Juan Vicente Aliaga, Ahlam Shibli, 2008
Juan Vicente Aliaga: I'm sure you are aware that, particularly after 2001 and the attacks on the twin towers, there has been an increasing interest in the Arab world, maybe for the wrong reasons; A lot of exhibitions have been organised to explore what's going on in the Arab world—to mention a few, Représentations arabes contemporaines, in Holland and Spain; also, Out of Beirut, which took place in Oxford, and recently Les inquiêts at Centre Pompidou, and many as well as others. I would like to know, what you think about that? Do you feel comfortable being regarded an Arab artist?
Ahlam Shibli: I start with the issue of 11th September. Being Palestinian, I can feel the sadness of the people who came under attack, who lost their, loved ones, who care about. But the of 11th September has no influence on my culture. Our own dasters are influencing for my/our daily life. I don't really get—because I'm not part of the Western world, American or European—what the 11th September mean for Europe.
It's true that in the 21st century there are a lot of artists from the Arab world, have the opportunity to show their work in the West, mainly in Europe. Western People see art form the East. I don't really relate it to 11th September—I relate it to the changes the 21st century has brought. I don't know much of what's happening in America, also I'm more interested in what's happening in Europe, and the anti-America, relates me as an Arab suffering from the American power.
You also see art from China arriving the West—as well as from Korea, Taiwan, Japan, etc. Yes; the West opened the gates to art from Asia, Middle East and far Asia, if I'm correct. Therefore to show art from the Arab world, I connect more to the global world policy. And yes, unfortunately we in the Arab world, in the Middle East, in Palestine, are feeding the media. Part of that life is art, culture. So we see interest not only in art but also in cinema and literature, which is translated into European languages, reprinted in new editions. I'm happy about that. I always take pleasure in reading Russian and European literature. I would be happy to see people in Murcia finding pleasure in reading Naguib Mahfouz, 'Alaa al-Aswany, or Mahmoud Darwish.
JVA: An exhibition like disORIENTation: was it important for you as a way of introducing your work to a larger European audience?
ASh: We are talking about March 2003. That is a long time ago! To be honest, the most important thing to me was to meet and talk to Arab artists, to see the real work of Arab artists, not through commentary.
The benefits for the audience? I feel guilty for not showing my work to my people first, to show it to people far from the places, where I photograph. I would love to share my art with my next-door neighbour first, but I am hardly able to do. As a human being, when the stomach is full you want the dessert, you want the pleasure of sweets after, and I feel a little bit like I am going around having the dessert, but the stomach is empty.
JVA: Let's now start at your very beginning. Is it correct to say that your work started in 1996? Does Interrupted River work is the beginning of your photographic?
ASh: In 1990 I started intensely to take photographs. In 1996, I started to look at the images as groups, and I looked for a sequence or series, searching for what connects one image to the other, to the previous and the next one.
JVA: Why organising in series and not a single photograph?
ASh: Well, I don't believe much in the individual image. I don't believe very much in the image that captures the moment and comments upon the moment. It doesn't touch me. Always I thought that photography is my only love. Then, in the mid–90s, I asked myself am I not more in love with cinema? I want to see a story in the images. I want the images to take me from one level to the next, and to the third, and then to end it, to close it. This is a contradiction within myself. I don't want to look at the image and catch what it is; and coming back to that image only offers to see the same again. My pleasure rests in coming back to the image and seeing new levels. Yes, I am interested in the story of images. Photography is very much my language, a way of speaking. Each image is a sentence or words which I'm connecting in order to arrive at a visual text.
JVA: What is behind your titles? For instance Unrecognised, from 1999–2000, has an enigmatic meaning.
ASh: Unrecognised is related to a physical situation: the ongoing violation of Palestinian land rights, the ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people under Israeli rule and Israeli occupation. It's something that each Palestinian—no matter where you live—suffers from: that you are standing on the land, your land, which the Israelis want to take, of which they want to throw you off.
