Bashir Makhoul
Return and the Spectres of Occupation
By Gordon Hon

I

I was introduced to Israel in 1994 as the guest of an Israeli Palestinian. As we drove around the country he would point out of the windows and say things like, “You see that Kibbutz, there used to be a Palestinian village there. You can tell by the prickly pears – they were planted as natural defences around the villages.” or “That’s the remains of a crusader fort, some of the stones from it were used to build the village which was were that Moshav now is”. This was all said in a matter of fact way, he was merely showing me the place he was familiar with from his own perspective in a similar way I would describe the place I was brought up in. His perspective was also unavoidably political, as political as the fact that his own village was not on the Israeli map. His view of the country was haunted by places that could no longer be seen and even his own home from the official, cartographic perspective was a mirage.

What was striking about this experience was the fact that the buried, invisible villages seemed to be part of an archaeological history but many of the inhabitants of these places were still alive, mostly dispersed in the teeming refugee camps in the surrounding countries. Many of those who remained, internally displaced within Israel, often lived a tenuous existence in a kind of civil twilight zone. The impression was not that of a country haunted by its history but by the present, by the ghosts of the living. This is the Israel I recognised in Meron Benvenisti’s book, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948. Benvenisti was still presenting the Palestinians as a buried people and the work has the tone of a lament for the dead but it also describes the process of deliberately erasing a nation and it is this that resonates strongly with the place I saw through a Palestinian’s eyes, a place that could be read as a geo-political palimpsest.

One of the more interesting methods of erasure described by Benvenisti was the Hebrewising of Arab place names, as though clues were being deliberately created by the Zionist cartographers who had been commissioned to rewrite the territory. This is more thoroughly annihilating than inventing new names, a complete replacement would have the potential to exist in parallel, whereas to Hebrewise the names creates the illusion of the places having evolved over centuries, giving the impression of a long settled state in which the language is intimately related to the land. The incorporation of Palestinian place names creates an almost archaeological distance from the immediacy of the destruction of the actual places. This process echoes the Foucaultian idea of the manner in which one episteme (epistemological era) destroys and incorporates another, an act of violent erasure that has, at the heart of its construction, the illusion of having always existed. As is the case with other colonial adventures, occupations, revolutions and coups the usurping entity needs to also narrate itself into being, to provide itself and those who’s recognition and legitimacy it seeks, with a coherent setting for it’s ontological assertion, “I have won, therefore I am.” I would argue that the choice of a narrative of return as the creation myth for the Israeli state was a fatal mistake, that the state has put itself, unconsciously, into the position of the revenant, a ghost that can never come-into-being. Despite its substance, expressed most forcibly through its military power, Israel is not a state haunted by the victims of its violent coming-into-being but a state, which is itself the ghost.

The ghost has not come from nowhere. Benjamin Harshav in his introduction to Herman Kruk’s war time journals describes two holocausts, the one with which we are most familiar, of industrialised mass murder and the less recognised destruction of Jewish Europe along with its large and complex cultural networks and language and what was regarded by socialist intellectuals like Kruk, who were apposed to right wing Zionism, as a substantial Jewish nation as Diaspora. The Yiddish term for the Holocaust was Churban meaning ‘total destruction’ derived from the biblical Hebrew word for the destruction of the first and second Temples and was adapted to apply to the destruction of Jewish communities, exterminations and pogroms. The point was that the term Churban put the Holocaust in the context of the history of attacks against Jewish culture and communities as well as its people and the history of the resistance, survival and cultural endurance as a Diaspora. The term favoured by the Zionists and speakers of modern Hebrew was Shoah which was the word for a singular, natural disaster. It could be claimed that this word, first used in its current sense in the early 1940s dehistoricises the holocaust and even colludes with the negation and erasure of the Diasporic Jewish way of life deplored by the Zionists and destroyed by the Nazis.

Perhaps it is this aspect of the Holocaust, the Churban, the destroyed nation-as-diaspora, repressed by the Zionist nationalist narrative, which denigrates the Diaspora and presents Israel as the ideal of Jewish identity, that is the origin of the spectre that haunts Palestine. It is historically and morally wrong to compare what has happened to the Palestinians to what happened to the Jewish people in the holocaust if by that we mean the 6 million victims of the genocide. However the other dimension of the Churban, the destruction of a nation in a brutal negation and erasure of a culture and a way of life can be compared to what the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe refers to as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 followed by the post 1967 occupation and systematic suppression of any form of viable Palestinian civil society. The murdered and unmourned Jewish Nation-as-Diaspora returns as its negative, a sovereign state, obsessed with territory and military power. To base a state on return is to place it in the haunted realm of fantasy and trauma. It is to introduce, at its conception the imperative to repeat.

