I have never managed to write academically – with that sharp, clear argument, the short sentences, the streamlined examples – those three precise threads that carry your idea to its conclusion. I meander, hang ideas together loosely, take us to places that both make and don’t make sense. I tell stories. I can’t seem to help it.
But actually, as my friend and collaborator, Aya Nassar (2), has taught me – or maybe revealed to me, is a more apt description – it’s more than that. Stories have become (or maybe they have always been) my method; not just for writing but for seeing. The view from the story unravels things, in curves and side-alleys, holes and interstices. Rigid lines are meant to give way, to reveal dark, ravenous caverns. They slow us down, make us pay attention, force us to get stuck in the details.
It’s not nuance that we look for – I think academia has started to make me really hate that word - but layers, puzzles, debris, depths.
It is the storyteller in me that finds empathy, sees gaps, notices beauty, is haunted, feels ghosts. I hold onto those ghosts, I ask them for their stories. In order to feel, imagine, dream… hope.
Saidiya Hartman(3), one of my favourite storytellers, tells us to reckon with what can and cannot be known of past and present, to challenge but also respect the limits of lost stories and lost lives. In her endeavours to represent the journeys of the nameless, to tell counter-histories of the forgotten and disappeared, she illuminates other times, other histories. Lives that might have happened differently to those we think we know – beyond and in spite of the gaze of empire, colonialism, slavery, genocide. Beautiful, wayward, intimate lives.
This is how I wish I could tell stories. This is what I wish I was doing. Instead, I am stuck, with the stories of those we wish we didn’t know, wish we didn’t have to hold onto, wish had never been revealed to us. The stories that make us uncomfortable, make us sick. Because not all stories are good stories – and not all story-telling does good things.
I somehow found myself telling the stories of the Israeli state – following the material journey of colonialism. Looking for the wheels, cogs – the small and big systems that make colonialism work, that connect and conjoin the circuits of empire, of capital, of finance, of expertise. ‘Shiny things’ of technological wonder, the stuff fetishes are made of. Things that make the stories of the colonised disappear, made less important, less legitimate, less legible. Some more visible, some less visible. But all doing the work that ruins and makes ruins of other places, other lives.(4)
It is because of this work that I ended up in the ‘command centre’ at Magal Solutions – the border tech company that designed more than 90% of Israel’s ‘Super Smart borders’. Listening to a man, four-times my size, who looked like he spent hours every day lifting weights, staring at himself in the mirror. I could imagine him at the gym, winking at himself, while doing squats. Someone who seemed to revel in making others cower – who told me that 9-11 was a god-send for Israeli border-tech, because suddenly the world thought Israel knew how to contain brown and black ‘threats’. Who showed me what it’s like to look at a potential “infiltrator”, through the cockpit of a drone – one that sits at the Egyptian border, waiting for asylum seekers to cross the fence. I literally went home to take a shower afterwards.
Perhaps we can talk about what it means to receive stories for which we share no warmth, no empathy – triggers visceral, explosive anger. What are the stakes when we want to see the teller and everything they represent and believe in, burn? But also, what do we – no, what do I do when I know I receive these stories because of the very same privileges and structures I say I want to burn.
How do I sit with that?
What kind of violence lives in me and through me, when I hear, hold and then tell this story? Should I be telling this story?
Many friends, colleagues, students and strangers have heard me tell the tale of Israel’s useless train to nowhere turned train to everywhere, over and over again; a constant refrain on repeat. There’s a rhythm to it now, to how I tell it: The HaEmek trainline was launched in 2016 (in its own parlance – “re-inaugurated” in 2016). It travels 65 km and makes 9 stops. The journey is heartbreakingly beautiful, surrounded by green fields and mountains, moving eastward through backwater towns. There’s almost no city, no buildings, no people. Connecting the littoral of the sea and the edge of a river, its interlocutors dreaming of the day that a bridge might enable it to move across that river, if only the state that invented it could get its shit together, harness its potential, its imminent future. A future it is already mapping, speculating; some people think it already exists, not just within Israel, all over the region, all over the world. And so they send their investments, hand over blank checks – political checks. Because maybe, just maybe, there can be a train, there can be a line of connection – and we can pretend it has nothing to do with politics, with violence, with colonialism.
Because this train is always intentionally far removed from the news of pogroms, apartheid walls, daily murders, choking communities, collective resistance, streets filled with life, anger, protest. A refugee camp bombarded by soldiers.
As Gokce Gunel might tell us, it inhabits an ‘other space’, ‘an other time’, off-grid, out of sight.(5) Intentionally invisible, even if it is always present in, always permeating the checkpoints, the drones, the surveillance grids, the soldiers. In Palestine, through Palestine, over Palestine. Even if we can’t see the connection, it’s always there.
