply document its existence. At long last, we can finally get on with the business of giving these films the serious analysis, evaluation, and theoretical attention they deserve.

The book’s theoretical backbone—the notion of “the Palestinian Idea”—is based on my readings of three very different writers: Edward Said, French philosopher Jacques Rancière, and Black radical theorist Cedric Robinson. Together, these three authors form an incredibly powerful cocktail, and my approach to Palestinian liberation is grounded in their work. Armed with these writers’ insights, the book uses Palestinian film and media to explore a range of issues. These include questions about trauma, identity, time, surveillance, visibility, resistance, race, and transnational solidarity.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

GB: In a certain sense, with The Palestinian Idea, I have come full circle. My very first publication was a little piece I wrote about Turkish-Israeli relations for Middle East Quarterly, a Zionist rag founded by Daniel Pipes. I was just twenty years old at the time and incredibly naïve in my politics. While I am not especially proud of this publication, I am proud of the direction my path has since taken.

It was not my original intention to write a book about Palestine. My publications immediately leading up to this book dealt more with Black studies. My last major essays to appear before The Palestinian Idea included a piece for CineAction about post-racial color blindness in Hollywood and an essay for Cinema Journal about film representations of the chaining and gagging of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale at the Chicago Conspiracy Trial. While these earlier works did not address Palestine, they did serve as important political and theoretical precursors to my book, for it was through the insights of Black studies—and specifically through my interactions with my former professor Cedric Robinson—that I began to feel that I had something new and important to contribute to the study of Palestine.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

GB: I think academic studies of Palestine are often wedded to rather traditional frameworks. As a result, I do not think film, media, and culture are properly appreciated except insofar as they can be instrumentalized as clear weapons in the Palestinian struggle. The importance that culture can play not just in fighting Zionist propaganda but in nurturing Palestinian dreams and visions is often neglected. Of course, I am not the first person to voice this concern, and others like Ghassan Hage, Ted Swedenburg, and Helga Tawil-Souri have also addressed this issue in their own ways. However, the point still needs to be made. Here, I am reminded of Edward Said’s comradely critique of Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle in which he commended Chomsky for his command of the facts but nevertheless reminded him that the facts alone are never enough. One has to occasionally go underground and explore the level of theory, ontology, and epistemology.

A second audience I had in mind includes those interested in film, media, and cultural studies more generally. When Said’s The Question of Palestine appeared in 1979, Palestine could hardly be mentioned in the Anglophone academy without drawing sneers. In this respect, serious advances have been made over the past several decades. However, the fight continues, and it is my hope that The Palestinian Idea contributes to the ongoing struggle to put Palestine on the broader cultural studies map. Film, media, and cultural studies offer us tremendous tools and resources to employ in our analyses of Palestine. But such intellectual borrowings should never be a one-way street. Palestine also has important things to say to the more general field, and it should not be pigeonholed and claustrophobically confined only to the very specific context of the Israeli occupation. As Said once remarked, “Such a noble and passionate struggle cannot be confined to a lobby, and it must not be allowed to be put into an extreme nationalist, philosophically small-minded ghetto.” Thus, I do not think The Palestinian Idea is only relevant to people who study Palestine. I think the book contains arguments that pertain even to people whose work does not encompass Palestine.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

GB: I currently have a number of projects in the pipeline, including a book about Elia Suleiman and several essays exploring the intersection of radical politics and the horror genre. Regarding the latter topic I have already contributed a review of the Tunisian horror film Dachra to the website of Film International.

However, my major writing project at this time has its origins in an abandoned chapter from The Palestinian Idea. In an earlier draft of the manuscript, I had started sketching the outlines of a chapter that would have explored the relationship between Palestinian liberation and the work of Israeli documentarian Avi Mograbi. Perhaps it is because of my own background as a white dissident from conservative East Texas, but I feel a certain affinity for anti-Zionist Israelis, and I think they are in a rather difficult position. Their place reminds me of the description that James Baldwin once offered for white radicals in the United States.: “anathema to the White and distrusted by the Black.” I am interested in how their activities disrupt or disturb Zionism’s racial regime and to what degree their actions are shaped by the movement for Palestinian liberation.

Eventually, I realized that this chapter was simply out of place, and I put it on the backburner. What had initially been planned as a single chapter, however, has since expanded into a book project. My goal is not simply to show that Israel is a white supremacist state. Instead, I am trying to point out the cracks in that racial façade—whether it is through the activities of Israel’s various non-white communities or the cultural work of anti-Zionist Ashkenazis. I am still several years away from completing this project, but some of my initial work on Israel’s community of African asylum-seekers will soon be appearing in a few different outlets. 

