The Triumph of Love and the Palestinian Revolution

16 May, 2021
1974 vin­tage Pales­tin­ian poster, designed by Rafeik Sharaf, pub­lished by the Pop­u­lar Front for the Lib­er­a­tion of Pales­tine (PFLP) show­ing the styl­ized image of a horse and an auto­mat­ic rifle set against a deep red sun­set with Ara­bic scrip­tures which read: Advanc­ing the rev­o­lu­tion, through weapons and thought, in pur­suit of lib­er­a­tion and socialism.

 

Spelling out the ABCs of the Palestinian Revolution to Come: The Case of Susan Abulhawa’s Against the Loveless World

Against the Love­less World, a nov­el by Susan Abulhawa 
Atria Books (2021)
ISBN 9781982137038

 

Fouad Mami

 

Against the Love­less World by Susan Abul­hawa was The Markaz Review Book­Group selec­tion for June 2021. The group Zoomed togeth­er for a dis­cus­sion on Sun­day, June 27, 2021.

Against the Love­less World is Susan Abul­hawa’s third nov­el. Her Morn­ings in Jenin (2010) and The Blue Between Sky and Water (2015) read as accel­er­a­tors towards this third. Here, Abul­hawa spells out the ABCs of the Pales­tin­ian rev­o­lu­tion to come. Read­ers do not encounter the ter­ror-strick­en Yousef of the first nov­el, nor the psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly-dam­aged Nur of the sec­ond. In this book, one can­not get enough of Nahr (riv­er in Ara­bic) if only because she is a volup­tuous dancer. Nahr is not a sec­ondary char­ac­ter as with, for instance, Epic of Gil­gamesh. Instead, Nahr stays le réac­teur con­cep­tu­al of rev­o­lu­tion­ary change, but — and this remains her dis­tin­guish­ing fea­ture — she does not attribute any nar­cis­sist role to her own per­son. There are sev­er­al instances where read­ers real­ize that Nahr is not even aware that her actions and inac­tions incar­nate the rev­o­lu­tion. As there exists no script from which to fol­low, it is her being that meta­mor­phizes to essence and, that in turn, organ­i­cal­ly devel­ops to a con­cept for the imag­ined rev­o­lu­tion. Nahr embod­ies in absolute cer­tain­ty the man­ner in which a rev­o­lu­tion becomes irre­versible. Only when the would-be rev­o­lu­tion­ary dances erot­i­cal­ly does life itself become incen­di­ary and all poten­tial for social renew­al emerges as a possibility.

Read­ers meet first Nahr incar­cer­at­ed in the cube, a high-tech secu­ri­ty facil­i­ty that tar­gets the detainees’ self-trust by imping­ing on them “…time­less, non­time…” (184), the ahis­tor­i­cal exis­tence char­ac­ter­is­tic of mere sub­sis­tence. The cube stands for an onto­log­i­cal con­di­tion that involves zero agency and aims to impair that which the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry Ger­man philoso­pher Georg Wil­helm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) calls “knowl­edge of the absolute.” The cube, both the lit­er­al and metaphor­i­cal, sets that struc­ture aim­ing to deny access to cer­ti­tudes; it instan­ti­ates the Orwellian con­cept of Big Broth­er who fan­ta­sizes about the quelling of all sub­ver­sive thoughts. But whether or not the jail­ers suc­ceed in their plans to erad­i­cate thoughts of rev­o­lu­tion remains uncer­tain, to say the least.

She nar­rates her exile from the begin­ning, in pre-1990 Kuwait City. A large Pales­tin­ian com­mu­ni­ty is build­ing the city. At nine­teen, Nahr mar­ries Mham­mad (sic); the lat­ter arrives in the city after a con­di­tion­al release from Israeli pris­ons with pre­sum­ably unmatched cre­den­tials as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. That explains why he is a celebri­ty among Pales­tin­ian girls in Kuwait. Because he is a homo­sex­u­al, Mham­mad can­not rec­on­cile with his strict gen­der expec­ta­tions and painful­ly leaves Nahr. Her fam­i­ly’s main sup­port­er, Nahr now takes var­i­ous odd jobs until she meets Um Buraq in a wed­ding par­ty. An Iraqi mar­ried to a dis­grun­tled Kuwaiti, Um Buraq is enchant­ed with Nahr’s danc­ing and adds her to a team of pros­ti­tutes in an under­ground broth­el for rich khal­i­ji cus­tomers. The night Sad­dam Hus­sein invades Kuwait, Nahr and two oth­er girls are enter­tain­ing sadis­tic Sau­di emirs; under the influ­ence of nar­cotics the lat­ter turn out to be extreme­ly abu­sive. With the Iraqi occu­pa­tion under­way, the emirs are sum­mar­i­ly exe­cut­ed, show­cas­ing poet­ic justice.

