Bashir Makhoul
Found In Conflict
Bashir Makhoul
Gordon Hon

A conversation between Bashir Makhoul and Gordon Hon based on conference paper , Identity theft in the context of Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Image 1 (falafel)

Bashir Makhoul: I have been interested in the connections between identity and ownership for a while – particularly since the ‘Hold’ {2001} PLEASE INCLUDE exhibition. That was explicitly about claiming ownership and the ways it partly determines who or what you believe yourself to be.

Gordon Hon: Which is why the idea of this conference appealed to you…

BM Yes, if you believe you own something then it can be stolen. The idea of “identity theft” raises a lot of interesting questions. Especially for me in the context of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

GH Also the more general implications of the idea – that something that people believe is an essential part of their being can be stolen – that identity may be a commodity, an object that can be plundered and carried away.

Image 2 American flag on the moon.

BM Exactly, but this is usually called ‘appropriation’ rather than theft and sometimes it’s very literal. An actual object or word or even belief can be appropriated from one culture or nation to another and transformed in the process -- becomes a part of who they are. I am thinking about the postcard of the ‘Israeli snack’, falafel. We know this is Arab food, in this case Palestinian, but you can buy this postcard in Israel of a falafel sandwich with an Israeli flag stuck in it. Actually it reminds me of images of the American flag planted on the moon.

GH It is funny, a ridiculous example of appropriation but even at this most trivial level a nationalistic statement is being asserted. As a postcard I suppose it’s meant to send a cosy, stereotypical image of the country. In London you can get Fish & Chip postcards but the difference here is the flag -- suggesting conquered territory like the moon, as you said, or the images of the American Marines raising the flag in Iwo Jima. ILLUSTRATE?

BM Yes, the conquered falafel, a very heroic image. You can get an idea from Israeli postcards of the ways in which the construction of national identity depends upon ‘appropriation’. That it actually seems a necessary part of the structure. Apart from the Judaic symbols and images of beaches and hotels there are postcards of Byzantine and Roman mosaics and even the Dome of the Rock, Souks and Bedouins and so on. In these ‘views of Israel’ the statement that “this is ours” is being made as much as, “this is us”.

GH I suppose they amount to the same thing. A similar thing could be said about the British Museum. The majority of the artifacts have nothing to do with Britain – it is mostly plunder from colonial adventures. The point is by putting these objects within the walls of a building called the British Museum, the achievements of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks become, somehow, British. “This is ours” and “this is us” become inseparable. It’s as though the return of the Elgin Marbles OFFICIAL NAME NOW ‘THE PARTHENON FRIEZE SCULPTURES’ – TO BE INCLUDED? (In parenthesis or as footnote) would be surrendering a part of British identity.

BM Yes, and this is also behind the need for Israel to hold on to Jerusalem, they want to see themselves, not as invaders and occupiers but as the rightful custodians. The symbolic power of the Al-Aqsa Mosque is used to make the occupying force stronger. It has been incorporated into the creation of an Israeli national identity. They haven’t put it within the walls of an Israeli Museum but have literally built a wall around everything they wish to claim as Israeli. By the way, this has nothing to do with the preservation of Jewish identity, which has always been a defining issue of the Jewish Diaspora but of the creation of an Israeli national identity. I am talking about political nationalist force – that is, Zionism. The Israeli identity has had to be created quickly – it is an interesting case because it is such a recent invention.

GH So you are saying that it differs from the European Jewish identity, which evolved slowly and is woven into the fabric of European history?

BM Yes, it is completely different. This is about revolution rather than evolution. But this revolution was tied to ownership from the beginning. The Zionist settlers needed land and this fact underlies the construction of an Israeli identity from the beginning. A myth of the land was created. The important point for the Zionist leaders was that people believed this myth. Displaced Jews wanted to believe this myth and it was also propagated as a justification for Zionist terrorism against the British.

Image 3 (camels)

The other thing I was thinking about – which is connected to the falafel postcard -- is the way that Israel is marketed as a tourist destination. In the advertising the Arab appears along with images of camels and tents & the desert as an exotic backdrop. They are never referred to as Palestinians but are shown as nomadic and primitive. The important point is that the nomad does not own the land. They can be moved on. Their identity is not tied to the land and so on.

