Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Hasten to deliverance / מהרו ובואו אל הגאולה/ حي على الفلاح

The wind is rocking this house boat, this tree house. It is coming from the sea, the great white sea, our mediterrenia. We are in Nveh Tsedek, or really Nveh Shalom, borderline people in borderline territory. The house is rocking and the rocking comforts.

In the mornings I hear the Muezzin from Jaffa, with a thin, pensive, and elongated tenor singing. His calling to prayer is the most beautiful I have ever heard.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Humiliation and the meaning of images: the Israel-Turkey connection

Issues of aesthetics and represntation are always central to Middle Eastern politics, but usually these issues are not problematised publicly, in the official discourse. The recent operetta of public shaming between Israel and Turkey supplied such a rare occasion. I am here not interested so much in this actual pathetic episode as in its implications for a theory of representation.

The story goes as follows: the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called the Turkish ambassador to Jerusalem over an anti-Israeli Turkish TV series. The repriminad was delivered in front of reporters' cameras . The Deputy Foreign Minister pointed out to the media in Hebrew that there is no handshake; that the ambassador was seated on a low sofa, while his Israeli hosts were sitting on a higher chair; and that only the Israeli flag was on the table.

The scene was aired on TV the same evening, and Ayalon's comments could be heard loudly. Almost immediately Turkey expressed outrage and threatened to call the ambassador back unless an official apology is received from Israel. Ayalon quickly gave in. The whole episode, that was supposed to show Israel standing up to defend its honour, became a farce.

When interviewed, Ayalon first tried to distance himself from his comments: this was not about the "stage set" of the sofa, it was about the matters at stake, he said to Israeli channel 2. Later, he tried to blame the reporters: "I didn't think it was being recorded, and if it was - I didn't think it would be aired with sound."

And here's comes the interesting part:
My intention wasn't to humiliate, but to send a visual message. The ambassador didn't feel humiliated either - only once reporters started calling him. The picture was aimed at the Turks, to send them a message.

So, of course, the media are to blame, because they are the ones who broadcasted Ayalon's comments and made them into the message. While according to Ayalon, the picture itself was the message. That is to say, unlike Susan Sontag, Ayalon claims that pictures have meanings that are inherent to them, and require no further elaboration. No need for a label, no need for further text: the image says it all. The Turkish public would register the severity of the Israeli repriminad through the low sofa, the lack of a flag, etc, whether conciously or sub-consciously, and Israel's outrage will be communicated - within the frame.

Furthermore: the power of the image was detracted by the broadcasting of Ayalon's comments. Not only because they were superflous: but because the comments exposed the staging of the scene, denying it of its transparency. Rather than an image of pure meaning, it became a stage set, a theatrical ploy. The whole thing suddenly looked like bad makeup.

The problem is of course that it was Ayalon himself who manifested his mistrust in the power of images, by pointing out to the reporters the choreography of humilation: the important elements of the seating arrangement, the lack of flag etc. He obviously felt the need to explain, to elaborate. He planned an almost Ottoman scene of shaming a foreign ambassador in public, but he did not trust his own staging, his own directing. He had to tell them what it meant.

Ayalon, of course, denies: he tried to defend his theory of aesthetic representation (the image is the message) by insisting that his comments were not purely necessary for the understanding of the picture. The comments, he said, were nothing but a "comic relief".

Comic relief? A strange way to put it, and it entirely fails to convince, because Ayalon did not smile or laugh in the picture -was that not the whole point, to look sombre and angry. Comic relief? This strange expression only exposed once more the theatricallity of the scene, its "candid camera" quality, and the farce of trying to look like medieval despot when you a pathetic deputy Foreign Minister.

The penache for public humiliation is perhaps rediculous, but it does suggest certain resemblances between Ayalon and his boss, Lieberman, to Italian fascists.

