I promised that I would post everything I have sent the Board of Trustees on this web site. I'm doing it in several posts this week. After that, I'm going to be taking a hiatus of sorts from blogging on this issue. The length of that hiatus has yet to be determined but I think that some time working on things nearer and dearer to my heart. I don't want to press a point so much that I grow dull.
An Exclusive Interview with Author and Critic Dr. Bisam Khalil Franjiya (See Highlighted, At Bottom)
Friday, 26 May 2006
Source: http://aljabha.org/?i=20335 Cached here.
“More important than publishing Arabic poetry into English”
From the Nakba [catastrophe, refers to creation of Israel] and the uprooting; from the [refugee] camp to the top American universities. He was the first to transfer Qabbani into English, and (produced) among the finest translations of al-Bayati, Hani al-Rahib, Mahud Darwish, Amil Habibi, Hanna Mina, Halim Barakat, al-Siab, and Qisam Haddad. The students and professors at Yale University in the United States protested when he decided to leave the university after 12 years, so he chose instead to stay, and subsequently won the award for best professor at Yale University in 2001. He is without doubt one of the most famous teachers of Arabic literature in the United States. His most famous course is “Palestine through Poetry.” Attendance at his lectures increased after September 11th. He has penned dozens of important articles and books which have gained both Arab and Western attention. The most important of his works are the translations: “Love, Death and Exile” by al-Bayati and “Arab Love Poems” by Nazar Qabbani. Also in 2003 the book “The Joy of Discovery,” was published for him by the Arab Foundation for Studies and Publication, which consists of letters written to him by Qabbani, al-Bayati, and al-Rahib during the course of his attempt to translate and publish their works. This glimpse at the secret side of these writers and the complexity of the work of translating the material, especially the literature, into another language, is perhaps the most important aspect of this book. He gained his Bachelor degree in Arabic literature from the University of Damascus, and his Master and Doctorate from Georgetown University in the United States, where he studied for several years.
I had the following conversation with Franjiya about poetry, love, exile, and Palestine:
Q: We know a lot about Bisam Franjiya in the world of publishing Arabic literature—and I don’t want to call it translation or call you a translator—but we know next to nothing about your private life. I was surprised, as many are, to learn that you are Palestinian. How did you end up being exiled?
A: I was living in Syria during a very difficult period of its history. I suffered, as did many others, persecution from the intelligence officials. The man living in Syria, especially in the 70s and 80s; I mean, the citizen or resident experiences humiliation and oppression as part of his daily life. Even the devils were afraid of Syrian intelligence. It is a shame that the state acted against innocent, unarmed citizens, and that security officials employed their clever police methods to harass them and get the better of them. The goal of the government is to gain power over the citizen and break his will to resist. Its principal aim is to instill fear and to bully the people, while the state in turn fears the foreigners, and facilitates their actions and provides protection to them. Meanwhile Israel sits in safety just miles from the border.
I love Damascus, and I have a passion for Syrian literature. I was at the forefront of exiled Arabs who taught and published in the realm of Syrian literary innovation. I wrote about this literature and translated the works of the great Syrian writers like Haydar Haydar, Hani al-Rahib, Hanna Mina, and others. I also wrote about the late Muhammad Maghut, and taught his works as well as those of Sulayman al-‘Isa and others. I will follow up with my own contributions. I love the great Syrian writers. They are men whom you will rarely find, and when they are gone history will not return others like them.
Q: You are the son of a Jaffa family, which emigrated from Palestine…the first country.
