Legitimate Literary Criticism or Propaganda?
Creative writers’ writing is always autobiographic to some extent, sometimes more openly so. The three pieces reviewed in a recent academic article all describe the writers’ personal experiences of being detained at Ben Gurion Airport. I read the two stories; the third, a book, was unavailable to me. The literary analysis of them, certainly a legitimate scholarly endeavour, seemed to me at first to be a clear example of fake academia in the service of propaganda.
Then I talked to a friend who gave me another perspective on airport securlty at Ben Gurion and I dropped my initial cynical response to the article.
As I delved deeper into my critique, reading and re-reading and researching around the margins, I began to wonder if perhaps I was seeing things that are not there. Just because someone uses provocative language and puts things in that are just simply not true, does that necessarily mean it is a propaganda pitch rather than a legitimate piece of scholarship? I hope you, dear readers, will tell me what you think.
Arabic language and Middle East culture and arts prof at the University of Tennessee Drew Paul published his new article in the Journal of Postcolonial Writing. Until 2004 the journal was known as World Literature Written in English. But I must admit that the new title sounds much more ‘woke’.
When writers are Palestinians or the descendants of Palestinian refugees (refugees defined by the UN as Arabs who had resided in the British Mandate of Palestine at least since 1946 and were then displaced by the Israeli War of Independence in 1948), they are categorized as postcolonial writers. Postcolonial literature comprises works “produced by colonial powers and works produced by those who were/are colonized“. Those still under occupation do not generally write about the ravages inflicted by the conquest and subjugation of their people. I doubt that a Tibetan in Tibet could write such a work and expect to continue to live free, for example. But an exiled Tibetan can. It is ironic, perhaps, that a Palestinian living in the Palestinian Authority (PA) is free to write anything disparaging Israel, the supposed occupier, but would not expect to survive writing against the PA regardless of the artistic value of the book or story or poem. Wonder how that might affect the definition of occupier in this case, especially since the PA was created when Arabs and Israelis signed the Oslo Accords at a ceremonious event on the White House lawn.
Using Literary Criticism as Propaganda?
The article under discussion here is called “The Arab Room”: Detention, disorientation, and displacement in Palestinian airport narratives, and here is the abstract:
This article examines recent Palestinian airport narratives, with a specific emphasis on depictions of Ben Gurion/Lydda airport in Israel, a site where Palestinians often receive extra scrutiny and disparate treatment. Focusing on works by Adania Shibli, Raba’i al-Madhoun, and Randa Jarrar, it argues that such narratives reveal airports to be, for Palestinians, sites of stasis, displacement, and detention, and offers a counter-reading of the popular imaginary of airports as facilitators of unfettered global mobility. The narratives depict this stasis through the spatial and temporal distortions experienced at the airport by individuals and groups excluded from global networks of free movement, tourism, and travel, but they also use moments of suspension and immobility to imagine and stage various forms of collective, shared experiences. This suggests that the stasis of the airport can unexpectedly be a catalyst for acts of solidarity and protest.
Funny – I wonder if readers of this article (or the editors of the journal in which it appears) even know that Lydda Airport is what Israel’s international airport was called during the period of the British Mandate. The name, Lydda, is the New Testament name for the ancient Judean town of Lod. In 1948, with the end of the Mandate and the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Lydda’s original Hebrew name, Lod, was reinstated, and that is what the airport was called until it was named for Israel’s first prime minister in 1973. Paul’s use of the name Lydda is part of the anti-Israel campaign, in which she stands accused of Judaizing place names of Arab towns that were built over ancient Jewish ones in the attempt to convince the world that the indigenous population of Israel is not the Jews, but the Arabs who now call themselves Palestinians. After having already mentioned Lydda three times, Paul finally defines it:
While its official name is Ben Gurion, after the nation’s first prime minister, many Palestinians call it Lydda Airport, its name under the British Mandate that reflects its proximity to the city of Lydda, which was a majority Arab city prior to the establishment of Israel and the ensuing war in 1948. Here the national and nationalist significance of airports is clear; the airport is named after the state of Israel’s founding father, but some Palestinians refer to it by its older, local name.
