In this piece, which is a re-posting from the Asymptote blog, Theophilus Kwek interviews the Refugee Hosts writer in residence Yousif M. Qasmiyeh about his work, and the themes of displacement, exile and belonging that inform his poetry and writing. Read Yousif’s poetry for the Refugee Hosts project here.
Q&A with Yousif M. Qasmiyeh
By Theophilus Kwek, University of Oxford
“Refugees and Gods compete for the same place”
Born in Baddawi refugee camp in Lebanon, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh is a Palestinian poet and translator who currently teaches Arabic at Oxford University. His poems, translations, and essays have appeared in Arabic in An-Nahar and Al-Ghawoon, and in English in journals including Critical Quarterly, GeoHumanities, and Modern Poetry in Translation. Much of his recent research, as the Writer in Residence for the Refugee Hosts Project, focuses on ‘writing the camp’ and the dialectics of hospitality in both life and death.
Last year, Qasmiyeh collaborated with the Oxford University Poetry Society, the Oxford Students’ Oxfam Group and Oxford University PEN to translate Arabic-language poems pertaining to the Syrian refugee crisis for a small anthology, Flight, subsequently sold to raise funds for the Oxfam Refugee Appeal and an Oxford-based charity, OXPAND. It was in this capacity that I first met Qasmiyeh. The following exchange took place in late January, 2017.
—Theophilus Kwek, Chief Executive Assistant at Asymptote
Theophilus Kwek (TK): You’ve just returned from Oxford to Lebanon for several weeks over the winter, visiting the refugee camps while you were there. Each of these journeys must involve a complex set of changes: not least in your immediate linguistic and cultural context. Was there an aspect of this most recent journey that was most compelling to you as a writer?
Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (YMQ): These journeys have become regular since I obtained my British passport in early-2012. Their regularity is largely initiated by a combination of familial and research commitments. I mainly visit Baddawi camp (my place of birth) and the Nahr Al-Bared camp in North Lebanon. We might say that I go to the camps ‘through Lebanon’ and never ‘to Lebanon’. Indeed, this has been a recurring theme in my and Elena’s research with new [refugee] arrivals in Baddawi, in so far as refugees’ “arrival in the camp” has become the ultimate dynamic that has punctuated many refugees’ understanding of the occurrence of arrival [in Lebanon].
For me, as a person born in Baddawi, my arrival in that place has always been contingent on the presence of the camp. You may also say these are seasonal pilgrimages to one’s memories and traces, as I have argued in a co-authored piece titled ‘Refugee Camps and Cities in Conversation.’
When I am there I try to spend time with my elderly parents, my siblings and their families, but I also try to observe the changes that are occurring in the camps. The camps are no longer the same nor are their residents the same people. In order to acknowledge both the humane and inhumane repercussions of such places we have to see the faces in their absolute gift—the features and cuts that never lie about what is happening around them. These are the faces of those who are unsure about the definition of a place or the tenets that make a place a place. Everything in the camps seems to move both horizontally and vertically at the same time. People enter the place to contribute to the mass or masses therein but also to the verticality that has embodied itself in all these fragile buildings that are being (or in the process of being) built. Other refugees are entering their archetypal place, one might say. The city (at least in Lebanon) is no longer the only destination for all these new refugees.
In this process, I think the linguistic and dialectal dimension has become strikingly obvious. The dialects that are heard are now what avows the faces. Palestinian, Syrian, and Iraqi dialects are now uttered in the same space, in camps that have transcended the “gathering” sign to become the “gatherer”; the active participle, the doer whose main presence is dependent on being occupied and used. We hear the dialect to observe the face. This (dis)order has always attracted me to my camp. It attracts me for it is the dialect that we at times suppress to conceal who we are. It attracts me when such dialects are exaggerated or perhaps elongated to occupy a place that is neither theirs nor ours. The shibboleth has never been clearer.
TK: One of your many poems that has left a deep impression on me is ‘Thresholds’, part of a sequence that investigates and redefines particular terms—‘Fingerprinting’, ‘Invasion’, etc.—through individual experience. Here, you write, ‘Our threshold shall not die. It shall always be there for the enterers, the exiters and above all the escapees’. How do you view the multiple meanings that ‘thresholds’ can embody?
YMQ: The threshold is the concrete liminality of the house, but also the body that bridges and widens the gap simultaneously between the host and the guest, between one refugee and the other. Such an entangled and contradictory function becomes even more palpable in the refugee camp where space is inherently limited and congested. I would even say that the threshold in the refugee camp is the complex that presents “appropriation”—here taken to mean extending your house’s edge or the curb while at the same time understanding that space is a major issue therein—as an exteriorisation that normalises, stabilises, and bestialises a life that is supposed to be impermanent. In the poem that you referred to, my father is the main constructor and deconstructor of the threshold. In other words, he is the Palestinian who sees the camp as a construction that ought to be managed from within and therefore it is his duty as the father to widen and embolden its borders. I still remember that our threshold in the camp has undergone various alterations; first, it started as a body that was built simply to protect the vulnerability of our walls and then, soon after, it became the entity that in order to survive had to become more stable than the house itself. At times, I feel that in my home camp, Baddawi, there has been an unannounced war of thresholds between neighbours. In other words, who are the people who would eventually build the biggest threshold, perhaps a threshold that would sooner or later overshadow the house? I think that such changes are occurring and place as a concept is being investigated by the very people who are occupying it.
