Ursula Biemann: We have had an ongoing discussion about the possibility of designing and experiencing post-territorial forms of a Palestinian cultural and political life. Half of the Palestinian population, about five million people, live outside of their home territory as refugees, mostly in adjacent states, but also scattered across the world. And those in Palestine live under several different legal jurisdictions and are often forcibly isolated from each other. Given the importance of the interconnectivity among these separated pockets of Palestinian populations, it has been useful to look at the deterritorialized models of belonging which have emerged through the networked matrix of this widely dispersed community.
During the interview for the video X-Mission in summer 2008, you argued that the transnational condition of Palestinians should not be perceived only as a deficit. It could also be the most important resource they have to build a future for themselves. That is, the ways in which Palestinians negotiate their fragmented spaces can help them to build a nation. You have been given the opportunity to materialize these ideas now. Recently you have been appointed director of the Palestinian Museum, entrusted with developing and implementing a concept for this new cultural institution. Given this context, how can one conceive a mission of such a museum?
Beshara Doumani: Allow me first to thank you for the opportunity to talk about the museum project. The conceptualization is still at an early stage, so my remarks are preliminary and I welcome critical responses from the readers of this special issue. The early iterations of this project conceived of it as a traditional national museum. That is, a major commemorative structure built around a single chronological narrative from ancient times to the present. I conceptualize it, instead, as a mobilizing and interactive cultural project that can stitch together the fragmented Palestinian body politic by presenting a wide variety of narratives about the relationships of Palestinians to the land, to each other and to the wider world. How this is done, of course, is of the utmost importance.
UB: You think of the nature of the museum as a process. Why is this so important in this case and how does it affect history writing per se?
BD: The Palestinians have a rich history and deep identification with their homeland. Since the late nineteenth century, they have suffered from the appropriation of their land, from control over their movement, and from severe human rights abuses, including the trauma of ethnic cleansing. The instinctive reaction when discussing a museum is to build an iconic structure with a set of fixed exhibitions that paint a romantic and defensive portrait of the past, that convey the trauma of dispossession and dispersal in 1948 and 1967, and that bear witness to the continuing tragedies of the present. I understand the temptation of victimhood and the urge to occupy the high moral ground, but going too far in these directions robs Palestinians both of agency and of the responsibility that comes with agency. The idea, therefore, is that the museum will view narratives are more open ended and contingent so as to empower users. That is, the museum raises specific themes, presents information, asks questions, and provides the resources for users to explore these and other questions they may have. Palestinians and other users can both benefit from and shape the museum as a cultural project.
Of course, it is still fundamentally important to present a coherent narrative about who the Palestinians are, how they came to be, and the nature of their current conditions. It is also critical to create a national space that affirms the existence of the Palestinians and that recovers much of what has been and still is being silenced and erased by hegemonic discourses that are constructed by the victors in this asymmetrical conflict. It is my hope that the tension generated by asking questions critical of nationalist constructions of the past while, at the same time, presenting a narrative baseline that can bring Palestinians together, can be a productive one. The idea is to engage and transform users through active participation as they try to negotiate this tension.
UB: The museum project interests me in the context of this discussion on extraterritorial spaces, because it raises the question of how to conceive of a national museum in the absence of a sovereign state. Why is such a large-scale cultural project needed and what makes it possible now?
BD: A major cultural project is needed for several reasons. First, in order to bring all three major segments of the Palestinian population –Palestinian citizens of Israel; those living under foreign military occupation in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem; and the refugees– together in a way that the field of formal politics has not been able to do. There is a need for interconnectivity on the basis of a platform that is open, inclusive and alive. The idea is not to divorce politics but to stretch the meaning of the political to include strategies of everyday survival that the Palestinians have proven to be masters of. It is these strategies that produce and transform what it means to be Palestinian. Given the absence of a coherent political vision since the first intifada in the late 1980s and given the sheer diversity of circumstances under which Palestinians live, a cultural platform, in the broad sense of the word, is absolutely vital for survival, resistance, and meaning under very difficult conditions.