An ekphrasis on a fragmented nationalism.
Somewhere in Tel Aviv, Israeli citizens are walking through an art exhibition called “Stolen Arab Art.” The title is not a metaphor—the show features four unattributed video art installations created by Arab artists, without the consent of those Arab artists. Here, the word Arab is a placeholder for Palestinian, but I suppose that goes without saying. In every interview, the curator (an Israeli who is not Palestinian) defends the installation as a comment against the cultural boycott of the Zionist state, claiming the exhibition is a “performative action,” hence all visitors are performers, and everyone—curators, attendees, and artists—is implicated in the theft.
In a way, the curator is correct. At the center of all settler colonial projects is theft. All interactions with the settler colonial project, be they cultural or economic, normalize the existence of the aforementioned settler colonial project, which, again, is contingent upon theft by construction. The premise of the installation is a contradiction, much like the Zionist state: the curator, intending to criticize boycotts of the Zionist state, perpetuates the precise colonial theft being criticized.
“Stolen Arab Art” is not an isolated phenomenon; earlier this year, an Israeli publisher released a translated collection of essays by Arab women without their consent to translate, print, or distribute the text. The publisher, Resling Books, titled the collection Huriya, which translates to “freedom” in Arabic. The contradictory metaphor is self-evident, and the trend is unsurprising in a historical sense. Within the walls of an exhibition and the pages of a book, Israelis dare to imagine works of Palestinian imagination as their own. Isn’t that how this all began?
At the core of all art, much like all settler colonial projects, is the ability to imagine. The blueprint of the Zionist project was once a drop of ink, words on paper that mandated the project whose enactment occurred at the expense of Palestinian land ownership. The founders of the Zionist project imagined Palestinians into invalid occupants, voluntary exiles on the wrong end of a two-sided war, nonexistent. Nationalism is not unlike art in its fundamental separation between subject and perception of subject, imagination being the link between the two.
Imagination is necessary to both colonial systems and the people marginalized at its expense; the essence of resistance to oppression is the ability to imagine liberation. One distinction, however, between the colonial imagination and that of its subjects is in the ability to act upon it; the ability to build reality into and out of imagination favors colonial pragmatism by construction. But the two are not distinct. The colonial imagination survives by obstructing the imagination of its subjects: “Stolen Arab Art,” for example, could not exist without Arab art. The distinction between the two is not unlike the distinction between Palestine and occupied Palestine: the colonizers imagined ownership through a framework in which that ownership was not only convenient but always already assumed.
To this day, I still know by heart the lyrics to every song of my Southern childhood, every convenient depiction of the American project. Every one nation under god punctuated by a lyric portrait: “from the lakes of Minnesota to the hills of Tennessee, sweet land of liberty, from sea to shining sea.” This was the daily routine for all of my early upbringing—what reason did a functionally white seven-year-old have to question what, exactly, the seas were shining with?
Palestine was a word conveniently missing from my lexicon, but labneh wasn’t. Or falafel or sfiha or khazanah. My household Arabic was the only thing that set me apart from my other classmates, and for that reason, it was our family’s biggest secret. Any whisper outside the house was accompanied by a quick translation. Every khobzeh was turned into bread, every jibneh, a tired cheddar. There was no need to market things like hummus as Palestinian to a child who didn’t know the word Palestine.
My first introduction to the word Palestine came up in second grade, when I was assigned a homework project investigating our family history. When my mother first said Palestine, I went upstairs to my toy globe and could not find it anywhere. I thought to myself, She must have meant Pakistan, because it was the most similar word I could find. When I gave a presentation about my Pakistani family heritage and our jibneh and falafel, I garnered many confused looks from my mostly white classmates.
“Israel. The land that the Bible calls Israel. That’s where we’re from,” my mother told me after school that day. I was seven, and even I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. What else was she supposed to say to me, after hearing that my friend’s family came from a country shaped like a boot and that the new student transferred in from a faraway constellation of islands? How exactly was she meant to describe the shape of thin air to her son, who spoke only the clumsiest Arabic?
And such is the colonial imagination: We didn’t need to miss the roaming hills of Palestine because we had the American mountainside. We pledged allegiance to this land every day, and so it became ours. We are reminded that men died for that flag of stars, and so this land is ours. We ate our turkey and green bean casserole; we learned to give thanks and shut the fuck up. How is a child raised like that ever going to develop an accurate understanding of America, of Israel, of Palestine, of history?