GH This sounds like a version of the diasporic existence that the Zionists were urging the Jewish people to leave behind. Of course in most cases these people had well established cultural and economic roots in Europe. Like the Palestinians, they were not at all nomadic. The fantasy of the rootless Jew was basically anti-Semitic – a convenient other for the various forms of European nationalism and the fantasy of ‘rooted’ identity.

BM Yes, and it was just as convenient for the Zionist nationalists to play along with the racist stereotype of the nomadic Arab. But then there is the ‘Israeli Arab’ – the Palestinians who were still in the parts of Palestine that became Israel after the Nakba. [‘CATASTROPHE’ – INSERT HERE?yes in parenthesis]They became an ethnic group within Israel, in effect their identity as Palestinians was removed and they were ‘appropriated’ by being more or less forced to become Israeli citizens. The so-called ‘Israeli Arabs’, although being discriminated against and subject to racist stereotyping are also presented as an element of Israeli national identity – as examples of Israeli ‘tolerance’ or to add a bit of authentic, local colour and so on. As long as they don’t refer to themselves as Palestinians.

GH I would like to move on to the next image. Why did you choose this?

Image 4 (star graffiti)

BM Well, I think this brings up some interesting issues. This is actually graffiti done by Israeli soldiers in the Occupied Territories. On one level it is another mark of ownership or rather marking out territory. On another level it is a very deliberate act of appropriating a form of communication used by the resistance rather than the occupying force. It is using elements of the Israeli flag such as the Star of David & the colour blue. This is mirroring Palestinian graffiti which uses the colours and forms of the Palestinian flag.

GH It’s a dangerous game they’re playing because in a sense what they are doing is de-legitimising their presence because this is the unofficial, illegitimate language of resistance, not of an occupying army. Making marks like this goes beyond their declared role. It seems a confused act that gives a confusing message.

Image 5 (graffiti in Palestinian camp)

BM Well I totally agree, it reinforces the Palestinian view that the occupation is illegal – it actually feeds the resistance. Graffiti has been used by Palestinian support groups and resistance organisations, particularly since the first Intifada, as a way to communicate with each other and their supporters -- to rally the public and so on and so forth. This was one of the very few communication tools that were left. And in fact if we look at this as a communication tool the Israelis saw it as too powerful, far too powerful, the streets became visually very striking with powerful, constantly changing graphics. It was also an overt way of marking territory and ownership. The Israeli army decided that anybody seen writing graffiti will be shot. By doing this the Israelis let the resistance know that graffiti is an important tool. The threat of death actually made it more important. The Israeli army’s graffiti just looks like gratuitous vandalism. Which is probably what it is?

GH Actually there is a specific association I make towards that image and I imagine many Europeans, Jews and non-Jews, would make too. It is the footage of the Kristallnacht and the images of the stars that the Nazis daubed on Jewish shops and homes. It’s a very disturbing association. I think it’s because it is clearly an aggressive act. It shows how easily symbols associated with identity can be manipulated. There was something particularly horrible about the Nazi’s use of this particular symbol – I mean it was a religious symbol that could be found on synagogues. They turned it into a mark of persecution. But then again, the symbol had already been co-opted by the Zionist movement and therefore politicised. In a sense this was also a form of appropriation – the talles (prayer shawl) and star were ancient religious symbols and the Zionists made their flag out of them.

BM Symbols can be very dangerous. They can be so easily used by either side. The danger of symbols was very much in my mind when I made my first, serious body of work.

GH These were the paintings you made after studying in Britain?

Image 6 Alhijara

Image 7 Attfal

BM Yes, at the end of the 90s. I could only have made this work after I left Israel/Palestine. As you know, the colours of the Palestinian flag were illegal in Israel and the occupied territories. I mean there was a specific law banning the use of this colour combination in any art works or designs. The law was made after 67 -- it wasn’t enforced after Oslo but as far as I know it still stands. When I left in the 80s it was being vigorously enforced. So as a young Palestinian artist studying painting in the West I was hearing this expression “limited palette” with different ears. In Israel my palette was limited in a different way -- I was forbidden to use this particular “limited palette”. I suppose I appropriated this terminology and the ‘style’ of hard-edge abstract painting for my own political purposes but I was entering into the formal concerns too. Formally, the idea of working with a limited palette appealed to me but I was clearly working with the Palestinian flag and the language of Palestinian political graffiti. This was the main thing on my mind, very deliberately moving into what had been forbidden territory.

