Palestinian writer Raji Bathish recently visited India, where he had readings in New Delhi and Bombay and talked with fellow writer-translator Suneela Mubayi:
The interview was conducted in and translated from the Arabic by Suneela Mubayi. It originally ran on Makhzin at the beginning of the month and appears here with permission.
Suneela Mubayi: How do you feel as a writer on your first visit to India?
Raji Bathish: I still haven’t fully registered that I’m in India. I have to pinch myself still sometimes. But I don’t feel a stranger here. I am amazed by the feeling of exoticism that most of the Arab writers from our part of the world [the Levant] express when they come to India, because I don’t feel it at all. I feel everything around me is bigger and more intense, but the spirit of the place feels the same.
SM: Given the historic, deep-rooted links between our languages – Hindustani, Arabic, Persian – how do you sense the linguistic level here?
RB: I have sensed the strong presence of Arabic here, not in the sense of people speaking it but rather that I can comfortably use it anywhere I am. Perhaps that’s because I am speaking it with you, but I could truly sense Arabic, the Quran and the rest of the Islam[icate] influence strongly, whether among the people we met or as influences in the places we roamed in, just as we find influences from India present in our culture.
SM: Why do you think other Levantine writers don’t feel this cultural closeness?
RB: The Levant is small in size and population compared to India, and geographically located between Europe and the subcontinent. New Delhi is the same distance from Jerusalem as it is from London, but for some reason we feel London is more of a cultural haven we should visit and contemplate. Maybe the reason is that, from a young age, we learned that everything western is more proper and better.
SM: Since you travel a lot, can you give us an idea of how the experience of travel translates itself in your writing?
RB: For me, writing depends on what I am going through at a particular stage of life. For example, when I lived in Tel Aviv all my texts revolved around Tel Aviv. Then, after I moved back to Nazareth in the North, I started writing, repeatedly, around a single theme – melancholy – i.e. I am losing everything around me and remain alone with stones and memories. This vision has become reality and is where I find myself right now. This is what my new novel will talk about; the stories of men and women – it doesn’t matter whether they’re imaginary or not – through the lens of melancholy, where everything is slowly being dismantled. While I’m in a certain state of mind, I cannot write about another place just by traveling to it. Rather, India for me is a place to escape from the world I write about. Of course that doesn’t mean an evocative image or a scene I happen to come across will not be later integrated into a literary text.
SM: Was there any such image up until now?
RB: Not so much an image or a scene but a recurring theme. Since I am the father of an eight-year old boy, I am always surrounded by my son and his friends. The world of children is a very rich one and I live constantly with this childhood, which demands more and more of me, like a bottomless well. So whenever I see the children of slum-dwellers here, I cannot take my eyes off them while I contemplate their tranquility and wonder: what are they thinking of? What are their needs and desires? If I see a toddler walking without any diaper, I’m seized by the wish to pick him/her up and take care of him/her myself. The world of children is very important to me. I cannot say for sure; are these children poor and wretched or not?
SM: Childhood has a powerful presence in your pieces, there is a lot of overlap between childhood and adulthood or maturity, especially in terms of sexuality…
RB: Most parents would get sick of the constant noise and squabbling between the kids, but I feel as if I’m living out my childhood anew. In my writing, especially my latest pieces, there is a summoning of childhood. There is always that child playing with a toy while his head is full of endless existential questions. Even in my dreams, I keep seeing my paternal grandmother, with her tenderness, beauty and femininity and on the other hand, the old house, her bossiness- how she would force me to eat things I didn’t like, or tell me things like, “You will die if you don’t drink your milk.” I started hating milk and became very picky about food. So yes, childhood is essential for me, moreover, I can’t imagine myself not being a father.
SM: Since we’re talking about childhood, and you belong to the Palestinians of ‘48 [Palestinian citizens of Israel], where the acquisition of Arabic is not obvious or assumed. and the Palestinians of ‘48 are looked at with suspicion for having lost their link to Arabic, where did you pick up your literary Arabic from?
RB: You may have noticed that my language is not a very flashy or grand one, but it’s not flimsy either. It can stand alone and I fashioned it myself. In the ‘70s, within the burgeoning political life of the Palestinian community inside Israel, there was an insistence on holding on to Arabic, and communicating and writing in it, but only in the political circles, whereas I grew up in a traditional Christian family that considered politics to be a distant affair. Yet, as children, Arabic was very much present in our daily lives, especially since my paternal grandfather did not speak Hebrew and did not even want to learn it! All the television we watched was in Arabic or English, on the Jordanian, Syrian or Lebanese stations we could pick up.
