Keep Your Eye on the Wall, ed. Olivia Snaije and Mitch Albert, is less a coffee-table collection and more — because of its accordion-style binding — a book to transect the floor of your living space, much like the Separation Walls that keep Palestinians apart from Palestinians, from Israelis, from the world, and often from their own land:
That’s just two weeks before this year’s Palestine Festival of Literature, which is set to open on May 31.
Because of its concertina binding, Keep Your Eye on the Wall opens on both sides: One begins with a map of the twisting, confusing Separation Wall, which, at 709 kilometers, is, “Four times as long as the Berlin Wall.”
Although text is also an important part of the project, the book is dominated by its photos. The foreword is by Orwell Prize-winning author Raja Shehadeh, who calls the diverse photos in this book “shockingly beautiful and evocative.”
And yet it is a particular sort of beauty. There has been significant conflict over whether artists should decorate the Separation Wall, or whether this “beautification” project legitimizes the barrier that has created prison-like spaces within Occupied Palestine.
Indeed, Malu Halasa‘s contributing essay is on “Oppressive Beauty: Against Aestheticising the Wall.”
The photos are often consciously un-beautiful, sometimes frightening, vertiginous. In the case of Raeda Saadeh’s images, they are sometimes pretty (see photo at right), but also sometimes uncomfortably surreal in their explorations of the Wall’s psychological effects.
Steve Sabella’s geographic patterns are dizzying, moving in all directions and collapsing in on
themselves: fragments of walls spliced onto more fragments of walls, shoving against one
another. Rula Halawani’s sepia-toned photos take us to Jerusalem, where once-magnificent gates have been replaced by ugly concrete barriers. Noel Jabbour’s include aerial shots that give an idea of the massive scope of the Wall. Raed Bawayah juxtaposes Wall with human body.
Most of these photos, in Halasu’s words, underline “the abnormality of the situation.”
And yet, as editors Olivia Snaije and Mitch Albert said in a previous interview, “The very act of representing an object in pictorial space is an act of aestheticising, so it would be a contradiction in terms to express any worry about doing so. It is possible to argue that the visual depiction even of atrocity risks making the recorded subject ‘beautiful.'”
But this didn’t stop the project, they said, because “we believe in the power of photography to provoke strong, instinctive responses, and to stimulate discussion and debate, and it is this philosophy that guided. At the same time, we were aware of the discourse that, as Malu so deftly illustrates, holds that making ugly artefacts of oppression ‘beautiful’ weakens the possibility of resistance, and we knew we had to give voice to this counterpoised argument.”
The prose pieces in the collection, like the photos, range over a number of styles: from scholarly to memoir to fiction. The collection includes an essay by Christine Leuenberger on this and other separation barriers, including those between Mexico and the United States and between Oman and the UAE, as well as the “Green Zone” barrier inside Iraq.
The essay by Yael Lerer, the Israeli publisher and activist who founded the Andalus press — which, before it was shuttered, was dedicated to publishing contemporary Arabic literature in Hebrew — shares personal stories about border “crossings” within Israel and Occupied Palestine.
Lerer’s essay is followed by a claustrophobic short story by celebrated Palestinian author Adania Shibli, whose “The Fence” was translated by Katharine Halls. As is often the case in Shibli’s fiction, we are with an unnamed protagonist in an unnamed location whose physical and psychological space is being continually narrowed.
Although I, too, am uncomfortable with the idea of “aestheticizing” the Wall — which feels uncomfortably close to romanticizing — the photos and texts bring it to life in new ways, and make fresh metaphorical connections between this Wall and others.