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Check Out These 5 Visual Books To Learn More About What's Going on With Palestine

posted on: Jun 2, 2021

Capturing Mobility in Palestine/Israel: visual books on a conflict in motion
Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Photo: Middle East Monitor

By: Khelil Bouarrouj/Arab America Contributing Writer

One of the burdens of modern Palestinian life is the denial of the right to a sedentary life. Ever since the Nakba, Palestinian life has been interminably in motion from one expulsion to another, one crisis to another, one tragedy to another. But it is not just the people in motion, but the very soil underneath their feet. In its campaign to erase the Palestinian past and present, Israel demolishes and uproots, renames Arab villages and landmarks, and attempts to camouflage the ruins with hastily-planted forests. Amidst all of this motion, the Palestinians are prevented from leading normal lives — denied the right to be a simple farmer or trader — and are compelled to be activists, community leaders, experts in law, and summon awesome steadfastness to resist the winds of motion that seek to displace them, to stand athwart all that motion and implant themselves deep into the soil in the hopes of being implacable. 

Visual Books About Palestinians and Israel

1. Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Human Migration, by George Butler

Capturing Mobility in Palestine/Israel: visual books on a conflict in motion
Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Human Migration by George Butler. Photo: Amazon.com

“It wasn’t until I had seen these restrictions in Palestine that I appreciated the anxiety caused by taking away people’s ability to move,” relates British artist George Butler in this hauntingly drawn collection of stories on human migration propelled by war, occupation, and the hope for a better life. Butler reminds us that the Palestinian story is one rooted in the processes of migration. The most salient example is the Nakba, the forcible migration of +700,000 Palestinians whose ripples continue to this day; in Lebanon, for instance, Butler encountered a Palestinian refugee girl whose family fled the Syrian civil war. What makes the Palestinian story unique is the duality of the experience: they are simultaneously forced into flight but also restricted in their movements. In the West Bank, Butler depicts the life of Boudins facing a Kafkaesque world where their traditional nomadic lifestyle is obstructed by rules governing where Palestinian can travel and their attempts at sedentary life are similarly obstructed by laws determining where Palestinians can settle. Butler brings a deeply human gaze to his stories; and by situating the Palestinian experience in a broader canvas of despondent mobility, he illustrates that the injustice is a common one — and as is the failure of the vaunted international community to uphold right where wrong exists. 

2. Home Away From Home, by Taysir Batniji 

Capturing Mobility in Palestine/Israel: visual books on a conflict in motion
Home Away From Home by Taysir Batniji. Photo: Aperture

The photographs in Taysir Batniji’s Home Away From Home are not of the dramatic, and few would describe them as poetic, but taken together, they form moving portraiture of an extended Palestinian family. Batniji, a French-Palestinian visual artist, sets out to capture his cousins in their new lives in California and Florida. The project is tinged with nostalgia as Batniji complements his photographs of the present with sketches of the past life in Gaza before the ‘67 Occupation forced Taysir and his cousins to decamp for dwellings overseas. The decades abroad have loosened the erstwhile intimate bonds between cousins; as such, Batniji is a familiar face but maintains a fair distance from his subjects. He mainly eschews formal photographs and captures his relatives at their unguarded moments along with the household objects that imbibe their lives with meaning. What we witness are homes where, as one cousin relays, “We live here as if we never left there.” Even though they have American-born children and grandchildren, the Batniji families remain deeply rooted in Palestinian culture from the homecooked meals to the tatreez worn by the matriarchs and daughters; in one poignant touch, grandchildren play with a Palestinian flag on a golf hole pole. Many of them, however, cannot imagine returning to Palestine after years abroad; “We have a different system of life, now,” one relates. But the belief that Palestine is “my original home” runs deep while America “is a home away from home.”  For one cousin, America and the Holy Land are symbiotic “as if a divine hand played a part in finding the new world.” Representation matters and Taysir has done an enormous service in photographing the simple lives of Palestinian Americans in a country where Arab Americans are often out of frame. 

3. Wanderland: Israel—Palestine, ed. Martin Hentschel 

Capturing Mobility in Palestine/Israel: visual books on a conflict in motion
Wanderland: Israel–Palestine by Martin Hentschel. Photo: Kerber Verlag

Wanderland is less about words and more about the absorbing photographs by Europeans, Israelis, and the peripatetic Palestinian artist Taysir Batniji. Photography is often read as static but many of these photographers present their work as capturing states of constant movement. Much of this work was done during the Second Intifada when Israeli occupation forces were violently transforming the occupied West Bank. For Palestinians, this means that “movement and action are marked out by the other,” relates Batniji. But can this be captured in photographs? The Italian photographer Antoine d’Agata argues that photography “can only question its relation to reality.” Photographs, particularly the journalistic kind, can be tendentious when capturing a conflict with polarized narratives. Photographing the street clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youth, d’Agata laments the reductivist images that will be printed by newspapers. The tension between the opaque and transparent nature of photography — between the meaning and the simulacrum — grounds the work of many of the contributors. The Israeli photographer Miki Krastman has found a balance better than most. She photographs Palestinians so that Israelis might see themselves “through the other,” a photographic passage between peoples. What’s transparent is self-evident to everyone, but Krastman accepts that the opaque meaning is always subjective and invites us to find our identification with her subjects.  The common theme of these photographs gives the book its title. In the end, we are left to contemplate what it means to live in a “wanderland” where the people wander and the only permanence is the land.