But on a more general level, I think Ayalon's attempt in staging meaning and its complete failure is indicative of something important. Especially regarding the Israeli - Palestinian conflict, people tend to think that everything is already in the frame: they show you images, which tell the whole story, they say; and then they insist on explaining those images, never noticing that by explaining, they betray the failure of their own transparent argumenents.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bilin guys do it again

The following ad for a Israeli cell-phone operator created a lot of buzz. It shows Israeli soldiers playing ball with (invisible) Palestinians on the other side of the Wall. As many protested, basically it portrays the Wall as a border between (peace-loving but vigilant) Israelis and out-of-sight Palestinians, while in fact the Wall is well within the West Bank, dividing Palestinians from their families, jobs, fields etc - effectively, an instrument of land grab. The ad really plays to Israeli self-image of "we're the reasonable good guys just want to live in Peace" but also the Israeli wish not to see Arab faces for even one second.

Anyway, rather than pontificating about this ad or protesting against it, the guys from Bilin, the village in the West Bank fighting the theft of their lands through the Wall, did something much more clever: they played it out, and showed the occupation at work. - Notice the guy in the wheelchair trying to escape the teargas; he's from Bil'in, participates in all the demos, despite being shot at, arrested etc over the past few years.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Gaza: no where to go

A short film on the Gaza situation from the animator of Waltz with Bashir, Yoni Goodman, made for Gisha - the Israeli NGO defending freedom of movement.

This effort stands in contrast to the disgraceful silence of Waltz with Bashir director, Ari Folman, on the Gaza war two months ago. (Folman expressed opposition to the war in a mild and meek manner, probably not to harm his chances to win an Academy Award).

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Urban scars, an unfinished essay: Jaffa/Tel Aviv

Urban scars, cutting deep into the flesh of the city. Lines of division which linger through the civic body, long after their political and social meaning was lost. Areas of inexplicable void within a thriving city. Areas that are constanly on the drawing tables of architects and city planners, who seek to redeem the past, to bring to a close whatever conflict there were, to move on, for fuck sake. The property value is huge. The return on investment promising. So why do they still stand empty and dead, like in Amsterdam’s former Jewish neighbourhood, lifeless even 65 years after the deportation? And why, even when they are filled with parks and monuments and museums – like in Berlin’s former no-man’s land do - they still feel empty, artificial, and wrong?

Cities are place of change, and change always means a struggle - violent or subtle - between men and women, rich and poor, black and white, one religious group against the other, indigenous residents and immigrants. The way the city accommodates its different constituencies, the possibilities it opens and closes before them, are never static. And change comes, through negotiation and conflict; bourgeois neighbourhoods turn into slums; seedy streets are gentrified into yuppielands; megalomaniac city planners draw lines of battlefields on city maps, marking boulevards, highways and high-rise buildings. Decay and development are inevitable and often involve pain. But I am talking about something else: about scars, about the visible marks of trauma that cuts deep and refuses to heal. Those strangely-lifeless quarters, moments in space where the rhythm of the urban fabric is broken, the music lost. Most often these scars are the legacy of wars and displacement.

Such is the scar that divides Tel Aviv from Jafa. Sixty years after the 1948 war, the no man's land between the two former sisters-rivals remains strangely empty. Where once were borderline neighbourhoods there are now parking grounds, a promenade, half demolished houses, a run-down industrial zone, and plenty of promises for regeneration and a better future. It is a void, like a sudden break in the conversation of the city. It is not a quiet area - busy roads lead traffic from here to there, from there to here, but hardly no-one lives in the middle, hardly no-one stops because there is nowhere to stop, no reason to stop. No, it is not a quiet area, yet still there is strange silence, the absence of those comforting sounds of urban life: loud human voices.

