Adversity is the glue that holds together the writing of the displaced
Stroking his grey beard, Rahim sat under a tree in a South Delhi cemetery. Like a fallen leaf, the little piece of paper on which he was scribbling drifted away. Rahim did not particularly mind it. The mere act of expressing his emotions on paper was cathartic to the man from Rakhine in Burma. Now an exile with the cemetery for a ‘home', all he seems to care for are stray pieces of paper which the wind sweeps into and out of the graveyard. He writes on some, he rolls the others, using them as darts to shoot imaginary foes. He is not going through normal times. Indeed, for a man who has spent many a week in refugee camps, ‘normal' could just be life in a camp.
Back home Rahim was a recluse, not an accomplished author. Now in an alien land, writing is his constant companion, leaving me wondering if adversity brings out the best in writers. Or do authors cope with adversity through writing? Words at least partially heal this man without a State – Burma does not grant citizenship rights to Rohingyas. Rahim's plight is similar to that of women (and men) from Palestine, similarly removed from their home, their country, yet finding in words some solace. Indeed, adversity is the glue that holds together much of the writing of exiles.
One chanced upon these two seemingly disparate yet linked instances the other day. While Rahim's work, not more than a few half-torn pieces of paper, is yet to be published here, the fate of Palestinians has been better. The novelists, poets, journalists, have all overcome the personal trauma of displacement and disparity to piece together essays, anecdotes and poems that find space in the book “Seeking Palestine”. With contributors answering to the names of Sharif Elmusa, Adania Shibli, Suad Amiry and Raja Shehadeh, each of the pieces speaks with the voice of authenticity rather than received wisdom. A careful look tells you that the stories of inequality and insecurity might be intimate and personal but the experience is universal, indeed common, to the world of exiles. Most contributors to “Seeking Palestine” are exiles, some of them internally so.
The fourteen writers address – and remember – both the history of Palestinian adversity and their own intimate story of the same, but they also seek hope and new ways to understand both the Palestinian predicament and their very personal relationship to it. “What am I without Palestine,” writes Jean Said Makdisi, "and what is Palestine without me?" It is nerve-wrenching stuff. But, as Raja says, it is more wrenching to remain silent than to find your own voice and write your own story.
For Rahim, the refugee camp might be a luxury to what he has experienced since. For contributors to “Seeking Palestine”, it is emblematic of their tragedy. As Amiry writes, “Nothing in my life is normal/Nothing in my life is neutral.”
Writers, as a tribe, talk of being in their space when they write. For exiles who write – as different from writers in exile – there are more fundamental questions that need to be addressed. For instance, even answering a standard question from a stranger (“Where do you come from?”) can become mission impossible. How does a man without a State answer that? Suad shows as much with humour and grace, making the Palestinian story her own. Sharif Elmusa talks of leaving behind landscape, food, friends, culture on landing in the U.S.. But then, as Raja, who has also co-edited the volume, recounts in the words of the American novelist William Faulker, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” This is perhaps most true for writers – and for Palestinians and the Rohingya Muslims of Burma.
In “Seeking Palestine,” the contributors do not simply recount the Palestinian past, they also steer away from nostalgia. Yet the connections that they find in exile are often startling. When Sharif al Musa is in New York City, he muses that the streets of his camp “were laid out in a grid/as in New York/but without the dignity of names of asphalt”. Thinking of the refugee camp and New York, he asks, “Which is the mirror of the other, the camp or New York City?”
Indeed, which one? For a men and women without a State, the answer could well be blowing in the wind.