Ahlam Shibli احلام شبلي

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© Ahlam Shibli
Camera Austria — TRACKERS

Resisting oppression

Ulrich Loock, 2006

Ever since Ahlam Shibli began thinking about an audience for her photos in 1996, she has usually arranged a number of pictures under a certain title. In Positioning (2002) or Refuge in the Frost (2005) these are pictures that she took individually and later combined to form a more extended work. In other cases she defines a comprehensive project, preparing it down to the last detail before taking the first photo. Trackers was photographed in 2005 and comprises 85 pictures, 44 black­and­white and the rest colour. Most of the pictures are combined in small series or blocks and measure 37 cm x 55.5 cm, with occasional larger, single formats interrupting these groups.

Ahlam Shibli said that Trackers is a means of thinking about »the price to be paid by a minority to the majority, perhaps in order to be accepted, perhaps to change its identity, perhaps to survive, or perhaps to achieve all of this and more«. The work deals with Palestinians of Bedouin descent, citizens of the state of Israel, who, unlike most other Arab residents of the Jewish state, serve as volunteers in the Israeli army. They are trained as trackers, to be deployed in the Palestinian areas occupied by Israel and above all on the borders. Their tasks include tracking down intruders and arms caches. This puts Palestinian members of the Israeli army and Palestinians in the occupied territories in a state of direct confrontation. The volunteers are sometimes regarded as traitors. On the other hand, some people say that it is part of Bedouin character to take sides with the state in which they live. The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) website, finally, features a tracker who is already serving in the second generation. He joined the army because he had heard so much about the soldiers as a young man that he did not want to be the odd one out. In her account of Palestinians doing military service in the IDF, Ahlam Shibli claims not to fall back on any of these explanatory models, but rather to contribute to the socio­psychology of minorities, and more specifically to the sociopsychology of native people under colonial rule.

The Trackers installation is arranged in seven chapters that, although not strictly delimited from each other, can be described as follows: training under arms, houses/village, leisure/family, interi­ or decoration, cemetery, training camp, swearing­in and diploma ceremony. Ahlam Shibli takes photographs of the soldiers during military training, their home and their graves. There are no pictures of the trackers in a combat situation, and indeed very few photos of any soldiers in action.

With the pictures of cemeteries, Ahlam Shibli adds a historical dimension to her work. A memorial slab—the official stone of the army—serves to commemorate a soldier who fell in Lebanon in 1991 at the age of 35. In another photo, following a verse from the Qur'an (»Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord«) we read the following dedication written in green on a plaque: »The graves of the 14 martyrs justified by God, who sacrificed their lives for the homeland and whose identity is unknown. In the year 1969.« From a local man whom Ahlam Shibli met at the cemetery, she knows that one night in 1969 members of the Israeli army brought the naked bodies of fourteen fighters with mutilated faces, asking the head of the village to bury them. They were Palestinian fighters who had penetrated Israel from Lebanon. The graves require inscriptions as a photograph needs a caption. The inscription indicates who the dead person was and what his fate was. Without them the graves are without exception nothing but the final resting place of dead men. Presented next to each other, the two photos lead the observer to make a connection between the violent death of a Palestinian member of the Israeli army in 1991 and the death of fighters against Israel, who either had had to flee their homeland in 1948 in connection with the foundation of the Jewish state or who had joined the armed struggle after further Palestinian defeats. Implicitly, but evoked by the choice of pictures, Ahlam Shibli brings into play what none of the 85 photos of Trackers shows: the deadly confrontation of Palestinians with Palestinians, brought about by the state of Israel.