The more influential factor was actually the ceremonies in church; next to our house was a convent attached to the church our mother would take us to every Sunday at seven in the morning. Moreover, at that time, the liturgy of the Roman Catholic church started to be conducted in Arabic [for the Arabic speaking Catholics]. I don’t think the language of the Bible or the hymns themselves were as influential as the stories narrated during mass. For example, in the neighborhood we lived in, the Virgin Mary was much more important than Jesus himself, not because she was the mother of Christ, but because we considered her our main authority or big boss, or as we say, our patron saint [shafiʿa]. A lot of stories were told about the miracles she worked – all of them made up of course – and they were recited in a very beautiful Arabic whose style and content impressed me early on, before coming to appreciate the language itself. So for example, at age six, when you discover words like batul [virgin] or shafiʿa [patron saint], or the rest of the vocabulary of sin and sinfulness and sacrifice without understanding its meaning, an extremely rich lexicon opens up to you. I still think, however, that my love of language was the result of a conscious choice, a will to read. There was also my maternal younger uncle who lived next to us and had a huge library. When he got married and left the house, he left behind this library. I would go in and sit on the floor and read there. There was a Lebanese magazine there called Tabibak (Your Doctor) – I don’t know how it reached us, most likely it was smuggled – that was famous for its sex column. I would sit there and read about people’s sexual disorders issue after issue, and this is how I learned the lexicon of sex in Arabic.
SM: You grew up in Nazareth, the only city in the state of Israel with an Arab majority-
RB: Actually, it’s completely Arab.
SM: Yes, completely Arab, and it’s surrounded by Hebrew. What was your relationship to Hebrew like as you were growing up in this Arab ghetto?
RB: Until the age of 18 or so, all our family excursions were in Arabic; if we went out of Nazareth, it was to Haifa or Jerusalem to visit relatives, or to the West Bank. Even going to Tel Aviv was considered a bit of a challenge, as it was the city of the “Other”. We did not have any Israeli friends. Our friends were from the Triangle [set of towns inside the Green Line bordering the West Bank], or the Druze villages, so even other cultures I was introduced to as a child were Arab. Until the age of 18, Hebrew was a very distant thing. Of course, things are different in coastal “mixed” cities like Haifa, Jaffa, Lydd or Ramle, where Hebrew exerts more hegemony over people [the Palestinians], even on children and the youth. But Nazareth is a special case; it is a sort of liberated statelet in the heart of the Israeli occupation. Unfortunately, even here things are starting to change due to globalization by way of Hebrew; we’ve suddenly been invaded by global brands and chains and employees must speak Hebrew since the (Hebrew) state is their active promoter and facilitator. In addition, the privatization of medical services, among other factors, has led to a change in language practices.
SM: In your text, you insert yourself in the sphere of the Israeli “Other”; you come into very close contact with him, sexual contact especially.
RB: Yes, but he still remains an “Other”. He is the occupier, yet in my texts I occupy him through Arabic. One critic wrote that I either treat Israelis as equals or that I even try to rise above them or diminish them; maybe it’s a result of my class background. Many of our [Palestinian] writers deal with the “Other” with a victim mentality, as if victimhood has become a comfortable narrative, especially if the writer happens to fit a certain social category, e.g. “Bedouin from the South” [of Israel], “woman” or any other identity that can be employed to portray the self as victim, whether of patriarchy, the society, the Zionist occupation, imperialism, etc. There are several instances in which victimhood is celebrated. I am not like that. I don’t feel like a victim and this often vexes others, and I can feel some of them thinking, “Who does he think he is?!”
SM: Since we’re talking about your relationship to language, let’s touch on the subject of translation. You work as a translator right now, and, as a result of the linguistic occupation the Palestinians of Israel live in, you have lived with translation from a very early age. In an interview, the Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos called translation a daily exercise that can influence you as a poet, as it sometimes leads you to surpass yourself and your language to construct new poetic expressions. Consequently, he advises poets to try practicing translation even if only for their personal enjoyment. What is your relationship to translation?
RB: Translation is essentially a source of income for me, but if I did not enjoy it, I wouldn’t have made it into a job. It’s true that translation makes you improvise on the strings of language, and that you can discover new expressions in your mother tongue through it. Since I translate medical and economic materials, I often stumble upon curious words whose existence I was unaware of. So yes, I agree with Sargon that translation is a kind of daily exercise that strengthens your language, and lo and behold, you find language has become your whole life. I haven’t yet challenged myself with translating literary texts, with the exception of a few modest attempts. Of course, many of my own pieces have been translated into a number of other languages.
SM: How do you feel when you’re reading translations of your pieces? Does the feeling differ from one language to another?
