For Many Returns

I want to move away from thinking about art writing. Not as an analytical tool, but as a relational one, and not as a review that explains the object in question, but as a way to extend the work by seriously confronting my love for it, why I love it. So instead of using theory, or theoretical/critical analysis as interventions into my own writing, I feel that I am stepping out for the third time, and sharing with you a multilayered daydream that I hope will resonate into a story, a narrative of sorts that you are able to follow. My intention is to practice being in the work. Which, for me, means I am in the process of writing a love note to these beautiful and moving videos by Ruanne Abu-Rahme and Basel Abbas. I am really thinking about this process as a correspondence.

This experiment of mine that I am going to share with you is really coming from thinking about love. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to fall in love with art and how to communicate this expression into writing. As a curator and writer, I am often moved by the capacity in which a work changes me, and I find that is the hardest to articulate. I want to engage with this process of relation in a more rigorous, but also vulnerable, way.

I am moving out of what some would call theoretical writing into memory/daydream writing, to contend not only with the experience of grief and how it is felt in the everyday, but also through a personal and familial way– thinking about my grandparents who have died, and who are dying, and what it means to lose embodied knowledge in that way. I will no longer have access to my history, and that the stories of lineage, of migration, of struggle will be lost. And I am linking all of this to thinking about creating my own personal decolonial methodology. To integrate what I feel, what I image as dream or memory, to consider this as knowledge in its own right: what does it do to write this out as practice, to bring it into articulation for the public?

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“In the confusing and magnetic travel of bandits and poets. In those ashes, anything would be possible. The most profound love. The most casual crime. In those ashes, anything would be possible. A story that repeatedly speaks and repeatedly loses its voice.” Part 2

The sweet face of my friend B when he tells me the story of the fire. He stood there and watched as his belongings inside the building burned, everything he owned turned to ashes. He called his boyfriend, told him to come over but said nothing of the fire. He said he couldn’t move. He didn’t want to stop watching. He was mesmerized, struck by the light that concealed the image. “Into the ashes something new is possible.” I wonder if that’s what he felt. His boyfriend showed up, saw the fire, looked at B. “Do you want to move in?”

I recollect this story often because of the way my friend B’s face looked when he told it to me. Calm, but also touched by the experience of loss in a way that softened the hard edge of uncertainty of what was to be, what is to come. I think about this often: loss as a return, a movement that arrives at something again and again, grappling with the limit of what it means to be searching.   


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“I relapse into my fever into my dream.” Part 3

It’s hard to write when I don’t feel like it. In truth, I never do. I feel bound to writing; it’s a duty, a Palestinian one, a hauntological one. Something is stirring. Anxiety? I make some tea. I sit back down at my desk. I stare. Nothing yet. Nothing is coming. I wait. As if formulating a thought is about being patient, letting it arrive on its terms. No need to look at the clock. A thought is alive when it appears in ready-made words, a perfect sentence, no grammatical errors. No. I don’t want it that way. I want to feel the resonance of its death. Of it coming undone. It turns to spirit, like an aura in a haunted room. Something creaks; a cup falls off the edge of a table, crashes on the wooden floor, breaks. The lights dim. Another creak. Is a window open? What is that shutter? I feel a chill. You don’t want to be alone in this. Would someone else see? Feel? Sense, a creeping? Something that might come to light? Are memories like ghosts you wish to see, but are scared to conjure? Is any thought I have separate from a memory? From how I remember? How my body remembers?


Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“The impotence of an action and the search for the poetic act.” –Part 2

I am in a total fog, deep in feeling. Part of it is that I wander through the bewilderment of precarity. Part of it. Unable to make decisions, unable to get to my desk to write, to work, to answer an email. But most of what I feel is embodied grief, a kind of grief that feels both potent and numb.

My dear friend, Wanda Nanibush, wrote a piece entitled, “Being Indigenous in Palestine;” in it a line resonates here, “Colonization marks a before and after where identity is radically altered by loss.”

