Contributors Fargo Tbakhi and N.A. Mansour join staff editor Rasha Abdulhadi to share reflections about palestinian art and writing, the speculative register, what lineages they draw nourishment from, and what they long for from future feasts.
What is the palestinian speculative to you? What do you pay attention to when you attend to the palestinian speculative—whether in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, art, film, history, politics, hydrology, geology, identity, family, etc.? How do you know if something is in the palestinian speculative mode/realm? Are there specific characteristics, topics, tropes, pre/occupations, or styles that you notice?
Fargo: The Palestinian speculative is a spider’s web. It is a tunnel dug through the murderous fence of discourse and into the good clean air. It is a fishnet. It is the song that illuminates the made world and its necessary unmaking. It is the way we live like porcupines and fight like fleas, in the words of the martyr Basel Al-Araj. It is fishnet stockings. The Palestinian speculative is the way that rubble speaks to us when it says:
!! It is the slingshot hurled against capital and its many faces. It is the joyful and inevitable dissolution of all nations and all banks. The Palestinian speculative is alive in food and protest and bricks and kites and taxi cabs and burning tires. It is the bone-deep certainty that the fence is bound to break; it is the many ways we hurl ourselves towards the breaking.
Rasha: Narration of palestinian existence is often framed from the outside through conflict or tragedy. In a negative sense, palestinian existence (and Arab and Muslim and and) often arrives already in battle for the right to claim basic historical lineage or modern reality, much less a futurity, and the erasure of palestinian existence by multiple colonial projects has been wielded to foreclose the possibility of building or writing palestinian futures. In a positive sense, to lay claim to any future requires a discontinuity with the "modern" present, with the very projects that attempt to impose a progressively more deathly settler-colonial order of displacement and legalized violence on top of extralegal and legislated death. So to me, palestinian speculative modes could include reclaiming history and the present from active erasure in order to keep a zone of possibility open into which (m)any future(s) can be imagined. The speculative can also enliven gaps in archives and expand versions of the present moment just as much as the future near or far.
What's the use of engaging with the speculative? What audiences is the palestinian speculative for? What kinds of work can be done in the speculative realm that might be more difficult to reach in other realms?
N.A.: The speculative has always been a place of rest for me and has been what I’ve been taught by the Palestinians in my life, especially those that survived 1948. It’s where I come to breathe and recharge. I don’t think Palestinian speculative material is always for Palestinian consumption and that deeply troubles me. I want to see work that portrays Palestinians in ways we have not seen before and empowers them, all in their own languages and idioms. The issue here is funding, and I recognize artists need to eat: I hope we can eventually build platforms that benefit Palestinians wherever they are.
Fargo: For me, the Palestinian speculative is a way of daring to imagine ourselves differently, of breaking and rupturing the language (written, visual, narrative, discursive) which shapes our lives. Sophia Azeb, in her essay “Who Will We Be When We Are Free? On Palestine and Futurity”, published in the Funambulist, reminds us that questions of our futurity as Palestinians are absolutely necessary. They are part of the way we build a grammar of freedom, an understanding of Palestinianness which is wilder, freer, more generous to ourselves and to others. This is a not only a vitally important concern, but a speculative one: to wonder, to commit to the exploration of what we might be that we are not yet. From Azeb: “How we make meaning of ourselves and our being as Palestinian when we are no longer beholden to understanding ourselves in the shadows of disaster is not just a passing whim, a theoretical exercise. To ask how and who we are now and who will be when we are free insists that our future-selves are always in sight, that our freedom is always in sight.” The speculative allows us to understand our selves, our relations, the meaning of our lives and songs, as always open to revision, to change, to growth.
Rasha: I'm drawn to writing against erasure as resistance to genocide, writing to multiply and unflatten our forms and and formations, writing toward liberation. A speculative fantasy example of writing against the ways we are written about—one that brought me to tears the first time I heard it—is Saladin Ahmed's story of the silenced Saracen (Muslim) in "Without Law, Without Faith, Without Joy", a story written against Spenser's The Faerie Queen.
How did you arrive in the Palestinian speculative zone? What were the way stations or mile-markers on your path to contributing to this issue?
N.A.: My entry point to the speculative was through Korean folklore as a child; I learned to read when living in the Korean countryside and my parents gifted me—way above my reading abilities as a young child—this book of fairy-tales when they noticed how attracted I was to the TV dramas featuring the supernatural. For them, it was also a means of introducing me to the Muslim supernatural; the parallels to jinn were very oblique. Eventually, I read through the fairy-tales when we relocated permanently to Palestine, and I was hooked. We had less access to books and media when living in Palestine so we spent the year planning which English books and movies we would get when we traveled to the US to see relatives, as well as plan for occasional trips to Jordan to get Arabic-material. I read a lot of the classics of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror in English, but it wasn’t till I was in college that I began to explore the genre in Arabic, with the work of Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq. It was only through visual art that I, 20 years late, began to explore the Palestinian speculative, largely through a show Mike Derderian did in 2015 called Space 3arabi; he played with space exploration imagery in a way that intrigued me at the time and I began reaching for different work, including children’s literature, like Huda el Sheww's Tineen Beitlahem.