A: My family lived in Jaffa, as I mentioned, and is a Jaffa family. My father worked in orchards—orange orchards. Whenever he saw oranges in the markets after the Nakba, he would cry. The orange was a symbol of his lost country, work, house, and identity. He swore to never touch or eat an orange until he returned to Palestine. My father died without ever eating another orange. A few years ago I happened to see in an American market an orange imported from Jaffa. I stood pondering, and grasped the orange. It had a distinct smell, something different than the typical orange. “Ah, if only my father had seen it,” I said to myself. I didn’t buy it, and I will never eat it. These oranges that I saw had been opened with a wound in [there’s a word missing here]
I returned home afterward, where I had received several letters inviting me to attend a lecture at the University, in which officials from the Palestinian Authority as well as American officials were participating in a discussion on the Road Map and its dimensions. I wanted to cry. There’s no way they are talking about this. This must be a profitable venture, no doubt, done in the name of the Palestinian people. Everything was in the name of the Palestinian people—the private jets, the limousines, the five-star hotels… [ellipsis in original]
I remember when I was little, my father and his friends would get together and listen to the radio at night, and discuss the Palestinian issue. They were always closing the door and kicking the women and children out of their meetings, as if they were discussing something dangerous, which worried my mother. They were always, according to my mother, “whipped up,” and once my mother asked my father: “Why are you so whipped up in a frenzy, what is it?” Then she said to him, “I want to hear the cause—I mean, explain to me, (is it what is) in Palestine, or what is not in Palestine?” This silenced my father, who became angry and said, “What is not in Palestine.” She said, “Fine, go and meet; meet as you wish.” The meetings of the Palestinians were usually spent “letting off steam.” The simple and afflicted would meet to discuss their unfortunate situations, and to vent about the problems of their humiliating lives in which they found themselves helpless. There is a great difference between the meetings of those simple people and the meetings of the Palestinian leaders in Oslo, as well as those which came before and after it, and also the meetings of the Roadmap. The latter meetings are not just for show, but they also aim to deceive.
Q: How was your childhood?
A: I don’t know what to tell you. There’s nothing in my childhood that is enjoyable to hear about. My childhood was not different from that of any Palestinian child refugee—living in camps, etc. Now the well-off Palestinians didn’t go to the camps. They went to other places and lived privileged lives, and sent their children to American universities in Cairo and Beirut and other capitols, as well as to America and Europe, to study in ancient universities. They essentially constituted the educated and arrogant Palestinian bourgeoisie. None of them lived in the camps, and therefore they do not know the truth of the suffering of the Palestinian people; however, some of them exercised elitist, arrogant authority over their own flesh and blood. Have you heard of any of them becoming martyrs or fighters, or making sacrifices on behalf of Palestine? Have you heard of them attending lectures in anything but expensive clothing? Yet the common Palestinians applaud them.
They and their families have benefited from their unique physical and economic situation, enabling them to gain an excellent education and live in advanced societies, while their citizens continue to live in camps or in situations where they don’t have even the minimal necessities of life, such as food and medical care. If some of them enter into the Palestinian issue, they come with romanticism and claims to exercise superior authority. But if one poor child in the streets of Gaza comes carrying a single rock, he is equal to all of the educated Palestinian upper class.
This opportunity is only provided to the bourgeoisie because of their affiliation with a financially well-off class. This opportunity will not be provided to the Palestinian people who live in the camps. What I said about the bourgeoisie of the educated class (the Palestinian bourgeoisie families are the big business owners, and there are a lot of them) also applies to those who resided after the Nakba in five-star hotels, and opened companies and contracting firms in Arab and foreign capitals. Some of them also became millionaires. They became alienated from the real issue [i.e. the Palestinian issue] during its important phases. They contributed late to building roadmaps for the other Palestinians, for they themselves will never return. Gaza and the West Bank cannot accommodate their companies and palaces.
Q: How did you leave Palestine?
A: I was not yet born when it happened. I don’t know how things worked out the way they did. What I understood was that my father did not want to leave, but my mother had heard that houses in another neighborhood had been destroyed on top of their inhabitants. The people fled. There was chaos, little by little at first, then a fifth. Agents spread among the people, intimidating them into fearing the worst. Bombs were dropped on top of houses. Promises came from Arab leaders to carry out a pre-determined plan: “Travel for 15 days, and take the keys to your houses with you. We will liberate them for you.” You know the rest of the story.
Like sheep, they told me, they rode in a truck transporting throngs of people. Hours later they were dropped off in a camp in Jordan. In a matter of hours they were transformed into refugees. The humiliation began to increase and grow hour by hour and day after day. They became refugees like thousands of others. The people shared the tents, and often I heard my mother say, when she would remember people she knew, “They were our neighbors in the tent.” Of course there is no work in the camps except swallowing pride. It was a terrible job for a man to sit with his family and try to swallow his pride.
