Kamal Boullata, 2003
|People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers.|
Susan Sontag, On Photography (1977)
|Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, And time future contained in time past.|
IS. Eliot, Four Quartets (1944)
Ahlam is her given name. "Dreams" is what it means in Arabic. The state of dreaming may be a product of past experiences. The word "dreams", however, points to the future. That is how Ahlam Shibli's photographs are not about the past. They may be about the present but they operate like a narrative that often foretells the future. Having been all used to seeing photographs as a record by which we fix the present instant to keep a memory alive, or to substantiate evidence for future retrieval, we cannot believe that a photograph could be an image that interchanges a past moment with a future one. Thus, no one in her world believes her. There is only the past in her work, they say. It is history that she documents; it has nothing to do with the world of dreams like her name suggests. When the Tel Aviv Museum recently displayed her work about the Naqab (Negev) Bedouin, her exhibition's curator was censored for what he had to say. In response, he could not but resign from his museum post. Based on his reading of how a people had been "robbed of their past," the curator may have come too close to mention the future Ahlam had foreseen and photographed. There is only "nowhere" and "no future" in her photographs, they claimed.
Prompted by the present, a narrator of parables recounts an event that supposedly took place long before the listener's birth. "Once upon a time" is the beginning of all parables. A good narrator, however, is usually judged by the degree of talent whereby he or she could transfer the experience of a present moment into an oblique address of the future. Like a good narrator from among her people, Ahlam Shibli captures a present moment that is the product of what may look like a distant past when her eye is set on the future. In her mother tongue, it so happens that rules of grammar allow the uses of the past tense to emphasize the evocation of the future. When one repeats the phrase, "And God was Merciful", no one thinks that it means God stopped being merciful. In fact, it only means that God shall always continue to be merciful. In pledging a promise, someone saying "it was accomplished" is understood to be a reassurance that the promise shall be fulfilled, no matter at what price. In that sense, as in the narrator's art, Ahlam's promises to us are conveyed through her photographs. That is how, every time she picks up her camera, she opens only one eye with which to see her subject in the present moment as a product of accumulated moments in the past. The other eye, she keeps half closed to better see her subject's future; a future that she is deeply concerned about because it is her very own. But the future that Ahlam gives us a glimpse of is not one of "dreams", but of an unending nightmare. And no one who cares, from both sides of her world, is ready to see it.
To see in what way the photographs of Ahlam Shibli are constructed in a syntax familiar to her mother tongue, and how the memory they capture addresses itself to a future in which a moment in time photographed may mirror another, one has to forget how we are used to seeing photographs. To know why the woman called "dreams" envisions nightmares, and why it is that the closest people in her world disbelieve her, one may have, like in the case of all tales, to begin at the beginning.
From the age of four until she turned eighteen, Ahlam, who was raised in Galilee, spent all of her time before and after school as a shepherdess of her family's goats. This fact should not be left behind when one stands before her photographs today. Her particular sense of observation of place and of people was all formed during those long hours of solitude only shepherds get to know. For one to see how her experience helped her to mould and develop a personal language to speak of place and people, one has to retrace the past from where she came.
Ahlam is a descendant of Palestine's indigenous Bedouin. Since the middle of the 19lh century, they gradually began to abandon nomadic life and to adopt for themselves a more semi-settled lifestyle. Paying allegiance to the Ottoman sultan, they established themselves in villages all their own. The sites of their settlements were often previously identified by the region's peasant population on the basis of its natural characteristics; at other times, they were known on the basis of some legendary event. For hundreds of years, the Galilee's natives referred to the site where Ahlam's village was settled by Bedouin tribes as Sbeih, meaning "small hours". That name had been bestowed upon the site for being on a slope from which the sun was observed to appear in the small hours of the morning. As both city folks and peasants refer to all Bedouin tribes with the collective word of "Arab", the shepherdess' people who settled in Sbeih were referred to by other Galileans as 'Arab al-Sbeih (meaning, "Arabs of the small hours").
In 1948, with the establishment of Israel, the so-called "redemption" of the land rendered necessary its emptying of its non-Jewish natives. Terrorizing urban centres, chasing the peasant population at gunpoint, and razing 418 villages to the ground to prevent villagers from returning were followed by massive expropriation of land owned by Palestinians who remained in Israel. Arabic place-names were effaced. Hebrew names dug up from old books were given to all de-populated places that were once called home.