The former border between the two municipalities is still, to a large degree, the border between north and south, rich and poor, strong and weak, ruler and ruled. At the same time, the south is changing - whatever survived of Arab Jaffa and Jaffa's former Jewish neighbourhoods (Florentin, Neveh Shanan, Shapira). Gentrification, dispossession, an influx of migrant workers and refugees, residential developments and planning atrocities: "South Tel Aviv" is hot, as far as property developers are concerned. Yet the scar remains; it is evident in the roundabout ways which one has to follow in order to travel from Tel Aviv to Jaffa.

Tel Avivis would not typically think of their city as scarred by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If anything, Tel Aviv imagines itself as an anathema to the conflict; a place beyond cycle of violence and bigotry. A secular metropolis, on the shores of the Mediterreinia, looking westwards, to Europe, to New York. Often Tel Avivis are accused of being out of touch from the rest of Israel, far from suicide bombers or rocket attacks, they live in on their island of normality, between the long beach and cool bars, money and art. And Tel Aviv, celebrating its 100th birthday in 2009, is "the first Hebrew city", the city which was born from sand, a creation of urban modernity out of nothing. This is of course a myth, as right-wing settlers often like to remind Tel Aviv leftists, Tel Aviv university was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village Shaykh Muwanis, a Palestinian village whose population was made to leave in 1948. But Shaykh Muwanis, like other Arab villages in this area (Jamasin and Sumayl) were devoured whole by Tel Aviv; barely any traces can be seen of them today. Their obliteration enabled Tel Avivis to pretend that here there was no dispossession and destruction, only pioneer spirit, hard work and creative construction.

But Jaffa is another story altogther. For Jaffa is still there, however destroyed, however changed. For the Palestinians who live there, and for those who do not but still think of it as their hometown, Jaffa is still an open wound, an open question.

Tel Aviv is Jaffa's daughter, sister, and killer; Tel Aviv was born not, as the Hebrew song has it, "from the foam of waves' and clouds", but as a suburb of the country's biggest port town, Palestine's most cosmopolitan centre, its commercial and cultural capital. Soon the young suburb became a rival town, and then a rival port, until in 1948 the tension was decided through war and violence. And Jaffa lost, and its defeat was of biblical dimensions, as almost its entire population went into exile.

But I don't want to write about Jaffa or of Tel Aviv; I want to write about the dividing area between the two, about the scar that keeps them apart, long after that victory and that defeat. For the past five years I been have researching the history of this land before 1948, and I have been drawn especially to the areas of in-between, the borderline neighbourhoods, the uneasy sharing of urban space, and to the people in-between, those whose identification with one of the sides to the emerging conflict was fraught with difficulty and torment. I spent years looking at maps, reading the newspapers, and taking down notes from a long list of memoirs and diaries. It is no surprise, then, that I can see the destroyed neighbourhoods and houses; I hear the ghosts, I travel with them through streets which are no longer there, I know their stories by heart. And so I see the scar as if it was an open wound. I see the absence, I feel it deeply and most of all in those urban scars.

When you know Jaffa's former grandeur, it is impossible to miss the scar; it cries out. The void shouts out; the attempts to fill it seem inadequate and artificial. I show it to fellow Jewish Israelis. Look: the conflict is here, in front of you. Here is the story of dispossession, here is our ongoing trauma. Not only in Gaza, in Jerusalem, in the refugee camps, but here, in Tel Aviv's "Banana Beach": sixty years have passed and we have managed to destroy Jaffa's Manshiya neighbourhood, but not to build anything in its stead. Sixty years have passed and still have this strange gap within our city.

But what for me seems evident, is invisible for others. Where I see trauma, others see nothing; just an empty parking lot, just another urban wasteland. “What is there to see exactly? A rundown area? Isn't it the nature of cities? Some areas are good, some are bad, city planning can go wrong, and anyway, just wait a couple of more years, you'll see this area completely changed. You know, south Tel Aviv is becoming very fashionable these days.”

