Essay: Yumna Kassabon the potency of symbols

The Rooster and the Watermelon

The Death of Edward Said  

I remember where I was when Edward Said died.
           I was in a neuropsychology tutorial and upon seeing my face, a classmate asked me what was wrong. 
           I tried to explain to her who Said was and what he meant. I could not articulate my ideas properly and she ended up telling me that people in countries such as ours had no business commenting on events in the Middle East.
           I thought of Said throwing a rock from the south of Lebanon, an act he said was symbolic, and how he was denounced anyway. 
           In a massive clear out, I donated so many of his books, but I returned to him in July this year. I refer to The Edward Said Reader and now I pore over the interview at the back.  
           It is from 1999 and I wonder what questions I would ask him if he were alive today. Are the questions any different and would his answers differ from what he’s said before? 
           I have questions for him, questions articulated, questions written, questions I have carried since the news of his death in 2003.  
           Edward, how did we get to this? And how are we to find a way forth amid the rubble and suffering?  

Political Prisoners and Medical Treats   

I began to read Eduardo Galeano in 2020 at the recommendation of a friend from Uruguay. I learnt Open Veins from Latin America was a precious possession Isabel Allende took with her when she fled the dictatorship of Pinochet. Banned by so many dictators, it still somehow fell into the hands of political prisoners. Guards allowed the book, thinking it a medical text, before realising the gravity of their mistake.
           Galeano said that to understand a conflict you have to know who is supplying the weapons and who is making money. 
           Later in life, he would speak about Palestine, dedicating his words to Jewish friends murdered by dictatorships backed by Israel.  

Exiles, Diaspora, Abroad 

There is a hierarchy of identity, a party game of who wins the title of most authentic Arab in the room.                  
People born in Arab countries and who can speak the language fluently – extra points for reading and writing – are designated automatic winners over Arabs born abroad. 
           It can become a situation of trying to out-Arab each other, a subject I consider in a story titled ‘100 Points of Identity’. Points are allocated for language, dress, food, experience, the objective being to achieve 100 points in order to be issued an identity passport. 
I consider the subject of Palestine, especially questioning the role of Arabs abroad. In an interview, Luisa Valenzuela was asked about the writers, like her, who left Argentina during the dictatorship. Wouldn’t it have been better, more authentic, for Valenzuela to have stayed in Argentina to write? 
She said no, that the ones who remained were too terrified to write, and it fell to the writers abroad to get out the word about the horrors back home. 
One might be tempted to participate in activities around ‘100 Points of Identity’, but it is useful to remember the borders we have are recent, we are all of us Arabs, and, each in their own way, to get the message out.

Disputing the Bodies of 1982

I was researching Sabra and Shatila recently.              
           There is a reference to this massacre in my book Politica. It is in four words, small enough to be missed. 
Apparently there is a dispute over the number of the dead. The massacred may count as low as a 300 or as high as 3,000. 
I wonder how there can be a dispute about the dead. Is the dispute over bodies inside the camp versus those outside? Or is the distinction between the ‘massacred dead’ and the ‘regular dead’? Does one side say 300 and the other 3,000? Or is this another instance of discounting the lives of Arabs and the violence in which they are killed?  
I am not sure how there can be a dispute over how many people were slaughtered by Christian militia as the Israeli soldiers watched. 
           On the current list of boycott targets, there is an Israeli hummus brand called Sabra. I ponder the use of this name and if it is possible to eat this Israeli hummus and not think of the Sabra and Shatila dead? 

Words like Genocide 

Certain words have become prominent in my vocabulary.            
           They are not words I say easily and I hope one day they can fade from use because there’s no need for them and they belong to humanity’s terrible past. 
One such word is genocide 
Do we wait for the genocide to happen, all the bodies stacked in a pyramid, before we cry the word out? 
Or do we use the word pre-emptively in order to ward off the dark?  
I think about the disputed bodies of Sabra and Shatila, the disputed strikes on hospitals, the disputed killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, the disputed use of genocide 
Javier Mileu, the recently elected far-right president of Argentina, disputes the number of his country’s disappeared. He disputes how many people were pushed out of planes over the Rio de la Plata, how many were tortured in view of the stadium where Argentina hosted the 1978 World Cup.   
And as we split hairs over the dead and dispute the use of genocide, are we calmly waiting to catalogue the deaths in the coming years, a retrospective horror because we prefer to believe it’s business as normal and keep the word genocide off your tongue? 
Interesting fact: Javier Milei is an ardent supporter of Israel, as is Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil and a celebrator of dictatorships. 