As I’ve said, everyone has heard me tell the story of this train a million times. I wanted to try to tell you something else about it here, but then again, there is something about putting a story on repeat. Maybe we come up with new insights, new details, new understandings.
So, I always start from this point in the middle of the story (inspired by yet another story teller, Anna Tsing, who tells all good stories must start in the middle of things)(6) – of a fantasy, a train that runs out of track four km shy of the border with Jordan, and yet is meant to connect the region, make it normal for people and things to go from Haifa to Dubai in a single, connected thread – the space blank in between. I try to sit with that, think with that: a fantasy that works to intertwine the present and an as-yet non-existent future; one also dependent on a re-written past. In which not just this railroad, but all railroads produce connection, opportunity, stability.
But trains don’t connect, they isolate. The were built as part of and integral to imperial, colonial and racial capitalist interventions, whether by the Ottoman or the British or the French or the Germans or the Americans – or Israel or the UAE. As Manu Karuka(7), another storyteller tells us – although this one tells stories about trains and from trains, like me – railroads were inherently bound up with military conquest, with re-writing and alienating Indigenous trade relations, with erasing Indigenous sovereignty, with encouraging imperial competition. With blockage. With disruption. And no matter where they were made, those first railroads were intertwined with blood. Not just because of what they did or enabled, but how they were paid for, how they were made: financed by the slave trade, managed by colonial administrators, and made with indebted and conscripted labour.
Poor Chinese, Indian, Ottoman, Arab and African labourers and soldiers died building these lines, in the most extreme and unsafe conditions. They blew up the mountains, they destroyed farmlands, they gouged out the rivers, they forced people off lands, and then forced the same people to set the dynamite, line up steel gages, place the track.
The wonder of trains.
But even worse than the train is no train – or so we’re told, in these stories of fantasy futures, of financial circulations, of ever-moving, ever-unstoppable, ever-faster, ever-more secure chains; the train is going to harness all of this. Connection is the way of the future – disruption is death.
(disruption is everywhere else, don’t let it happen here; death is disruption, too…).
As cautionary tales, we can (and I do) walk through places the train used to go; places where offices and workshops are covered with spiderwebs, windows broken and boarded up; empty reminders of a past where this place used to matter. But now steel rails have been left to rust and desert dust has swallowed them, inching outwards to a town, accompanying the now-deserted store fronts, the empty market, the quiet streets.
I turn back to the where the bodies of train engines and carriages have been left in rows, upon rows, their forgotten carcases bleached white in the sun; a railroad graveyard. Connection is everything.(8)
When I sit with this train story, what am I trying to understand? Say? Do? Disrupt? There’s easy answers: I’m trying to disrupt the fantasy, disrupt the connection – other connections are possible, aren’t they? Other disruptions are possible? I still believe that.
The story – living in disruption, living against the smooth flows of colonial materials – helps us pay attention, gives space to that possibility; to not just write counter-histories, but as Lamia Moghnieh tells us, to write, imagine and generate counter-futures.
Especially if we consider these stories as part of collective practice, collective holdings, collective disruptions and collective futures. I don’t want to tell stories alone.
(1) A version of this piece was presented at BRISMES’ 2023 annual conference, at Exeter University (5 July).
(2) In addition to the conversations we have shared over many years, Aya Nassar’s writings have inspired by thinking and approach to this piece. Some examples include: Nassar, A., 2018. Where the dust settles: fieldwork, subjectivity and materiality in Cairo. Contemporary Social Science, 13:3-4, 412-428. Nassar, A., 2021. Geopoetics as Disruptive Aesthetics: Vignettes from Cairo. Geohumanities, 7(2), pp. 455-463. Nieuwenhuis, Marijn and Nassar, Aya (2020) 'Losing ground : a collection of Holes.', Emotion, space and society., 36 . p. 100677.
(3) See in particular: Hartman, S., 2019. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. New York: W. W. Norton; Hartman, S., 2008. Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, Number 26, 12: 2, pp. 1-14
(4) Stoler, A, 2013. Imperial Debris: On Ruins and Ruination. Durham: Duke University Press
(5) Gonel, G, 2019. Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi. Durham: Duke University Press.
(6) Tsing, A., L., 2004. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
(7) Karuka, M., 2019. Empire's Tracks: Indigenous Nations, Chinese Workers and the Transcontinental Railroad. Berkeley: University of California Press.
(8) This section was inspired by fieldwork in Ma’an Jordan, and has been written into a short reflection piece: Plonski, S., 2022. Ma’an’s Material Debris – the Railroad Graveyard. In: Guirado, J (ed), Political Economy of Infrastructure in the Middle East, SEPAD.
(9) Moghnieh, L., 2021. (Interrupted) Writing in Apocalyptic Times: Suffering, Survival, and Rebuilding. Perpetual Postponement. Available at: https://perpetualpostponement.org/interrupted-writing-in-apocalyptic-ti…