When it came to the dispossession project of villages belonging to many of the semi-settled Bedouin, the state began by obliterating their villages' name and replacing it with the name of a central tribe. That is how, Ahlam's native village was renamed 'Arab al-Shibli after her own family's name, meaning "Arabs of My Cub". In the process, most of the native Bedouin claims to the specificity of the physical place, established by their forefathers, were nullified. After all, it was claimed, neither Bedouin nor their descendants wish to have a regular home. In the meantime, the Israeli identity card belonging to many natives of Bedouin descent, particularly in the Naqab, has no reference to the original place name indicating where the person comes from. It is either the name of one's ancestral tribe that is mentioned or the village name given by the Israeli authorities. Like this, the destiny of villages belonging to Palestine's Bedouin descendants was not any better off than those of the Palestinian peasantry. This time, land was simply pulled from under the feet of its aborigines. Whole communities of people are thus made invisible. Today, Ahlam Shibli is absented from everywhere she holds dear. She wonders how can a perpetuated invisibility like that take the shape of a photograph?
To capture the vision of a moment that is neither past nor present, that is not of "here" nor of "there", she cannot always rely on accidents to happen before her eyes. That, she leaves for other photographers to rejoice in. Photojournalists are good at that. Instead, like a narrator who carefully chooses words and pauses to transmit what is imprinted in memory, she goes over the whole story in her mind before aiming her lens on any object out there. She later takes her time in choosing the photographs that make up her narrative. That is why, like in the cadence of phrases and sentences, it is in cycles that her photographs are made, and within the form of a series of images, all of her photographs find their structure. Each series, identified with an independent title, gathers a selection of moments that are related to each other. The same event may be repeatedly relayed by means of different associations. Like the telling of a story, one may hear it in an elliptical order. At all times, as in any attempt to recount a lifetime, time may have to be approached in some reversed order as in colloquial speech, or in an interchangeable sequence between the past and the present tense.
The first thing that strikes us when we look at her series of coloured photographs entitled Self Portrait, is that Ahlam is nowhere to be seen within the series. How can we really expect to see her if we know that she herself was taking the photograph and she was nowhere close to a mirror. The object that has customarily been a prerequisite for a self-portrait and that was often associated with women's narcissism as viewed by male painters in Western art is absent. Ahlam is here as invisible before her camera as she is behind it. But if we look hard enough through unkempt bushes, or there, beyond a patch of grass among the trunks of eucalyptus trees, we spot the figure of a girl blending with the landscape in the distance. In every photograph in the series, except two, she appears in the distance. Soon enough, we begin to realize that here spatial distance is only a different way of informing us of temporal distance. The girl being photographed in the distance is walking in the footsteps of the shepherdess. At times, we see a boy with her. She is always taking the first step. The boy is always following. The past and the present thus merge as in a folk miniature and the photographer as the miniaturist is absent from both places.
In those two key photographs of the Self Portrait series in which we see the girl at a closer range, features of the girl's face are equally obscure. In one, shot from right above her head, we see the girl squatting before clear waters. Again, we see no reflection of her face in the water. She is there simply to drink. We see her cupping both hands with which she holds the fresh waters of Muqlad, a neighbourhood spring whose Arabic name is a derivative of the word miqlad, meaning "key". Although we see her presence close to us, the above angle of the image foreshortening her frame, reduces her figure to a mere flat contour in such a way that makes her body submerged with the grass behind her and the water before her. The photographer may be absented from the familiar land she returned to, but here, the body of the shepherdess continues to be inseparable from the landscape.
In the other photograph, we see the same girl crouching against a closed door. Occupying half the vertical photograph's space, the hardness of the door's whitewashed wall is contrasted with the tip of a transparent bluish hill rising above her head in the distance. Is she sobbing her fate between what these two extremes represent within the frame, or is she there peering through what appears to be a screen? There, into the darkness behind the closed door, she may be looking for a world beyond the one she came into. The position of the crouching shepherdess with her groping hand so close to her forehead, is probably mirroring the way Ahlam is, that very moment, crouching against her camera as she peers through her lens to capture that instant being transformed into a photograph. As we examine the image, we can never tell whether the girl is sobbing or looking into the darkness beyond the screen. The act of lamenting some loss or looking for it seems to be inseparable from each other. We see that the only horizon open for her is found in a last horizontal photograph in the series. In it, the razor-edged hardness of a highway is contrasted with the soft tones of a big sky. In mid-distance, right next to the highway line marking her position in the margin of the frame, she stands in blue jeans hitching a ride to nowhere. Distant cars are seen coming in her opposite direction towards us. The first possible car that may stop for the hitchhiker is the one in which the photographer is sitting. By clicking the shutter, Ahlam was finally able to pick up the shepherdess off that highway. Nobody saw the merging of the two.
This interchangeability in time present and time past that is possible through the enactment of certain moments to recount her sense of self and her attachment to a place, becomes more complex when the moment she documents is a product of a collective experience recognized by every Palestinian. Here, again, the key to reading her photographs is to read each series as it were a narration going back and forth between past and present as between memory and prediction. As in her Self Portrait series, where the self was mirrored in the other, and spatial distance evoked temporal distance, the malleability of such interchanges, further allows the transpositions of place.
