Palestinian Liberation and the Limits of the Present: A Review of Greg Burris’s The Palestinian Idea

In an attempt to shed new light on transnational solidarity, Greg Burris’s The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination (Temple UP, 2020) poses a question: How can we think of Palestinian (and Black) liberation when history repeats itself (or so the story goes) in such a way that inequality always wins? Burris revisits several terms often used in radical circles—from politics, equality, and resistance to (national) identity and utopia—arguing that these terms often function as conditions of inequality, crippling revolutionary action and imagination. Instead, he proposes new angles and interpretations in order to revolutionize the cynical ways we perceive of our present reality as doomed.

Burris insists that a radical reading of the prevailing (biblical) notion that there is nothing new under the sun—also echoed in Walter Benjamin’s belief that “everything will be the same as here…only a little bit different” (xi) after the messiah’s arrival—is possible if we abandon looking at what the sun renders visible (i.e., inequality). This analogy is carried throughout the book reminding us that light (especially since the onset of modernity and electricity) does not just enlighten; it could also blind and harm us, and that, in Palestine, this blinding light powers Israel’s settler-colonialism. Burris insists that we should look through the dark and blind spots, depths and shadows, cracks and crevices to find other and better realities masked by the current dominant light and in which equality wins.

While scholars like Foucault find that power and politics encompass everything, Burris (much like Ranciere) believes that “something is political only insofar as it disrupts inegalitarian hierarchies and practices” (5) and that everything else that is traditionally seen as political (by modern, radical, and conservative thinkers alike), such as elections, is, in fact, antipolitical as it often works to preserve the status quo. For Rancière, equality is not a goal to be achieved (as history progresses), but rather a principle of emancipatory actions to be presupposed and highlighted. Similarly, for Burris, “[t]he notion of one state in Palestine is not a future prospect; it is a present condition” (xii). Burris, then, critiques the futurity of Edward Said’s vision of liberation, from which he adopts the title of the book, claiming that the insights of Rancière (and Cedric Robinson) allow him to “come a long way from Said’s original formulation of [the Palestinian Idea]” (29). While agreeing that “de-zionizing Palestine is, in fact, our only hope of ending the disaster that is currently ongoing” (xii), Burris’s vision nonetheless differs as it aims to resist the hyper-visible (and blinding) manifestations of inequality and to highlight the equally blinded manifestations of equality. He insists that equality in Palestine “is not a utopian fairy tale but a utopian reality” (29).

Despite film being a medium and technology of light, the book treats film and media as “a source of darkness,” (4) a search site for utopia, and a space in which radical imaginations of equality can manifest in the present. Chapter 3 looks at Palestinian identity in two of Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir’s films—Salt of This Sea (2008) and When I Saw You (2012)—and analyzes how the different fictional characters exhibit “the Palestinian Idea” through plasticity, which Burris borrows from French philosopher Catherine Malabou. As Malabou understands plasticity in three ways—as the ability to receive form (think of clay and plastic bottles); as the power to give form (think of sculptors and plastic surgeons); and as the possibility to explode into and in any form (she thinks of plastiquage in French, which means bombing)—Burris finds Malabou’s last feature of plasticity resonant with Ranciere’s notion of disidentification, “the ability to opt out of existing hierarchies and tear oneself away from inegalitarian regimes” at “those magical moments in which the formation of a collective political subject unexpectedly disrupts existing lines of sociological identification” (55), as Burris puts it.

Using both frameworks—in an attempt “to formulate an anti-identitarian position without being anti-identity” (9)—Burris aims to read Jacir’s films not only for how they resist occupation and inequality but, most importantly, for how they at times aim to resist rigid and non-plastic forms of Palestinian identity and imagination. He argues that “Palestinian identity can be [similarly] conceived: as a response to national trauma (the receiving of form, or Nakba), as a collectively forged spirit of resistance (the giving of form, or Intifada), and as a disruptive negation (the annihilation of form, or disidentity)” (9). As the concept of return to Palestine structures both of Jacir’s films, Burris analyzes the different (plastic and non-plastic) stories of return in both films and compares them to two of Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani’s famous novellas.

