A response to the following works Joe Sacco (2009). Footnotes in Gaza, Raja Shehadeh (2003). Strangers in the House, David Grossman (1988). The Yellow Wind, Edward Said (1984) “Permission to Narrate”, Julie Peteet (1996). “The Writing on the Wall: Grafitti of the intifada” Cultural Anthropology 11(2), PP.139‐159, Wedding in Galilee, dir. Michel Khleifi, 1987.
“We went from, supported to subordinate, can’t afford it, ordered
My motherland smothered and mortared, morbid, at borders
I’m sorted out from beardless cats that boarded the plane as I was boarding,
Then detained, I can’t call it
Mic check when they search my Jordans, it hurts like mourning so…
(Pump pain and oil whillle they muurrdaah)
Somethings I’m unsure of…
Like an Arab man at an airport
When you wonder what he’s there for, therefore
I stand up for lands stuck, near war in tandem”
–P.H.A.T.W.A. , The Narcicyst
Like mapping, the myth of “objectivity” in journalistic reporting has inundated consumers of news and information with a false belief in a scientific, unadulterated account of events or history for that matter. If cartography is the “science” method of map-making, “objective” journalism is the science of news-making. Over the course of the past few weeks, atlas in and interactive iPhone app out, the fantasy world of cartography and mapping was quickly dispelled.
Just in case the mapmaking disillusionment was not powerful enough to sharpen one’s critical lens on all matters presenting themselves as fact, this week’s cluster of readings are sure to resolve that deficit. Sacco, Said, Peteet and to varying degrees and function, Shahadeh and Grossman, an army of “professional” bubble-bursters stomp over the “green line” of objectivity and scientific narration. Problematizing the outposts of “objectivity”, “history”, “narration” and “speech” – the works at hand zoom through a substantial number of examples that dispel the mythical “scientific” positioning of historical accounts showcasing them as little more than storytelling.
“The graffiti of the intifada represents a microcosm of the affirmation, denial, inspiration, fear and will-to-power, in short, the struggles within the struggle called the Intifada”, explained The Graffiti of the Intifada: A Brief Survey by Paul Steinberg and A. M. Oliver published by Jerusalem-based PASSIA. The report, first published in 1990, preceded Peteet’s The Writing on the Wall: Grafitti of the Intifada while the first Intifada was still underway, was an initial glimpse into the “voice” of the walls as they told the story, history in the making, through temporary bursts of calligraphy, slogans, color and symbolism in one of the loudest forms of paradoxically silent narration. In the tradition of Geertz-inspired cultural anthropology, Peteet helicopters into the field to examine the forms, the conditions and the functions of graffiti as a mode of “Cultural production deployed as a means of resistance” (Peteet 139) Concerned with graffiti as a stammer of the subaltern, Peteet suggests that the “mere appearance” of graffiti, of the subaltern’s attempt to speak, to themselves, to others, is a way of speaking. The existence of attempted speech, in this case, graffiti positions it as an “agent of power”.
Disrupting the hierarchical power structures and dynamics, Peteet argues that through a multifaceted series of functions, graffiti were at once representations, interventions, information, commentary, assertions and archiving of a voice unheard: that of the Palestinians. “They were Palestinian voices, archival and interventionist” (Peteet 140 & 142) But one is forced to wonder, given the already subordinated conditions of the graffiti’s temporary status, are Palestinian voices, subaltern voices, equally, all eternally confined to writings on walls waiting to be blackened? Lasting only “as long as the tolerance of the occupier”?
Nowhere is the manifestation of Spivak’s famed question “Can the Subaltern Speak?” more alive than on a small segment of the partition wall. Graffiti, like that which Peteet celebrates as “the voice of the voiceless” is sprawled in opposition on the surface of one of the most hegemonic structures of all time. Does it speak as it lays atop the sterness of the concrete surface looming over the subalterns voicing themselves through image.
