Where are you from?
Works by Kamal Akjafari, Aissa Deebi, and Dor Guez

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Pollock Gallery, SMU Meadows School of the Arts
Dallas, TX
2014

A common question that emerges in the course of casual conversation is “Where are you from?” But this seemingly simple prompt, searching for locational identity, can reveal the fraught territory of nationalism in the case of contested sovereignty. Indeed, when Israel-Palestine is addressed in the context of international exhibition practices, the trend is to quickly categorize artists in terms of national identity. But the contemporary reality on the ground, as well as the histories of both Israeli and Palestinian subjectivity, suggests that nationalism manifests itself in a hybrid way, at the borderland between the imaginary and the real.


This exhibition explores the identity of Palestinians within Israel through the work of Kamal Aljafari, Aissa Deebi, and Dor Guez. These artists work at the bizarre intersection of nationalisms that the occupation of Palestine has produced. Their work draws from both personal histories and communal memory.


In 1948, when the State of Israel was established, some Palestinians became Israeli citizens. Today they make up over 20 percent of the Israeli population but are still a minority that lives in a present state of oppression, recalling the physical and political displacement of what Palestinians call the nakba (catastrophe). The nakba is a term commonly used to refer to the events of 1948, including the Arab-Israeli war, the establishment of the State of Israel, and the consequent expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. While the majority of Palestinians live in exile, either in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria, or as citizens of other countries around the world, the Palestinians in Israel are referred to as “those inside.”


Palestinian-Israelis are sometimes called “Arab-Israelis” or “48 Palestinians.” The term “Arab-Israeli” is more often used in mainstream Israeli society but it denies the notion of a Palestinian identity and replaces it with the more general descriptor “Arab,” referring to an ethnic identity rather than a national one. The term “48 Palestinians” is more often used to admit to the identification that Palestinians with Israeli citizenship feel with the larger umbrella of Palestinian nationalism, including Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and in the diaspora. I am using the term “Palestinian-Israeli” to refer to the hybrid national identity that many Palestinians in Israel experience.


Aissa Deebi’s film The Trial (2013) premiered at the exhibition Otherwise Occupied at the 55th Venice Biennale, which served as a provisional Palestinian pavilion. It is a two-channel video piece that depicts two actors in a dark room dressed in red T-shirts with the word “REVOLUTIONARY” printed in white text across their chests. The Trial is based on a 1973 deposition given by Daud Turki, a Palestinian-Israeli poet and intellectual. Turki, who grew up in Haifa, was a member of the Revolutionary Communist Alliance–Red Front and had been arrested by Israel for espionage and collaborating with the enemy following a trip to Damascus allegedly to meet with Syrian intelligence.


As the video unfolds, we hear the two actors deliver impassioned intersecting monologues that detail Turki’s political trajectory. He was a member of the Israeli Communist Party until he was expelled in 1963 for his Maoist views and his insistence on the Palestinian “right of return.”[1] Turki then joined Matzpen, the Israeli Socialist Organization, which was both anti-Zionist and anti-capitalist. This insistence on class struggle as opposed to nationalism is remarkable, but Deebi has choreographed this trial, an allusion to the absurdity of Franz Kafka’s eponymous tale, so that the speakers are constantly being interrupted by figures bringing glasses of water or coffee that are set down loudly on the table in front of them. These actions tug at the expected dramatic arc of revolutionary rhetoric, producing a farcical picture of utopian idealism that is at once recalled and refused. Indeed, it is common in the West Bank to hear Palestinians refer to the occupation—including housing demolitions, checkpoints, and limited access to water—as “Kafkaesque.”


Kamal Aljafari’s 2006 film The Roof also addresses the contradictions inherent in Israeli-Palestinian identity but through the lens of autobiography. Aljafari was raised in Ramleh, a town in central Israel with a population of both Arabs and Jews. The Roof presents us with a portrait of his family that combines documentary detail with a spare cinematic beauty.


There is a sense of suspended time in this film, where characters often seem to be mourning the nakba. But the nakba doesn’t just refer to 1948, it also refers to the contemporary conditions of occupation. In one scene set in Jaffa, Aljafari sits and listens to his uncle on the Jaffa coast tell stories of the former glory of this once vital port town, with a set of moored rusted boat hulls behind him. But the characters in Aljafari’s film also seem to be waiting for something. One long shot involves Aljafar’s mother silently looking out the window, while another has her sitting on a roof, unfazed by the fall of dusk around her. The Roof recalls works such as artist Paul Chan’s production of Waiting for Godot, set in New Orleans, which turned Samuel Beckett’s tale[2] into a metaphor for a community that waits, to no avail, for help to come from outside to a place ravaged by disaster.


The work of Dor Guez also addresses the complications of a mixed Israeli-Palestinian identity. Guez’s family is from Lod (formerly Al-Lydd), a town right next to Ramleh, which also experienced the expulsion of the majority of its Palestinian population in 1948. His video installation 40 Days (2012) chronicles the destroyed gravesites of Lod’s Christian Palestinian cemetery. At one point in the video, we see Guez talking to his grandmother, who shows him the photographs that his grandfather took to substantiate to police the graves’ desecration. But the photos have become wet and stuck together, so as she tries to reveal them to her grandson, she pulls them apart, ripping an imagistic archive in such a way that reflects the violence perpetrated on a marginalized community. Guez scanned these snapshots, including both the imagery depicted in them and their ripped tattered edges. The resulting prints are shown alongside the video.


While there are many similarities that exist in the overlap of these artists’ histories and their respective practices, it would be a mistake to conflate their work. Aissa Deebi teaches at the American University in Cairo, Kamal Aljafari is based in Germany, and Dor Guez lives and works in Tel Aviv. They all show their work internationally and function both in and out of the place that often serves as a point of departure for them. Their practices exist in a diasporic space, a middle zone that reveals the unsettled state that artist and filmmaker Jalal Toufic calls “The Withdrawal of Tradition Past as Surpassing Disaster.” The disaster of the nakba has left some things intact, like the remnants of Palestinian communities in Haifa, Ramleh, and Lod. But it continues to unfold as the traditions of these communities are constantly under threat. These three artists remind us of these traditions and give us a picture of a condition that is continually under siege.


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[1] “The right of return” is a phrase that refers to the political position that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants have a right to return to their homes and property left behind during the 1948 and 1967 wars in what is now Israel.
[2] Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot premiered in 1953 and tells the story of two men, Vladimir and Estragon, who meet near a tree and wait endlessly for a man named Godot, who never appears.