Images she shoots may stare back at us from beyond the 1948 borders, their mirror, however, is also found among Palestinians living since 1967 under Israeli military occupation. At a time when photojournalists from all over the world were rushing to document the most recent chapters in the confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians, Ahlam Shibli chose to respond to the present moment by going to the roots of that confrontation.
Three series of works that she created between 1998 and 2003 will now be briefly discussed. All three series were produced at a critical period in the history of the relation between Israelis and Palestinians. Linked to each other, the series document the Palestinian collective experience that is closest to her intimation of growing up in Israel. Generated out of the visual vocabulary employed in her Self Portrait series, Ahlam Shibli's work may be read in a way that is not confined to documentation of a localized human tragedy. As a visual artist, she aspired to go beyond being the passionate eyewitness she is, by attempting to give body to an injustice and the perpetuated impermanence of Palestinian life wherever it happens to persist. Her photographic series documenting the product of events taking place before her birth, turns her work into a personal commentary on the present, and reveals some form of premonition.
During 1998, when Israel was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, Ahlam Shibli embarked on her series Wadi Saleib in Nine Volumes. The series consisted of photographs documenting the remains of a once prosperous and affluent Arab neighbourhood in the coastal city of Haifa. Stretching between the lower slopes of Mount Carmel and the Mediterranean shores, Wadi al-Salib, meaning the "Valley of the Cross", was home to an urban community of Christian and Muslim Arabs. In the spring of 1948, following the terrorization campaign waged by the Jewish forces, the whole Palestinian community fled in all directions; many took fishermen's boats to their nearest sanctuaries in Lebanon. In their panic, all they possessed in their world of comfort and luxury, they left behind to return to as soon as it calmed down. However, by the time Israel's Declaration of Independence was proclaimed later that spring, the entire neighbourhood had been looted and stripped of all its fortunes by masters of the field. As for the original inhabitants of the place, the Israeli authorities never allowed them to return to their homes.
By the time that Israel's fiftieth anniversary celebration was underway, Wadi al-Salib had become a condemned neighborhood that was blocked by the Haifa City Council. For decades, it had been reduced to a den for stray animals and a squalid hideout for the city's drug addicts. One day during that year, Ahlam Shibli managed to slip into what looks like a no-man's-land and come out from there with very personal photographs of the place.
The journey in time she takes us into allows our eyes to travel through the traces of a place whose death blow had been struck amidst the jubilation celebrating the birth of the Jewish state. Her journey was manifested in the form of nine collections of interrelated coloured photographs each of which carried its independent title within the series. From such titles as "the Fall", "Prophesy of Wrath", "Gazing into Light and Darkness", "Death and Ascension", and "Details from the Afterlife", we realize that we are before a kind of visual narrative that is far from being a mere topographical documentation of a place. Borrowing the vocabulary of hermits who for centuries occupied Haifa's Mount Carmel, these titles serve as a key to associate the very significance of the site's Arabic name with the ongoing plight of its people. Going through the "Valley of the Cross", thus, turns into a via crucis that is wholly devoid of bitterness or rhetoric.
Assuming the tone of a written text, each collection of her photographic narrative acts as it were a chapter in some ancient book as the series title suggests. Travelling through these chapters, the stone houses our eyes see have nothing to do with the memory cherished by its original householders. She walks us into the close-up details of a ghost town where wild bushes have been growing in every crack of its stones. One wonders, how many times this place may have been the subject of day dreaming for those who were banished from it. We enter door-less homes of absented owners who can still feel the turn of the key in their hands. Here we see intimate spaces and rooms stripped bare except of rubble and debris accumulated over the decades. Looking down, we see a close-up of the cruciform arabesque patterns of the floor tiling suggesting the name of the place. Looking up, we see the vaulted ceiling reflecting a similar structure. This home, once carpeted with Persian rugs, was someone's warmest little corner in the world; it is now exposed to the sea winds. Mice and rats are trotting in the sitting room where the scent of nutmeg and cinnamon of grandmother's cake once floated. For decades, rain has been falling indoors. Out there, on that arched balcony overlooking Mount Carmel, is where a young couple first learned how to leisurely sip their morning coffee with cardamom. Here is a close-up of the wall of the dining room in which family and friends celebrated feasts and weddings taking place in the church down the street. There is the veranda with the colonnade overlooking the sea where a great aunt used to smoke her water-pipe following her daily siesta. And here is the room where the entire neighborhood revelled in the birth of a neighbour's firstborn. Someone's protected childhood here continues to be retold elsewhere.