Fargo: When I was younger, it was speculative fiction that broke open my heart to the world, that reminded me of all the many worlds we move through and the glee with which we dance between and among them all. One of the first writers I really loved was Ursula Le Guin; when her books broke my heart open, they also reminded me that it was language that made the world, and language that could remake it again and again and again. When I began to explore performance, whether on the page or off the page, it was with the understanding somewhere inside of me that words were the gusts of wind which carried us to other worlds. The way I think about performance is as an invitation to these winds, as a song which calls them to and through us.
Rasha: I arrived at the speculative as a survival practice. I write about how I arrived at this issue a bit in my editor's note, but one other piece I'll add: I first came to Strange Horizons as an assistant guest editor (with Erin Roberts) under Sheree Renée Thomas for the Southeast USA special. The example of Sheree's editorial work, on that issue and the Dark Matter anthologies, also shaped my understanding of how genre curation could intervene in the archives.
Can you share some examples of historical or contemporary works or creators whom you observe engaging in the palestinian speculative? Do you think they would embrace that category? What is most exciting or interesting to you about their work?
N.A.: He’s moved away from this more recently, but Wafa Hourani’s models/miniature cityscapes, namely of Qalandia, which are set in the future, are speculative, and to quote him, they’re a way of being polite about commentary on the present. He might not identify as an artist of the speculative but he’s definitely engaged with this question of how to wield what has not yet happened to make a statement. I also think he deserves a round of applause for showing his work first to the people whose lives he portrayed. My trepidation with the Palestinian art scene is largely that it is inaccessible to Palestinians; it’s the drum I will beat in all of my published criticism.
Fargo: Larissa Sansour comes to mind, as an artist whose work has been hugely influential on my own and on how I understand the possibilities of the Palestinian speculative. I think she would embrace that category; in interviews, she’s talked about the freedom that the speculative can offer in terms of getting past the discursive traps of the present, opening up time in order to better articulate our freedom. Her notion of “narrative terrorism”, expressed in her wonderful short film In the Future They Ate from the Finest Porcelain, feels like a perfect encapsulation of how I want my own speculative work to function.
I also want to note that I’ve been thinking more lately about the ways in which Palestinians are engaging in the speculative in daily ways, non-artistic ways. So much of Palestinian life is dedicated to an insistence on a future life, a future world, one informed by repair, return, restitution—and this future is not guaranteed, but imagined and held in the face of an ongoing genocide. We envision and enact a speculative futurity in protest, in solidarities with others, in preserving histories and traditions, in breath.
Rasha: I have so many that I just want to recommend them and send everyone to read them right now! Everyone should read the Arab American Feminisms anthology. Read the multilingual Lifta Volumes, and visit the extended online content Awda Birthright(!!!). Look for the anthologies featuring writers from geographical palestine, many in translation from Arabic: Palestine +100, Book of Gaza, Reworlding Ramallah—all speculative in some way. Listen to Sophia Azeb from 2014. Read other writings from palestine and from palestinians. I love finding older, out of print anthologies of Arab writers, like the Women of the Fertile Crescent poetry collection—leena aboutaleb's poem would fit right in alongside Saudi poet Fawziyya abu Khalid and Hanan Ashrawi's early poems! I'm also paying attention to the re-invigoration of tatreez by folks like Wafa Ghnaim, the adaptations and re-imaginings as traditional forms are applied to new contexts/contents.
What non-palestinian creators, creations, or themes would you connect to the palestinian speculative imaginary? What multiple lineages might you trace in your own development as a person, reader, author, editor, critic, curator?
N.A.: I love the work that was done several years ago by Mike Derderian, whose work covered the city of Amman and was frequently showed in galleries; I generally think we need to build creative, healthy two-way relationships with the global Armenian, Assyrian, Kurdish, and Yazidi communities. I think that also holds for discourse with Black and Indigenous writers and curators, so on that note, I would love for collaborations with artists like Janelle Monae, whose first EP is such a great example of AfroFuturism. I do think a hurdle towards this is making sure that we build productive relationships that benefit all, as well as realizing that we are very different from these communities. I also want critics to be more engaged generally. I think we suffer from a lack of platforms and a lack of empathetic editors, even from our own communities, and I hope we can create spaces for criticism, especially in Arabic, with good pay for critics.
Rasha: Some things that come to mind for me related to curation for this issue: Jo Kadi’s Thinking Class and Food for Our Grandmothers. The genderplay in Umm Kulthum’s autobiography! Everything by Octavia E. Butler, but especially her collected interviews. Toni Morrison's work as an editor and her fiction and a slim volume called Playing in the Dark that taught me to write for our own folks first. James Baldwin’s clear understanding of how devastating, genocidal histories co-create the present and how we must reckon with them for the sake of our painfully entwined futures. Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Michael Ondaatje’s early novels helped me find the bridge from poetry to prose narrative. North American Indigenous writers, scholars, activists, artists who are defining what non-metaphorical decolonization and land back requires. Scholars like Jasbir Puar and my own ROOTS elder Camille Schafer who connect war and occupation to disability and who keep the name Palestine in their mouths. This question is one my friend Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán asks, and it feels so valuable to name the lineages that make us. If we come from actively disrupted lineages, transmitting this living archive is one way to offer each other (re)connection.
