Franz Kafka, "A Common Confusion"
It all started when A. wanted to leave Michigan and go home to Palestine. And it was painfully clear to her: this was not about going back somewhere but rather about going home. The difference being as simple as this: you go back to some place that you have lived in the past, but you go home to a place that even though you may have never seen it in your life, still, it is as if you had; a place that is the other deep end of that pool of your created, acquired and invented memories. Most people - especially American writers of fiction - would tell you that going home is virtually impossible. And you know perfectly well that we don't ever leave home we simply drag it behind us wherever we go, walls, roof and all. Home - it is probably the one single thing we don't leave home without; and that would explain the rumbling in our wake.
So A. wanted to go home to Palestine. The problem was - outside her imagined memories and imagined space, as created by her Palestinian father in the post-nostalgic world of Dearborn, Michigan - there was, there is, no Palestine to go to. The father belonged to those eight hundred thousand Palestinians who had been deterritorialized with the establishment of the State of Israel. Simply put, this meant that he had become a Palestinian refugee, after the Big Bang of 1948, and the scattering of the Palestinians upon the face of all the earth, as a biblical writer would have it. And after a decade in one of the refugee camps in Lebanon, he made it to Dearborn, Michigan, joining some distant cousins of Lebanese descent. And whenever he would reminisce about his Galilean home village in front of his new in-laws, those cousins would ruthlessly remind him of what other Palestinians, commenting on their tragedy, would usually say: "rahat Falasteen," meaning "Palestine is gone." True, the territory did not vanish in 1948, but theirs did, and it was renamed, thus cut from under their feet, hence gone. So there was no home to go to in the first place.
But A. wanted to go home to Palestine. And besides the geographical problem, or absence of it, there was the classic American problem of PR how would one attractively package for the benefit of one's American friends the following twofold problem of pure common sense. First, there's no place to go to, there's no Palestine. Of course, there is the Palestine of Sunday schools, the land endearingly called the Holy Land. So that was there alright, in the geography of the biblical mind, but the Palestine of the father was gone, and gone was its holy spirit for him and for his American-born daughter. Second, until now, everyone has had every reason to believe that home was here, in Mo-Town, Michigan, US; so what's the deal with this Palestine? That said, is a woman supposed to go home? Women, certainly according to the father's codes of decorum, are supposed to create their own homes, within the male domain; they are not supposed to go anywhere. Men do that. Men do that in fiction (American or otherwise); men do that in reality. Women are simply those who follow those men who want to go home.
A. had answers to none of the above. Moreover, she was soon to find out that the most difficult part of all was to explain to an American friend, whose geography, from coast to coast, is a five-hour flight, that this ten-minute Palestine of the mind, from the Jordan to the sea, if looked up on the map, would even fall short of filling up Lake Michigan.
Size does matter. It is a question of bread and butter, literally. If you are an American, and you think of yourself as such, then take a slice of bread, the size of your standard AAA map of the US, and spread over it a small lump of butter, the size of what you would think of as your identity. You will see that the spread is embarrassingly thin, and that certain parts of certain states are not buttered at all. (Incidentally, the verb "to butter" could mean sometimes "to apply a liquefied bonding material to a piece or area, as mortar to a course of bricks." Mortar would remind one, of course, of the biblical writer of the Babel story.) Now, apply the same amount of butter just to Lake Michigan, and you will see how thick, in comparison, is Palestinian identity, or, for that matter, the identity of those who come from even a smaller place than the Palestine that is gone.
The postcolonial, postcommunist, postnation-state, postmodern world has shown us, quite recently, that the smaller the territory, the more passionate and consuming, or more fanatic and lethal, the nationalism that comes with it, or works against it, depending on which side you are on. The tiny little state of Lebanon is a perfect example of that.
When I think of a state I think that what I have in mind, first of all, is the geographic shape of that state as it was drawn by the cartographers. I see brown mountains, getting darker toward the top, green for meadows, blue for water, black tiny circles for towns and cities, and broken lines for borders. But for the Muslim Bosnian soldier, I imagine, his is not the map of Bosnia, or even that of his hometown, or even his street; rather, it's the floor plan of his house in Sarajevo. And if pushed to a corner, he'd admit that it's even smaller than that: it's the map of a favorite room in that house.
And now that the house is gone, it's probably the remembered room that he is fighting for, the room whose lingering space defines that fragile presence that we call identity, forever humming in our internal ear, like the sound that film editors add to the special-effects track in order to give a touch of reality to a scene, the noise that is referred to in the cutting room as "room-tone."
In a certain way, identity, then, is a noise (forget about butter, and think of William Paulson's book The Noise of Culture) - a noise that interferes with the messages that we transmit and receive. It's hardly audible to the others, but we hear it loud and clear. Yet, it's not the kind of noise that bothers us. On the contrary, it gives us a sense of reality, a measure of empowerment: it adds "room-tone" to the otherwise hyper-real world around us. Some may enjoy listening to it more than others; some may tune in to it more than the others would care to. And some play it so loudly just for the fun of it, or in order to make the others listen. But the others usually do not and would not listen.