My family remained in the camp for at least two years. Then they went to another camp in Lebanon, where my father unsuccessfully looked for work. Then they left that camp and went to Damascus. He found work under any circumstances (as a day laborer). One day he had work, the next day he didn’t. They passed several years like this. The he found a job in the city of Kenitra in the Golan Heights, so my family moved to Kenitra. There was not a single library or any other outlet in Kenitra. My father was able to rent a humble home. My father’s wages were low, and we were barely able to make ends meet.
Q: When did you leave Kenitra?
A: Kenitra fell extremely quickly in 1967. It became a ghost town in a matter of days. The military and intelligence units pulled out. All of the organs of the state withdrew, and left the people behind them. The inhabitants of the city were the last to leave. The trip from the city was on the people’s dime. “Arrange your own situation,” was the counsel of the state. We didn’t leave until the sixth day. Not a single government official remained. All governmental and military presence was nonexistent. We left the city empty and went to Damascus on the 10th of June. The war which had begun on 5 June had ended. When I heard this in Damascus, I told a friend that the departure from Kenitra was a mistake. We should have stayed, for the next day I ran into a group of intelligence officials, who took me in for interrogation.
Those who emigrated from Kenitra became known as displaced persons, while those who left Palestine in 1948 became known as refugees. Even until the day of her death, my mother would say: “We were refugees, and became displaced persons. They destroyed our homes. May God destroy their house.” We ended up living in government schools, for the schools were closed. Each family was given a room in the school, except for some families were put in one room, according to the circumstances. They distributed blankets and bedding to us. We would gather up all the school desks and place them together in one half of the room, and we would live in the other half. At night we would make beds on the floor and sleep, and in the morning we would lift up the mattresses and place them on the chairs, and convert that half of the room into a sitting and reception room. We arranged our situation by making tea when other displaced persons from another room would come to visit us. We would listen to the radio say: “The will of the Arab people has prevailed, and Israel’s war has failed. Israel’s goal was to topple the advanced Arab regimes, but it failed.” At the end of the summer we left the schools, for they were about to open their doors for students. So we traveled, and arranged our situation.
Q: Why did you originally decide to study Arabic literature, and how did you become a “translator”?
A: I graduated from the University of Damascus in Arabic literature. When I came to America, I said, “I should teach the Americans Arabic literature,” so I translated one novel and some poems. I did not know at the time that this would open doors for me which would be difficult to shut. I also didn’t know at the time that people were thirsty for this field, the field of translation, for immediately I was flooded with letters and phone calls from people wanting me to translate more. Under pressure from peers and friends, I entered into the field that I did not want to enter, and I don’t know why but my name became associated with translation, and people began to address me as ‘Translator.’ Truthfully it is no different now. I teach at the university, I write critiques and studies in Arabic and English, and I have written a few books, including “Exile in the Palestinian Story,” and “Anthology of Arab Culture” which is taught in many American universities, and for which the novelist Ghada al-Samman recently wrote a comprehensive review. Perhaps the Arabic saying, “He was known for the thing he did the most,” could be applied to me. Since more of my translations were published than anything else, I am known as a translator, but the truth is that I don’t feel that this word can be applied to me very precisely.
Q: Iraqi critic Dr. ‘Ali Qasimi once objected to your translation of al-Bayati’s book entitled, “Love, Death, and Exile,” because you placed the word ‘exile’ before ‘death’—but it was rectified. To what extent is denial worse than death? To what extent do you think exile is within the soul as well, and not merely confined to the borders of the place, as with al-Bayati?
A: Many have criticized the title. But I explained to him: the episode is not closed. It cannot be closed. Death is not the end. Death is a process of ending the eternal exile. Therefore death cannot be the end. The truth is that exile is a thousand times worse than death. The hardest punishment in life is that of exile. Exiling a man with no hope of return is to kill the man every day. Forced exile is more painful than death, and the man would rather die, because death happens only once. The exile lives eternal death.
Q: I very much liked your transmission of al-Bayati. Is there any “translation” you’ve done where you felt like you got the closest to the original text?
A: The truth is that the poetry of al-Bayati is untranslatable. He talks about concepts that are both universal and derived from Arab heritage at the same time. There is a fluency and simple clarity to the work of translation. It was a pleasure for me to recreate the poetic text of al-Bayati into English with the same warmth of the Arabic text. Some of the poetry is difficult to translate—either his language is simple and easy to translate, or his language is difficult. Some of the poetry is very impossible to translate, and some of it is not impossible.