Interrogating the “bulletin board” function of graffiti, Peteet identifies the “internal communications” role it plays showcasing a mystery: the subaltern can speak! But amongst themselves “they were self-reflective and self-critical” While recognizing this “internal voice”, Peteet also treads the simplistic waters of attributing too much agency to the speaking rocks. “While censorship distorted Palestinian potential for the construction of narrative, graffiti linked Palestinians under occupation” (Peteet 142) While there is bound to be a disparity in communication under circumstances as one would imagine as those of the Intifada to be, there is a sense of naiveté in implying that those gaps were resolved and reconciled through the walls “The process of producing graffiti contained the capacity to transform internal relations and harness them to resistance actions… The act of making the stones speak was simultaneously an aspect of acquiring revolutionary credentials and entering the realm of political membership or affiliation” (Peteet 144)
In statements bordering on celebratory self-applause, Peteet’s exhaustive survey of the cultural production that is the resistance symbolism of graffiti at some instances approaches the “borders” voyeurism. Peteet, knowingly or not, falls into a trap many before her had; classic case of cultural anthropologists positing themselves as saviors of the subaltern voice. “Fixed in a permanent imprint these fleeting images and narratives of resistance. We have given them longevity and taken them on journeys for others to read.” (P 144) By suggesting that the immortality of the Intifada’s graffiti joined the ranks of other cultural production due to the elixir of international media circulation, Peteet renders impotent their capacity at effective, powerful and meaningful resistence. “The narrative had been fixed and circulated in the global information network and media. In this sense, graffiti took their place among other forms of resistance. Graffiti constituted a voice for those who felt voiceless in the international arena.”
Moreover, while graffiti may have served the functions of cohesiveness, communication, intervention and commemoration, those very meanings take a very different turn placed inside the corner screen above the right shoulder of a CNN news anchor. Between a graffito of a Hamas logo, a martyr’s memorial graffito – these image present equal opportunity to quickly become associated to chaos, hopelessness and violence and to a greater extreme: terrorism. Perhaps for the reason that Peteet identified: “Circulations of sentiment and experience could lead to enticement” (P 146) From a “voice for those who felt voiceless” – placed on the international newswires, these images are sentenced to the darkest pits of archival doom, alongside many a resistance image before it, from Handala to the kuffiyeh.
To rain on Peteet’s parade, repetition and circulation in the mass media context prove to be less immortalizing than they are desensitizing through visual noise. I am reminded of the vibrant, powerful and bold signage and protest banners in Egypt’s Tahrir Square in early January 2011, originally produced as images of liberation and courage, as internal communication, defiance and “intervention” – circulated enough times, alongside carefully crafted headlines for the remainder of the year, they quickly and easily became a peepshow for liberty exotica: a voyeur’s fantasy of a display of disarrayed heroism taking place far, far away. So no, just because the documentation of Intifada graffiti allowed it to swim the rivers AP and Reuters, does not mean it was in anyway baptized into acceptance or sacredness.
Sifting through Peteet’s survey, page by page, wall by wall, I search for a voice. A Palestinian voice, perhaps a voice of a given artist or a commissioner, a party leader or creative conceiver, people who engaged in the “repertoire of actions of civil disobedience”. But save the selectively transcribed voices of the nameless, faceless “schoolteacher”, “student in a village” and a “friend who worked in a grassroots community group” on page 144, 145 and 151 I find none but Peteet’s and am forced to deem the view from Beit Hanina as accurate and “factual” interpretations of meaning. Save the “footnotes”, the walls seal off an area of no negotiation. Is the stone and wall behind the graffiti precisely that which makes it appealing to the onlooker and to the storyfinder, the Fulbright researcher equally? Insofar as its capacity to speak, stone, unlike those who inscribe it, allows for much interpretation, juxtaposition and liberties in analysis. Joe Sacco, as we will see, will beg to differ.
Peteet’s conversation with stone emerges as more a monologue than a spoken exchange of egalitarian quality. It pails in comparison with the photojournalistic essay of Mia Gröndahl’s Gaza Graffiti: Messages of Love and Politics? which instead of claiming to speak for the subaltern, for the graffiti and immortalize “copies without an original” it asks questions of those who create them and focuses instead on the quality of voice, in turn uncompromisingly recognizing the voice of what Peteet deems voiceless. For instance, Gröndahl analyzes the aesthetic differences between those produced by different political factions – understands the reasons why Hamas’s graffiti, which looked more like artworks of Arabic calligraphy were executed with far more care for the beautification of the inscriptions than those of Fatah.
