The Nakba Files spoke with Greg Thomas, Associate Professor of English at Tufts University (USA) and curator of the traveling exhibit “George Jackson in the Sun of Palestine,” which will run at Haifa’s Khashabi Theater from 28 November 2016 to 14 January 2017 (schedule here). Thomas is writing a book about George Jackson (1941-1971), a prominent member of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and political prisoner who was assassinated by state authorities in the U.S. The exhibit, which was also recently hosted by the African Community Center of the Old City of Jerusalem, highlights connections between Palestinian and Black American experiences of captivity.
The first part of this interview is available here.
Since the launch of the exhibit, you have been conducting interviews with Palestinian ex-prisoners. Can you say more about this project?
Well, I got wind of how some Palestinian ex-prisoners were talking about the George Jackson exhibit. I was told that they thought it was great and they wanted to know “What’s next?” This developed into a new project of interviewing former political prisoners and detainees in Palestine. I have interviewed about 40 former prisoners, women and men, across historic Palestine – across the West Bank and inside the Green Line at least – in an attempt to refuse the fragmentation that Zionism represents. We have to figure out how not to miss Gaza in the future of course. Many of these folk have stopped giving interviews, quite tired of how Palestine has become an NGO colony in many ways, yet have been willing and even excited to speak for this project and that excitement is embedded in this particular history of connection.
When approaching the interviews, I had a set of questions in mind about the connections between the Black radical tradition and the Palestinian struggle, whether the political connection in play is implicit or explicit. I also incorporated questions suggested by Black ex-captives in North America. For example, Dhoruba Bin Wahad wanted me to ask about the backgrounds of the guards in Israeli prisons (“Are there any Amerikan settlers?”); Kazi Toure was curious about how Palestinian prisoners protected their ranks from infiltration. Both are major Black anti-Zionist voices in North America today. Dhoruba attempted to come to Palestine himself for a conference on political prisoners in 2009 – to represent the Jericho Movement to Free Political Prisoners in the U.S. – but he was denied entry and detained for a time at the Allenby Bridge.
How have you found the Black radical tradition to reverberate among Palestinian prisoners?
One important theme for me has been that of captivity as a condition that extends beyond incarceration in a specific kind of building with prison bars. This is something we see at the center of George Jackson’s work and it struck me in Palestine. While working with Mahmoud Muna of the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem on a translation of a press release from the Abu Jihad Center, I learned that the Arabic word commonly used for political prisoners – aseer – is more literally “captive.” In the United States, there is widespread rhetoric now about the so-called “prison industrial complex.” I am much more taken with James Boggs’s formulation (from his 1963 book The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook), in which he speaks of a “military-economic-police bloc,” a formulation which indicates and pinpoints captivity far outside the walls of official prisons. This is a major point for George Jackson. (He wrote of the “inside prison” and the “outside prison,” for example.) It is also what Assata Shakur speaks of when she says we’re all prisoners, some of us in “maximum security” and some of us in “minimum security.” And it is what Samih al-Qasim understood when he wrote “From the narrow window of my little cell / I can see your big cell.” Jackson’s broader framework was one of colonial captivity, captivity that cannot be taken outside the context of colonization, occupation, imperialism, capitalism. There is no time for liberalism here. This is the idea that from the door connected these traditions and these figures for me.
I wanted to talk about the internationalism of the revolutionary prisoner movement at its finest in ways that go beyond Twitter and Facebook rhetorics of solidarity, of memes and t-shirts. There is so much work to be done. In the Q&A after one of my talks for a radical youth group in Ramallah, a Palestinian ex-prisoner stood up and personally testified to how Black Panthers traveled from North America to the Arab world for very concrete engagements in Lebanon in particular several decades ago. It would have been nice to read about this in Jean Genet’s Prisoner of Love. But this is just the sort of information I know some people are looking for right now: for history and evidence of praxes of solidarity that go beyond mere proclamation and that go beyond semiotic images of solidarity in motion. I have run into many former prisoners here who were aware of these Panthers, who knew about George Jackson’s work and even framed their narrative around his example. I felt this in the kind of affective kinship that many people have extended to me. On multiple occasions in Palestine when I was meeting people for the first time the meetings have ended up feeling more like reunions because the tangible and intangible connection with the Panthers in particular and the global history of Pan-African Black struggle meant a lot to them.
How has the Nakba figured into your conversations with Palestinian prisoners and in your work?
Well, I have long been interested in the resonances between the Nakba and the Maafa – this is the Swahili word chosen for what is otherwise dubbed the “Middle Passage” in the history of African enslavement in the Americas, in North America specifically in this case. Both terms translate to the same thing: disaster or catastrophe. Both are used for enormous dislocating experiences that go on to define ongoing lives of struggle. Whenever I hear “Nakba,” I think immediately Maafa. There is a need to insist on these terms in these languages because, as the argument goes, there is no way that the language of the colonizer – the language of the criminal who criminalizes us – can adequately express the experience of this crime, a crime against humanity, our humanity, and a crime against history.
The Nakba was a presence in the overwhelming majority of my interviews with Palestinian former prisoners (who might become prisoners anew at any time, we must add). I would begin by asking where they were from to find out who they are and how they began their lives in the revolutionary struggle. They would often narrate their histories in terms of origin in a now “far” place, followed by displacement around 1948. Each micro-autobiography was also a Nakba story, about families scattered and how people came to end up in Ramallah or Hebron from Haifa or Jaffa.
It may be helpful as well then to think of the ongoing Nakba as part of a regime of captivity, and not only as dispossession and expulsion, as it is commonly discussed by other academic perspectives in particular. This is no dichotomy. A focus on captivity could nonetheless highlight Zionism’s ongoing attempts at controlling Palestinians, not to mention others, “here and there.” In the context of apartheid in South Africa or Jim Crow in the US, people often think the term “segregation” accurately identified what was going on. But this is misleading – there was never really “segregation” by any name in those cases. There was always a line that the colonizer could cross when he saw fit for purposes of economic or sexual exploitation or any other reason and that the colonized couldn’t cross without facing murderous violence. The “separations” of “Apartheid” are breached in and out of colonial interests, as a rule. Similarly, when we think of the Nakba it is very much about removing Palestinians from land as well as controlling and containing them at whatever remove at the same time—in Gaza, in the West Bank, in the diaspora beyond. Look at the assassination of the escaped prisoner Omar Zayed, who was newly captive in seeking refuge in the Palestinian embassy in Sofia, Bulgaria. Also, one former prisoner whom I interviewed in Majd El Kurum described that village as “a West Bank-style refugee camp” in ’48 Palestine. We could talk about how gentrification operates like this in Palestine and the U.S. with all its attendant policing and state violence. Like Malcolm X said, a long time ago now, this is very much about the power of control and containment in the bloody occupation of land, wherever you are or end up – all limiting terminology aside.