What space do Palestinian interlocutors occupy in the international arena? By recounting a personal experience from many years ago, this article seeks to open up an avenue through which we can glimpse at the racial logics and power dynamics operating in this arena. The crux of my argument is that the interlocutors occupy different epistemological spaces within the international arena. Thus, their racialized identities determine what they can know and how they can know it.
On a hot summer day in the early 1990s, I was sitting outside in the shade with a few friends near the entrance to the YMCA in East Jerusalem. We were in our early teens, serving as group leaders in the YMCA summer camps. After a long day in the scalding sun, we were enjoying a cold drink and relaxing. Our peace and tranquility were suddenly disrupted when we heard screaming and yelling coming from the street. In a flash, we saw a group of protestors running around the corner through the main gates, heading towards us. They were chased by club-wielding Israeli soldiers. We quickly ran inside. It did not matter that we had nothing to do with the protests. We knew we would be just as likely as the protestors to be beaten up if the soldiers got hold of us.
Then we noticed that these were protestors of a different kind. They were all white, from Europe or North America. Some of them were injured and clearly hurting, so we told them to follow us to the second level of the YMCA because the soldiers might still enter the building. We hid with them in a tiny space inside a small room that was part of a large hall.
While I had met foreigners before this incident, this was the first time that I saw them bleed like we Palestinians bleed at the hands of Israeli soldiers. I even remember that a couple of them smiled and maybe even chuckled at our jokes while we were hiding. Palestinians cannot survive without a sense of humour, even in tight situations.
These protestors were invited and honoured at a musical performance a few days later. I was happy to be part of that performance. It was important to recognize the sacrifices they were willing to make so that they could share in our struggle and tell the world about our occupied and colonized condition (1-5). These were wonderfully caring, well meaning, and kind individuals.
But something deep inside made me feel uneasy with them. And it still remains with me today as I write this. As a young teen, I was troubled by a simple question: What possessed them to come to this very location, at this very moment, when all we wanted to do was to take a break from the reality of our condition and enjoy a cold beverage in the shade? Why would they ruin this brief moment of tranquility?
As I grew older, this question expanded into several questions: What worldview drove them to want to experience, however briefly, a condition that we as Palestinians are desperate to escape? And what world order causes people who look like them to make that decision, leaving people who look like me bewildered? What is it that they are hoping to see, feel, validate, and learn about life, themselves, and the world, when they undertake such an endeavour? What is the difference between us and them?
I cannot fully answer all of these complex questions here. Instead, I will focus on one important difference between us and them: we occupy different epistemological spaces, a difference based on racial logics.
The international discourse on the question of Palestine and Israel (academic, diplomatic, etc.) does not unfold on a neutral plane where different interlocutors speak, exchange ideas, and where the superior argument wins. Rather, it is a politicized arena, a battle arena (6), which has been constructed and cemented by centuries of racism (including European anti-Semitism), (neo)colonialism, and settler colonialism (7). The interlocutors occupy different epistemological spaces within this battle arena, wherein their racialized identities determine what they can know and how they can know it (8).
The Palestinian along with the generalized and “Orientalized” Arab “other” have been racialized as inferior to white Europeans (9). Colonialism and settler colonialism are the power structures, systems, and relations of domination that facilitate the portrayal of Palestinians as lacking in rationality, as passionate, impulsive, untrustworthy, deceitful, and prone to exaggeration. In short, the Palestinian interlocutor is squeezed into a marginalized and often ignored epistemological space: their speech is deemed suspect, unreliable, toxic, violent, anti-democratic, and mythical (10).
But just as Frantz Fanon taught decades ago, colonial imprisonment can never fully succeed in taking away the humanity of the colonized and their ability to know the reality and nature of their colonized condition (11). Within our marginalized space, we Palestinians have carved out an even smaller epistemological space where we can speak with each other freely about our shared condition. We have fierce disagreements of course about political actions, social ills, cultural matters, strategic directions (or lack thereof), and so on, but within this space we need not prove that we are human beings who exist as Palestinians and deserve freedom, a homeland, political rights, and human rights. This smaller space we have carved out for ourselves is akin to that tight space in which we hid together all those years ago. Within that constricted space, we make jokes that only we can understand, because, though suffocating, it offers us a stage where we are at least able to hear ourselves in accordance with our shared colonized reality.
Then there is the room where we have our hiding space. This room is akin to the anti-colonial and decolonial international space, where we find Indigenous struggles against settler colonialism, Black liberation struggles, radical intersectional feminist struggles, and anti-colonial movements who stand alongside us as we stand alongside them. We can speak freely within this space with Black, Indigenous, Jewish, socialist, feminist, and queer allies, share in a more universal vision of freedom, and talk about overthrowing racism, antisemitism, economic exploitation, sexism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and the violences of this brutal world order.
But in this room, where Palestinians openly reach out to, and connect with, allies across the world, the soldiers who police all of us are never far off, and our speech has to be cautious. This policing takes many forms, from imprisonment and murder in Palestine and Israel to the denial of tenure and lawsuits in Western Europe and North America. There are numerous examples of the latter where Palestinians and their allies are denied free speech, or are threatened and punished for their speech under the charge of antisemitism (increasingly guided by the new International Holocaust Remembrance alliance (IHRA) definition), such as the cases of Rabab Abdulhadi and Achille Mbembe. The most glaring recent example of course is the delegitimization and near criminalization of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.
Even though Palestinians struggle with the inferiority complex that Fanon elucidated, we do know that we all have the capacity and ability necessary for speech in the large hall and beyond, because when the soldiers are not standing at the door, ready to pounce on us and our speech, we have spoken and sung beautiful speeches within that large hall. Incidentally, that hall in the YMCA was not very large, much like the small public spaces within Europe and North America in which Palestinians are invited to speak; spaces that are themselves often marginalized within the larger battle arena.
