Haifa’s Imaginary: A Mythopoetic Reclamation of Palestine, Part II

In Haifa you avoided testing the imagination in the room where it had trained you to step out of yourself. You were content with observing, like a bird watching a feather clinging to the bitter orange tree. — Mahmoud Darwish [1

By Sousan Hammad

The emphasis of this text is to discuss the role that the imaginary plays in poetry that is rooted in both a geographic place and virtual (poetic) space, arguing that the poem, in its poetic imaginary, is an attempt to become a place that exists in its displacement. By using images that create an imaginary representation of a space it enables spectators to see the possible variations of a place. In so doing, it will aim to serve as an archive of an imaginary Haifa, creating a platform to collectively rethink and reimagine our experiences with Palestine, a challenge that maps multiplicities: those experiences and feelings in a particular space that are totally unknown or ‘unreal' to some readers, or actual and ideal to others.


“The Breast” by Rene Magritte, 1961

Still, no physical reality of Palestine can ever take the place of the mythic place that was lost. The liturgy of longing for Palestine, for a lost time and space, has become a tired and clichéd phenomenon (as the traditions of memorializing have proved) for its diasporic, exiled, and refugee communities. Rather than end the reaction to longing, rethinking nostalgia and the force of roles, such as the imaginary, can be understood as modes for provoking liberation from the ‘what has been' and ‘what is'. It is a break from clichés and manifestos, a way to cope with the obsession of the Palestine question that every Palestinian struggles with. The attraction of imagining new forms is that it lets us dream in a new Palestine and live in a new Palestine – in other words it allows us to ‘materialize' an imaginary Palestine, one that can be thought of in various ways, for Palestine exists in its multiplicities.

This is not to say that Palestine should merely exist in our imagination, but this is what it has come to: a place that must go beyond reality, for there is no one physical place that is equal to a Palestinian's memories, longings and reveries – our imaginations. Our notions of the real and the imaginary are nothing but misunderstandings. This is why the role of longing is much more than a problem to be solved, it, like translation, lets itself be represented in fantastic variations.

To imagine Palestine in its present form (when the occupation has architectural properties) I have “trained” myself to look at things differently. I don't see the Hebraicized street signs in the names of Zionist assassins and military leaders. I don't see the settlements perched on the highest hills, gazing at us from subsidized, gated homes. All of this physical architecture has no meaning for me because I have no relationship to its material and emotional form. My feelings are not attached to street signs and settlements because my only experiences with them are to perceive them as temporary objects in a temporary space. (Of course, this is true for me – not for those Palestinians whose daily existence is altered by the Israeli occupation.) Therefore, the only permanence that exists is the imaginary Palestine, a space that must be imaginatively grasped; it is the opposite of intellection. Through this transformative power of the imagination, meaning is extracted from cities whether we attach lived experiences and feelings of our own, or of others. It is not a personal quest to reestablish a regressively oriented narrative or nationalist discourse, but to deconstruct the idealization that comes with nostalgic remembering of a Palestine that will never exist as we knew it.

It is crucial that space not be divorced from this hypothesis. For it is the platform where the prospective, creative, and critical intersect to vitalize the forces of our imagination. Conceptually, I would say that space should be conceived as a dialectical examination between the imaginative and the place: the place as something physical or material, the imaginative as the social and political constructions in a given setting. Like most social constructions, space determines how we act and interact, what political choices we make, how our feelings are governed, and, finally, what these various performances mean when they are manifested in the time and space around us – past, present, future. While this definition of space could more simply be defined under the expression “social space”, for there is always a history traced to a social space, the settings I speak of must also be imagined because what we see (notably in the de-Arabized geography of Palestine) is physically not there.

And whether or not these imagined forms could ever come into fruition, like the mythopoetic, the Palestine we imagine has come to be a reality that we have discovered through poetry, poetry afflicted by memories and longings.

Wadi.today Wadi.after

Today, a visitor to Haifa can see that neighborhoods like Wadi al-Saleeb — once a prominent area for aristocratic Palestinian families with palatial Ottoman houses — are abandoned and squalid. The picture to the right is a thesis project created by a young Israeli architect, a project he calls, “a solution for a deserted valley”.

In poetry the mythopoetic is born, as a place, from text. In its more singular context, text is the mediator of images since text is the catalyst that stimulates imagination. However, a text — in the mythopoetic context — must also be representative of a space or an imaginary because the mythopoetic opposes a purely factual account, and this is what allows spectators to fictionalize ideas and stage spaces. In short, to “see how” a reclaimed Palestine looks and feels. Telling a mythos is not saying the untrue, it is, like its ancient Greek origins, to tell a tale or a story delivered by word of mouth, but like any oeuvre, the text will have an infinite variety of relations or oppositions with its spectators. [2] At best, my hope is that reading poetry suffused with such abstractions and spatial ambiguities can still manage to relay meaning and experience to readers.