One of the problems in this conflict - perhaps also in others - is that people feel that the truth about it is evident. You just have to open you eyes. Just look and you will see for yourself. And so the partisans repeat what for them is obvious, and for others are clear inventions. The debate never gets anywhere. What is lost on the participants is their own point of view, the place they stand and from which they see. Others do not stand there; they have not heard the stories, read the histories. Therefore they can’t see. Nothing is ever evident: seeing is always mediated.

Trauma exists in the urban landscape only in the eyes of those who see it. And many do not see it; perhaps do not wish to see it. The problem for Jewish Israelis is that once you start seeing the scars, you’ll see them everywhere. It becomes a real obsession. Every forest is hiding a destroyed village, every history book an exercise in denial. So naturally most Israelis prefer not to see.

And still, in what way is the scar there? My answer is that if a historical trauma can provide a way to read ongoing urban divisions, then it is a good explanation, better then the uneven arbitrariness of urban development. The persistence of the former Jaffa-Tel Aviv border line as a line of division within the supposedly one city is difficult to deny. The challenge, therefore, is to see logic where others see a combination of unrelated developments. The challenge, furthermore, is to make visible the pain. Where one does not see the pain, out of ignorance or preference, it will be impossible to see the scar. Once you see the pain, you will see the scar.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Waltz with Bashir: Review

Let me start by saying that the film, despite its many flaws, is brilliant. It caused me to sit on the edge of my seat hypnotised for some 90 minutes, and it made me cry. I am involved of course, coming from there, being closely familiar with the story and the circumstances, so I am perhaps not your average viewer. But I think it managed to turn what is essentially a documentary film into a mesmerising experience. What follows here is more a political response, rather than an appreciation of the film as a cinematic product (for a thoughtful film review see here).

The director Ari Folman said in interviews that he didn’t want to glorify war, and his film does a good job driving home the point that war is a terrible and messy affair, horrible even for those who survive it as “victors”. Yet at the same time there is some undeniable nostalgia at work: bitter sweetness captured best by the cheesy rock music accompanying the film. There is no way round it; being 20 is probably the most exciting time of your life, and the intensity of war just makes it more so. Probably all the Israelis I know look back at their army years with a mixture of disgust and nostalgia. Disgust – whether for political reasons, or much more likely, because almost no-one likes being in the military and taking orders (often from idiots). And nostalgia – because we all want to be 20 again.

Some critics (a few of them Israeli) condemned the film for being evasive on the question of responsibility to the massacres. I think this criticism is misguided. The film certainly leaves it to the viewers to decide on the question of responsibility and blame. But this is its strength. While some seem to believe that we need courtroom dramas, with conclusive verdicts, I tend to think that real life is murkier, with many shades between guilty and innocent.

Take Ron Ben-Yishai, the journalist who played a key role in reporting the massacre to the Israeli public. As is shown in the film, back in 1982 Ben Yishai "did the right thing", and tried to stop the massacre: he called Ariel Sharon directly and reported to him (Sharon was not surprised, and did nothing). His evidence was later crucial to remove Sharon from office. Not many people have the courage to step out of line in such situations in order to save life. But even viewers who know nothing about Ben Yishai will understand from the film that he was deeply embedded within the Israeli military, with close ties to the top officers. He had Sharon’s private number, and he referred to him and to other chief commanders by their first name. Ben Yishai was from the heart of the military establishment. He was not a critic of the war, he was a gang-ho war reporter. True, he had the courage, humanity and the sharp senses "to do the right thing", but he also supported a war whose overall price in human life was enormous for all sides.

So the desire to make clear that the Israeli army is “responsible”, if in second degree, to the massacre, seems to me pointless; that is, it is clear from the beginning of the film. And then what? How does it help us prevent the next massacre? In a way, Folman’s attempt to show the futility of war is more a step in the right direction than a frontal assault on “Israeli complicity”, which will perhaps leave some people with a more cathartic feeling, but does not solve much.

