‘The Native and the Refugee’ Shares Narratives of Resistance

Artists Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny on their multimedia project, which investigates the parallels between North American Indigenous reservations and Palestinian refugee camps

BY Andreas Petrossiants, Matt Peterson AND Malek Rasamny in Film , Interviews , Opinion | 14 MAR 22

Andreas Petrossiants: Your film Spaces of Exception [2018], which will be streaming as part of the Arab Film Series – presented by the Arab American National Museum (AANM), Arab Film and Media Institute (AFMI), and ArteEast later this month – is part of your long-term multimedia project The Native and the Refugee [2014–ongoing].

Malek Rasamny: The Native and the Refugee takes the American Indian reservation and the Palestinian refugee camp as sites to be investigated in juxtaposition. The idea behind Spaces of Exception was to enter these environments and to think alongside and collaborate with people living and struggling in both places. The heart of the project is found in the spaces themselves. This means trying to understand Native American struggle and history – while acknowledging that each tribe is obviously quite different – through the contemporary experience of the reservation, and understanding the Palestinian struggle through the lens of the refugee experience as it currently exists in the camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine itself. The project becomes a history of the US and of the Middle East, told by the people living in these spaces.

AP: In the case of Indigenous peoples, many struggles coalesce around the demand for ‘land back’ – a restitution of the autonomy to manage the land on which they are now essentially interned. For Palestinians, who have been kicked out of their homes continuously since 1948, the demand is for the ‘right of return’.

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny, Spaces of Exception, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists

Matt Peterson: The broader historical phenomenon connecting these two experiences is settler colonialism, but at different stages. In the so-called US, we can think of ‘Indigenous’ as a pre-national category or subject, while the refugee might be understood as post-national or extra-national. It’s here that you can see the problems of the nation-state, when these two categories exist outside of it, and therefore offer a critique of it. ‘Land back’ and the ‘right of return’ inherently question sovereignty.

AP: Could you talk a bit more about the film’s title, which is a play on Giorgio Agamben’s notion, from Homo Sacer [1995] and other books, of the ‘state of exception’. It’s a concept that has received a lot more airtime over the past two years, with many governments across the world using the COVID-19 crisis as pretext to beef up systems of policing and surveillance.

MR: Yes, the term was popularized by Agamben and then gained visibility following the launch of the US-led War on Terror [2001–ongoing], particularly in light of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Agamben argues that the state of exception is where politics is forced to meet the law. Laws are forged in both under direct sovereign control, or executive authority, but also in states or spaces of exception, such as refugee camps and reservations.

Rather than being individual states or counties or municipalities, the reservations are under the control of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the US Department of the Interior, which is itself part of the executive branch of the US government. The agreements between tribes and the US government are ‘treaties’, as they would be with foreign nations. In Lebanon, those living in the camps are subject to a kind of martial law, rather than domestic Lebanese law. The West Bank is under the control of the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority, and the brunt of Israeli violence is often directed at the camps since they are usually the most active sites of resistance to Israeli settler colonial policy. In both cases, executive action or force creates the norms of emergency law.

But, in the film, we didn’t just want to focus on the violence of the settler-colonial state. We also wanted to talk about what forms of life become possible in these spaces. How do Native people on a reservation attempt to have Indigenous forms of governance, social relations and relations with the land? How can the Palestinian camps become laboratories for new strategies of resistance? For a long time, the camps fostered a different kind of Arab consciousness, a revolutionary mindset that existed outside of the normative state structures of the Arab world. We felt something similar was happening when we went to Standing Rock for the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline protests. But, what the film really tries to explore, more than anything else, is this different form of life that goes beyond Agamben’s thinking to something made possible by that state of exception.

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny, Spaces of Exception, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists

AP: How did you meet the people you interview in the film?

MP: We really tried to reach out to people that had active political profiles in these places, whether through being involved in traditionalist organizations, youth movements or other locally based social action. A big part of our editorial work was finding the right collaborators; that was the research.

MR: When the Standing Rock movement was happening, for instance, we travelled there twice to participate in what was going on and were able to stay with folks we had met through the project. That is one of the most beautiful aspects of The Native and the Refugee, creating those meaningful connections.

AP: Where does the collection of interviews that you’ve put together fit into the continuing narratives of resistance of both struggles?

MP: With the film, we wanted to document contemporary life in the reservations and in the camps – to show, listen, talk and think about what’s happening right now. In both cases, there’s a lot of historical mythology that, at times, acts to erase and deny the present reality. With the Palestinian refugees, there’s this heroic imagery from the 1960s and ’70s of the guerrillas waging armed struggle, which is easier for a certain Leftist audience to look to and celebrate. We always make sure to ask people about what’s happening now – how people think, how people organize, what their revolutionary horizons are. There’s a certain romanticism or nostalgia to those historic struggles of the 1960s and ’70s that conjure a clear, almost classical image of a fight for national liberation. But, whether or not we’re Palestinian or Indigenous, we have to think about what it means to no longer be in that 20th-century moment of decolonial struggle. We can’t simply romanticize the past as if that’s the only legitimate form of militancy. There are other revolutionary movements happening now that are using different tactics, so what are the forms of organization and ways of living that we can look to today, to avoid getting stuck in historical mythology?

Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny, Spaces of Exception, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists

MR: I’d almost describe Spaces of Exception as an anti-archival film. That isn’t to say we are advocating against preserving memories or celebrating past victories but, until recently, the situation for Indigenous populations had been historicized, like a fossil in a museum. Even the Palestinian camps, although the temporality is much briefer, have been mostly forgotten since the 1980s. We’re talking about places that have been invisibilized and pushed into the archive. For us, it’s less about keeping memories alive than about focusing on the present by building connections and introducing people to each other – transcending geography rather than time – and using our privilege as people who can travel.

Even with ‘right of return’, it’s not about winding the clock back to 1948, but about imagining that territory outside the logic of Zionism, envisaging Middle Eastern states beyond the logics under which they were built. Resistance is good, obviously, resistance is important, but when you’re always in resistance mode, you’re just trying to prevent further erosion of what you already had. We believe the task has now become: how do we build new imaginations?

Space of Exception will be streaming online as part of the Arab Film Series from March 24–27.

The Mohawk Warrior Society: A Handbook on Sovereignty – co-edited by Philippe Blouin, Matt Peterson, Malek Rasamny and Kahentinetha Rotiskarewake – will be published in August by PM Press.

Main Image: Matt Peterson and Malek Rasamny, Spaces of Exception, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artists

Andreas Petrossiants is a writer and editor living in New York City. His work has appeared in The New Inquiry, Historical Materialism, Artforum.com, Bookforum.com, The Brooklyn Rail and e-flux journal, of which he is associate editor.

Matt Peterson is an organizer at Woodbine, an experimental space in New York City.

Malek Rasamny is a doctoral candidate at the EHESS in Paris researching narratives surrounding reincarnation during and after the Lebanese Civil War (1975–91).