Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

John Running, Pictures for Solomon (Northland, 1990).

Phyllis Bennis and Neal Cassidy, From Stones to Statehood (Olive Branch, 1990).

Kamal Boullata, Faithful Witnesses: Palestinian Children Recreate Their World (Windrush, 1990).

The intifada has reopened the question of Palestine’s future, and political space is being occupied by interested parties of all descriptions, each seeking in Palestine a different answer to the call of history. Among those parties actively shaping the history and historiography of Palestine are US residents who consider themselves the allies and supporters of the intifada. Attracted by some feature of the uprising — its democratic promise, its feminist possibilities, its potential to reshape politics in the region, or its insistence on the right of all peoples to self-determination and national identity — writers, photographers, theorists, artists and activists have contacted representatives of the intifada within the territories seeking to circumvent the occupation authorities and command a hearing in the global arena.

Between insiders and outsiders there is emerging a politics of ambassadorship that offers both sides opportunities to collaborate in the work of representing the uprising. Such representation, itself a part of the struggle, offers lessons not only in “heroism and humility” (Bennis), but an apprenticeship in the atrophied crafts of political and discursive negotiation and judgment. Each of the volumes under consideration here purports to represent Palestine and Palestinians to outsiders in ways which respect both the achievements of the uprising and the desire of Palestinians to represent themselves. They are more and less successful experiments in ethically investing the intifada.

John Running’s Pictures for Solomon collects photographic portraits of Mexicans, Trinidadians and Palestinians. Running exchanges his friendship for the portraits of a hundred radically different subjects bound together in one volume for this reason alone: “On the surface, [people] are very different but in my experience…. Despite cultural differences, people are pretty much like people everywhere: They are fathers, mothers, children, sons, daughters; we all share a common set of emotions, joys and fears.”

Perhaps this justifies the unannotated concatenation of “Two Hadjs at a Wedding,” “Tattooed Woman,” “Yasser Arafat,” “Tomato Seller” and “Aba Tarik Salameh and Son, Shatila Camp, Lebanon.” Yet even “on the surface,” subjects are processed so as to appear nearly identical. Running favors a tiny repertoire of lenses, camera angles, poses and backgrounds. Of the 36 portraits of Palestinians, only two are shown engaged in any sort of activity. Running photographs faces, he says, to “reveal the whole dimension of human emotion.” But none of these faces expresses rage or intense concentration. No one is laughing with a good friend. No one is weeping over an imprisoned son. There appears rather to be one specific emotion, signified by one specific face. Appearing with tiresome regularity, this face, shot with a short telephoto lens, against backgrounds remarkable for their virginity (no rubble, no graffiti, no commerce, just smooth plaster surfaces and open skies), neither smiles nor frowns but looks at the viewer a bit wistfully, somewhat sorrowfully. Formally, very little distinguishes these portraits from those critically recollected by Malek Alloula in The Colonial Harem. Institutionally, Running’s practice is distinguished from that of a romantic tourist who engages in a bit of fantasmatic bonding with the natives only by production values which allow the book to circulate on the photographic market.

Phyllis Bennis and Neal Cassidy’s collaborative photo essay is a state-of-the-art work of overtly partisan “delegated representation.” From Stones to Statehood lucidly and comprehensively documents Israel’s investment in smashing the intifada and the Palestinians’ inventiveness in transforming disenfranchisement into foundations for popular institutions.

If Bennis and Cassidy were able to see so much so clearly, it is due in part to that very inventiveness, here directed toward transforming tourism into a form of political education and solicitation, recorded in travelogues, photo albums and slide shows. These are the first products of a negotiated internationalist politics of representation.

Bennis touches on what this transformation signals for the conventions employed by those other touring internationalists — the representatives of the US media. “The people we spent time with could face serious jeopardy if their identities were to be exposed,” she writes. “We have chosen not to identify sources by name, only by their role in the intifada.” A wise precaution, one which importantly repositions the foreign correspondent. She can, paradoxically, represent a good deal more than the non-aligned journalist who is limited (by a choice which has serious repercussions for Palestinians) to covering and recovering the “visible intifada” — the stone throwers, refugees and nameable public informants whose very safety and quotability is sometimes a measure of their distance from popular institutions or a function of outright Israeli government protection. A photo essay which represents Palestinians “in roles only” is appropriate to the contours of the resistance theorized, anonymously, in slogans painted on stones: “A bullet kills a single person; surrender kills a people.”

