Analyzing connections between art and politics, this article proposes that contemporary Palestinian art is a space of dissent that challenges consensus and creates new visions of belonging and new forms of subjectivity. It considers the way the installations and videowork of Mona Hatoum and Till Roeskens and translation in the poetry of Suheir Hammad bring together reflections on “subjective mapping.” Both subjective mapping and translation are shown to imply a passage to politics. The crossing of languages, genres and media in these different artworks therefore establishes an intermedial dialogue—not only between the artworks themselves, but also between subjective mapping and translation, visual art and poetry.
En examinant le recueil de poésie de Suheir Hammad, Breaking Poems (2008), les installations artistiques de Mona Hatoum, The Negotiating Table (1983) et Present Tense (1996), ainsi que les oeuvres vidéo collaboratives de Till Roeskens, Cartographies: Aïda, Palestine (2009), nous posons l’hypothèse que l’art palestinien contemporain est une pratique « dissensuelle ». Ces artistes et leur art joignent une réflexion sur la traduction et la cartographie subjective et introduisent une différence au sein des articulations dominantes d’appartenance. Ces oeuvres artistiques traversent des langues, des formes artistiques et des médias différents, établissant un dialogue intermédial entre l’art visuel et la poésie, la cartographie et la traduction.
Corps de l’article
We live not just our own lives but the longings of our century.
This article examines links between art and politics through an analysis of artistic works from diverse media. It proposes that contemporary Palestinian art is a space and a political practice of dissent that challenges manufactured consensus and enables new visions of belonging and new forms of subjectivity. It focuses primarily on the work of women diasporic artists of Palestinian origin: Mona Hatoum, a visual and performance artist who lives in London, and Suheir Hammad, a poet who lives in New York. The first half of the article addresses Hatoum’s installation artworks, The Negotiating Table (1983) and Present Tense (1996), as well as the video work Videomappings: Aida, Palestine (2009) by Franco-German artist Till Roeskens and carried out in collaboration with the Palestinians of Aida refugee camp; the second half turns to poetry and Hammad’s Breaking Poems. These works join reflections on subjective mapping (Hatoum and Roeskens) and translation (Hammad), both of which imply a passage to politics. These works are also emblematic of the crossing of genres, media and languages, establishing an intermedial dialogue between the artworks, between subjective mapping and translation. It is an intermedial approach that crosses from visual and performance art to poetry, from questions of representation to those of translation. It is precisely the intermedial nature of these works that allows us to consider them together.
Hatoum’s art crosses over political impasses. It is an art of dissent that renders what has been muted and excluded legible and public. It is an art that creates a new language, names the violence and breaks through discourses that have dominated and perpetuated collective erasure. Hammad’s poetry allows us to think of translation as a passage—a passage from poetry to politics, linking “home” and diaspora, violent history and poetic rebirth. This passage is also one from translation to poetry, a poetry that inhabits and is inhabited by two languages, a passage in which poetry and translation are not separate processes, but where both render what cannot be said across a chasm. It is a passage from a tradition of Arabic poetry to spoken word poetry.
My reflections on these artists have been inspired by my readings of French thinker Jacques Rancière’s writings on dissent, where art and politics interrupt the framing of perceptual space, creating difference and challenging consensual forms of power, where art allows the subject to appear and where politics allows excluded speech to emerge. They are also inspired by Emily Apter’s poetics/politics of translation, where translation is a crossing from the poetic to the political, bridging the intermedial and the multilingual and enacting a transformation in subjectivity.
Passages, if poetically productive, are perilous and are often politically regulated and militarily guarded, with the requisite declarations, inspections, and tolls. They cannot be altogether assured, nor can their full impact be altogether known.
Art as “Dissensual” Practice: The Subjective Mappings of Mona Hatoum & Till Roeskens
While art may not have politics as its goal, does art nonetheless become a substitutive space for politics in their absence elsewhere? In a geography that is also shrinking, a double erasure ensues for Palestinian artists: an erasure of politics and an erasure as history. Are Palestinian artists then reconfiguring what is meant by art? Are they reconfiguring art as (true) politics? According to Rancière, politics has to be understood as a sensorial “framing” and reconfiguration of experience.
“Dissensual” speech has often been transformed into mere private noise, rendered incomprehensible, denied the status of public discourse and therefore excluded from political space—the predicament of being “loud and muted,” in the words of poet Suheir Hammad. The late Edward Said, likewise, described a movement of “regenerative” struggle, a new lyrical and intense language that “wants to transform [language] from a force for identity statement into a transgressive, disruptive […] mode […].” Hammad expresses in her poems the predicament of those asked to adopt a language that contradicts with their lived lives: “we no longer know language,” she writes. In Breaking Poems she suggests that the very discourse about Palestine is occupied:
humiliate a people distract the rest
[…] new world old words
this ain’t living
words are against us
there is a math only subtracts.