Exhaustive as it was in attempting to identify the functions of graffiti in the context of the Intifada The content of graffiti directed, warned, informed, commemorated, provided critical commentary and could be a diagnostic of occupation tactics” and as well-intentioned as it was in attempting to promote grafitti to the ranks of plausible “factual” cultural production, Peteet’s proclamation of the powerfulness of the same was at once its demise. “Graffiti proclaimed place as one’s own and asserted one’s power in it” (Peteer 148) It traps the onlooker in the Spivakian vicious cycle of the inevitability that is subaltern voicelessness.
“Where are the facts if not embedded in history, and then reconstructed and recovered by human agents stirred by some perceived or desired or hoped-for historical narrative whose future aim is to restore justice to the disposed?” (Said 46)
Making no bones about his aversion to “objectivity” and historical “purity of arms” – Said tackles the issue of voice and subaltern speech head on. Leading with the McBride report as the epitome of “factual” manipulation, underrepresentation and muting – Said illustrates how such patterns are still with us today. “The findings (of the McBride report) are horrifying – and almost as much because they are forgotten or routinely denied in press reports as because they occurred.” If the eternal optimist could attribute this sidelining of the McBride report to the then press’s limited access to this information, how then do we make sense of the same forgetfulness and denials we see today on a day-to-day basis when information, video, proof, testimonials, articles, reports are generated in massive scale and made accessible to all? How is it that today that the “inadmissible existence of the Palestinian people whose history, actuality and aspirations, as possessed of a coherent narrative direction pointed towards self-determination” (Said 29) that Said states as the object of the ’82 war on Lebanon perseveres?
The audacity of Said is that he calls it like he sees it. Perhaps it is also that which has earned him as many followers as it did critics. With the memory of Israeli Apartheid Week, the AIPAC meeting and the attacks on Harvard Kennedy’s One-State Conference fresh in mind, Edward Said’s Permission to Narrate is once again testament to his deserving of the Robert Fisk-granted title “Palestine’s most powerful political voice”.
“A disciplinary communications apparatus exists in the West both for overlooking most of the basic things that might present Israel in a bad light and for punishing those who try to tell the truth”
Gil Lainer’s hummus-making talk show segment hardly even makes it to the bottom of the hierarchical narrative-setting apparatus as AIPAC and the ADL are addressed by Said. I cannot help but think of this video segment on AIPAC’s soft diplomacy tactics: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=mPdp-OlIs3A
If like, the sheep raiser story Said quotes from the Kol Ha’ir journal, this can be dismissed as conspiracy theory or reading too much into things, Yoav Shamir’s film Defamation can tell a more convincing tale of the ADL. It is striking the even today, bar the “rebels” like Shamir and more recently Liza Bernherdt of Jewish Voice for Peace who stood up in protest at this week’s AIPAC meeting, the “system of possessive exclusivism which has been imposed upon reality by central forces in Israeli society…” is alive and very much “rarely discussed in the West”.
