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The South Atlantic Quarterly 102.4 (2003) 825-849
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Listening to the Inaudible
Mohammed A. Bamyeh
This is the twenty-first century, how could this be happening now?" The words belong to a resident of the town of Jenin in the West Bank, reached by a radio station on his cellular phone in the spring of 2002 amid the slaughter wrought by the Israeli military Operation Defensive Shield. The statement summed up much of the underlying attitude of most Palestinians from that point on: hardships, suffering, and accumulated losses could all be tolerated so long as they were flavored with hints of possible progress and globally oriented futurity. But then, history ceased its optimistic march, the promises of peace and progress were withdrawn. We regressed to an earlier era of hopelessness and abandonment. All that had been built up with enormous investments of resources, labor, patience, care, and attachment was destroyed: lives, houses, orchards, connections, and all other aspects of civilized life. All indications pointed not to any reconstruction but to even more destruction to come.
In an age of globalization and reduced sovereignty, the time of nations and their states seems to be passing. Yet over Palestine today [End Page 825] hovers a logic fully out of joint with its times. The old-fashioned colonialism that had devoured Palestine shows no signs of relenting. If anything, the opposite is happening. Today we witness a far more fanatic religious attachment to a greater "Eretz Yisrael" than had been the case half a century ago.
The tragedy of modern Palestine, beyond all the horrors and suffering associated with it, is doubly tragic in that it appears to have been caused not by any necessary logic of history but rather by countertimely events. First, on the eve of a global era of independence, Palestine became a settler colony. Second, at the outset of a global era whose common language seemed typified by secularism, science, future orientation, modernization, and progress, Palestine became the object of a moribund religious mythology.
Today we speak of postcolonialism, but Palestine is still deep in the throes of old-fashioned colonialism. The fact that the state of Israel marks 1948 as its year of "independence" illustrates the vicious nature of this particular colonialism. It seeks to erase its victim under the mark of its own liberty—an unmistakable piracy of anticolonial terminology by a colonizing power, which has always acted in collusion with previous colonial masters of the Middle East and their contemporary heirs. It seems that to use the words of the times would make it sufficient for one to enter those times, even if one is entering at the wrong time—that is, at the time when one ought to have been departing.
For Palestine, the modern era begins with colonization rather than decolonization, in contrast to almost all other Third World political experiences. Thus it would seem natural to argue that Palestine must be allowed to resume its rightful but long-postponed march along the path of decolonization and independence. Yet, in Palestine we confront the possibility that even this seemingly modest proposal may now be out of date.
It seems therefore that the situation here calls for something original. But whatever that is, it would invariably require as a first step unlearning the bad lessons of the colonial logic. All of them, that is, and not simply decolonizing the land or speaking one's native tongue, as Ngugi wa Thiong'o recommends. 1 It means also going beyond Jews and Arabs, as Ammiel Alcalay evocatively proposes. 2 This may seem completely unrealistic from today's point of view, but there will never be any other way. The logic of fanatic nationalism will only foster schemes of control, animosity, revenge, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. All these have already been acted upon, and will continue to be acted upon if the basic language of the conflict is not altered [End Page 826] in a radical way. The deadly weight of our reality itself cries for a step beyond this immobilizing attentiveness to "realism."
In much of the...