Hammad demands a new language, a “ break into language insurgent.” The poetic or artistic experience becomes an antidote to a discourse that has served as a math of dispossession. She writes: “language can’t math me / i experience exponentially.” This art of experience (and expression) counters this “math a myth wa language a lie.” This art—as evidenced in works by the poet Hammad, the visual artist Hatoum, the Palestinian refugees of Aida and Till Roeskens, and others—is one that names the violence and pierces through the din of discourse.
These works propose that art is life. What is more, they propose an art of death, since the art itself confronts the death of politics. And yet this is an art that crosses over political impasses. Mona Hatoum’s The Negotiating Table is emblematic in this sense. The installation’s artistic language announces that in the present, there is violence, there is death, there is loss, all of which must be acknowledged and addressed. The art will not allow these to be covered over with official discourses. This powerful, macabre image reveals a corpse shrouded and lying on the surface of a wooden table—murdered, possibly tortured, and yet, it breathes. A living death is a frequently recurring trope in Palestinian art. In Hatoum’s piece, political figures are missing on opposing empty chairs. Speaking about The Negotiating Table, Hatoum indicates:
I was lying on a table, my body covered with entrails, bandages and blood and wrapped up in a body bag. There were chairs around the table and sound tapes of speeches of Western leaders talking about peace. It was basically a juxtaposition of two elements, one referring to the physical reality and brutality of the situation and the other to the way it is represented and dealt with in the west.
Everyday life becomes this mutilated body. It is precisely this violence that is on the table and thus cannot be easily ignored. Nevertheless, it is not addressed by the rhetoric of official political speeches that pretend to be the only viable discourses.
Hatoum made this installation in the wake of the Sabra and Shatila massacres of September 1982, committed by the Lebanese Christian Phalange forces under Israel’s watch. One could also fast forward and consider the relationship of this image to the period following the Siege of Beirut, and especially to the politics of the Oslo Accords and speeches, which grew persistent and amplified at a rate equal to the increase in settlement size and settler violence.
Hatoum thus combines the visuals of the absent political partners, in the wake of dreadful violence, with the sound of empty speeches about peace and negotiation. Hatoum’s art makes a claim on the present, and is in this sense a thing of the future. The Negotiating Table becomes a commencement and a commandment, “a new way of framing a specific experience.” The experience of loss (and mourning) is one that could inspire solidarity and justice and become the foundation for an alternate politics. A new communal life is promised through an art form that engages loss.
Another of Hatoum’s installation pieces, Present Tense, re-inscribes this common loss in the present, rendering what is invisible, visible. It refuses to locate the fragmentation and dispossession simply in a historical past. It introduces subjective mapping as a “dissensual” intervention in official mappings, which serve and represent the continued erasure of geographies. Hatoum began this work in 1996 on her first visit to Jerusalem. She decided to make the famous Nablus soap, an ancient product, the foundation for this map. She placed different soap cubes on the floor of the Anadiel Gallery, then inserted tiny red beads into the soap to reinforce the sense of violent erasure at work and to outline the fragmented territories that were, according to the Oslo Accords, supposed to be handed over to Palestinian authority.
The soap is highly evocative in several respects. It points to Nablus, a hot bed of resistance against the Israeli occupation, to the persistence of tradition despite erasure, to the fragility of the fragmented map that threatened with effacement, to the indifference towards this erasure as one “washes one’s hands of it,” to the more disturbing settlement policies that touch on ethnic cleansing. Many of Hatoum’s critics have noted the powerful “dissensual” effect of this work, one which, in the words of Edward Said, “offers neither rest nor respite.”
Till Roeskens’ video work, Videomappings: Aida, Palestine, is preoccupied with subjective mapping. The young artist asks Palestinians living in Aida camp to draw their daily routes. The refugee camp, located near Bethlehem, borders the Israeli built wall, the Gilo settlement, and the Intercontinental Hotel. The drawing process, which is recorded on video, involves story-telling and subjective geographies. The tellers appear behind a paper screen. We hear their voices and the sounds of their drawing, but we cannot see their faces as they trace out on paper the detours and passages of their daily lives inside and outside the camp. We glimpse their lives at the camp and the way they handle obstacles. Roeskens considers this artwork a collaborative one and calls it “a tribute to resistance by going around obstacles, in times when the very possibility of that resistance seems to be vanishing.”
The videomapping screens six maps representing different life stories, some by women, and others by children or by men. Those recounting the stories cannot be seen. By denying any gaze that may not see beyond the workman’s poverty or the woman’s ethnic clothing—to which the grief of the other may then be abstracted—the voices that recount are rendered legible, tangible, visible, intimate. Roeskens comments on the drawings that “unfold a topography”: “Where are these voices? Behind the sheets (of paper). Of course, but where else? Nowhere: that is precisely what the voices are trying to say. Or rather, because even nowhere persists on taking up some space, they say that they are in Palestine.”