I asked around and was not able to find anyone who has heard a Palestinian or Israeli Arab call the it Lydda Airport. In fact, a Palestinian friend told me that he had never heard the name Lydda before I asked him about it. Everyone in the PA always referred to the airport as Lod Airport and still do, according to him. Maybe that is where Paul got the idea to say that Palestinians call it Lydda — Lydda/Lod, thought Paul, what’s the difference? After all, that makes it sound more non-Jewish. Problem is, my Palestinian friend says that Lod is called Lod in Muslim writings.
A search on the anti-Israeli Mondoweiss website results in a spate of articles describing how horrible security personnel are at Ben Gurion Airport and at Allenby Bridge between Jordan and Israel (I critiqued three such stories). A search for Lydda Airport results in only one article and that one is referring to the British Mandate at which time it certainly was called that. Of the two stories Paul analyzes in his article, one does refer to Lydda Airport (spelling it Lydd) rather than Ben Gurion, but the author also refers to all of Israel as Palestine. Thus it appears that only someone who has no familiarity with Israel would believe that “many Palestinians call it Lydda Airport” and those who are familiar but are not favourably inclined toward Israel might get a little chuckle out of that.
Next let us consider the use Paul says he is going to make of these writings to present “a counter-reading of the popular imaginary [this is a sociological term] of airports as facilitators of unfettered global mobility.” Years ago, I would have agreed with this idea of airport travel since in the past I did see the airport as a conduit of “unfettered global mobility” — until terrorists started hijacking planes and blowing up airports and international flights, that is. The most common contemporary picture of airports in people’s minds these days is probably the long line-ups to get through security, all the while wondering if they will have enough time for the duty-free shops.
While Palestinians cannot claim fame for the first well-known bombing of a commercial flight (United 629 was exploded by John Graham in 1955 in revenge against his mother for his rotten childhood), they can claim credit for having made flight security much stricter. Beginning in 1968, there were hijackings and attempted hijackings of El Al planes at international airports, shootings and bombings at airports and, of course, the failed shoe-bomb attack on American Airlines Flight 63 that has made removal of our shoes part of the airport security ritual in some places. Most of these attacks were under the auspices of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) with a bit of Al Qaeda in the mix. So much for the value these particular Palestinians place on “unfettered mobility”.
When Paul talks about the “stasis of the airport”, as opposed, I guess, to the unfettered mobility in his dreams, his abstract contains no mention of the terrorist acts that caused this situation. Buried on page 9 is the only hint that terrorism is behind increased questioning and detaining of some people looking to enter Israel and he makes it seem like this is just an excuse.
The use of racial and ethnic profiling, particularly against Palestinians and Arabs, is marketed not as unjust but rather as practical, realist, and efficient.4
4The Israeli “model” of airport security is often touted following terror attacks at airports. See Martin (2016) for an example of this tendency.
It is true that Arabs may be questioned more than others. It is true that those who have a history of activism against Israel regardless of their nationality or ethnic group — and Jews have been in this category as well — may be denied admission to Israel (for example, Julia Carmel in my critique of Mondoweiss stories). And it is also true that some people who have nothing against the country have been humiliated, traumatized or just plain made very uncomfortable by such experiences. It is not surprising that some of these people have turned hostile toward Israel as a result of such experiences. It is also not surprising that writers would share their stories with others, some quite artistically, because that is just what writers do. It makes me wonder if there are stories written by members of other ethnicities detained and deported at other national airports (and if these stories were used to delegitimize the country) or stories by Arabs who expected to have a hard time at Ben Gurion Airport and just glided through security without a hitch.
Drew Paul’s Analysis
Paul’s introduction is very poetic — he is a very good writer — and he uses the imagery in a verse written by Mahmoud Darwish about Athens’ national airport to set the scene for showing the Palestinians’ “collective experiences of displacement”.
Paul’s approach to looking at these works is certainly coloured by earlier personal experience:
The first time I arrived at Ben Gurion, I was briefly placed in this waiting room, while my documents were subjected to further scrutiny, probably as a consequence of the presence of visas from Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. While the privilege afforded by the combination of my whiteness and my American passport protected me from excessive scrutiny, it was clear that many of those waiting with me were much more vulnerable to arbitrary treatment.