RB: I don’t think so. I see my texts as culturally accessible and translatable into any language without the meaning being lost, because I myself am a hybrid personality. That is to say, I don’t come from a background that would be considered stereotypically “authentic”. I actually have a dialectical relationship with my Arab identity as well as a dialectical relationship between Hebrew and Arabic inside of me (to a lesser degree with other languages). I won’t say I have a split personality but rather, dualities that are operating all the time, as I sometimes think in Arabic and others in Hebrew. As a result I find myself to be a writer open to translation. Second, after I have written a piece and published it (or not), I have a loss of memory, and that piece does not come back to me unless someone asks me to read it at an event or someone else reads it out in front of me, which makes me feel awkward, especially if it’s read in translation. I’m afraid someone will ask me something about the circumstances surrounding the text or what I meant at some particular point, whereas I have completely forgotten and become cut off from the text. I don’t know whether this is a blessing or a curse. It seems that the cliché of the work of art belonging to the reader once it leaves the author’s hands applies to me.
SM: In your opinion, why didn’t the Israeli state try to make Palestinians inside Israel forget Arabic?
RB: The Zionists could have banned the teaching of Arabic and Hebraized the Palestinians who escaped ethnic cleansing after the Nakba. Instead, they tried to distort and impoverish the language and drive a wedge into it. From another standpoint, it made separate education systems for Jews and Arabs. As per the law, Arabs go to school in Arabic and Jews in Hebrew, and rarely does an Arab write in Hebrew, or vice versa, except in rare cases like Sayyed Qashou-
SM: Or Anton Shammas, for example.
RB: OK, well, Anton did what he did [wrote Arabesques, a critically acclaimed novel in Hebrew] because of his academic interests, but, in his writing, there isn’t a conflict of identities resulting from colonialism like in Algeria for instance, where as a writer, you ask yourself whether your mother tongue is French or Arabic. Perhaps because they [the Zionists] came to Palestine as a nascent people, i.e. they had to invent a nation on this land, they weren’t capable of imposing a linguistic hegemony. Firstly, their language was being revived; it couldn’t be a dominant one. They took the daring strategic decision to separate the two peoples linguistically, just as they westernized the Hebrew language and alienated it from Arabic, removing the symbiotic relationship between the two. For example, they re-wrote their history by erasing all the Jewish scholars who lived in the Arab lands and wrote in Arabic like Maimonides [Musa b. Maymun], nicknamed Rambam in Hebrew, so as to make Ashkenazi culture more prominent.
SM: In the context of the discussion of the lost relationship between Hebrew and Arabic, I want to ask you about your relationship to classical Arabic literature, especially since the lexicon of classical Arabic is so rich with sexual vocabulary and you as a writer are very concerned with sexuality.
RB: My relationship to classical Arabic has always been problematic. I always felt it to be a burdensome chore, especially during school when asked to scan and give case endings to whole lines of poetry. But when I grew up and started writing, all the classical poetry started to come back, beginning with the Muʿallaqat [pre-Islamic hanging poems] and everything after, which had been erased from my memory. I suddenly found myself recalling a line or a poem all the time. Arabic classical literature is a vast linguistic resource; for they established a very easygoing, supple relationship between language and daily life, bending language to express whatever they wished to talk about. This supple relationship has been cut off in contemporary times; as a result, the modern literature I was brought up on became far too sterilized and genteel. When I made the conscious decision to write queer, sexualized texts, I decided to keep the word ayr [cock] as it is rather than make it less offensive, and use terms like funun al-nayk[the arts of fucking] and so on, because these are not foreign to Arabic, they are an inherent part of it. All this means that I began to go back, little by little, and draw from the works of the classical corpus. Of course that doesn’t mean that I have memorized all the classics or major works, and I still have a large gap to fill in my knowledge of this area. But since we have jumped from the second half of the Abbasid era to the present day, in terms of writing about sex, I need an authoritative linguistic reference I can avail of to develop my language. I put a lot of effort into this work, but it is highly enjoyable.
SM: When you read a text from classical Arabic, do you feel like you are reading a foreign language?
RB: In some respect, yes. It is foreign as it needs explanation in contemporaryfusha [modern standard Arabic] for me to understand it, but even though I’m not an Arab nationalist, I take pride in this boundless linguistic ocean.
SM: As far as queer writing goes, are there any particular sources you have drawn or benefited from, in terms of ideas, themes or terminology?