In response to your last point as per “Fingerprinting” and “Invasion” (in particular, in conjunction with the body of “Thresholds”), I think that sensing as both a querying act—a detection of an upcoming event that is yet to announce its exact features—and a terminus (to draw on Nancy’s The Necessity of Sense) is what sustains the (im)materiality of such happenings. I think that you are right in clustering them together and presenting them as a sequence—without of course imposing any sense of order on them. It is the body and its opposite (which is a body as well) that give us the impression that these poems/fragments of a poem outlast themselves because of these internal collisions, collisions of benign and at times destructive consequences. In writing about these events and others, we chase the camps as if we were chasing ourselves in details that are no longer there to be observed transiently but to be inscribed and re-inscribed to create a new archive, that of the upcoming and the future (following Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression).
TK: I’ve just read your recent, highly illuminating co-authored essay on how we must understand ‘neighbourly humanitarianism’ among refugees in Northern Lebanon from the starting-point of the Arabic etymology for ‘neighbour’. For a predominantly Anglophone reader like myself, however, pieces like these—which open up unfamiliar ‘ways of seeing’ through language—are unfortunately hard to come by. What would you say are some of the implications of overlooking language in writing, reading and thinking about refugee issues?
YMQ: This linguistic juxtaposition, whose aim was to unsettle the canonical understanding both of ‘who the neighbour is’ and who the ‘provider of humanitarianism is’, has been undertaken to redirect the ‘ritual’ of humanitarianism and its organically collisional selves to those who are themselves currently receiving, accepting or simply rejecting assistance. In order to do so, we purposefully decided to begin with the Arabic term jār (with all its multiple connotations and meanings), as a term that has been brought to the fore in what Fiddian-Qasmiyeh conceptualises as processes of refugee-refugee humanitarianism, and to place it face to face with Derrida’s notion of hospitality. In this way, we have (re)turned to Arabic the same way that refugees at times direct their sights to their language to question their language.
Another dimension that Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and I have been pursuing is how refugees (in their camps) are welcoming/rejecting other refugees, both in life, and in death. Indeed, if refugee-refugee relationality has, itself, been marginalised from academic and policy attention (due to a primordial focus on refugee-citizen relations), encounters during and after death have been totally ignored in the examination of refugees’ positionality vis-a-vis other refugee groups. In order for us to come to terms with the enormity of these “utterances” and their significance in the refugee-refugee nexus, we have to undertake such linguistic excavations. Firstly, to offer (in the sacrificial sense) ourselves to such new modes of seeing, at least from the refugee’s vantage point and his or her voice, and secondly, and most importantly, to acknowledge the presence of such tools that only belong to the refugee space and thereby can only be “sensed” if we turn to and dwell in that space. I would say that Levinas and Derrida have not only problematised the notion of hospitality, but I would even go as far as saying that they created its corpus for us to stare at and deconstruct once again.
TK: In 2009, you undertook a collaboration with Irish poet Bernard O’Donoghue for the See How I Land project, subsequently published in Modern Poetry in Translation. Both of you reflected on, and responded to, your identities as ‘outsiders’ here: has your sense of this deepened, or lessened over the years that you’ve been living and writing in the UK?
YMQ: I think that any outsider is also the total outsider. My collaboration with Bernard O’Donoghue was an attempt to act from within this circle of outsideness, to see if our respective thoughts on writing could be brought to the same space non-forcefully. I, in my turn, responded to the notion of holes in time, birth, and death in my poem “Holes” and Bernard tackled the spatiality of (im)migration through a set of historical fixities. The collaboration was meant to be a dialogue between two people whose spaces would never otherwise cross, but also two monologues that carry each other through the untranslatability of identity. Although I have my own reservations as per the word “identity”, I felt that branching out from it—or to use it as a threshold so to speak—was a beginning that would allow both of us our own beginning. I have always admired Bernard’s work and translated some of his poetry into Arabic as an attempt to continue the conversation at a later date. Perhaps the other “postponement” could pivot on the feeling of being welcomed or otherwise in a language that is not mine (in the genealogical sense). These are my personal battles that are, I would say, deepening as time passes. The way I used to view the English language in my home camp and the way I view it right now is very different to the extent that I feel I am dealing with two English(es). As I say this, I feel that it might be that it is our suspicion of languages that keeps us in constant flight; on the one hand, to escape ourselves, including what we call our things, and on the other hand, to take us back to languages and their respective memories to retrace our unfinished traces. This collaboration, I think, will remain somewhere in Bernard’s and my memories as the site and the sighting of a correspondence whose language is that of precariousness.
TK: Finally, you’ve previously co-written about how various facets of asylum-seekers’ identities—language, ethnicity, and country of origin, among others—have been politicized in the UK. How have you witnessed this process intensifying or taking on a new direction following the Brexit referendum last year?
YMQ: Everything seems to be moving towards uncertainty; as if uncertainty were becoming the only point of reference in our lives. It pains me to say that what we are witnessing right now is becoming worse, more inhumane and more dangerous day by day.
What we saw as we were working on our piece on Muslim asylum-seekers in the UK in 2010 was the vulnerability of the face, the face that has no place to turn to and yet remains where it is, to feign its presence. In one of my pieces I write: “refugees and gods always compete for the same place”. I think that it is the notion of co-presence that is being slaughtered before our eyes. But will it be the only offering? Or will it be the beginning?
When people who are seeking help come to us or to you, it becomes apparent that they are also surrendering their bodies (to us). They say:
We are here to see if you can see us with our eyes and be welcomed (or otherwise) in a tense that belongs to no one save to its tense and tension…