"Performative Narrativity": Palestinian identity and the performance of catastrophe.

Author:Saloul, Ihab

I have advised you my heart, and why did not you take my advice?

We became an intoxicated people who go to sleep and wake up in the love of their homeland. Oh [...] you, my body that is torn into two halves, a living one and another that lived, and the living half is left for pain and suffering.--Shafiq Kabha, Mawaal, (1989). (1)

I have begun with this Palestinian melody because it resonates beyond boundaries that are set by history and geography. Sung at weddings and other festive occasions, this melody, with its emphatic sighing for the lost homeland, "oh [...]", serves as a testimony of a remembering that reclaims the experience of another time and another place. The loss of the homeland torments the soul and splits the body "into two halves [...]", existing between a loved but dead past and a living but agonized present. At the same time, these words point out that the past and the present cannot be simply separated from one another.

Firmly anchored in the present, these words suggest that remembering events and experiences from the Palestinian past remains an effective means of releasing their stories of forced uprooting and struggle for freedom and independence from "official Zionist history", especially its dominant colonial meta-narrative of "a land without a people for a people without a land". (2) The temporal and spatial distance, between the remembered object (Palestine) and the Palestinian subject doing the remembering, functions as a conceptual metaphor for the more unsettling distance between this subject and him or herself in exile. This metaphor, as I will argue below, is most visible in the remembrance of al-nakba.

In this article, I probe the audiovisual storytelling of al-nakba through analyzing denied exilic narratives, particularly those of Palestinians living inside Israel, often referred to in willfully vague terms such as "Israeli-Arabs". (3) I will perform this analysis on Mohammed Bakri's documentary 1948, which commemorates the Palestinians' loss of their homeland in 1948 and articulates the "deep narratives" of their denial of home in ongoing exile. I use the term "deep narratives" to refer to those narratives that are inherently grounded in the past nakba, yet continuously (re) surface in reconstructions and retellings of the story of that catastrophe in present exile.

Made in 1998 within the context of Palestinian commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of al-nakba, though never "officially" labeled as such, the thrust of Bakri's 1948 is to express the carping ambiance of present-day Palestinians in exile, in which an interminable sense of catastrophe persists. Surprisingly in view of this grave subject, the set, so to speak, is the theater. 1948 begins as a theatrical performance, the story of which was told before by other storytellers. Theater and storytelling: these are the two cultural modes in which the film is cast. Both modes are anchored in fiction, and both are literally displayed in performance.

Behind the narrative of Bakri's film hides another storyteller, the late Emile Habibi (1921-1996), to whom the film is dedicated. 1948 opens with "In memory of Emile Habibi". Habibi was one of the most accomplished Palestinian intellectuals: he was both a writer and a politician who served as a member in the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) for nineteen years as the head of Rakah Party (The Israeli Communist Party). Habibi's satirical novel, al-Mutasha'il: al-waq'i al-ghariba fi ikhtifaa' Said abi al-nahs al-Mutasha'il, serves as the starting point of Bakri's film. Originally published in Arabic in 1974, al-Mutasha'il was translated into English in 1982 by Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Trevor Le Gassick under the title: The Secret Life of Saeed: The Ill-Fated Pessoptimist. The term al-Mutasha'il (The Pessoptimist) in the title of the novel is unique in its linguistic construction as it is made up of two Arabic adjectives: al-mutasha'im (the pessimist) and al-mutafa'il (optimist). Since its first appearance, serialized in three parts in the daily Al-Jadid in Haifa between 1972 and 1974, Habibi's novel has evoked countless scholarly studies and literary criticism. For example, in his comment on al-Mutasha'il, Edward Said points out that the novel embodies the Kafkaesque elements, especially the alternation between being and not being in place, by which its narrative sketches a complete picture of Palestinian identity. As Said puts it, al-Mutasha'il is an "epistolary novel [...], unique in Arabic tradition in that it is consistently ironic, exploring a marvelously controlled energetic style to depict the peculiarly 'outstanding' and 'invisible' condition of Palestinians inside Israel" (1992: 83). (4)