What is most intriguing to see about this haunting and seemingly lifeless place is the few photographs in which we catch sight of someone's presence somewhere within the frame. An arm of a person appears through an entryway. From a fragment of a mirror on the floor leaning against a wall before us, we see a child, out in the sun behind us, peering back inside at us. From being outer spectators to the interior of a place, we find ourselves caught within as eyewitnesses to some other life going on outside the place. The figure of a woman keeps reappearing. Repeatedly captured in motion, her movement accentuates the contrast with the motionless nature of memory embedded in the place. The present and the past are thus simultaneously recorded, as in a dream, within the same instant. Sometimes appearing out of focus or against a flood of light, the silhouette of the figure recalls the shepherdess we see in the Self Portrait series. As we saw her in the last photograph of that series standing on the line marking the margin of that highway, in all of the photographs in the present series, we see her standing on the threshold demarcating the line between inside and outside, or between light and darkness. Standing there, either in a doorway or behind a window, she looks as if she were living an instant between the past and the present. In several shots, some taken from inside, others taken from outside, we see her acting as if she were casually talking to a young man sitting inside at a writing desk. Lifting up his face towards her, his position suggests he could have been interrupted from writing, right there, surrounded by peeling walls and years of accumulated debris. The deliberate reenactment of human presence amidst the irremediable ruins of the place, transforms the entire site into a sort of imaginative space. In this absurd-looking space, the present meets with the past to yield, as in a narration, the glimpse of a much bigger story that is being written or one that is still left untold.
In an attempt to address herself to a more concrete space that is actually being lived in by her people, Ahlam Shibli probed into her most immediate environment that she knows best. She embarked on two consecutive series of photographs, the unfinished story of which comes to us from two separate regions where Palestinians of Bedouin descent live within Israel's 1948 borders. The first series of photographs completed in 2000 and entitled Unrecognised, depicts the story of a Palestinian community living in the north of the country, in the Galilee. The second series completed in 2003 and entitled Goter, recounts the story of Palestinian communities living in the southern desert region of the Naqab.
Shibli's two series which complement each other were produced during a trying period for all Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The viewer of her work who is updated by their predicament cannot help but see a correlation between Israel's policy of dispossessing Palestinians of Bedouin descent living in Israel and Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation.
With her capacity to interchange time between past and present, establish dialectics between inside and outside, and evoke the transpositions of place, Ahlam's narration may be read as a work of art that goes beyond the mere documentation of the Palestinians' struggle to survive as a minority in the country of their birth. The northern and southern sequences of the story she chooses to narrate from the outcome of the 1948 catastrophe may be seen as a retrospective mirror to the contemporaneous Israeli policies being enforced in the regions which fell since 1967 under military occupation. The viewer who wades through this reading realizes how Israel's mythic "redemption" of the land, on behalf of world Jewry, translates to a systematic policy of gradually transforming Palestinian space into "suburban ghettos" of Israel. Before attempting any reading of her images, however, it is imperative to have a glimpse of the problematic of space that is actually being lived in by her people.
Unrecognised is the story of the Bedouin village of 'Arab al-N'aim which was established during the 1930s on Abu Qrad Hill in the Galilee. Within the first decade after the Jewish state was declared, a team from the Israel Lands Administration who came to map the area, registered only part of the village's agricultural lands and left out all the stone houses from their records. To expand a nearby Jewish town and make room for regional development, Israel offered no alternative to the people living in 'Arab al-N'aim but to move the entire community to the nearby Arab town of Sakhnin. The villagers' refusal to give up their lands and live away from their own birthplace, condemned their village to "illegal" or "unrecognized" status by the state. In the winter of 1964, Israeli forces evacuated the villagers from their homes. They blew up every stone house in the village and dynamited the village's water wells. All men were arrested and they were released only after paying a fine and signing a commitment not to build any permanent houses.
'Arab al-N'aim village is one among a total of 179 which, since 1948, are unrecognized by Israel. People living in the unrecognized villages are Israeli citizens who are obliged to pay taxes but who are deprived of local representation and denied all municipal services routinely provided to other citizens. The services they are deprived of include sanitation, connection to water sources, electricity and telephone networks, and accessible health, public, and educational facilities. Any family attempting to construct a permanent-looking home in stone, plant a tree, build a grave, dig a hole for a water well or for providing plumbing facilities, or to modify anything that may in any way link the community to the place, would be met with severe penalties. So, living below the level of the poverty line, the people of 'Arab al-N'aim rendered refugees in their place of birth, managed to survive over the decades in temporary shacks of impermanent and relatively inexpensive material made up mainly of corrugated tin sheets for roof and outer walls, canvas, plastic, asbestos and pre-fabricated partition boards for indoors spatial divisions. Come rain or shine, their children walk two kilometers to reach the bus stop to a school in Sakhnin. Thanks to the pressure of local and international human rights groups and institutions that succeeded in providing a water line to the village, the survival of the community's inhabitants today continues to be provided for by its men who mainly work in agriculture, the breeding of animals, and as builders or gardeners to nearby Jewish towns.
