Can the Palestinian Mourn?

Amidst the constellation of responses to the October events, I read Judith Butler's article “The Compass of Mourning.” Charting mourning as a compass, Butler describes its transformative potential to release Palestinians and Israelis from recursive, cyclical, and unproductive violence. In the article, Butler engages in a dual act of condemnation and contextualization, not settling for what she posits as a singular narrative of blame. Butler insists on an ethics of accountability that transcends unidirectional fault—refusing, for instance, the assertion by Harvard's Students for Justice in Palestine that the moral onus of the October violence rests on the shoulders of Israel as the statement clearly states that the “apartheid regime is the only one to blame.” The SJP’s statement anticipates the violence that Israel would enact on Gaza, and points out that the  October events did not occur in a “vacuum.” In Butler’s judgment, such a view obscures the agency of Palestinian subjects, who remain responsible for their actions despite the context. Butler posits mourning as a departure strategy from the logic and cycles of violence, a space where cycles of retribution may be interrupted, and a new ethical relationship may be inaugurated though a recognition of shared suffering and vulnerability. Butler anticipates a critique or debates on “relativism and equivalences,” and is aware of the fact that Palestinians are denied the “right to mourn.” She also charts nonviolence as a mode of resistance that enables a more “non-violent world in which we all want to live.”


Butler is engaged with the debates in the Global North, where mourning and grieving all victims equally can provide a direction to both be ethical and engage productively with the region and its politics and history. There is much to agree with Butler, including her insistence on contextualization, the centrality of histories of violence as she weaves a highly vague article that both posits specific positions and withdraws them or qualifies them with specific injunctions. But she retains a binary form of moralism articulating an outright moral judgment despite her insistence on revealing contexts, structures, and histories of violence. Butler unequivocally condemns Hamas's actions, stating, "I do condemn without qualification the violence committed by Hamas. This was a terrifying and revolting massacre. That was my primary reaction, and it endures.”


However, it is important to note from the outset that when it comes to rationalizing violence, Palestinian violence has always been rendered unthinkable, profane, without “qualification” and illogical. Israel’s military is afforded analysts, institutional backing, and hundreds of think-tanks and media descriptives that debate and discuss the minute details of its military operations. The vast majority is sympathetic to Israel and its military even when it commits outright crimes, and even employs Israeli blurring of International Humanitarian law and rules of war as lessons for their future employment in other imperial wars. It is important to note that no such attention is devoted to Palestinian political violence, its history, the logic of its military actions, and the history of tactical, operational and strategic dilemmas that Palestinians face.


This asymmetry is so clear that it goes unsaid. It feeds into narratives of Palestinian despair and profanity that are generally condensed in the figure of the Palestinian fighter. Beyond the vagueness of whether Butler’s compass applies to the immediate context of Palestine, or whether it is only confined to those observing from afar, or whether the compass is offered to the intelligentsia and academic institutions of the Global North or also the streets of Gaza, Ramallah, Jenin and Tulkarem, my paradoxical contention here is that Palestinian resistances, in their different modes of articulations and manifestations, fight for the commencement of the process of “mourning” in attempt to regain the “right to mourn.”

Give Me Your Guts | By Omid Shekari | 2021 | Gouache, ink, powdered bullet shells on paper

Palestinians’ Inability to Mourn

In the face of unyielding violence and a political horizon drenched in loss, I find it imperative to articulate the subsequent thesis: The Palestinian collective endures within a temporal chasm, wherein the durée—essential to the rites of mourning—is systematically arrogated and denied. This denial of chronal refuge, this impediment to commence the formal rites of mourning, even as uncompleted work, enunciates a collective state of perpetual deferral of mourning. This condition is formed and shaped through historical contingencies as Palestinians navigate the attrition of their physical space—the killings, the politics of postmortem incarceration and defilement, the carceral system of mass confinement, and the Palestinian subjectivity entangled within a temporal suspension—a “deferral” is formed within a chronology knotted by the magnitude and recurrence of loss, where Palestinians are barred from mourning, but also refuse to start the work of detaching themselves from the object of their loss. 


Mourning, as an existential imperative, presupposes a temporality—a durée—that facilitates the enactment of grief, the alchemy of healing, and ultimately, a confrontation with the precariousness of existence as a result of grappling with an object of loss, and therefore ultimately assumes an ability to accept and recognize loss through a process of detachment, per the Freudian lexicon. It requires a stage where the psyche can engage in rituals that foster a maturation and an interpellation of death and finitude, thereby freeing the subject from illusions of autonomy and the pretense of invulnerability, and assumes its ability to detach itself (albeit incompletely) from the object of loss.


