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The Angel of History and the Ghetto of Gaza

Normally a city opens up to other cities, infinite in itself because infinitely open to the world; one moves with a certain freedom through space and imagination. What is it like instead to live and write from inside a ghetto, or an open air prison, or a city closed to other cities, one in which nearly every act of resistance is taken as a pretext by the warders to tighten that very straightjacket? A famous example of such writing comes to us from the great German-Jewish litterateur Walter Benjamin, in his essays written after Hitler’s rise to power. Fleeing the Nazis Benjamin committed suicide near the closed Spanish border, rather than risk being sent to a camp the next day. It was in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, however, that Benjamin wrote of “The Angel of History”. The figure of “The Angel of History” has been much discussed ever since.

Benjamin wrote:

“his eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread… His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he (the angel of history) sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been crushed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

In our century it is the Palestinians of Gaza who are experiencing mass incarceration of the kind the Venetian word “ghetto” once meant for the Jews of Europe. We can see this dilemma embodied in the prose poetry of Sumaiya el-Sousy, a poet living and writing in Gaza City, active internationally but rooted in her city. In her recent prose poem “The City” el-Sousy writes:

What will this sad, silent, fallen city by the old sea oppressed by time give you? It will give you a lot if you listen to its nightly voice strewn amongst the rustling of the trees and the lapping of the waves. No one tries to listen to that angelic voice emanating from it. Everyone only hears his own voice and strives to search for himself among the city’s heaps…Often I think if only geography wasn’t so clever, if only it bestowed the city with a few more coastal kilometers and released it from its existing borders; how would your seashore look, oh Gaza? Which ships would reach you? What would be the State of your residents, teeming with feelings of exile, cries, and fear? Perhaps it is the constant thought of escaping the city’s boundaries weighing on me, or at least the idea that my city is without borders, drowning in isolation. A city where whoever enters is lost, and whoever leaves writes himself a new life story. Now there is no leaving and no entering. A city of imprisonment that consumes its own inhabitants and which everyone wants to escape…

Sumaiya el-Sousy’s prose poem “The City” comes to us not from the eye of the storm but from the eye of something other – stranger, harder to define, more everyday, though just as unstable as a storm, both more bereft and more hopeful and alive. If it is a storm after all perhaps it is the one Benjamin writes of in his passage on “The Angel of History”. Certainly the angelic voice el-Sousy writes of is beautiful and grim. It tells of a city of infinite possibilities – reduced to a flat surface. It tells of a place in which one must struggle to hear the rustling of the trees. Yes, the Angel of History is certainly here, facing backwards, contemplating the past in all its bloody injustices as they call out to be righted, or to be avenged. But the Angel is already in flight. And there is something else here too, something other than vengeance or righteous indignation…

The difference between Benjamin’s text and el-Sousy’s lies not only in its perspective on “the Angel of History” itself – in his text it is an image, in her text it is a voice – but also in the “Never Again” inscribed into the situation of language after Benjamin. When uttered in its authentic meaning this phrase does not mean “never again” the ethnic cleansing of the Jews, but “never again” ethnic cleansing at all. Will the voice of such an awareness yet prevent one specific people from continuing to permit itself to seek such ethnic cleansing under other name?

El-Sousy’s haunting words press up against the glass walls of the cyber-ghetto, and the veiled walls of dream, and the actual guns enforcing incarceration and limiting speech and movement in the actual ghetto. As Jewish people we cannot but help recognizing ourselves, or our ancestors. All ages are contemporaneous. Let it not be said Gaza City is not without a human – or an angelic – voice.

LEONARD SCHWARTZ is a poet. He teaches at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. He can be reached at: schwartl@evergreen.edu

 

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