This takes us to yet another word for disaster The Arabic word nakba, like shoah, means a singular catastrophe and is the word used for what happened to Palestine and the Palestinians in 1948. The destruction of one nation displaced on to another and the creation of a new diaspora lead to a new discourse of return. The claims are entirely different and result from a more immediate demand for redress for a recent injustice but the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees is the indivisible remainder of the conflict. The issue that is ignored, forgotten or forbidden just keeps coming back and meanwhile the refugees remain in a stateless limbo, refused entry to their homeland or citizenship of the host countries. The idea of return is becoming one of the most enduring aspects of their identity, perhaps not unlike that of the Jewish Diaspora. The inhabitants of the refugee camps are the people who are most immediately effected by displacement and have the most to gain from the wish to return but the nakba displaced all but a small minority of Palestinians within the 1948 borders and many of the camps are in the occupied territories. All Palestinians are affected by the issue – even if it is one they wish would disappear.

II

Samir Al-Youssef is a British based Palestinian writer who was born in Rashidia refugee camp in Lebanon. His recent novel The Illusion of Return, as the title suggests, attempts to deal with the issue from a critical and highly sceptical position. The tone of the narrator, who appears to be a fictionalised version of the author, is one of urbane weariness of somebody who holds themselves aloof from the endlessly rehearsed positions of Palestinian political rhetoric. However he also appears trapped in psychic and political suspended animation. The book begins with the narrator’s wish to complete the fifteenth year since he left Lebanon without going back or communicating with anybody from his past, this plan is spoilt by a call from an old friend. He claims that this wish is to compensate for the fact that he never finishes anything, beginning with his PhD thesis on the future of Palestinian refugees as a Diaspora. It is a paltry wish but gives the impression of somebody who does not want to be disturbed by the past or the future. He has a problem with beginnings and endings. The author distances himself from the narrator through self-conscious post-modern convergence; towards the end of the novel the narrator says he wants to write an essay called The Illusion of Return and plans to write the title down and pin it up in his study. Of course, we know he will not start or finish it and the production of the novel of the same name that we are reading stands in place of the essay that will never be written.

The book itself is a return to the past via the phone call from his friend, Ali, who is on his way back to Lebanon from America, the narrator recalls two traumatic stories, one a murder, the other a suicide. The present appears at occasional intervals in the form of his meeting with Ali between flights at Heathrow airport and as an “Epilogue from the Present” in which he describes the meeting in more detail. It seems characteristic that the narrator is in an airport without having been anywhere or intending to go anywhere. It is also interesting that the return to the past revolves around the two deaths and that the dead appear as rebukes around the themes of honour and betrayal. There are thematic fragments of Hamlet throughout the book including an emotionally frozen character who, like Hamlet in his famous soliloquy, casts his suicidal depression as an ontological question in which he puts Heidegger’s being-in-the-world against the idea of the non-being-of-being. Elsewhere, a son avenging his father commits the murder in the book and Hamlet’s condition is also evident in the narrator’s indecisiveness and inability to carry things through. Even to the last line of the book in which he says, “Bruno was right, I thought, but I was not sure.”

Bruno is also an invocation of the dead. An elderly Jewish American friend of Ali’s whose opinions on the right of return seem to be the justification for the title of the book. The strange thing about this book is that nothing happens. The narrator tells us stories and secrets that he already knows, he remains unaffected by his meeting with his friend and does not seem to learn or discover anything. Despite his vacillating agreement with Bruno who as Ali explains, “didn’t think it was possible for people to return” and “that people only moved on: even when they went back to the place of their birth and early life they were only moving on.” It seems clear that the narrator is not moving anywhere in any direction. What is not so clear is the extent to which the sense of stasis in this narrative is symptomatic of the condition it attempts to describes or if it is an attempt to have the book embody the state it is describing – to bring about the same state of affectless, suspended animation in the reader as is suffered by the narrator. The fact that the last section, set in the present takes place in an airport leaves the narrator and the reader suspended on a threshold. This can be read as a position of possibility but could also be seen as symptomatic of the state of mortified resignation that pervades the conflict. This kind of position is reminiscent of a photograph by the young Palestinian performance artist Raeda Saadeh (2003) in which she is standing on the threshold of a house with a suitcase at her side and her left foot encased in what looks like a block of concrete. On her face is an expression of defeated resignation. It is a minor work by a new, relatively unknown artist but it was chosen for the cover of a book on Palestinian art by the Israeli writer, Gannit Ankori. The self-representation of Palestinians as stuck and defeated is perhaps symptomatic and in the case of Saadeh it has also been co-opted in a small way to stand for Palestinian Art in general.