Indeed, a fundamental premise of mourning is that it enables subjects to cultivate humility in the face of mortality. As they acknowledge the object of their loss and engage in a process of accepting it, they may live a life that mourns its own death before the actuality of its death. Derrida highlights the latter when he weaves a notion of mourning as conversation with the dead, open-ended and fundamental to the constitution of the self. In fact, Derrida depathologizes mourning, modeling it as a continuous process that both locates death within the self, but also in the realm of the “beyond.” Mourning, as understood through Derrida's lens, involves not only acknowledging the loss of another through this continuous conversation, but also entails a preemptive mourning for one's own death-to-come, a process that fosters a sense of humility. 


Yet, being born under the spatial and temporal dominion of a colonizing “other” not only administers this humility daily, not only provisions an encounter with the limits of autonomy, but also inflicts humiliation as a stark recognition of one's raw dependency on the necropolitical power that Israel’s military and settler machinery have over Palestinian existence, especially when the disembodied face of the other appears as an infinite gaze of revulsion and desire for a corporeal and political erasure of the Palestinian subject. 


This is, indeed, perhaps the fundamental issue at hand: How can one grieve within a space of relentless revulsion that erects barriers, redefines boundaries, desecrates bodies, and takes lives arbitrarily? I am reminded of the first question Palestinians ask when they learn of another martyr fallen at a checkpoint in the West Bank, or when my friend in Gaza tries to make sense of Israel’s aerial assaults. The first detail Palestinians seek is, “What had the martyr done?” or, as a friend in Gaza suggested, “Perhaps they are targeting the families of those involved in the October 7 attack.” Such rationalization ultimately conceals the fact that Israel exercises its power to kill simply because it can and it wishes to. Furthermore, settlers can maim, arrest, defile, and demolish one's existence with so-called “precision,” thereby giving the massacres, the hostage-taking, and the terror a facade of legitimacy, violence made intelligible and coherent in western mainstream discourses. Not to mention that post-mortem tears of some of its outspoken critics in its own newspapers also provides Israel with an image of a society that kills with impunity, yet allows an articulation of “tragic guilt.”


To encounter this disembodied and infinite gaze of revulsion, which dominates a spatial and temporal domain of revulsion, is to live on the threshold of death, where loss is not only what “happened” but also what is yet-to-come. Not only does this horizon of revulsion and loss act as an acknowledgment of the finitude of the Palestinian people, but also as acknowledgement of the annihilation of Palestinian subjectivity. 


Such enactment and commencement of mourning is disrupted and foreclosed for Palestinians. The constancy of loss fractures the temporality essential for mourning, rendering it a luxury unattainable amidst relentless and recurrent bereavement. In fact, as one emotional response to this recurrent and intense loss, the Palestinian subject simply becomes breathless and confined to a paralytic state. A version of melancholic subjectivity ensues, one that denounces resistance to the occupier and rejects the hope that such resistance brings forth. In this mood, the past appears tragic, the present perpetual, and the future impossible. Indeed, within such a melancholic disposition, Palestinians become attached to loss itself, where Palestine is on the one hand sustained as an object of loss—present yet absent, whole yet deformed. No mourning is possible here, as Palestinians in their melancholic disposition either wish to hold on to the object—Palestine or loved ones—but also supposedly must let it go as a condition to go on living. 


Palestinians, acutely conscious of their fragility and the circumscriptions imposed upon them, dwell in what can only be described as a continuum of negation and effacement. This reality strips Palestinians not only of their terrestrial dominion but also of the sonorous memories of their kin, subjects them to the caprice of death meted out from the skies, constricts their physical autonomy, and has insidiously fostered amidst their ranks a governing entity—the Palestinian Authority. One must inquire: Does the PA not embody a melancholic gesture in response to loss, akin to a government reminiscent of Vichy, sustaining the semblance of “Palestinianism” whilst concurrently undermining the very pillars upon which its future ought to be erected? Its political currency seems invested in the paradox of maintaining Palestine as an elusive and vanishing entity, a phantasm, rendered spectral by the masquerade of its own presence—a simulacrum of sovereignty that belies any substantive sovereignty, and a gatekeeper of the Palestinian ability to mourn. In this form of melancholic disposition, the object of loss should be sustained as such, and political operability is invested in foreclosing the possibility of Palestine. 


When the work of mourning is prevented from beginning, and the object of loss is internalized in the collective psyche, the Palestinian subject’s relation to the world becomes indeed melancholic. Their political injunction is invested in deconstructing the political potential of the martyr, narrative of heroisms, and potencies and potentialities of resistances. Palestine is fragmented not only as distinct materiality, but also in the psyche of a subjugated population persevering within a horizon of settler revulsion and erasure. The settler-machinery invests in the melancholic response to its machinery of death, and disables the chronal refuge of mourning. 