In the summer of 2016, I lived in New York City for the first time. I had just finished the worst semester of my life, and the summer in the city was all I had to show for it. I was determined to make the most of it: to go to all the poetry readings, art festivals, and Broadway shows my modest stipend would afford me.
That was, consequently, the summer I discovered Hamilton and became stereotypically obsessed with it. I listened to the soundtrack on all of my commutes, knew the lyrics backward and forward, bought the obnoxious hardcover illustrated edition of the script, and signed up for the ticket lottery every day.
There are several cruel ironies to the lyrics that rang through my head all summer. I knew I was in the greatest city in the world because the lyrics told me so. The underlying assumption of the performers, all of whom were BIPOC representing their colonizers, was that the city was theirs to assign emotion, value, and nostalgia to. When I say “theirs,” I mean both the resurrected colonizers and the colonial subject actors speaking as them. The danger here is in this precise juxtaposition of America’s creation and its reclamation by colonial subjects. What was even scarier was that I believed it: because the writer of the lyrics and the people singing them were brown and black, I trusted them and the histories that brought them to this land. And perhaps that was the greatest betrayal.
What is Hamilton if not an ekphrasis on the creation of America, an ekphrasis on the art form that is settler colonial nationalism, told through the colonial subjects themselves? By construction, this ekphrasis relies on both the colonial imagination and the colonized imagination—both the humanization of the colonial myth and the desire for colonial subjects to be acknowledged and represented within the colonial project despite constant erasure. The lyrics do not acknowledge the colonial history of America; they become it.
If I said my understanding of American nationalistic art began and ended with my childhood, I’d be lying. I knew about Palestine by the time I encountered Hamilton. I had a firsthand understanding of the settler colonial machine. I understood the violences that created America and how my family fit into these violences. And yet I believed in and undyingly supported Hamilton as a project; despite my skepticism, the lyrics inspire nostalgia for the best summer of my life. This, too, is the colonial imagination manifesting itself: I was investing myself in finding a home within the colonial project insofar as I was becoming entrenched in it.
Had there been a Hamilton for Palestine—and I don’t think there ever could be, due to the history of colonization and enslavement unique to America’s creation—would I be anything less than distraught with rage? Imagine it: Palestinian actors dressing up as their European colonizers, telling a naturally humanized rendition of the creation of Israel, which happened at their own expense. What makes this idea so inconceivable to me? One could argue a bit of a false equivalence, since the constructs of indigenousness differ between Israel and America, but one main distinction, in my mind, is temporal. America, being hundreds of years older than Israel, is the more developed colonial nation insofar that even some of its colonial subjects humanize its history of colonization.
I don’t intend for any of this criticism to detract from the empowerment Hamilton has given to BIPOC Americans, on and off Broadway, but instead to say that this popular representation came at the expense of normalizing a history of colonization, and this need for representation is not only tainted but controlled, to an extent, by the colonial imagination. We are beginning to see similar phenomena among a small minority of Palestinian Israelis, such as the popular YouTube vlogger Nas Daily, who has been criticized as a traitor by many Palestinians for the way his videos normalize the Israeli occupation.
I’m less interested in these phenomena than I am in the consumption of them. Although the cast has been critical of this, American politicians have actively consumed and supported Hamilton while enacting policy that actively dehumanizes the colonial subjects who made this musical. What is the expense of visibility as a colonial subject living within the colonial imagination? How are we to exist, if at all possible, in the focal point of these systems without being consumed by them?
This past summer—the summer Israel committed a several-month-long campaign slaughtering Palestinian protestors in Gaza—I went to a protest on Nakba Day in Boston. The several hundred protestors were all crowded inside a church because the sky was gray with grief and downpour. I felt torn between wanting to be around only Palestinians in this time of mourning and feeling hopeful about the large turnout of non-Palestinian allies.
Among the lineup of speakers was a Palestinian from Gaza reading the names of all the martyred protestors; other speakers were BIPOC and Jewish allies. One speaker was a black professor who flew in to speak at the event. Looking around the room, he said, “So raise your hand if you, in your heart of hearts, believe that we can free Palestine.”