The Palestinian noise of identity has been muffled for nearly a century. It's only recently that it has become audible enough for the Palestinian case to be listened to, to be addressed. From a Palestinian point of view, the last century has been a century of major disasters. First, it was the noise of absence, in the famous Zionist slogan: "A land without a people to a people without a land." Or, it was the noise of Caliban in Herzl's Judenstaat: "We shall form part of Europe's fortified wall against Asia, and fulfill the role of cultural vanguard facing the barbarians." (Traveling in Palestine, with "the innocents abroad," in September of 1867, Mark Twain wrote to the Daily Alta California about "dismal, desolate, smileless Palestine, [...] the most hopeless, dreary, heartbroken piece of territory out of Arizona.")
Then Lord Balfour, in 1917, told the Zionist Federation that; "His Majesty's government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The displacement-bomb started ticking then, and the worst was yet to come. And it did, in different colors and shades, some of which were self-inflicted. But above all, since World War II, the Palestinian voice was muffled because it always had to pass through that man-made black hole of the Holocaust, and so it was almost never heard - until the 1987 Intifada.
And that's when A. first thought of going home to Palestine.
For A.'s grandmother, an old refugee in Lebanon, Palestine is no more than a lemon tree in the backyard of the house she left in Jaffa, or Yafa as she would call it. Not even a room, not even the facade of a house, but just a tree in the backyard, hidden away from the bustle of main-street politics, the tree under whose shadow she always imagines herself sitting, dreaming away her days. Say "Palestine" to her, and all she sees is herself, as she is now, not the young woman she was, sitting under that tree, breathing in the scent of its leaves and its early flowers.
Yafa was renamed as Yafo, and the lemon tree is gone from that backyard, but it's so deep-rooted in her mind, its fragrance so overwhelming, that it's hard to imagine what that famous handshake on the South Lawn of the White House could have meant to her. It is hard to imagine any connection between these two images that were mutually superimposed: the lemon tree of memories, and the CNN-made image of the two political leaders, representing Yafa and Yafo, respectively, hoping, with a semi-nudged handshake, to draw some defining lines between the one homeland and the two states, totally leaving out the sweet 'n' sour question of lemon trees.
The grandmother, then, thinks lemon: a very particular tree, totally outside the language of politics, or the language of history, and certainly outside the language of historiography that attempts to deal with her plight. And that tree is part of her plight - impossible to forget, to let the tree slip away, because if she did, as she believes, her whole life would slip away, her whole self, what she has been, what she is, and what she will ever be.
Her Dearbornian son, on the other hand, remembers that tree pretty well, but he has always mocked his mother's idea of a homeland: "Rahat Falasteen," he would say, "The whole country is gone, and she mourns her lemon tree!"
A. first heard about that tree when she was twelve, during her only visit with her grandmother in Lebanon. Her Arabic was better then and she tried hard to imagine a backyard in Yafa, a place she had never been to, and a lemon tree in the middle of that backyard, just to make her grandmother happy and proud of her.
Then, later, the image faded away with the Michigan years, but the Arabic word lamoon seemed to have found refuge inside A.'s personal diction, thus letting the distant past of her grandmother permeate her own present, the present that seemingly had nothing to do with that past. And like the persistent grains in a giant one-way sand-glass, ever flowing through the narrow opening, Palestine of the past kept invading the Dearborn present, grain by grain, through a narrow opening, in a single word: lamoon.
It was an imagined geography, created by personal, oral histories, and images that were conjured up while looking at the Michigan landscape. The narrow alleys of Yafa, as the grandmother imagined them, became long two-lane streets and avenues in A.'s dreams. She would walk down the street of her grandmother's house, under the falling, colorful leaves of the Indian summer, and could almost see the lemon tree in the backyard, and could almost fill her lungs with its fragrance.
But deep down she knew that something was wrong, that these images belonged to her immediate present, that the language she spoke was not the language of that tree, and that this language of hers would never be able to contain, let alone transmit, her grandmother's memories. And that's when she would realize, for a brief moment of counter-grace, that - as the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury once wrote "one does not return to Palestine; one should simply go," and if that is impossible, one should, maybe, create one's own Palestine.
K. called that night from Ann Arbor, Michigan. She asked if A. had seen the current issue of Harper's Magazine. "No," she replied. "Well," K. said, "I think I have an ingenious solution to your problem." (K., who was very much in love with her initial, was also very partial to words like "ingenious.") She had read in Harper's Index (Nov. 93) that the number of Palestinians worldwide, per square mile in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, is 2,503, while the number of Japanese per square mile of Japan is 817. "That's thick," K. added, "that's very thick." There was a dramatic pause.
"But what's your ingenious solutions?" A. finally asked.
K. told her that she had been browsing through the Gopher server of MTS that day, looking for a particular bit of information, when, by sheer chance, she hit the "General Reference Resources" and wandered into the US Geographic Database. At the prompt "words to search for," she remembered A. and decided to look for "Palestine" for her, a Plan-B Palestine of sorts. And much to her amazement she found more than fifteen different Palestines, scattered all over the US. Palestines in Illinois, Ohio, Arizona, Tennessee, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Oregon, Connecticut, North Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, Indiana, and, yes, Michigan! "Now," K. said, "since you have been telling us that you intend to go home to Palestine, and since we hate to see you go, I found an ingenious way for you to go to Palestine without even crossing the state border. "Isn't that cool?"