It could be argued that within this spatial and temporal horizon of settler-inflicted loss and revulsion, the very act of public mourning engenders the obliteration of the “Palestinian subject.” This process does not foster identification with a universal form of suffering that transcends ethno-national narratives and boundaries. Instead, it gives way to bitter resignation and a state of political paralysis, paving the way for the settler to successfully replace the native. Yet, this paralysis does not lead to a release from anger or narratives of invincibility; it enforces a condition of silent subjugation. To mourn internally does not broaden the Palestinian subject’s horizon of universal and ethical identifications. In fact, Palestinian mourning within the horizon of erasure may entail political self-annihilation.


Ibrahim Nasrallah makes this case in his novel Gaza Weddings, when a mother speaks of mourning and its relation to the colonial gaze: 

We cry all the time, because we know that that moment will come: the moment when we will have to betray our grief. And do you know who really forces us to rejoice [at the funeral of our loved ones]? No, it is not our families, or our kin or our neighbors, it is not them. Those who force us to rejoice at the funerals of our martyrs, are their killers. We rejoice aloud so as not to give them, even for a moment, the illusion that they defeated us. If we live to see it, I will remind you that we will cry long after liberation! We will mourn those at whose funerals we were forced to rejoice.

In the interstices of Nasrallah's figure of the “mother,” we encounter the phenomenon of crying—not as a finite event, but as an infinite recurrence that sequesters itself within the intimate enclosures of Palestinian life, an affective reaction to loss that privately acknowledges the precariousness of being Palestinian, attempting to survive within a horizon and spatial dominion of revulsion and erasure. These are the domestic spaces where the spectral presences conjured by Mahmoud Darwish hover, where the expressions of those whose lives have been cleft from the body politic are not merely displayed but invoked, trembling in the hands of those who remain. In State of Siege, Darwish locates the truth of loss in the intimacy of the household: “The martyr warns me: Do not believe their grieving ululations—believe my father who bursts into tears when he looks at my photo: ‘How did you manage to trade places with me, my son—leaving this world before me?’” Mahmoud Darwish synthesizes the image of the truth of loss in the father and mother gazing at the image of their martyred son hung on the walls of the house or held in their jittery hands. An earnest crying that substitutes the morning coffee. The truth of the infinite shedding of the sheer vulnerability of life within a “death-world.”


This is indeed why for Palestinians, to grieve is to engage in a betrayal of sorts—a betrayal that bespeaks a collective consciousness cognizant of the impossibility of genuine mourning under the yoke of asymmetric power. Only within the possibility of a seismic reconfiguration of these relational forces—decolonization, politics of retribution, and ethics of justice—might the work of unimpeded mourning begin. It is at this juncture that Palestinian identity, often relegated to the defensive and defiant, might strive towards an elevation, crafting from the debris of historical onslaughts a new form of ethical relationality as proffered in Butler’s schema. 

Absence | By Omid Shekari | 2021 | Acrylic on canvas

Betraying Grief and Building Grievance

There's no need to cast a wide gaze—Wael Al-Dahdouh, bureau chief of Al Jazeera in Gaza, embodies the testament to loss and an ostensible inability and unwillingness to begin the work of mourning, manifesting what Nasrallah might have alluded to as a “betrayal” of his own heartrending sorrow. Amidst a torrent of personal tragedies, namely the loss of his wife, his son Mahmoud, his daughter Sham, his grandson Adam, and other kin, Al-Dahdouh persists in his journalistic duty, resolutely occupying the visual field as the voice for Gaza's agony. It's as if Al-Dahdouh consciously postpones the rites of grief, a strategic deferral, seizing control of his narrative presence, refusing to grant an iota of satisfaction to the Israeli onlookers who might wish to witness his shattering, collapse, and his reduction to a non-entity on the television screen. His decision to continue bearing witness in the face of immense personal loss is not just professional commitment, but also a profound act of defiance and a reclamation of agency that manifests in Al-Dahdouh’s willingness to become a symbol of defiance in relation to targeted and destroyed Palestinian civic space. 


This is also why Palestinians have largely attempted to clear away from constructions of monuments, museums, and material artifacts of loss. For us, the sheer horizon of the coming and recurrent “loss” makes such objectified, unmoving testaments to historical loss a “betrayal” of sorts due to the monuments’ power to declare loss as past. Palestinians indeed grieve the immediacy of their personal loss, yet they do not mourn publicly and collectively; they are vulnerable and precarious, yet their ultimate form of transgression and defiance lies in the ululations that surround death, even when they “infinitely cry” in the privacy of their homes.