The hands that recreate in Roeskens’ work render a certain visibility possible at the same time that images of Palestinians proliferate and saturate the media and documentaries, yet Palestinians remain distant, alien and invisible. It is precisely this act of making visible those who have historically been made invisible and relegated, for instance, exclusively to the domestic realm or the sphere of work that constitutes a proper politics.
In the chapter “A Trip to Beersheba,” a young man’s voice recounts his trip to see a girl, essentially risking his life to cross into Israel. His story lets us see how he experiences the world, and not without a certain humor and improvisation. His voice moves in tandem with the lines he draws, becoming more animated as obstacles unfold and more monotonous as he traces more routine pathways.
Mahmoud Issa is the young man recounting and drawing. His trip from Aida camp to Beersheba passes through Hebron and some Bedouin villages. Mahmoud describes the difficult roads he has to take to avoid the checkpoint. After an incident in which soldiers began shooting at him and his fellow travelers and rounding some of them up, the men manage to get through the checkpoint using a different route. On his way back, Mahmoud scopes out the scene, asking others, “Is there a road?” It is as if the road exists one day but not the next, which perfectly illustrates the precariousness of making one’s way through a territory that is militarily demarcated to bar their passage, to keep them out. On the day he returns from Beersheba, he tells us, the “attack of the bulldozer” has just taken place in Jerusalem. The army is everywhere. After walking a long distance, he and his traveling companions encounter soldiers. When they start shooting, Mahmoud and companions begin running despite having been previously instructed not to do so. They are rounded up. Mahmoud, however, stands still as bullets fly around his legs. In his mind, he says, he sees his life passing by as if on a video screen. He laughs. All this for a girl. He’s told to lie down. He asks why. His simple question interrupts this mechanical operation and temporarily break it down.
As the soldiers check his papers, a dialogue with one of the soldiers ensues: Mahmoud explains his trip, says that it was just to see a friend, that he means no harm, that he believes in peace, etc. An unseen friend, who listens as Mahmoud draws, laughs at this familiar discourse, at this rehearsed performance. The soldier, too, rehearses and explains himself—he’s a man of peace as well. “You could have killed me,” our narrator responds. “I would have killed you long ago if I’d wanted to,” the soldier answers. He continues: “Palestinians are like mice. We close up here… and you find a way over there.” More laughter ensues from Mahmoud and his friend who is listening to this story. “They just want to work,” explains Mahmoud. “These men are not trying to blow themselves up. They just want to earn a living.” “I know,” the soldier says, but he is under orders. Orders are not to let anyone in. Orders are to kill. “It is a border you’ve just crossed,” he tells our narrator. But crossing “borders” is not a crime, we might add—not under any international law. And of course neither the occupying state nor its occupied territories have internationally recognized borders. The voice changes as he traces the map of return to the sounds of lines mapping lives.
In this subjective mapping, Roeskens presents a dialogue between a soldier and a Palestinian trying to cross to Beersheba. The nature of this dialogue is an opening and a limit, just like the road and the blocks the young man faces traveling from Aida to Beersheba and back. In a system of policing that violently demarcates the positions of “border guard” and “infiltrator,” the dialogue reveals that knowledge of the other does not seem to present an obstacle. Individual dialogues do take place in unlikely circumstances. Insurmountable differences are not of a cultural nature. The man undertaking the trip does not participate in Israel’s economy, in which each crossing is anticipated as that of a suicide bomber, nor does he participate in the Palestinian economy, in which desperate men cross seeking work in Israel.
Here dialogue takes place between individuals caught up on either side of a system of violence. The benevolence of the individual soldier will determine whether or not he will follow orders. The way in which the individual Palestinian responds will determine whether or not his very survival might be ensured.
The act of subjective mapping in the face of diminishing geography creates passages where there are obstacles. The military mapping of the occupied territories creates zones of nowhere, camps that remain in limbo for decades, where movements are restricted and fixed by checkpoints, where walls separate what was recently a more integral territory. Childlike drawings of these individual maps document violent realities, recreating and pointing to ways of overcoming. It is a form of art that stages public discourses and that mystifies this experience of dispossession. It makes private voices public, and renders their intelligibility undeniable. It does not remove or obfuscate this violence, this living death that is on the table. If dialogue is a crossing fraught with risks, these artworks reveal a language that defies this double erasure. Effectively, real dialogue begins with subjective mapping. It commences and commands a veritable opening.