Whose work (any background, genre, or medium) do you wish more people would pay attention to?
N.A.: The graphic arts scene is amazing. I really hope their work will be recognized as part of the art scene generally. I also want people to pay attention to what’s being done with our traditional forms of music—ataba, mejana, etc.—especially as it is being merged with electronic music. There’s a full recognition there of holding onto our heritage but doing something a teensy bit different; we are links in the cultural chain. Also, children’s literature: Huda el Shewa’s Tineen Beitlahem was the book I needed as a kid, and I’m glad Palestinian children have it now.
Rasha: The art that I crave recognition for is the art that feeds daily life in friendships, family, romance—poetry and songs that we offer each other to answer the events of our lives. The fillaheenization of art as a natural inheritance: that we all have artistic capacity along some line of practice and the filling of life with creative offerings to each other, from the smallest making to the grandest ritual event. I welcome music and dance that conjure, channel, and release energy. As a student of tatreez mentor Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, I celebrate and center the pre-literate narratives of crafts—embroidery, pottery, weaving, carving/woodwork—as the beauty and meaning we offer to our everyday. I honor the unpublished poets—the organizers, teachers, counselors, and facilitators who use the clarity of their words and insights to care for communities. I would encourage anyone who hasn't yet to spend an afternoon in contemplation of the Palestinian Poster Project archive and appreciate the artists who make posters and graphics for the visual cultures of liberation.
What is the on the horizon for the Palestinian speculative? What's next, either something concrete you're working on, work that others are making that you're anticipating, or something that doesn't exist yet but that you want to invite into being?
N.A.: Children and young adult’s literature has always been particularly welcoming to the speculative. I can think of all sorts of reasons why: ranging from the fact children need less (repetitive) exposition than adults, to various theories that it is healthy for children to have a bit of horror in their lives. Palestinian children’s writers are also close to their audiences in Palestine: they know what they want. My hope is to see more Sonia Nimr, who I admire so deeply for understanding her audiences and working closely with them. In that same vein, I also want to see more connections to our folktales and our more speculative realities, which people like Sonia Sulaiman are trying to facilitate. I do think this is a very fine line—we never want to use our folklore to create an imaginary that alienates belief—but I have confidence in many of our creators.
I want to encourage myself and others to write more fiction; I did it for years more or less rigorously but I think I stepped back from it when life became busy with other passions. I always missed it, though. I’ve gotten over my fear of getting work rejected—I think—and I feel like I’ve recently come up with stories that speak both to me and an audience, where before I was writing to get over my pain and mine alone. I want to be able to portray Palestinian pain and joy simultaneously, including the pain we inflict onto each other because we live in systems where violence against us is normalized, and we are encouraged to harm others. I take my inspiration from the great Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who has been getting a bit of press for Mexican Gothic (2020), but whom I discovered with Gods of Jade and Shadow (2019): the way she parses historical issues of race is deeply important to me, all set in this world of the paranormal.
Fargo: I am hungry for more Palestinian horror, both in my own work and more generally. Horror is one of my favorite genres/modes of feeling, and it feels like a particularly useful way to rupture the dangerous discursive traps Palestinians are forced to narrate our lives inside of: the traps of nationalism, legibility, peace process. I wonder what possibilities horror might offer us, what spaces to revel and be afraid and make others afraid, what space to truly navigate and understand the things which make and remake us. I think horror can be a place where Palestinians and those of us in diaspora can live in subversiveness and complexity and life-affirming joys.
Rasha: I’m most interested in the intra-communal conversations, across geographical palestine and refugee camps and world-wide diasporas, across so many languages, across race and class and generations and religions within each of those, across religions, across gender and sexuality and aesthetic style and artistic or professional practices. What do palestinians have to say to each other, across so many continents and oceans and languages and journeys and material realities? What wholeness might we stitch when we bring our pieces together, what can we offer each other, as insights or resources to keep each other alive? I do not wish to valorize a scattering or ignore the uneven material realities across the range of palestinian life. These various realities are so easily flattened when identity is defined only in opposition, at some 101-level argument for the right to exist or to prove, even as we take breath to make the case, that we do indeed exist. How do we practice the urgent work of saving life while also elaborating what we actually mean when we talk about freedom and liberation? What happens when we "imagine Palestine after liberation" (Jumana al-Qawasmi) and bring what we imagine into how we live our days? That speculation on the liberatory horizon is what I crave. Where literature and art are part of our lives and actions, I do consistently observe what Mariame Kaba names: art and “poetry can help lift the ceiling from our brains so that we can imagine liberation.”