Within the Palestinian landscape, marked by loss and revulsion, melancholy assumes a dominant role. However, it transcends mere melancholization, which manifests as a persistent affirmation of an internalized, fragmented Palestine—a landscape where affection paradoxically intertwines with the very forces undermining Palestinian political and social existence. This melancholy is symptomatic, revealing deep scars borne from enduring defiance and resistance against the mechanisms of settler-colonialism across various sites of resistance. It is mirrored in the fracturing of friendships within interrogation chambers, the grappling with the loss of the beloved martyr and the fear of another loss, the struggle of some to grieve adequately, the choice of emigration as an individuated survival strategy, or the retreat in the face of escalating conflict, where Palestinians test the limits of their courage, steadfastness and poetics of resistance, and chose to bear existence instead of a “freedom” that is only attainable through declaration of martyrdom and death before the actualization of martyrdom and death.


Yet, in Melancholy Acts: Defeat and Cultural Critique in the Arab World, Nouri Gana weaves a different articulation of melancholy. To Gana's mind, melancholy blossoms into forms of resistance, emerging at the crossroads of sorrow and defiance. It does not yearn to sever ties with the entity of loss, nor does it endeavor to immortalize loss itself. Rather, it transforms grief into a claim or a grievance, becoming an integral thread in the psycho-affective fabric of resistance. It echoes in the calming voice of Al-Dahdouh, microphone in hand, tears streaming; in the resonant ululations of a mother as she bids farewell to her son; in the defiant spirit of the warrior who, amidst mourning his impending martyrdom and the loss of comrades, kin, and beloved, summons a strong heart, an unyielding prowess to move his body at the nexus between human and machine, at the gallow of a tank. 


It is paradoxical indeed because in the very acts of resistance, in the very attempt to break Israel’s militarism, is an active yearning to mourn without interruption, to construct a chronal refuge where tears do not have to be defiant.


Zionist Grief

Beginning the work of mourning necessitates acknowledging the colonial condition, and therefore also the distinct performances and possibilities of mourning, melancholy, and grief. It is at this juncture that Judith Butler's argument falters; she depoliticizes mourning, failing to account for the inherent structural power involved, even though she points towards these contextual elements. This leads her to hold Palestinians equally accountable to the structure that produces subjective violence. That is, she holds both the state of Israel and the Palestinian resistance groups accountable, equally.


Moreover, the Palestinian inability and unwillingness to begin the process of mourning is paradoxically entwined with an Israeli sense of invincibility, wherein not only is mourning permitted, but it is also weaponized and projected as political anger and aggression. This colonial form of mourning transforms Palestinians into modern-day equivalents of the Amalekites, fueling a yearning for power, autonomy, and unchecked militarism. It engenders a racialized discourse that redirects the grief and anger of the Holocaust onto a people who simply existed where the state of Israel was to be established. We reside in this place, whether by accident, coincidence, or sheer fate, as lambs sacrificed at the altar of Jewish memory of vulnerability, which is politicized every time we dare to resist. 


Indeed, Israelis need to learn to mourn, to recognize their vulnerability and finitude, and to banish this intrinsic oceanic desire for vengeance enacted on our bodies as a technique meant to reassure themselves, as colonizers, of their supremacy and invincibility. It is vengeance that also displaces memories of vulnerabilities in Europe onto Palestinian bodies. I do not want to point here to the many ironic tragedies (not equivalences), including that today Palestinians will utter what many Jews across the world utter when they speak of the horror and pain of the Holocaust: that their entire family from their father’s side, or their entire family from their mother’s side, or even their own family was totally and completely eradicated. 


The wager of Palestinian resistances is in fact to enable the colonizer to meet the limits of its own self-proscribed and declared omnipresent power, to perhaps remind it of its fragility sheltered by Iron walls, techniques of domination and control, and its own sense of invincibility and godliness, to commence the process of mourning in the metropole. Resistance lives as the specter that exposes Israel’s fragility, one that hinges itself on the possibility of a reckoning. The Palestinian resistance emerges not merely as a force of opposition but as a textual rupture in the fabric of Israeli hegemony. This resistance is a form of testing—a way to probe and unsettle the perceived invulnerability and godlike stature of the Israeli state. It permits the colonizer to start the process of mourning, to encounter the limits of its power, exposing the fragility of the narrative it has constructed for itself. 


For Palestinians to begin the work of mourning is for the war in Gaza, and the slow unbridled horizon of living within a horizon of revulsion and erasure, to end. Until there is a real ceasefire, one that allows us to commence the work of mourning, our resistance will fight for our right to mourn.

Abdaljawad Omar

Abdaljawad Omar is a writer, analyst and Lecturer based in Palestine. He is also a PhD candidate at Birzeit University writing on the formations of Palestinian resistance in the Great Intifadas.

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Abdaljawad Omar is a writer, analyst and Lecturer based in Palestine. He is also a PhD candidate at Birzeit University writing on the formations of Palestinian resistance in the Great Intifadas.

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