Q: What are the things that a person should possess to become a good “translator”?
A: First—know the two languages. Second—possess a degree of poetry and critical thinking. Third—Carry on with the work for long hours and days, all of it or most of it at personal expense. All of the translations I did were free, and I did not earn a penny from anyone. Foolishness, you say? Not if it was from you!
Q: You mentioned your quick trip to your city of Jaffa for a sad day. What does Jaffa mean to you, and what does Palestine mean to you?
A: I was participating in a conference on linguistics in Jordan. I took that short opportunity and took the bridge to Palestine. Jaffa is the land of my family which I do not know. After crossing the bridge, I didn’t know what to do. I began to look at the ground and the bushes. This then is the homeland of Palestine. I felt chills and shivers. This then is the land that I belong to. Everything in it seemed sacred. Even the sand I saw as sacred. I took a rental car to Jaffa and stayed there for several hours in a single neighborhood, al-‘Ajmi, the hometown of my parents, may God have mercy on them. How often had I heard about al-‘Ajmi from my father. I wish I could tell my parents that I had seen the land which they dreamed of returning to their whole lives. I passed through the streets as a stranger. The neighborhood was desolate. I thought about entering the house that my mother had kept until the day of her death. I asked an old woman whom I saw standing in front of her house in the neighborhood if she knew my father, and she said she did. She said that she also knew our house, and pointed it out to me. The house was abandoned. It was heavily rusted, and the windows were broken. Its walls were dilapidated. It had no furniture in it. The door was locked. I didn’t enter. I couldn’t speak with the old lady—she could barely talk or move. “Why did they leave the land?”, she asked in a broken voice, full of sorrow, bitterness, and reproach. She was censuring me, and continued, “They should not have left.” I felt her words penetrate the depths of my soul like a dagger. As if I had taken a sharp blow to the head, I almost fell to the ground. I felt ashamed. I felt as if I had betrayed my country, and my family had betrayed their country as well. How can one truly leave his country? No matter the circumstances, my family should have stayed and died in the land. The people should stay. Staying is firmness in the land, and is the true resistance which was the only way to liberate the country. Becoming a refugee was an unforgivable mistake. Becoming a refugee is equal to humiliation, and staying is equal to heroism. But you know the story of treachery which has afflicted the Palestinians.
Q: It is said that you are the best professor to present Palestine through poetry. What is the secret of your success and the popularity of your lectures?
A: In truth, I had presented Palestine in poetry because I cannot present it in reality. All of us present Palestine through poetry today. Palestine has become rich. The people mourn for her romantically. I also cried for her romantically with the mourners. Perhaps it was my love for the subject that gave people that idea that I am successful. I don’t believe that I am especially talented. The scarcity of those who teach the subject with love and affection has made me look good.
Q: Who are those in America who care for Arabic poetry?
A: They are few—there are some professors and students, but their numbers are few.
Q: I was among those who signed a petition against the American invasion of Iraq, along with names such as Sahar Khalifa, As’ad Abu-Khalil, and Samah Idrisi. How do you see politics from the viewpoint of literature, or poetry, or translation?
A: Petitions stem from the heart, and are cast onto paper. But if just one noble Arab president had stood and protested the war, it would have been stronger and more effective. If one Arab nation had closed its American military bases used to launch the war on Iraq, it would have been more effective. If one Arab nation had said ‘No,’ it would have been more effective. The petitions against the war were written at a time when Arab governments were scrambling to provide logistics and security for the American forces, and help them strike Iraq.
Q: Many believe that you are Lebanese, not Palestinian, because of your family’s name. What do you say to this?