I was actually afraid whenever I went back to visit my family that the Israelis would somehow know about my work and that I would be arrested or questioned. This kind of paranoia is a common symptom of political oppression, in fact it is a tool of oppression, I was aware that I was meant to feel this fear. The work was partly about shaking off that fear.

GH: Your own private Intifada?

BM: Yes, partly but it had many layers to it. I was also trying to promote the flag – to plant it in the galleries. It definitely came as a shock to most British people when I told them that this colour combination was illegal in Israel.

GH: It isn’t an unusual tactic. Not that long ago the Irish Tricolour was illegal in Northern Ireland too. These illegal flags are also, paradoxically necessary. For Israel the Palestinian flag is the flag of the other, it is the negative of the Israeli flag. Those colours represent everything that the Israeli state wants to reject and banish from the land and everything that they believe threatens their national identity.

BM Yes well of course this applies to their feelings about the Palestinian people too – I mean as the Israeli other. The paradox is that the Israelis seem to want to banish the Palestinians but they actually need them. You can see this in their insistence on being ‘recognised’ as a state by the Palestinians – this was perhaps the most important condition of the Oslo accords. Even with all that military and economic power over the Palestinians they still needed, craved their recognition as though their Israeli national identity depended on it

It was a fatal error of Arafat’s to concede that symbolic gesture so early. He should have realised that only when Palestine was a viable state would it be in a position to recognise Israel. If he had fully understood how critical this recognition this was to Israel at an existential level he could have driven a harder bargain. But let’s get back to these paintings

GH: Something that interests me about them is in the ways in which they are not flags. Flags are not just particular colour combinations…

BM No, but it is critical to the origin of this work. In fact the colours have their own history in the Arab Revolt during Ottoman rule.

GH Yes, but it’s not just the colours. I think the paintings; probably because they are formally based on variations of a ‘limited palette’ remind us of an equally important aspect of the flag. That is the specific arrangement of the colours. This is what gives the image and the symbolic value of the flag its integrity and it is in this way that the flag represents the fantasy of national integrity.

So, on one level you are breaking the flag up, breaking up its integrity as an image and as a functioning flag. It’s not an act of destruction. They can be seen as reformulations of the flag and perhaps of Palestinian identity. There is an implicit acknowledgement of identity being constructed and therefore capable of reformulation. This also side steps the danger of a fixed symbol – a constantly shifting form is impossible to steal or appropriate and perhaps destroy.

BM Yes, I think this is also behind my appropriation of a particular language of Western modernism. It was to shake off the traditional Palestinian art of resistance – its didactic, illustrative imagery or even the lyrical, poetic nationalism. In it’s way this approach was too fixed, too rigid and gave those opposed to its message an easy, predictable target. My aim is to keep moving, to be always moving the goal posts – make up my own rules and so on. Perhaps this is a symptom of being an émigré.

GH It is also a strong weapon of resistance. The monolithic state endorsed nationalism of Israel has a basic flaw and that is its rigidity.

BM: Yes, well that’s the point. Resistance to occupation at a military level is very difficult, often impossible, to defeat. We can see this in Iraq at the moment. Resistance is more tactically agile. I think this idea of tactical agility is something that can be used at many levels, from military resistance to making a painting but perhaps most importantly at the level of identity. For example if we think of an important attribute of a resistance such as its ability to appear and disappear into the background – something you cant do with a column of tanks. What creates fear and insecurity for the occupying force is not knowing where or who their enemy is. Well, you can guess what I am going to say. What if this extends to identity? What could be more threatening to the national identity of a rigid nationalistic state such as Israel than an enemy that cannot be pinned down, whose identity is also constantly shifting?

GH This is a very interesting idea. In a way you are suggesting that the Palestinians become, on some level, something they never were – nomadic. I don’t mean literally of course, but almost in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari.

