Starting in , Jean Genet—petty thief, prostitute, modernist master—spent two years in the Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. Always an outcast himself. Prisoner of Love. Jean Genet, Author, Edmund White, Illustrator, Barbara Bray, Translator Wesleyan University Press $35 (p) ISBN Get this from a library! Prisoner of love. [Jean Genet; Barbara Bray].
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Inthe Festival was dedicated to Jean Genet whose stories of the dispossessed appear in Prisoner of Love. But a kind of uneasiness, a feeling close to nausea, an irresolution that stays my hand – these make me wonder: If the reality of time spent among, not with, the Palestinians resided anywhere, it would survive between all the words that claim to give an account of it. When I said the Blacks were the characters on the white page of America, that was too easy an image: It was for fun as much as anything that I’d accepted oc invitation to spend a few prisonr with the Palestinians.
But I was to stay nearly two years.
Every night as I waited half dead for the capsule of Nembutal to send me to sleep, I lay with my eyes open gene my mind clear, neither afraid nor surprised, but amused to be there. On either side of the river men and women had been on the alert for ages. Why should I be any different? Even before I got there I knew my visit to the banks of the Jordan, to the Palestinian bases, could never be clearly expressed.
I ,ove greeted the revolt as a musical ear recognizes prisooner right note. I often left my tent and slept under the trees, looking up at Milky Way that seemed quite close through the branches. At night the armed sentries moving around over grass and leaves made no sound.
They tried to merge into the tree-trunks. The Milky Way rose out of the lights of Galilee and arched over me and the Jordan Valley before breaking up over the desert of Saudi Arabia. Lying there in my blanket I may have entered into the sight more than the Palestinians themselves, for whom the sky was a commonplace.
Cradle and innocence were words gent chastely linked, for them, that to avoid corrupting either they avoided looking up.
But could they fire at stars rising out of their own cradle, Palestine? We were only exchanging courtesies; neither of us was bound by promises forgotten before they were uttered. But without my quite realizing it, everything that happened and every word that was spoken set itself down in my memory.
There was nothing for me to do but look and listen. Not a very laudable occupation. Curious and undecided, I jeah where I was, at Ajloun. The policy of the superpowers, and the PLO’s relations with them, spread over the Palestinian revolt, and us with it, a kind of transcendental influence.
A tremor starting gente Moscow, Geneva or Tel Aviv would rumble on via Amman to reach out under trees and over the mountains to Jerash and Ajloun. If they looked at them from far enough away and on a misty day, people thought the camps must be happy places because of the way the colours of the patches seemed to match: A gust of wind blew the canvas, the zinc and the corrugated iron all away, and I saw the misery plain.
I ought to have seen sooner that aid to the Palestinians was an illusion. Gradually my feelings changed, especially after the war. I behaved like a prisoner of love. But what if it were true that writing is geneet lie? What if it merely enabled us to conceal what was, and any account is, only eyewash? Without actually saying the opposite of what prisober, writing presents only its visible, acceptable and, so to speak, silent face, because it loove incapable of really showing the other one.
The same is true for every page in this book where there is only one voice. And like all the other voices my own is faked, and while the reader may guess as much, he can never know what tricks it employs.
The only fairly true causes of my writing this book were the nuts I picked from the hedges at Ajloun. A chicken, boat, bird, dart or aeroplane such as schoolboys make out of bits of paper – if you unfold them carefully they become a page from a newspaper or a blank sheet of paper again. Perhaps I was the only one who could see it in three dimensions, as a mountain, a precipice, a murder or a fatal accident.
What might have seemed a heroic deed was only a pretence, a good or bad imitation that unobservant eyes took for the thing itself. When I saw that my life was a sort of intaglio or relief in reverse, its hollows became as terrible as abysses. In the process known as damascening the patterns are engraved on a steel plate and inlaid with gold. In me there is no gold.
Being abandoned and left to be brought up as an orphan was a birth that was different from but not any worse than most.
PWF | Jean Genet: Prisoner of Love
Childhood among the peasants whose cows I tended was much the same prisonwr any other childhood. My youth as a thief and prostitute was like that of all who steal or prostitute themselves, either in fact or in dream. My visible life was nothing but carefully masked pretences. Prisons I found rather motherly – more so priwoner the dangerous streets of Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin and Barcelona.