“Dissensual” Translation: Suheir Hammad’s Breaking Poems and Poetry Interrupted
The critic Emily Apter, in The Translation Zone, shows how translation is a crossing from the poetic to the political, not unlike a subjective mapping. In bringing together the intermedial and the multilingual, translation is established as a fulcrum for a new comparative literature in which translation is “a significant medium of subject re-formation and political change.” Translation allows the subject to be conceived differently. It is at the intersection of the political and the poetic: “Cast as an act of love, as an act of disruption, translation becomes a means to repositioning the subject in the world and in history, a means of rendering self-knowledge foreign to itself; a way of denaturalizing citizens.” Gayatri Spivak (2012) compellingly argues that translation does even more, translating violence into conscience, healing and reparation: “[…] translation is an incessant shuttle that is a ‘life.’[…] In this never ending weaving, violence translates into conscience and vice versa...”
Hammad’s poetry presents poetic creation as a significant act of translation and subject reformation. Her Breaking Poems, which pays tribute to the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, long considered a “poet of resistance,” a title that often besieged him, engages his poetry in many instances through the translation of some of his verses. Hammad translates poetically, marking a passage between her actual work and that of Darwish. She translates so that the passage is not from one language into another but rather of a poetry that inhabits and is inhabited by both languages, an English constituted by Arabic, where poetry and translation are converging processes. She translates from lines of Darwish’s poems, such as the following taken from “A Rhyme for Mu’allaqat:”
I am my language [...]
...this language of mine is pendants from stars encircling the embraces of the beloved:
they took the place and migrated
they took the words and the fallen heart migrated with them [...]
In Hammad’s verses, this is rendered in the poem “break (me),” as “ana my language always broken all / ways lost ana my language wa / i miss my people.” The Arabic words for self (ana) and for continuation (wa) create another rhythm, an “offbeat.”
As a rendering of the line “I am my language,” Hammad’s verse continues a history of fracture, a poetry interrupted with Darwish’s death in 2008, the same year her book of poetry is published. She inscribes herself in a tradition of Arabic poetry as an “interruption” or “departure,” all implied in breaking, and in a continuation of a heritage of poetry, in the spirit of Darwish’s conception of the poetic voice. This poetic departure is also due to the experience of diaspora in which the poet finds herself and which then imposes a certain reality of multilingualism (and hybridity) on the self. She claims this multilingualism for both its poetic possibilities and its destabilizing effects on monolithic, national identity. This poetic translation, which recalls the loss, the breaks and the migrations, becomes common experience and allows an affirmation of belonging. For the taking of the homeland, Darwish notes, has meant the taking away of the very “means of [...] belonging to the world.” In this way, the struggle itself, as well as the poetic quest, constitutes this belonging: “And,” Darwish writes, “the homeland is this struggle.” 
For both poets, “I am my language” is a verse that gestures to a common poetic language—even if Darwish’s language is distinctly Arabic while Hammad’s is an English born of Arabic—one that unifies a poetic legacy but which, nonetheless, divides the self from itself, from its “people.” In the verses of both poets, the “people” is evoked only in their dispersion, in diaspora and migration: Darwish’s “they took the place and migrated” and Hammad’s “I miss my people.” Many languages gather the self; in Arabic and English this is expressed as “ana” and “I,” respectively. This belonging to a people is constituted by this lyrical continuation and its breaks.
This belonging is painfully predicated on a “brokenness,” one which inaugurates poetic language fundamentally as a break, a caesura, an interruption, and is built on the experience of historical fragmentation. Their poetry thus joins a belonging that is predicated on solidarity rather than on strict identity. Darwish writes: “this language of mine is pendants from stars encircling the embraces of the beloved: migrated.” The Arabic word for pendants or necklaces, qala’id, can also mean exquisite poems, tying language specifically to poetic language, and belonging to those beloved.
Hammad evokes a certain attachment that cannot be simply disowned or completely known, and in this case it is assumed out of an expansive sense of collectivity. As the American poet Carolyn Forché points out on the back cover of the Breaking Poems, poetry is a matter of survival, “written for a people who have endured the winds of hurricanes and invasion.”
In a poem that insists on the rhythm and multiple meanings of “break,” it is the reader who has to insert the caesura (the break) in the poem, since the breaks are visually unmarked, and so the reader becomes a part of this poetic endeavor and this collective translation, a part of “my people.” It is poetry that links experiences, cities, languages and peoples defined by dispersion, exile & wars. Moreover, the word “break” in the title is what structurally ties Hammad’s poems together, each poem distinguished only by the words in parenthesis that vary and that are like walls that separate.
Hammad is creating a new poetic language through a process of translation. On the back cover of the book, Carolyn Forché goes on to describe this new language in this way: “Breaking Poems introduces English to an Arabic vernacular that startles into being an altogether new language, bridging the archipelago of a Palestine under siege to the diaspora and beyond […] a music that is at once a joyous celebration of survival and a poignant cri de Coeur that Mahmoud Darwish should have lived to see.”
