Last time Bilal and I met was for a video interview in Beirut for X-Mission. One of the things we talked about was the experience of being uprooted and displaced, as well as the fundamental function of the media in this experience. The media not only documents this state of being in the world, but also makes it possible by providing a remote, de-territorialized site.

Ursula: In our last conversation, you have said that the Palestinians constitute a veritable landscape of globalization. Although they exist in Lebanon, they live outside Lebanese public time, in a similar way to how Al Qaida lives in media world time, existing in an image rather than a real place. There seems to be an intimate relationship between the disconnection from your personal geographical source, the experience of time, and the role of the image as a means of transportation or displacement. Now that you have been living outside Lebanon for some time, not entirely by choice, I would like to reopen this conversation with you about how these ideas of time-space disruptions relate to your own creative practice as a writer.

Bilal: Right, I believe that while the Palestinians are physically living on Lebanese soil, they are part of a landscape of globalization. They are always ready to appear in photographs, at once as victims and criminals. But what I mean by ‘Lebanese public time’ is somewhat uncommon. In Lebanon, we lived under the influence and pressure of public time. A strange transfer occurred during our multiple revolutions, where we traded public space against public time. We lived in public space for several months or maybe years. We were at once the spectators of our glorious revolution, the victims of the regime we were fighting, and the heroes of our destiny. That’s how we lived in public space. This led us to experience the loss of this space as public, for we used it as a place for both living and showing off.

I object to this sort of life. People need to live in their private sphere and declare their needs and aspirations in the public space. A nation cannot live in its public space without losing its identity. People should be aware that when they find themselves at the heart of public time, that’s when they lose control of their own destinies. First and foremost, living in public time means that you must seek any possible attention overseas. You turn into an actor, become dependent and needy for help. At the same time, you take intensive care of your image, instead of your life, identity or future. While the proud revolution is still present on the internet and in archives, we have lost our identity. For this reason, I think that displacement is not the biggest issue. Not in my case, at least. In frantic celebration, we burned the roots of our country and now it doesn’t matter where I live.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, are more present than before. They still have traces of their identity and honestly, it’s a young identity which should live on, healthy and strong for a long time. They have a vision of the country they plan to build. Lebanese people still have a homeland but they have lost its spirit.

Now that I live in the U.S., I wonder how this country is able to form and conserve the different identities from all over the world. It seems to be the last place on earth where anyone is able to build one’s identity, even one’s simulacrum homeland. Here, I can be Lebanese more than I could be in Lebanon. This is true also for Palestinians, Iranians or Koreans, who can be themselves more than they could in their countries of origin.

Ursula: Granted, but I would imagine that the benefit, or the challenge, of this move for you doesn’t primarily lie in being able to fully live a national identity but to find a new position to speak from. For a writer and journalist who has consistently drawn on local and national events for his source material, it must be quite a shift to be projected elsewhere. How would you describe the process of reorienting yourself under the new set of conditions? I know from my own experiences of moving to other cultural contexts that it can take a long time before you can start being productive on a deeper level.

Bilal: I don’t know if I have found a position to speak from. When I came to Los Angeles two years ago, I had only one goal: leaving a country I felt wasn’t mine anymore. Now I can’t remember if I had any hopes or dreams of ever re-speaking again. Let’s consider that I had.

What occurred to me early on is that in the US, I am a reader here, while over there I was a writer. The same goes for art. I came here with some hope, but I have recognized that being a good artist there doesn’t mean I will be a good one here. It’s not about my skills or education; it depends on the relationship between me and the location. Here, I don’t have a solid memory from which to build a personal voice in my work. I wrote many pieces, but they all seem like crying on papers. They sound like urgent cries of love. When I did write about Los Angeles, it felt like a closing for my previous artistic project, it felt closed and dark.

This reminds me of Elias Canetti, the only person I know of who lived without belonging to any country. That’s why he was as sharp and dry as a sore throat. I like him very much, but I wonder: “Could I write like him?” I don’t think so. Writers without countries, like me, used to be more poetic than I would like to be.

Ursula: Are you saying that there are only few valid models for exiled cultural theorists? Or what kind of writing do you have in mind?

