Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

"What Shall We Do without Exile?": Said and Darwish Address the Future

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

"What Shall We Do without Exile?": Said and Darwish Address the Future

Article excerpt

In a contrapuntal reading, this article revisits Edward Said's final speculations on binationalism in the context of Palestine and Israel, suggesting that binationalism may offer a way of undoing the problematic ideology of nationalism. The author sets Said's thoughts on the topic against Mahmoud Darwish's farewell poem to Edward Said (itself, a contrapuntal text). Engaging the question of exile and what it must signify to a people displaced, the author asks what it means to move forward when the historical past is still disputed, focusing specifically on the right of return and its seeming impossibility under the current political conditions in which it is discussed.


   where identity is open onto plurality,
   not a fort or a trench.

--Mahmoud Darwish

I look to Edward Said--no doubt many of us do--as a way of reflecting on what it means to think about our world, to enjoy one's thinking, to give public form to one's political commitments. I remember trying to understand first his views in Orientalism, and then following his loving and thoughtful essays on the opera. I quarreled internally with his insistence on humanism, but throughout I became engaged by his meditations on the Middle East, his memory of and his hope for Palestine. In particular, toward the end of his life, Said developed new ideas about the one-state and two-state solutions, the meanings of binationalism, and the prospects for the future. It would be possible to write (and someone should write) a larger piece on his growing worries about nationalism and the nation, and his questions about what self-determination for Palestinians in the context of binationalism might actually imply. Among his final reflections were a set of speculations that, in my view, seemed to imply that binationalism could be the undoing of nationalism. That is the thought I propose to explore in this essay, before turning--through a reading of Darwish's poem for Said on the occasion of his death--to the concept of exile.

Of course, one has to pause at the very start of such a consideration, since it makes sense to be opposed to Zionist forms of nationalism, but do we want to oppose the nationalism of those who have yet to see a state, of the Palestinians who are still seeking to gather a nation, to establish a nation-state for the first time and without firm international support? In response to this most urgent question, I suggest that we try to think for a moment not only about whether all nationalisms are the same (they surely are not), but also about the possible meanings of "nation." One of the very first assumptions we make is that a nation gathers people in place and time, establishes boundaries and borders that can and must be secured, and develops modes of democratic self-governance and sovereign territory and right. And, though surely few things could be more important for Palestine than laying claim to the lands that rightfully are its own, that right does not immediately imply a specific form of the nation-state. Indeed, one could formulate the right in light of international law, or one could formulate it on the basis of moral and political arguments that may or may not be framed within a specific version of the nation-state. The right to lay claim to the land may well be based on a historical analysis of a set of illegal practices of land confiscation that have become essential to the founding and self-legitimating practices of the Israeli nation-state. As is well known, Israel has been built on a series of land confiscations that preceded 1948, continued through 1967, and continue now with the extension of settlements, the building and re-building of the wall, and the strategic ways in which the borders are constantly expanding when checkpoints are arbitrarily relocated. But even if we start with this presumption that the State of Israel does not exist without the practice of illegal land acquisition and confiscation, as I think we must, we are still brought back to two facts that compel us to ask how we are to understand the nation of Palestine, and in what ways that nation can and must be specified. …

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