In Breaking Poems, then, poetry itself is conceived as translation, of the unspeakable passage into a new poetic language, of another’s poetry into a continuation of poetry. A break—also an instrumental passage in music—recalls poetry’s affinity with translation. Hammad’s poems propose that breaking is the very possibility of language and of poetry. It is the cross between creativity and of wounding history. There is also a break between the poet and the poem. For Maurice Blanchot, the caesura mitigates the excess of desire in the poem, so it can itself become a poem; meter is, after all, a measure in rhythm, in sound. In the poems where Arabic words are constitutive of the English formed by Hammad, Arabic’s rhythms link the breaks between lines. Thus, untranslatability is the very thing that allows the poem to come into being, not as an essential difference between languages, but as a tie that complicates the point where one language begins and another ends. Arabic left mostly untranslated in Hammad’s work emerges as infinitely translatable, as it flows in the very rhythms that announce unspeakable breaks. In a syntax that fractures, the Arabic connector wa continues one language into another, into one poetic language. Hammad’s poems are at the limits of a monolingual reading. Hammad reconfigures the limits of language—no longer “just in terms of original and target, or native and foreign,” and not even in terms of “language as a border war,” in Apter’s words, but between the monolingual and the multilingual, the national and the diasporic. At the limit of readability, where the index of the definitions of words only assists the non-Arabic reader decipher a limit, and where one needs both languages to read, the poem, more importantly, issues forth as music.
Unlike Walter Benjamin who, in “The Task of the Translator,” seems to set apart the figure of the poet from that of the translator, Hammad bridges poetry and translation. As Apter indicates, while Benjamin moved away from a “fidelity to the original” model toward one in which “everything is translatable and in perpetual state of in-translation,” he nonetheless sees the translator’s relation to the original as a derivative one, due to the translation task’s linguistic predicament. The poet creates original works so that poems will not merely be experienced through the linguistic meaning of words. Such a conception still echoes today, where poetry is defined by its primacy, vitality, force, intensity and sensation. Hammad, however, sees in the poet the translator who renders what cannot be said across a chasm: “ana all this time / translating waves into language bas missing / what I had wanted to say was.”
Broken idioms. She introduces a “minor” language into another: not a literary Arabic and not a standard English. For those who do not speak it altogether fluently, or who have lost their fluency in it, the Arabic idiom, Palestinian, an almost rural expression, is “broken”–an expression in both English and Arabic–and both constitutes and is constituted by an English of Brooklyn youth, of “Blacks.” She fractures syntax, vocabulary, and breaks language to renew it. Poetic violence issues forth a poetic rebirth: “brooklyn broken english wa exiled arabs sampled,” she writes; “we rhyme of rivers / swim in vernacular.”
The poem reconstructs, shows the fractures (breaks) already there in any language. The break emerges as the natural rhythm of language, and of poetry, a link of history and of poetry, already there in Darwish, an innovative poetics that speaks more forcefully to new realities. It is a poetic language that ties and cuts and flows in the face of the fragmentation of “selves,” the dispersion of “peoples” and the shrinking of a “geography,” as Darwish has also shown. Poetry emerges as a gathering of languages, of bodies, of voices, of sounds, as it was in Darwish’s poems. She writes: “ana gathering selves into new.”
The poet is figured throughout as an Isis, one who gathers the loss, re-members the body that has been torn apart, restores to life. As an Isis whose quest is to search for her beloved, the poet resurrects, stitches, and reconstitutes what has been violently torn asunder. A break is also damage rendered inoperative. The poem gestures to mourning as a going beyond, a “break (clear),” but more directly to rebirth, a “break (water).” She writes:
[...] isis stretch searches pieces
break into language insurgent
zam zam in desert
hagar springs isis remembers mary reaps
woman looking for body i think she is coming.
The poem is also a surpassing—in “break (through),” “break (clean)”—, “a retrieval from the very heart of loss,” as the writer Chris Abani points out on the back cover. And as professor Wail Hassan reminds us, in his preface to Moroccan scholar Abdelfattah Kilito’s new work, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, there are at least two words for translation in Arabic. In addition to the usual understanding of it as “transfer” or “naql”, another word, “tarjama”, can mean “biography” and “life,” and can be associated with the condemned word and death, as in “rajama,” but also with the possibility of survival.
As translation, the poem carries forth violence and transforms it, for the poem is also a dissension in a body broken by violence. The poem finds its vitality in the broken body—a break can also be of someone:
is the poem
lived in one fractured body
a relic of war.
The poem is affirmation of itself in the face of any denial. She writes: “what had happened was nation wa honor wa religion wa language / all that shaped me was illusion formless.” Poetry becomes the fragile passage it was in Darwish’s poetry, the opening of a “here,” a departure from violence.
