Lisa Suhair Majaj: In your work as a poet, editor and playwright you have grappled with

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1 Interview with Nathalie Handal Lisa Suhair Majaj Lisa Suhair Majaj: In your work as a poet, editor and playwright you have grappled with issues related to Palestine, Arab women and Arab Americans, and more recently with issues of gender, sexuality, silencing and power relations. What brought you to these issues? Has your work been influenced by world events, by personal experiences, by a confluence of influences? Nathalie Handal: Every writer or artist has a way of inquiring into their darkness or the dark suspended around them the visible and invisible, the loud and silent. I am originally from Bethlehem permanent transience has been my reality so that will inevitably at times transpire in my work. I live in the United States and cannot escape the experience of being held between the crack of a half opened door on one side the view of high-rises, on the other side the view of disappearing olive trees. And I am reminded everyday that I am a woman, reminded everyday that I have to fight for something, anything. For example, in the USA, only 17 per cent of the plays written by American women playwrights are produced. Finally, I do not know how to separate myself from the world around me its horrors and beauty. After all, our concern for what breathes around us is what is most holy in us. I want to interact with the world through my work. Have a never-ending dialogue. I am interested in how art communicates love, how it unites us through our sufferings and joys, defeats and victories, how it brings us close to the god inside us 1

2 LSM: Can you say more about what you mean when you refer to what is holy in us? And when you speak of love, do you mean the personal love between individuals? Or something broader? NH: By holy I mean what is most divine in us most noble. By love I mean that force that is most mysterious to us yet we are most intimate with; that force that brings us to life, to ourselves, to others; that force that helps us transcend the deep echoes in our throats, the pain we hide and the great passion that incessantly moves us towards something greater than imagination. The love I speak about is the one we keep finding even when we are not looking. LSM: Your first book of poetry, The Neverfield, narrates the experience of Palestinian exile as not just a physical exile from the homeland but also an exile from the self. How do you, as a Palestinian woman who has lived many places in the world, understand and experience exile? Is exile a form of violence? Is it gendered? How have your own experiences of exile come together to shape your work? NH: At times, exile has been an energizing space of growth but it has mostly been an indescribable space of trauma where like love, it gives you the possibility of life but also the unbearable condition of loss, a loss that attaches itself to you, a loss you become addicted to, where you are devastated whether you are living with it or without it; and you are blind in it and away from it. Exile is like the shadow we dare not disturb, either 2

3 because we are afraid it will cease to exist or we are afraid it will continue to plague us Although, as I wrote to you in a letter years ago, Poetry as Homeland, in many ways today I can say my words have joined my exile either because they were obliged to join me or [because] they found it impossible to leave me. LSM: In, Poetry as Homeland you speak of our mutual journeys in search of identity in a contest of exile. As you suggest, we have both struggled with issues of identification in a world that too often accepts only singular identities, and have come to understand that identity is something far more complex and profound than rigid categorizations can account for. But as we both also know, political forces that determine which identities are valid and which are not too often shape identities in violent ways. In your more recent poetry, especially in your second book, The Lives of Rain and your CD Spell, you grapple with Palestinian experiences of occupation and violence, with Israeli military force and discursive hegemony which seeks to erase Palestinian identification altogether. Yet you do so in a language which is strikingly sensual, and which confronts violence in part by asking questions about human relationships. As a poet, do you have a particular philosophy about how to represent violence and injustice? What role do you feel gender and sexuality play in this representational task? NH: The situation, as you know, has gotten worse. Impossible to believe but with this wall, seeing the choking of lives at every level, the only thing I felt I could do was go back to our pulse, to the breathing of the people I wanted to communicate our humanity portraits of two lovers kissing by the river; a mother with her daughter 3

4 running around an orange tree; a man who has lost his house but not the key. And through these poem-portraits, the violence of the occupation becomes more daunting to the reader because he can relate at a basic human level that those people in the poems could be his or her lover, mother or sister and he hopefully realizes that no one can blame anyone for defending their dignity and freedom I think that women have a way of arriving at a magic sky and understanding what its possibilities are LSM: Can you say more about how you see sexuality mediating these relations of violence? For instance, in your play The Details of Silence, you explore the internal and external experiences of Arab women through their sexuality. Can you talk about your epistemology of unearthing the unspoken? And what kinds of doors does it open? NH: I believe in our voice and the power it has to change things. We have to make ourselves visible, make our stories, our lives visible. By creating spaces for women to dialogue (through plays, stories, poems, films) we empower them. Issues such as sex and violence, for instance, are essential to bring to the table. But of course, we have to be careful that we are not misunderstood, taken out of context, socially and culturally. I feel an immense obligation to participate in bringing awareness. As Arabs and Muslims living or born outside the Arab world, we are the ones the West has most access to, we play an important role in the way others define us, the image we project is vital and our voices an important force of change. We cannot underestimate the power of our words. And 4