A: I am Palestinian. I am proud to be a Palestinian. Some who don’t know me classify me as Lebanese. This is simply due to the fame of the Lebanese Franjiya family in the Arab world. There was a president in Lebanon with this name, and the family constitutes a well-known political bloc in Lebanon, so the name is repeated in newspapers and on television. This is one side, and on the other side there is a Palestinian Franjiya family, which I belong to, which is very small and which has produced no writer or poet or intellectual. Therefore it’s obscure. Therefore no Arab and even no Palestinian has heard of it. Even I haven’t heard of it, but I’m part of it. My family left Jaffa for Amman, then Beirut, then Damascus. I was born in exile. My father was looking for work, and after many years found a job in Damascus. We were eating breadcrumbs with tea and sugar. The whole family lived in a single room. And yet people still ask me if I am the cousin of the president of Lebanon! Some people seek to find out about me, assuming that I am from the Lebanese Franjiya family, and that I am the cousin of the president. When I tell them the story, they lose their excitement and become disappointed. Afterward they no longer want to work with me. I am no longer important to them. But truthfully I want to be, as I am, the son of camps and not of palaces. I was not privileged, and I didn’t like the political positions of the Lebanese family, but now its political viewpoint has changed. The current leader of the family, the young Sulayman Franjiya, holds commendable nationalist positions, and meets with the National Arabist Front, which follows Lebanese Hezbollah and Arab nationalist politics. I hope he continues with this position.
Q: I recently felt uncomfortable in your book “The Joy of Discovery,” specifically with the letters of Hani al-Rahib and his appeal for assistance in publishing his academic works. Despite the importance of transmitting the concerns of the creative writer, who is subject to the pressures of life, expulsion, and exile, I did not feel comfortable with that petition. What do you say about that?
A: Hani al-Rahib was persecuted, defeated, and oppressed. Al-Rabhi was seeking for help from people close to him and in positions of authority, and they were able to help him if they wanted to. He came to them (for help). They really let him down. He told me this with frankness and I witnessed it with my own eyes. His friends in America let him down. He knew them since his childhood, since his life in Horeb, and in Syria. He came to America so they could help him, and no one helped him. He was compelled to come to me for help. He knew that he was pleading, choking. He knew that. He insisted that he would honor me, and buy me a slice of meat after he drove me to the airport. I heard some time afterward that cancer had eaten away at him because of the state of oppression that he was experiencing. He died. I mourned for him bitterly. I wrote several articles about him. This has weakened my faith.
Q: What is the most difficult thing you have experienced in the work of translating?
A: I dealt with this subject at length in the introduction of the book “Letters of Nazar Qabbani, ‘Abd-al-Wahhab al-Bayati, and Hani al-Rahib to Bisam Franjiya,” published by Mahir al-Kayali, Amman. First, sadly, many Arab writers, but not all of them of course, do not comprehend the difficulty that the translator goes through. For the translator translates and transmits a translated book for to America after he creates it himself. The author cannot do this, yet he believes that the translator is his employee. Know that the author does not pay the translator anything, yet he asks for his profits in advance. Here’s an example for you: I had translated a book for Nazar Qabbani after long discussions with him. He tortured me with his preferences—he wants this, but doesn’t agree with that. Every time he would tell me that he’s going to show the translation to his friends at Oxford, and it was true that his Oxford friends were very happy with it. Just for your information, they never profited him, and never translated any book of poetry for him throughout their 50 years of friendship with him (the book I translated for him is his first book in English). His Oxford friends of whom he was always speaking did not produce a single book for him over the years, until poor Bisam bin Khalil, son of the refugee camps, wanted the Americans to know the poet Nazar Qabbani. All of this was torture without profit. Afterward he told me that the Oxford friends, agreed with my translation after they had read it carefully. Then Qabbani asked me to find a publisher in America for his book. The role of the Oxford friends ceased with their reading, but the publishing was my task. I sent the book to several publishing houses. However, the American publishing houses refusing to publish the book (indifferent to the approval of the Oxford friends). They did not know Qabbani and were not impressed with his poetry. Even though they greatly praised my translation, they did not like Qabbani’s bellicose rhetoric in building houses and palaces from women’s breasts. Nor were they impressed that the breasts could not turn or become flushed if not for him. Nor were they impressed by his words that if he did not touch, kiss, or fondle a woman, she would not have known a day of the grace of his touch and kiss, etc. So, they rejected the book more than once. Of course, it is the translator who corresponds with the publishing house and writes the information about the poet, and explains his position and role in contemporary poetry, and his contributions, etc. Then he sends this by registered mail, etc. The author does not want to know about these burdens has taken on free of charge in service to the author. Nor does the poet want to know that the translator is his unpaid employee. Nor does he want to know that the translator has other concerns besides those related with the translation, and seeks to publish himself. Or that the translator has more important work and burdens to do for himself to make a living in the difficult American society. After several attempts and much pain, the book was released to the public. I just give you one example. Despite this, Nazar was truly polite and kind. If I told you some of the other painful experiences I had with other writers, among them an Egyptian writer, you would cry. I should say in fairness that Hanna Mina, Haydar Haydar, and ‘Abd-al-Rahman Munif for example, were among the noblest people I have worked with. I cherish and am proud of their friendship, which is the friendship of true men.