J: Can you tell us about the image on the book’s front cover? What is its significance?

GB: I am very proud of this beautiful image. I even like to joke that this is one book that people should definitely judge by its cover. This image is a still from Mais Darwazah’s documentary My Love Awaits Me by the Sea, a film which I discuss in detail in chapter four. It is a picture of a Palestinian youth from ‘Akka engaged in one of that city’s long-observed pastimes: jumping from ‘Akka’s ancient stone walls and into the Mediterranean Sea. It might seem like an unusual choice for a book about Palestine. Instead of the images we more often associate with Palestine—the pictures of apartheid walls, falling bombs, or oppressive checkpoints—I chose a potentially utopian image. Like Darwazah’s documentary, my book is an attempt to point us to the emancipatory hope that remains beyond Zionism’s reach. There are no promises here. As Stuart Hall would have said, there are no guarantees. One might safely land in the glittering waters below, but one might also crash onto the rocks. Nevertheless, hope persists, and Zionism does not yet have the final say. Despite a century of ethnic cleansing, the future remains open. In Palestine, oppression is real, but so is liberation. 

Excerpt from the book  

Chapter One, “The Palestinian Idea” (pages 11-15)

Hebron: ground zero of Israeli apartheid. While Jewish settlements are usually constructed on the hills outside Palestinian cities and villages, in Hebron settlers dwell within the heart of the city itself. In 1968, a group of Zionist settlers posing as Swiss tourists rented a room in a Hebron hotel and simply refused to leave. Under orders from Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, the settlers were later relocated to the city’s outskirts, but over the years, more have arrived to take their place, occupying many Palestinian homes, shops, and buildings. In the month of Ramadan 1994, one of these settlers—a Brooklyn-born physician named Baruch Goldstein—walked into central Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque during Friday morning prayers with a Galil assault rifle and opened fire, killing 29 worshipers andwounding more than 125 others. When Goldstein paused to load a fifth magazine into his weapon, someone in the mosque took advantage of the lull in the killing and managed to hit him with a fire extinguisher, thereby bringing the massacre to an end. Today, Goldstein’s grave has become something of a shrine in the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. His tombstone is engraved with an inscription: “He gave his soul for the sake of the people of Israel, the Torah, and the Land. His hands are clean and his heart good.”

When I visited Hebron (in Arabic, al-Khalil) in the summer of 2012, I was given a tour of the Ibrahimi Mosque by a local contact. Located on top of the subterranean chambers that are said to hold the remains of Abraham, the site has been partitioned into separate sections for Jewish and Muslim visitors, and to enter one must first go through numerous checkpoints. Once inside the mosque, my guide pointed out a large fire extinguisher sitting on the floor. It is so heavy that it cannot be easily carried and must instead be rolled on wheels. Following Goldstein’s rampage, the Israeli authorities apparently replaced the handheld fire extinguisher with this oversize one. In doing so, they took away the object that had stopped Goldstein from killing even more people. Thus, in responding to Jewish terrorism, the Israeli state perversely punished the Palestinians.

The most visible evidence of this cruel Israeli reaction can be found on Shuhada Street. Historically, this was one of Hebron’s busiest downtown avenues, but after Goldstein’s massacre, it was closed to Palestinian traffic. What was once a busy thoroughfare has since become something of a ghost town, and any Palestinians whose homes or shops happened to be located on it have had their windows barred and their doors welded shut. Today, parts of ShuhadaStreet are actually segregated for pedestrians with a physical partition: one side for Jews, another side—a much smaller side—for Arabs. In the parlance of Israeli soldiers, the street has been made “sterile.”

It may seem farfetched to imagine Shuhada Street becoming a staging ground for utopia. Yet in 2013 that is what happened. In March of that year, a group of Palestinians in Hebron organized a demonstration timed to coincide with Barack Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel. Carrying banners and Palestinian flags, they crossed into a forbidden zone, boldly walking into the section of Shuhada Street designated for Jews only. On their faces were masks of Obama and Martin Luther King Jr., in their hands were portraits of Rosa Parks and the former slave Frederick Douglass, and on their shirts were four English words: “I have a dream.”