What I found disturbing was the film’s depiction of women: this is an almost all-male film, and women come into it mostly as objects of fantasy. The girlfriend, the dream woman that comes from the sea, the porn stars in a video cassette in a Beirut mansion; and finally, the wailing Palestinian women clout in black, to which I will return in a moment – they all remain alien and inaccessible; strange and fascinating objects of desire and fear. This is more problematic because war is repeatedly presented here as an story of male erotic failure, channelled into acts of violence. But Folman’s refusal to allow real women into the film leaves us in the same territory of juvenile male fantasy land. Despite all the awareness and irony manifested by the film regarding the destructiveness of men’s erotic desires and insecurities, the film still chooses to indulge in them, rather than to try and transcend them.

The film owes much to Vietnam films, such as Apocalypse Now and the Deer Hunter; even the scenery seems too tropical for Lebanon. And like Vietnam films, this is about the occupier, not the occupied. The issue is what war does to the Israeli soldiers, much more than what it does to the Lebanese or Palestinians. Now this in itself is not a problem in my view, because the film does not pretend to be anything else. Ultimately, this is Folman’s story, he tells it well, and it’s a story that deserves to be told. But towards the end of the film, when Folman tries to find out “what really happened there”, even then he still does not seek the point of view of the Palestinian victims, who remain nameless and voiceless throughout the whole film.

This really hit me in the face in the end of the film, when the animation makes way to documentary footage of women howling and crying in the refugee camp after the massacre. But there are no subtitles; for most of the viewers, Israelis, Europeans, Americans, their cries will remain undecipherable.

And what do the women say? It is not, as some viewers may guess, howls of grief and anger and mourning .Rather, they are screaming to the photographer: “Film! Film this! Where are all the Arab people?! Film this!” That is to say: they do not take the role that the film assigns to them - of passive victims, images of pure emotion - but rather they are cogent and active human beings, who are seeking to engage with the world, and are more than aware that photography is a political tool. And even in a state of anger and shock, they are able to fight back, with the very limited resources they have. In this light, Folman's decision to not to allow them a voice is even more troubling.

To come back to where I started: if Folman’s point was the futility and horror of war, then the film is probably effective. But for us in the Middle East – especially Israelis and Palestinians – this is not enough. Regardless of political opinions, almost everyone in Israel would agree that war is horrible – simply because almost everyone has been through it in some way or another. But what do you do about it? How do you stop the war? I don’t think there is an easy answer, certainly no clear road to “peace”, but I have come to believe that without facing the “enemy” and listening to her/him, no progress is possible. In Vietnam, the Americans could just walk away: shrug off their paranoia about communists taking over the world like domino, and walk away. And whatever traumas the Vietnamese were left with, did not really matter for Americans, because they were on the other side of the ocean. But in the Middle East walking away is not an option. Ignoring the other is not an option. Without the Palestinian viewpoint, we remain in a closed circuit: Israel, holocaust, Europe; Lebanon is not even a real place, only a site to act out and face the horror within us. But stopping the war would be impossible as long as we are locked in this circuit. We need to start listening.

The children of Sabra and Chatila live on: some of them may even be today in Palestine; others are probably in Europe. Reaching out to them and hearing their stories would be far more difficult, but if any attempt to deal with the trauma is serious, it has to be done.

But if anything, these flaws make the film more interesting. Go and watch it.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Early evening observations: Tel Aviv

1. The wedding season is upon us. At least two couples encountered as you cycle down the boulevard, appropriately wrapped in white and black cellophane, made up, dressed up, they walk in front of the cameraman, who keeps shouting, directing every movement. The sister (best friend? bridesmaid?) tries to keep pace in high heels, some little smile of irony on her lips, perhaps, too short to tell: you're late already.

2. You notice tell-tales of gentrification behind the Shuk. A three-stage manoeuvre: first came the espresso bars, then the designer shops, now the car alarms.

3. Back from the Yemenite quarter, always walk up Rabbi Yisrael Najara street. Najara, Najara: I love this name so much, the j-and-r meeting on the tongue, tasty like tail-soup.