There are around 150 villages inside the borders of Israel, some of them were occupied by the Jewish in 1948, and some are villages where the Israeli state have moved their people after taking their original lands. These villages are "not recognised" by Israel, meaning that they do not exist on the official maps, have no access to social services, and no schools, roads, electricity, or running water. In these "unrecognised" villages, and because of that, people are not allowed to build their houses. According to the State of Israel, they are occupying their own land illegally. Israel wants to take their land and to give it to their neighbours in the Jewish settlements.
I come in 1999 to the village 'Arab al-N'aim, work there, for job. 'Arab al-N'aim is almost 40 km from where I was born and grew up, and it's 40km from where I'm living now But I had never seen or heard about this village, there are no road signs directing you towards the village. From time to time the "unrecognised" villages are in the news, but I was shocked to see the village people living in similar zinc houses, was shocked to see the living conditions of the people in the village. This made me curious to work about it. Physically the village is between two hills, in a valley, and if you don't pay attention, you don't see it; since the people are not allowed to build permanent houses, they are forced to live in hunt made of corrugated metal. It was interesting to see that all those shelters are coloured, painted in three lines: white, purple and green, and then on top the light blue. Each hut has a small garden, with beautiful plants in front. The hut itself has two rooms; the first, is a well-organized guest room, the second is the family room, where everybody spends their time and sleeps. This contradictory living condition was unfamiliar to me. People feel they belong to this place, it doesn't matter if the Israeli State recognises it or not. The people feel this is their home. Therefore they invested in these homes, and they painted them with colours, planted those beautiful gardens, and make these welcoming entrances. In my photo work, I tried to map the surface—the village people, their possessions and their houses, pointing at the gap between the subjective concept of "home" and the objective concept of "house" as it exists on maps—Israel's legal concept of "house". And to indicate the contradiction between one set of signs and another set of signs: one seeks to show what seemingly does not exist, while the other seeks to conceal what does exist. These are sets of signs that undermine each other. From there came the title.
JVA: Did you get to know the people who are living there? How close did you get to those people?
ASh: Very close, I think. At first, I spent six months there; three days a week, and then after six months I started to take the photographs. Once a week, on Friday evening at five o'clock, seven men of 'Arab al-N'aim, joined for a meeting of the Village Committee. In these meetings, they discuss how to obtain recognition of the Israeli authorities, they discuss what to do... I joined them, worked with them, helped them writing letters, discuss of what to do in the village, and just spent time sitting and listening.
JVA: Do you think this work is serving their cause? Has it been shown in Israel?
ASh: It was shown in Israel, yes.
JVA: And was there any reaction in the media?
ASh: Yes, there were newspapers positive reviews, which was good for me as an artist, and for the village I can say that it raise public ads. Still I don't think, with the artwork, I did help much with the situation. From the beginning this wasn't my goal—to solve the village problem by my artwork, I knew the limits of art. There was one important thing; with in showing this exhibition was on one Friday evening at eight o'clock (when Israelis sit down and watch the main news) showed a ten-minute report on the exhibition and its matter. Everybody saw it. I was glad, everybody now knows about 'Arab al-N'aim village, it was no longer this place that only a few knew about. "It's there".
For the time been 'Arab al-N'aim village got recognition from Israel, but in a sad way. It's the right wing that gives recognition to the village. Unfortunately, it's also the sad story of Palestinians under Israeli rule, that it's often right wings who determine the existing conditions of the Palestinians. I understand from where these come; the right wings who are not afraid of the Israeli society criticism. They can do whatever they want. The talks with PLO started in away with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who is very conservative, in October 1991 in Madrid Conference.
Israel treats the Palestinians as a tribe: "I give you recognition if all of your village vote for me in the next elections". This is the story of 'Ayn Hawd village, where it has a devilish story in addition of being "unrecognised" village by Israel; Israeli artists asked for the village not to be destroyed, since the intention of the Israeli forces in '48, also after the war of 48, was to destroy all Palestinian villages which were uninhabited after-because of the war (people fled during the war to fields, to other safer villages or out of the homeland) in order to delete people's memories of their place. The Israeli artists asked, not to destroy this place, 'Ayn Hawd village, to be kept for an Israeli artists village. Time passed and People of 'Ayn Hawd village that fled and lived in their agricultural fields, between the olive trees, established themselves there; they named their new village with the name of their original village, and they asked for recognition to have this new place as their new village in their olives lands. Israel didn't give it. When Mr Aryeh Deri, leader of Israel's Shas Party—primarily representing Haredi Sephardi and Mizrahi Judaism, who was interior minister Yitzhak Shamir's government, visited the village in 1992, again before elections, he promised to give the village recognition. And for that the 'Ayn Hawd village people vote for Shas in order to have their village recognised. And it's in process, already more than fifteen years.
