What is Palestine Time? – Fellows’ seminar by Greg Burris

5 September 2023

“Zionism does not only colonise space; it also colonises time. Likewise, its great adversary, the Palestinian freedom movement, is not just a struggle to regain home and hearth; it’s also a struggle to liberate time itself,” said Greg Burris of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut. “This temporality is manifested in various ways—in duelling narratives of the past, conflicting conceptions of history, contradicting visions of the future, the use and abuse of archaeology, projections of backwardness and modernity, the marking of significant dates and holy days, and even the deployment of timed explosives. In Palestine, time is often experienced differently—for instance, between a person driving a car in fast-paced Tel Aviv and another waiting at a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank—and in the wake of great catastrophes like the Nakba (the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine), time can be perceived as standing still. Moreover, in Palestine, there are even those instants, those fleeting fugitive moments, in which colonised temporalities break down altogether and we can catch a glimpse of another time—a Palestine Time which the Zionist clocks cannot capture.”

STIAS Fellow Greg Burris during his seminar on 31 August 2023

Greg Burris is a film and cultural studies scholar and writer whose work focuses on race, media and emancipatory politics. He is the author of The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination (Temple University, 2019). For his seminar he presented an overview and reading from his current book project, Palestine Time, in which he aims “to explore and investigate this hitherto unappreciated dimension of the Zionist Palestinian encounter: the battlefield of time itself”.

“This is a book reading for a book not yet written,” he laughed. “As I hope to argue, the problem facing the advocates of political Zionism today is not just the Palestinian presence; just as significantly, it is the Palestinian present.”

He described cultural studies as often “regarded as the gutter field of social science. But if you are interested in dreams of a better tomorrow, it can be the best place to be. If you are interested in emancipation, you have to look at culture: at songs, films, poetry and novels. Culture can be more political than politics itself.”

He read from the book prologue titled ‘Einstein in Jericho’ which afforded an autobiographical glimpse of his path into this area of study and traced a 2019 trip made with his father to Palestine in which the idea of the book was born.

“This was my father’s first trip. He is a devote and conservative Southern Baptist with a deep love for Israel as the land promised to God’s chosen people. I disagreed with my father’s views, but at the same time, I understood them. After all, I had inherited them.”

During his undergraduate years in Austin, Texas, Burris majored in Middle Eastern studies, and he described how it was during this time that he began to see cracks in his worldview. The on-campus pro-Palestinian student activists he encountered there presented challenge after challenge to his political beliefs. “These were the first living, breathing representatives of Palestinian liberation I had encountered. Their arguments cut holes in my thinking.”

The timing in the aftermath of the Iraq War was also significant. “There were no weapons of mass destruction, and it had nothing to do with democracy and freedom. The war was based on a pack of lies. The people I had been taught to respect—the clean-shaven, God-fearing leaders in politics, the press, and the pulpit—were perpetuating falsehoods.”

“People often divide the terms Israel and Palestine to refer to different territories, but they really refer to the same place,” he said. “In 1948, the Zionists achieved statehood, largely through war and terrorism. The process of cleansing the land, of de-Palestinianising it, continues to this very day. So let’s be clear: the whole territory is Palestine; Israel is just the colonial-settler government that happens to be sitting on top of Palestine – at least, for now.”

While not ignoring the tremendous challenges Palestinians face, Burris also emphasised the emancipatory dimension. “Books on Palestine tend to focus on bombs, buildings and rockets – that’s not Palestine studies but Israel studies. They are the ones who put them there. Like Biko once said about South Africa – apartheid was not a black problem but a white problem.”

“Palestine is also about emancipation; it’s about liberation in a place of massive oppression,” he added. “Palestine is not just a story about death and destruction; it is also a story about freedom itself.”

A Jericho moment – time is relative

Burris described how Jericho became the site of inspiration. Jericho is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city with an, at times, traumatic history, and it has been presented by various authors as a place of antiquity and archaic curiosity. Today it combines elements of a quiet and uneventful small town with a bustling modern city, and this juxtaposition made Burris start to think about time overall in Palestine and to use Einstein’s theories of relativity to look temporarily at time in this region. (Einstein’s own changing relationship with the Zionist state offered an additional interesting perspective for the work.)

“According to Einstein, the closer you are to the centre of the earth’s mass, the slower time moves. Basically, your feet are younger than your head,” explained Burris. “Jericho is more than 200 m below sea level ,so it’s closer to the centre of the earth’s mass than any other city. As crazy as it sounds, Jericho is the slowest city on earth. By this it’s not the oldest after all, but the youngest.”

For Burris, this Einstein-influenced understanding of time functions as a metaphor for how people typically understand Israel and Palestine. Whereas the former is seen as present and progressive, the latter is seen as languishing in the past. Burris suggests this is a completely topsy-turvy view.

“Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, claimed it was his goal to create one of the most modern states in the world. Palestine, on the other hand, is often presented as an undeveloped and unsophisticated place.”

“The truth is actually the opposite. Zionism represents a dead end, a time capsule of the past. That is, Zionism has managed to smuggle the rigid nationalist-colonialist fantasies of nineteenth-century Europe into the twenty-first century Middle East.” Referring to the student movement in Cape Town, Burris suggested that “Rhodes must fall, but so must Herzl.”

“Israel is an anachronism, while Palestinian liberation is an opportunity for the future,” he added. “In Palestine, the tomorrow in today is alive. Palestine – or more specifically, the movement for Palestinian liberation – gives us a window into the emancipated future.”

In Palestine Time Burris will utilise the work of Palestinian author and activist Ghassan Kanafani (who was assassinated by the Mossad in 1972) and German Marxist Philosopher Ernst Bloch as the theoretical lens to examine this temporal dimension by investigating an array of contemporary Palestinian and Israeli cultural texts, including films.

“This is a book about the future, about hope. It is a book about the ways that the Palestinian future already exists, inhabiting the shadows of the past and present.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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