Culture and the Politics of Memory

By Sondra Hale

In Search of Palestine (1998)

Narrated by Edward Said

Directed and produced by Charles Bruce for the BBC

60 minutes.

This documentary invites us to experience a historical event: the return of Edward Said, the most internationally known Palestinian intellectual to Palestine after 47 years. As expected, the film has aroused controversy. One source of discomfort for some is the assembly of a formidable critics' corner including not only Said, but also Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Ilan Pappe, Israel Shahak, and Azmi Bishara — all anti-Zionists and/or critics of Israeli state policy.

However, I anticipate that the way Said remembers Palestine and his place there will be the main reason for any negative criticism. Such complaints will be unwarranted in the context of the personal record that this film intends to be.

This is not a great documentary, but it is a great moment in documentary history.

Memory and space, two concepts crucial to the politics of recent years, intersect in the film. We have achieved new ways of seeing through post-colonial theoretical perspectives and attempts to find new categories of analyses, but “In Search of Palestine” proves that merely seeing is not sufficient. Although the tone is mostly matter-of-fact, the mood is melancholic and nostalgic and only occasionally angry; the film carries the viewer on a journey of remembering, expressing, feeling, and experiencing. The subject matter is tangible and abstract, material and metaphorical.

This film explores the politics of memory. The challenges to conventional epistemology have for some time included the recognition that individual and collective memory are forms of knowledge. Therefore, what is significant may not be what is written and codified by the accepted knowers (official Israeli state history, for example), but truth can be known in other ways, including the memory of a society or group as a whole. In this film Edward Said, by remembering his childhood in Palestine , is both part of a collective memory and a contributor to it.

As a documentary on Palestine , this film finds significance because it not only took place in Palestine at this particular time, but captured Edward Said in that space, for the first time in decades.

In viewing any film or work of art, it is, of course, important to know who is speaking, what her/his interest is, and the location from which she/he is speaking. As a documentary on Palestine , this film finds significance because it not only took place in Palestine at this particular time, but captured Edward Said in that space, for the first time in decades. In a sense, “Edward Said,” the renowned figure whose home is Palestine , makes his debut here. He is not an “ordinary” Palestinian resister, scholar, political figure, intellectual; he is one of the leading theorists of the 20th century. And his home is here, in Palestine .

Both space and what fills space are significant. Said narrates that so much of what had been there before is still there; however, the entire context is changed. Of course, so much is also gone, contributing to the changed context. What is absent becomes even more significant than what is present. What is not spoken lingers in the air.

Said's presence in Palestine carried great significance and altered the space politically. Palestinian space is a fluid, dynamic reflection of culture and politics. The geographies and histories that we have all invented, constructed from our individual and collective memories, may be outside the mold. Nowadays we map ideologies that shape the way we think of the Middle East . Watching this film, do we think of Palestine differently because of Said's presence?   

The film raises viewers' consciousness about the cultural and political importance of personal and place names, labels and place-markers, of people who appear in yearbooks who are no longer there, of a school history that abruptly ends. Viewers grow conscious of the insidious “weapons” of covering up, building over, changing names, and demolishing. Theodor Herzl in “The Jewish State” said in 1896 that “If I wish to substitute a new building for an old one, I must demolish before I construct.” We have become aware of house as both material and metaphor and of the power of stones (as in “my house was built of stone,” and “I lived a stone's throw from there”).

Time can be so specific and yet is easily altered by distortion, conflation, telescoping. It can be shaped by the removal of history. Was this the Palestine of yesterday, with the dislocated PLO? Or, is this the Palestine of today under Palestinian authority? Some developments of great political and cultural significance may not be measured within a conventional time-frame. Was Said removed from this time-frame, or was he inserted into it? When one thinks about Palestine it is not possible to ignore the concept of return, but we seldom think of return as a nonlinear process.

One aspect of the conflict for Palestine/Israel is culture — culture in the form of memory and representation of the past. Jews and Arabs remember their past differently — their separate pasts and their common past. Both of these groups stress the past as a political and cultural weapon. Each group has constructed a radically different past, one overlaying the other, a profoundly ramifying story told over and over again for political effect and personal solace.

This is not a great documentary, but it is a great moment in documentary history.

The act of forgetting is also a significant cultural act. Edward Said himself has written a powerful essay “On Forgetting.” Forgetting can be a crisis of national significance, as is the obscuring of one memory by another. It is imperative that a society not only remember, but keep the history alive. Retrieving the past may be a moral duty, leading to a compulsion to bear vicarious witness. Said returned to Palestine not solely for his own sentiment and nostalgia, or even political effect; he returned to bear witness.

During his visit, Said engages in what Susan Slyomovics refers to in her 1998 book, “The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village ,” as the “repeated gesture,” which specifically involves pointing to a remembered site. Many times in “In Search of Palestine” the viewer sees Said pointing over and over again at a site. His hand, magnified close to the lens, is in the way of the camera. Obviously, the gesture is more important than the aesthetics of photography; the repeated gesture reminds us, reminds him, and marks the landscape. His individual memory contradicts the official memory and creates a history.

“In Search of Palestine ” is Said's “Memorial Book.” He begins the film, in fact, looking at a family photo album and showing us a very old home movie of him and his sister playing on the front steps of their large stone house. The film cuts to Said in contemporary Jerusalem , in front of that same house, and no one can deny he lived there, right there.

Said stresses the themes we might expect: the land, landscape, place, house, and most importantly the possibility—or impossibility — of return. Throughout the film, land, like house, is both material and metaphor. More than once in the film, Said — and others — admit that the Palestine of his childhood cannot be retrieved, that no Palestinian truly hopes to retrieve the lost landscape, at least not as it was. Therefore, even though Said has returned, he is, in a sense, out of place. He is an awkward presence on a landscape that has moved beyond his memories. Before our eyes he lives the story of displacement, of confinement, of keys to a house that is occupied by someone else, and that someone else has locked the door with his own version of history. He tells the story of bulldozers doing their dirty work in the name of the state. He has spent much of his life trying to produce a discourse to counter the bulldozer.

Said and other Palestinians do not have a passive memory. They engage in active remembrance attempting to stave off the inevitable, to ensure cultural and political survival. Pointing a finger at history is a form of resistance. These collective memories have produced a poetry in exile, while inside both Israel and Palestine one finds the reality of 50 years of apartheid.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, No. 31 (Spring 2000)

Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid


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