2016-06-30
As Rodger Kamenetz describes in his column, he and Palestinian writer Hassan Khader engaged in a lengthy conversation about the nature of identity. Portions of that conversation are excerpted below:

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..

. This is a mystical thought: the road to the house is more important than the house itself. The road is very important. We need a meaning for our life. That's why Mayakovsky committed suicide and Yesenin. The great Soviet poets committed suicide because they couldn't face the reality of the Socialist revolution. When it became a reality, they couldn't face that reality.

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.

So perhaps texts can be very powerful. I was on a diaspora panel in Lafayette with Jews from Louisiana. I was the Jew--a role I can play pretty well--there was a Cajun and a black person. We talked about the diaspora experience. What it came down to that, the great advantage the Jews had in diaspora compared to other peoples like the Cajuns is that the Jews have a book, however misinterpreted.

Yes I wish people read more of the Song of Songs and less of the book of Joshua sometimes, but whatever part of the book Jews are reading has provided some continuity and it is literally a home in a text that has continued for thousands of years. There may be a sense in which coming back to the literal land, one misses the text.

Khader: Amos Oz, for instance, [also] says Israel was a book before becoming a reality. Now the question, the important one, is it possible to create states out of books? This is the problem. Because the states within books can be wonderful. The states in reality are monsters. This is the problem.

When I think about my Palestine, it shouldn't be out of a book. Because that can be very frightening. It should be a negation of all my experience in the Arab world. I spent most of my life in the Arab world, in military dictatorships, persecution, oppression, no freedom of expression, falsifying elections, having modern institutions such as parties and parliaments that are really facades, fabricated things. There's nothing in the Arab world anywhere that could

be defined as democracy. I don't know what is democracy. The only meaning is to accept the other. The otherness is part of your definition of yourself. When I think about my Palestine, it should be the negation of all that happened in my experience in the Arab world. It should be the opposite of all that. How can that be achieved? I don't know. Kamenetz: I think the other exists only in so far as it is in relation to an other. It arises through the relation to another. Khader: There's no self without the other at all. In the Arab world, I know the problem is a culture based on persecution and oppression. When it comes to the Israeli experience, I can see it as a mixture of technology and mythology. This mixture--if I have the right to dream about the future--should be avoided. Technology and mythology should not be mixed together in order to create certain reality. That should be avoided. It doesn't mean necessarily that the Jewish experience can be excluded. It should be included in that model. Kamenetz: Sartre had the famous essay where he talks about les juifs pours les autres-- the Jew for others. I've found among some American Jews, that their identity is non-Gentile, they define their identity as opposition to the other. The notion that you can bounce your identity of someone else. I came in my own life to the point where that no longer meant anything to me. If I were to continue--as I've chosen to--on a Jewish path, I had to find meanings in the tradition, in the text, in my relations to other Jews and ultimately in my relation to all human beings that I could live with and affirm. So it no longer became a question of opposition. The qualities you see in the other you also see in yourself. The difference you see in the other are projections in yourself you don't want to own. The more you refuse to admit that, the more hard-edge you get about how different the "other" is, but the more you can let in "I see him in myself," the more the differences seem to subside. Khader: It seems convincing.

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