I admit that I did not raise my hand. I admit that I flashed back to all of the aforementioned moments in which I was reminded how deeply entrenched each of us is in the colonial machine. Few raised their hands. Or perhaps I’m misremembering the proportion—funny how grief works like that.
The professor continued, telling us this was completely ahistorical. What does history tell us? History says that even in circumstances arguably more hopeless than Palestine, organized people always triumph over systems of oppression. Always. So why not believe in Palestine’s liberation? Why not actually believe that the liberation of Palestine is not only plausible but inevitable?
The room was silent. No one had ever asked me this question, especially in as hopeless of a moment as that day. But maybe that was exactly why I needed to hear it—among the several first steps toward the physical liberation of Palestine is imagining it. In many ways, this imagination starts with art, and yet as a writer myself, I have little interest in writing Palestine in a way that is digestible to the colonial imagination, or in justifying our humanity to a system—meaning both the state and the people who build it—that finds our existence inconvenient at best. Because if not, then what is the distinction between the consumption of my art and Hamilton and “America the Beautiful” and “Stolen Arab Art” and every other ekphrasis on a fragmented nationalism set to unmake us?
In which the Arab author imagines stolen Israeli art:
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My first return to Palestine was during the winter of 2017, on a class trip studying the occupation. The class’s demographic was mixed between Palestinian, Arab, BIPOC, and Jewish Americans. America was the only thread connecting all of us—the class took place in America, and so that informed the way all of us interacted with Palestine, even me as a member of the diaspora.
My experience of the trip can be recounted through the bus rides alone. I remember sitting next to a nonbinary anti-Zionist Ashkenazi Jewish American friend. They were my shoulder during and after visiting ethnically cleansed villages, seeing the segregated city of Jerusalem where my grandparents once resided, and seeing the apartheid wall for the first time. I was theirs after encountering our first instance of anti-Semitism at an Israeli settlement, after going through the Holocaust History Museum, after hearing all the ways they felt their ancestral trauma was exploited by the Zionist state. I say this not to equate our experiences—that framework is a key component of Israel’s colonial imagination. The common thread in our experiences is this distortion and unwriting of history, committed by the colonial imagination—the realization that despite our memory and the representations we were fed, Israel is ultimately a state that has failed all of us.
We ended our trip in Jaffa, a city on the Mediterranean that was the landmark of much of my grandfather’s nostalgia. After walking through the marbled, opulent streets, after touching the Mediterranean Sea for the first time, after photographing all of the architecture, I believe it was my friend who said aloud what we were both thinking: “This is fake. It’s all fake.”
And it was. Even though we were in it, physically touching and breathing it, the city we were experiencing was the physical manifestation of the colonial imagination, which is distinct from, but enmeshed with, the colonial project. I’m saying the blood was not only on our hands; the blood was in our minds. We were staring right into the heart of the beast. Palestine’s colonization doesn’t just take the form of checkpoints, walls, eradicated villages, testimonies from families with concrete barriers through their homes; it takes the form of an opulent city whose residents are convinced they live in the greatest city in the world. It was here, at this moment, when I began to realize the weight of what we lost, when I realized my memory of Palestine was a misappropriation of my displaced family’s lived experience, and no matter how much learning and unlearning I did, nothing would restore that original memory. Nothing would reconcile my experience of Palestine with my family’s collective memory. Nothing would resurrect the country this once was.
The liberated Palestine will not look like the Palestine that existed before it needed liberation. We must imagine it outside of its colonial reality. The land has gone from country to no man’s land to country once more. The streets are heavy with a language both new and familiar; the hillsides, reimagined, are empty of gazelles; the villages, unimagined, are swallowed in overgrowth. Would you believe that after all of this, I can see the land only through its postcolonial symbols? I don’t know how else to say this: There is always a hillside. There is always an animal, wandering or flying, and how easily a gazelle becomes a flock of eagles. Above all, there is always an ocean, a border, a wound festering from earth to blood-fed earth, from sea to shining sea.
George Abraham is a Palestinian American poet and Ph.D candidate in bioengineering at Harvard University. He is a Kundiman fellow and the author of the specimen’s apology (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019) and Birthright (Button Poetry, 2020).