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The postponed drama of return

About the author
Elia Suleiman is a film director, writer and actor. He was born in Nazareth in 1960 and lived in New York from 1982-93. Among his films are Chronicle of a Disappearance (1996), Cyber Palestine (1999) and Divine Intervention (2002).

It was due only to a persistence which wore his personal assistant out, after many failed attempts, was I finally granted a meeting with Edward Said. I was given fifteen minutes and fifteen minutes it had to be, not a second more; less was preferred.

I was around my mid-20s and had acquired the habit of knocking on doors that did not open to the point where it had become almost an end in itself – a motor for energising a conviction that I was not really convinced of: the desire to make films.

And why should any door open? I had no film education, no formal education at all. I barely knew how or what the stuff of film was all about. In short, I had nothing to show for except the synopsis of a film that – I think I knew at the time – I was never going to make. So I carried the synopsis and went off.

I knocked on the door and entered but was arrested immediately. From very far away, at the other end of his giant Colombia University office, Edward Said was sitting behind his desk staring at me from behind glasses lowered to the tip of his nose. “Stay where you are! I don’t know who you are or what you want from me, but I’m sure I will not be able to help you, so why waste your time or waste mine?”

I weighed my options. “Okay...but I consider these fifteen minutes my right after I tried so hard to obtain them. So all I can ask you is that I spend them here in their entirety. When they are consumed, I will leave.” “If that’s what you want, go ahead,” he said, after weighing his options.

I walked towards him and sat on the chair opposite his desk. I looked at my watch to keep watch. I pulled some periodical from a shelf behind me and started flipping through. He, in turn, went back and drowned himself in papers. A silence ensued.

Not for long. Edward unveiled his face from behind his papers, laid them down and declared surrender. “I give up,” he said, smiling. “Did you have lunch? I’m inviting.”

We were neighbours. We often met without an appointment. There was a will to link but one that lacked definition of any reciprocity or common ground. I think he took, or wanted to take, to my liking but without knowing why or how. I, in turn, wanted to impress him, so I was always looking for something smart to say. I was always intimidated. It never worked.

Yet Edward had enough intuition to sense what to me was obvious, that I came from a lower class, at least than him, that I did not come from any of the large Palestinian bourgeois families (before he asked me my name he asked me to which family I belonged), and that by estimation of my background I came from the…“hood”.

That was not unattractive to him. It was rather of some use. So he started to use our occasional walks and talks to practice with me and retrieve his fictive street kid-ness. He used it for his fictive souvenir of his own “hood”.

He would ask me if I had seen ‘X’ lately – someone he did not like, someone he knew I was not seeing and did not like. The question was a pretext to exercise his slant throwing Arabic vocabularies. He would launch into a long, ungrammatical, swearing monologue about X, all he had and in one go, hard-core ones – from the belt and under, as the expression goes.

When he emptied out, he recycled. I don’t know if he ever got better at it, since I moved out of New York long ago. But as far as I remember, the swearing was always rather heavy-handed and disordered and without the necessary spaces in between; the consequence was a loss of flow and musicality. In short, the swearing monologues were not convincing. I did not dare correct him. It was not proper after all.

And yes I came from the “hood”, and I let him have his fun. But meanwhile, I was stealing him outright. At first only words, then sentences, later whole paragraphs. I appropriated his quotations of other writers. I plucked what I needed from his texts, rearranged the words and squeezed them in between. They did not always fulfil their new meaning. But they sounded right and looked good. And he had enough and I little. So it was not unfair and not without respect. I stole like a thief from a religious altar, only his need, who does not forget to cross himself before slipping away.

But I was not faithful. Reading Edward Said, I sometimes lost desire along the way. I could not follow through. (Orientalism I used as a dictionary of the ‘who and how’ of the great writers I had read who had sinned against ‘us’). Often I felt that his writing remained embedded in an academic mode: driven by intentionality and contextualised by a linear narrative, it was not liberated into the cosmos of poetic dis/order.

Yet within these large confines, there were treasures to be had, in the margins and in the under-emphasised. The Postponed Drama of Return – the concluding phrase of a paragraph in one article, no more – was once a tentative title for my first feature Chronicle of a Disappearance. Said might have written such phrases without effort, and never considered them for the limelight. Yet my synopsis was infested with them, copied without copyright!

Because I am a stuttered reader lacking, by birth or upbringing, the necessary concentration to follow through or comprehend narratives, I consider myself an unprivileged privileged reader. I picked at the poetic veneer of a Said text like a woodpecker on wood, cracking and knocking out fragments, knitting them according to my own sense of specialness and pleasure.

During the making of my first short film, Homage by Assassination, I was left penniless by the shark producer of the film. It was when the film was taken hostage by its debtors, that I sent Said an S.O.S.: “Meet me tonight at al-Fonoun al-Shabya dance show and we will fix it.”

In the lobby of the dancehall, he camouflaged himself as bait for the rich Palestinians coming to give moral support for the first intifada, and they fell for it line and sinker; Edward metamorphosed their moral support into material. When they rushed to offer their respects to him, he interrupted their greetings by introducing me as “one of our best of the best”. They signed their cheques; two, to be precise. One contributor, a man Edward resented, greeted him warmly: “to keep a cash flow running for the cause”.

Said was not really interested in cinema. He considered it too populist an art. It did not happen too often, but when he saw a film that supposedly promoted the Palestinian cause he promoted the film himself. But love can be blind, also when it comes to Palestine.

I was always waiting for the day when I would show to Edward a little muscle of my own, impress upon him that the old days of his rescue efforts were not gone with the wind, and how far I had come since then (as well as share a good laugh out of our past by showing him – as in my latest film – what real professional swearing looks like).

But time was not on my side, certainly not on his. After that infamous day at al-Fonoun and his fundraising for my film, he told me that he had just come from the doctor who told him he had six months to live (why are doctors always stuck on this figure when they pronounce their death sentences?). That was twelve years ago.

My last chance was when Divine Intervention premiered in the New York film festival and was released in the cinemas. It was even screened in Columbia University during a Palestinian cultural event which he inaugurated. But he was not able to make it as far as I heard.

Said’s passion was justice and he wanted it now. Cinema can have love and often at first sight. But justice is something cinema cannot frame. It is always outside the frame.

Cinema is inept also in that it cannot keep up with the devaluation of time and the shrinking of space. The very industrial revolution that gave rise to cinema is destroying both. The camera was born as a tool for war, but it could never be used as a gun in the way the revolutionaries intended it to. Poetic resistance, it advances but in circular motion, unsynchronised with the present, with no immediacy. I have faith that cinema is with ‘us’ but only in the long run.

Yet, every so often, I grow impatient. Hope fails me and I lose my faith.

I am saying this because I truly miss Edward now that I’m writing these words. When his articles started to appear in al-Hayat newspaper and after a long period of not being in touch, I read him as if he were coming to my rescue, as if I was listening to him in person. He filled the gap of this often frustratingly absent immediacy. Bare from violence, he entered the ring and continued to knock and hammer on power. The power of such an intellectual is to draw energy from a moral stance, as organic and pure as energy from a windmill.

This article will be published in the Arabic bi-monthly cultural magazine al-Adab (Beirut) in November 2003.

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