In 1948, Bakri uses footage from his own stage performance of Habibi's al-Mutasha'il. This self-reflective device allows me to discuss the film's narrative as an act of remembrance of al-nakba, which not only articulates the past catastrophe but also enacts the "catastrophic" in the present of the exilic subject--here, Bakri himself as a theater director. This situation where a theater performance is recycled as a cinematic performance, and I will argue, through this double performance, as an act of storytelling, offers a good starting point for my analysis. This double use of performance helps me reflect on what I will call in this article a "performative narrativity". This notion refers to dialectic between enactment and showing images from another time.

Central to this discussion is the question how the identity of the Palestinian subject is performatively constructed and narrativized at the same time--staged and remembered. The connection between performance and memory, by means of storytelling, is foregrounded in Bakri's film 1948. Composed of a mix of theatrical performance, archival footage and personal interviews of both Palestinians and Israelis, Bakri's film, as Haim Bresheeth succinctly puts it in his article "Telling the Stories of Heim and Heimat, Home and Exile", tells the narratives of Palestinians inside Israel, their subsequent marginalization, oppression and mistreatment, and their aspirations for freedom, equality and development; all dashed by the harsh realities of their exile while living in a Zionist entity that utterly negates their equality and their right to their lands (2003: 27-28). In its presentation of these narratives, 1948 appeals to the concepts of "performance" and "performativity". These concepts have constituted a paradigm shift in the humanities. (5)

In her book, Tavelling Concepts in the Humanities: A Rough Guide, Mieke Bal probes performativity in performance. She does so by both articulating the unstable distinction between performance and performativity and arguing instead for a "conceptual messiness" between these concepts. At the heart of this "conceptual messiness" is Bal's contention that while the two concepts are seemingly distinguishable from each other--performance as being determined in a pre-existing script and performativity as an event in the present--both are in fact interconnected through memory, but "without merging" (2002: 176). This, I contend, is what Bakri's opening sequence does; as I will try to show below. Bakri's recycling of a stage performance suggests a creative theorizing of this relationship, the emphatic re-use of theater--the art of performance par excellence--in a film that pursues performativity effects--to change our ways of seeing--offers a great insight into the cultural production of performativity.

According to Bal, such a connection between performance and performativity--primarily informed by Derrida's theorization of the citationality of speech acts--facilitates the analysis of:

[T]he always potentially performative utterances into aspects. This move from categorization to analysis of each term is representative of the move from a scientific to an analytical approach to culture. (2002: 178) This shift in approach brings Bakri's film, as an audiovisual artifact, within the orbit of cultural analysis. What animates the interconnection between "performance" and "performativity", then, is the understanding of performance as an act of theatrical enactment that has at the same time the performative power to trigger new signifiers and meanings beyond the present act itself and through these, a change of identity. To this effect, following Bal's argument of the performative (2002: 176-78) and in an attempt to extend its analytical domain, in my analysis of 1948 I bring the concepts of performance and performativity in their dialectic interaction to bear on the film's audiovisual storytelling of Palestinian nakba and exile. In so doing, I assume that both the modes and strategies through which acts of remembrance are (audiovisually) narrativized in a particular cultural setting reflect specific conceptions of political history and cultural memory of the past and turn these reflections into agents of performativity in the present. Hence, they set up the necessary grounds within which a different future can be envisioned. (6)

But 1948 is a film with a story to tell. In order to account for the narrative sequence within and through which performativity takes effect, I will employ the concept of "performance" to articulate what happens in a theatrical setting with a narratological device of, what Bal calls in her book Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, "focalization" (1997: 142-60). Through focalization, stories of the everyday of Palestinian exile can be enacted, and brought to the fore, as focalized, that is, perceived and interpreted, rather than happening on the spur of the moment. I will show how 1948 is engaged in refocalizing the everyday experiences of Palestinian exile. The filmic narrative not only shows but also enacts those experiences. Thus, to delineate my itinerary, I make an analytical move form the "aestheticism" of performance--as theater--to the performativity of...

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