Kamal Aljafari: A Recollection
Kamal Aljafari, Ismail Nashef, and I sat down to lunch in a cafeteria in the middle of nowhere. We looked like a shot from a Godard movie. Everything around us was dust or dusty. You could not tell if the high rises dwarfing us were rising or falling. Was this a warzone or a behind the scenes from a Kubrick film? Imagine a Godard shot in a Kubrick sequence: that was us. We stared at our mostly curry and chicken lunch made by guest workers from Kerala, contracted for a year or two at the gunpoint of their confiscated passports. The salt of the sea was in the air. 'I must make a film about this place,' Kamal said. 'What place?' – Ismail has a sublime sense of the histrionics. I thought the chicken leg looked uncanny. I had seen it before.
What are you doing here? Someone asked. Who me? Yes, you. The iodine of the sea is good for me. What you mean? Never mind. Have your curry chicken.
Kamal was born with a smile carved on his face. He is a Palestinian so he does not exist. He is a ghost from Palestine, a country now hidden to the naked eye. Above his carved-in-dispossession smile, Kamal's eyes are naked. He does not wear glasses. He is 20/20 by birth and political persuasion. His mother must have been a camera, his father a sound design engineer. He comes from nowhere – from the everywhere that is now the metaphor for Palestine.
'How do you write about art', I remember a student once asked me. 'I don't write about art,' I said; 'art writes about itself using me as a ghostwriter. That's all.' Art is experiential (not experimental). So must be writing about art. You share an existential angst with the work of art that resonates with you. You and the work of art are embedded in its traumatic moment of birth. The rest of art writing is commentary.
Kamal can chew and smile at the same time. But he hears and sees in syncopated distances when he shoots, and then goes to his editing desk and crafts a new melody between what he sees and what he hears. I always hear Dmitri Shostakovich's 'Second Waltz' when I talk to him, or when I watch his films. I can no longer imagine Kamal without watching his films in my mind, or watching his film without having a conversation with Kamal. The bifurcation is insincere.
I met Kamal Aljafari first through his art, and then in person. At the moment that we sat for the first time to share a conversation, a meal, a coffee, a drink, and a few other memories, I already knew him.
What is your relationship to Hebrew, I once asked a learned Palestinian friend who was born and raised 'inside' and speaks, reads, and writes Hebrew 'like a native!' 'Sardonic,' he said. What do you mean 'sardonic'? 'Have you read Anton Shammas's Arabesque,' he asked? Yes, I have. I have taught it to my comparative literature students for years. 'Lovely. That's sardonic.' 'What's sardonic in Arabic?' I asked Ayman El Desouki, my Egyptian literary critic colleague. He smiled away from his foul and tamiya at the Rokn el-Bashawat in Khan Farugh, where we usually hang out together with Atef and Eid and listen to Umm Kalthum and Abdelhalim Hafez. 'We don't do sardonic in Arabic,' he said. 'We do shisha.'
Kamal Aljafari's smile is sardonic. So is his cinema. He doesn't do shisha. He makes documentaries that dismantle the document.
Do you know Kamal? When Elia Suleiman comes to New York we go to Tanoreen, his favorite Palestinian restaurant in Brooklyn. Kamal who? Kamal Aljafari. Elia has a particular panache with his Palestinian cuisine and particularly his Arak; it's a whole song and dance and ceremony. No I don't. You should. 'Port of Memory.' What Elia and I do when we eat and drink is gossip about cinema. 'Did you see the latest Kiarostami?' Gossip is the most potent genre of knowing cinema, which Cinema Studies scholars are yet to learn. 'What about Kamal Aljafari.' Nothing. 'Just watch Port of Memory.' OK I will watch Port of Memory.
I was frozen when I saw the opening track shot of Aljafari's Port of Memory (2010). The patience, the poise, the panache, the balanced perseverance, the ghostly sound design. Where is this man from? Where are you from? I am a ghostly Palestinian, you just wrote. Yes. Sorry. What made you do that opening shot at night, I meant to ask, but decided not to: I did not want to lose its magic.
I once showed that opening sequence at an Oxford University film festival. I wanted to talk about memory. I forgot what I wanted to say once the clip was over. Put together the scariest Hitchcock shots of that frightful house on the hill in his Psycho (1960) and intercut these with that central violent sequence in Terrance Malick's Thin Red Line (1998). That is the opening shot of Kamal Aljafari's Port of Memory.
Kamal Aljafari is the chronicler of the inchronicable, I thought and wrote somewhere once; a visionary of the faded out. He is the invisible Palestinian making Palestine visible through that obscure object of desire when we watch something otherwise hidden to our naked eyes. We have seen it before. We know it for a fact, but had forgotten it. He goes somewhere and finds them and screens them and puts them in front of our eyes.
Kamal Aljafari has taught his camera how to manipulate, willfully, the reality that has done him wrong. Imagine all those billions of dollars of propaganda that those gaudy Zionist outfits have spent denying and stealing Palestine at one and the same time for decades after decades: entirely oblivious to the fact that with every inch of Palestine they steal, every olive tree they uproot, every ghastly highway they build over traces of Palestinian lives and memories, they make Palestine more visible. Just imagine that! They are busy erasing their own ugly settlements off the map of Palestine.