Paul suggests that he was “protected from excessive scrutiny”: does this imply that if he had been scrutinized more thoroughly, the powers that be would have discovered something that would have caused him to be deported rather than finally admitted into Israel? If that is the case, then his suggestion of “arbitrary treatment” may not really be so arbitrary even in his own mind. Except for those who are not white with an American passport? Is he hinting that a black person with an American passport (perhaps even without visas from Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon) would be submitted to “arbitrary treatment”? His view of Israel as racist and preying upon the vulnerable seems to ring through these few sentences. Choice of words is very important.
Is Paul exploiting these stories as a vehicle for promoting some personal political agenda? Whether or not that is the purpose of the authors of the pieces he is using, I am not sure that is really part of the job description of a literary critic.
The Three Authors Examined by Drew Paul
His article covers three works:
The first, a nonfictional account entitled “Imagining Myself in Palestine” published online, chronicles author Randa Jarrar’s1 failed attempt to travel to the West Bank via Ben Gurion Airport in 2012, at which time she was detained and then denied entry into Israel. The second, a short story by Adania Shibli,2 entitled “Out of Time”, depicts a woman who notices that her watch stops when she lands at Ben Gurion airport, suggesting that the experience of interrogation at the airport exists in a kind of suspended time that reflects the exclusion of Palestinians and Palestine from both temporal and spatial normalcy. The third narrative, Masa’ir: Kunshirtu al-Hulukust wa-l-Nakba (Destinies: A concerto of the Holocaust and Nakba) by Raba’i al-Madhoun,3 uses the experience of detention to reveal ways in which interrogation and arrested movement unsettle notions of subjectivity and agency.
Read Randa Jarrar’s story here. Paul describes it as a “nonfictional account” as it surely is that but it is also very artistically written. It is interesting that it was published on a news site and categorized as ‘commentary’ rather than as literature. I was very much drawn in by her writing and was moved by every moment of her experience. Since she had been to visit her sister in Ramallah before, getting there through Allenby Bridge, I was surprised she seemed unaware that those with a Palestinian ID number (with which she entered the PA in 1993) are simply not allowed into Israel via Ben Gurion Airport.
Her story, written in 2012, develops from emotions related to anticipation and worry (she deleted 160 posts on her website critical of Israel and deactivated her social media), leading to frustration at having been pulled aside. At first she was treated well by the Israeli security staff interacting with her respectfully. But that turns to anger on her part and scorn on their part when her entrance into Israel is found to be prohibited. In a piece otherwise going light on political inuendoes, she injects one paragraph of her knowledge of Israeli injustice toward Palestinians. This paragraph burst onto the scene in synchrony with her anger, and its disjointedness is fitting in the context of her experience. In the end, her anger turns to defiance toward the men beside her on the plane back the US.
I did not get the sense that she intended the story to be a bash-Israel piece, even though Paul calls it an “exposé of Israeli practices”. And if you read her light-hearted CV here you also may not get that impression. However, she was the subject of a report on Canary Mission and they give evidence of growing BDS activism over the years. Was that triggered by her experience at Ben Gurion Airport or did the airport experience just add kindle to a slowly smouldering fire? In any case, I find this particular story to be about HER and not about Israel regardless of how anti-Israelis may use it.
Adania Shibli does not have a website of her own. I was also unable to find a Facebook or Twitter account for her. But wherever her books are promoted, this is how she describes herself:
Adania Shibli was born in Palestine in 1974, holds a PhD from the University of East London, and has published three novels in Arabic. She splits her time between Berlin and Jerusalem.
Born in Palestine in 1974? Where exactly? In a footnote, Paul mentions that she has Israeli citizenship and that means she was either born in East Jerusalem and is one of the small number of residents there who requested and received Israeli citizenship or she was born in any other place in Israel, most likely the latter. In other words, she is an Israeli who calls herself a Palestinian. That is her right, of course, but it does mean she seems not to accept the legitimacy of the State of Israel.