BM Well, yes but I can’t see Hammas leaders handing out copies of A Thousand Plateaus in the near future. But seriously, we must keep in mind that the very idea of the ‘Palestinian’ derives from an identification with a place. Aside from the fact that most of it is now called Israel and the rest is under occupation or siege in the case of Gaza, the place continues to exist because the Palestinians still exist and still speak of it as home. However I think the existence of a Palestinian people partly depends upon a dynamic identity, a constantly developing idea of what it means to be Palestinian. This is an important weapon in dealing with an ideological monolith like Israel.

GH But the circumstances would actually encourage the opposite of this. I mean, in such an unstable and dangerous situation, in which ones very existence is perceived as a threat , a kind of essentialist idea of identity would be understandable – in that it offers a kind of anchor . But then again, I think that outside the academies – at least in the arts and humanities – were much of what we are saying is taken for granted, most people are basically essentialists when it comes to a question of identity. When it comes to Palestine and Israel there is so much more at stake.

BM: Yes and because there is so much at stake much more difficult questions need to be asked. Anyway, let’s move on to the next slide.

GH: This is the work from immediately after the flag paintings?

Image 7 Change

BM: Yes. This work came out of a questioning of the broader contexts of Palestinian identity via aspects of Classical Arabic art. I was partly interested in looking at Arabs as colonisers and occupiers. Obviously this is mainly the history of Islam and the development of Islamic cultures through the various Caliphates and Muslim empires and visually, this usually means calligraphy and arabesque. The period I had in mind is what is generally referred to as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’ – this is actually quite a long period, roughly from the 8th Century up until the Renaissance. Obviously this history is an extremely important part of Arab identity in terms of its achievements but also in terms of what was lost. The scientific and cultural achievements were enormous but the whole thing was fuelled by global trade and rampant wealth. There is a strong connection between these things. These periods of advancement in civilisations become almost mythological – it is were the founding myths are made.

GH: So, by using the coins you wanted to make the connection between commerce and culture. The ‘golden age’ in both senses.

BM: Yes, trade and exchange and economics are all bound up with identity. Who trades with who, who owns what, the ways in which we are defined by our position within the economic structure and so on and so forth.

GH: Actually, something that made a strong impression on me in Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’ was something he said about trade and exchange in Auschwitz, that it was one of the last things to go. That even at the most dehumanised, people will still trade. What was being traded was of no value to either person – a broken bootlace for a rotten potato peel – the value was in the act of trading as, perhaps the last vestige of civilisation. Exchange is a fundamental component of culture. I mean, the internet wasn’t around long before somebody came up with ebay and now people are also trading in virtual property. In fact they are trading under adopted virtual identities.

Image 8 Zigzag

BM: And, of course, through international trade, cultures are changed, this was true of the medieval Arab traders as it is of global capitalism. I suppose I was playing with these ideas in the Shell painting. Obviously the link here is oil but I was conscious of the idea of the perpetual arabesque pattern that could never be unravelled, with the Shell oil logo trapped in it. Economics, religion and politics cannot be separated and our identities are formed within this mesh.

GH: This actually reminds me of the painting with the Star of David as part of the pattern.

Image 9 Al Nojoum

BM: Well, yes. This star is a common form in classical Arabic patterns. It is a consequence of the mathematics of the pattern. It is why the star can be drawn with a single line between it’s six points. I was interested in the idea that this Israeli symbol – a part of the flag -- can be found throughout the Islamic world. If you look at this painting carefully you will see that the pattern is not made of stars – they are actually negative spaces within the network of geometric lines. They are kind of there and not there at the same time.

GH: A very modernist idea about painting – the dialectic between figure and ground. BM: Yes, this appealed to me a lot. Simply by painting this pattern on canvas and showing it in the context of western art it became about modernism. And of course middle Eastern politics.

GH: There is something else that occurs to me about this. If we compare the star in this painting with its use in the Israeli flag. On the flag it appears as a totally self-contained symbol – the fact that it can be drawn with a simple line from point to point that ends at the point were it started reinforces it’s self-containment. It is also in the dead centre and bounded by the blue bars above and below. It is a complete, contained symbol.