Translation as passage is a poetic demand in Hammad’s poetics, and yet it is resisted. The poem will not fully give. Unlike Darwish’s poetry, Hammad’s is gendered. Women and their bodies are at the heart of this poetic endeavor: “poems zei women,” she writes. Poems are like women. In this, she places women at the creative center. The poem is a body that experiences breaks and (re)births:
i am looking for my body
for my form in the foreign
what am I trying
to say I sit in this body dream
in this body inherit.
[...] i need
to translate my body because it is profane.
While translation is critical to any knowledge and to any creation of form, it also risks appropriation and irrecoverable loss. Translating Darwish in the poem “break (naher el bared),” “refugees rewind exile,” she writes:
poem is my body my language my country
wa bas ana closed to tourism
ana closed to journalists wa bas
ana closed to translation.
Through her poetic translation, Hammad’s spoken word poetry—multilingual, performative, and diasporic—helps us reconfigure ideas of the national and of belonging. In “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Stuart Hall wrote that diasporic identities “are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformations and difference.” This diasporic art proposes a “belonging without the conditions of belonging,” in the words of Giorgio Agamben, in which “dislocations felt by displaced subjects towards disrupted histories and to shifting and transient national identities” will constitute this belonging.
Hammad, like other Palestinian diasporic artists, are reconfiguring what is meant by their art and the ways they use translation as a way of framing specific experiences, as an “intervention in the visible and the sayable” to shape a common experience. Their art disrupts dominant forms of belonging, creates internal difference, possibly also creating a new “political subjectivation,” however provisional.
Between the impossibility of translation and its necessity is an intervention against monolingualism in a plurilingual world. Such an intervention would also examine multilingual practices and the “development of new languages[...].” In her conclusion, Apter imagines a translation that “heralds a condition of linguistic postnationalism and denaturalizes monolingualisation.” In effect, Apter’s conception destabilizes national links between language, people and state, creating a condition of “linguistic non-identity.” Hammad, on the other hand, seems to rework the national through the diasporic, charting out a claim of belonging in an open space of the “here”/poem, incorporating peoples who have suffered, whether through “hurricanes” or “invasions,” forging a new language from the continuation of one language into another, creating passages out of obstacles. Rather than postnationalism, Hammad shows the necessity of thinking the nation through the diasporic. Her poetry allows us to rethink belonging without mitigating its reason or its power. It points to ways in which the diasporic may offer alternative forms of belonging.
If translatio is a bearing across, a transfer, and, in a manner, a crossing and a passage, then it inevitably entails that which breaks down and remains enfolded within the abyss of the break. Hammad’s poetry announces a loss that the translation carries forth. Apter, citing Alain Badiou, sees the failure of translation as “an enabling mechanism of poetic truth.” In the Darwish poem Hammad evoked earlier, the poet set a limit on poetic words as passages, even as he celebrated their creative power. He writes:
I [...] said to the words: be the crossing of my body with the eternal desert [...]
this is my language and my miracle [...]
the sacred of the Arab in the desert
who worships what flows from rhymes
like stars on his cloak
and he worships what he says
it is necessary for prose then,
it is necessary for divine prose for the prophet to triumph [...]
Prose, nathr in Arabic, also means scattering, dispersal. Prose in its dispersal will also guard against absence. And it is here that Hammad attempts her translation, in this space of dissemination of a tradition of Arabic poetry, in this new age that demands new prophets and new languages. Jacques Derrida reminds us in Le monolinguisme de l’autre how rare it is to find such a passage. He writes: “Le miracle de la traduction n’a pas lieu tous les jours, il y a parfois désert sans traversée du désert.” And yet poetry is sometimes such a passage, and sometimes it delivers on such miracles. For poetry promises to open unto possibility: “[...] l’art peut réussir là où la connaissance échoue : c’est qu’il est et n’est pas, assez vrai pour devenir la voie, trop irréel pour se changer en obstacle.”
Najat Rahman is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Université de Montréal. She is author of Literary Disinheritance: The Writing of Home in the Works of Mahmoud Darwish and Assia Djebar (Lexington Books, 2008). She is co-editor of Exile’s Poet, Mahmoud Darwish: Critical Essays (Interlink Books, 2008) and A Laughter that Encounters A Void? Humor in Middle Eastern Cinema (Wayne State University Press, forthcoming). She is currently working on a new book, In the Wake of the Poetic: Diasporic Artists After Darwish.
John Berger, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos, London, Bloomsbury, 2005, p. 67.
Mona Hatoum was born in 1952 in Beirut, Lebanon, and has lived in London since 1975.