Influencing many works that defeat the impossibility of subaltern narration, in this case Palestinian narration, Edward Said’s Permission to Narrate inspired one of the most important alternative news resources, which now sits amongst many on the digital narration spectrum: The Electronic Intifada. “The Palestinian narrative has never been officially admitted to Israeli history except as that of “non-Jews” whose inert presence in Palestine was a nuisance to be ignored or expelled.” (pg 33) No longer accepting the narrative of Palestinians as a Non-People or “an invented people” in the words of Newt Gingrich and Golda Meir before him, projects like EI not only attempt to create a space for the subaltern to speak, but tell a history of their own. Of the founders of EI, Said says
“I find copies of e-mail sent by a young Palestinian to radio stations, TV reporters, and newspaper editors, commenting on their coverage of the Palestinian issue. In his effective, electronic way, this man, Ali Abunimah, is writing his own history every day.” (Said at Bethlehem University speech in 1997)
It is not to say, by any stretch of the imagination that platforms like EI, Jadaliyya and others are the answer to the subaltern’s prayers, but they are certainly important insofar as constructing a wall on which graffiti could be permanently placed, defined, discussed, recorded and voiced, without temporality or the danger, the threat of being “blacked out”. Even if the subaltern cannot speak on these walls, neither can the rogue apparatus of the ADL and other such bodies with their labels of “anti-Semitism”, the “T” word (terrorism), which are highly problematized by Said and even “self-hating Jew” run wild. (Said 35-37)
“No funds for ignorant student rhetoric” read the headline of an article by the Editorial Board of the The Chronicle, a publication of Duke University. This campaign, launched by unnamed authors under the obscurity of an umbrella by-line was targeted at a poster was created by Palestinian artist Nidal El Khairy for Israel Apartheid Week to be used by various clubs and associations to promote their awareness events. The posters, the writers claimed, “appear to depict an old Jewish woman—gargantuanly proportioned, crudely drawn and invoking, whether purposefully or not, old Jewish stereotypes—whimsically lifting and peering inquisitively at a miniature Palestinian soldier… At best, the poster is distasteful, needlessly caricaturing a historically malicious form of representation; at worst it can be regarded as anti-Semitic”. Had this article appeared in the same era as the McBride report with no room for response, rebuttal or even questioning it would have been just another reinforcement of that which Said problematizes as part of a larger apparatus that demonizes, rightfully or not, that which stands to tarnish the image of Israel. But this is 2012 and baseless labels can no longer roam recklessly “my name is Nidal El Khairy.. i made the poster.. its a Palestinian woman. We never had tanks so how can it be a Palestinian soldier?” read one of the comments on the website. There were 4 other comments pages defending the poster. 4 pages refusing to surrender to false accusations. 4 pages of the subaltern, in some shape way or form, speaking.
“There is something deeply moving about a mind of such noble ideals repeatedly stirred on behalf of human suffering and injustice” There is something cryptic and equally genius about the way in which Said addresses the question whether or not the subaltern can speak. Herein lies the kind of nuance that can only be his: he refuses time and time again to subscribe to a given pole or conclusion without rigorous critique. Following a rigorous interrogation of works by John Bulloch, David Gilmour, Randal, Tony Clifton, Jacob Timerman, Salim Nasib & Caroline Tisdall and even Chomsky on whom he spends a significant amount of time, Said differentiates between empathy, and problematizes emotional impetus that often offers the most vigilant critique of the oppressor and vehement defense of the subaltern. It is a surprise, quite a refreshing one at that, that following such cautious treading amongst such a wide array of narrative that, Said does not submit to the fatalistic ending which he critiques Chomsky for adopting. “The struggle between Zionism in its present form and the Palestinians is very far from over; Palestinian nationalism has had and will continue to have, an integral reality of its own” Said leaves the prospect for hope or the door to the subaltern’s ability to speak, still, despite all skepticism, ajar.
“Facts do not speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain and circulate them” (Said 34)
Being as it were, Electronic Intifada was not the only project inspired by this new idea of setting the narrative. Sacco’s book, Footnotes in Gaza like Palestine before it, subscribing to the idea that it is futile to even feign “objectivity” and instead, adopts a voice of its own making no apologies for the austerity that is inherent not only its methodology but in its black and white crosshatched pages.
By casting himself an observer, an outsider, Sacco instead attempts to let the characters he meets along the way, throughout the investigation, those who perhaps may have touched him the most, tell the story. Refusing to share the “forgotten or routinely denied” fate of the McBride report on Lebanon, Sacco takes the viewer on a graphical journey of the most peculiar persuasion.
At first glancing over the skillfully, but comically stylized storyboards of Sacco’s account, it is hard to imagine oneself taking seriously, let alone emotionally, in any “historical” facts presented by the narrative. However, by placing the “footnotes” at the forefront and “memory” the protagonist, Sacco points to the elephant in the room and proceeds with no apology: he has no intention of playing along the myths of “objectivity” and perceived modes of neutrality. With that disclaimer out of the way, Sacco proceeds to tell the story to those willing to come along anyway.