And this is also the story with 'Arab al-N'aim village, as with other villages. Netanyahu, who was Israel Prime Minister in 1999, visited the village before the election, and the honourable of the village promised him that they would vote for his Likud party if he gives the villages a state recognition. Of course, nothing is official, because Israel is a state law, a democratic state, so everybody has the right to self-verification vote. And as I said before Palestinians treated as a tribe, so If Mr Netanyahu comes to the village, it means 'I will give you what you want, but you all have to support my party in the next elections, which was his visit goal'. And this is what happened. But it was recognition from the top. The practical recognition didn't come, not now even. Things have to be done first in order to get the practical recognition; To get the neighbours agreement, the Jewish communal settlements Eshchar and Yuvalim, and the agreement of the Misgav Regional Council, a regional council in the Galilee region which the land of 'Arab al-N'aim are officially belong to. They must agree that 'Arab al-N'aim village have the right for exist. If they agree, then the next step; to receive the Interior Government Office agreement for the possibility to provide the village with electricity, water, and basic services that the state is engage by low to provide the village. The Israeli settlements and the Misgav R.C. are not happy to give recognition to 'Arab al-N'aim because each one of them have an interested to have a part of 'Arab al-N'aim lands. Karmiel city wants the east part of these lands in order to become bigger. Eshchar wants to grow up and they want their side, the southern side of 'Arab al-N'aim lands. And Yuvalim the same, want the western side of 'Arab al-N'aim lands. Which means they are not giving their agreement for the recognition of 'Arab al-N'aim so the village remains in the same position. Otherwise they, the 'Arab al-N'aim people agree to give their good lands, and to move down, to the northern side, inside the valley, far from their good land, their good homes, maybe close to their dream, the stone houses.
JVA: How complex! And how interesting.
Let's move on to another series, one that has a very strange name: Goter, 2002–2003. Can you decipher what's behind this work and this series of photographs?
ASh: "Goter" is a local word in Palestine—It comes from the time of British colonisation of Arab countries. People use the word/verb when somebody wants to send somebody somewhere: "goter" they will say. it is not an Arabic word. Local people, told me: British soldiers during the British mandate used to send away two kinds of people: the shepherds, when they didn't want the camels, sheep and goats around their army camp. The soldiers would say to the shepherds, "go there, go there!" people learned quickly, what "go there" means. The other kind was connected to permissions people needed to move from their place to other place for work. The British soldiers will check who has permission, so people will stand in line, and who has permission will pass. Whoever didn't is told, "go there!". For that people are using this word from the post British colonisation. They duplicated it into Arabic. With an Arabic sound: "goter".
JVA: What are the photographs about?
ASh: I did this work after Unrecognised (1999–2000). The issue of my work is Home. I'm interested to see the signs that make a home, and the ones do not make a home. What is the necessary condition to have home? Recently I'm questioning whether we need home. So Unrecognised was the question of who decides "What is my home". In Goter, I wanted to see what makes a place not a home. The area called Naqab—it's in southern Palestine, in Israel now, occupied since '48 (under Israeli rules, they call it Negev), and it's a desert area. 90-plus per cent of the Palestinian people inhabiting it are descend from an ancient way of living. There are two types of home that I saw. One was a house and one was a home. The house had been lived in for five years. The physical house is naked; un-plastered concrete blocks, not ventilated, just a fence and a sheet covering it. No trees, no plants. No feeling of belonging. Nobody takes care of it. And in other side seeing people were investing in their places—you don't see it physically, but you see its signs. The place where there were houses is where the Israeli state moved the people from their own land, to different areas, promising that there they would allow them to build stone houses. And then they will say to them, "not yet, I'm not give you permission yet, you must move from here". And this will repeat again and again each time staying for five to seven years in one place and then to move again. So I photograph there the signs of home and the signs of house.
