- Significant but Problematic Others:Negotiating "Israelis" in the Works of Mahmoud Darwish
"Either I, or He"That's how war begins.But it ends in an awkward meeting between"Me and Him."—Mahmoud Darwish, "A State of Siege"
The works of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish abound in references and allusions to Jewish and Hebrew texts, persona, themes, and motifs. Invariably, the intertextual gesture implicates rival discourses of national identity, often directly and explicitly. And just as often, a sense of problematic, yet indispensable, otherness seems to animate the context of such transnational projections.
On the face of it, otherness may seem not only incidental but perhaps also categorically alien to the concept or conceptualization of national identity. And yet strident assertions of racial or ethnic purity and singularity aside, otherness may be no less central to the discourse of national or collective identity than the Derridean notion of "différance" is to effective linguistic signification. A brief glance at constitutive religious and historical formulations of the subject, from ancient times to the present, may suffice to gauge the validity of this generalization. To illustrate the point with just two striking examples from medieval European history, which still resonate with [End Page 487] particular contemporary relevance, let me consider briefly the "sermon" of Pope Urban II to the Franks at Claremont in 1095, which launched the two-hundred-year-long nightmare of the Crusades, and Martin Luther's table talk "Faith Versus 'Good Work,'" which helped launch the Reformation.
In his skillfully calibrated differentiations Pope Urban predicates the singularity of the "race" of the Franks—to whom his "sermon" is primarily addressed—not only on the geographic insulation of their mountainous country but also on the superior religious and character traits that distinguish them, collectively, from all others, but especially from the hapless Persians. The latter are summarily summoned, indicted, and dismissed as "a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God."1 Similarly, Martin Luther strictly limits the applicability of redeeming grace to those who submit to (his version of) Christ: "For, without Christ, all is idolatry and fictitious imaginings of God whether of the Turkish Qur'an, of the pope's decrees, or Moses' law; if a man think thereby to be justified and saved before God, he is undone."2
What these examples show, among other things, is that pliability and susceptibility to extrinsic manipulation, contrived if necessary, are indispensable for the effective appropriation of the other's narrative of identity. The success of such strategies of appropriation, in turn, is predicated on the premise that alternative sources of information are unavailable or inaccessible to the intended objects of persuasion. In this case, "the kingdom of the Persians" had ceased to exist four and a half centuries before Urban's time—in 651 AD, to be precise, but its historic antagonism to the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire—perhaps still lingering, however dimly, in the collective memory of the literate among the Franks—amply qualified it for the villain's role in the pope's (ulterior) grand imperial designs. And if the mention of the menacing Turks banging at the gates of Europe makes the horrifying prospect of eternal damnation easier for Luther's audience to grasp and serves his rhetorical and theological ends better, why not recast the Arabic Qur'an as Turkish? (Othello's bragging before his Venetian overlords about "slaying the Turk," nearly a century later, resonates with similar and equally specious import.)
Now, if general illiteracy, ignorance, and provinciality denied (mostly rural) communities access to the defining identity narratives of other collectivities in earlier epochs of history, ideological indoctrination and relentless propaganda have come to perform a similar task in modern mass societies. Considerable resources are invested by modern nation-states in [End Page 488] what Noam Chomsky has aptly called "manufacturing consent." On this score, few modern ideologies or states have been more successful than Zionism and Israel respectively. The veritable absence of the Palestinian national narrative from both the Israeli and world public...