I walked by a Buddhist temple today, and heard song. I walked by the Italian church on the corner of Dante and Alma, and I also heard song. In these moments of walking and searching, I realize I am looking for solace, or perhaps a prayer, and in times of severe grief, of feeling uncertain and in doubt, I immediately go to a place where I wish I were more of a believer. In these moments, I think I need to have faith in a god, or a higher spirit. Maybe, if I just prayed or had a spiritual practice, or had the desire to begin. But then, immediately, I realize that what I actually need is my grandmothers. I need guidance from them. I want their wisdom, their stories. One of them is dead, the other had a stroke and can no longer speak. At night, I dream of them, their strength, their will – they survived a time I cannot imagine. When I envision them, I envision they live here, in Montreal, down the street from me, or in Saint-Henri. And I travel to them by bike, down the hill on Avenue du Parc. One of them, she greets me with open arms. She’s speaking fast, joyfully teasing me and complimenting me at the same time; a rush of intimate play takes a hold of the space. This grandma talks fast, in one breath so much charisma, punctuated by short verses from the Quran. She has memorized the whole holy book; she is illiterate. She holds me tight and ushers me into her kitchen where she’s made tea. We sit together, sipping on a hot elixir of ginger, cinnamon, and lemon, and she tells me all I need to hear. Sometimes, I imagine, I stay over on her couch in her stuffy living room, the walls filled with framed photos of our family. I can see my dad, so young, a baby. I’ve never imagined my father as a baby.

Life here is full of stories, ones I am eager to hear. All this makes me feel strong and safe. Around her, in here, in this home, with the smells of olive oil soap wafting in with the breeze from the open window, all of a sudden like a magnificent filmic cut, we’re in Palestine: we see our trees, orchards, and wildflowers, all growing, creeping up from beneath the sill. On the edges, the fruits gather, bear their intrusion on the corners of the frame. Olives, lemons, figs, wild rose everywhere. She looks at me from across the room and smiles, and tells me softly, “home.”

I imagine all this before I go to sleep: my grandmother, who lived in Tarshiha, Palestine, is actually living in Montreal, in the same city as me. A nightly ritual of dream, fantasy, and prayer: talking to ghosts becomes an act of remembering or of returning, an act of resurgence in how we get to tell our stories, how we get to re-imagine our histories, the ones that disappeared in migration and now belong to me and my dreams. I don’t know anything about this grandmother who lived in Palestine. I only ever met her once. Imagining her as I need her to be in the story anchors me, grounds me in a deep state of “be/longing.” It’s an intimate act of prayer, a ghostly intervention in time, reckoning with my inability to write against grief, up against grief. 

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“Daydreaming subverts the world.” -Part 3

In M. NourbeSe Philip’s introductory essay to Frontiers, “Echoes in a Strange Land,” Philip addresses the themes of forced exile, be/longing, theft of culture, erasure of culture, and suppression through culture, as mechanisms of colonization that continue to create structures that exclude Indigenous peoples, African Canadians, and people of colour from feeling at “home” in the nation-state. She writes that a way to challenge these mechanisms of colonization and how they institute racism, is by evoking the subversive role of memory. “I am arguing,” she says, “for a subversive role for memory, that memory is more than nostalgia—it has a potentially kinetic quality and must impel us to action”.

I am wondering and thinking deeply about this “kinetic quality of memory” and how it “impels us to action.” How can this be part of decolonial work?

Ruanne and Basel, in The Incidental Insurgents, resurrect the memory of Abu-Jildeh, a historical and once-celebrated figure in Palestine made to be forgotten. Abu-Jildeh fought the settlers and the British army, but he also stole from rich Palestinians and gave to the poor. His actions were then criminalized, and having been a prominent revolutionary figure, he was then made into a bandit and ousted from this history. The Incidental Insurgents, as a three-part multi-layered narrative, addresses Abu-Jildeh’s legacy as one that is anti-state. Abu-Jildeh is placed alongside other mythic and historical figures of what they call the “anarchic impulse.” They include him as a ghostly figure that threatened the seemingly cohesive narrative of what would be a revolutionary state. Along with Serge and Bolaño, Abu-Jildeh is resurrected by Ruanne and Basel, and these figures create the story of a “contemporary search,” as they say, for a new “political language and imaginary.” These figures, along with the artists themselves, wander through the land, and wander together, as their ghosts walk amongst the dead and the living. The anarchic impulse that colours this search reconstitutes memory as imaginary, memory as salvation.  