Through recollections, memories and stories of Palestinian witnesses of the Rafah and Khan Younis massacres in Gaza, Sacco allows his own memories illustrate the historical events that he investigates. As early as the first row of frames on the storyboard, it is easy to forget the medium and the illustrative technique by which you are being informed. Instead you hear voices, see faces, live experiences, fears and memories. Much like Ella Shohat argues in her critique of Wedding in Galilee, “the central tale is Palestinian and the Israelis are merely its “visitors” This presentation undermines a Zionist master-narrative which privileges the “original” i.e. Jewish inhabitants of the land versus its present day Arab “guests””, we see a similar setup in Sacco’s book which privileges the Palestinian recounts with punctuations of Israeli accounts that are almost positioned at the backdrop with Mordechai Bar-On and other fleeting commentary. As the witnesses tell Sacco of their experiences, insisting on recounting certain events and ignoring his investigation into others, an accessible, human experience is extended to the reader, the onlooker to understand not only the trajectory, but the outcomes of having lived through “history”. Through his illustrations, he is able to juxtapose past and present, memory and first-hand experience and several dichotomies all at once. However, throughout the experiences and encounters, he positions himself, as an outsider, an observer, and perhaps more than anything: a guest.
In choosing to “illustrate” history, Sacco is able to depict, dramatized, amplified, imagined, recounted and sometimes timid images that would never make it in a “realistic” medium, especially not in film or photography. The scenes, drawn on pages 72, 91, 98, 236, 265, horrific displays of dead children with their skulls bleeding out, would certainly not escape a publisher’s radar without rigorous editing and scrutiny. Instead, he can shift the perspective to what he calls “human debris and social outcasts” (Sacco 80)
Interwoven into the narrative his Sacco’s complicates and implicates the role of “foreign reporters” and the way by which they go about reporting. Showcasing scenes of them partying and living it up in West Jerusalem while, on between, sourcing quotes and “getting the job done”. In those select pages, Sacco takes a stance against the myth of objective journalism by showcasing that which he chose to semi-partake in: the day-to-day proceedings of field journalism, something that Yvonne shed light on through the video showcasing the shortfalls of photojournalism.
“The dynamic of “a fateful triangle” would make more sense if included in it here would be some account of political, social and economic trends in the Arab world – or if it were changed to the figure of a circle or square” (Said 44) What Said criticized Chomsky for leaving out, Sacco makes up for in drawing. By showcasing a historical lens that takes in the greater context of the Arab world, Sacco’s illustrations extend the frame of reference beyond the Palestinians and Israelis. Instead we are confronted with Jamal Abdulnasser, George Bush, King Hussein, Moshe Dayan, Ben Gurion, and other political figures. However, instead of placing them at the forefront of the narrative, he chooses to draw the “circle and square” through the eyes of the witnesses with whom he spends his nights and days. Immediately, unlike the poetic accounts of Grossman and Shehadeh, Sacco’s illustrations, which may at first glance seem further away from the “truth” tell an accessible story – it brings the events, with all their intricacies to life, through his own lens working with secondary sources, telling the narrative the only way he knows how. Much like Edward Said asks at the end of Permission to Narrate in questioning Noam Chomsky’s book – you cannot separate the current situation from that of the past. Instead, Sacco attempts to draw connections between 1948 and current events of today – the death of Rachel Corrie, the hunger strike of Khader Adnan, the arrest of Fadi Quran. Without stating it, Sacco necessitates an understanding of 1948 as the prerequisite for any discussion, understanding or narrative relating the Palestinian cause today.
Reading his book reminded me of the uncommon experience of watching the events of The Promise, a 4 part UK Channel 4 series by Peter Kosminsky unfold. In a similar fashion to Sacco’s book, the series, which many lobby groups attempted to shut down and take off air, was a result of 7 years of research across Palestine and Israel. In a similar diversion from the approved narrative, The Promise offered a very different historical account, also shifting back and forth in time and space through the eyes of a seemingly “neutral” protagonist.