JVA: So it's constant displacement?
ASh: Constant displacement, and people know that tomorrow they will leave again. When I asked people, "you are living here, why don't you paint the walls?" They said, "we don't want to lose the money now, painting the walls, tomorrow maybe we will be moving. Then we will invest our money and make our home". And for more than forty years people have been living within this position of "tomorrow maybe I will be moved from here". So I photograph the house of the people who accept to be moved, as the case of the photos from the village of 'Amra. And on the other hand you got the people who didn't accept to be moved, and also I photograph their home, as the photos from the village of Umm Mitnan—a one man, who loves soccer, that offered part of his land to the village young people for plot soccer, and a place where people will build a tent for the meeting of their village leaders, who take care of their village. Set up this tent, and people will have address for their help seeking, as the case of the village of Qassar al-Sir.
Goter dealing with "what's home?" and "what's house?".
JVA: In 2005 you did a very gripping series in which you explored an issue which was hard to accept by some Palestinians, Trackers. Those trackers have been seen by some Palestinians as traitors, it seems…
ASh: …By all Palestinians. Even by themselves!
JVA: Can you explain what kind of relationship you have with those trackers? How did you get to meet them? Did they feel uncomfortable being photographed by you, revealing a reality that could be dangerous to them? I am sure they were aware that o expose them in public would imply to make them more recognisable in the eyes of the other Palestinian population. Could you disclose how you managed to deal with that?
ASh: OK. There were two matters. The first was to deal with the dirty laundry that Palestinians try to avoid: some Palestinians are volunteering/working as soldiers for the Israeli army—IDF. Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza deal with these men because they also stand on the checkpoint and let Palestinians pass or not; they will also be at the front to kill Palestinians in Gaza or al-Khalil. So we see this phenomenon every day, and we don't want to talk about it. We don't want to be confronted with this dirty face of our society. This was one matter I wanted to deal with. I come from a village where people from the class I studied went into the Israeli army, and when I come to visit my family in the village I kept seeing these guys that were very quiet in class—you never hear them talking—then suddenly seeing them walking in the street in the village in a very macho way because they have the uniform of the Israeli army (so they walk with open legs and arms, very macho, and feel they are all powerful). That was one side for me, of what and how to catch what I want to deal with. The other intention was, "why are these guys doing it?" They do it because the Israel state will give them priority to have land in their village to build a house. If they volunteer for the IDF, they will receive land where they can build a house with 75 per cent discount. This land is taken by the Israeli state, from their village people—from their families, and then given to these soldiers. But, of course, Israel never does things that simply, so they give the soldier not his parents or his grandparents land, they will give him other family's land, with that creating disunion between the Palestinians. Separating them. The families inside the villages will fight against each other because they will say, "you took my land!". They will not fight against who is responsible for taking the land, Israel. So there are the benefits for Israel from these actions.
JVA: Do you think there's a feminist approach in your work, particularly when you dealt with the trackers, who are all men? Do you think you would you have had the same approach if you were a man, or not?
ASh: Sure. If I were a man, maybe, all my work would look different. I'm aware of social education influence, it's influence within the gander rules; receiving education from school, family, community, and the society rules have been feeding me for adapting traditional values. For ages I have been fighting against it, inside myself, in order to clean up and try arrive to self-judgment of this rules.
Although feminism is not my flag, I am aware of my rights, although being part of patriarchal society. Yes, the approach of being a woman in this case, in traditional society, will influence the way of seeing with what and how to look at, which can come to solidarity or self-enemy or both sometimes, at the same time.
I must say yes, it did help me much to be a woman, in order to be allowed to enter the Israeli army, and particularly as Palestinian woman, it did help me to enter the unit of the Palestinians serving in that army.