With the lib­er­a­tion of Kuwait, Pales­tini­ans become overnight per­son­ae non gratae in a coun­try they helped build from the sands. Nahr’s fam­i­ly mem­bers find them­selves start­ing over again in Amman, refugees who are thrice-removed from home in a sin­gle life­time. Under the Oslo Accords of 1993, Nahr is final­ly con­vinced to vis­it the West Bank to ter­mi­nate her divorce papers and, why not, remar­ry, that is, restart her life put on a stand­still by Mham­mad’s sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance. Mham­mad’s both­er, Bilal, facil­i­tates the daunt­ing pro­ce­dures but slow­ly, Nahr becomes enmeshed in Bilal’s secret work flow. She dis­cov­ers, nev­er with­out a cost though, that on the sur­face of docil­i­ty, under­ground groups from mul­ti­ple Arab vil­lages form autonomous resis­tance cells to Israeli occu­pa­tion. By the time she earns these under­ground activists’ trust, Nahr becomes part of Bilal’s unit and helps orga­nize sev­er­al painful blows against near­by Israeli set­tle­ments. In con­se­quence, she serves an 18-year prison term. This explains how read­ers encounter Nahr in the cube ear­ly in the nov­el. Exchanged in a swap­ping deal, read­ers meet her in clos­ing in Amman. The proof of her self-con­fi­dence (knowl­edge of the absolute) stay­ing intact and that the incar­cer­a­tion has been of lit­tle effect in shak­ing that trust is when she tracks Bilal, she resists the urge to reunite pub­licly as he still fig­ures on Israel’s want­ed list.

The nov­el­’s world is far rich­er than the details of its plot. If Karl Marx’s call for com­mu­nism, rev­o­lu­tion, his dis­po­si­tion against the state and mon­ey or his his­tori­cist approach seem too abstract, Nahr’s choic­es facil­i­tate the recep­tion of what is inten­tion­al­ly tagged as super­flu­ous abstrac­tions. Through her actions and choic­es, Nahr explains com­mu­nism bet­ter than the finest pro­fes­sor in the finest insti­tu­tion. To begin with, the choice of the name, Nahr, very like­ly reads as a trib­ute to Rosa Lux­em­burg, the rad­i­cal Pol­ish-Ger­man com­mu­nist and co-founder of the anti-war Spar­ta­cus League who was killed and whose body was thrown in Berlin’s riv­er (Landwehr Canal) fol­low­ing the abor­tion of her move­ment at the end of the World War I. Through Nahr, Abul­hawa choos­es to cap­i­tal­ize on Lux­em­burg’s splen­did lega­cy as a mar­tyr of anoth­er rev­o­lu­tion from anoth­er time where oth­er wretched-of-the-earth built a bar­ri­cade and chal­lenged, how­ev­er briefly, cap­i­tal­ist aggres­sion. When bour­geois press bom­bas­ti­cal­ly declared that “Order Pre­vails in Berlin” in ear­ly Jan­u­ary 1919, Lux­em­burg repacked the exact words to title her last arti­cle ever in order to announce: “I was, I am, I shall be!” It is a state­ment that direct­ly speaks and res­onates with Nahr’s over­all experience.