The problem for El-Youssef is perhaps that the idea of return as the subject for a novel is rather static and interestingly the movement and drama in the book comes from the stories of the dead, it is the dead who return to enliven the text. III

“ Here, on these prohibited wooden planks, I walk and chatter my whole life to myself. I chatter my life, without a sound, and without a pause. Moving images appear and disappear without coherence, scenes from an untidy life, a memory that bangs back and forward like a shuttle. Images shape themselves and resist the editing that would give them final form. Their form is their chaos.”

The poet, Mourid Barghouti is describing his experience of crossing of the Allenby Bridge that connects Jordan to the West Bank. The bridge is known by a variety of names including, in a song by Farouz, The Bridge of Return and it is with this crossing that he begins his autobiographical narrative of return, I saw Ramallah (2000). The image is characteristic of his poetic style, combining the prosaic with the lyrical but he is also warning us that the book we are about to read may seem incoherent, in need of editing and ultimately that the narrative form will be chaos. However, the chaos of recollections and images in the book and the way it goes back and forward in time emerge from an apparently straight forward, linear structure – an account of Barghouti’s return visit to Ramallah in 1996 after thirty years of exile, beginning and ending in the image of crossing the Allenby Bridge. He chose this point of entry and exit for his journey and his narrative because this was the route he took in 1966, in the opposite direction as well as being one of the very few points of entry for Palestinians. Like the bridge, which Barghouti says is made by “miserable carpenters, who held their nails in the corners of their mouths and their cigarettes behind their ears”, the narrative is a prosaic object constructed between two points, suspended over the chasm. The chasm is the reason the narrative and the bridge exist. For Barghouti the experience of being on the bridge or reading the narrative is to be subject to the images that “shape themselves” from the chasm.

The images that come to him are those of the dead. First, on the bridge and then almost overwhelming him in the Israeli border guards room at the other end. They enter and exit in the manner of the stage directions for the ghost in hamlet, quoted by Derrida in the Spectres of Marx.

“ From what could be called the other time, from the other scene, from the eve of the play, the witnesses of history fear and hope for a return, then, “again” and “again” a coming and going. (Marcellus: “What, ha’s this thing appear’d againe tonight?” Then: Enter the Ghost, Exit The Ghost, Enter the Ghost, as before). A question of repetition: a spectre is always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back.”

and here is Barghouti;

“The dead do not knock on the door. Enter my grandmother, the poet who lost her eyesight in old age and who improvised her verses […] Enter my father: from a grave I left behind me in Bayadir Wadi al Sayr in Amman. […] Enter Mounif who was laid waste by death: they ruined the beauty of his heart and his intentions. They destroyed forever his dream of seeing Ramallah – if only for a few days.

Enter Ghassan Kanafani, whose voice could be silenced by nothing less than a bomb, an explosion that shook the whole of Hazimiya. […]

Enter Naji al-Ali from his old death, his death that is still fresh.”

and a little later:

Abu Salma entered and so did Mu’in and Kamal, and with them the poetry of their hearts […] Mounif and Naji came back a second time and a third, and tension once again filled the room. Faces, fantasies, voices appear and disappear. I look at the glance. I call to the voice. […] The absent are so present – and so absent”

Barghouti is recounting his private sense of loss for his relatives and friends who died or where murdered in exile. He is also recounting in these apparitions the destruction of a nation and its culture; some of these names such as Kanafani and Naji are very important Palestinian artists and activists whose works have helped to form Palestinian national identity in exile. The scene presents an image of the Palestinian martyrs and those who died in exile as crowding the entrance to occupied Palestine. They appear to him in the suspended spaces of intermediate territory in which ones identity is directly challenged and the poet, Barghouti is fully aware that it is in these uncertain places, at the threshold that ghosts should appear. The first line of Hamlet spoken by a guard is the question “Who’s there?” and when the ghost is addressed it is it’s legitimacy that is challenged; “Horatio: What art thou that usurp’st this time of night,”

From the Israeli guard’s room he is driven to the border post which he describes as “a large hall, like the arrivals hall in an airport.” This is where he first meets Palestinian police but he is not taken in by who is really in charge. The terminal is a hall of mirrors. It is described in detail by Eyal Weizman in his book on the architecture of occupation as a place that is designed to mislead those who pass through it as to who holds power. There is a system of one-way mirrors positioned behind the Palestinian police which conceal Israeli police observing the people and the Palestinian police. The ID documents and passports are passed through a hidden draw to the Israeli Police who approve or decline entry by inserting a coloured slip of paper and passing it back to the Palestinian police. This system of mirrors produces its own spectral apparitions:

“Late in the afternoons, when sunlight falls through the outside window of the Israeli control room facing west, the balance of light between the control room and the now darkened hall is rendered almost equal by the setting sun. This makes the one-way mirror transparent enough to expose the silhouette of the Israeli security agents behind it and with it the designed charade of prosthetic sovereignty.”