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“May amnesia never kiss us on the mouth.”

-Roberto Bolaño, Part 2

In 1948,  my maternal grandparents fled their town called Tarshiha in Palestine on foot, and crossed the border into the south of Lebanon. I was told by my grandfather that Tarshiha was one of the last towns to be raided by the Zionist army. Like other Palestinian families, they left thinking they were going to be coming back soon, once things had settled, so they took nothing with them. My grandparents were separated while fleeing. My grandfather had gone with the other men to see if they could fight off the army. They found each other, months later, in Beirut, in a refugee camp.

My grandmother’s name was Saddiqa, meaning friend in Arabic. She lived in Tarshiha, on her land with her husband, Faouzi, where they grew tobacco. There were also figs. They had a six-year-old son at the time of occupation, and Saddiqa was pregnant with their second. In telling this story, I am making an effort to preserve an image. I am in the process of re-telling, of remembering something I didn’t experience. I am trying to remember what that land looked like, what the house that my grandfather built looked like, what the air smelled like: how did they grow tobacco, how many acres did they have, if owning land was even thought of this way, in metrics, or in abundance, as capital. I’d like to think not. I imagine fields of different fruits. I imagine blue skies, and orchards of lemons, figs, and apples.

My grandfather is the last one who can speak and holds in him what he knows. His memory serves his home. In grave detail, he recounts what was once lived, felt in a breath of fresh air. He remembers the contours of a fig, ripe and beautiful in his memory, and as he tells this story, I recall it with him. I imagine him holding that ripe green fig against the blue of the sky, against the light of the sweet afternoon sun. That fig had multiple lines and marks of delineation. He described each one. In that moment, he was becoming-fig. Its history is of his memory. And that’s of the body, land and earth. It’s of taste.

In my grandfather’s eyes, as he told me of this fig, there was no separation between him and fruit. They were one and the same, belonging to each other, as they belong to the land. Inseparable/Indiscernible.

“I feel like the base of my practice,” writes Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, “—whether it’s academic, political, writing or musical—is the base of my life, which is this relationship I have to my land, to my ancestors, and to my language and ceremony. And figuring out how to best amplify, affirm and embody that and create that world for myself to live in.”

The first time I was back in Beirut as an adult, I sat down with my grandfather and asked him to tell me about the house he built by hand, in Tarshiha. I recorded our conversation. It was long, because he went deep into description. No detail too small. Every line, arrangement, assemblage, every imperfection honoured, given its place. Memory: A composition in the making, resurrecting a time, a place, a country.

That was in May 2010. I’ve never listened to the recording. I can’t get myself to.

My grandfather, just a few months prior to making this recording of the house and fig with me was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He’s losing his memory.

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“The moment of real poetry brings all the unsettled debts of history back into play.” –Part 3

Echoing Leanne Simpson’s approach – her ethics and politics of practice as inseparable from life, inseparable from how we live – pushes me to clarify for myself, as life’s work, what it means to be Palestinian on Indigenous land. To go back to NourbeSe’s statement on memory as kinetic: remembering has the effect of activating a space, a position, a new form of making and doing that doesn’t reduce the effects of longing to nostalgic ruminations. To remember, to construct memory in dream, or with ghosts, or with a loved one, is to activate a space of “be/longing.” For NourbeSe this means that space is able to come alive by creating a new language for its expression, one that belongs to our own experience. She writes, “How do we speak of what happened to us? In what language? Where can, or, where do we belong in any language?

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“To Have Many Returns.” – Part 2

The first time I saw this work, The Incidental Insurgents, I got stuck on this statement, phrase, sentence. This image. I kept thinking about it, about the translation, wondering why “To Have” in “To Have Many Returns.” This is the moment I fell in love. I fell in love with this image, and this sentence, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Because I was so in love and somehow stuck to it, or it stuck to me, I thought I would get a tattoo of it. But I didn’t want it to include the word “have.” I didn’t want this return to indicate any kind of proprietary intake or possession. It’s not something we can have, or anyone can have; even in utterance, it can’t be had. This return is separate from us, and more powerful. That’s how I felt when I read it. I wanted to change the sentence to “For Many Returns,” and I wanted it to be translated into Arabic. But it didn’t work. Somehow, it was too complicated. I sent this sentence out to many different types of translators, literary translators, poetry translators, interpreters, to teachers who teach Arabic, my mother.

