Kamenetz: Identity can be thrust upon us by history, by tragedy, by circumstances. At the same time, we do have the freedom to choose our identities. We have the freedom of the poet who says I am another, the I is another.
I think that's difficult when the suffering in one's life is immediate and real. Though I believe in the utter freedom to choose, I have always felt I had no choice in fact. I have always felt I am a Jew, I am a Kamenetz, and yet I know I could have chosen other names, other identities, other religions. Yet because of our freedom today, I think all Jews in America are Jews by choice.
Hassan: I'd like to say that being a Palestinian is a 24-hour profession. This is something that occupies all your life, for reasons you did not choose. You find yourself in a situation not of your choosing. That situation maybe could be understood by Jews. Jews by their own choice or by force.
In addition to that, it's not easy to be something 24 hours a day. It can be tiring, it can be difficult. And at the same time there's a need to understand what it means.
The Jews, especially in Israel, are obsessed by a question: Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? To me this could apply to the Palestinians. What is a Palestinian? Who is a Palestinian? One of the founders of modern Palestinian literature said, 25 years ago, a Palestinian is not someone born to Palestinian parents. A Palestinian is someone fighting for freedom. There is a lot of ideology in that definition. But the need to define or redefine the Palestinian is important.
How can we define our identities? We need the other. We need some other to create a distance between our self and the other. To think of our identity as something different from the other. For different reasons I got obsessed by things Jewish and Israeli for several years now and I've started to try to understand what's going on.
If we say the Israelis have an existential sense of fear, we don't have that at all as Palestinians. Maybe I have ideological or passport problems. But there's nothing existential about my identity.
Identity is an invention. We always invent our identities. We can be Palestinians by choice. The biological definition is not important. My personal experience, I tried to express that in an essay I wrote in Alkarmel, edited by Mahmoud Darwish. We did an issue on homeland and exile. I spent 21 years of my life outside Palestine. I belong to a generation that can be defined in Arab literary terms as the PLO generation. I grew up in the Palestinian national movement, and I lived in different parts of the world, and I came back after the Oslo agreement in 1994. Several people tried to explain the difference between homeland and exile.
Hassan then read from an essay describing his feelings on returning to Palestinian territory in the summer of 1994:
I didn't expect to go back to Palestine any time. And that was the worst pain in my life. I always had the feeling I want to go back. I understood it was impossible.... So when I knew I would go back, that was the most difficult and painful experience of my life. I couldn't sleep.
Palestine is not a paradise. It was not better than where I was living. I lived in other parts of the world. But it was the only place I wanted to be. I want to be there. It was impossible to sleep for several weeks. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't think. I couldn't live. That explains something. It might be irrational, but the need to belong to somewhere personally was and is very strong..
Kamenetz: Reality is very hard on poets. [laughter]
Hassan: I don't know what is reality. But if I want to say the difference, I can talk freely about living in the text. As a Palestinian, we come back to our favorite subject. The problem of Israeli writers is that they are afraid to live in the text. They have to emphasize the fact that they are in Eretz [the land of] Israel two thousand times a day in order to feel secure. I don't have an existential problem..
Rodger: Yet books can create reality. Theodore Herzl wrote a novel called The Old New Land, which turns out to be a blueprint for his dream of Israel. So often I like to say Israel is the only nation in the world that's based on a novel.