RB: I have benefited not only from the poetry of Abu Nuwas but also another [homoerotic] poet called Safi al-Din al-Hilli and generally all the anecdotes of theghilman [adolescent young men]. Today, when an Arab writer deals with sex, it’s as if he/ she is trying to make you feel guilty or wants to show you how liberated he/she is, but for the pre-modern Arab writers, it was different… You feel as if they were very cool-headed while writing, as if it was a natural thing, not as if they just had rediscovered sexuality. They wrote in a flowing but difficult style to imitate, what we call in Arabic al-sahl al-mumtaniʿ [easy yet forbidding]. I envy them for this, for we are incapable of doing writing this way today, i.e. write about sex without pretension and without making the reader feel that, “Wow, I’ve suddenly become a liberal-minded person.” And let us keep in mind that most of them were highly regarded Islamic scholars or men of religion.
SM: Are there specific words from classical literature that are absent from the modern dictionary but remain stuck in your mind or that you’ve used in your writing?
RB: Not specific words, more the idea of the production of pleasure as a part of daily life—this process was natural and present as a daily need, just like eating and drinking. I feel this process was choked or aborted, and we are now in the middle of trying to bring it back to life.
SM: For a while, it seemed to me that Palestinian identity is itself a queer one. Do you agree? If so, where and how do you see the intersection between the queer writing you are trying to establish and Palestinian literature overall? Will queer writing set the stage for a new phase in Palestinian literature; will it lead it to new horizons?
RB: Yes. Naturally, it depends on how one perceives it, whether the writer is aiming for national liberation in its traditional sense and constructing the same oppressive state apparatus present in all the other countries of the world. From my point of view, why is it incumbent on us as Palestinians to strive to reproduce the same violent entity called a “state”? Of course, the Palestinians endure occupation, apartheid and the lack of an independent entity, but look at the examples of states surrounding us. All of them have shown us how much the state is an apparatus for producing violence, specifically identity-based violence, that is, perpetually having to define who and what you are, and your relationship to national symbols like the flag and national anthem. Also, I personally see Palestinian identity as a kind of non-identity. For instance, as Palestinians we are still debating what our national anthem should be, and our flag is a movement flag more than a national one: there is a patriarchal void, the father may be dead. We don’t have an army and the police force is a joke. To me, all these features representing the supposedly “heroic” Palestinian people are indications of queerness.
SM: Do you think this queerness can enrich Palestinian culture?
RB: Yes, especially now that the idea of the violated motherland is no longer dominant in Palestinian literature. Things are changing. I’m not a literary critic but I get the feeling that we are gradually shifting from focusing on major issues to minor issues. Yet the Palestinian writer is still expected to deliver a Palestinian narrative. For example, if I give a reading in Egypt or Lebanon, it is still presumed that I will supply the audience with clichés from the Palestinian narrative, such as stone-throwing children [of the Intifada], or mothers crying over their martyred sons. Unfortunately many feel compelled to conform to this expectation. Here, queer writing can make a difference. Most reviews of my writing commend the breaching of boundaries and the transgression of unshakeable Palestinian nationalist tenets I deviate from by using insolent and vulgar sarcasm or other techniques. I once wrote in a short story Falastin zayy kuss al-‘aqrab – “Palestine is as small as a scorpion’s pussy”, a common expression as you know [for saying it’s a small world] but no one dares including it in a literary text, or once I set a short story in a destroyed Palestinian village as a place where casual sexual encounters between men take place.
SM: In terms of literature you belong to the 90s generation (with reservation over the concept of literary generations).
RB: The 90s generation is the one that followed the First Intifada. The Intifada generation was very committed to the /theme of the Stone [throwers against Israeli soldiers], resistance and so on, but our generation, especially those that came after the Oslo Accords in ‘93-’94 and brought subjective, inward-looking poetry and prose, made a big leap; after all the fame garnered by the resistance poets from inside Palestine, we came with themes mired in subjectivity, the personal, the macabre, and the ambiguous. Here, I must mention how my generation benefited tremendously from Mahmoud Darwish’s collection Limadha Tarakta al-Hisan Wahidan [Why did you Leave the Horse Alone , which constituted a major shift from the earlier paradigm of Palestinian literature.
SM: How did you try to personally step out of the shadow of the Darwishian institution?
RB: I think I am completely different. Since 2000, I haven’t published a collection of poetry in the traditional sense. Instead, I have been writing poetry and including it as part of fictional prose. Darwish was very polite in his poetry, his language was elevated and he tried hard to preserve the calm and sober image of a man of the establishment, whereas I, on the contrary, have freed myself from this role.
SM: Will you return tonight to Palestine from the Indian subcontinent? Has anything changed inside you?
RB: I’m about to start a new chapter in my family life; after the passing of my mother shortly before my journey, the unknown awaits me upon my return. Doubtless, I will look at Palestine with a new perspective upon my return, a perspective that, for the first time, is not based on the West.