Photographing what is absent
By: Orly Lubin
31/08/2007
Asaf Evron, Mediterranean plantlife, 2007 // Sedek 1

Sedek: A journal of the Nakba that's here
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The first issue of "Sedek" made me respond politically in a way that I'd forgotten - shock. There's nothing in "Sedek" that I didn't know, but nevertheless - shock. And reading obsessively from the first page to the last, without stopping. Whoever thought up this issue, whoever edited it and whoever designed it knew what they were doing. Even someone familiar with "leftist" journals, or with periodicals in general, can't ignore this issue's special appearance, whose visual aspect strikes you on almost every page.
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The issue opens with a poem by Mahmud Darwish, which is followed immediately by a series of six photographs: no headline, no table of contents, no names of editors or publishers. The photographs, and their titles, come from the "National Photo Collection": "New immigrants resting in the shade of a tree in the abandoned Arab village Yaqir, near Rehovot" (1949); "Moshav Alkosh in the upper Galilee, formerly an abandoned Arab village, settled by immigrants from Kurdistan" (the same year); "An ancient Arab village becomes a moshav, and three hundred immigrants from Aden find a home" (1950).
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The language is familiar: The village was abandoned by its inhabitants (not emptied by war or expulsion); the Jews settle the place whose owners simply abandoned it (and not "any" Jews but those who themselves had no home). All of them are Arab-Jews (identified as such explicitly, or visible as such in the photographs): the Arab-Jew replaces the Arab.
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Only two of the photographs show people from a kibbutz; they also show the tremendous effort made to present the Zionist meta-narrative: "New settlers from Kibbutz Yas'ur carrying out a policy of good neighborly relations with an Arab village" (1949), and "A member of Kibbutz Yizra'el stands on the roof of a house in the abandoned Arab village Zir'in, in the Jezre'el Valley" (the same year). The foreground of the first photo is filled with the image of the only "Arab" in the picture, together with an image of what appears to be a woman, kneeling to lift a boulder, and above them, the same size as they, an Israeli flag covering half the sky. Policy is being implemented here; not a recognition of power relations, but a policy which, under the auspices of the flag, is being implemented between two private individuals, the Arab whose head is lowered and the woman observing him, patronizingly smiling (reversing the usual gender relations). In the second photo "the abandoned Arab village of Zir'in " fills three-quarters of the picture, but in a sort of reversal of the slogan "a people without a land for a land without people," the remaining quarter of the photograph portrays an area many times larger, empty and barren of vegetation. The kibbutz member climbs up to the roof of one of the village buildings, but his back is turned to the barren land behind him. There are people - the Arabs - who in fact fill the land, while the people without a land turns its back on the empty spaces and conquers the housetops of the people who live in the land.
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According to Zochrot's internet site, Zochrot came into being in order to make the history of the Nakba accessible to the Israeli public. Knowing about the Nakba is a necessary condition for learning about the responsibility of Jews for their part in it. That, in turn is a basic condition for reconciliation with the Palestinians in the future. Accepting responsibility means accepting the Jews' moral obligation for the expulsions and destruction of 1948, as well as recognizing and implementing the Palestinian refugees' right of return to their land on the basis of UN Resolution 194."
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And in fact, the main effort in the articles in "Sedek" by Israelis-Jews is devoted to uncovering, confessing to and preserving the past that has been destroyed, "disappeared" and denied. The main difficulty in creating this identity, the "Nakba identity" - if it's possible to use this term without expropriating the Nakba - is to formulate it. Speaking the Nakba leaves Ariella Azoulay, for example, "feeling distressed. It wasn't foreign to me. I'd also felt it in the past. At home, and in public. I don't exactly know how to decipher it, but it seems to me connected to the marginal nature of what I've been saying, and the feeling that this marginality turns my words into confrontation."