“…they slow­ly learn to make love because they engage in the rev­o­lu­tion. And they engage in the rev­o­lu­tion because they make love. The fusion of their two bod­ies is nev­er an arith­metic addi­tion of one plus one equals two. Instead, it is an addi­tion that taps into the infi­nite because it breaks all enclo­sures and all alien­ations, open­ing the way for uni­ver­sal emancipation. ”

With that rich com­mu­nard back­ground, Nahr embod­ies Marx’s Gat­tung­we­sen, the life of men and women free from alien­ation. She incar­nates the onto­log­i­cal vibra­tion of the pri­mor­dial tra­di­tion pre­dom­i­nant before the Neolith­ic Rev­o­lu­tion. Read­ers dis­cov­er that the com­mu­nism of the future that Marx proph­e­sies can be no dif­fer­ent than the way Nahr, Bilal, Samar, Jumana, Ghas­san, Wadee and Faisal (the small rev­o­lu­tion­ary cell) live with or with­out occu­pa­tion over them. Before resort­ing to the armed strug­gle, they are cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly clear that the rev­o­lu­tion is the way they chal­lenge their soci­ety’s sed­i­ment­ed gen­der roles and arbi­trary sanc­tions of moral­i­ty. Bilal facil­i­tates her self-accep­tance, dri­ving her out from the closed space, that which alter­na­tive­ly would remain a fix­a­tion on an unkind past of whore­dom. Even­tu­al­ly, they slow­ly learn to make love because they engage in the rev­o­lu­tion. And they engage in the rev­o­lu­tion because they make love. The fusion of their two bod­ies is nev­er an arith­metic addi­tion of one plus one equals two. Instead, it is an addi­tion that taps into the infi­nite because it breaks all enclo­sures and all alien­ations, open­ing the way for uni­ver­sal eman­ci­pa­tion. That fusion under­lines a rad­i­cal lumi­nos­i­ty of their respec­tive bod­ies, allow­ing the simul­ta­ne­ous unleash­ing of love and rev­o­lu­tion effort­less­ly. That fusion zooms in on the exact and log­i­cal chain reac­tion from the com­mon­sen­si­cal dic­tum, triv­i­al­ized under cap­i­tal­ism to sig­ni­fy a non-engag­ing adage, “I love you.” Pre­cise­ly, Bilal and Nahr’s type of fusion seeks to recov­er the buried rad­i­cal his­to­ry in the ety­mol­o­gy of the word ‘love’ sig­ni­fy­ing: grow­ing up or expand­ing. Being the pri­ma­ry form of the divine, ‘my love’ can­not be dif­fer­ent from the essence of ‘my essen­tial­i­ty’, the door to ‘my uni­ver­sal’ his­to­ry and the only ele­ment that guar­an­tees ‘my ver­ti­cal­i­ty’. There­fore, ‘my love’ trans­lates the auto-move­ment of the world, the loco­mo­tive which dri­ves his­to­ry. Oth­er than out­lin­ing sub­stance or incar­na­tion of being, love also directs the lover for his or her destiny.

Inter­est­ing­ly still, Nahr and Bilal’s group’s anti-sta­tist log­ic does not waver before either Israel, the Pales­tin­ian Author­i­ty, Jor­dan or Kuwait. Any state, they find, is the cod­i­fi­ca­tion of reifi­ca­tion end­ing in a pornoc­ra­cy, that is, in a life of per­pet­u­al hor­i­zon­tal­i­ty. Before it is a feat in metal­lic-and-con­crete engi­neer­ing, the cube is one mode of pro­duc­tion imposed with­out an open dis­cus­sion over qual­i­ta­tive­ly bet­ter modes of pro­duc­tion. And Nahr has repeat­ed­ly tast­ed state log­ics first hand. She notes how it cor­rupts human exchanges and stands behind the ghet­toiza­tion into frat­ri­ci­dal faiths and war­ring nations.

With the lib­er­a­tion of Kuwait, the state failed to reboot the bank­ing sys­tem, and in order to with­draw any sum from her own account, Nahr has the “choice” to either wait in line for impos­si­bly long queues or pros­ti­tute her­self. With coer­cion this acute, read­ers seize the sense of how much of a choice she is left with. She needs to quick­ly pro­cure large sums to fend off evic­tion from her place and palm oil cor­rupt state offi­cials in order to release her broth­er Jehad from an arbi­trary arrest and tor­ture. This explains how she approach­es an ex-cus­tomer Abu Moathe. Not­ing Nahr’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, he rapes her with impuni­ty nowhere but in his office, adding salt to injury by bel­low­ing: “This is what Pales­tini­ans are good for. Cheap labor and cheap whores. We buy and sell peo­ple like you here.” (100) The ‘We’ here is the imma­nent log­ic of the state. Nahr has been remind­ed by human right agents and lawyers that the author­i­ties know her broth­er is inno­cent, but brib­ing them is the only law that guar­an­tees his release. Still, here lies the ele­ment that crys­tal­izes the read­ers’ under­stand­ing that any state by default, not by acci­dent, feasts on the weak and thrives on pros­ti­tut­ing them.