This is a summary of what I got from some of them:

Because what I read moved me, and brought me to such a powerful feeling, I understood in this moment the effect couldn’t be captured in words and made useful in a sentence. So having gone through this process of trying to get it translated, I realized that For Many Returns is a process, a practice, a promise, and not a sentiment that can be easily tattooed on a body.

For Many Returns means:

To return to a practice of refusal and resistance, to return to remembering the histories that get ousted, to return to a promise of return, to return the land, to return to a position of non-belonging, to return to a Palestine in all its possibilities – always in futurity.

For Many Returns means to return to a decolonial position:

What does decolonization mean, from the position in which I return to as a settler who is Palestinian?

What does decolonization mean from the position in which I refuse the term “stateless,” even as I am vehemently anti-state?

What does decolonization mean from the position of understanding and acknowledging that I might never buy property here in Canada?

Decolonization means that from everything I do, and from everything that I say, and from everything that I practice I promise to return to asking: what does it mean to live on this land knowing it must be given back? How does one live on this land knowing it will be given back?

I think of the incredible and moving article “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang.

And here I quote them at length:

“Other colonial projects include enslavement…but also military recruitment, low-wage and high-wage labor recruitment (such as agricultural workers and overseas-trained engineers), and displacement/migration (such as the coerced immigration from nations torn by U.S. wars or devastated by U.S. economic policy). In this set of settler colonial relations, colonial subjects who are displaced by external colonialism, as well as racialized and minoritized by internal colonialism, still occupy and settle stolen Indigenous land. Settlers are diverse, not just of white European descent, and include people of color, even from other colonial contexts. This tightly wound set of conditions and racialized, globalized relations exponentially complicates what is meant by decolonization, and by solidarity, against settler colonial forces.

[…] Decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically.”

I am not letting myself off the hook in knowing that I am a cultural producer and work from within this sphere. But, I don’t want to relegate this work to something that can’t be in conversation with or alliance with what Tuck and Yang call for, which is a movement toward repatriation of all land.

And here I just want to repeat something my dear friend, Sadia Shirazi once said, that took place in New York. The event was called Indigenous New York. She said:

“The act and the process of insisting upon your practice and insisting upon your aesthetic production, is in itself a kind of political gesture. I don’t think that much about what am I doing that is in resistance, I think that I am already a body that is in resistance. And I am not looking to translate that into methods, or modes or strategies. But I am very much thinking about who are the people around me, how do I speak to the people around me, how am I listening to the people around me, who am I working with, who am I making possibilities for, who am I allowing to work with me, who am I going to give work that I might refuse in order to give it to someone else… we don’t all have to have the same strategies, or the same tactics, because we all have access to all of our intersectional identities and communities that we both choose to be a part of or are a part of, or even without wanting to be a part of are assumed to be a part of…to introduce this idea of gestures, friendship and sociality and sharing of resources as a political and resistant movement, even if we’re cooking for someone, or make an effort to listen. And I would say cultural production and aesthetic production from Indigenous artists or artists of colour is a resistant practice because that is not what is already recognized as artistic production and innovation, so to take that space and to share it with one another is very much a politics of resistance that is against exactly the logic of financialization that tries to individuate us.”

Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, The Incidental Insurgents, 2012, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Carroll/Fletcher Gallery.

“The acrobat says this is the desert, the place where poems are made.” –Part 3

Love is expansive here.

It’s entangled: As love of one’s land and for the love of resistance.

Love is so much about softening the pain of grief.

To be in struggle is to contend with the return to the tension,

the limit of what that struggle holds, 

what that struggle contains/

which is a commitment to tread lightly on earth,

treading lightly is

to return to the day.