Interview with Raafat Hattab
Editor’s note: Raafat Hattab’s work will be screened at “Queer/Palestinian: Critical Strategies and Subjectivities in Palestinian Queer/Women’s Filmmaking”. October 20, 7 pm, Yale University. October 21, 4-6, Hagop Kevorkian Center, New York University, 50 Washington Square South.
Raafat Hattab رأفت حطاب is a genderqueer Palestinian performance artist from Jaffa يافا. He uses his own body, family history, and language in his work. There is also a strong element of costume. We met in 2006, when I lived in South Tel Aviv and he showed me warm hospitality in his family home in Jaffa. I co-curated his video and live art in 2008 in Ottawa, Canada at Saw Gallery, in “Radical Drag: Transformative Performance” a highly successful group show about artists complicating drag in political ways. In much of his work, Raafat performs in a non-traditional drag as an MTF persona, ‘Arouse Falastine’ (The Bride of Palastine) عروس فلسطين. The Bride of Palestine is a traditional Palestinian reference to the ancient port city of Jaffa.
Is there an Arabic concept for “genderqueer”?
“I don’t believe in the binary of male/female, I believe in what’s in the middle, the diversity in the middle — so if you’re born male or you’re born female, you’re free to choose to move on this line between them.”
– Raafat Hattab
All my sexual and gender activism, I’m trying not to copy paste it from the West. Because all the Queer theory and feminism started in the West, here it’s different. I can learn from it but I can’t copy-paste it. — If I say I’m a genderqueer, the Western will understand it but here in Israel and Palestine it doesn’t have a meaning. In Arabic when I want to talk about Queers, there is no word for it. There are words that come from the Koran, or there are words that mean Queer, like ‘different’ but in a bad way. So people try to create new words that don’t have negative meaning. (The term we use is) “ahhrar el jins” احرار الجنس from “horiya” حرية which means “freedom”. Literally its like sexually free, or sexually liberated. Because it becomes a way of life, more than practicing something sexually.
In your latest video, “Houria” حورية, you are not costumed in the way I’ve seen you in other works as The Bride. And there is no lipsynching or lyric, or any of the other strategies you have employed in previous works.
In “Houria” حورية, I was trying to get to the roots of my past to understand the history of my family — to understand what my roots are, as for being a Palestinian living in Jaffa, and combining this with me, right now, and the way I’m living, its like checking and exploring my belonging to this society or this nation, called Palestine.
I went to meet my aunt, my fathers sister and she was telling me the story of my grandparents, the stories about where my grandparents used to live, and how my family got to live where they live now.
It’s important for me that she’s a woman, a Palestinian woman, telling the narrative of the family, and during this video I’m silent. She’s telling the story of the Bride of Palestine, instead of me telling it.
Please explain the beautiful Arabic word-form that is being tattooed on your chest in the video. To whom is it legible on a semantic level? I mean, you are layered in many ways; first of all its under your clothes, and then, it’s in Arabic, and even then, it’s a very classical form that only certain people could read. In the past you’ve chosen to not have any translation during performances for Israeli audiences. Is this a similar choice, to decide when and to whom you disclose what kind of information, and to whom you allow access?
The tattoo is for me, like making this contract, like something written to prove that I’m from here, I’m from Jaffa, I’m from this land. On the one hand I’m using my body as a performer, while also using the concept that Jaffa belongs to Palestine, historically.
Tattooing is not acceptable in traditional Palestinian society. So to make a tattoo, I go to Tel Aviv, to make it. So it becomes like, to make the tattoo, as The Bride of Palestine, I need to meet the Other, the Israeli.
When I do the tattoo in Tel Aviv, that empowers my being as Palestinian. Maybe if there was no Israeli side, and I was living in a Palestinian environment, I wouldn’t need it, to prove that I am The Bride of Palestine. The distance, from the Other, the existence of the Israeli side, existence of the occupation it gives more meaning, for the Palestinian existence near it. As it is explained in the curators text, it says: “Our identities are constructed through a friction with each other.”
In daily life, the people that get access to this tattoo, are the people who get intimately engaged with me, (he smiles) when I take off my shirt. And when they ask me what it is, because they cant read it, I tell them that its written “Jaffa the Bride of Palestine”يافا عروس فلسطين. Sometimes I don’t. I don’t tell them what it is. When I tell them what it means, it’s like exposing myself to them. And here I choose to be exposed or not to be exposed– as a Palestinian, as The Bride of Palestine. As you can see, the video is one level, as I’m taking this tattoo to my daily life, as a performing artist that uses his body.
So our conversation comes back around to language – you mentioned the Arabic idea of “ahhrar el jins” from “horiya“. And this is also the title of your newest tape?
About the name Horiya , its another thing that’s not understandable, the word houria حرية in Arabic, it’s freedom. and then houriaحورية, it’s mermaid. So one letter makes the difference between ‘freedom’ and ‘mermaid’. So of course the story of The Little Mermaid, that she doesn’t talk, she can’t talk – and she has to make her choices, she has to give up things for her to be a human being, the witch takes her voice to give her legs. But the price is that she can’t go back in the sea. She had to give up her family, she had to give up the ocean, to cross to the other side. But without a voice. As a mermaid, she is in the middle, and I as a mermaid, I am in the middle, not fish enough to be in the sea, not human enough to be on the shore. So here, I am talking about the in-between of things. I’m talking about the gender issue, because its obvious that I’m male, the upper part, but the lower part its a fish, its like sexless.