If Tim Burton were ever to venture into creating a film about Palestine / Israel, Grossman’s Yellow Winds would prove to be a useful reference. Ghost-like features, harsh, jarring imagery are used to depict his charitable interactions with the Palestinian refugees in the camps. His sympathetic narration of his desire to understand their condition and their plight is barely palpable as he coasts and glosses over the Palestinians as a homogenous lot – villagers and peasants, descriptions of, “the exotic wild gypsy girl” and other essentialist depictions – Grossman’s romanticized depiction of “the other” is perhaps the ultimate manifestation of what Slymovics described as a “search for the other in order to encounter oneself”. In Grossman’s account, the subaltern are not only silence, but they are objectified – with the occasional name here and there (Hadija etc), they are nothing but the other, in the eyes of the onlooker. Contrastingly to the human the reader encounters in Saccos pages, in Grossman’s account, subaltern is a non-person, at best a descriptor to be sympathized with and at worst a tainted creature protecting itself, attacking when provoked – because it is its nature to do so. If pity and sorrow is what Palestine begs, then that perhaps would have been an easier conundrum to resolve…and Grossman would emerge victorious. It is the fact that victory, dignity and recognition is what is at stake that problematizes and upsets the equation, giving Sacco a much better shot at the mantle of “subaltern” voice-box.
Reminding me of palestiniansurprises.com, an aggregation of loosely compiled meaning-laden symbols of “Palestine”, Shehadeh’s depiction of a personal narrative, his admittedly romanticized relationship with Jaffa and the memories of a place he never knew as his, although intriguing in its style and while closer to a subaltern stance, doesn’t quite escape the realm of Shehadeh’s own personal story and conflicts, a discovery of oneself. As Daniel Gilberg points out, “neither of these instances can be called giving a voice to the subaltern.” In his own way, however, what Shehadeh almost blatantly resists and does so successfully for the Palestinian narrative is dispel the image of Palestinians through the popular Zionist slogan of “a land without people”, the Grossman image of pitiful refugees and even Khleifi’s chosen emphasis on Palestian village life. In Shehadeh’s account, the Palestine he speaks of is that which has been successfully, arguably even more successfully than the Palestine of the oppressed, is the Palestine of the victorious, the proud the sophisticated: in other words, a real Palestine. Through the descriptions of the coastal city of Jaffa, to his grandfather’s hotel – this was a Palestine rarely depicted: a Palestine of oil paintings, law firms and vacation homes in Ramallah. In that way, Shehadeh’s account takes closer steps than Grossman towards not necessarily letting the subaltern speak, but speaking for a now subaltern who was not a subaltern.
Browsing through the Nakba Archives, I see a different manifestation of the Shehadeh project that emerges a more convincing more encompassing voice. Through a collection of personal stories from over 650 Shehadehs, personal stories and accounts emerge as a experiment in the speaking of the subaltern. More like a Sacco-Shehadeh hybrid – the Nakba Archives showcase but one of the possibilities of keeping the Saidian dream alive: Palestinians setting the Palestinian narrative.
So, can the subaltern speak? Not to pick a bone with Gayathri Spivak, but I am tempted by a similar visceral aversion much like Said’s response to Chomsky’s Triangle: a refusal to surrender to fatalism. Perhaps the subaltern can speak, but it may not be a single voice that will sound their utterances. In speaking, being spoken for, asking to speak, questioned on their capacity to speak, the subaltern may very well speak – in a language of their own. The subaltern will speak.
Between the digital “liberation”, graffiti, hiphop, protests, popular resistance, hunger strikes, cultural production, mainstream news, conferences, through the pandemonium of voices from self-proclaimed ‘experts’, to sympathetic civil society groups, to university student groups, to supporters of the BDS movement to the characters of Carlos Latuff, to the audacity of Harvard Kennedy’s One-State Conference, to Khader Adnan’s hunger strike, to Palestineremembered, to Larissa Sansour’s Nation Estate, to DAM’s Meen Erhabi, to the Gaza flotilla, to Visualizing Palestine, to the Palestine Space Agency and the UNESCO seat, through the hullabaloo…perhaps a voice will be found.
Maybe, just maybe, if we, as Tyler Zang suggests, “actively read, view, listen to narratives while never forgetting that despite the seductive idealism of “digital diaspora” and “objective” journalism these accounts are never divorced fully from the hegemonic power structure.” Amidst the attempts at speaking, of being spoken for, of the speaking of the ‘question of speaking’, the censorship of the speaking, and the speaking in response to the censorship of speaking…a new language will emerge. And like the rocks that Peteet has breathed life into, the cracks in the hegemonic colossus will, little, by little, start to widen and behind the cracks, the voices behind the wall will emerge and speak, for themselves.