In the Fall of 2003, I took “Introduction to Literary Theory” with the Palestinian novelist Anton Shammas. In the first class, he said, “Learn all this stuff. Then forget it.” He laughed. We laughed. Then he said that was the best way to learn. I met one of my best friends in that class. I learned a lot. I still make jokes about Foucault’s “Death of the Author.” And I still reflect on what I learned about Orientalism. I still read Edward Said.
Anton Shammas, a Palestinian writer from Jerusalem, wrote Arabesques in Hebrew. It was a huge event, and Shammas’ family was threatened. He came to the University of Michigan, where I met him many years later in 2003.
Arabesques, true to its title, traces patterns in the lives of Palestinians living under the Occupation. With something similar to magical realism, Palestinians are born and die and pass on artifacts and objects that carry significance throughout the narrative. Often there are discussions of everyday objects that nonetheless link the lives of the Palestinian characters. Another thing that links their lives are the sufferings they have undergone.
I’m thinking of Anton Shammas and Arabesques after another war in Gaza. Again there are disproportionate casualties (including too many children) on the Palestinian and Israeli sides. Again there are those who reduce it all simply to “defense.” Again there are those who take on an apologetically guilty tone to explain how unfortunate it is that all are in this situation.
But something has changed. People are discussing what’s happening, no longer trying to “stay out of it.” I’m talking about everyday people. And there is an uneasy comparison with the protests following the murder of George Floyd last year, an uneasy connection with the Movement for Black Lives. I think of how Isabel Wilkerson describes the Great Migration as African Americans becoming refugees in their own country. People are asking good, difficult questions now about this conflict. My union, the Professional Staff Congress, in our delegate assembly, passed a resolution in support of the Palestinian people.
Of course, there are also discussions of rising anti-Semitism. When I think of that kind of hate, I think one antidote might be writing in the language of the oppressive other. I think of Primo Levi talking about the harsh KZ Lager German he knew. Primo Levi wrote in Italian and describes in The Periodic Table the Italian children’s rhymes about Jews that taunted him in his youth. Primo Levi said, “Today, the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis.”
Maybe history happens in waves. This year, of course, we know that change happens whether or not we acknowledge it. The world will never go back to “normal.”