In the Naqab desert region where Ahlam Shibli shot her other series entitled Goter, there is the greatest number of villages that have remained unrecognized. Being the region with the largest concentration of Bedouin descendants, Israel sought to settle the land for the Jewish people, excluding its natives and boxing them in within a more controllable space. Thus, in return for leaving their vast terrain and agreeing to withdraw all future land claims, the state offered to relocate the native communities in seven townships. The urbanization project proposed was based on an imported concept of building blocks that did not bother to take into consideration any spatial needs or concerns of the people for whom the project was supposedly designed. It followed that the time-honoured Arabic names of these locations were replaced by Hebrew names. It so happens that people from the Naqab who were lured to relocate in exchange for municipal services, were mostly of peasant stock who were stripped from their lands in 1948 and who since then have been living under the protection of Bedouin communities.
As a result of their refusal to relocate, dozens of villages in the Naqab were declared "illegal" or unrecognized. Each of them suffered the same fate as that of 'Arab al-N'aim. In the meantime, the state continued to find new reasons to expropriate bits and pieces of more land around the natives' inhabited space. Like the Native Americans who for endless decades fought back to regain their rights to the land, generations of Bedouin descendants relentlessly continued to resist their dispossession. Over the decades, their cultural tradition taught them to struggle for their terrain. Those who continue to resist the allures of the state's relocation offers seem to have never forgotten what they learned from a legend at their forefather's feet. They resist because they would not wish to act like that firstborn brother in a tribe, who once sold his birthright for a bowl of soup. They would rather continue to live off the ground their ancestors walked and take a stone for a headrest.
In her attempt to photograph her supposedly invisible people within their living space, Ahlam Shibli did not confine her photography to unrecognized villages. In her Goter series, she recorded house and home in the seven townships as well as in the unrecognized villages. The drastic failure of Israel's forced urbanization project leaves little difference for an outsider to see between the two types of living space. Through Shibli's subtle photographic references, however, the viewer begins to discern those differences.
Shibli's recording of space being lived in by her people is as much packed with narrative information, as her two earlier series in which she explored memory and absence. This discussion, however, will only consider a single component from Shibli's earlier repertoire, namely, the "inside and outside" discourse as it relates to lived-in space. Like this, subtle differences between recognized and unrecognized villages manifest themselves in accordance with the degree of how much a place is a mere dwelling in which one simply resides as an outsider, or how much a space is experienced as an intimate place of comfort in which one's inner self identifies with it as home. Thus, reading in her images the contrast between the villages allows one to see how Shibli continues to make visible what has been made invisible in Israeli public space. In the process of doing so, she continued to expand her photographic vocabulary in which what is being seen in a photograph often recalls what is absent from it.
In her Unrecognised and Goter series, Ahlam Shibli's spatial rendering of "the inside and the outside" manifests itself through three ranges of distance. Photographs are shot in the space separating the world from the village, in the yard that lies between the private place of residence and the environment, and within the living space. In all instances, as it was in her previous series, it is on the threshold that marks the divide between one space and the other that most codes of "the inside" and "the outside" of an image may be articulated. But before coming to the yard outside the house, and the threshold leading to the living space, three photographic examples capturing the space separating the outside world from the village, suffice to introduce Shibli's approach to how a photograph shot from a distance may relay information about the inhabitants of an unrecognized village.
In one photograph from the Unrecognised series, we see a long shot taken of an isolated shack hanging on a hill amidst a field of stones and rocks where the distant figure of a woman may be discerned. The place is devoid of any greenery save for a ragged solitary tree. In such harsh surroundings, the viewer senses that whoever made a home of that excluded place in the Galilee has the indomitable survival will of a monk, a Spartan, or a Bedouin. In a second photograph from the unrecognized village of Dhayya in the Goter series, we see a long shot showing a constellation of slanted tin-roofed dwellings huddled together amidst the immensity of the Naqab wilderness. At first glance, the viewer may think it is an image of a recognized township. Through Shibli's eyes, however, we are made to see how the dwellings of this unrecognized village, harmoniously blending with the terrain, abide across the barren horizon, the way Bedouin tent camps once stood across the wilderness. In contrast, a view taken from a roof in the recognized village of Rahat, shows a jumble of concrete buildings, saddled with commercial advertisements in three languages, electrical posts, and antennas and wires all cropped off from any natural context with hardly any sky appearing at all.