To echo Gaston Bachelard's notion of the text as a written universe, language must have the ability to affectively transport readers from one place (one ‘universe') to another. This function of the literary image, as Bachelard writes, is to set words in motion and return them to their function of imagination.

Furthermore, the poetic image for Bachelard is not just a memory or marker of the past, but a work of originality, one that, like the mythopoetic, is a creative interpretation expressed in form. ” A literary image is a meaning in the nascent stage…it must be enriched by a new oneiric life. To create a different meaning and to evoke a different reverie – that is the double function of the literary image. Poetry does not express what remains foreign to it.”[3] A successful literary image is one that has to be really read and reread as it illustrates the visual possibilities that are as yet unrealized, and this is why Bachelard is so focused on the birthing of what he refers to as a ‘different' meaning or reverie.


Another example of the Zionist urban imaginary.

He continues, “If a present image does not recall an absent one…there is no imagination.”[4] Indeed, this process is what gives rise and importance to the transformative power of the imaginary: the experience of newness is more powerful than the experience of recycled images that are so common for Palestinians when it comes to their collective memory and displacement. The portscapes of Haifa, Akka, and Yaffa, for example, are described as some of the most beautiful old cities and ports. Yet today the old cities that lead to the port are either crumbling or boarded with wood planks. Hence why in Darwish's poetry, he has rebirthed its absent images by reclaiming all that it has been replaced with today.

Bachelard states that the process of ‘inventing a new life' is to create a universe that suggests the world imagines itself. In creating new images, a poet has to grasp the perception of what is unknown, that is, in the process of forming images, they must go beyond reality. The reality for Haifa is that it is an occupied city; its Palestinian demography is never free from the struggle over space. This is evident in the existence of architecture in the urban imaginary of Haifa.


“The Naked City” by Guy Debord, 1957

That these material places – homes, mosques, harbors – are places which Palestinians are denied access to gives purpose to ways in which we have to redefine and reclaim these countless public spaces. As Kristin Ross notes in her seminal work The Emergence of Social Space, the activists of the Paris Commune inhabited the space, i.e. the streets and public place, areas that were excised and inaccessible to most people, as a way of redefining and reclaiming space; it was a way of stripping a hegemonic, or what Ross refers to as “vertical”, order so that the movement became “horizontal”: in that the movement did not work from the top down. This is what marked the early interactions of space as revolution. Later on, the Communards realized that to indeed reclaim space, they had to first claim a public place. The decision for workers to occupy the Hotel de Ville, for example, is what the Situationists called a détournement, a concept with a sole purpose of transforming a given space, and using it as one's own (for political and social destratification). As Ross defines it, détournement is “stripping false meanings and values from the original.”[5] In short, it is way of inventing a new place, a new life, a new stage.

However, changing the direction of a proper place is not merely a destruction or reclamation of that space, it entails a process of change – not only changing the things that are in space, but changing the patterns and productions: that which makes a space a social space. For Raymond Williams, this process of change exists in what he calls “structures of feeling”, the poetics of social experiences that are patterned by particular impulses, restraints and tones – meanings of culture – that serve and identify as processes of change. While the term structure may be misleading, for feelings are anything but tangible, Williams says structure is something “that you could perceive it operating in work after another which weren't otherwise connected.[6]” That which is analyzed from a felt sense, one that is more present as a lived experience rather than studying a past period that is not immediately available.

For Williams, this ‘felt sense' are the structures of feeling that can be reproduced or transformed in what he calls the “documentary culture” – i.e. poems and such. “The significance of the documentary culture is that, more clearly than anything else, it express that life to us in direct terms, when the living witnesses are silent.”[7] So if art reflects society (as longings are retained in Palestinian narratives), and society is reflected by structures of feeling in a given period (these longings are manifested into identities), space is transformed into the lived experience by its social subjects, not nature or material forms. Hence to occupy a space, it must not be conceived as a material space. Doing this, implies Ross, renders a space as geographically permanent, which is akin to reading a text as a purely linguistic and singular form. And to render the Palestinian space — the occupied Palestinian space — as geographically permanent is to go against the ideas of a poetic Palestine, one that has been liberated in its imagined form – a precursor, perhaps, to the more politically tangible.

To see an example of the poetic Haifa, a small selection of poems by Najwan Darwish was published in a journal I edited last winter: The City of Translation.

Read Part 1 here.

[1] From In the Presence of Absence, translated by Sinan Antoon.

[2] Etymology Online (see http://etymonline.com/) refers to mythos as “speech, thought, story, myth, anything delivered by word of mouth.” It is important to emphasize that myth is not used as its generic connotation – that which is untrue or fake.

[3] Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, trans. Colette Gaudin, (Connecticut: Spring Publications, Inc., 2005).

[4] ibid 19.

[5] Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, (New York and London: Verso, 2008).

[6] Quoted from Raymond Williams's Politics and Letters: Interviews with the New Left Review

[7 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, (London: Oxford University Press,1977).