Suheir Hammad grew up in Brooklyn. Born in 1973 in Jordan, her parents immigrated to the U.S. when she was five. Her parents became refugees in 1948. She has received the Tony Award for Special Theatrical Event for the stage production Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry (original cast member, talent associate and writer). Her works include Born Palestinian, Born Black (1996), Drops of This Story (1996) and Zaatar Diva (2006).
Roeskens was born in 1974 in Freiburg, Germany. His filmography and videoworks include Plan de situation : Consolat-Mirabeau (2012), Un Archipel (2012), Plan de situation : Joliette (2010), De la Base Aérienne 110 à la Paix se révélant à l'Humanité (2007), Leçon de choses #1 : Rivesaltes (2005), Mots/choses (2004) and Pas loin de là (2002).
Suheir Hammad, Breaking poems, New York, Cypher Books, 2008.
Spoken word poetry is preoccupied with politics. Figures include Gil Scott Heron, Spalding Grya, Hedwig Gorski and Henry Rollins. It originated from the Harlem Renaissance poetry and blues music and popularized by The Last Poets, who emerged from the African American Civil Rights Movement. Spoken word has been particularly inclusive of minority and women’s voices. While Hammad’s poetry can be situated within spoken word poetry, it takes poetic influences from African American poetry, Arab-American poetry, Beat poetry, as well as slam poetry, which is composed specifically for performance. See Alix Olson, Word Warriors: 35 Women Leaders in the Spoken Word Revolution, Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007. See also Zoë Anglesey, Listen Up!: Spoken Word Poetry, New York, One World, 1999.
Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. and ed. Steven Corcoran, London and New York, Continuum, 2010, p. 37.
Steven Corcoran, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Jacques Rancière, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, trans. and ed. by Steven Corcoran, London and New York, Continuum, 2010, p. 6.
Emily Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2006.
Corcoran, 2010, p. 9.
Ibid., p. 19. The notion of a “shrinking of a political space” which implies this “double erasure” comes from Corcoran.
Rancière, 2010, p. 152.
Ibid., p. 38, emphasis added.
Hammad, 2008, p. 25.
Edward Said, On Late Style, New York, Vintage Books, 2007, p. 84, emphasis added.
Hammad, 2008, p. 19.
Ibid., p. 39.
Ibid., p. 23.
Ibid., p. 35.
Other Palestinian artists, such as filmmakers Hany Abu-Assad and Elia Suleiman or visual and performance artists Sharif Waked and Emily Jacir.
Cited in Gannit Ankori, Palestinian Art, London, Reaktion Books, 2006, p. 130. With the exception of Kamal Boullata’s work in Arabic, critical work on Palestinian art is fairly recent. For Boullata’s seminal work on Palestinian art, see Palestinian Art: 1850-2005, London and Berkeley, Saqi, 2009 and Kamal Boullata, Between Exits: Paintings by Hani Zurob, London, Black Dog Publishing, 2012. For other important discussions, please refer to Tina Sherwell, “Topographies of Identity, Soliloquies of Place,” Third Text, vol. 20, nº 3-4, 2006, p. 429-443 and Tina Sherwell, Forgotten Scene: Pioneer Artists from Palestine. Vol. 1, Six Pioneer Artists from Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Al-Wasiti Art Center, 2003. See also Third Text, vol. 20, nº 3-4, Haim Bresheeth and Haifa Hammami (eds.), “Special issue: The Conflict and Contemporary Visual Culture in Palestine & Israel,” 2006, Ariella Azoulay, “Cartography of Resistance,” Afterimage, vol. 34, nº 1-2, 2006, p. 80-81 and William Parry, Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine, Chicago, Pluto Press, 2010.
In Palestinian Art, Israeli art historian Gannit Ankori links Hatoum’s image to the “traumatic expulsion of the Hatoum family from their home, in the wake of the Dir Yassin Massacre…” (Ankori, 2006, p. 132). For a critical perspective on Ankori’s reading of Palestinian art through the lens of trauma, alienation and memory, see Maymanah Farhat, “Review: Gannit Ankori’s Palestinian Art,” Electronic Intifada, 2 October 2009, www.electronicintifada.net/content/review-gannit-ankoris-palestinian-art/3556 (last accessed December 20, 2012).
Rancière, 2010, p. 113.
Judith Butler also argues that grief is not simply a private state; it may open unto community and unto politics. Moreover, it allows for new selves to emerge. See Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, London and New York, Verso, 2006, p. 21.
Edward Said, “The Art of Displacement: Mona Hatoum’s Logic of Irreconcilables,” in Edward Said and Sheena Wagstaff, Mona Hatoum : the Entire World as a Foreign Land, London, Tate Gallery Publishing, 2000. Also available at Dar al Funun, www.daratalfunun.org/main/activit/curentl/mona_hatoum/4.htm (last access December 20, 2012).
