What got you interested in railways in the first place?

My initial idea was to investigate what railways can tell us about their surroundings and about our lives. To talk about them beyond functional facts. I have been fascinated with railways since I was a schoolgirl in Palestine. At the time we were not allowed to read Palestinian literature. But there was one story that was regarded as “safe” in the eyes of the censors. It was about a man who turned into a clock, after he witnessed his son, who was going to be late for work, falling on the train tracks in his haste. The obvious interpretation was the transformation of a human into a machine, with the machine itself becoming an indication of life. But to me, as a child, there was a deeper narrative layer: we were so used to daily life under occupation, to the oppression and racism that our biggest concerns certainly weren’t about being late for work or school. But this story suddenly made us graphically aware of life without occupation. So, the railway, which we no longer had, became the embodiment of a normal life, in which people could also move about. The realization that—once upon a time—there was normalcy in our region, was a real revelation. Ever since then I anticipated the first train ride in my life, which I actually experienced in Berlin, in 1990.

Has the immobility of your youth had a great influence on you as a writer?

In fact it has. In general the interest in trains is quite prevalent throughout the Eastern Mediterranean region. Because of its absence and because of what it symbolizes: the utopian world of movement. I’m talking about a region that, these days, is completely divided. Just the idea that a railway was built about a hundred years ago, to connect all the places along the Berlin–Bagdad and Istanbul–Hijaz routes, is almost impossible to think of today. I realized at some point, that all my fictional characters never move. In my second novel someone lies in bed for over forty pages, which got me curious. I started to investigate and found out that a lot of my Palestinian contemporaries would do the same in their writing: their characters similarly would not move. If you look at Palestinian literature, you can see that according to the time period it’s written the range of movement in the narratives is constantly shrinking. Which is why I was even more perplexed when I discovered a text from 1917, in which the Palestinian thinker and writer Khalil al-Sakakini describes a trip over two pages which he took from Jerusalem to Damascus. A freedom that is unthinkable these days, all made possible then, largely, because of trains.

Intellectual movements were even born out of the fact that general mobility was possible in the region at that time.

Well, that wasn’t only because of trains, but railways did still enhance the movement of people, the movement of ideas, and of books. And that is what I’m interested in: the travel of ideas. The Arab Renaissance, al-Nahda, is a good example. Khalil al-Sakakini was not only one of its leading thinkers in Palestine, but in the whole region – from Egypt to Syria to Lebanon and beyond. He was at the heart of a movement that sought reformation on levels from political to educational systems, before it was crushed by colonization. There had been an incredible movement of thinkers, because even though the authorities in the Ottoman Empire were more interested in economics and infrastructure, more and more Arab thinkers had started to appear on the scene in the late 19th century. On the railways they’d travel to the port cities and from there they would board ships to get to even further locations like Europe, and North and Latin America. This enhanced new interactions and thinking processes. The translation of the Bible into Arabic, for instance, and the modernization of the Arabic language happened then. We’ve been witnessing something like a revival of that period over the last twenty years — the outcome can be seen in the Arab revolts of 2011. But these days, people have come to rely on digital connections more than railways.

So, how will some hundred-year-old train tracks come to life at Haus der Kulturen der Welt?

I see them as witnesses, as microhistoric documents if you like; not as something that would transport the grand narratives of the empiric archives. For one, because the archival information is problematic in terms of perspective, being associated with institutions that had the means to create them. And second, because rather we want to explore how the railway figures in literature, archeology, colonialism, and simply in our imaginations. We’re interested in historic power relations and in seeing how the present is still influenced by the dynamics of them. You could call our approach shamanic, in the way that we’re really not interested in human accounts about a certain region, but rather in the influence of the object itself — the railway, that is to say the mechanical influence on the human. We want to shift the perspective, and instead of talking about the railway, we’d like the railway to talk about us.

How will the participants be involved?

The artists, scientists, and thinkers who’ve been invited to participate are seen as mediators between the public and the railways, they’ll talk about their influence on us. In other words, we’ll present an exploration of what machines and the mechanical world can tell us about ourselves and our past and present. We’ll look at urban landscapes and its links to modernization, at the functions the railways had in the Second World War, and also more recently how migrants walked along the railway tracks in the summer of 2015 — migrants who were making their way to Germany via the Balkan route, escaping wars that still resonate with the history of colonialism. But we also invited artists exploring the railway as a manifestation of an imperial future. For instance Shahana Rajani & Zahra Malkani from Pakistan, who are exploring the railway network in Karachi. We’ll be asking: What if the railway could speak? Musa paradisiaca, an art collective from Portugal, which works on the relationship between humans and machines, will try to answer that question. So finally, the tracks may actually be able to “speak.”

How do the artists cope with being reduced to mere mediators, to making way for the machine?

I am actually very grateful to them all for so generously participating in such an experiment. Especially in times like these, where everything is about the centrality of the self. If we’re lucky, the whole project will turn into a moment of sharing between these very different people who, in their own work, are interested in exploring and problematizing the human perspectives and the power relations they ensue. That is one way to explore alternative narratives in preference to the dominant ones.