Crossings into Indigenous Palestine

“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them,” wrote Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “Their oil would become tears.”

“If the olive trees knew the hands that planted them / Their oil would become tears.”1 These words from Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish speak to the deep sorrow of the Palestinian people, whose hands have planted countless trees in lands from which they are now exiled. And yet, Darwish’s words also speak to the power of that grief; they envisage a hand moving with intention, a seed between its fingers, reaching to the soil, crossing into the earth’s real matter, and leaving a single seed, lodged deep enough to grow into existence. To plant—even in grief—is a way to cross over from our world into another.

We rarely think of “planting” as a metaphor for “crossing”; but, in relation to war and olive trees, I believe it fits. In times of war, a branch of olives transports a violent condition into a place of calm. Planting—even a severed branch—means a better life is about to happen, it means nourishment is on the way, it means that we refuse to die in deprivation. All it takes to make that happen is a seed.

In the context of Palestine and colonial wars, crossing into new life-forms—as Darwish reminds us—often invokes tears. It is painful to remember the sacrifices required to cross from death to life, and to plant in a land made hard by violence. Yet these sorts of crossings are essential and, often, beautiful, as detailed in four recent books on Palestine: Jennifer Lynn Kelly’s Invited to Witness, Amahl Bishara’s Crossing a Line, Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi’s Archipelago of Resettlement, and Maryam Griffin’s Vehicles of Decolonization.

Separately and together, these books speak of the tensions Darwish’s olive tree unravels: How do we move from peril to liberation in a colonized place? Why do crossings to Palestine, and in Palestine, matter? What griefs do they unearth? What hopes and joys do they invent? And what do they collectively say about this place and its people?

I approach these books as a Palestinian reader and scholar of Indigenous studies. I establish my reading, here and elsewhere, as Indigenous to highlight aspects in these books about Palestinian epistemologies that are land based and land oriented, even when they are not directly named as such. This is why I begin these reflections with olive trees and the practice of planting them. They are meant to frame this Indigenous reading and to foreground attention to Indigeneity as essential to all crossings involved in writing and reading about Palestine.

Moreover, my employing of crossing as an analytic verbalizes and elucidates interesting patterns in recent scholarship on Palestine. Great work has always been (historically and continuously) done in the field of Palestine studies where Palestinian historians, social scientists, and cultural critics tell true stories of Palestine and the profound character of the Palestinian people. This has always been the case.

But recent years have witnessed a growth in writing about Palestine from the perspectives of critical ethnic and critical refugee studies at multiple intersections, and from non-Palestinian scholars invested in positioning themselves in relation to Palestine and to the specific audiences they wish to inform. A crossing—as a tool and a perspective—is necessary to understand these books and to highlight their important movement and intervention.

Kelly’s Invited to Witness is ripe with Palestinian moments that speak of the intricacy, beauty, and courage embedded in our ways of being and doing things. The first of these is what invitation means to us and the feelings and thoughts we attach to it, which Kelly introduces and appropriately complicates.

Invitation frames the relationship between Palestinians and those they welcome into their spaces. It illuminates cultural practices that speak of warmth, generosity, and, in many cases, a dutifulness to ensure our guests’ safety, even at the expense of our own. In the context of what Kelly describes as solidarity tourism, the line between delegate and tourist is blurred, communicating the complexity of visits done for the purpose of witnessing Palestine and the violence Palestinians experience. Even so, Kelly speaks equally of joyful witnessing, where delegates/tourists can join Palestinian villagers as they harvest olives, which she terms a “gift” to honor these opportunities as permissions. Still, those who visit have to tell the story of what they have witnessed to educate others, elsewhere and all around, about Palestine. Kelly calls this an invitation to come followed by an invitation to go home.

Here, I must clarify: Palestinians would never demand any guest to leave Palestine, any more than the earth itself can reject a seed. But this aspect of the solidarity trips are, after all, tied to a transaction—to a collective responsibility because of colonization—to inform the wider world about life in Palestine. Kelly tells many stories of the violences these visitors end up witnessing. And as witnesses—not just tourists, not just delegates, but witnesses—they must tell these stories when they return home. In the face of settler-colonial violence, Palestinians must narrate themselves, and they ask their guests to do the same.

The tourists in Kelly’s Invited to Witness are traveling between two settler colonies: “the United States” and “Israel.” Most of these tourists are themselves settlers. Settlers here is not meant to offend these visitors, especially those traveling when invited or as activists; but I use the term to expose a settler culture that traverses distance, a moving mindset that is always active especially in global travels.