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The article which opens the issue presents the way that "Sedek" proposes to understand this marginality: "Revealment and Concealment in Language", by Hayyim Nahman Bialik. "For it's clear that no combinations of language allow us to enter their inner precincts, to the very essence of things - but rather they bar our way," writes Bialik. Language is only a barrier between us and "the thing itself." Even more than that: Speech does not lead to a solution (personal or collective). "Giving someone an I.O.U., or making a note of a debt, doesn't yet amount to repaying it; it only temporarily relieves memory of its burden, nothing more."
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Writing about the expulsion and the destruction, declaiming responsibility and moral debt, serves only to relieve the self. The "Nakba identity" of the Israeli Jew is forced aside when expressed in words; spoken, it is experienced as marginal, not because the words prevent access to the real thing, but because speaking the Nakba is not corrective.
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The layout of "Sedek" demands that the reader situate him/herself, and frustrates any attempt at evasion by "connecting" to the one expelled, exiled, expropriated. That's also true of the contributors: kibbutzniks Shlomit Bauman and Tomer Gardi, and to a certain degree Norma Musih as well, are immersed in the act of uncovering the place of their own kibbutz, exposing what lies under kibbutz groves and houses, as well as the responsibility of the kibbutz founders and those who continued after them.
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Eitan Bronstein justifies his enlistment in the army - in a letter to his son, whom he admires for deciding not to serve - by the fact that he was "protected by our kibbutz bubble." He, like Ariella Azoulay, regrets how he felt when younger. Azoulay, like Bronstein, like Shlomit Bauman, like Tomer Gardi, seeks to repay the debt, seeks atonement. Bronstein finds absolution through his son, and Ariella Azoulay finds hers by passing on to her daughter the gift of the knowledge her daughter lacks. And they all (especially Dror Burstein and Shlomit Bauman) are careful not to speak in the name of the "other," not to speak "in place of" the Palestinian.
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There's a dramatic difference between the texts written by the Israelis and those of the Palestinians. The central written Palestinian text in the issue is "Imaginary Returns to Yaffa" by Salim Tamari and Rima Hammami (which appeared in English in 1998). These are "selections...chosen from a series of electronic memories/reflections which began with an initiative by Salim Tamari in 1995 and continued in an electronic conversation."
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In the center of the first selection, "History Lesson (Salim)," is a visit to the archaeological museum, located in the "plaza that today the Israelis call 'Kedumim' [ancient]." Tamari reads the descriptions of the historic events: Yaffa's Arabs don't have a history of their own there. "In this museum as well the Israelis succeeded in erasing every remnant of Arabs from the history of the city," he summarizes his experience. "At this stage in our tour we decided that we'd consumed enough history and moved on to the seafood restaurant."
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"Rima's Yaffa" continues where Tamari's reflections stop. "A visit to Yaffa, for someone who grew up in the glow of the myth that there could be no other place like it - has to end in disappointment...I wish I could have walked through the city without the burden of the past or my obligations to it - to be enchanted by the architecture and by the people who live there now...but, alas, to do so means to be burned at the stake for collaborating with a reality built on the broken fragments of dreams." And in the reflection that follows, "Rima's Version," she writes: "I love to visit Yaffa with Salim because he also isn't particularly happy about the oppressive halo of sanctity the children of those who once lived in Yaffa are supposed to feel here. He shares a desire to oppose the crushing bitterness felt because of the repression of Yaffa's history."
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And so, more than "Sedek" is about the situation of Palestinians as expellees, its subject becomes the situation of the Israeli Jew. "Sedek" requires that a sharp distinction be made regarding the situation of the Israel Jew in the "Nakba identity" - while the written texts fail to provide a way to think the debt, to translate it into something redeemable, to take responsibility for it. That is provided, abundantly, by the visual texts.