There is also a fact that these guys are not much educated. They hardly finished 7 years in school. They don't know Hebrew. They are not allowed to speak Arabic during their Israeli army serves. If they were lucky, one Palestinian in their group who knows Hebrew will translate for them. If they were unlucky they will understand nothing. The commander should be smart, but not the soldiers. They will only be obeying orders and not thinking for themselves. With this fact I had to separate my personal judgment of them from the fact that those are the lost. The ones that in one hand choose the easy way to survive as an individual but in the other hand this lost by their act is breaking their own society.
JVA: Let's move on to another subject which is interesting and quite unique in the Arab world, if I may say so. It's a series called Eastern LGBT, 2006. You have been talking about people who have been deprived of their own homeland, people who have been bereft and have no recognition from society. Here you speak about Palestinian people who cannot live in their country because of their sexual orientation or their sexual taste, etc. It's a big taboo in the Arab world, but also in some Christian countries and among the Jewish population, Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexual people are not well accepted. It seems that we know very little of what is going on with this diverse community in the Arab world. You have explored it. Can you give us an idea of what was behind your intention?
ASh: Let me just first correct something you said. This work was about LGBT people from Arab and Muslim countries, wasn't necessary from Palestine or Palestinian.
The focus in Eastern LGBT concern people from Arab and Islamic countries whose Islamic religion influences their issue of the freedom of body as a home.
What was behind it? It was a PhD book of Adonis…
JVA: The poet?
ASh: Yes, the poet. Adonis PhD study was published as a book followed with his published continuation. It is about the Arab world poetry and the reasons till the nineteenth century for its un-progressing. Adonis talks about the Islamic religion influence for that, a religion rules that limits creativity and freedom of choice. God writes everything, therefore no choice. Someone is only following what God has already decided for.
The Arabic culture, with its dominant inherited form had the religion structure, so it's a follower culture, therefore it refuses the creativity and forbidden it: "the different between the Muslim and the creative is that the one who get the benefit from the others is a Muslim, beneficiary of the other is the obedient Muslim. And religion is the obedience and surrender. The tyrannical is a creative and updater". In that since it is a culture that luck real progressing. The religion basis is on what you have to do, not on what your rights are. For that, poets also with their poetry couldn't change the language rules, couldn't progress. Under this perspective, the ideology-moral, poets were imprisoned, exiled or even killed, such the case of Umar bin Abi Rabia how was denying, al-Hushac was killed, Alahtiip was imprisoned, because they change the language rules in ethical and moral sense, to derogate from any socio-religious traditions.
Adonis talks about how religion limited people's creativity and made people, the tribe, refusing it, such as the case of Ameru' al-Qays who was first expulsion by his father, and later the father gave an order to kill him for ethics and values prevailing out of the socio-religious traditions.
Reading those books brought me to ask "what if you were born with a body you felt was given to you by mistake? God mistake", would you be allowed to change it? According to Adonis descriptions of Social standards and its religion based, certainly not. You cannot change it according to a religion that decide how you should behave, think and what to follow. Nobody will allow you to make the change.
In the other hand, interesting to see that in Jihad for Love film, by Parvez Sharma, the imam from Cape Town, who's gay, saying that there is no role for this (forbidden to be gay) in the Qur'an. There's the one story about the Sodomits, Lot's followers; according to this imam, God destroyed their city Sodom by "brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven" as a punishment, because they raped people, their guests. The punishment was for the rape and not for being gay.
Also one interesting person I photographed in Eastern LGBT work, was born without clear sexual organs. She told me (I'm using she since this what she choose to be when I asked her what shall I call you Mr or Mrs) that her family had four girls and since she could not decide on his-her sex, the family did: "OK, you are a boy, because we have four girls already. You will be a boy and you will get married". She was suffering much and couldn't continue in that way. And when her father was very ail (remain me with Mounir Fatmi instillation where he has the sentence "My father has lost all his teeth, I can bite him now" there is nothing more, can express the weakness of a son than that sentence) she stand up and said to the family, "I am a woman, I want to be a woman". She also said to me "I don't have a sexuality, I should have a sexuality", and continue explaining to me that people like herself, who don't have a definition of sexuality, nether male nor female, in religion concept, are called the "white good face of God"; the Angles. She goes further and explains to me that the prophet Mohammad considered "those persons, the Angels, the only ones who are allowed to enter and clean the Mecca black stone (the enterer of the Mecca black cube). It's the trans-gender people; people that don't have gender; they are like the Angels.
