There is something undeniably melancholy in the peace that comes from being home.
قيل أنّها مريضة
بقلم إبراهيم داود
“It is in producing the disappeared as an excess object in absentia, as here rather than elsewhere, that awaiters step out from the margins and begin the labour of conversing with the disappeared, a conversation which charges absence with uncanniness. Said differently, in collecting the uncanny, the labour of missing attempts to locate a presence rather than await a ghostly visit. And it is by interring absence that a presence is relocated and a conversation with the disappeared can begin. The labour of missing lies therefore in structuring and maintaining a conversation with an absence made uncannily present when tangibly unavailable.” -Walid Sadek
It grows like salt crystals, a byproduct of a dissociation between exhausting silence, and impotent words to describe it.
Walid Sadek’s Collecting the Uncanny and the Labor of Missing analyzes the void left by those forcibly disappeared in the wake of Lebanon’s civil war. He argues that this void is not a negative, not a passive absence but rather an inaccessible presence, an object in excess, physical even if ‘intangible’. His paper argues that a hastening towards a time beyond mourning, towards ‘closure’, hollows this void. The labor performed by those left behind, that of missing the disappeared for having overlived them, is one of addition and not subtraction, or rather of living and shuffling with and around an inaccessible physicality for the space they used to occupy doesn’t cease to exist.
...the fear that even our wildest dreams are borne of a sterile hope.
And that even the best future we can have is a stillborn life.
Sadek develops what it means to work through missing the disappeared through a close reading of Akram Zaatari’s In This House, a film that follows the unearthing of a note buried by a resistant combatant during Lebanon’s civil war. Although successfully excavated, the disappointment in the revealed note – a banal quotation of Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran that doesn’t say much – seems inevitable in hindsight.
Sadek is interested in this itch for revelation, a desire that occupies post-war Lebanese to exhume an ‘earth of endless secrets’ before they can get on with living, a desire that Zaatari’s film follows through to its unfulfilling completion. This almost irresistible need to reveal the note, to prove its existence, was born out of a peculiar uncanniness it was charged with once its presence was made known; an attempt to fulfill this desire is destined to undo this charge and hollow-out the presence that this note occupies.
There’s a stifling in this blanket of warmth.
The unearthing itself created a negative absence, while the knowledge of the note’s inaccessible presence for the past twenty years or so, its being an object in excess for that period of time, is a revelation worth grappling with in itself, without further proof of the note’s existence, or at least independent of it. The sepia-tinted expectation of resurrecting a piece of the past by exhuming the note should be treated with suspicion, for it presumes that the note, and whatever meaning or attachments it has to a fraught moment in history, has been preserved for those twenty years, and that its nature, a result of its immediate context at the time of its creation, is not changed or affected by the drastically different context at the time of its unearthing.
There’s a silence.
Sadek counters this urge to unearth and find instant gratification/resolution for absence by expanding on what he calls the labor of missing, a labor that is collective and societal, a practice that would hold space for mourning and that understands the differential between the past and the present as continuously shifting and evolving in relation to the absences of what used to fill it, for the disappeared and the space they used to occupy continue to shift, even if they aren’t nesting skin-to-skin.
“the dense-silence of someone whose absence is irreversible,”
This, I think, applies not only to people forcibly disappeared, but also to land forcibly taken.
“a condition of terminal loss”
Today, more than 70 years since Al Nakbe and 50 years since the 1967 Nakse, multiple generations of displaced Palestinians are living between inherited promises of belonging and lived experiences of exile; many still embalmed in the bureaucratic apparatus as refugees, unnaturalized in their places of asylum and unable to return to their registered place of origin.
a degenerative disease.
Part of UNRWA’s efforts to preserve the right of return to their ancestral land, the ossification of the status of refugee is an apparatus of this stuckedness of Palestinian refugees, a piece of bureaucracy with a tangible presence that encompasses the always-superficial roots that grow in their places of asylum, and the inherited memories of thick roots struck deep into inaccessible land.
Palestinian intergenerational trauma includes a diverse spectrum of experiences that are not equivocal or homogenous– the life of a Palestinian with a European Citizenship is vastly different from that of one with a Lebanese Travel Document for Palestinian Refugees, from an internally displaced Palestinian, or from a Palestinian holding the Israeli citizenship– the Palestinian trauma, however, is still a shared denominator with a common origin point– forced displacement and the unnamable loss accompanying it and which persists to this day.
In a parallel to what Sadek articulates as the “dense-silence of someone whose absence is irreversible,” Edward Said reflects on exile as “a condition of terminal loss”. Yet I find this finality of loss, when it comes to Palestine, at odds with the continued existence and locatability of the land itself. Perhaps it is more accurate to describe it as a degenerative loss– one that exercises its effects gradually upon the body it inhabits and cumulates a sediment of symptoms and ailments until the body succumbs, death by complications of exile.
Or until the body itself returns.
An article written by a cousin, talking about the time when he received pictures of Tarshīẖa -- the north Palestinian town my grandfather was forced out of in 1948 -- from an online friend who still lives there. My cousin had sat with my grandfather, both excited to show and see the pictures.
The article describes my grandfather's commentary as it devolved from enthusiastic to stuttering and hesitant, punctured by silences that grew longer with every new picture. It describes a unique distress, a redness in my grandfather's eyes as he realised that much of the town has become unrecognisable to the man who left it 50 years prior.
There’s an inherent uncanniness in longing for something inaccessible. A loved one (or a loved place) far away dons, in their distance, our projected ideals. This uncanniness translates perfectly into the relationship of the multigenerational refugee to their homeland, and lies in the rift produced by the chronological displacement from the physical experience of the land– the remembered object (land) has continued to shift and grow while the displaced dream of a frozen snapshot of that land, passing down an outdated imaginary and extending the degeneration of the exile disease beyond their own lifetimes.
The revelation of the images to my grandfather, an act of unearthing his memories of Tarshiha and bringing them to light against the realities of the place, revealing the environmental change that happens while the displaced are away, is the same moment of disappointing rupture that Sadek talks about in his article.
This discrepancy between the dreams of a displaced person that continues living and the reality of a land that kept on means the only way to hold space for a displaced Palestinian’s continued relationship to Palestine is to theorize it as an object in excess, located independently from the actual physical Palestine, where a mere return to that geography is no longer enough to undo, heal, or end the mourning caused by the spatial displacement, because of the chronological displacement. I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done ahead of a conception of return, and a collective labor of missing that needs to be protected.
How do we do that? Do we begin by reimagining what kind of place, society, government, can assimilate a healing and a return that is not jarring, a return that doesn’t cause further rifts in our collective Palestinianness? Is this where art comes in? Do we need to reimagine a “roadmap” that is actually a roadmap to a post-nation-state world?