First, he compares Salt of This Sea to Kanafani’s Returning to Haifa, as the protagonists in both stories return to Palestine only to discover that “a simple return to the way things were is impossible” (69). While the protagonist of the former, a Palestinian-American woman who decides to collect her grandfather’s inheritance in a money heist eventually gets deported to the US, the couple in the latter (who fled from Haifa after its colonization in 1948) manages to return, yet they decide to willingly return back to the West Bank (their home since the expulsion from Haifa) after they find their earlier house and their lost son taken by a European-Israeli settler family. I say that we should also compare how the protagonists in both stories have only returned when they were granted entry by Israel: in the former, the protagonist returns with her American passport, and in the latter, the couple had the chance to return to Haifa only after 1967, or after Israel annexed their current hometown in the West Bank, and because they were not yet expelled from their new home.

The book finds both tragic endings neither revolutionary nor plastic enough—not because of the protagonists’ failures but because of insufficient explosive plasticity as both stories conclude that Israeli injustices encompass all dimensions of Palestinian lives, that “things have changed in irreversible ways,” and that “salvation does not lie in the re-creation [or recovering?] of the past” (69). While Burris claims that both stories echo Malabou’s first definition of plasticity (to receive form; responding to national trauma, or Nakba), as they end on the colonizer’s terms, I, instead, insist that despite the tragic endings (and through the character’s many explosive attempts, which Burris acknowledges), the protagonists of both stories learn (the hard way) that return is not a goal to be sought individually in the present, but rather a principle of emancipatory actions and processes to be achieved in the present towards the collective realization of justice and return, and despite the tragic endings and through the protagonists’ many “explosive” attempts

Last summer, a similar story of return unfolded in real life when Palestinian-Jordanian rapper Emsallam managed to get a visa from the Israeli embassy in Jordan to hold a concert in Haifa. When debates erupted and critics urged him to respect the guidelines of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movements, he rejected the call to boycott and was later attacked on social media after he posted a picture of himself in Haifa holding Kanafani’s book Returning to Haifa and provocatively crossing out the word “returning” and writing “I returned” instead (i.e., “I [alone] returned to Haifa [with an Israeli permission]”). Like the protagonists of Salt of This Sea and Returning to Haifa, Emsallam returns when Israel allows him to. Yet unlike the Palestinian-American in Jacir’s film and the couple in Kanafani’s novel, Emsallam celebrates his individual return in the present and on Israeli terms. While Kanafani’s use of “returning” in the title suggests that return is a process (and dream)—and the novel concludes with the couple abandoning their return and finally supporting their other son’s decision to join the fedayeen)—Emsallam’s use of “returned” in fact (temporally) appropriates Kanafani’s vision.

Burris’s second comparison, or rather contrast, looks at When I Saw You and Kanfani’s Men in the Sun, as they both tell the story of Palestinians refugees leaving their camps in pursuit of a better life. He argues that When I Saw You is more explosive (and plastic) than Jacir’s first film (and both of Kanafani’s novellas), as it tells the story of a young boy longing for home after he and his mother are expelled to a refugee camp in Jordan after the colonization of the West Bank by Israel in 1967. As the boy leaves his mother behind in the camp, staying briefly in a guerrilla training camp and finally making the individual decision to find his way to the Palestinian border against all odds, Burris reminds us that the protagonists in Men in the Sun leave their refugee camps in Iraq, not to return to Palestine, but to embark on a dangerous journey to be smuggled into Kuwait in search of work, which eventually leads to their tragic deaths at the Kuwaiti border. Despite When I Saw You’s inconclusive ending (as we never know if the boy and his mother actually return), Burris argues that this thirteen-year-old child protagonist’s urge to do the impossible in the present and without delay embodies Malabou’s third concept of plasticity, to explode and to annihilate all forms, as well as Ranciere’s notion of disidentification, and that it is also indicative of “revolutionary suicide” as opposed to the portrayal of the protagonists in Men in the Sun (and suicide bombers in other contexts) who commit “reactionary suicide.” (Both terms he adopts from the autobiography of Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton.)