Palestine vs. the Socceroos 

It is late on a school night. 
           I am awake to watch the Socceroos and Palestine. This is only the second time I have seen Palestine play. 
In 2014, I travelled to Newcastle for Palestine’s match against Japan. I told myself I was going to be neutral, even as I made sure I had my keffiyeh in the car. I was neutral on the drive there, neutral arriving in the stadium, neutral as I spoke to my friend, neutral until Palestine walked onto the field. 
And then I asked myself how can I be neutral about the flag carried by this team? 
Now it is the Socceroos and Palestine, and I think of all the obstacles the world has placed before the Palestinian players, and yet they are here, like a miracle, like a dream. 
There they are with their flag, their anthem, representing Palestine, Palestine said over and over by the commentator – Palestine the word, Palestine the place, Palestine and its people – despite all the pressure bearing down to teach us that Palestine does not exist. 
Palestine faces us, and I realise that I would support them against any other team. For the next ninety minutes, Palestine, you are here, I am with you, and it does not matter what happens because it is a triumph already, and I’m lost somewhere between delirium and tears.  

Keffiyeh is a Silent Word  

My grandfather wears a keffiyeh in all my memories. A head covering for the men working on the land, the keffiyeh has become a symbol of something else.  
           In V for Vendetta, people wear a mask to protest, as a way to transcend themselves and to make a statement against the powers of the world.  
What is unsettling in our current chapter is not that once again Arabs are wearing keffiyehs, but that the symbol has been taken up by non-Arabs as well. At a glance, it is a statement against pressure, against censorship, against crushing brutality. 
What is unsettling the system now is that the keffiyeh has become mainstream and, through its donning, silence has found a way to speak. So bless the people who wear it, because in a peaceful manner, they have found a way to resist.  

Becoming an Arab  

When does one become an Arab?            
           Simone de Beauvoir wrote that one is not born a woman but becomes one. 
Leïla Slimani said she became an Arab when she moved to France. 
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote that she became Black in America.  
A relative told me that Muslim women began to cover their hair as the Lebanese Civil War split along religious lines.  
When exactly does one become an Arab? 
Perhaps it is when they are massacred freely and we are told to take our medicine quietly because crying out is a disturbance to the peace. 

The Rooster and the Watermelon  

Out of his many great books, I particularly love two by Gabriel García Márquez. 
           The first is Clandestine in Chile, which recounts a mission by the exiled Chilean director, Miguel Littín, in 1985. An undercover Littín travels to Chile to document life under the Pinochet dictatorship. His movement in his country is covert, requiring a fake identity, complete with a pretend wife. This book is a reminder that the stakes for the simple act of documentation are very high. 
           My other favourite is The Scandal of the Century. In one of the essays, García Márquez is told by his son the symbolism of the rooster in No One Writes to the Colonel. His son explains to him that the rooster has another meaning as elaborated by his teacher at school.
           In response, the writer says: no, the rooster is really just a rooster. Ordinarily I would agree that the rooster is just a rooster, but right now the watermelon is something else.  

Watermelon as Sustenance 

What is to sustain us now? 
           It is art that defines, explains, reflects, educates, questions, interprets; art that protests, analyses and imagines; art that speaks with vision; art that protects and banishes; art as humanity that never neglects a child’s cry. 
           What is to sustain me now? 
           It is art as symbol because the truth is difficult to speak. 

Keys and Symbols 

There are many buried layers to these words, and I wish to illuminate them because literature is my community, and to every writer I’ve ever read, I owe a little debt. 

1) To understand the world in its current incarnation, I have turned to symbols and fairy tales. Each symbol firms the ground, and my thanks here are to the writings of Clarissa Pinkola Éstes. She says we are made for these times. It is a hopeful thought and I want to believe she is right. 

2) The reference to Leïla Slimani is from The Scent of Flowers at Night.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about race in The Atlantic, while Simone de Beauvoir’s words are from The Second Sex.  

3) On the use of the word genocide and others, I refer to Rabea Eghbariah’s article ‘The Ongoing Nakba: A Legal Perspective on Palestine’ and Francesca Albanese’s address to the National Press Club of Australia.  

4) Miguel Littín created a documentary called Clandestino in Chile. Gabriel García Márquez’s book is about the making of the documentary in 1985.  

5) Club Deportivo Palestino is a football club that plays in the Chilean first division. It was founded in 1920 by Palestinian immigrants. The colours of the team are red, black, white, and green. 

6) In fiction, I believe the rooster is mostly a rooster. Right now, I require symbols that allow for interpretation. Ones that are helpful include:  

The emperor’s new clothes: it has always been dangerous to call out the emperor’s naked state. Do we wait now for the dead children to speak? 

Bluebeard: the slaughter and violence is underway. Though we may wish to pretend otherwise, what’s seen can’t be unseen. 

The damsel in distress: she says she’s in danger, thus unleashing the might of empire by crying her tears. I use here the interpretation of Ruby Hamad in her book White Tears, Brown Scars.  

The keffiyeh and the watermelon: we use the range of peaceful methods available to us to continue to protest and resist.