The short story Drew Paul selected for analysis can be read here. I find it interesting that she chose to base her watch-story upon the time she was detained for in-depth questioning upon landing in Ben Gurion Airport — “On my last visit there” — was that the only time she was detained? It seems not, since she writes: “Everything proceeded as usual in such situations”. So is this the only time her watch stopped? Unlikely, as she writes about how her watch consistently seems to malfunction whenever she is in ‘Palestine’. (I can take this watch story, then, as either literal fact or as literary license.)
Rather than her story necessarily being an indictment of Israel’s ‘racist’ security policy, as Paul contends, it may be more an exploration of her experience of suspended time when she flies back to the place she was born and likely grew up. That can be experienced by anyone living as an expat anywhere in the world.
The Palestinian airport experience is a symptom of a larger state of abnormality, and it is fitting that normality for Shibli is signified by movement and transit.
And, let me add, a sense of time or time-standing-still. Re-reading her piece a number of times drew me in closer and more strongly. I can identify at an emotional level with her experience of disconnect. That does not mean that I will be any less combative if I meet her touting BDS slogans and delegitimizing Israel.
Rabai al-Madhoun wrote the book Paul included for analysis in this article. Gatestone Institute published a review of the book. Since I do not have the book to read for myself, I will not discuss it here. Suffice it to say, he was born in Mandatory Palestine in 1945 and in 1948 his family escaped to or was expelled to Gaza and from there he moved to Egypt but was expelled for political activity.
Airportization of Palestinians
That is a new term coined by Drew Paul. Do you think it will catch on?
Will there be airportization of other ethnic groups denied entry into other countries, such as people with an Israeli stamp in their passports who for some reason may try to get into any of: Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Iran, and more? What about Canadian Jewish citizens travelling to Iraq on an Canadian passport that indicates they were born in Baghdad? What would be the experience of an Azeri trying to gain entrance to Armenia at Zvartnots International Airport or Amenians landing in the national airport of Azerbeijan? Did you know that Ethiopians cannot enter Kuwait? I wonder what happens if they have a connecting flight and need to change planes there; or do they look for a more roundabout route that does not include a connection in Kuwait? Did you know that ten countries prohibit entry to North Cypriots? Do you recommend they try their luck just like those with a Palestinian ID trying to get into Israel at Ben Gurion Airport knowing full well that that is against Israeli law and against the agreement reached with the PA in the Oslo Accords?
Had Drew Paul suggested that the stories of Palestinian experiences at Ben Gurion could be generalized to other nationalities and ethnic groups I may more easily believe that he did not write this article with any intention to delegitimize the State of Israel. But when I pull out quiet and buried jabs at Israel, they seem to shout quite loudly. Something like subliminal suggestions in movies and on television.
He summarizes his approach with:
At its most basic level, and crucial to its imaginary, is the airport as space. … The effect of this is to imagine the user of the airport as depoliticized and abstracted from the particularities of identity, race, national origin, or ethnicity, thereby implicitly assuming a certain equality of access that effaces the effects of privilege and discrimination on mobility.
However, that just does not jibe with the fact that all countries have laws restricting access on the basis of the passport held by the traveller, claiming such border control as a right. There is no equality of access anywhere.
He most gives away his attitude when he likens airports to:
… refugee camps, prisons, checkpoints – in which Palestinians find themselves trapped, estranged, and subject to the power of others.
I wonder if he includes among these “others” Lebanon, for example, that does not let Palestinians work at most professions, own property or engage in formal studies. How many people even know that?
Perhaps calling Ben Gurion Airport ‘Lydda Airport’ and saying Palestinians still refer to it as the latter is not enough to claim nefarious motives on behalf of Drew Paul. Perhaps his suggesting that fear of terrorism is just an excuse for Israel’s excess (in his view) security procedures is insufficient to say this is an anti-Israel propaganda piece. Perhaps not letting the reader know that Jabbar is strongly engaged in BDS and that Shibli claims to be born in Palestine when it was Israel upon whose soil she took her first breath is not reason enough to suggest he, himself, is anti-Israel. But I cannot ignore all the subtle jabs hidden in his flowing well crafted literary and philosophical discourse. Altogether this seems to pass over the threshold into propaganda. But maybe I am being too sensitive. What do you think?