How does a Palestinian become a filmmaker – not a 'Palestinian filmmaker' the way they would call it in a politically progressive film festival, but a filmmaker first and foremost who has finally learned how to film the invisible fact of a homeland lost to the visible registers of seeing as believing. Kamal Aljafari, in that uncanny way, is the first filmmaker from Palestine over whose shoulder an Israeli colonial officer is no longer watching. He is the liberated filmmaker of a people over whom the Zionist project has categorically failed to implant a white European colonial officer demanding and exacting objection and refusal. He films his homeland as if it was never lost. He reduces the occupants of Palestine to disposable icons on a video screen. He follows Elia Suleiman like a bolder younger brother, but he is no longer angry or vindictive. He is one Palestinian birth certificate after Elia Suleiman's resounding 'Fuck you!'
Port of Memory (2010) (trailer)
Movie run time: 1 hour 00 mins
Somewhere between the Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's 1929 Un Chien Andalou and Mani Kaul's (1944–2011) entire oeuvre, is Kamal Aljafari's new film, Recollection (2015), where Aljafari taps into a disquieting vision of the ruins and debris in material and memorial evidence, pushing – as he does in his previous work – forward by leaps and bounds. Ruins and debris everywhere; ruins and debris as signs that need but fail deciphering. He does not mind. He likes them that way. He is allegorical. Kamal Aljafari is Walter Benjamin in pictures.
The significance of Recollection (2015), which we recently screened at Columbia University, is manifold, achieving two contradictory tasks in particular: dismounting the omniscient camera and/by staging the relic. This is what makes a Palestinian filmmaker true to a national cinema born out of despair and predicated on a trauma. Palestine is a national trauma: a nation born on trauma of loss. The visual relics of Palestine are the remnants of that trauma, of a homeland that a Palestinian owns by dispossession. No state, no settler colonial garrison state, can take that away from them. The Israeli nuclear bombs and the billions of dollars of even more weapons Americans give them for free is for naught.
By allowing the fragmented memory to stage and announce itself, an enduring philosophical task made essential as early as in Walter Benjamin's prophetic turn to relics and ruins in his theory of allegory, Aljafari wonders: who is watching, who is watching the watcher, and by what authority. The damning question, 'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?', is here staged with astonishing confidence and ease, with the threadbare power of a visionary artist taking the instrumentality of his own art to task.
The result is uncanny. You feel you have been there: but where, when, how, and now what? You will not make a decision. You cannot come to a conclusion. Kamal Aljafari is a filmmaker of the incommodious sign.
What is an incommodious sign? A sign that cannot be; a sign that refuses itself. Jean Baudrillard showed us in Simulacra and Simulation (1981) how signs signal the presence of now overwhelming the knowledge of what. Kamal Aljafari is the filmmaker of that what (Palestine) through the uncanny visuality of now (Zionist occupation, slaughter, and theft). Reality has become tangential to the sign itself, as Baudrillard saw it with saintly patience and perseverance. But here in Recollection and elsewhere, Aljafari shows you how this sign itself is on borrowed time too; that a filmmaker can teach his camera to play softball with the sign, ask it out for a date, seduce it into an incestuous bed.
We simulate, Baudrillard told us, we do not experience. We steal signs to pose the forgotten, Aljafari retorts in his cinema. Reality is not mediated by sign anymore, anywhere, Baudrillard discovered. True, Aljafari shows, but once thus signed, alternative realities can come back to haunt the sign. So yes, reality is replaced by signs; but in the wonderland of signs, realities collide to reverse-engineer a colonial robbery that has called itself Zionism.
Palestinians do not exist, one of their warlords once said. How prophetic! That is true. Palestinians are ghosts haunting the nightmare of Zionism. Kamal Aljafari is an exorcist in his Recollection; he brings ghosts back to life, from the ruins of Palestine. The Zionist film industry has, inadvertently, given him the evidence.
Reality approximates signs, as signs in turn haunt reality in Aljafari's camera. We must look like our pictures at any border crossing, not our picture like us. Aljafari takes that fact and fictionalizes it, where our picture too is lost in the archival chaos of a semiology of delusion and theft. Our reality, the reality about us, Baudrillard discovered, has disappeared into the thin air of signs; not their signs, but just signs, signs that have created a world of their own, and have a reality sui generis. Signs that point to other signs. Aha, says Aljafari in Recollection, I will take it from here. Yes 'cogito ergo sum' has become 'Here is me in my Selfie ergo sum'. In this carnival of simulacra, Aljafari shows that we are just a sign like any other sign: the centre of a periphery that does not exist.
Zionism as a European colonial project stole a land and built a settler colony on it and called it 'Israel'. Aljafari has confiscated the visual registers of that thievery and released them into the eternity of a Palestinian claim on that land. Zionists can never possess what they stole. Aljafari, and behind him the entire visual theory of Palestine, have stolen the stolen sign of that land and smuggled it back into their homeland.