The complexity of solidarity tourism—of inviting people to witness Palestine—arises, according to Kelly, when those visiting reproduce the very characteristics of our colonization in their perceptions: erasure, disbelief, dehumanization, Orientalism, and so on. Kelly criticizes such behavior while also situating and historicizing Palestinian narrations as an already existing critique of colonialism and its reproductions—a multitude of written content that makes touring and sightseeing, even while important, not so necessary as some of these outside witnesses wish to believe.

Here, the most illuminating aspect of Kelly’s book becomes what she herself represents in her study: a cultural translator, a US citizen writing to other “Americans” about the responsibility involved in visiting and writing about Palestine. You cannot just witness it—you have to actively pursue its liberation and reflect it in your actions, scholarship, and your intentional conversations with others.

This is the path of real liberation. Something as banal as a visit to another place is not a simple movement: it needs to be constantly in movement. You come, and you go back, and you continue to move and cross between the two. And you do so until the movement is afforded to everyone, to the millions of Palestinians who live in exile and to the many, many out there we wish to visit us—perhaps constantly, even permanently—in a decolonized Palestine.


Our Siege Is Long

By Esmat Elhalaby

Everyday movements and crossings are not so simple in Palestine. Kelly confirms it, but so does Maryam Griffin in Vehicles of Decolonization.

Here, taxis, buses, and vans (or “Fordaat”) participate in the Palestinians’ collective actions for decolonization and represent—so beautifully and Indigenously—what she identifies as Palestinian spatial knowledge. Griffin finds agency in the choices Palestinian drivers make in charting out their routes and ensuring the safety of their passengers. While Kelly investigates solidarity tourism as a problematic but important practice, Griffin establishes the movement of these vehicles as important but constantly made into problems. The Zionist Occupation and its enforcers infiltrate every aspect of the Palestinians’ everyday lives, such that the daily journey to one’s school or work becomes actual hardship.

I am here reminded of the time I was stopped at a checkpoint for six hours on my return trip to Hebron from work in Ramallah. Waking up as early as four o’clock in the morning and returning as late as ten o’clock at night was a daily war zone ritual. And yet calling it a ritual ascribes a normalcy to it felt and experienced by Palestinians there.

This normalized immobility in Palestine is explored by Griffin, but her illustrations (sometimes of hand-drawn maps the drivers made to show her their routes) move beyond the subject of her book. They are not only about Palestinians using or driving public vehicles, but about Palestinian life and its refusal to stand still—a “collective self-determined mobility,” as Griffin calls it—we are also vehicles of decolonization; we keep moving to stay.

In her social study and movement through everyday life in Palestine, Griffin shows that the colonized are constantly outgrowing their enclosure. I say outgrowing not as mere metaphorical play but to emphasize creativity as part and parcel of Palestinian refusal, life, and resistance. It grows beyond its confines.

Drivers represent a great example of that growth. But Griffin, again, moves us between the literal and figurative, discussing art and communal projects that equally represent rich modes of living and self-determination. These include artists Larissa Sansour’s dystopian short film Nation Estate (2012), where the entirety of the Palestinian population is territorially and vertically housed in a skyscraper; and Mohamed Abusal’s installation A Metro in Gaza (2011), which imagines and maps out an underground subway network in Gaza that connects its cities: not just a detailed map of the imagined metro, but also physical representations on the ground, like erected poles and signs intended to direct and move passersby.

These activities, as Griffin beautifully puts it in her conclusion, altogether represent “a moving map of active decolonization” guided by a motive to maintain our relationship to land. They are “a repertoire of decolonization” or “repertoires of self-determined mobility” and “self-determined presence.”

We, the Palestinians, own the narrative, in all its topographies and timelines. There is no question about it; there are only the creative answers that attest to how we own it with care and with integrity.

These repertoires of decolonization in movement are equally and even more extensively illustrated in Amahl Bishara’s Crossing a Line. Here, defiance—in both the literal and metaphorical act of crossing a line—exemplifies how Palestinians overcome the restricting and fracturing violence of colonization.

Both Griffin and Bishara acknowledge settler colonialism and its technologies of control: namely colonial fragmentations, which they both center the most (as in the fragmenting of land, nation, and family). They also recognize, as storytellers of Palestine, the depth and complexity of Palestinian pain and grief.

Death is centered in Bishara’s tale. Against an oversimplification of resiliency and anticolonial refusal, Bishara does not merely utilize death as proof of our humanity or human right. Rather, death exists in Bishara’s story—and all Palestinian stories—as that which we know how to tell and remember. Commemorating the dead, protesting death, writing about death: all are mobilities and catalysts in Bishara’s perfect representation of Palestine as defiant even in her mourning.