Inter­est­ing­ly though is how dur­ing the short win­dow spac­ing the Iraqi occu­pa­tion and Amer­i­can “lib­er­a­tion” (August 1990-Jan­u­ary 1991), Nahr wit­ness­es first-hand how mon­ey is a com­mod­i­ty fetishism, the gate to exploita­tion and to freez­ing frigid­i­ty in human rela­tions. Through Nahr’s expe­ri­ence read­ers real­ize that peo­ple can­not own mon­ey. Instead, it is mon­ey that owns humans, spelling out the fact that humans are increas­ing­ly becom­ing impo­tent, a mass of walk­ing dead or thanatos. Read­ers find that the tel­e­van­ge­list Abu Nass­er insists on vis­it­ing Nahr dur­ing her peri­ods just to sniff her filthy panties. Filth­i­er panties trans­late to bet­ter pay! (59) Soon when he is done with his grat­i­fi­ca­tion, he starts cry­ing, berat­ing Nahr for tempt­ing him! Sim­i­lar­ly, Abu Moathe, the bank branch man­ag­er, can­not have his sadis­tic stim­u­la­tion with­out act­ing rape scenes with screams and bruis­es all over Nahr’s body. (60) Vary­ing between the depres­sive and the sadis­tic, Nahr notes that the two pil­lars of cap­i­tal­ism vis­it­ing her bed are numbed to basic con­cepts, barred from ele­men­tal human feel­ings such as ten­der­ness and love. They are not only momen­tar­i­ly inca­pable but for­ev­er blocked from expe­ri­enc­ing gen­uine love, explain­ing why they are per­verts. Dri­ven by the delu­sion that their mon­ey enti­tles them to as much love as they fan­cy, they over­look the com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion of their life, ush­ered in by plac­ing a price tag on that which is price­less. Hence, how they nev­er access true joy or émer­veille­ment. Mon­ey only helps the likes of Abu Nass­er and Abu Moathe agi­tate to mere­ly fill in the empti­ness of their solitudes.

Con­trast this sit­u­a­tion with the way in which Nahr and Bilal make love. When no mon­ey is involved, love is nev­er an addi­tion of two soli­tudes seek­ing to dis­tress. Rather, it is a sub­stance incar­nat­ed, a mul­ti­pli­ca­tion whose lim­it is the sky, hence how they both sub­scribe to the rev­o­lu­tion. Bilal and Nahr show read­ers that the act of love is not only the human species’ gift but also their des­tiny, one which can nev­er be processed by the law of val­ue. And while that law has degen­er­at­ed lit­er­al­ly all spaces and tem­po­ral­i­ties, it still can nev­er viti­ate love, pro­vid­ed that love is true. Love, thus, becomes a ter­ri­ble force of resis­tance, and that is why mon­ey drains humans’ des­tiny for uni­ver­sal­i­ty. Thus, it becomes evi­dent that cap­i­tal aims at dis­solv­ing love in order to con­trol and enslave humans. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary work is thus a sto­ry of love; for when Jen­ny died, Marx fol­lowed soon. Abul­hawa’s audi­ences may want to recall that scene in Titan­ic (1997) where Jack Daw­son declares to Rose DeWitt Bukater: “You jump, I jump”, a state­ment that evolves into a dic­tum. For in the absence of my beloved, I can­not see the point from me car­ry­ing out liv­ing. That is how love finds its incar­na­tion in oppos­ing thanatos, or dead labor, dom­i­na­tion and the vam­p­i­riza­tion of human rela­tions to the law of value.