Q: Can you give me an idea of the American publishing houses in comparison to the Arab publishing houses?
A: Without a doubt there are many giant publishing houses, and they are well-respected. It is best for Academic works and translated books—both poetry and novels—to be published by prestigious publishing houses or those connected with respected American universities. The Arab author was not in high demand over the years, and it is not very easy to find a publisher for this author. Therefore he must attempt to get published in houses which are concerned with literature in the Arab world or in the third world or other places. Publishing houses which are not respected like the big houses which have a good reputation and credibility, or university publishing houses, inevitably steal. Theft exists everywhere. In the Arab world we have respected publishing houses, for example Dar al-Tali’a which is highly-respected, and also Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabia, and others. Of course there are houses which steal the authors’ earnings and give him nothing. Instead the house will take the prior earnings from some authors and give the author payment for 20 books, that’s it. I wrote once about one of the Arab publishers that he was a “shepherd of Arab thought.” I was misleading at the time. My words about him were mistaken. Afterward many told me that my words about him were misplaced, and others have admonished me for them. But when I wrote them I did not know the truth.
Q: Why did you choose what you chose, and would you choose the poem first or the poet?
A: I choose the poet first, then I choose the poems from his poetry. This is not the correct way, but it’s the way I continue to do it.
Q: Why is the woman poet or novelist almost completely absent from your work?
A: The woman poet or novelist is not absent. She’s in the heart. Her absence in my work is a great deficiency. Believe me that working with the female Arab writer is better than working with the male Arab writer. I have the utmost love, appreciation, and respect for the female Arab poets and novelists. I recognize my neglect towards them, and I will write of them and work with them in the near future.
Q: Do you believe that the beauty of the poetry is sufficient to inspire you to this difficult work, or are you concerned with advancing the political agenda in poetry?
A: Beauty is more important than politics in literature. However, all Arab literature is politicized. I am with this politicization, especially in this stage of history. All creative authors should contribute. We have many problems, and authors need to talk about them.
Q: It is often said that the critic is a failed author.
A: This saying is not true. This is a joke told to the base. The words are repeated by critics, but out of humility, or often out of arrogance. The critic is a creator. The creation of the critic is a prerequisite to the creativity of the poet or novelist. The critic is like the poet. Both of them are creators. The poets learn much from critics and fear them. If the criticism were not good, the level of poetry would not improve. Poetry without criticism will never have any value. I believe a chef cooks and a critic either praises or criticizes him. The critic is the one who tells him, “Your food has no salt,” or “Is it a little burnt?” Therefore there’s no value to that chef without food. But the food itself must be delicious and artful. This is not only necessary, but is a duty and the food becomes more delicious and beautiful.
Q: Which is the greatest challenge—translating poetry or novels?
A: In order to complete the project of translating, there must first be a supporting project for this translation. If the necessary possibilities are provided, there are many things I dream of accomplishing. Since I began translating I have spoken about the need to find a project to support the translation. When it is provided, there will be many projects to translate poetry, novels, and traditions. But rest assured that there will be no support with projects.
Q: I recently read that one of the translations of the introduction of Ibn Khaldun into English was bad. Have you thought about translating this long, important text?
A: If the project is available, then the translation to the introduction would be an important necessity, in addition to other necessities.
Q: What do you think of the right to return, or Oslo?
A: Oslo completely destroyed the Palestinian struggle, and frustrated the ambitions of the Palestinian people. It was both a desperate and miserable operation. It destroyed everything. There will be no return. I am very pessimistic. The issue needs another 50 years to be settled.
Q: What does it mean to belong to the place? Where do you feel that you belong to after nearly 30 years in America?