With the photos of the graves from 1969 and 1991, the photographer creates a link between the military service of the young volunteers, whose possible future is to be buried with a stone similar to that of the dead man from 1991, and the Arab defeat of 1948 and 1967 with its well­known consequences—the annexation of Palestinian territory, the eviction of a large part of the native people, and the oppression, disintegration and discrimination of those who remained. However, by taking photos of the graves of men fighting for and against the state of Israel, the dates of whose deaths are so far apart that it was never possible for them to actually face each other, Ahlam Shibli preserves a distance between them that avoids any unequivocal statement regarding their mutual relationship. The photos neither specify the kind of connection between one death and the other, nor do they express an opinion on the question of right or wrong of the actions that ultimately led to the graves depicted in the photos. They do not make the Palestinian adversaries responsible for each other's death, but the state for and against whom they fought, and raise the inescapable question of how come Palestinians face each other, the ones in the service of the Jewish state and the others as its enemies.

Therefore, the photos are at the same time, and perhaps first and foremost, pictures of commemoration of the dead that is dedicated to these young Palestinians, irrespective of what side they fought on. One picture is of plastic chairs between the graves, a sign of the frequent presence of the living in this place.

The pictures show what is, the graves of the dead from 1969 and of the dead man from 1991. It is up to the observer to realise what they may imply. All of Ahlam Shibli's pictures are characterised by the photographer's calm, patient persistence with these situations of reality. This becomes clear if you compare her own photos of the soldiers and the photos she saw and took photos of in their families' houses, where they decorate the walls alongside other pictures. The souvenir photos are of soldiers in combative or comradely poses that they take up for the photographer: their bodies become vehicles of standardised signifiers of the soldier's function and are thereby divested of their particularity. Ahlam Shibli, on the other hand, does not take photos of the soldiers as such soldiers but rather portrays individuals in a certain situation: recruits on military service doing what you have to do as a member of the army. This is particularly impressive in the three portraits of soldiers whose faces are painted foroutdoor training. Like all the other Trackers pictures, these photos do not show the »human« side of the army but rather its social component. In this respect, Ahlam Shibli's pictures turn out to be much more strongly characterised by something universal than the conventional pictures of the military hanging on the walls of the soldiers' families' homes.

Apart from the documentary value of the interior photos with the decorative pictures (there are no pictures of the other furnishings of the houses—Ahlam Shibli does not pursue an ethnographic programme), they also serve to reflect on the aesthetic and ideological modalities of the photographic project itself.

It is characteristic of the Trackers pictures that they hardly ever depict the soldiers in action—quite unlike what the media they are reading suggest: in one photo, a magazine entitled »The Fighter« is lying on the table, and in another photo a soldier in civilian clothes is reading a newspaper in which the headline reads »Death« and a second line »My friend was killed instead of me«. But in Ahlam Shibli's photos, all that remains of night­time training are the delicate pictures of grasses and trees in the searchlight; hand grenade training is shown in a picture of a soldier fearfully and extremely cautiously holding a grenade that has just been handed out to him; and all that we see of recruits learning the effects of different projectiles is their legs and shadows. Action is portrayed almost exclusively through its side­effects. But in many pictures the soldiers are sleeping, resting, waiting, sitting in a classroom or in an office, lined up for a ceremony. Pragmatically, it is probably less difficult for a photographer to take photos of people whose attention is limited or distracted. As a result, they assume an air of inanimate objects that have no influence on the picture being taken of them, and, by dint of their very manner of being, comply with the objectifying effect of the camera. In some of the pictures their sleep looks like death.Ahlam Shibli aims to achieve a certain detachment from the individuals she portrays, avoiding any interaction with them. With few exceptions, the pictures do not betray the presence of the photographer, and indeed many of them were obviously taken without the subjects even noticing. Ahlam Shibli avoids participating in the particular situation, preferring to assume a position of reflection, explicitly in her photos of photos. The lack of any pictures of military operations, the portrayal of action through its side­effects, the inactivity of soldiers resting or lined up for a ceremony, the numerous graves, and a photographic aesthetic that avoids tensions and momentary or precarious constellations, a manner of depicting the military, then, that differs from all military images, impregnates Trackers with a barely evident atmosphere of fatality. The lack of self­determined action inheres in these pictures like a spell. Maybe this impression is created by an averted face (the first picture in the series), the back often turned to the photographer, a certain facial expression, a cover pulled up over someone's head, the way four men are sitting, four soldiers are holding their guns in the same direction, or by much more.

