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  • Palestinian PostmemoryMelancholia and the Absent Subject in Larissa Sansour's In Vitro, Saleem Haddad's "Song of the Birds," and Adania Shibli's Touch
  • Layla AlAmmar (bio)


The dystopic film In Vitro, by Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour, takes place in a bunker many years after an eco-disaster in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. The protagonist, Alia, is a clone that was created after the traumatic event but has been implanted with the memories of those who lived through it. Consequently, she bears the effects of the trauma as a transgenerational transmission: "I was raised on nostalgia … My own memories replaced by those of others … The pain these stories cause are two-fold because the loss I feel was never mine." Calling her existence a "congenital exile," she argues that constant recounting of traumatic history reduces it to "symbols and iconography," such that her very being becomes "a liturgy chronicling our losses."1 With this film, Sansour argues that the Palestinian identity is "an identity that's in trauma," whereby individuals are raised on memories of the past to maintain resistance for a possible future of self-determination, which, in turn, can void the present of meaning.2

In the film an eco-disaster stands in for the traumatic events that form the backdrop of the majority of Palestinian art and literature, namely the 1948 Nakba and the 1967 Naksa.3 These historic traumas loom large over [End Page 1] artefacts of Palestinian cultural expression, solidifying a sense of collective identity in a present reality of fragmentation and displacement. Furthermore, nostalgic memories of a pre-1948 Palestine can sustain resistance and motivate return to a past unity. In Vitro deftly interrogates the goal of recovering a long-lost "golden age." In addition to the fact that the new generation was created as clones of those who experienced the catastrophe, the bunker also contains a large orchard planted using seeds salvaged before the land became uninhabitable. Consequently, the older generation attempts to re-create their past existence while neglecting to consider the sense of alienation this engenders in the new generation. This causes a fundamental temporal disconnect between the two generations: a skeptical Alia says, "What we are doing here will not restore the past," to which Dunia, who lived through the disaster, replies, "There is no need to. The past is still there, as intact as ever." In other words, while Alia desires leaving history behind in order to fully embody the present, thereby allowing for some viable future, Dunia asserts that the present does not exist in any meaningful way because they all remain locked in an atemporal sphere of trauma. Thus, the film cogently illustrates the burden of postmemory while extending the paradigm to contexts where trauma is not strictly past but remains present. Consequently, it shows how repeated activation of traumatic histories, and refusal to fully work through them, can lead to a state of transhistorical absence and suspended identity formation.

This article argues that Sansour's In Vitro, Saleem Haddad's short story "Song of the Birds," and Adania Shibli's novella Touch present a uniquely Palestinian postmemory, or what I call a postmemorial absence, which critiques the viability of a future when individuals feel trapped by memories of a traumatic past that prevent a meaningful present from materializing. I argue that these works further invite the question of a Palestinian identity that moves beyond the Nakba and what form such an identity might take. The first section discusses how Haddad's and Sansour's works exemplify the burden of collective memory, using the medium of science fiction to explore spatial imaginaries and the precarity of the Palestinian present. The second section illustrates how Shibli's Touch constitutes a powerful imagining of an identity unanchored to a collective traumatic past, whereby severing the inter- and transgenerational traumatic link is attempted. Her work, through its experimental form and style, suggests that negation [End Page 2] of subjectivity—a breaking down to build anew—may be necessary to realize an identity unencumbered by past trauma.

The Burden of Collective Memory

They nurse us on memories formed before us and raise us only for...