A: I feel uprooted, like a branch thrown from a tree; thrown far from the root and origin. After 30 years in exile, things lose their significance. Everything loses its meaning. The place has become a mirage. The land has become fragile. I entered a tunnel that I don’t know how to get out of. I loved the country to the point of intoxication. The intelligence authorities made me a permanent exile from the country. A rift has appeared in my heart. We are not with these and we are not with those. Even when I travel to an Arab country, they doubt us in the airport. They doubt us exiles. While the Arab airport authorities welcome anyone blond or with blue or green eyes, the foreigners welcome all types of foreign passports, except for us. We Arab exiles find ill treatment—we look like Arabs, and do not receive respect. Our foreign passports do not meet the same respect as those of other foreigners. It’s as if we came for something other than that which we claim! Or they suppose that we are spies for American intelligence. The funny thing is that some of these country have good relations with America on all political, military, cooperative, training, and personal levels, and they house American bases or armies or offices. One does not feel comfortable when he visits his native country. The country doubts him, and accuses him of being an agent. The nation rejects him, and prefers a foreigner over him. The nation betrays him.
The painful irony is that the Arab himself, when he returns to America with his American passport, because he is not blond and does not have blue eyes, and his name is Arab, and he was born in an Arab country, he becomes questionable and suspicious to the American airport authorities. He becomes a subject to be accounted for. He is treated with less respect than a native American, even though he carries American citizenship. How do you suppose an Arab who does not carry American citizenship is treated? I hope that the poet S’adi Yusuf has written to you of his bitter experience in a Virginia airport, when he came to visit Washington after nearly 10 years.
My American students who travel to Arab countries to study or for other reasons tell me about how respectfully they are received, and also about the facilities offered by the state. They tell me about their intimate relationships with Arab people, some of whom hold high-level government positions, and of the receptions and festivals which are poured out upon the foreigners by some Arab authorities, especially for the Americans among them. They also tell me about the trips they took with them. They tell me about the hospitality which they receive from some Arab families, especially in Damascus. The foreigners enter Arab houses and mingle with individuals in the Arab family. Some of them even established intimate relationships with Arab girls. They also talk about the hypocrisy of those people they met who would give them one price and then give their own people a different price. They also talk about the customs officials and the naked theft. They also talk about the corruption, and the lack of justice. I feel great shame when I hear these and other stories like them from Americans. I am told that the government of Bashar al-Asad has improved recently in regards to corruption, and has lightened the intelligence officials’ dominance over the people. In Palestinian there were some thieves in the Palestinian Authority who trafficked in the name of the Palestinian cause and in the name of Palestine. These and other things could tear one’s soul. It would reduce the value of noble concept, and make those who belong to it lose its sacred meaning and their longing for it.
Q: What is your opinion of Hamas?
A: The authority of the Hamas movement has come today. I look upon it with great joy. Hamas has created the beginning of the end. It might be the only way to purify the alternating Palestinian authorities from the cement dealers and thieves of the revolution. I have begun to feel optimistic. I respect greatly some of the Islamic movements. All of the other banners have fallen. All of the Arab governments now existent represent an insult to the Arabs and to their peoples, and an obstacle in the face of progress and democracy. I believe if not for Hamas, there is not Hezbollah. Then what would there for the Arabs? Nothing, except for humiliation and shame. Congratulations to Hamas and its victory.
Q: What do you say about life in America?
A: Life in America has no taste and no life. It is suffocating, but one does not know that he is suffocating, for the suffocation comes by degrees. It’s like the frog who is initially placed in a large bowl of lukewarm water, then starts to feel uncomfortable but does not know why. Then they start heating up the water little by little. You adapt to the increasing temperature, then they continue to increase the temperature gradually until you slowly suffocate. America does not have intimate relationships. Expedience is everything. It has no purity. Everything is superficial, artificial, material. Either the man suffocates, or he turns into a machine—a machine which loses its ability to discern that it is a machine. You stop thinking, and you go places you do not know in convoys of bigger machines. I am amazed by those who have a place to go and yet stay here. If I had a place, I would go there and stay there happily, and would not stay one more day here.
His interviewer: Dr. Sahir Abu-‘Aqsa Dawud-(Female) Palestinian writer and lecturer in political sciences-California