In this we have an eloquent, almost theatrical image of the state as spectre and its fulfilment in the new methods of occupation developed after the Oslo accords. The Palestinian border police perform the mechanical functions and provide the visible presence of apparent authority while the real power lies with the disembodied presence hovering in the background. Weizman gives detailed accounts of the ways in which the occupation is using design and technology to disembody its presence at points of entry and exit and in the network of checkpoints. At the Qalandia terminal crossing, separating Jerusalem from Ramallah there is a sequence of barriers and electronically controlled turnstiles, IDs are held up to a booth encased in thick bullet proof glass through which it is barely possible to see the Israeli border guard, instructions are given through loudspeakers. There are plans to replace this with biometric cards that will eliminate the need for any interaction at all. Meanwhile the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is physically policed by Palestinian and Egyptian guards but is, in fact, controlled remotely from inside Israel via live video and data feeds. Israel decides who does or does not get through and if and when it should be closed, which it has been 86% of the time since 2006.

What Israel has been producing in the checkpoints, terminals, separating walls and elevated roads throughout the occupied territories add up to a vast spectral space: In-between spaces of transition and crossings, overseen by disembodied power. Palestinians in the OTs, if they wish to go anywhere beyond their immediate neighbourhood or sometimes to even get to the end of their street, are forced to enter into this spectral space. A lot of time and energy is wasted in these places and while there, despite the presence of Palestinian police, they are completely subject to Israeli power. A wasteful and humiliating experience that seems designed to sap the spirit and to hinder the social and economic life of Palestinian society. However the question of where these places are, not in terms of their position on a map or who has control of them but their status as spaces and how they effect ones relationship to place and territory, is a destabilising question for Israelis too. The Palestinians are the ones who have to suffer these spaces but they are, whether Israelis wish to think about it or not, Israeli expressions of their relationship to space and territory.

IV When I first saw Bashir Makhoul’s lenticular images, I already knew the story behind them, that they began with a series of British Mandate photographs of Palestine and the idea of returning to the same places and retaking the photographs. At that stage all he knew was that he was going to combine them in some way to make a third, non-existent place. This was probably the reason, despite the title and overt historical content of the finished work, that the question that came to mind was spatial rather than temporal, in fact, it was the same question I have asked of the Israeli border spaces; where are they? I knew the images I saw were of Jerusalem but what I wanted to know was what species of space were they. Immediately following this question was the realisation of how much they reminded me of 19th and early 20th century experiments in supernatural photography.

Photographs of so-called real ghosts were never convincing and to an extent the idea is a tautology, at least if we agree that photography is already dealing in ghosts. The urge to capture the afterlife on film is a tacit recognition of what is already taking place when we capture the living – it is always in anticipation of their absence. With the invention of each new technology of recording images, sound and movement there has been an accompanying belief that the new machine can capture something other than what can be seen or heard in the world. Of course this is partly true, something more or other than what is being recorded is produced in the process of recording. Eventually a new technology such as photography will become familiar, the new objects it produces become domesticated and take their proper cultural place. The spectral nature of the photograph and its relationship to death have been frequently noted and theorised and the early fake photography of spirits look overly literal and absurd but they can, perhaps still tell us something else about photography and the space of the image.

Those who believed in supernatural photography had extraordinary faith in technology and its rational, objective status. For the supernatural to appear there must be a natural, objectively represented world in order for that which is not of this world to be located and identified as such. There were a variety of methods but the most common way of producing these pictures was through multiple exposures. The super-imposition of two images in a double exposure would need to be done with care in order for one part of the image to be read as natural and the other as supernatural. Any uncertainty between the two realms spoils the illusion of a ghostly presence and simply reinforces the already uncertain status of photography in relation to reality. In an equal double-exposure in which each image is given an equal share of visibility it would be impossible to say which was the ghost and which the living. In the conventional spirit photograph the natural world would usually be the ground of the image, often with a living subject in it and the supernatural would be superimposed over the whole scene. The living subject is there to provide a natural foil, they look solid and have a natural position in relation to the ground of the image while the super-imposed spectral figure is detached from the ground and displaced, hovering impossibly in space.

