Interview with Raafat Hattab – Tobaron Waxman

This interview is an excerpt from Tobaron Waxman’s forthcoming book, “Trans women Artists: interviews with artists on the MTF – spectrum” with forward by Susan Stryker (forthcoming 2013). Portions of this chapter were previously published in Pretty Queer.

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. In 2008, with Stefan St Laurent at SAW Gallery in Ottawa, I co-curated his video and live art 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 ‘Arouse Falastin’ (The Bride of Palestine) عروس فلسطين. The Bride of Palestine is a traditional Palestinian reference to the ancient port city of Jaffa. Raafat’s performance as Arouse Falastin is the embodiment of something that was always there, while simultaneously looking back at something that used to be there… she’s sort of like a ghost, and yet she’s also tangible in her physicality. This timeless figure of the Bride of Palestine by her graceful presence, her generous and even warm expression, and by the fact that she bears multiple signs of injury on the body, becomes the ultimate witness.





Tobaron Waxman: Is there an Arabic concept for “genderqueer”?

RH: In 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, but here it’s different. I can learn from it but I can’t copy-paste it. — If I say I’m a genderqueer, a Western audience 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 just practicing something sexually.

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. People always ask me if I want to be a woman: [they assume] I’m afraid, like I can’t be a transgender so I’m doing drag. No that’s not my point, I don’t want to choose a side. I want to move freely on this line, between male and female.

TW: So do you use the persona of Arouse Falastin to embody what you have seen as a witness? Who actually is the witness? You’re a witness to your own life of course. 

RH: I can’t disconnect Arouse Falastin from me, it’s not two personas, in the end it’s one. Me as Raafat, I have things to say sometimes, and I can’t just go and say it in the streets, so I have found my way to say these things. I have these messages in my art, this is why I make art, this is my means to talk to people that I can’t talk with, as Raafat, face to face. It’s me as an artist, and I say these things through Arouse Falastin.

The Bride of Palestine, she’s a witness, in the end: me, as The Bride of Palestine, I witness. I’m a witness to what is happening today, and what happened in the past. Before 1948, people called Jaffa the Bride of the Sea يافا عروس البحر, or the Bride of Palestine, until 1948. Jaffa was always a female. But me, as a male, representing Jaffa, I’m using MTF.

TW: In your work, you sort of shimmer between a female persona and a genderqueer female persona, as Arouse Falastin عروس فلسطين.

RH: Between the male and the female, the male is the figure, the default figure of me. Its always when we talk about liberating Palestine, we talk about the men who do it. The resistance, the revolution, it’s led by the men, it’s not taking the women into consideration. So for me, Palestine is a woman.

TW: In the performances that I’ve seen you do as The Bride of Palestine, the makeup isn’t like traditional complete drag makeup, but more like a suggestion, like signage of a female gender, somewhat goth, as well as fake blood coming from the mouth, nose and eyes. When I first saw you perform ‘Iran, Beirut, Palestine and me’ in 2006, I thought: this figure has been run over by a Caterpillar — and yet you don’t look injured, you are proud, graceful, feminine and strong. You are creating an iconography with Arouse Falastin – what does the makeup mean?

RH: She is crying blood. She was violently wounded, inside, and it comes out in her tears as blood.

When I analyze the political situation, the Palestinians in the West Bank, they suffer from physical occupation, they have borders, they have checkpoints, they have soldiers, there are walls. But here, the Palestinians inside Israel, we don’t have these borders. The occupation is more mental, it’s feelings. I feel it in the language; when I go to school, I see how the Ministry of Education works to erase anything about history, about language, and we are mentally occupied. I don’t suffer as a Palestinian physically. I suffer mentally.

TW: Internally injured, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually crushed.

RH: Exactly.

TW: Please talk about what it takes to feel ‘safe’ in art making and in live performance. What is at risk for you and in what contexts are you at risk or safe?  Live artists often talk about the issue of risk and safety, in terms of using one’s own body in space, or doing body-based work, in a public space and determining the various personal boundaries, or degrees of boundary. But in your case, in addition to those practical issues as an artist, you are a Palestinian body in an Israeli space. Because of art, i.e. culturally controlled space, both culture of art-world, culture of Israeli, urban, controlled space — you are existing in occupied space.

RH: When I perform in an art space or gallery, I feel physically safe because I know the audience that comes to see me, they know the context of the exhibition. But when I perform in the streets, I can never know who will be around me. I usually prefer to show in a gallery, even showing photos or installation. To show in open space makes me feel very exposed. I feel unsafe in general, in public space in Israel.

TW: You mentioned the Arabic idea of  “ahhrar el jins” from “horiya,” and this is also the title of your newest tape?

RH: About the name ‘Houria’ [حـ(و)ـرية [1 (Mermaid/freedom), it’s another thing that’s not understandable, the word ‘horia’ حرية in Arabic, it’s freedom. And then houria حورية, 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 is a fish, it’s sexless.

TW: 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 it’s 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?

RH: 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. 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, gives more meaning for the Palestinian existence nearby. As it is explained in the curator’s text: “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 can’t read it, I tell them that it says “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.

TW: In “Houria” حـ(و)ـرية, you are not costumed in the way I’ve seen you in other works as The Bride. And there is no lip-synching or lyric, or any of the other strategies you have employed in previous works.

In “Houria,” I don’t wear make up because the Bride of Palestine is present through the tattoo. And as a mermaid, I’m already a transgender being, sexless but still half-male, half-fish, with no sexual organs of a male. Mermaids are usually represented as female, especially in stories. The little mermaid is a female.

In “Houria” حـ(و)ـرية, 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 a Palestinian living in Jaffa, and combining this with me, right now, and the way I’m living. It’s like checking and exploring my belonging to this society or this nation called Palestine.

I went to meet my aunt, my father’s 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.

TW: The work that you did with your aunt is a testimony, describing specific narratives about people, places, and events. She is speaking, and you are not speaking, neither is there a lip-synched performance – and you correlate this with the mermaid who has no voice.

RH: 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. In this video, I’m there, just listening to the story of my aunt, about what happened in ‘48.  As a witness, I am part of the Palestinian society and not feeling belonging, and at the same time I’m part of the Israeli society, but I don’t feel belonging. So being in this place gives me the ability to look, to see, to criticize, and to analyze the reality around me, about the history, the past, the present… this place that is in the middle, between the Palestinian and the Israeli society. Like not being fully a part of the Palestinian society, although I’m from there.

TW: Is it possible to be fully a part of the Palestinian society without a state?

RH: Yes, of course.

TW: So what would it take for you to be fully a part of Palestinian society? Do you wish to be fully a part of it? What would make that possible?

RH: I think it’s impossible. [laughs]

To live within the Palestinian society is to live the lifestyle of a traditional society, to get married, to have a family, to be in the mainstream like everyone else. Following the traditions, and the holidays… and yet as a Palestinian, I can’t be fully part of the Israeli society. If I want to live, the way I live in the Palestinian society — to live alone, live with my boyfriend, to have my dog, and everybody knows that I’m not married, and that I live with a boy – you know, you live, you have neighbours, you are a part of the society, you take part. It’s not the case.

TW: Not taking part in the traditional expectations.

RH: Yes, I’m not following.

I need to create my own place, my own environment.  Not a real place, it’s invented out of my dreams and fantasies, combined with reality and it’s limitations.

TW: You and Arouse Falastin are witnesses to each other, it seems. Does Arouse Falastin “see” the audience?

RH: Yes, The Bride sees the audience and makes eye contact with the audience during the performances.  In my performance from May 2011, “Marsa” [2] (Anchor) مرسى, I stamped the people in order to let them in. I had a performance in Jerusalem and I used all the dresses created since 2006-2010 and built an installation. So when all the dresses were in use I was dressed as male. The performances were during 4 years and each dress is one color of the Palestinian flag: red, white, black and green.

I had a stamp: the same calligraphy as the tattoo on my chest. I stamped people on their hand or arm to let them in the room to see the installation. Of course there was another entry, and those who refused to be stamped went from around. This is the only performance in which I had in physical contact with people, but I didn’t talk, smile or do anything but stamping.

TW: What does it mean that all these people, mostly Israelis, are now stamped and branded as you are, albeit temporarily, as ‘Arouse Falastin’?

RH: At the beginning, people didn’t understand and didn’t know what to do, they tried to pass by me but I kept standing, not moving. I raised my hand to show them the stamp. If the person standing accepted to be stamped, I let him in. During the performance, it began to be clear to people, because there was a lot of people and others saw what was going on. There were people who refused to be stamped. People tried to talk to me although I didn’t reply. Some people were disturbed, it reminded them of Auschwitz, the numbers on the Jews’ arms. I felt in a position of power. I stood there and decided who could pass by me and who couldn’t. It was the opposite experience I have when I pass through a checkpoint where I’m in a very weak position.

I used to think that the Palestinians are the people who understand me the best way. I discovered that they are not. And I used to think that the Israelis wouldn’t understand me, and I discovered I’m wrong. There is a gap between the two societies, and I’m trying to understand both sides and to live peacefully with both sides, although I can’t find my place in either side.

It should be one state. One state for both nations. With no borders, no checkpoints, no walls.

TW: Do you want to mention your activism, what are the names and URLs of the groups you’re working with, and what is your role?

RH: I think it’s important to talk about alQaws [القوس[3. People need to know about the existence of the organization. I’m a board member of the organization alQaws for sexual and gender diversity in Palestinian society. The organization consists of four main groups around the country (Jerusalem, West Bank, Jaffa, Haifa). I’m organizing the Jaffa group. Also, alQaws is going to open a drag workshop for Palestinian performers that will be led by me, together with the Palestinian Drag Queen ‘Queen of Shebah’ (we call her Eman) from Jerusalem.

Every six weeks, we have a party and I’m one of the organizers, responsible for the cultural part of the event, organizing the drag shows. The party is the biggest activity alQaws does that brings around 400 participants from around the country; it’s a safe space for Palestinian LGBTQI to socialize. And within these events, using the drag shows, we work on messages we want to give to the audience to raise awareness, for example, of IDAHO, International day against AIDS, the Nakbeh, Woman’s Day, etc…

TW: Last but not least, you have a poem you wanted to share.

RH: Because it’s a Queer poem, I’m talking about myself, trying to explain who I am. I don’t know how to explain it, I just need to translate it and you’ll understand more. Instead of talking about me personally, I talk about myself but in a more poetic way…

Untitled Poem by Raafat Hataab, Part 1:
[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/poemPart1.mp3|titles=poemPart1]

Untitled Poem by Raafat Hataab, Part 2:
[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/PoemPart2.mp3|titles=PoemPart2]

Untitled Poem by Raafat Hataab, Part 3:
[audio:http://nomorepotlucks.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/PoemPart3.mp3|titles=PoemPart3]

 

Untitled Poem by Raafat Hataab: 

عربي، حتى لو لم تكن ترى ذلك بملامح وجهي

عربي، رغم خضر عيني وطول شعري

أنا عربي ونعومتي تشبه نعومة نساء المجتمعات المُخملية

ثم أنّ نظراتي حادة لا تتأسّف، لا تخجل لا تبالي

أرتدي الفساتين وأضع الماكياج وأحلم برجل يكون لي زوجًا

أرتدي البُدل والقمصان وأبحث عن امرأة لتكون أمّ أطفالي

أحلامي تتراوح بين الشرق والغرب

ولا أجد مكانا أُلقيها فيه لتنمو، فهي تظلّ بلا جذر

لا أرض خصبة تملكها ولا ميناء يحتوي سكونها

أبحث عن معانٍ وأتحدى ما تبقى من الزمن

أتجاهل الأيام وأرى الثورة آتية مع نسمات الرياح

أستنشقها لتعيش في داخلي وتجري في دمي لعلني أنهض يومًا ما

وأُحطم جدار الصمت
البنطال والقميص وحتى ملابسي الداخلية سوداء،

فاللون الأسود له عدد لا نهائي من الأشكال، العشرات أو المئات،

لا أدري

ولكنني أنا واحد،

عربي…

تعرفني من لهجتي اليافية فهي مميزة عن الباقين

مكسّرة، محطمة غير كاملة

تعرفني من عاداتي وتقاليدي التي حطمتُها بعد أن درستها من الألف حتى الياء

أنا من هنا، ابن هذه الأرض

تعرفني من طول شعري ولون ثيابي والغمامة السوداء التي تحيطني من كل حدب

أعترف، غريب الأطوار أنا وأفتخر

أنا عربي ولست امرأة ولا رجل

أنا عربي وكياني غير معرّف في أيٍّ من الكتب المطبوعة بعد

لا أمارس الجنس… بل أحمله

لا أمارس الحب… بل أبكيه

أنا الجنس الآخر وأنا الحبّ المستحيل

أنا عربي واسم بلادي موشوم على صدري

أعيش في الهامش ولا أخشاه

أفكك قواعد الحياة وأمحو كلّ العناوين والألقاب

أنا سجين وسجاني هو أنت

أنا الثورة والحرية هي أنت

فهيا بنا لنلبس الفساتين والقمصان

لنضع الماكياج ونُسقط ما تبقى من أقنعة

حان الوقت للانقلاب

أنا عربي دعني أكون مرآتك

أنا ثائر دعني أكون قدوتك

أنا محارب دعني أكون سلاحك

أنا هو أنت- دعني أعيش حرًا

 

English Version
Translated by: Maryam Hussain and Rehab Nazzal

Part 1

I’m Arab even if you can’t see it in my facial features
I’m Arab despite my green eyes and my long hair
I’m Arab and gentle like the aristocratic women
And my gazes are sharp, unapologetic, not embarrassed, unconcerned

I wear dresses and put on make up and dream of a man to be my husband
I wear suits and shirts and look for a woman to be the mother of my children

My dreams fluctuate between the east and the west
and I can’t find a place to throw it to let it grow, though it’s kept unrooted
no fertile soil to keep it, no harbor to contain its silence

I look for meanings and I challenge what remains of time
I ignore the days and I see the revolution coming with the gusts of winds

I inhale it, let it live inside me and run through my veins
I wake up one day and destroy the wall of silence

Part 2

My pants, my shirt and even my underwear are black
the blackness has endless forms, hundreds or thousands, I don’t know…
but I am one
An Arab…

You recognize me from my Jaffan dialect, it’s different from others
broken, shattered, incomplete
you know me from my customs and traditions that I destroyed after I learned them from A to Z
I am from here, a son of this land

You recognize me from my long hair, the color of my clothes and the black cloud that surrounds me on all sides
I admit my strange ways and I am proud

Part 3

I’m an Arab, not a man nor a woman
I’m an Arab and my existence is not yet identified in print
I don’t practice sex… but I hold it
I don’t practice love… but I cry it
I’m the other sex and I’m the impossible love

I’m an Arab and the name of my home-city is tattooed on my chest
I live on the margins and I don’t fear it
I dismantle the laws of life and erase all the titles and labels

I’m a prisoner and my jailer is you
I’m revolution and freedom it’s you

Let’s wear the dresses and the shirts
Let’s put on makeup and tear off what remains of the masks
It’s time for revolution, change
I’m an Arab, let me be your mirror
I’m a revolutionary, let me be your guide
I’m a warrior, let me be your weapon
I am you, let me live free

References:

[1] Houria: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mdXzpdEegU&feature=context&context=C352fbc8ADOEgsToPDskKyTdYmDWWrZgzB47LqGyDU

[2] Marsa (Anchor), مرسى: three hour performance at the Artists’ house in Jerusalem, May 2011.

[3] http://www.alqaws.org/q/

Tobaron Waxman is an artist interrogating how borders and notions of citizenship make moral and ethical claims on our bodies. Their strategies have included: performance, photography, tissue engineering, porn, biofeedback processing, sound, choreography, and voice; Tobaron is also a trained vocalist in Jewish liturgical music. Tobaron has taught their voice and collaborative techniques at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and at Hollins MFA DanceExtended Study Program in France and Austria; lectured at Parsons, SOAS London, SMFA Boston, Videotage Hong Kong, UC Irvine, OCAD, Concordia and others. Tobaron’s work has shown internationally, and in Canada at Neutral Ground, Buddies in Bad Times, and as invited artist at TAAFI. Tobaron was honoured with fellowships including Van Leir Fellowship at Harvestworks NY, Franklin Furnace Performance Art Award, and grants from Canada Council for the Arts, Toronto Arts Council, Henry Moore Foundation for Sculpture, Experimental Television Center, NY, and Kulturlabor ICI Berlin Institute of Cultural Inquiry Research Fellowship for “Mechitza 7.1” — acclaimed one of the five best art experiences of 2010  (Globe and Mail, Canada). For the endurance performance “Opshernish”, Tobaron is the recipient of the first ever Audience Award of the Jewish Museum of New York. Based between Toronto and New York, Tobaron is currently creating a hand-made film and teaching voice while a studio resident at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn. http://www.tobaron.com.

Raafat Hattab was born to a Muslim Family in Jaffa in 1981. As a child, he attended the French school, CollègedesFrèresJaffa, until the age of 13, when he moved to a Jewish high school. In 2001, he began his studies at Hamidrasha School of Art at Beit Berl College, where he first got involved with social and political activism. In 2006, he joined the organization alQaws for Sexual and Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society. Hattab was one of the first artists to initiate the co-operative art gallery Alfred Gallery in 2005 in Tel-Aviv, and he remains a member of this group. He has exhibited performance, video, photography and installations in both group and solo exhibitions in Israel and abroad. Hattab’s art is his means for dealing with multiple identity formations within the context of his everyday life as a queer Palestinian living in Israel/Palestine. He is constantly working to connect the struggle for minorities’ rights and freedoms in both societies. Today, Hattab lives and works in Tel-Aviv.