Now, with these religion contradictions, or understanding religion contradictions, this is the creativity of people to survive the religion based social rules. This was the path for me for how to instruct the work, how to make the image of the LGBT I photographed.
JVA: How did you get to know the people you have photographed for the series? Were they friends of yours?
ASh: I knew nobody. I start with research for six months, meeting people who worked with LGBT, filmmaker who worked on the LGBT issue. I found more material about lesbians and homosexuals, and I was more interested in transgender, So I spent reading in Internet for days and days, reading about low rights, reading websites of supported NGOs, etc. then finding places where I could meet LGBT, like night clubs, bars, festivals, etc. and just go there and be there all night, meet people talk ask and that made my basic network people.
JVA: And they all live in the diaspora, outside of the Arab countries.
ASh: Yes, those are the ones I was interested to photograph. I was interested in people who moved to the West in order to follow the wish of their bodies.
My intention was that the body is the first home, so what you have to do is to try to have your home, your body, as you wish. Thinking of what happened to those people, the LGBT, in their homeland, when it's very clear that they could not come out since society decided, in the basic of the religion; that your body does not belong to you so it cannot be what you want. God decided that a man and a woman is what exist. And god gave clear rules to a man and a woman to follow, a clear gender rules. Those people, the LGBT, don't fit in with these fixed religious rules, so the society took the initiate to punish them and puts them in jail or even kills them. The only chance they could have is to escape to another society, where an individual can exist with his/her wish.
JVA: Why did you decide to show them in nightclubs and not in their houses, for instance?
ASh: Yes, only few I do show in their houses. I was interested to focus on the body and on where the LGBT bring out the wish of their body. That was in nightclubs and bars, not really in their homes.
I found interesting thing, that even when those people move abroad, to Zurich, London, Barcelona, Amsterdam or Paris and so on, or when Palestinians go to Tel Aviv (I didn't include the US, although there are Eastern LGBT in SF and NY), I found that those people choose, socially, to behave similarly as in an Arab or Islamic country. Except that in individual term, abroad they could be what they wanted to be. A Lebanese person who cannot active his "Transgenderity" moves to London to be what he/she wants to be—"to active his/her Transgenderity", but she/he will choose to live in London in a neighbourhood filled with Lebanese, and this will prevent him/her from going out in the manner she/he wants to be dressed; just to buy bread and to get the newspaper.
JVA: it was impossible for them to feel free…
ASh: Yes. The same happens with Iraqis, Pakistanis, Somalis, etc. the first time I arrived the nightclubs I was shocked to see the guys with luggage. I asked, "where are you travelling after the party, are you going somewhere?" And the answer was, "no, not yet". It wasn't clear answer for me, nether clear question for them. I took a seat in the bar and the place of the observer. I sow the gays one after the other flooding down stair. So I follow. In the basement everyone had their luggage with party clothes, high shoes, make-up, and a mirror. They are dressing in the basement. They couldn't dress freely at their flats in London, in the areas filled with Lebanese, Pakistani, Turkish, Indian, Somali, or Iraqi people. They took all needed in their suitcase with them to the nightclub and there in the nightclubs basements they will get dressed. There in the nightclubs they could only be themselves, within their communities. So yes, I choose not to photograph them in the neighbourhoods because of all that. Because I wanted to go where they can do it, not where they cannot do it. Nightclubs was the only place where they could dress in the way they wished. In their neighbourhood, they couldn't do it. Though the series Eastern LGBT start with neighbourhood sequins, of the neighbourhoods where some LGBT I photographed lives. I choose to show where they live, the flat, the building, but not people. I was interested to portray the conditions under which they live when they leave their own society. This was for me to answer the paradigmatic triple dependency relation of individual-society-individual or society-individual-society.
