Darwish and Bialik warn: A poem is fathomless
By: David Zonshein
30/09/2007
Children of Kurish immigrants in al-Kush, an abandoned Arab village. Photo: Zoltan Kluger. From Sedek Vol. 1

Few threats seem as serious as a threat to the collective consciousness. And why is that? Because the individual can't, by himself, escape his existential anxieties. Therefore people come together in groups and create a foundational narrative which may either be close to reality, or far from it. The Jewish collectivity fragmented long ago. When it was restored, immediately following the Holocaust, it contained a new element: to the consciousness of weakness and dispersal among the nations, of those who in every generation rise up against us, was added the Holocaust. Society devotes much effort to strengthening these feelings, to reproducing and directing them, as if the original catastrophe was insufficiently overwhelming. The mechanisms that create the collective consciousness are so strong, so single-minded, that it is difficult to point to any mechanism operating better in today.

Therefore, when a person is unable by himself to relieve his fears, he creates for himself, together with his fellows, a collective consciousness situating his fears in a broader, protective context. Sharing anxieties and sharing defenses is better than dealing with things on one's own. A person isn't able by himself to relieve his fears, and that's why there's no greater threat to him than a threat to the story he and his fellow countrymen have created for themselves to calm their apprehensions. Thus, it is possible to foresee with considerable accuracy the degree to which cultural, literary and artistic creations will be accepted by the Israeli public, according to how much their content threatens the common narrative.

In this sense, the first issue of "Sedeq" is a complex cultural product. During the weekend the first issue sat on my desk at home, a number of people looked through it. None of them could be accused of being sympathetic to the topic it dealt with: the Palestinian Nakba. So why the great interest? Because of the cover and the design of the journal by the Parrhessia creative design and production group. The editor, Tomer Gardi, and the design team went beyond the limited boundaries of the audience that might have been expected to buy and read the issue by creating a journal that catches the eye and doesn't fall into the trap of what might have been politically "expected". Even those immediately put off by the journal's subject didn't set it down without opening and leafing through it. Its design and content are too attractive; its creators avoided the sin of reducing it to a pamphlet filled with sanctimonious anger on behalf of absolute justice.‎

The content is like the cover. A short journey from the cover to page twenty tells the story of the entire issue. A floral ornament on the cover, the kind you see from time to time on old floor tiles in the Arab houses of which their Jewish owners are so proud. Superimposed on the ornamental design, a silhouette of a cat, or perhaps a black cat itself (Farid Abu Shakra, "A stretching cat and an ornament," 2006, oil on canvas). Above the cat's head appears the journal's name: "Sedeq - A journal of the Nakba that is here" - that is, a crack in the Israeli collective consciousness, a window into the Nakba that began in 1948 and continues until today with Israeli actions in the occupied territories. Immediately following, a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, that will become even more significant after the first article in the issue, "Language revealing and concealing," Bialik's famous essay, taught in high school:‎

 Don't trust the poem
‎ Ruin's twin.‎
‎ The poem is not wisdom‎
‎ Nor intuition - ‎
‎ It is a sense of the abyss.‎
‎ (from "State of Siege")‎

The subject of this spectacular poem is the destruction of words. It is a warning to the reader in danger of being caught up by the poem, by its language, only to realize at the end that he has been tricked: the warning appears in the same poem against which the poet warns. Darwish asks his reader to distrust the poem and its magic. The poem is composed of words, words are destruction, and in the guise of intuition and awakening emotion the poem will take you without noticing to the abyss of the words, where only what is revealed for an instant beyond them is truly important, while they themselves - conceal truth.‎

Darwish's poem precedes the table of contents, as an introduction to the journal's central theme, and Bialik's essay appears immediately following it: "The most dangerous instant - in speech as well in life - is none other than that between concealment and concealment when chaos glitters...and the abyss flickers." And again, "With our own mouths we constructed screens of words words and methods methods to conceal it from view (=the eternal darkness, the abyss), and immediately the fingernails scratch and scratch at those screens in order to open a small window, some kind of crack, and look through it briefly at what is 'beyond'."‎

What Bialik is describing is, according to Jacques Lacan, the tension between the real and the symbolic. Between actual space, too traumatic to be revealed, and the web of words and concepts we labor so hard to spin in order to conceal the traumatic, the abyss. Real poetry, according to Bialik and Darwish, even though it deals with words, must touch the crack in the symbolic space. You could say, picturesquely, that Bialik wants the poet to distance the written words from each other and pull the reader into the abyss that gapes between them. Poetry has the power to spread the web before the reader, and even though he traverses it confidently he will often trip and fall into the abyss of signifieds that lack signifiers. "It is as if the fixed words escape one after another from their slots and exchange places. And meanwhile, between one concealment to the next, the abyss flickers. That is the secret of poetic language's tremendous effect."‎

But the journal's editor surely did not intend to limit himself to the realm of poetry. The proximity of these two works at the beginning of the issue, and the fact that Darwish and Bialik are seen by the Israeli and the Palestinian publics as national poets, makes a demand on the reader that goes beyond the bounds of poetry. Don't trust words, says Darwish, the words among which you live are those which conceal from you the inner abyss, and words are what separate you from the traumatic reality without. An Israeli is unable to feel the trauma of the Palestinian Nakba. It is a trauma that collides with the Jewish trauma. Therefore, the mechanisms of repression and the bundle of familiar words and symbols push it away to a safe, approved location, and when it bursts out occasionally it is trapped immediately in the dense web of symbols. The editor, designers and writers of "Sedeq" ask us to try and feel the abyss with the aid of this journal, gently leading the reader forward, conscious of the complex nature of discovery.‎

The magazine almost always fulfills its promise. It opens with a set of photographs taken from 's "National Photo Collection," showing Jewish settlement activities in abandoned Palestinian villages in January 1949. We linger over a series of untitled black-and-white photographs by Raed Bawayah that captures our attention. The work of the "Parrhesia" group, "Through Language," that sprayed on Hebrew signs translations into Arabic, as well as transliterations of the Arabic into Hebrew, is also interesting. This is an additional way of forcing the public to confront the erasure of Arabic names from street signs, concealing from view the people who lived there not so long ago.‎

The article by Salim Tamari and Rema Hammami, selections from a series of memoirs and reflections by twelve exiles from Jaffa-Yafa living today in different parts of the world, is one of the essays worth spending time on, one that helps us acquaint ourselves with the Jaffa of sixty years ago. The editor, Tomer Gardi, in "A Chapter," conducts a dialogue with the piece by Tamari and Hammami. Dan Bar-On, "On the tense triangle between Germans, Israeli-Jews and Palestinians," is also relevant and interesting. On the other hand, the article by Eitan Bornstein,"At the Recruitment Center: A Letter from Father to Son," doesn't mesh with the journal's agenda, precisely because it deals concretely with conscientious objection to military service. The piece is inappropriate not because it isn't interesting, but because it touches on the abyss or, more precisely, on an actual way out of it. The journal took it upon itself to expose the abyss between one concealment and another - but not by pointing it out explicitly, which only serves to conceal it from the onlooker.‎

Finally, it's impossible not to mention Farid Abu Shakra's wonderful illustrations on the journal's cover and on its opening and closing pages. Abu Shakra's work adds something without which the journal would be incomplete. Perhaps it's the cat that remained behind in the house from which the family was evicted, perhaps it's his elusive presence, revealed only when he chooses to show himself. In any event, Abu Shakra's illustrations of the crack reveal that which remains beyond words. 

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