Dispatches: Ramzi Maqdisi


Dispatches is a space where authors from around the world build a collective archive of the present, responding to fast-moving current events.

17 June 2021

There is a party inside my head, but I was not invited; on noise in Palestine.

Ramzi Maqdisi
With some translation by Olivia Furber
Photos: HaDEEL Sameera
Music by 9t Antiope

Whenever I travel outside of Palestine, I treat myself to walking the streets with my headphones on.

It’s a freedom I cannot enjoy back home. I need all my senses at my disposal as I navigate even the most familiar streets of my city, particularly my ears.

I’ve always been pre-occupied with listening. Not just as a survival tool but also through an early obsession with the radio. As a medium it focuses intensely on one sense whilst liberating the others.

My story with the radio needs another article so I will summarise briefly; I created a radio station called Sowt Al Quds (The Voice of Jerusalem). This was the name of the Palestinian national radio which was forced to close in 1948. My childhood dream was to revive it. I succeeded.  It was bombed and destroyed during the second intifada. I was imprisoned. It no longer exists.

But my preoccupation with what we hear or how we hear continues.

The dichotomy between silence and noise is very specific to the Palestinian experience. You are born into a world of violent noises; the whip crack of a bullet, the hiss of a tear gas canister and the blast of explosives. You are uniquely attuned to sounds because your life depends upon it. You hear acutely. However, by contrast, when you as a Palestinian make noises you experience a completely different reception. Often when I speak I am treated as if I am making noise, speaking out of turn. If I raise my voice I am called aggressive, if I shout I am a terrorist.

I have long been forced to consider the ability of people to really hear what others are saying. I started my life with this dilemma. I was mute until the age of 6 and was sent to a special needs school where by day the teachers would patiently devise wordless exercises for me whilst at night my mother would implore me to ’speak, speak!’. Later in life, when I had discovered my ability to speak my mother asked me ‘why did you keep your silence for so long?’. I responded, ‘because I saw that words were meaningless, and, I suppose, I had nothing to say’.

Palestinians are forced back into a relationship with noise through our need to document the crimes against us. We want to deliver these sounds to the world, in an effort to save our lives and seek justice. But the silence we hear back echoes because, unfortunately, It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear of the listener.

Photo by Hadeel Sameera

I spent last month (May 2021) trying to document the sounds of Jerusalem during the occupations’ latest aggressions for my current project, created with Olivia Furber and 9T Antiope, called The Land’s Heart Is Greater Than Its Map. This endeavour was as emotionally challenging as it was physically dangerous. The erasure of a people constitutes erasing what is familiar to them. For me, the torrent of violence inflicted upon us and the deafening sounds that accompany them threaten to dismantle my memories of how things were and hopes for how things could be. The daily reproduction of self becomes a duty. I fight to preserve sensory experiences that mean ‘home’ to me. Each day I return back to my house to be in the presence of my mother, surrounded by affection as a form of self preservation and the domestic sounds of slippers on tiles, coffee boiling and the echoes of church bells mixed with the call to prayer.

Reproducing myself over a period of 40 years under constant violence could have transformed my human skin into a piece of tar. Inside me there is still something that looks like a heart. But the past continues to invade the present. Each time I hear the sound of a bullet I remember that I am still alive. Because the rules of war say that if you are still hearing bullets this means you are living. For so long the aural landscape of my city makes me  feel that I am constantly trying to arrive to a place where there is no one who feels afraid or frightened.

Each time I go back to Jerusalem I never really ‘arrive’.  As I walk I play the reel of my old memories of the city before our dispossession reached this unimaginable level.

I train my foot to walk on false tiles in the alleys of Jerusalem as even the floor, comprised of Palestinian tiles, was stolen from us.

What does it mean to walk in a vanishing landscape? I walk and I walk in an effort to remember. I am trying to preserve stories and sensory atmospheres within my heart and mind from a place which tries to make this impossible.

Even when I leave Palestine, even when I walk the streets of Paris or London with my headphones in, noises come to invade my mind. They are deeply unwelcome and easily triggered. I don’t ask for their presence, but still they come. The volume of these noises becomes deafeningly loud in my head every time I am backed into a corner at some talk organised by the ‘benevolent’ art world where a ‘progressive’ artist looks me in the eye and tells me to be more ‘balanced’ or that the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ with relation to Palestinians is ‘problematic’. My head is pure noise. What can I say? I am met with a wall of silence from the audience whilst the noise inside my head pounds at full volume.

I remind myself that self preservation is a constant duty, and decide upon this. From now on my answer will be; your lack of education is not my responsibility and I will not be your teacher. I will not try to argue against ignorance in a language which is not my mother tongue (English), a language which I learnt on the streets of Jerusalem selling postcards.

After I leave the hall I am overcome with tiredness, the kind of chronic fatigue that comes from being born into a situation where you are compelled to scream into a void and then be told by those who hear you that your noise displeases them.

The sounds in my head whir on and I persist in my fight to drown them out. I continue to put myself in the middle of these sounds as they happen, to record them in an eternal effort to reproduce something that the listener will experience as tangible. To you, my potential audience, I remind you. It is not the voice that commands the story, it is the ear.

Photo by Hadeel Sameera

The Land’s Heart is Greater Than Its Map plays at the Barbican Centre from Friday 25 June 2021 to Sunday 4 July 2021 as part of the Shubbak Festival. More information here

Ramzi Maqdisi is a Palestinian filmmaker and actor. Using subtle, subversive and visual storytelling, his work seeks to convey an experience of the overwhelming nature of occupation through zooming in on the tiny details that we all, as humans, share. Ramzi began his professional career as an actor in the Palestinian National Theatre and is co-artistic director of Quds Art Films; a collective of artists from Europe and the Middle East covering multiple disciplines including film, theatre and installation. Their theatre work has been produced by the Palestinian National Theatre and recent film projects have had global festival releases as well as airing on BBC Arabic and Al Jazeera. 

Olivia Furber is a theatre director and writer working across theatre and installation. She trained in movement direction at Opera North and has gone on to direct, assistant direct and deliver dramaturge work for York Theatre Royal, London International Festival of Theatre, Ensemble52 and Theatre Hullabaloo. Her work focuses on borders (those written into the mind and drawn into the ground) and how humans find ever-ingenious ways to cross them. From 2012-2021 she was co-artistic director of Ivo theatre with whom she created a heterogeneous mix of theatre, live art & VR. Their work was produced with partners including The National Theatre, Almeida Theatre, The British Council and IETM. 

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