In the painting it isn’t the centre because in these patterns everywhere and nowhere is the centre. Also as you say, it is ambiguous in terms of negative and positive space. The lines that form the star go off into the rest of the pattern, it is absolutely not self-contained it’s existence depends upon the complex network of lines that continue beyond the frame. I think in this way it functions as a counter to the flag and its assertion of national identity through self-contained integrity. It presents a far more complex picture in which symbols depend upon context and their relationships to other symbols. Also we can see in patterns like this how the shapes are formed – this could even be seen as a way of exposing the mechanics of the construction of identity.

BM: Yes that last point is important. Many people make the mistake of believing that to say identity is constructed is to say it is not real or authentic – as though that was the point of identity, to be authentic. This is what you were saying earlier about most people still being essentialists. But Palestinian identity can benefit from the self-consciousness that comes from acknowledging the fact that identity is constructed. Rashid Khalidi in his book, Palestinian Identity makes this point. This is also a kind of tactical agility.

GH: And I think the painting makes this point. It is a pity the Palestinian flag isn’t a classical Arabic pattern. This would be another way of breaking this fantasy of integrity – of developing a more dynamic approach to national identity. An infinite, centreless flag.

Image 10 By the Yard BM: I’ll give Mahmoud Abbas a call. Actually this work, ‘By the Yard’ is a continuation of the idea of the pattern going beyond the frame. It occurred to me that I could leave the canvas on the role – that the painting would be already on the canvas and as the frame around these kinds of patterns is always arbitrary anyway, the painting/canvas could be cut to fit any stretcher. Obviously I’m playing with the boundary between decorative and fine arts, which in the West is also a matter of hierarchy. It’s interesting, this work is usually referred to as an installation but I never called it that – I regard it as a series of paintings, only their precise dimensions cant be determined until somebody buys one. I think the need to call it an installation was simply a way of identifying it as Fine and not decorative art. The point from my point of view is that there is no difference between them in terms of the work itself only in the way it is seen or understood. I would only need to put these roles on a market stall and they would cease to be art.

GH: You are also drawing attention to the modes of production and consumption which even today -especially with painting- the art market prefers to keep hidden. The gallerists and dealers will speak of the ‘process’ of painting but not of the process of the production of paintings.

BM: Yes and in this way it is also a continuation of the coins – making a blatant connection between trade and art or rather the production of culture.

GH: We’re back in the souk.

BM: Well, I am playing with that stereotype too, yes. But the art market is also a kind of souk. Saatchi has been buying paintings by the yard for years.

Image 11 Beirut

This was also the last painting I did, it was ’96. I never painted again but it lead directly to my next work. A year later I obtained my British citizenship and I decided I would go and visit my grandmother in Beirut, who had lived there since she was forced to flee Palestine in 1948. I was struck, when I was in Beirut, by the fact that even though the war, had been over for seven years, it was still evident everywhere you looked. It had left its scars all over the walls of the neighbourhoods of Beirut. I wasn’t so much interested in photographing the ruins which were very photogenic in a photo-journalistic or romantic way – I was drawn to the details, the smaller scars. They were closer to the human scale and I felt represented the everyday suffering of war rather than its spectacular effects. I took a lot of pictures but I only used six of them to make Points of View. I didn’t know what I was going to do with these pictures until I got back to Britain. I suppose it was a natural progression from rolls of fabric to rolls of wallpaper. My main intention was to domesticate these images – I mean this was how I experienced the evidence of war in Beirut, not the spectacular destruction but the small details on the walls of housing blocks and also in the context of seeing my grandmother’s home for the first time and the way her small, individual life had been affected by monumental historical events. Somehow, making wallpaper out this made sense. Image 12 (Points of view)

GH: It does make sense, but coming across this work without knowing this background the thing that is most evident is the clash between the reassuring pattern, that looks almost woven, and the violence of the motif. I think this idea of the meeting of historical and the domestic is definitely there. It also makes me think of reparation but not simply mending and making whole something that was damaged. The damage is left visible and becomes part of the pattern.

Your Grandmother appears in a later work, after her death.