For instance, in the battle arena of academia, anti-colonial and decolonial theories and paradigms notwithstanding (which are themselves marginalized), Palestinians can only claim that they have experienced X or Y Israeli aggression (what they can know); they are almost never seen as true witnesses to their own suffering. That is, their speech can never attain the level of an explanatory framework in which their accounts are validated as facts or elevated to the level of an explanatory paradigm (how they can know). Only when, for example, an Israeli historian like Benny Morris presents Palestinian suffering does it turn into a testimonial and a historical fact (though framed in such a way where it does not challenge the legitimacy of the violent expulsion of Palestinians) (12); otherwise, it remains in the realm of an unsubstantiated claim that must be explained by something/someone from the outside.
Morris is often viewed as the authority on the Palestinian “refugee problem” because, according to Morris himself, Palestinian historians never properly understood or documented the Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948. It was commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s to read historians, sociologists, political scientists, legal scholars, and anthropologists who cite Israeli historians because, they’ll state, Palestinian historians either do not exist or are mere propagandists.
It is now commonplace to find academics who will still cite Israeli historians but will now add a footnote that some Palestinian historians, like Fayez Sayegh, Rosemary Sayigh, and Walid Khalidi have discussed these issues before. And in some cases the footnote has worked its way up into the main text, and some of the actual content is cited. In some sense, yes, this is an improvement, but it is also a sign of the depravity of the whole situation. Only after Israeli historians recognized the Nakba some 30-40 years after the event, did the academic world come to the following, whispered conclusion: ‘Oh my goodness, those Palestinian academics knew that they were expelled!’ What a ground-breaking discovery!
Of course, the point here is not that we ought not to engage and cite Israeli historians and academics. I certainly have and will continue to do so. But we must recognize that the process through which academic and other knowledge is judged, elevated, rejected, concealed, centralized, and marginalized is not a neutral affair based on universal objective criteria of evaluation and editorial judgment, but is part and parcel of the battle arena. We must name this arena for what it is, deconstruct its racial logics, and dismantle the material structures that make it possible (and which it also reproduces).
This brings me back to the scene of the incident with which I began this story. What was most surprising to me at the time was not so much the violence; it was when a couple of those foreigners smiled at our jokes. It was so surprising that I still remember it and I am no longer sure if I came to imagine them chuckling or whether or not they actually chuckled. I have no idea if they spoke Arabic apart from a few basic words. Maybe they only laughed because we did, rather than understand our silly jokes. But in that moment, it was almost as if the confined space in which only we can hear each other in accordance with our own voice was visited, however briefly, by an outsider who did not want to stifle us.
I am not talking here about outsiders validating our space for us. We did not need, nor did we seek, such validation within our own epistemological space. Perhaps I was just surprised that the outsiders didn’t try to pry the microphone from our hands. At least, not in that moment. Because ultimately, we have to go back outside into the large hall and beyond. And once we are back into that world, we unfortunately need them to validate our stories. Not because we need them to convince us of our own reality. But because we know that the battle arena is designed to silence and defeat us as interlocutors.
Those white protestors were there for various individual reasons that only they know. But that does not mean that they were not playing the game of the battle arena. This is the difference between us and them; or more properly, this is the world order in which we become “us” and “them”: We validate their experience of suffering, that they are good human beings who care for the well-being of others, even when they are not compelled to do so, in the hope that they can validate our reality of suffering, occupation, and colonization in the battle arena of international discourse. In other words, we validate for them what we are prohibited from validating for ourselves: we give them what we do not have.
However, this unequal quid pro quo deal between us and them is not good enough. We do not need a hermeneutic approach that seeks to engage with us in dialogue from a respectful and open-minded disposition, seeking to connect with us on the level of our shared humanity. In order for our meeting to become a truly transformative encounter and not an unequal quid pro quo, they must join us in our struggle to dismantle the (neo)colonial and settler colonial material structures which still shape our world today. As Hamid Dabashi puts it in reference to European philosophers and their inability to read decolonial and anti-colonial intellectuals without trying to assimilate them back into a worldview that universalizes and centralizes Europe: “Europeans as Europeans … will be unable to read [the colonized] unless and until they join the rest of humanity in their common quest for a level remapping of the world.” (13)
And so I will leave you with a question: What must the world order become in order for Palestinians and other colonized and suffocated peoples to be heard from within our own epistemological spaces?
Mark Muhannad Ayyash
- Sayegh, F., “Zionist Colonialism in Palestine”, Settler Colonial Studies,  2012.
- Pappé, I., “Zionism as Colonialism: A Comparative View of Diluted Colonialism in Asia and Africa”, South Atlantic Quarterly, 2008.
- Wolfe, P. “Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race”, 2016
- Veracini, L., “Israel-Palestine through a Settler-colonial Studies Lens”, Interventions, 2018.
- Khalidi, R., “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine”, 2020.
- Said, E., “Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said”, 2002, p. 202.
- Césaire, A., “Discourse on Colonialism”,  2000.
- Spivak, G. “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, 1999.
- Said, E., “Orientalism”,  2003.
- Said, E., “The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994”, 1995.
- Fanon, F., “The Wretched of the Earth”,  2004.
- See my critique of Benny Morris’s historiography in Ayyash, M. M., “A Hermeneutics of Violence: A Four-Dimensional Conception”, 2019.
- Dabashi, H., “Can Non-Europeans Think?”, 2015, pp. 28-29.