In a third photograph of the Goter series, Shibli takes us closer to see the first signs of how traces of nomadic life have continued to mark the sedentary lifestyle of unrecognized villagers. The photograph depicts a frontal shot of a single home constructed of ready-made boards. Like a Bedouin family tent, its height may not much exceed human proportions. Here, the one pictorial reference that Shibli makes to the nomadic life of the forefathers, may be found in the flock of migrating birds she captured flying right above the place into a sky that is believed to have once revealed to the desert people the oneness of God. Today, upon the roof of this Bedouin's dwelling, we see a satellite dish connecting the place to the outside world. Private electrical generators that usually run for limited hours during the night, allow unrecognized villagers to be in touch with the outside world. The pattering flight of the birds arrested above the dwelling, makes the humble home look more anchored on the ground as the satellite dish brings its residents closer to the world beyond their own.
In Shibli's two earlier series, the narrative discourse of "inside and outside" was ensued by means of the links and associations she correlated between place and the presence of the human figure. While place appeared to be predominant, and in comparison, human presence appeared marginal, it was through the marginal presence of the figure or at times, just fragments of it, that the invisible was rendered visible. In her two later series focusing on living space, she seems to reverse the roles of place and the human figure. Here, human presence or its traces take over the photographed space whereby the place is relatively reduced to a more marginal component. Just as much as the marginal components in her previous series were the key elements by which Shibli gave body to memory and absence, in the two series that followed, it is mainly through her suggestive details of the more marginal elements of place and of people's outer appearances, that her photographic narrative renders visible what has been kept invisible.
Women and children take centre stage. Photographs of men are rare in both series. When they do appear at any close range, it is mainly through their clothes that we are informed how they seem to belong to the outside world inasmuch as women seem to belong to that of the inside. Working mainly outside their home environment, we see men wearing ready-made clothes including jeans, baseball jackets, plastic coats, T-shirts and trainers probably bought at Beer Sheba's open-air market. In contrast, women appear mostly in their hand-made clothes mainly composed of the traditional headscarf and hand-embroidered robes. Through their clothes, men appear to have been overtaken by the present, whereas women seem to be holding on to the past. In contrast to both, children wearing a telltale mixture of clothes, appear to take up the challenges of the future.
Mostly photographed in mid-distance in the yard of their home, we see home-keeping women with large hands at work in the open air or taking a pause from work. They are seen washing clothes, hanging the laundry, weaving mats and rugs, cooking a meal or preparing a child for school. Pre-school children, on the other hand, are either seen playing among the rocky surroundings of their home, or posing before a corrugated tin board. The repeated documentation of schoolchildren on their way to and from school reveal how, in the absence of their fathers from the photographs, they turn to be the community's main link to the outside world.
For these women and children, the yard or enclosure surrounding the dwelling where many of their activities take place, is the threshold between their interior and exterior space. As is the case in the previous series, it is in the middle between the most intimate and the most alien space, that the threshold continues to be the site in which the viewer is invited to reflect on the meaning of Shibli's photographs. In the following description of photographs shot in the three ranges of distance, Shibli's narrative of her people's living space unfolds.
At the entrance of a village in the Unrecognised series, we see a photograph of schoolboys with backpacks, jeans and trainers galloping their two daily kilometers down a dirt road to reach the bus stop that picks them up to go to school. In the same series, we see a close-up shot of a schoolgirl with her backpack standing outside the entrance to a tin shack. Inside, we see a woman, probably her mother, busy working on something in her hands, as she is girdled by three pre-school children. While the schoolboys are seen as a cheerful bunch running in the outdoors towards a far-off horizon, the girl is captured looking indoors as if she were contemplating the distance between her and her mother's fate. Each photograph, pointing in the opposite direction of the other, invites the viewer to consider the upcoming challenges facing the young. From their personal bearing in the two pictures, we learn that despite all hardships and the inhuman predicament these villagers are confronting, there is a determination to carry on with life and hope for a future.
The representation of the link between the past and the future is illustrated in a photograph from the Unrecognised series. It is taken in the yard outside the corrugated tin shack. In it, we see a frontal image of a poised woman sitting on the ground.
From the way her head is held up and how it is well tucked with a white scarf, we learn she is fully aware that a photograph is being taken of her. From her distance, she is looking straight at us. Her face may be furrowed with wrinkles, but her pale violet robe against the sea-blue paint covering the corrugated tin wall behind her, brightens up the barren site. If one were to ask what makes the woman look particularly proud of her place on the ground, the answer may be found in a child's drawing right behind her. Before taking her position on the ground, she must have seen the child's bold strokes of two giant flowers growing side by side with what looks like a tile-roofed house. Shibli's photograph suggests that the unrecognized woman may have thought to herself as she was about to sit on the ground, "I may be sitting down here but our offspring dare to dream of a stone house as tall as the trees with red tiles for a roof."