Two groups of pictures deal with the origin of the young soldiers, their families and the village and, on the other hand, with houses that they build after their three years of service. Here we see such pictures of unexpected happiness as the photo of two friends lying together outdoors stretched out on a lounger under a tree, or the photo of a uniformed man resting on a cushion in the family's traditionally furnished living­room, creating the impression of being at home there full of self­confidence. But you can tell that the recruits that Ahlam Shibli accompanied in their home villages are visiting and not totally assured of their position. Even the young man posing in front of curtains and a divan for a martial photo together with his father, who has his son's gun slung over his shoulder, appears rather awkward. The sense of fatality that pervades the pictures of the military continues in pictures of waiting, of silent sitting together, the paralysing calm in the family and among friends—as if something is about to happen.

Most likely it is the pictures of the young men with their animals that convey a sense of belonging and of vital relations with things in their environment. Precisely this closeness to animals and the open land on which they roam is what makes the Bedouin suitable for this special military service—only the men whose ancestors were shepherds and nomads are trained as trackers in the army. After their term of service, they are entitled to buy enough land at a discounted price to build a house. Several photos show such houses, some of them oversized villas situated in a dilapidated neigh­ bourhood or lost in devastated land. In one picture, Ahlam Shibli shows nothing but the gate to one such villa, flanked by massive stone pillars and adorned with two large Israeli flags, on a neglect­ ed, empty road. Once again she suggests links between several photos that allow the observer to draw conclusions not expressed in the individual pictures. The photos reveal that the loyalty to the state of Israel, rewarded with the possibility of building a house, leads to disintegrated communities in which individual families exclude themselves from the village collective.

Ahlam Shibli's photographic aesthetic is characterised by the fragmentation of contexts and by a focus on isolated gestures, constellations and circumstances. No individual picture claims to fully portray a particular situation. Only the combination of numerous details, gleaned from an in­depth scrutiny of the photos, allows the observer to construct a statement that the photographer refrains from explicating. The pictures are concerned with the situation of Palestinians of Bedouin descent serving as volunteers in the Israeli army who, by dint of their official oath, accept being deployed against other Palestinians. They present these soldiers affected by a fatality that can be attributed to the »catastrophe« of 1948, the foundation of the state of Israel and the defeat of the Arab forces which resulted in the ruin of Palestine. They also show that the Bedouin's service, including the reward that the trackers receive from the state, put the unity of Palestinian society at risk. Ahlam Shibli not only reveals that the trackers pay a high price for being accepted by Israeli society as members of the army, she also demonstrates that the volunteers pay a double price, not only becoming alienated from their own society as a result of their actual military activity but also because of their reward, without gaining real access to another society.

With Trackers, Ahlam Shibli has created a photographic work that exposes contradictions within the people to which she herself belongs that are hard to comprehend and accept. For her it was painful to do the photography for Trackers because she had set herself the task in the project of capturing in pictures a reality of her people and decisions taken by people close to her that she believes to be fateful. However, she thinks that it is necessary to overcome her own feeling of desperation, shame and anger and to show the weakness in her society, too, in order to create the opportunity of correcting it. With regard to the position of the photographer herself, we may say that members of an oppressed people have only found their voices if they are able to take a critical stance towards their own society, irrespective of the oppressor's judgement. In her photographic practice, Ahlam Shibli can present but not explain incisive contradictions in her people. She had to read Frantz Fanon to accept that it is part of the psychology of oppressed minorities to identify with the oppressor. This reading enabled her to understand that the phenomenon of voluntary military service of Palestinians of Bedouin descent from Israel in the IDF is not a specific problem of the Palestinian­Israeli conflict, but rather a general problem of minority oppression.

Translation from German: Richard Watts

This essay was published in:

Ulrich Loock. "Ahlam Shibli: Widerstand gegen Unterdrückung / Resisting Oppression", Camera Austria, Graz, no. 93, March 2006. Pp. 41-52.

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