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The visual challenge here is to make present what has been erased, how to photograph what isn't. The pictures in the magazine spread before us, in an order that almost becomes increasingly powerful as it progresses, the possibility of documenting erasure. The first five photographs document the moment the Arab village is erased and transformed into a Jewish settlement. Farid Abu Shakra's seven works (from the "Dead Letter Office" series), each of which is a full page drawn as a sheet of stamps, "document" the bureaucratic erasure, the activity of the Dead Letter Office, or that of the Dead Letter [as in an alphabet] Office - the absence of the sender, of the recipient, of the symbol, of the destination, of the place of origin and especially of the text (the sent letter, the word).
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The work of the Parrhesia Group, "Through Language" (2006), is a literal documentation of literal erasures of Arabic names from Jerusalem street signs, along with documentation of art-actions, graffiti consisting of Arabic words together with transliterations and translations into Hebrew spray-painted on objects in the urban space - each of them in a place whose appearance or location is appropriate to the words sprayed there.
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What's visible is the process; the moment at which the houses in the Arab village still exist - and when the Arabic hasn't been erased completely. But then the moment comes when "is" becomes perfectly "isn't." Two works in the magazine show what remains after that moment, those by Oded Shimshon and by Asaf Evron. The page layout for Shimshon's "Photographs 2006" divides the work in two: the first photo fills the entire left-hand page, and almost all of its lower half is a well-paved road, a yellow dividing line with speed bumps at the bottom edge and a white wall separating the road from the strip above it - a slowly-rising, thistle-covered hill. The rest of the photo, which takes up the same space as that occupied by the road, is mostly blue sky and white clouds; a wall almost swallowed up amid the high thistles; and on the slope of the hill, almost swallowed by the shadow cast on it, a glimpse of a ruin.
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We turn the page. Now the same picture fills the double-page spread; the road has lost some of its width and the yellow line, which made the photo symmetrical, is gone; and what stands out is what the road cut through: not just a low rise covered by dry thistles, but clearly a kind of wall, courses of building stones, and some sort of wall clearly visible, large dressed stones that people once laid. Our excitement at the sight of the road paved so smoothly, laid out in straight lines making a symmetrical twin to the modern electric power lines, but also with nature, gives way before the cutting point, the scar that the paved road left in the very earth, and in particular in what was here before - a place, a place where someone lived.
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But it's also possible to make those scars - the presence of the past in the present - disappear. The first of Asaf Evron's two photographs, showing ground covered with red-green vegetation, looks like a close-up, and the second looks as if it was taken from even closer, or after some time had passed. The vegetation in the first photo is mostly low, perhaps still young, and an arrangement of stones-that-could-be-bones is partially concealed in the vegetation, as if to form the shape of eyes and a nose, without a mouth. The vegetation in the second photograph is much taller; is it taken from very close up? A photo taken later? The stones-that-could-be-bones are no longer visible. Maybe if we poked around in the vegetation we could uncover the scar left in the ground? And maybe the scar, if it was in fact bones, has already rotted away?
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"Sedek" forgoes the attempt to establish chronology: You can find the list of destroyed villages on Zochrot's web site, and the story of the destruction can be found in many different versions, as Chava Brownfeld suggests. The more that it becomes clear that the debt can't be paid with words, the more strongly that our feelings echo the marginality of talk about the Nakba, the more we are nauseated by the realization that the historical approach only multiplies the versions, the more attempts (failed, most of them) to explain the possibility of living here as Jews-Israelis, the more this issue of "Sedek" becomes a gift of seeing rather than a gift of knowing.
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The "Nakba-identity" is transformed from a foggy blur into a point of view that encompasses the entire country, a contemporary view, unhindered by causal obligations to a single (or multiple) historical narrative; a present in which the past appears as actual scars, on the earth and on the body, a present which incorporates the historical event as an actual, material sign which you can't throw away, an obligation which can't be discharged simply by declarations. One that must be acted upon as it actually appears in the earth and on the body, as it is present now, today.

Translated by Charles Kamen

Source: http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/904419.html

Zochrot online