"We Have to Rethink the Concept of Identity"

In her novel, "Love beyond the Ocean", Aida Nasrallah explores the complex identity of Palestinians living in Israel. Martina Sabra met with the Israeli-Palestinian writer and artist on her reading tour in Germany

Aida Nasrallah (photo: &copy Kover Publishers)
Aida Nasrallah

​​A Palestinian author sits on the balcony of a flat in the centre of Tel Aviv and can hardly believe it: her Jewish host went to work and told her to close the door behind her when she finished breakfast. "They left me, the Palestinian, 'a suspicious object', alone in the flat with all their secrets! As if they wished to prove something to that hate-filled Sharon".

This short inner monologue is a key scene in the semi-autobiographical novel "Love beyond the Ocean" (written in Arabic, translated so far into Hebrew and German) by Aida Nasrallah. Relaxing on the balcony of friends as a subversive act – such snapshot moments reveal what absurd situations arise when religious affiliation is considered to be more important than the individual person.

A life with contradictions

Aida Nasrallah writes not only with a sharp tongue and humour, it is also how she copes with her everyday life, which is characterised by numerous absurdities. Born in 1956 in the Israeli city Umm Al Fahm, the art historian and peace activist is one of the approximately 1.4 million Palestinians with an Israeli passport. Aida Nasrallah lives with contradictions: she wants the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza to have self-determination, but would never move there herself. She loves Palestinian culture and particularly the Palestinian sense of family, but at the same time vehemently criticises patriarchy, conservativism, and the bigotry that exists in parts of Palestinian society.

The writer is aware of the complexity of her situation. Yet she refuses to see this complexity only as a problem.

​​"We have to rethink the concept of identity, for the concept of and need for identity are being politically misused," explains Nasrallah. "Everyone has several identities. Even the Palestinian identity is multi-layered." Palestinians, emphasises Nasrallah, can redefine themselves only when Jews question their positions.

For many years Aida Nasrallah – as an artist, a writer, and a feminist – has actively campaigned for both sides to rethink their attitudes, for Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle East to enter into dialogue with one another instead of erecting higher and higher real and imaginary walls. She has participated in various Jewish-Arab art initiatives, among others, with film maker Allon Hanania.

Growing fusion of religion and politics

The project that has had the most impact on her personally was an international writer programme in the USA in autumn 2001, in which Jewish-Israeli writer Etgar Keret and Palestinian lyric poet Ghassan Zaqtan from Ramallah participated along with her. With the events of September 11, the violent seizure of land in the occupied territories, and the terrorist acts against Israeli civilians, the three became closer than could ever have been possible in Israel. They comforted each other after the suicide bombs in Tel Aviv and the Israeli bombardments in the West Bank.

Excerpts from this period Aida Nasrallah has worked into her book "Love beyond the Ocean": "I believe that this experience must somehow be recorded. This small co-existence that we experienced – this must be carried out to the world."

One important commonality that this Middle East trio shared was antipathy toward the growing fusion of religion and politics, religion and state in Israel and Palestine. Aida Nasrallah has directly experienced for years how the influence of Islamist groups in her hometown Umm Al Fahm has grown stronger and restricted cultural life. In the novel "Love beyond the Ocean" frustration over the political appropriation of Islam is perceptible. During a visit to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the fourth most important sanctum for Muslims worldwide, the protagonist allows her imagination free play:

"I imagine that our Prophet Mohammed walks out of his grave and calls: Who convinced you that you had to fight for this rock on my behalf? It doesn't interest me any more!"

Not religion is the measure, but alone the individual person. Aida Nasrallah wants to promote this fundamental humanist principle in her books. But she doesn't feel the need to influence politics. It is enough for her to provoke thought. "I am not an institution. I do not believe that I can change the world. But I can live up to my responsibility to myself, to my friends whom I love. Love should at least prevail among us."

Martina Sabra

© Qantara.de 2008

Aida Nasrallah: Jenseits des Ozeans. Roman Kovar Verlag, München 2008. Translated into German from Hebrew by Helene Seidler.

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce


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