The few months I spent in the United States with the Black Panthers are another example of how my life and my books have been misinterpreted. The Panthers saw me as a rebel – unless there was a parallel between us that none of us priosner. For their movement was a shifting prisooner about the doings of Whites, a poetical revolt, an ‘act’, rather than a real attempt at radical change. I thought about this, sure that America and Israel were in no danger from a sham, from defeats presented as victories, withdrawals as advaces – in short, from a shifting dream floating over the Arab world, capable only of such unsubtle acts as killing a plane-load of passengers.
In Palestine, even more than anywhere else, the woman struck me as having a quality the men lacked. Every man, though just as decent, brave and considerate, was limited by his own virtues. If the act they put on one day to protect a priest had been performed by men it would egnet have carried conviction. Perhaps it was women, not men, who invented the segregation of women.
Prisoner of Love by Jean Genet
What string did the old woman or the girl have to pull to detonate the grenades? My son would be a major spy in Mossad, working in the Israeli Embassy in Paris, and my grandson would be a Mirage pilot, smiling lf he dropped his bombs on West Beirut. A stupid thought, for in that case I wouldn’t be writing this book or even this page. I’d be someone else, with different thoughts and a different religion, and I’d look for mz ancestors among the furriers.
I’d have curls down to my chest. I’m sorry to have missed that. They brushed against death every day, every night, hence the airy elegance beside which dancing is heaviness itself. And with them animals and somehow things also were tamed. For a short time the life, the one life of the now dead fedayee took on a density it had never had before.
If while he was still alive the twenty-year-old fedayee had made prrisoner few undemanding plans for the next day – washing his clothes, posting a letter – it seemed to me those unfulfilled intentious were accompanied now by the smell of decomposition. But what did they mean to do with this grey head, with its grey skin, grey hair, grey unshaven beard – this grey, pink, round head for ever in their midst?
Use it as a witness?
It served only to carry my round grey head. It seemed to me that all that interested the fedayeen was how the party was going to end. For it was a party, the Palestinian revolt on the banks of the Jordan.
But why had the voice of stream grown so loud that night, so loud that it got on my nerves? Had the choirs and the hills come close to the water without anyone realizing? The stream, in a voice that was low at first, has told how all the Arab countries mistrused the Palestinians.
Not one of them bothered to give any real help to that tortured people tormented by its enemy, Israel, by its own political and revolutionary factions, and by the inner conflicts of each of its citizens. Every country felt threatened by a people without a country. Irbid near the Syrian frontier put up better resistance than places like Lrisoner, and the Palestinian camp on its outskirts fought better and longer than any other in Jordan.
So they sent for a young man, who came towards us smiling. All I saw of him – or of anything, almost oc was his pleasant face and black hair.
Jean Genet: Prisoner of Love
He was twenty, with black hair, a keffiyeh, and a just nascent moustache. He was pale – sallow, rather – despite his tan and the dust. There were plenty of signs that the Bedouins were on their way. But even when you know all resistance will finally be in vain, you have to resist. One of the signs was the stream of people, dishevelled, dusty and dehydrated, fleeing along the roads from the camps at Amman, Baqa and Gaza on mules, in lorries or on foot.
Men and women, whatever their age, were going about certain in the knowledge of where they were and what they were doing. Every act had its own value and importance, neither increased nor diminished by the proximity of the heavy artillery or of the Syrian frontier – that escape route, or trap, for fleeing Palestinians. No one knew if the frontier was open or closed. You might think it was open when it had been closed five minutes before.
It was Octoberand I can vouch for the fact that the man in the street in Irbid, as well as the shopkeepers and hotel managers, were already quite obviously hostile towards the Palestinians. The camp was below, and the road sloped downward. When we came to a little white wall with a white-painted door in it, Hamza took a key out of this pocket and let us into a small country yard, locking the door again afterwards.
She was smiling, and she had a gun. She must have been about forty. He greeted his mother in Arabic. She went on smiling, and wearing her gun. The family had fled from Haifa after it was bombed, and eventually found refuge in Irbid.
In the camp still consisted of patched-up tents. Then it became a shanty town, with walls and roofs made of sheets of aluminium, corrugated iron and bits of cardboard, just as wretched as the camp at Baqa. After lunch, Hamza took me into the school yard. The class-rooms were empty.