Now with infla­tion esca­lat­ing like wild­fire, most mem­o­rably, dur­ing the Iraqi inva­sion, all res­i­dents of Kuwait reclaim com­mu­nism almost in a reboot mode. That brief expe­ri­ence undid the ghet­toiza­tion into Kuwait­is, Iraqis and Pales­tini­ans. Read­ers find “Despite the uncer­tain­ty, peo­ple social­ized with­out the weight of finan­cial respon­si­bil­i­ties. … No one was poor. No one was rich. We just were. And we shared. We ate. We drank. We laughed. We danced. We cried. We dreamed and imag­ined a bet­ter world.” (88) The wretched of the earth learnt that in the absence of both a state and mon­ey, human rela­tion­ships just blos­som. The com­bi­na­tion of incer­ti­tude and fear from an uncer­tain tomor­row leaves all peo­ple in the same boat, turn­ing the sense­less accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal into an anachro­nis­tic per­ver­sion. There­fore, the first step toward any strug­gle against slav­ery has to start with abol­ish­ing the state and mon­ey. Again, even when Nahr does not artic­u­late it explic­it­ly in this way, she still gives the read­er enough food for thought to exam­ine how the divi­sion of labor cor­rob­o­rates into the insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of mon­ey (via a state) as the only mode of exchange, mask­ing the enslav­ing log­ic there­of, the one that keeps servi­tude intact, even when enslavers change. The num­ber of hard­ships and coer­cions Nahr endured after the lib­er­a­tion of Kuwait stands as a glar­ing reminder that mon­ey is but a fetish.

“The Icon,” 2011, por­trait of Leila Khaled com­posed from 3,500 lip­sticks by Pales­tin­ian artist Amer Shoma­li, b. 1981 (cour­tesy of the artist).

Equal­ly impor­tant in Against a Love­less World is its pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with how rev­o­lu­tion, that incen­di­ary logos, emerges. Read­ers note that Nahr was not par­tic­u­lar­ly smart at school, while her broth­er Jehad was. Still in the camp of alien­ation then, she invests heav­i­ly in her broth­er’s edu­ca­tion by putting mon­ey aside to fund his grad­u­ate stud­ies, hop­ing against hope he would become a sur­geon or a pilot and thus will one day lift the fam­i­ly from the dregs of black mis­ery. All such plans — the ones read­ers too take for grant­ed — went to naught as cir­cum­stances proved that self­ish plans for lift­ing mis­ery not only mis­er­ably fail but are ide­o­log­i­cal­ly imposed to divert atten­tion from the true evil. The sto­ry smooth­ly leads its audi­ences to real­ize that either one has to enlist in a larg­er scheme for lift­ing mis­ery or remains for­ev­er con­demned to a gen­er­al­ized pornoc­ra­cy. Indeed, that fail­ure of Nahr’s ini­tial plan to give Jehad the edu­ca­tion she thinks he deserves makes per­fect his­tor­i­cal sense when giv­en the Hegelian stance against intel­lec­tu­als and their pre­sumed mis­sion or capac­i­ty to play their “expect­ed” role as van­guards and awak­en­ers of the mul­ti­tudes. Alter­na­tive­ly, those who car­ry out rev­o­lu­tion­ary work, accord­ing to the nov­el­’s imma­nent log­ic, are pre­cise­ly those who are not brain­washed or whose logos has not been drained by for­mal edu­ca­tion. Dif­fer­ent­ly put, rev­o­lu­tion­ary work is nev­er a cere­bral under­tak­ing; it is rather a bod­i­ly pas­sion. That explains why rev­o­lu­tion­ary work remains under the dic­ta­tor­ship of the law of val­ue an inex­plain­able mys­tery. For “…wretched­ness can­not be con­quered by the indi­vid­ual through intel­lec­tu­al means,” (Engels 1847, 62) Gen­uine rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies sim­ply can­not be oth­er­wise. They just emerge from the most dis­en­fran­chised sec­tions, the most abused and the least sus­cep­ti­ble to sedi­tion. As a phe­nom­e­non, rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies sub­scribe to the Hegelian axiom under­ly­ing that essence always stands at odds with appear­ance. Seiz­ing this under­stand­ing remains trou­ble­some, in the Arab world and beyond. The pre­dom­i­nate line is the cul­tur­al­ists’ where in order for a rev­o­lu­tion to emerge peo­ple need first and fore­most a men­tal leap, a rad­i­cal break or une coupure épsité­mologique with so-called out­mod­ed prac­tices and habits. But if she has bit­ter­ly teased her Israeli jail­ers, it is pre­cise­ly in con­se­quence of the fact that Nahr is not even aware that she is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary, nev­er because she decid­ed to wake up one morn­ing and effect a break from what­ev­er past. Bilal con­fides: “You, more than any one of us, are a rev­o­lu­tion­ary, and the irony is that you don’t even see it.” (186)