5 without the empowerment of women our world cannot evolve and without words we would not be here, discussing, exchanging ideas, connecting our future, fostering humanity and peace, empowering women, ourselves. We cannot go outside to nature, to life if we do not open the door. And we cannot open any door without unearthing ourselves, lives, experiences, our masks, the ones we are familiar with and the ones we never saw before. LSM: I am particularly interested in the ways in which you challenge the trope of the male Palestinian writer writing about Palestine as the female beloved, and recast the relationship of poet to Palestine in terms which are implicitly gendered. Can you talk a little bit about what it means to write about Palestinian issues from a female perspective? NH: Palestine is the perfect lover because it lets me love him the way I want to love him. By that I mean, I have never felt rejected by Palestine, whether I have spoken kindly or upsettingly to him, promised something and not delivered, gone to his arms or stayed away. Palestine has loved me unconditionally. And he is also a she at times. And although Palestine is not free, I have only felt free in Palestine my wings can dance in its sensual and furious winds, my heart can recite the verses of its shadows. When I write about Palestinian issues I am not writing only as a woman, I am writing also as a human soul fighting for another soul who has been mistreated for over fifty years. 5

6 LSM: In your most recent work, both essays and plays, you have begun to take up issues of gender violence and silencing within Arab contexts. At the same time, you are very aware of the silencing of Palestinian narratives within hegemonic frameworks. Do you see any linkages between these two kinds of silencing? What does it mean to speak out as an Arab woman about gender issues at the same time as speaking out as a Palestinian on issues of occupation and military violence? NH: The journey of working on my play, The Details of Silence, was interesting, invigorating, and at times painful. The play has an all-female cast, Arab women speaking about their lives. The staged reading of the play at Symphony Space in New York generated reactions I was not completely ready to deal with. Although many Arab women supported the play and the issues it touched upon violence, incest, sexuality etc. some were upset. Some told me that these stories did not exist in Arab communities, while others questioned why I should bring them up since we are so vilified in the American media. As you know, I am very active in the community and have spent my life supporting the community so I had to consider how I failed to communicate what I wanted which was simply human stories, women s stories women who happen to be Arab. And although, I understood the position of being attacked by the media, one question kept pounding in my mind how do we evolve as a community if we do not address these issues? When Jamil Khoury from Silk Road with the support of the City of Chicago decided to produce the staged reading at the Claudia Cassidy Theatre in Chicago, I did rewrites on the play and the dramatic question became: what happens if 6

7 your commitment to your society conflicts with your pursuit of truth? The theatre was packed and we had positive feedback but still I could not stop thinking of two things. The first: how much pain women carry inside of them that came from how emotional and tormented the actors usually felt while working on the play, also how delighted they were to play these roles and how delighted they were at the similar reactions of audience members. The second: how much, we as women have to endure, despite the changes that have occurred in the last few decades. LSM: May I ask you to elaborate a bit more on what you mean by this last point? NH: Although things have changed, they have not changed enough. In this country [the USA], every eight seconds a woman is assaulted. In the world, the high number of women who are starving, abused, molested is unacceptable. Women seem to be the core, holding everything together, but although they are powerful they do not have much of the power. By that I mean the world s leaders are mainly men. I believe women can create parameters that provide a more human approach to change. I went to a gathering Eve Ensler [author of the Vagina Monologues] organized and Jane Fonda [actress and campaigner] was speaking about how we must own our power, otherwise it will be taken away from us no matter how strong we are, no matter how much power we think we have. We have to be conscious of our strength and what it can create, and we must protect it, use it positively, constructively despite all odds. And 7

8 mostly, women globally find themselves fighting tremendous odds. But they have proven to be survivors. Their strength inspires me. LSM: As a poet, a writer, and a woman, what spaces do you see for resistance? NH: All spaces when I write I am resisting. It is my way of sharing the worlds inside of me that I know and those I have not yet been to; and by sharing I hope I am connecting with people, with nature, with a dreamland. I write poems, plays, stories because I am in love with words, because I am an active observer, but also it is my way of fighting forgetfulness, my way of bearing witness, of recounting all kinds of experiences, of human stories LSM: Do you have any last thoughts that you would like to share with us, the audience both of International Feminist Journal of Politics and the community of feminists at large? NH: We should never cease believing in the vital force women play in building a culture of peace. We have to be brave. Have to speak out on behalf of ourselves and of those choking in places the world has forgotten or not taken the time to know enough about, do enough for, understand... We have to remember that every time we stay silent we become active participants in the injustices of the world. Every time we stay silent, we go against our own humility and humanity. 8

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