By resurrecting the imagery and iconography of the U.S. Black Freedom Movement, these Palestinian activists were drawing new constellations of counterhegemonic protest and forging creative links of transnational solidarity across space and time. Using megaphones to fill the air with the music of Civil Rights anthems such as “Woke Up This Morning” and “We Shall Overcome,” they violated the soundscape of the occupation and performed an act of what Gaye Theresa Johnson calls “spatial entitlement”—an attempt by oppressed peoples to reclaim usurped spaces with their bodies, voices, and imaginations. Thus, for a few fleeting moments, these demonstrators effectively turned a segregated street into a desegregated stage and transformed a sterilized place into an insubordinate space. They temporarily interrupted the status quo and transgressed the rules and regulations of the Zionist order. As a result, they were swiftly descended on by Jewish settlers and apprehended by uniformed members of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As if to reenact a scene from Birmingham or Selma, the settlers ripped the banners and flags out of the protesters’ fingers, and the soldiers placed handcuffs around their wrists. With the masks still on their faces, the demonstrators were loaded onto trucks and quickly taken out of sight. It was as if Martin Luther King had been resurrected only to be arrested yet again.

The protest was thus brought to a halt almost as soon as it had begun. In this way, an effort was made by the Israeli authorities to contain the disruption, to restore the ruling regime of racial hierarchy, and to sew up the tear that the demonstrators had ripped in the symbolic universe. In an attempt to even further paper up apartheid’s cracks, some members of Hebron’s settler community took to social media to denounce the march. For instance, the prominent settler-activist David Wilder—a U.S.-born colonist who regularly leads Zionist tours of the city with a gun strapped to his hip—went into the streets to confront the protesters. He later described the scene on his personal blog, calling it balagan, the Hebrew word for a disturbance or a mess. In addition, two leading members of Hebron’s settler community penned an official letter to the IDF in which they likened the demonstration to a “terrorist activity.” Singling out the Palestinian activist Issa Amro by name, they urged the Israeli authorities to “take all actions necessary to put an end to these provocations and incitement.” This letter was later cited in an indictment against Amro when the IDF brought charges against him in September 2016.

But while the protesters themselves could be forcibly removed from the scene, the images they left behind could not be so easily erased. In open defiance of a ban by the Palestinian Authority (PA) on the transmission of any images from protests in Hebron for the duration of Obama’s visit, photographs of the demonstration were immediately published on the Internet and circulated via social media. Prerecorded videos in which demonstrators such as Badia Dwaik talked about the links between the Palestinian struggle and the Black protests of an earlier era were posted on YouTube. Rather than simply annexing the Civil Rights legacy, the demonstrators were giving it new meaning, using media to interpellate the dead and to let the Black heroes of yesteryear speak beyond the grave. Like apparitions from another dimension, these images demonstrate that another world is possible, a world without divisions determined by ethnicity or religion, a world without apartheid walls, security fences, or segregated streets. They show that the unthinkable can be made thinkable and that the impossible can be made possible.

[…]

While the images generated by movements of protest may indeed draw our attention to the existence of both oppression and an underlying discontent, this capacity alone should not necessarily be taken as a measure of radicality. Frustration with the way things are is far too common a phenomenon to be confused with emancipation. The point should not be just to dismantle old systems of oppression but to generate alternative, liberatory visions. As Robin D. G. Kelley puts it, the best forms of protest, rebellion, and resistance “do not simply produce statistics and narratives of oppression; rather, the best ones do what great poetry always does: transport us to another place, [. . . and] enable us to imagine a new society.” It is therefore my contention that the radicality of a piece of art, a protest image, or a film or media object consists in its ability to create a portal into the impossible and challenge the very coordinates of reality itself; it consists in its ability to magnify the fissures and hidden recesses of the social order around us and open a window into another world.

This, then, is the central question with which this book seeks to grapple: in the context of Palestine, how do we catch a glimpse of this other place, this world that is concealed somewhere within our own world? To put it in philosophical terms, how does utopia erupt from dystopia, the New from the Old, and the future from the present? Or, better yet, how does equality emerge from inequality? Using a variety of theoretical lenses and an array of film and media objects, this book seeks to explore this question in relation to Palestine. Each chapter argues that despite appearances, Palestine is not only an unrelenting nightmare of oppression and defeat. There is beauty in the darkness, and contrary to popular belief, equality does exist in Palestine, already in the here and now. More precisely, equality is already being enacted and mediated in Palestine, and it is this scandalous affirmation—this assertion of equality amidst inequality—that I call “the Palestinian Idea.”

Posted on al Jadaliyya

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