There was another pause, and then A. laughed, though she didn't know why. She had always admired K.'s practical mind, K.'s tightrope walking between the dead serious and the hilarious, K.'s American way of finding an instant American solution for every possible non-American problem. It's a remarkable goof, A. thought, but the frightening thing about it is that it is far too practical to be plausible: the frightening thing about it is that it brings up a solid point to reflect upon.
In his essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin wrote:
The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical - and of course not only technical - reproducibility. [...] The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. [...] [T]hat which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.
Has Palestine lost its "aura" then, its unique existence, its authenticity?
This question assumes that the American Palestines are exact replicas of the original, a Disney life-size imitation of sorts, floating, say, in Lake Michigan. But, alas, this is not the case. Yet, A. thought, imagine this: a Palestinian refugee who makes Palestine, Michigan, her home - hasn't she, in a way, "returned" to Palestine? Hasn't she, in a way, blown the whole concept of displacement from within? Hasn't she, by this simple twist of fate, actually won the case in the most unexpected manner?
Benjamin would argue that "[t]he whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical - and of course not only technical - reproducibility." But America has solved more complicated problems than this one. Imagine, then, A. drawing her own internal map of return, and going home to Palestine, but this time in Michigan, the Palestine that is on 45 degrees latitude by 87 degrees longitude, in the most southwestern tip of the Upper Peninsula, in a county called Menominee.
And imagine her planting a lemon tree in her backyard, a unique, single reproduction of that authentic, irreproducible tree in Yafa, with an aura of its own. And imagine other members of her extended family, driving all the way to the Upper Peninsula, in a caravan of pickup trucks that are loaded with their worldly Palestinian goods, among which are some of the same things they took with them forty-six years ago, when they were driven out of Yafa. They will settle in Palestine, Michigan, buy lands, build houses, plant trees, raise children, have dreams, write letters and send them out to their relatives who are scattered upon the face of all the earth, with a return address that reads, say:
48 Yafa Street
Palestine, MI 26109
Palestine, MI 26109
Just imagine: because now that A. has found her own Palestine, she can take her time. There's no rush to go home anymore.
Late in the summer of 1994, almost a year after writing the story of A., a friend who teaches Middle Eastern studies at Dartmouth College and had read the story, told me in an e-mail message she had just come across a book by Uri Herscher entitled Jewish Agricultural Utopias in America, 1880-1910 in which there is a chapter dedicated to "Palestine, Michigan." She said she would mail me a photocopy, and that I'd get a kick out of it.
I was struck dumb: could it be that I had sent away A.'s extended family all the way up north to the Upper Peninsula only to find out that, as the cliché goes, history repeats itself? Could it be that Palestine - the name, the geography, the space - is forever bound to be in a bitter, bloody dispute between consecutive generations of Jews and Palestinians, no matter where they go? Could it be that I have, inadvertently, trapped my A. within a Borgesian self-referential loop?
I looked for Herscher's book in the Graduate Library, but it was checked out. ("There's somebody out there," I thought to myself, "who knows about my own subject more than I do!") Then, long, impatient days later, the photocopy arrived, and I was dying to find out where I had gone wrong:
The period of the 1880s saw two streams of emigration from Eastern Europe: one to North America; the other, much more modest in size, to Ottoman Palestine. [...] One miniscule group in America tried to combine its religious love for Zion with a desire to root itself in American soil. Its members aspired to create a "new Zion in Free America." Appropriately their venture was termed "Palestine." It took place in Michigan in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
I stopped after the first paragraph, returned the photocopy back into the envelope, and put it away. My mistake - I started blaming myself - was that I'd never done any further research on my Palestine, Michigan, beyond what my modem had offered me. This was, apparently, the same mistake that the modemless founders of Zionism had made one hundred years ago: "A land without a people to a people without a land," as their slogan went.
Then I decided to break the spell, and went back to read the whole story. Little by little the geographic mystery began to unravel, and it became clearer - as I became slightly disappointed because, let's face it, it would have made a better story if we were talking about the same Palestine - that "my" Palestine was saved: the Palestine established by the East European Jewish settlers in the mid-1880s was near the hamlet known by picturesque name of Bad Axe, some fifty miles east of Bay City. But unlike the other settlements in the "original," far away Palestine, this one hardly lasted for a decade, because of agricultural inexperience, harsh conditions, and impatient creditors.
Much as I was relieved to find out that the journey to the Upper Peninsula was worth the trouble, those imagined images of the Bad Axe Palestinians kept haunting me still. And I think their shattered geography will become a part of A.'s identity, their splintered dreams a part of her past.
I know they are a part of mine.
This account was presented at "Remapping Identities: Colonial and Postcolonial Societies," a conference held on November 5, 1993, at The Institute for the Humanities, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and published in The Geography of Identity, ed. Patricia Yaeger (Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1996). <