Recollection (2015) (trailer)
Movie run time: 1 hour 8 mins
I began watching Aljafari on my IPhone, very early in the morning, the world was completely dark. His mind works like a dark poetry that refuses to clarify itself. He mixes documentary and fiction as if he does not know the difference. He does not recognize that difference. His cognitive denial is a political act of defiance informing an aesthetic move towards liberation. By the time we screened him on a wide screen on Columbia's campus, his dark poetry had become an insidious conspiracy between fact and fantasy.
Everything in that suspension between fact and fiction becomes, as if personal, memorial. Ramlah and Jaffa are as old as Palestine itself. Israel now claims them as part of its Google search map. Aljafari knows this world inside out, and he shows them inside out. It is as if he edits with his ears. I am convinced he hears his films before he sees them. In the displacement of Palestine he is totally at home. Uncanny but real. Google has wiped out Palestine off its map it calls Israel. But the Ramlah and Jaffa of Aljafari's films show how the world has different temptations.
In Port of Memory, Kamal Aljafari reinvents Jaffa, the port city that now must yield to the colonial shadow of Tel Aviv. But he cares not for any colonial claim on his maternal home, about to be stolen like the rest of Palestine. Palestinians have cultivated a strange sense of humor to deal with this robbery. Aljafari thrives at it. From the fragments he finds scattered about his occupied homeland, Aljafari films a whole picture that emerges like magic, or we wish it did. Ruins rule over Jaffa. Everything is in ruins, except the idea of Palestine that is thriving on these ruins. Totality is fascism. Fragment is truth. This much we learned, long before Kamal Aljafari, from Walter Benjamin, his kindred soul, his philosophical brother.
It is now the Israeli army versus Kamal Aljafari's camera. It is not a fair battle. The colonizer has already lost to the colonized.
From these ruins and that idea something naughty occurs. Aljafari starts collecting old melodramatic films shot in Jaffa. He needed them. He was not watching what was meant to be watched. He was watching what was not meant to be seen. He began in his mind's eye to physically remove the actors and their silly acting and concentrate on the background and foreground: on what these actors and their bad acting was showing by hiding. Like that boy in M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999), Kamal Aljafari began to see dead people.
'For many years', Aljafari says, 'I have been collecting Israeli fiction films shot in Jaffa as early as 1960'. Why would he do that? 'These are films in which Palestinians are disappeared, yet also exist at the edge of frames, visible in traces.' This is forensic cinema. This is when the invisible to the naked eye become visible to the artist and his camera, and when unbeknownst to themselves the thieves begin to provide the evidence of their own thievery.
'Preserved also', Aljafari says, 'a city, alive again in moving images, its gradual destruction over the decades chronicled film by film.' Here, the artist acts like an archeologist, a forensic architect, reverse-engineering the scene of a crime. Aljafari reverses in his cinema what Israeli archeologists did by digging in Palestine exclusively to document a Zionist claim on it – before Nadia Abu El-Haj exposed and scandalized their project in Facts on the Ground (2002).
Aljafari reverses the angle on that Zionist project, counter-edits the Israeli films to de-Zionize Palestine. 'From the footage of dozens of films,' Aljafari continues, 'I have excavated a whole community and recreated the city.' So what do we say now? 'Though out-of-focus, half-glimpsed, I have recognized childhood friends, old people I used to say good evening to as a boy; my uncle.' How did he do it? 'I erased the actors, I photographed the backgrounds and the edges; and made the passersby the main characters of this film.' He dismantled, literally, the Zionist narrative of normalcy and from what they had hidden he revealed the repressed truth. 'In my film, I find my way from the sea, like in a dream. I walk everywhere, sometimes hesitant and sometimes lost. I wander through the city; I wander through the memories. I film everything I encounter because I know it no longer exists. I return to a lost time.'
Kamal Aljafari is a Zionist nightmare, we discover as we wake up from a dream, watching his films.
'Kamal Aljafari remembers when Jaffa was transformed into civil war-torn Beirut', young scholars learn and teach us. Acts of memory haunt the artist like a malevolent muse, both painful and liberating.
'Aljafari recalls standing on the side of the road with a group of other children, eagerly awaiting a glimpse of Chuck Norris racing by in a van with the name of their school, "St. Joseph," printed on the door.' I cannot stand Chuck Norris. A few nightmarish times I have happened to see him on a round of channel surfing still pains my visual memory.
'Years later, while flipping through television channels in a hotel room in London, Aljafari was shocked to recognize . . . [a scene from that film he saw shooting]. He sat on the bed mesmerized, not by the action shots but by the background: a clear documentation of the Jaffa of his childhood, a city which has since been destroyed, renovated, gentrified and rebuilt beyond recognition.'
What never crosses the mind of the colonizers is that the colonized are watching.
Kamal I need some recommendations for a few young Palestinian filmmakers you might now. We want to invite them to Columbia and show their films and take them out for dinner at Tanoreen. Ok. Let me think about it. Ok. Think about it.
 Specifically, see Shimrit Lee, 'Reclaiming Phantoms in Kamal Aljafari's "Recollections",' War|Scapes, http://www.warscapes.com/reviews/reclaiming-phantoms-kamal-aljafari-s-recollection