Privileging reactionary suicide and the first two forms of plasticity alone, according to Burris, renders those expelled from their homeland (and who cannot return) not victims of Israeli injustice alone, but also of their own lack of (radical) imagination: they cannot return, he claims, “because they have secretly internalized Zionism’s hierarchies” (77). Burris’s reading renders the martyrs who leave their refugee camp to find jobs elsewhere (in Men in the Sun), those who decide (or who are forced) to stay in exile (in Salt of This Sea, in Returning to Haifa, and in When I Saw You with regard to the refugees) as passive and as an example of the first form of plasticity (to receive form from reacting to national trauma, or Nakba), whereas the guerilla camp (or fedayeen), along with most, if not all, past and contemporary forms of violent resistance, become examples of the second form of plasticity (to give form to resistance, or Intifada).

While Zionism has long worked (and continues to work) to colonize and annex Palestinian lands and to expel and ethnically cleanse Palestinians, Burris attempts to counter the centering of inegalitarian Zionist realities along with the “psychological dimension of Israel’s colonization project” (3) which does not necessarily kill Palestinians but works on killing their dreams. Rightly, Burris claims that our times and imaginations are also colonized. Quoting Joseph Massad, who insists that Palestinians are not “living in a post-Nakba period,” rather “in Nakba times” (quoted in 87), Burris acknowledges that Zionist injustices persist and that Nakba continues to be a living reality, producing a temporal structure (or Nakba Time) where time feels like it has stopped and “the Nakba appears as a present and permanent condition” (87). However, he proposes that we should stop thinking through the parameters of “Nakba Time” (and inequality) and to start thinking of what he calls “Palestine Time,” which (like equality) already exists in the midst of “Nakba Time” (and inequality). By not letting the light on Israeli inequality blind us, Burris argues we will see and experience equality and “Palestine Time” in our present time.

While the past has brought lots of inequality and the present only seems to bring more, Burris’s eclectic use of different radical ideas (from Ranciere, Malabou, Newton, and Cedric Robinson, to list a few) in some of his readings turns a blind eye towards how the past lingers in the present and centers the present in a way that blinds, masks, and represses past and present injustices and revolutionary struggles. I am afraid that the book’s framework—through its rigid separation between the three forms of plasticity in his reading of Jacir’s films, non-plastic distinction between “Nakba Time” and “Palestine Time,” and interest in “the uncovering of another world that already inhabits the shadows of the present world” (xii), rather than in the cultural work of recovering Palestine—could be read as urging Palestinians to move beyond the discourse of mourning or as forcing them to prematurely mourn their losses. In a sense, the book asks Palestinians to de-pathologize themselves from the work of mourning, while encouraging the disavowal of other radical frameworks (of recovering the legacies of past violence and resistance) that have long inspired radical intellectuals (and have been praised for de-pathologizing western views on mourning).

While I do not necessarily object to Burris’s readings of Malabou’s plasticity and Newton’s “revolutionary” and “reactionary suicide,” nor to the need for uncovering egalitarian realities, I object to some of the readings reached through these lenses and find their positivist classifications to have a radical potential only if these camps are (radically) read, not as manifestations of separate realities, but as intersectional and coexisting in all sorts of Palestinian societies. Such readings raise major concerns when they (a) relate to questions around anticolonialism (and decolonization) that have long concerned and still haunt radical intellectuals, (b) center the present over the past (and future aspirations) or the individual over the collective, (c) are blinded by universal liberal discourses of international law and solidarity, and (d) when they neglect the specificities of people’s struggles on the ground. In that sense, I am not convinced of the alleged “passivity” of the camp residents, whom Burris describes as “Living Dead” (73) after George Romero’s films, nor convinced that Romero’s “Living Dead” are passive either—one of Romero’s zombies picks up a gun and shoots an army officer (instead of biting him and letting him enter zombie eternity). Romero’s “Living Dead” does not describe the first aspect of plasticity alone. Like the child, the guerilla fighters, and the camp residents (in Jacir’s films), as well as (past and contemporary) violent and non-violent political and revolutionary legacies, Romero’s zombies do not only react to existing forms, they all receive, give, and annihilate form.






Karim Elhaies