In Makhoul’s micro-lens lenticulars, although some forms such as arches and walls and certain figures are more persistent than others, each image is given an equal portion of the surface. Rather than multiple exposures the various images are split into thousands of strips, which are then equally and regularly interspersed. From a conventional, chronological point of view we would expect the old photographs (the images from the British Mandate occupation of Palestine) to be the super-imposed ghosts, haunting contemporary Israel. However the method prevents this illusion and the reverse becomes just as possible in which the present is haunting the past. This is the uncertainty that the photographers of the supernatural would always avoid, in which it is not possible to say who the ghosts are. If these images were meant as Palestinian propaganda then it would have been necessary to establish a stable ground or fixed point of reference. For example to present the British and Israelis as the super-imposed ghosts over a Palestinian ground or alternatively the Palestinians as dispossessed spectres haunting modern Israel. However he has opted for neither. There are no stable, fixed points of view and the place seems to be defined by this instability. This is emphasised by the defining feature of the lenticular; the illusion of movement.

The temporal uncertainty in the work as well as the temporal impossibility implicit in the idea of return become a spatial uncertainty and impossibility that operates within the constantly shifting image. The slightest movement of the head completely transforms the picture and there is not a position from which a complete picture can be seen that is not haunted by the spectral fragments of other angles and other times. In some ways they are the reverse of moving images, not only do they remain still but produce movement in the viewer. The effect is similar to that produced by parallax; the way in which objects in space shift in relation to one another depending on the position of the viewer. However this effect depends upon there being a gap between the objects whereas the lenticular’s component images share precisely the same picture plain, printed as equal strips on the same piece of paper. The separation and reforming of the images is produced by the laminated micro-lens. Each image occupies an equal space on the same surface, are equally visible and often of the same place but are utterly irreconcilable. They are absolutely resistant to synthesis. Perhaps they expose the illusion of integrity upon which national identity depends, like a Lacanian mirror in reverse, instead of offering us a reflection of a whole place, whether we call it Palestine or Israel, it offers back a landscape disintegrated into its competing components; le pays morcelé.

Read in this way, they become dystopic images of a fragmented, psychotic place but they are also playful, hypnotic and sometimes beautiful and their constantly shifting instability prevents them from reaching resolution and closure. This is one of the most important aspects of the work. Although the figures are also ghosts, analogous to El-Youssef’s frozen narrator or the crowds of ghosts, fantasised by Barghouti, at the threshold of Palestine or even the ghost in Hamlet haunting the ramparts of Elsinore demanding justice, they are not symptomatic images of stasis, they produce questions. The question I keep going back to is of what species of space they produce. Is it a spectral space? But what kind of space is that? In the case of these images I would claim it was, at least, generative. Derrida’s inquiry into the spectral, in which he gives us the useful pun hauntology (in French a near perfect pun with ontology), imagines a way of thinking, in ontological and ethical terms, otherwise or between logo-centric binaries such as “To be or not to be”? In his exordium of Spectres of Marx he calls this being-with spectres.

Makhoul’s Return has impelled me to return to the political impasse of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict with another way of thinking or, if you like, a way of thinking otherwise. I responded to this work as though they were paintings, obviously they are not but, as has been increasingly noted, digital photography and processes have moved photography away from its indexical status back towards painting and that the digital has provided a way of thinking otherwise about the two-dimensional image in general. For those familiar with making, looking and thinking about paintings, pictorial space is a central concern, and in this work it has been combined with the spectral nature of photography and its ghostly history. There are also cinematic elements in this work, in particular in its resemblance to the momentary, ghostly images produced by the cross-dissolve, in which other, impossible hybrid objects briefly come and go. The cinematic is also present in the illusion of movement but not the smooth, natural movement of film but the stuttering motion of watching frame by frame back and forth over the same few seconds. This is where the spectral nature of cinema is most apparent. Above all what the experience of looking at these works reminds me of is the process of editing video. The constant movement over and over the same moment in search of the precise point at which to enter or exit is itself to enter into another species of space, slightly disturbing and trance-like but predicated upon possibility – of making something more or other than what can be seen.

Benvenisti, Meron. Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, University of California Press 2002

Herman Kruk ed. Benjamin Harshav trans. Barbara Harshav, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps 1939-44 by Yale

Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, One World Publishing 2007

Samir El-Youssef, The Illusion of Return, Halban London 2007

Gannit Ankori, Palestinian Art, Reaktion Books, London 2006

Mourid Barghouti, Ahdaf Soueif (Trans.) I Saw Ramallah, Bloomsbury 2004. pp10

Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, Routledge 1994. pp 11

Shakespeare, Hamlet, Oxford University Press.

Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: The Architecture of Occupation, Verso, London 2007.

ibid pp159

ibid pp 151-153


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