Bilal: What I’m saying is that there is a profound difference between writing and reading. You see, I was a writer and was living with that. But some writing simply cannot get out of the narrow place of reading. The difference between writing as a writer and writing as a reader is huge. As a writer, you must stay attached to your practice in a personal way. Writing is like a painful desire. I usually hesitate and suffer for a long time before I start writing. In my experience, writing completes the absences in life, it closes the gaps. Whenever I try to start writing it’s a real struggle, I feel like I am entering the dark side of death. Writing as a reader is a different matter altogether. The reader-writer loves to show off like a dancer. He or she is always proud of what they know and their pride looks like a totalitarian act. I don’t like enjoyable knowledge. Knowledge, for me, is a kind of torture. Annafari, an old Arabic thinker, said: Whenever the vision gets wide, the statement must become narrow.

Ursula: If I understand correctly, in your case, the primary material for writing is not existing texts, but your own experiences, personal observations, producing knowledge from scratch, so to speak. I can appreciate the torture that lies in the difficulty of reducing a wide vision into a precise statement without wrapping it into universal or poetic language.

Bilal: Right, but it’s not just about the primary material, it’s a matter of positioning. You can never swim in the same river twice. I am in the here and now, wherever and whenever that is, and nobody can stand in my particular place. I can’t but work from my personal position. I usually start my day by objecting to what I read before. What has been written so far is incomplete, otherwise we wouldn’t have to go on writing. What’s excruciating is that I have to build, stone by stone, a narrow path between the highways of other writers who did their work before me. It’s a new path with some borrowed stones, perhaps, but ultimately something completely distinct.

Something similar happens to the critic, I guess. But then again, I don’t think I am a critic. At least not like the ones who act like recipients, rather than creators. Not all critics are like this, of course, let me say I still admire Roland Barthes.

Ursula: But, surely, there are times when critical reflection about what seems to be occurring can be extremely important and possibly the only way to go?

Bilal: This reminds me again of Canetti, who used to write about an anonymous writer living in Germany during World War II. When the war broke out, he wrote a piece, which was really a form of resignation. He said, “I am not a real writer, for if I was, I could stop this war”. For my part, I should say that I am not a good writer; if I was, I could save myself from any exile. A man in exile is like a soldier in battle. He can win a battle but never a war, he will have to face the next battle; he is a survivor, not a citizen.

Part of my condition of exile is that I am living here without memory. Because memory always needs its location, it’s not only about people, friends and family. When I was in jail during the Israeli occupation in the 80’s, I built many friendships with my colleagues and thought, “Once I’m released, I will keep these friendships alive.” But I didn’t, because friendships are related to a location; one cannot build a friendship in the air. I still have my reminiscences of jail, but since I’ve been out, they’ve proved to be useless.

Ursula: You certainly bring up a central issue here about the level of intervention you see your work as a writer operating on. At least when it comes to art, I always think of these processes as being more subtle and complicated, rather than immediately and directly influencing the material reality, i.e. to prevent war or exile. Where did you see your field of intervention in the project “Tragedy at the Moment of Vision”, which was a beautiful reflection on Beirut and the July war in 2006?

Bilal: First, I should mention that I wrote my book “Tragedy at the Moment of Vision” in Arabic, and it was then translated into English. In Arabic, the expression “moment of vision” has at least two meanings. One is the obvious one, referring to the moment when something visualizes or moves into our field of vision. The other sense of the phrase is “Watch out”, “stay alert”. What I mean is this: like everyone around me, I lived as a guardian, someone who has to stay alert at all times. Our history is a chain of bloodshed and war. When one reaches the end, the next one begins. Many people, even our intelligentsia, used to call this bloody condition a “revolution”. This might be true, to some extent, but when it becomes a lifestyle, it cannot be called revolution anymore.

This reminds me of Deleuze and the revolutionary process he mentioned regularly. I find this to be a catastrophic theory. Revolution and its process are one and the same. It’s a kind of death industry. Revolution is a statement of death; its only big achievement was and is the arrangement of funerals. With these sorts of living conditions, I found myself completely in the opposite position from Mario Vargas Llosa, who likes to take care of trees in books rather than in nature. For me, I would much rather take care of trees in nature than in books and images, if I did, I could sleep soundly. At least I could live like someone waiting for death, rather than, as Baudrillard suggests, as a “seeker of death”.

Published August 13, 2010.