“Cultural difference may not necessarily be bridged”
Refqa Abu-Remaileh is a EUME-Fellow at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies at Philipps-Universität Marburg. She is currently doing research on the aesthetic of resistance and subversion in the work of Palestinian authors and and directors of the post-Oslo generation.
For your dissertation you analyzed the novels of Emile Habibi, a Palestinian writer who is celebrated within the Israeli culture, and the Elia Suleiman’s movies which also deal with the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. How is this conflict narrated in popular culture? Are there differences between the depiction in novels and in movies?
It is difficult to label Habibi’s and Suleiman’s works as popular culture. In fact, it is an interesting question: what defines culture/popular culture in the Palestinian context, especially under Israeli occupation and with the lack of national cultural institutions and infrastructure making production, publication and distribution, of both films and books, very difficult.
The conflict permeates all aspects of Palestinian culture in varying degrees, from art, literature to film. The idea of “resistance literature”, coined by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani in the 1960s, has been and still is influential in Palestinian culture. Writing before the 1967 war, Kanafani saw the works of Palestinians who had remained in what became the state of Israel as the forefront of cultural resistance, while armed resistance was gathering momentum in exile. Kanafani shone a spotlight on the lives and works of those “forgotten” Palestinians in Israel who had lived in isolation, under strict Israeli military occupation, up until 1966. Prominent among those Kanafani wrote about was a young poet named Mahmoud Darwish who later rose to stardom and became the quintessential Palestinian poet. This is also the context out of which Habibi and later Suleiman emerged from, their paradoxical position as Palestinians in Israel lending their works an experimental, surreal, and satirical and edge.
It is interesting to trace the treatment of some of the most persistent themes in Palestinian cultural production in literature and film. As a different medium, film can experiment with the potential of visuality, orality and narrative in ways that are different from literature. Through their groundbreaking words in both media, Habibi’s and Suleiman’s works reveal new and fresh angles on the question of Palestine, as Edward Said calls it, that have burdened and inspired many a writer and an artist.
Popular culture also has an influence on how we view other cultures. How do changes in political relations affect popular culture?
In the case of Palestine, changes in the political situation have directly and indirectly impacted culture. For example, a revolutionary period can be traced in Palestinian cultural output, in line with revolutionary activities of the PLO, which itself set up its own film units, magazines, journals to which contributed many a Palestinian intellectuals, writer and filmmaker, who were themselves active politically. In addition, landmarks such as the First Intifada, the signing of the Oslo Agreement, and the Second Intifada have served as markers for changes and movement in literary and filmic trends. Since the Oslo agreement in the 1990s there has been a marked dissociation between political involvement and the arts. Writers and filmmakers have begun to work independently of political parties and revolutionary factions often treating more personal and less collective themes in their works. In some ways, the dissociation has led to more openness and freedom in the works away from grand ideological ideas. The lack of national infrastructure has also meant less state control and censorship of works giving rise to a culture scene of multiplicity and diversity. In the wake of the deep and damaging vacuums created by conflict and misguided politics, art and culture act as the repository of history of a people that are still struggling for liberation and self-determination.
You also worked with the Middle East Program of the Oxford Research Group, a think tank that tries to facilitate constructive dialogues between conflicting parties. How you bridge cultural differences to create a constructive atmosphere for discussions?
In my work with ORG, I have had to recognize that cultural difference may not necessarily be bridged, especially in divided communities, each with their own narratives of history that often try to override the other narrative. So we began to work by acknowledging that there can be “radical disagreement” that could break down most dialogue processes, a concept developed by ORG’s former Chair, Prof. Oliver Ramsbotham, whose work in the field of conflict resolution has influenced many of the initiatives of ORG’s Middle East Programme. In this way, some of the work I was involved in at ORG has moved away from the traditional dialogue and conflict resolution models in not insisting on consensus and agreement between engaged parties, recognizing that long-term goals of various groups could be radically different, but that there are still ways and spaces to work together despite that.
A model of “Strategic thinking” has been, and still is, developing whereby groups of people, even those who disagree radically, can conduct strategic thinking together. ORG initiatives have engaged groups of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and in Israel, as well as, separately, groups of Jewish-Israelis, and most recently between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jewish-Israelis. The model of strategic thinking involves a process of mapping of scenarios and options, assessing their likelihood and feasibility, how to promote or block them, and identifying potential allies at various stages of the planning. This methodology opens up new spaces of working together despite differing ultimate goals. “Strategic Thinking for Citizens” is seen by many of our participants, especially Palestinians, as a tool of empowerment that does not recreate the asymmetry of power by pitting two sides against each other, which has inevitably lead to the collapse of many a dialogue initiative. Through the model of Strategic Thinking many of the Jewish Israeli participants have come to the realization that they actually know very little about Palestinian society, even Palestinians in Israel, and that this knowledge and understanding is crucial to be able to work, strategically plan for a better future, and live together.
Do you have more questions? Ask Refqa Abu Remaileh in person at the WeberWorldCafé “Bürger, Blogger, Botschafter: Diplomatie im 21. Jahrhundert“!