Image 13 (In the Wake of)

BM: Yes in this I juxtaposed two images of her, one as a young woman and the other as an old woman. The first was taken in the thirties in Palestine the second in Beirut after spending most of her life as a refugee in Lebanon. For most Palestinians the personal and the historical meet directly like this. Looking at this young Palestinian woman at the beginning of her life I feel the pressure of history in what is about to happen to her and to her country. One day she will become this elderly woman in Beirut with a Lebanese accent. These pictures describe very clearly for me just how frail and strong identity is. A Palestinian girl basically becomes a Lebanese woman although she died a refugee waiting to return to a place she still regarded as home. This happened to her because she happened to be Palestinian.

GH: Is this why the image is doubled?

BM: Yes, there are multiple layers to this story of identity it could even be more than doubled.

GH: I think the double says it all really. I mean it is already a double – the same person young and old. But then this is also a different person because of what has happened to her. I think of this additional doubling more as a splitting – as though these versions of the same people could have lived parallel lives. For example in one life the Nakba never happened and she continued to live and grow old in Palestine. In this there are parallel identities too. Image 14 (One drop of my blood)

Image 15 (Handful of my sand)

Image 16 (One Centimeter of my soil)

Image 17 (One leaf of my olive branch)

Image 18 (My olive tree)

BM: The thing I was most aware of in this was the way in which new identities develop as a result of political events. In my grandmother’s case as with very many Palestinians she had to come to terms with this non-status of refugee of not having any papers that declare who you are in relation to where you are from. A refugee is defined by where they are not and by what they don’t have.

This was in my mind when I worked on this series of digital images – well I was thinking explicitly about identity not just in relation to place but of ownership. Perhaps because as somebody who grew up as a Palestinian in Israel I was acutely aware of this place being my country and not my country at the same time. Palestinians in Israel are constantly reminded of the fact that they are not in a place called Palestine but somewhere called Israel, a place in which they are merely tolerated. My village was not on any Israeli maps, all of the Palestinian place names had been Hebrewised and so on. As far as I was concerned my feet were planted in a real place called Palestine but everywhere I looked I saw this strange place called Israel. The only place in which I could find what was mine was in my body and what lay beneath my feet or in the palm of my hand. For example, my blood. I wanted to use something that was literal – what you see is simply that, my blood – but at the same time symbolically loaded.

GH: Well, in the case of blood, you could say it was symbolically overloaded – especially when it comes to things like nationalism.

Image 19 (One drop of my water)

Image 20 (One Centimeter of my flesh)

Image 21 (One Centimeter of my blood)

BM: This is why I used it and the same goes for water and earth and skin and so on. I wanted to see if I could use these overloaded symbols – symbols that are used for national identity, ownership, belonging and all those ideas --and create some distance. I didn’t want to universalise them either, you know, say “look, this is my blood but its just like yours” it is more complicated. Maybe you I was trying to neutralise them, these are dangerous things to use as symbols because of their immediacy but of course that is why they are used in the first place.

GH: If somebody is bleeding the issue of ownership and identity, as in “who’s blood is this?” is absolutely immediate.

BM: Yes, and the same applies to water in a desert region. You can’t pretend that the symbolic baggage isn’t there but I was trying, by being specific about who’s blood this was and then using it as a motif in a pattern, to create a kind of paradox that would neutralise it’s immediacy.

GH: You mean that through the formal repetition of the pattern – and its implied infinity – you were contradicting the singularity of the object? It is all in the titles, “One Centimetre of my Blood” “One Handful of my Sand”, you were being quite specific about the singularity both in terms of the quantities and who owned them.

BM: Absolutely, this is the basis of the work. But it is a true paradox because it can’t be resolved. The repetition contradicts the singularity but also emphasises it. Once this chain of thought begins it can never arrive at a conclusion and I think that it is that process that undermines the symbolic immediacy. What I want to question is the sinister rhetoric of nationalism through its use of symbols of blood and land and so on. This kind of rhetoric can be found throughout Israeli and Palestinian politics, but when it is combined with military and economic power as it is in the case of Israel then it becomes truly dangerous. From my political perspective, it is important that Palestinians avoid this kind of nationalism. The nationalism of resistance should be different to the nationalism of occupation. This is like what you said about bleeding being an issue of ownership. If I were bleeding the point wouldn’t be that my blood is more valuable than yours but that I was losing it. So it isn’t a matter of Palestine being a better place than everywhere else just that it is being lost.

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