Originally commissioned as works to be exhibited at the UN Secretariat in New York, Palestinian children’s paintings are “enriched” in Kamal Boullata’s Faithful Witnesses by their original titles, which did not appear in New York, as they offended a UN member state. Boullata’s own text in English, French and Arabic also includes a number of supplementary photographs and insets, and a list of Palestinian children killed by occupation authorities since the start of the intifada. Part of the proceeds from the sale of this book go to the Tamer Institute for further art education of Palestinian children.

Children are at the center of a variety of “typical” intifada practices which transform abnormal conditions into the grounds for political restructuration. The detainment or death of a father or brother, or the destabilization of the Palestinian economy, can become the occasion for turning child care into community concerns. The politicization of day care, education, food and shelter can in turn facilitate the development of feminist practice in the OccupiedTerritories.

A bit of abstraction and the notion of “abnormal childhood” becomes a metaphor for the uprising itself. A Palestinian mother and sociologist put it this way: “Palestinian hopes for a democratic future depend upon postponing a finish…not necessarily on postponing the state, but on giving ourselves the time and space to grow ourselves from the ground up. We have to remain immature.” In most theories of human development, children are marked precisely by their inability to postpone. But which visitor to the Occupied Territories has not been struck by the political sophistication of Palestinian youth?

“Tear Gas in My Eyes,” a painting by Sabar Mansour, age 8, figures the artist dressed in a skirt made of the Palestinian flag, covering her eyes to protect them from a cloud of tear gas. Behind her, and with their backs to her as well as to the viewer, stand three boys, involved in a demonstration. Most of the tear gas used by the occupation is manufactured in the US, and thus the self-portrait positions us as canister throwers, even installs us in the artists’ place, raising questions about morality, visibility and identity in a rush of representational vertigo worthy of Las Meninas.

Boullata’s investments in and respect for Palestinian children as political actors and as signifiers are apparent from the very start of his text. Problematizing his own adulthood and the role of the translator, he asks his readers to emulate, as far as possible, “abnormal children.” Ask a lot of questions, but postpone your answers. The importance of the child as actor and exemplar is also legible in Boullata’s slightly altered narration of the start of the intifada. Most accounts begin with a truck “accident” in the Gaza Strip. Boullata begins with a young Palestinian, living in Lebanon, who constructs a glider for himself and flies one night to a homeland he has never seen.

Boullata narrates the tale as if he had been with the boy, inventing an account — half fact, half fantasy — which draws upon Israeli media accounts, Palestinian “rumor” and his own sense of intifada history. The Palestinian mission — to attack a military outpost — must have been constructed from similar sources, also the sources used by the children who produced these paintings. Boullata is a remarkable guide to the process by which their visions come into being. To take just one example: The children often depict Israeli soldiers in profile. Boullata “enriches” this fact by reproducing in the margin a detail from an Assyria seal, which renders the warrior in a lateral orientation, and a photograph of Israeli soldiers, also seen in profile, faceless but with the accouterments of their profession — insignia, helmet, weapon — in dramatic relief.

Those Palestinian products that do come to the US must be labeled “Made in the Israeli Occupied Territories.” Boullata’s book is clearly stamped “Made in the Intifada.” Boullata, a Palestinian, no doubt carries letters of credit unavailable to many North Americans. His investment in and by US institutions of power is probably less than my own. But in its attention to the details and moral urgency of Palestinian work, to the translator’s position in global networks of discourse and power, and to the distribution of proceeds generated by collaborative cultural production, Faithful Witnesses proposes a representational investment strategy that each of us, in our own way, from our own sites, might emulate.

How to cite this article:

Lisa Frank "Photos and Art from Palestine," Middle East Report 175 (March/April 1992).
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