Dieter Lesage: some words on recognizing Palestine

Some words
On recognizing Palestine

Dieter Lesage

Two years ago, Els Opsomer, Pieter Van Bogaert and Herman Asselberghs went on a ten-day visit to Palestine. Their visit was part of 100 Artists in Palestine, an IETM project “aiming to break the isolation of Palestinian artists, to facilitate exchanges with European artists and to set up the conditions for continuing artistic relationships between European and Palestinian artists and cultural organizations”. Today, they present a book that is a testimony of that experience. Indeed, Time Suspended is as much a book about three personal experiences as it is a book about Palestine. Maybe, it’s even more about its three authors than about Palestine. But paradoxically and precisely therefore it is a book about Palestine.

A book with so many photographs as Time Suspended is very much a book at which you look, you look at the book, which has a particarly nice feel and look, you browse it, you look at the photographs, and it takes a while before you start to read. You may think you can do without the essays that go with the photographs, you may think that images speak for themselves and that later, maybe, you will have a look at the supplement that are the essays, and in the case of the Dutch translation – or the Dutch original -, the essays are literally to be found in a supplement to the book.

But it is always a mistake to think that reading photographs is an easy thing. And in the case of the many photographs that Els Opsomer made on her Palestine visit this is even more so than it is in general. This is not the kind of photography book on nations, lost ones or still surviving ones, where the reader goes from one recognition smile to the next. Not only is it difficult to recognize the places, to know where the photographs have been taken. It is even difficult to guess what kind of places we see when we look at the photographs. Is this a refugee camp or a neighborhood? Is this a village, or are we still in the city? And the few moments that we seem capable of generically recognizing what some photographs show us, the moments, that is, when, as a western reader who likes to think of himself as quite well-informed, we say for instance, ‘this must be a check-point’, our recognition remains abstract. We wouldn’t know one check-point from the other, we have no idea of the complex geography of check-points, and our understanding of what it means for Palestinians to present themselves at these check-points is at best vague and based on principled empathy, rather than on live experience. What the reader learns, then, through his repeated attempts to read the photographs is that, apparently, it is very difficult to recognize Palestine.

Only one moment after I had said to myself, looking at the photographs in the book, that apparently ‘it is very difficult to recognize Palestine’, I understood that I hadn’t made an aesthetic observation on photography, but a geopolitical observation. It is very difficult to recognize Palestine. It was only from the beginning of the eighties that the European Economic Community -very eighties indeed – was the first political authority to speak of ‘the Palestinian people’. Until then it was common to speak only of ‘the Palestinian refugees’.

At my first look at the book, I felt a bit lost. This is probably the first book ever on Palestine without a map. It’s an exaggeration, I know, but still. I was getting used to those books on Palestine, who are always carefully accompanied by a map, that shows us the Occupied Territories, that draws the Green Line, that shows us the settlements, both in Gaza and on the West Bank. And it must be already more than two years now that maps like these also show where the infamous wall is being built, and how it claims even more land for the state of Israel. Time Suspended suspends that mapping tradition in the ‘Palestinian issue’ bibliography. Maybe the clue to the absence of a map is to be found in Pieter Van Bogaert’s essay in the book. Van Bogaert argues that one of the instruments of the affirmative state, apart from the control of different types of identity papers and the settlements in the last remaining and occupied Palestinian territories, is the map. When upon his arrival at Ben Gurion Airport, Pieter buys a map at the tourist office, it appears that his destination, the West Bank, is not even mentioned on it. Neither are the checkpoints that only exist for Palestinians. And when he arrives in Ramallah, he’s soon to find out that there are no tourist offices there, “and consequently, no maps either. If you want to locate an address in the cities on the West Bank, it’s a matter of being resourceful or of getting a local to drive you” (p. 125). Walking around with no map is not an experience that the experienced globetrotter finds necessarily very comfortable. There is no place for any romanticism here that believes it’s wonderful not to know where you are.

