Bashir Makhoul
Shooting through the dust
Dr Bashir Makhoul

The Arabic and Hebrew words for dust (goubar and avak) are both strongly associated with fighting and conflict. This connection can also be found in the English expression 'dust up' and they all have the same hermeneutic root in the idea of a fight creating dust. All three words are also used in connection to death (dust to dust) as well as idiomatic expressions to indicate visibility (when the dust settles). There is a dense, cross-cultural intersection of meaning and metaphors that goes back a long way, probably into the shared origins of the monotheistic religions.

Dust is everywhere because its source is everything. Dust is in the air, settling on surfaces, on things, piling up in dark corners. . Dust is the stuff that makes the sky blue. Dust is a marker of the passing time and a sign of the neglected, abandoned or forgotten. It is negative; it is associated with death, insult and dismissal. The Arabic poet, Al-Motanabi, among many others have used the picture of dust as an integral part of the act of war: it describes a battle and adds to the excitement of the scene. Within the context of conflict we often wait until the dust settles before taking the next action. Our action is timed by the settling of dust.

The smallest thing that the eye can see is dust, the ground zero of the manifest physical world. God tells Adam and Eve on their expulsion from Eden that they have come from dust & are destined to return to it which has been integrated into the book of common prayer in the funeral service in the line “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”. It is the expression of the ultimate worthlessness of the physical and the fallibility of the body. We all know that the dust that settles in our houses is made up partly from our own skins, a reminder of where our bodies are ultimately heading but also an intimate connection to our immediate territory. It also has a metaphorical connection to the land and can be found as a theme in the rhetoric of nationalism – we don’t just come from the Earth but from designated parts of it, surrounded by borders and supported by myths. At the same time it is regarded as the lowest state of matter, associated with dirt and the abject – something we have to be constantly cleaning away.

As something that is domestic and intimate with an immediate connection to our bodies and also a symbol of national identity, the image/idea of dust is bound up with ideas of belonging, possession and ownership: my land, my water, my skin, my sand, my soil, my mother and my father. The conceptual foundations of identity are philosophically disputed and, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is an immediacy in the connection between the land and identity that raises the stakes of the philosophical dispute to a matter of survival: Both the occupied and the occupier are hostages to the relationship between the dust beneath their feet and who they believe themselves to be. The Arabic word nizaa means “stripping off” something from another, separating, taking off, dispute and conflict. It is an expression of confrontation but could also, perhaps, be redirected to raise the possibility of stripping identity from the land.

Perhaps it is not possible to reach a consensus on a common meaning in the context of paradoxical identity. The Palestinian/Israeli landscape is arguably the same thing, its ownership claimed by two people whose identities are similar yet entirely different. Our identity is formed on the basis of differentiating ourselves from others and indeed positioning ourselves in opposition to the other.

To consider conflict as an inherent aspect of identity presents us with a larger problem and in the context of a particular conflict such as Israel/Palestine also gives us the opportunity to think beyond the immediacy of occupation. Dust, as a symbol of mortality, conflict, blindness and land, ironically provides us with another more challenging and perhaps optimistic symbol of identity. If the dust in our homes is made of our own shed skins it can also be seen as a reminder that our bodies are in a state of constant flux in a cycle of decay and renewal – every seven years every cell in the body has been changed. We are, literally, as organisms in a perpetual state of coming into being. It is still a big question for science as to how our consciousness appears to remain continuous or even how it exists in the first place but the idea gives us the intriguing combination of perpetual flux aligned with continuity and perhaps another way of thinking about identity.

It is these ideas of flux and (dis)integration in respect to identity that were raised in a recent discussion about my work with Gordon Hon. I have transcribed part of the recorded discussion here because it addresses what are, for me, the core issues of the work in this show, mine and Oded’s and Aissa’s.

GH … 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 colors. 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 its 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, I think this state of agility is something that can be used at many levels, from resistance to making a painting but perhaps most importantly at the level of identity. What if this extends to identity? What could be more threatening to the national identity of a rigid nationalistic state 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 strategy 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 one’s 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 – where 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.

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.

What we are encountering on a national level is not simply an expression of disagreement about truth or an opinion in regard to the Israeli Palestinian dispute over the legitimate ownership of the land. It is, in fact, about material facts of displacement, loss, occupation and expansion. The disputed landscape extends even to a semantic disagreement over definition – names of places, memory of history, even political resolutions. An illustration of this phenomenon is the differing set of interpretations of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which calls on Israel to withdraw "from territories occupied" in the 1967 Six Day War. Many parties, including the government of Israel, hold that this phrase does not mean that Israel should withdraw from all such territories, else the Security Council would have said "from the territories occupied". Others, including all of the Arab states, hold that the resolution calls for withdrawal from all of the occupied territories.

Under normal circumstances, semantic disputes may, at face value, appear to be not that critical or crucial, but here we have a genuine conflict. Ignoring it is a failure of the intellect. The artist and the work in this show are able to transform and challenge the total shift in the focus of dispute from the historic to the contemporary, from the past to the present and the future. All the artists are arguably engaging with the same landscape and the same place, shooting their pictures through the same dust.

There is always tension between the individual and his or her social and political surroundings. Nationalism emerges and develops from collective identities. It is the manufacture of a social formation. The need for belonging and equivalent tensions exist within the Palestinian/Israeli landscape.

It is irresistible to talk about this exhibition without exploring the inherent complexity of the frame but the paradox here is that the frame captures and occupies the same landscape.

The contemporary implication of the future is mainly determined by the way the artists offer different/new meaning to the term dispute. It is important to remember that this conflict has bloody history and continues to be so and emotions and tension fluctuate from high to higher – both sides draw on similar collective memory.

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