Born in Jordan to Palestinian parents, living in Toronto, having just become a Canadian citizen, Basil AlZeri’s performance at SBC Gallery for A Problem So Big It Needs Other People, entitled Pull, Sort, Hang, Dry, and Crush, began with AlZeri speaking English, French and Kanien’keha words to name our place on the land. It began again when he dragged a bench full of materials from the gallery offices into the exhibition space, glass jars rocking up against each other and the screech of hard heavy wood against floor boards. To an audience gathered around a long table, AlZeri stood at its head—a place punctuated by the uneven fence boards that are the table’s composition—a position of instruction. What he proceeded to do happened across three actions.
First, a transformation of the space through preparation. From a bundle of dried herbs already hanging from the gallery’s ceiling, he meticulously clipped sage leaves from bush stems, collecting them within a circle of braided sweetgrass. When all the leaves had been removed, he pulled a large jar of dried sage off the bench where his tools sat and emptied its contents to make a pile of silver-blue overflowing. He then held a lit match near to the leaves though not so close as to catch fire, a gesture that pointed to the practice of smudging, yet without filling the room with the attendant smoke. We were in a public building after all, smoke detectors and fire alarms and sprinkler systems making the realization of the gesture a difficult one. The pile of sage and sweetgrass—a collection of potential energy composed of both a tool to empty space of negative energy and a tool to bring goodness in—was placed on a north-facing adjacent shelf and where it will remain for the duration of the exhibition. This act of material placement marked AlZeri’s second transformation of the exhibition through living energy.
AlZeri then spread rose-coloured salt along the length of the table we were gathered around, invoking the Arabic saying of Fi Khobez wa meleh bainna—there is bread and salt between us—establishing the place and the performance as a space of hospitality, and the performance itself as a process of combination. Like salt regulates the yeast’s activity in baking, so too did the salt on the table intonate a newly formed collectivity of those gathered around it.
Next, he made za’taar, a herb-based spread claimed by many cultures as their own, but in this incarnation made as a Palestinian dish by AlZeri’s hands, based on the teachings of his mother. Again utilizing the hanging herb bundles, he clipped handfuls of thyme and ground them into a finer and finer texture, eventually mixing it with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil to make a verdant paste. As AlZeri moved through the process, he spoke to us in Arabic, narrating the simple steps that, though I did not understand his words, relayed his intent, the observation of his actions providing another way to participate in the instruction.
Learning to prepare food is not unlike learning a language.
Third, AlZeri constructed a humble feast of za’taar atop lightly toasted pita bread, serving us all, domestic labour as a performance of domestic labour as an invocation of living histories. Through his generosity we were nourished; salt of the earth. And so we ate and drank black tea, gathering together again once the imbibing had settled, to talk about what we read in his action, what we saw in his tools and to tell our own stories in turn.
In AlZeri’s gesture towards smudging and his preparation of za’taar, disparate histories of settler colonialism were invoked, one of Indigenous people and the Canadian state, another of Palestinians and the occupation practices of the state of Israel. In his gesture of smudging, there is an element of cultural appropriation: these are not his histories, not his cultural practices, not his symbols. And yet, his referencing of traditional and appropriated Indigenous ceremonies, and his offer of hospitality, became tools to bridge settler colonial contexts in a way that was neither appropriate nor inappropriate. To read AlZeri’s “smudging” and “cooking” means to acknowledge the situational complexity of identity formation in places characterized by Indigenous histories, colonization, immigration, difference and intimacy. It turns out (though we all know this already), that food/feasting/sharing/consumption are both generous ways to be with one another, and relative zones of exception when it comes to cultural appropriation and violent conflict: I fully intend to rub dried thyme between my hands until it makes a fine sediment. I will make za’taar the way AlZeri taught me. And we will feast across our differences.
Does one’s status as an immigrant to a place absolve them of settler status? Or, why resist identification as a settler? Why not articulate instead, as settlers, what we consider our responsibilities to be, given colonial histories, difficult realities and our potential collective futures? There is something though, in this resistance (expressed that afternoon as we gathered around the table, but echoed in conversations elsewhere when trying to grapple with cultural and political inheritance), that points toward the ways that itinerant realities are changing our idea of what being Indigenous and foreign means. But this felt shift, it does not absolve history and it does not absolve responsibility, personal or otherwise. What does it mean, this movement and mixing of blood and cultures? At the least, it implies that self-identifications are complex, so that I am of Aboriginal descent and a settler both; the binary breaks down. A Palestinian living in Canada is both subject to settler-colonial practices and an enactor of them. These subjectivities cannot be reconciled further. We are multiple.
To address the ongoing reality of Canada as a settler colonial state, there is no other tool than negotiation at our disposal. While this need for address departs from the apparatus of the state, which conditions citizenship in its many guises, and though current cultural and political relationships like racism are, at least in part, systemic, ideally what could be salvaged from an interpersonal understanding of sovereignty as negotiation is the idea that any parties in dialogue are to be written upon in turn. Encounter is not only systemic or conditioned; encounter is one and another meeting, recognizing, reflecting. Let us be subject to denting
And so fences became a table, a slight echo of the on-going rewriting of a piece architecture in Palestine as a fence as a wall as a barrier, all terms loaded and laced with political implications. There are many things that a thing can be. We are in each other’s histories in complicated ways that cannot be unravelled. In thinking about mobilizing strategies to resist occupation in Palestine, how can we apply those lessons to mobilizing against French/English settler colonization here in Canada? What can historical deployments of sovereignty teach us about the ways that sovereignty is deployed today? Surely our ordinary encounters, which give rise to our sovereign subjectivity, can teach us ways to be subject to denting at the level of the state.