JVA: I have another question revolving around another idea related to the land and the dispossession of land; people who live or survive in refugee camps. Some of your most recent works, Arab al-Sbaih (2007) and The Valley (2007–2008)—also revolve around these ideas. Can you go into detail?
ASh: These are my latest two Works before the most recent ones, from Barcelona titled Dependence, and from Poland titled Dom Dziecka. The house starves when you are away. I started with Arab al-Sbaih. It's the first part, after that I made The Valley.
When I'm with the decision of starting doing the work, before I will be busy with what to see, what to photograph, eyes will be open for the things I'm seeing, reading and talking about. In Arab al-Sbaih again I focus on the notion of home. It's my…
ASh: Yes, obsession! It's funny because I never wanted a home, a house, for myself. I was always following Ibrahim Al-Koni, a writer from Libya. One of his characters, in his books, al-sheikh Goma says that, when you own things, you become a slave of what you own. You think you are the owner, but…
JVA: …So you don't want any possessions?
ASh: I always was saying, "I don't want to have a flat or house because I don't want to be an enslaved to a physical place, stuck to it and with it. When I am fed up with a place, I will move to another, out of it." And one day I find myself just buying a flat and giving to myself good reasons why it's good. Of course, there will be ideological political reasons why it's good. Anyway, I have this obsession with "what is home?" and whether it is needed at all.
A large part of the Palestinians are, physically, refugees, and the other part are refugees inside themselves. It was an article I read, by a Lebanese critic, which made me very angry. It was published in a newspaper during the Oslo Accords. Oslo put the question of what will happen with the Palestinians in the refugee camps and in the Arab countries with this peace agreement. Israel said quite clearly, "returning of the Palestinian refugees back to their homeland, to their Properties is not acceptable". This question was forbidden. The file was closed. In that article was a question asked why the Arab countries didn't give naturalization for their Palestinian refugees? And explaining that if they did then no problem will be to solve, there will be no more refugees, as the Palestinian people will become the state, to where they fled to, residents. As Jordan gives Jordanian passports to their Palestinians, the same could be done by Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Libya, etc. If those countries gave naturalization to the Palestinian refugees then there will be no refugees, and the problem will be solved.
What is it saying This essay? It says that these countries made the mistake from the beginning. They allowed the Palestinians to be isolated in order to reproduce the situation they had been living in before the war of 1948, transferred their refugee camps to a past time and past place. By being and keeping being refugees, the Palestinians are still stuck in the past time and they are "illusioning" the place to past place. So they are physically living in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, or Libya, etc, but mentally they are still in the place and time of 1948. Even people in the new place-time speak the same dialect they spoke in their original Palestinian village. The hierarchy in the refugee camps is the hierarchy as it was in '1948 of the village from where they came. No changes.
Now, what I see that, in the basic, we are not talking about immigrants, we are talking about refugees. And this is two different situation and they create two different conditions for living in the situation. A refugee person can live in a refuge situation as long as he can physically live in the frame of mind of his/her home place and time. This now and here home is concern the past. Otherwise, how can he or she survive the refuge conditions? So with Arab al-Sbaih I wanted to see (if it's true) whether, when people are in these homes, they are "living" or whether they are "frozen" in a previous time and place. I said, "OK, I'll go to the closest I know". About 70 per cent of my village people are refugees in two places. One part is in Irbid refugee camp, in the centre of the Jordanian city Irbid, and the second part in Khan Eshieh refugee camp and in al-Mazareeb, west-south Syria. Unfortunately, I couldn't go to Syria because I hold the black passport (they call it "the dark blue passport!"). But I could go to Jordan. and I went.
JVA: And what did you find there, in those camps?
ASh: Yes they were terrible camps, worse than in the west bank and similar to the camps in Gaza. I felt very sad that even Jordan, the only country gives a passport, naturalization, to the Palestinian refugees, is treating them in such a way… it was totally shocking to see the camps there.
JVA: But what did you see? The fact that people lived in a different era, in the 40s?