All in all, the proof for Nahr’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary approach becom­ing self-evi­dent for all to seize tran­spires the instant she stopped shy­ing away from her past as a pros­ti­tute. Still, not shy­ing is in nev­er equiv­a­lent to bran­dish­ing that past. Rather, it is in spite of that past, per­fect­ly under­stand­able with the log­ic of unde­sir­able refugees (cheap labor) in the Gulf, that she was able to reflect back on her con­di­tion, a reflec­tion that announces her agency as a his­tor­i­cal sub­ject. Seiz­ing the capac­i­ty for reflec­tion marks the emer­gence of a rad­i­cal con­scious­ness, the one that active­ly seeks to reverse the col­lec­tive mis­for­tune. Her incen­di­ary logos recalls the Chris­t­ian con­cept of la femme adultère or the adul­ter­ess who came under Christ’s pro­tec­tion from judg­men­tal and degen­er­ate Jews. Only via Nahr’s pros­ti­tu­tion, read­ers learn to crys­tal­ize the ini­tial sense-cer­tain­ty that if they stand­by watch­ing or judg­ing or both, they can only qual­i­fy as coun­ter­rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies no mat­ter how much they think grandiose­ly of them­selves. She sur­pris­es mem­bers of the cell by dis­clos­ing: “What’s tru­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary in this world is to relin­quish the belief that you have a right to an opin­ion about who anoth­er per­son choos­es to fuck and why.” (182) Here is a feat of the­o­ret­i­cal genius where Abul­hawa rede­fines the rev­o­lu­tion — the con­cept — to sig­ni­fy abstain­ing from feel­ing good about one­self by pros­e­lyt­ing virtue out­side of space and time.

In clos­ing, Nahr forces com­par­isons with both Zoulikha Bent Chaib in Assia Dje­bar’s La femme sans sépul­ture (1976) and Hajj Khaled in Ibrahim Nas­ral­lah’s Time of White Hors­es (2017). All three have been coerced by pros­ti­tu­tion in one form or anoth­er and emerge tri­umphant thanks to their rev­o­lu­tion­ary stance. How­ev­er, hatred for oppo­nents fails to moti­vate these three. Unsur­pris­ing­ly and almost as with Sufis, they lack per­son­al ene­mies. With the three, read­ers attune their life force to the ances­tral breath of the hunter-gath­er­er. As Nahr admires the curves shap­ing her breasts, tor­so and hips (rev­el­ing in her Dasein), read­ers may not over­look the par­al­lel of those curves with the hunter’s arch. Both acti­vate the same sacral (not sacred) breath. In hit­ting the prey, the hunter seeks sus­te­nance, not prof­it. Read­ers close Against the Love­less World ever con­vinced that a love­less life is not worth liv­ing. This sen­tence should be read dialec­ti­cal­ly, that is, in con­nec­tion with how Abul­hawa chal­lenges Socrates’ max­im of a thought­less life is not worth liv­ing, plac­ing empha­sis on the body instead of the mind in pri­or­i­tiz­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary work. Ever more con­crete­ly, bib­lio­philes can­not miss the author’s insight that who­ev­er can­not dance can­not even begin qual­i­fy­ing as a revolutionary.

 

communismHegelIsraelJordanKuwaitloveMarxPalestinepornocracyReviewrevolution

Fouad Mami is a literature scholar from Algeria. An Africanist by training, his field of interest lies at the crossroads between North and West African along with the larger Mediterranean literatures and arts. Over the last few years, he has published not a small number of essays with some reputable journals such as Postcolonial Studies, The Journal of North African Studies, Mediterranean Politics among others.