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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Elias Sanbar nous offre une belle leçon d’histoire

by Anna Musso

Elias Sanbar on the Erasing of Palestine

Translated Sunday 20 February 2011, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

A rich history lesson: last Saturday at the Maison de la Poésie in Paris, Elias Sanbar, the Palestinian writer, poet, historian and Palestine’s ambassador to Unesco, was invited by les Amis de l’Humanité for the second season of a cycle of talks entitled “Figures of Humanity” where each guest reacts to Jaurès’ famous statement: “humanity does not exist as yet or it hardly does” [1].

At a time when revolutions are spreading like a shockwave across the Arab world, the Maison de la Poésie was packed full with listeners eager to hear the Palestinian intellectual’s talk and discuss with him.

Applauded as he entered the stage, Elias Sanbar walked downstage smiling, sporting a grey suit, and round spectacles. Inspired by the famous quotation from Jaurès, he insisted on using the plural “figures” instead of the singular, and denounced the notion of the absolute that has persisted throughout the history of Palestine.: the land was first wiped out in the name of the absolute truth of Genesis, then replaced by a Jewish State that exemplifies an absolute good opposed to an absolute evil (Nazism).

For more than an hour, with a light humour that kept all touch of moralism away, Elias Sanbar persuasively related the history of the destruction of a figure of humanity that started well before Zionism: how in the middle of the 19th century the British church wanted to disprove Darwin’s theories in the Holy Land, in Palestine, but on “finding that the Book did not reflect the place, they invented a place that could fit into the Book!”, Sanbar jested. That was how the idea of displacing the population was born and survived [2]. Palestinians were then perceived as intruders and Palestine was regarded as a land that needed to be redeemed, the historian explained. “That notion of "redemption" involved no standard colonial plan,” he proceeded, “but a project of replacement.” [3]

The destruction process did not stop at the land’s name: it is not just the word Palestine that does not exist. Palestinians are called Israeli Arabs, Arab refugees… “They become nameless absentees.” I myself have lived through that fabrication of invisibility and absence,” Sandar went on.

By way of conclusion, the writer then moved on to the latest events in Tunisia and Egypt: “In Palestine we were mad with joy. It’s a great lesson. Within a few months the Arab world may well be quite different.”

Questions then came from all sides: questions about the future of Palestine, its freedom, the future for Palestinian society … until Elias Sanbar announced that he is right now working towards Palestrine’s admission to UNO next September. “We are not going to proclaim the State of Palestine, we’ve done that already; we are trying to get as many countries as possible to recognize it.”

[1"L’humanité n’existe pas encore ou elle existe à peine."

[2In conformity with the Bible Palestine was described by Christians, especially by the Church of England in the days of the British Empire as having no settled population, only nomadic groups of Bedouins (Translator’s note)

[3which was later taken up by Zionists.(Translator’s note)

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