See Till Roeskens’ and Nicolas Féodoroff’s introduction to the video work on the artist’s website : http://documentsdartistes.org/artistes/roeskens/repro3-8.html (last access December 20, 2012).
Rancière, 2010, p. 139.
Videomappings: Aida, Palestine, 2009. All further citations in this section refer to this video work.
A lone man from Jerusalem with an Israeli ID drove a Caterpillar front loader into traffic on Jaffa Street on July 2, 2008. He killed three and injured many others. He was killed in turn.
Apter, 2006, p. 6.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2012, p. 243.
Mu’allaqat are known as “suspended poems.” They are the oldest collection of Arabic qaşîdas or poems. Believed to be seven, later ten, chosen as the best ones and written in gold, they were hung at the wall of Ka’ba, a shrine in Mecca, hence their name which means to be hung or suspended.
Mahmoud Darwish. Limadha tarakta al-hisana wahidan? Beirut, Dar Al Rayyes, 1995, p. 116-117. Translated into English as Why did you leave the horse alone?
Hammad, 2008, p. 51. Other references to Darwish by Suheir Hammad include such verses as “Almonds Coffee Darwish,” p. 16.
Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry has often been put to music and his readings of poetry have also been recorded. His verses, especially the early ones, are fairly widely known and are readily cited by many. Certainly Hammad was familiar with Darwish’s poetry through popular renditions, though she most likely also read Darwish in English translations, perhaps in addition to reading the Arabic originals.
Darwish conceives of the poetic voice as something that emerges from a long lineage of poets, but which is then able to create a unique individual voice in this chain of poets. For a fuller discussion of Darwish’s work, see Najat Rahman, Literary Disinheritance: The Writing of Home in the Works of Mahmoud Darwish and Assia Djebar, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2008.
Mahmoud Darwish, Journal of an Ordinary Grief, trans. Ibrahim Muhawi, Brooklyn, Archipelago Books, 2010, p. 154.
Ibid., p. 44.
Darwish, 1995, p. 135.
“Qala’id” in pre-Islamic poetry also referred to poems. See Rahman, 2008.
See Blanchot’s reading of Orpheus in his L’espace littéraire, Paris, Gallimard, 1988.
Apter, 2006, p. 9.
Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” in Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings (eds.), Selected Writings, 1913-1926, Camridge, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, vol. 1, 1999, p. 253-266.
Apter, 2006, p. 7 (following her reading of Paul de Man’s analysis of Benjamin on translation in Resistance to Theory, University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
Hammad, 2008, p. 45.
“Minor” here is in explicit reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “minor literature.” See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: pour une littérature mineure, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 1975.
Hammad, 2008, p. 35.
Ibid., p. 25.
Ibid., p. 35.
References to Isis and Osiris abound in literature and emphasize aspects of the myth that Hammad evokes in her poetry. Isis is evoked as the Egyptian goddess who mourns her lover/brother Osiris, himself killed and dismembered by Set. Isis sets out looking for him and gathers his severed parts; and so she brings him to life. The most celebrated version is Plutarch’s De Iside et Osiride. For a recent novel that features Isis, see Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love, New York, Anchor Books, 2000.
Ibid., p. 39.
Waïl S. Hassan, “Translator’s Introduction,” in Abdelfattah Kilito, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2008, p. x.
Hammad, 2008, p. 44.
Ibid., p. 43.
Ibid., p. 45.
Ibid., p. 39.
Ibid., p. 49. Naher el Bared is a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
Judith Butler, “What Shall We Do without Exile,” Sixth Annual Edward Said Memorial Lecture, The American University in Cairo, November 7, 2010, www.youtube.com/watch?v=MLgIXtaF6OA (last accessed November 30, 2010). See also Judith Butler, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism, New York, Columbia University Press, 2012, and Glenn Bowman, “A Country of Words: Conceiving the Palestinian Nation from the position of Exile,” Ernesto Laclau (ed.), The Making of Political Identities, New York, Verso, 1994, p. 138-170.
Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Johnathan Rutherford (ed.), Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1990, p. 235.
Giorgio Agamben, The Coming Community, trans. Michael Hardt, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 86.
Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography’s Visual Culture, London and New York, Routledge, 2000. p. 14.
Rancière, 2010, p. 37.
Ibid., p. 15.
Apter, 2006, p. 10.
Ibid., p. 245.
Ibid., p. 244.
Hammad’s diasporic poems open Darwish’s poetry, considered national poetry, to new readings. They reveal poetry’s ability to transform and to proliferate other art forms.
Apter, 2006, p. 87.
Darwish, 1995, p. 118.
Jacques Derrida, Le monolinguisme de l’autre, ou, La prothèse d’origine, Paris, Galilée, 1996, p. 134.
Maurice Blanchot, La part du feu, Paris, Gallimard, 1949, p. 26.