The open air enclosure of improvised alleyways surrounding the tin shacks where many photographs were taken is a vulnerable space for those who wish to have any sort of privacy away from the outside world. From one photograph, however, we learn that a sense of privacy may be maintained by hanging at the entrance to the enclosure, a sheet of cloth that is high enough to show the feet of an approaching person. Interestingly, this device, employed in daily life as documented in the Goter series, recalls a photograph in the Self Portrait series in which we only see the girl's feet on the soil and we recognize they are those of the shepherdess. It also recalls another photograph from the Wadi al-Salib series in which we see the arm of a person appearing through an entryway and we become aware of human presence in the place. In each of these photographs, as it is in real life, the fragment of the body seen continues to inform us of what is unseen. Although the rest of the body may be cropped out by the hanging cloth or by the photograph's frame, it is always on the line separating the inside from the outside, that human presence emerges from its marginal space to bestow meaning upon the image as a whole.
In contrast to the earlier series, in which fragments of human form embodied the codes by which the seen recalls what is absent from sight, in her later series, we can see how the components of a place we see in a photograph reveal what is really hidden from our sight. A photograph from the Goter series is a case in point. Taken in the yard outside the shack of a family home, we see amidst hanging sheets of canvas and corrugated tin walls, a modish table with curved legs topped with inverted chairs that are bastard imitations of a designer's model. The Bedouin descendant from the unrecognized village of 'Amra who learned to make this kind of guest room furniture for a living, probably finds his clients among those living elsewhere. Neither the carpenter nor his family, however, have any use for this cumbersome furniture within their home. They leave it all out in the yard. In the meantime, within their own private space, like their nomadic ancestors, they continue to find their ultimate comfort lounging on cushions and mats in their closest proximity to earth.
In her photographs of indoor space, Shibli introduces us into two places distinctly different from each other - the family living room and the space usually reserved for receiving their guests. The first place, which appears to be a multifunctional domestic space, is mostly cluttered with a mishmash of traditional and contemporary utility objects. This includes handmade mats, plastic utensils with pots and pans placed in tottering-looking cabinets or right on the floor. Framed Qur'anic verses or a photograph of some elder may be seen hanging from the ready-made walls or from the corrugated tin walls. The stove or refrigerator supplied with electricity from a private generator may be placed not far from the prized television set often encased in a brightly-painted wooden box.
In contrast, the space reserved for the reception of guests usually looks confined to a more traditional setting. In her attempt to highlight the beauty of this communal place, Ahlam Shibli who shot the majority of photographs in the Goter series in black-and-white, reserved a colour photograph for this space. In it, we see the frontal site of what looks like a bare interior whose walls are composed of prefabricated walls. Nothing hangs on the plain white walls. From the formal space setting on the floor, we can see that it is identical to the improvised place in a tent where Bedouin nomads once received their guests. Hand-woven rugs and padded mats are spread out all over the floor. Stacks of reclining cushions are evenly spread around the room. The colourful textile patterns of the floor-cover breathe a festive atmosphere into the space. Through a wide vertical window in the back wall before us, we can see the silhouette of a naked trunk and branches of a stately tree against the light. These are all the elements needed for a family and their guests to feel at home.
The world of difference between the living room cluttered with a hodge-podge of inherited and appropriated objects and the serene simplicity of a traditional spatial setting furnished with minimal hand-woven fittings, reflect two states of mind living side by side. The private space allows the co-existence between convention and importation, whereas the communal space continues to adhere to the revered tradition. The human consequences of these two states of mind in context of the living environment, is explored in two rare photographs from the Goter series.
In both of these indoor photographs, we see people captured at a close range. Seen together, each photograph discloses a different reaction to living in an unrecognized village. The first photograph shows three young women who seem as unaware of the presence of each other as they are unaware of the camera. They may be together under one roof but each is immersed in the routine of her daily chores. The second photograph shows a family of three who may be aware of the camera but who are not intimidated by it. The solid grouping of their bodies reflects a quality of togetherness that the group of women seem to lack.
In the first photograph, shot in al-Qurain, two of the women are seen sitting around a kitchen table while the third is seen bending over something in the background. Although they are all viewed at a relatively close range, none of their faces are clearly recognized. Features of the closest and the furthest women are mostly obscured by shadow. The face of the third woman who appears between the two, is covered over by a sheet of paper that her nearby companion is holding up closer to the light to allow her to closely read its bottom part. In Shibli's language, the effacement of the women's features seems to reflect their apparent disorientation from each other; it also implies their experience of being uncounted and unrecognized.