4. Unresolved, by Meinrad Schade

Capturing Mobility in Palestine/Israel: visual books on a conflict in motion
Unresolved by Meinrad Schade. Photo: Amazon.com

For all but six months since Israel’s 1948 founding, some segments of the Palestinian population have been under military rule, denied the rights secured to their Jewish brethren. Between ‘48 and ‘66, Palestinian citizens lived under martial law, a structure subsequently transferred to the West Bank and Gaza after the ‘67 War. How this belligerent rule over a subjugated people has shaped the lives of Palestinians and Israel animates the perceptive photo essay Unresolved by Swiss photographer Meinrad Schade. Rather than solely direct our gaze toward barriers and checkpoints, Schade helps us see how time moves through space. In Israel, the public places often rotate around the motifs of the warrior nation: Military relics in a park with families seated for picnics, a fighter jet adorning a roundabout, armed soldiers in public squares, conscription ceremonies as rites of passage, and young men who at first glance appears to be tumbling around in the sand but are training for an elite combat unit. Quotidian life is constantly yarking back to military conquests, which is triumphant and traumatic, a reminder of strength and vulnerability. Naturally, this conditions how people understand the present. The memory of the Holocaust, and the implication that the “conflict” with Palestinians is no different, a smear promulgated by right-wing Zionists, is also evident. But there is another way time works: arbitrarily frozen. The Beit Fajja quarry (source of the famed Jerusalem stone) has been idled by Israel, its tools confiscated and license suspended. Palestinian existence on the land is in a state of arrested development where time’s denied permission to move forward. Where does this all leave both Israelis and Palestinians? Unresolved. 

5. Visions: Palestine, by Andrea Kũnzig

Capturing Mobility in Palestine/Israel: visual books on a conflict in motion
Visions: Palestine. Photo: Walmart.com

To flip through Visions: Palestine is to go back in time to an Israel/Palestine that is unrecognizable today. Berlin-based photojournalist Andrea Kũnzig chronicles the peace process years from ‘94 to the start of the Second Intifada in ‘02. Everything about this book appears as if it belongs to an irretrievable world; the conflict’s parameters have changed tremendously. It is hard to imagine, for instance, Palestinian laborers lining up at the Erez checkpoint in Gaza to head to their job sites in Israel as they did in the ‘90s. Or for Palestinians to, say, demonstrate the same level of faith in their leadership today as they did when Yasser ‘Arafat and the PLO arrived in Gaza and the West Bank in ’94. The failure of the peace process to deliver an end to the occupation is presciently captured by Kũnzig. Israeli settlements kept growing, violence by Israeli soldiers never ended, the inequities and humiliations of occupation remained extant, and Israeli right-wing rejectionist thinking was implacable. And into a politically uninspired process, violence slowly took over. But there is a past that would be worth reviving. Israeli society was less militant and overtly racist than it is today. And joint Israeli and Palestinian demonstrations do not seem like fringe novelties but strong grassroots movements. Looking in the rearview mirror, these photographs can evoke a melancholic sentiment. Even on life support, the breathing corpse of the peace process still inspired hope that a different world was possible. Today, between a morbid Palestinian national movement and an Israeli political scene where the only real competition is between the right and far-right, the possibilities of that world seem very, very far away. 

All these visual books present some sort of narrative and perspective of Palestine and Israel from drawing on human migration and restrictions of movement in Palestine; how photographs and artwork of an extended Palestinian family view their lives in both America and the homeland; and, journalistic photos present images of “the other” during the Second Intifada. Furthermore, a photo essay is utilized to illustrate how space is related to time by discussing Israel’s perspective of military power being wrapped up in honor, but the fact that Palestinians’ right to exist and live freely is largely forgotten. The final book reverts to a time that is unrecognizable to most Palestinians of today; to when movement was not as restricted in the 1990s, up to including the Second Intifada in 2002. The photographer uses the ’90s and Palestinian laborers. We learn about how Palestinians wait to get through checkpoints on the way to work, and it depicts how freedom of movement was only temporary during this time as Israelis continued to build settlements that pushed Palestinians out of their homes.

Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer and editor in the Washington, DC area specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. His favorite dish is couscous. 

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