However, one of the main reasons why, in Palestine, you don’t know where you are, even if you are an experienced traveller, and having been interested in the Palestinian issue for a long time, is probably that you don’t know what you’re waiting for. If, despite all legitimate anti-essentialist critique that says not to make dichotomizing distinctions between, for instance, Israeli’s and Palestinians, one would want to indulgent for one moment in an essentialist description of the Palestinian, one may want to describe him as the one who waits. The Palestinian, waiting at the checkpoints, the Palestinian, waiting at the security control in European airports where he’s often controlled by Israeli officials, the Palestinian waiting… to be recognized. In his story AM/PM, Herman Asselberghs draws on this experience of waiting. While Pieter, arriving in Ramallah, found out there was no map, the narrator in Herman’s story came to the conclusion that in Ramallah there is no clock: “As I finally join the long line of waiting cars at the Ramallah side, I am confused. I don’t really know what time it is. The clock may be important when you’re in Israel, but less here in this hermetically sealed enclave where all the shops are closed anyway and being punctual has become impossible. Here, the hours, days and months hardly seem to matter” (p. 205). For the narrator in AM/PM, there is a before, and an after Ramallah. For him, Ramallah was a defining experience. For a moment, it shattered his well-ordered life. Says the narrator: “Before, I dreamed of nothing worth mentioning. Now, my dreams are all about tomorrow and the day after. And when I wake up, even if it takes a while, time seems to pause.” And he adds: “I no longer make a difference between what’s near and what’s far” (p. 195).

I have never been in Israel, I never was in Rammalah, nor in Gaza. So when I was asked to say ‘some words’ here this evening, I didn’t know whether I was really the right person to do so. I only know the Palestinian issue as many people here know it. Only last week, I was asked to say ‘some words’. And although I had not yet been able to read the book, I said yes. I took the book with me to Lisbon, where I had to give a lecture in the context of a debate on the Euro-Mediterranean. Last Tuesday morning, I found myself a desk to work at at the office of the Portuguese organization who had invited me. But very soon, someone of the organization would interrupt me, saying, ‘I would like to present you Omar’. So I followed her to another room and was presented to Omar Barghouti, with whom I would debate that same evening. As he had things to do, I went back to my desk and to my reading of Time Suspended. Only a few moments later I read in Pieter’s essay Reality Check, about someone he met in Ramallah: “Meanwhile, Omar Barghouti, choreographer with the traditional company Bara’em El-Funoun, is staying with his wife and child in Ramallah and working on his doctorate on the one-state solution, which he is writing in Arabic for the Hebrew university in Tel-Aviv” (p. 143).

I no longer make a difference between what’s near and what’s far.
I speak English here, at this occasion, neither French or Dutch, because now I understand that this is the language that I am most likely to have in common with many Palestinians. With many Israeli’s as well, by the way.
I don’t know if there are any Palestinians here.
I don’t know if there are any Israeli’s here.
I don’t know if there are any jews or Arabs here.
I’m in favor of Omar’s one-state solution.
Let’s forget about an independent Palestinian state.
Let’s forget about a pure jewish state.
Let’s forget about the solution that won the Prix de la Jeune Peinture belge.
And let’s forgive Christophe for what the proposed.
What we need is a secular democratic state, where Jews and Palestinians are recognized as equals, where Palestinians and jews are allowed to mix.
That is what Omar proposes.
And Omar isn’t a Belgian.
But that’s a different story.
You can read it in Time Suspended.
For now, music.

This text was presented at the presentation of Herman Asselberghs, Els Opsomer & Pieter Van Bogaert, Time Suspended in Brussels, November 12 2004.

Dieter Lesage teaches philosophy in Brussels and Rotterdam. He is the author of ‘Onzuivere Gedachten. Over het Vlaanderen van de Minister-President’, ‘Zwarte Gedachten. Over België’ and ‘Vertoog over verzet. Politiek in tijden van globalisering’. He is co-editor of ‘Het Museum van de Natie. Van Kolonialisme tot globalisering.’