In contrast, the close-up portraits of a Bedouin activist and his family, clearly show the features of all three people in the picture. The visual recognition of human features thus appears to be equated with defiance and resistance. Salman Ghannameh, from the unrecognized village of Umm Mitnan, is here portrayed with his wife Fatima and their daughter Zainab who is sitting between the two. As others in their village, they may have been threatened with eviction, and the demolition of their home, but from their bearings, one can tell that this is a family that is ready for a long fight against their dislocation. All crammed together on a winter day in a sofa at home, he is wearing his thick sweater under his oversized coat. The position does not allow him to comfortably move his arms so he is uneasily holding both hands in his lap. Filled with an inner intensity in his look, he is seen smiling and his far-gazing eyes are looking upwards as if he were trying to formulate a new thought. In contrast, Fatima, all relaxed, is seen in her white scarf and her traditional hand-embroidered dress. She is looking down in her daughter's direction as she is gently placing her arm around her. While the man is captured facing up the challenges of a present moment, the woman retaining the wisdom of love, seems to be anchored in the past. The child looking down in the same direction of her mother is gazing at her father's legs. Her eyes seem to wonder what would be the next step he would take to secure her future.
Finally, it is noteworthy to examine the title Ahlam Shibli chose for her last series of works. The word "goter" is a Bedouin corruption of the English "go there". Since the days of the British Mandate, the expression had been appropriated by the Bedouins to mimic how armed outsiders began to come in their midst and flash orders. By assuming the Bedouin expression for a title, one cannot think that Ahlam Shibli, eager to be believed, was proposing to her viewers to actually "go there", to see for themselves what she had seen. Nothing in her photographs particularly inspires such a proposal. Besides, she knows very well that her viewers cannot find their way "there" because these places, so dear to her heart, have been deemed "nowhere".
To date, there still is no marking anywhere on an Israeli map indicating the name and location of any of the places that Shibli named in her exhibition. Villages like 'Arab al-N'aim, al-Qurein, Umm Mitnan, Dhayya, Wadi A'hwein, 'Amra, and Qassar al-Sir are simply not there. Green signs on Israeli highways may have names of recent Jewish settlements but they do not have any name of an Arab village, be it small or large, old or new, recognized or unrecognized. Like the rural villages demolished in 1948, these Bedouin villages continue to be considered non-existent in 2003. The Hebrew name of some place may be spelled on a green sign in minis-cule Arabic characters but the original Arabic place name with which the natives identify remains invisible. Only natives who are absented from Israeli memory are supposed to know how to get "there". For all the others, the best they can expect, in the case of a recognized village, is a white signpost that suddenly pops up right at the village entrance. In the case of an unrecognized village, one is considered lucky to find a handwritten sign with the village's name posted on a tree or on some rock off an unpaved road.
That is why the title Ahlam Shibli chose for her series hurls a challenge to her viewer rather than extends an invitation to go see what she has captured on film. She must be well aware that when her people employ this expression, they do so to dismiss someone in disdain. It is only in the context of her inaugural exhibition at an Israeli cultural institution as prestigious as the Tel Aviv Art Museum, that the word "goter" gains a special resonance. After all, it was from this institution that the birth of Israel was announced by David Ben Gurion, the leading architect who mapped out the earliest plans for the Naqab, and who set the process by which to make its natives look invisible.
With Ahlam Shibli's work, the history of Palestinian photography comes full circle. Pioneers like Khalil R'ad who launched his career in Jerusalem in 1890, followed by Issa Sawabini and Daoud Sabounji, both of whom worked in the coastal city of Jaffa, together laid the foundations for a national photographic language. Their photographs documented continuities, while Shibli's narrates discontinuities. All and each, in his or her own way, expressed their resistance to the claimed invisibility of their people.
Unlike their European contemporary photographers who travelled to Palestine mainly to document the Holy Land's biblical sites for which natives often served no more than a measuring device to deduce the proportions of a monument, or to illustrate an "ethnic type", Palestinian pioneering photographers hardly ever bothered with the holy sites of their homeland. They were busy capturing images of their people's everyday life regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations. Their devout concentration may be better understood the moment we recall that their photographs were shot at a time when Reinhold Niebuhr's slogan "land without a people for a people without a land" was becoming a current myth in a world that was being defined by colonialism.
The days of colonialism may be over but the seed implanted by the myth continues to be propagated in the minds of those who derived their political authority from it. Invisibility of the other has been called for to maintain the myth's survival. To penetrate the invisible, Ahlam Shibli had to invent a photographic language that conveys to us how her people are facing life. She may have been destined to document discontinuities, but like women narrators among her people who kept their people's memory alive, the personal language of her photographs operate as in a never-ending narrative.
Being a Palestinian from Israel, she chooses to stand on the demarcation line between the manifest and the hidden. From her position, she calls for seeing links and chains between the past and the present with different eyes. Today, in a world proliferated by images that reach us from every corner, she lends us her eyes to see how her people have been "robbed from their past". Were we to see her vision and recognize the traces left by the shepherdess from the Galilee, this would kindle in her an omen of hope.