ASh: It was sad because sixty years is a long time for refugee position. People are still living hard condition in the camps , in so-called residency. A camp is not a home. Jordan gives them a nationality but not a home. People still living in refugee camps with no access to a good life, good education, good jobs etc. if you are lucky, smart and stubborn you can move out of this conditions. Not everybody is as lucky enough, smart enough, and stubborn enough to know what he or she wants. Most people are lost. And the camp consists of one concrete room divided to huge amount of cells, with huge amount of satellites: this is the only access to the dream of life. This is something that made me feel distressed: you cannot live as a refugee. You need a home in order to put your head out of the window and be interested to see the sun out there…
Reading the history of what happened to the Palestinians in Jordan. That is terrible history—Black September, the army of King Hussein regime fighting against the Palestinian fighters, and the way they were killed.
Therefore I disagree with that dogmatism, it wasn't the Arab countries how are responsible for the fact that refugees living in the past. What I saw is, that living the past was the only way to survive the refuge position and conditions, and to make home from the displacement structure.
JVA: What would you say that your gaze is directed at in The Valley and Arab al-Sbaih? How do you portray what you see? Is your gaze dispassionate, unsentimental or, on the contrary, did you want to convey the emotions that you saw there? Did you involve yourself personally in what you were looking at?
ASh: There are, in the one hand, my emotions about the situation and its conditions, but there is the risk that these emotions make a judgment, which I'm trying to avoid. In the other hand, also with the dispassionate gaze there is the risk of being disconnected and far from the subject, to that I'm also aware. In the first place I may say, that each place or subject I choose to capture is a micro situation for a macro one which is the one I'm interested in. In order to see this macro I need to deal with the micro and farther with the very close micro, the ones I know. Therefore I will say my gaze is directed at "to look at what is there, to read it and its conditions and to make an image of that reading". That is a walking in-out-in-out or its opposite, from the emotions to the dispassionate, unsentimental or from the unsentimental to the emotions.
The Valley, for example, is about the building obsession of my village people. All families work very hard to save money for getting permission and build houses for themselves or to their sons. They don't invest money for their children education as they invest for the building. More than that, their sons join the Israeli army to fight against their own people, against Palestinian, not to talk about the risk of getting killed, all in order to receive a permission to build a house, or for receiving a salary with it build the house. So you see all village covered with new houses, all concentrated in on area.
In front of the village there is the flat land and the wood. And you start to read what is there and to connect it to the conditions made it, to make an image out of analysing what you see:—The remains people are building in the mountain, they are eating the mountain which gives them shelter to survive the '1948 war. So I photograph the mountain houses.—There are the missing ones, the ones who fought for the lands during the war of '1948 and became refugees and they are in refugee camps in Jordan and Syria. So I photograph the land and the wood where they were fighting.—The ones who remain in the place are the weaker; they are the ones who didn't fight to protect themselves and their land. They ran up to the monastery of Mt. Tabor for shelter during the war. There in the monastery and it's lands they hid until the end of the war, so I photograph the mountain. Some people from the village told me that a Jewish friend informed them that "The Jewish fighters are going to kill anyone from Arab al-Sbaih village", the original name of the village, "so if they come don't say you are from Arab al-Sbaih, they will kill you", For that the village men decided to give the village a new name: Arab al-Shibli, so I photographed the fear signs from Israel, such as the Israeli flags on top of the roofs or the shops and the using of Hebrew letters to mark their name at the entrance of their houses.
It was mainly two directions of seeing with The Valley: building houses in the mountain, with the permission of the state of Israel, which meant eating the mountain that gave shelter to them to survive the war. The other direction was "what do you see from this houses?" People sit on their balconies and see the beautiful view. They see the valley, they see where the village was and the Israelis took its lands, the flat lands, they enjoy the view, they see the sunset, they see the changes of sky colours, then they see the darkness, and you know this was your land and that you cannot disturb it…
JVA: Well, that's a good ending.
This essay was published in Spanish in the book:
Desde el Magreb al Mashreq: diálogos artísticos y geopolíticos sobre el norte de África, Oriente Próximo y el mundo islámico. Edited by Juan Vicente Aliaga. Cendeac (Centro de Documentación y Estudios Avanzados de Arte Contemporáneo), Murcia, Spain, 2012. [español]