In one instance, she tells us about relatives holding or projecting pictures of their lost loved ones within and outside anniversaries of death. She tells readers about how the basis, the very core, of Palestinian existence is about constantly crossing lines, constantly refusing silence, and always remembering everything fully and respectfully. Like Griffin’s traversing of space, Bishara also traverses time and crosses into the past, present, and imagined future of our existence.

We, the Palestinians, own the narrative, in all its topographies and timelines. There is no question about it; there are only the creative answers that attest to how we own it with care and with integrity.

Against fragmentation, this collective sensibility upsets colonial expectations. In Bishara’s travels across all parts of Palestine, in her interviews with all kinds of Palestinians, in her multimodal analysis of Palestinian expression and activity, and in her crucial perspective as a Palestinian inhabiting multiple places, crossings of all forms always emerge. At their core, such crossings represent principled transgressions that re-member Palestine and its people. Consequently, readers can see how a prison becomes the place where geographically distanced Palestinians are joined, protests become sites of “pleasure” and “intimacy,” hunger strikes are physical liberations, and family separations open room for new kinship networks and a cultural politic of hospitality.

Bishara’s ultimate gift to the reader is a comprehensive story of Palestinian life. To the Palestinian reader, it grows faith in our cause and fortitude. To others, it is an invitation to witness (as Kelly would say): not in the hope of an immediate departures, but to stay with us long enough to learn how to traverse the colonial situation—the thing that makes reality unlivable—and find life again in the company of the joys and pains of others.

Settlement is at the heart of the colonial situation in Palestine, but settlement itself is not always a straightforward movement. Evyn Lê Espiritu Gandhi tells in Archipelago of Resettlement the story of Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in multiple settler colonies: the United States being the most obvious example, but next to that Guåhan and Palestine. Returning us to Kelly’s question of how to move ethically and be in movement, Le Espiritu paints a picture of conflicted belonging, what she calls the refugee settler condition.

Vietnamese refugees were resettled in originally Palestinian places that were forcibly made “Israeli.” Their story unravels the narrative Israel tells of itself: its so-called multiculturalism and humanitarianism is, in reality, an elusive form of ethnic cleansing, attesting to Israel’s constant reliance on uprooting Palestinians and transplanting new settlers.

The number of Vietnamese refugees admitted by the Israeli government does not exceed a few hundred. Moreover, Le Espiritu discusses a historical decrease, with many choosing to leave.

Still, the story of their arrival, conflicted belonging, and their general refusal to identify with the Zionist state signifies important lessons. The most important one proves Palestine’s Indigenous status and its right as the setting for essential revelations. In Kelly, Palestine is a place of gathering and learning; in Griffin, it is a landscape that refuses fragmentation; and, in Bishara, it is an inspired and protruding existence. Le Espiritu shows us that refugees from other places learn how Palestine deserves reverence. It is a place that many are moved into and through, a place one may witness imperfectly, settle violently, but its sanctity screams against all violations.

Le Espiritu is a scholar with a Vietnamese story, writing to those whose refugeehood forced them into complicated places. Archipelago of Resettlement embodies and asserts the only allowable movement in any and all colonized homelands: solidarity, dissent, and never settlement.

Her most precious offering in the book is nước, which in Vietnamese means water but also country and homeland. The convergence of water and land in nước offers us a model of thinking, being, and of being together (as a people and in solidarity with others) that is archipelagic: no disconnect, only extended place. The refugee, like the Indigenous, moves—in defiance of distancing—through a geography that was never disparate, a single archipelago that hold us together without difference.

As I reflect on nước and on these monographs and their authors’ beautiful storytelling, I return to Darwish’s tree and the Palestinian hands that planted them. Our world is not an accessible globe, it is not an open space, it continues to be impaled by colonialisms, borders, and crossings of the bad kind. But the one constant about it is its landness. To cross into its surface, one needs to ask permission, to learn the right story, to tell the right story, and—above all—to commit to acts of good creation. Death continues to hover in the margin of this metaphor.

But, as Palestinians know well, even death is not a real boundary. We thrive with and beyond it. Like Palestine and its people, we hold it in our hands and let it bloom and weep and speak its truth. icon

  1. From Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “ʿan alsũmūd” (“On resiliency”), originally published in his 1964 poetry collection awrāq alzaytũn (Leaves of Olive Trees). The cited two lines open the poem.
This article was commissioned by A. Naomi Paik and Catherine S. Ramírez. Featured image: A 1915 photograph of an olive grove in Palestine, from the Library of Congress / G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection.