The City and the Writer: In Salfit with Ramsey Nasr
By Nathalie Handal
Special Series: Literary Maps
To celebrate the fifth anniversary of "The City and the Writer," we've come back to our very first contributor, Ramsey Nasr, on the anniversary of the series launch.
City of Origin: Salfit (District of Nablus)
City of Birth: Rotterdam, Netherlands
City/Cities you grew up in: Rotterdam and Antwerp (Belgium)
Current Residence: Amsterdam
Your City/Cities: Antwerp, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Berlin, Florence
Languages: Dutch, English, German; Proficient in Arabic, French, Italian
Language you write in: Dutch
Home: I can feel at home in several parts of the world, mainly temporarily, and not only in cities, but also in the wilderness of, for instance, the Arctic polar circle. I consider a home not so much a place as a state of being; it could be somewhere alone, among friends or with family. Home can become a self-chosen state of exile.
I have difficulties talking or writing about this subject, about my place in Palestine. That already says something about how I consider these memories: they are my core, what I consist of, a self-essence that I am not able to share with many people, which has become a mixture of Arcadia, lost Paradise, and personal guilt.
My closest relatives mainly live in Amman nowadays, but my larger family continues to live in Salfit. I visited Salfit about five times. All visits were equally impressive and challenging.
I visited my father’s hometown for the first time in 1995. I had only seen a few pictures of the town and I hadn’t the slightest idea what to expect of Palestine—be it Ramallah, Nablus, or Salfit. It was a country that existed solely in my mind, in anecdotes and memories shared by my father. At that time, I didn’t know that this was the case for many Palestinians living abroad and visiting their home country regularly.
I was born and raised in Rotterdam, where I had a harmonious youth. I only knew my mother’s family and I was raised completely Dutch. Finally, meeting my Palestinian family as a twenty-one-year- old in Amman, Jerusalem, and Salfit, was an intensely redefining moment. It felt like half of my body was filling up. Going to Palestine was a trip to an Arcadia I had never seen before; it was entering and losing Paradise at the same time because of the sheer and intense biblical beauty of the wadis and because of the omnipresence of Israeli soldiers, flags and settlements.
The experience of walking with a family I had just met, on land I was seeing for the first time, that belonged to our family, and eating a fig from our family tree reduced me to an innocent happy child. At the same time, seeing the settlements that crawled over the hillside, eating everything away, year after year; experiencing the checkpoints and hearing the stories of people who died for no reason; hearing of the state of war Salfit had been subjected to and the terrible treatment of town civilians by the settlers, turned me into a full grown man instantly. A fully grown man I did not want to be.
I was welcomed by my previously unknown family in a way I had never been welcomed before, and I was treated as the ultimate enemy by people I had never seen before. Paradise and hell at once. Love and hate overlapping.
Since then, I have come to know for sure that Salfit is my hometown, like Rotterdam is my hometown. This is my family, both Palestinian and Dutch. I love them all. And I will always be half of each. I have learned to accept that. But there is one huge difference between the two sides. Every time I leave my Palestinian family and go home to Western Europe, I am overcome by an immense feeling of guilt. Guilt over continuing my carefree life. This feeling, of leaving all of them behind, eats away my conscience and soul.
The moments I cherish most will keep to myself. Perhaps I’ll share them with a few people, or perhaps I’ll write a novel about then. Several people involved in the anecdotes have died meanwhile. I long for them, as I long for the fig trees, the almond trees, the apricot trees, for my empty grandmother’s house. I realize, in thinking of Salfit, that it’s like yearning for a youth gone by— exactly that.
Two cities with no knowledge of each other, and both hometowns created me (even if one did so when I was already a young man). Paradoxes are what come to my mind when I think of Salfit and Palestine.
Ramsey Nasr is a poet, writer, actor and director. In 2000, he made his poetry debut and since has published several volumes which has received several literary prizes. The selected poems book Heavenly Life, was translated into English by David Colmer. In 2005, Nasr was named the city poet of Antwerp, Belgium, where he spent nearly half of his life. In 2009, he was elected Poet Laureate of the Netherlands, a position he held for four years. He is currently part of the largest and most well-known theatre company in the Netherlands, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, and has starred in numerous films and plays and won various awards for his acting work. He toured in many cities globally as well as in Palestine and Jordan (Amman International Theatre Festival), with his one-man play De doorspeler (The Wannaplay), which he wrote and performed in. He is also a frequent contributor of cultural and political articles and opinion pieces in the Dutch and Flemish media; and an extensive selection of his articles on art and politics was published in 2006. Passionate about classical music, theatre, poetry, he also actively engaged in contemporary politics, particularly close to his heart is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He is working on his first novel.
Copyright 2015 Nathalie Handal