Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Palestinian Landscape Reviewed by Elaine Hagopian

Palestinian Landscape



Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Roger Heacock, Khaled Nashef (Editors),

The Landscape of Palestine: Equivocal Poetry. Birzeit: Birzeit University Publications. 1999.    Xviii+268 pages. Paper $19.00.

Reviewed by Elaine C. Hagopian: Professor Emerita of Sociology, Simmons College, Boston, MA

THE LANDSCAPE OF PALESTINE: EQUIVOCAL POETRY is a long overdue corrective to the disfigured portrayal of Palestine and Palestinians that has been sculpted over decades and centuries by Westerners. At long last, Palestinians have taken the initiative to redress this disfigurement by sponsoring a 1998 conference on the Palestinian landscape from which this present volume is drawn. Each of the essays contained therein exposes the range of intellectual and ideological tools used to deny, visually depopulate and/or distort the Palestinian landscape, thereby making it "legitimate" space for foreign occupation. Simultaneously, the contributors rescue and resurrect the crucial facets of Palestine's past and present that together reaffirm the familiar whole known to centuries of Palestinians.

Edward Said's brilliant opening essay, "Palestine: Memory, Invention and Space," demonstrates the meticulous attention Zionists paid to reconstructing Jewish history to legitimate Zionist designs on Palestine. Said relates, "... how the history of ancient Palestine was gradually replaced by a largely fabricated image of ancient Israel, a political entity that in reality played only a small role in the area of geographical Palestine." (p. 14) Quoting the work of Keith Whitlam, Said observes that " 'The invented ancient Israel has silenced Palestinian history and obstructed alternative claims to the past.' " (p. 15) Said concludes that "What we never understood was the power of a narrative history to mobilize people around a common goal." (pp. 12-13) As a result, the invented Zionist narrative dominates and carries credibility in the world.

In his essay on "Renaissance Cartography and the Question of Palestine," Nabil Matar unfolds how the question of Palestine was posed cartographically long before Zionism. He relates the process by which collector and colorist of maps, Abraham Ortelius (1527-1598) published in Antwerp his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum in 1570 in which the prototype of the cartography of Palestine was included. This prototype "... portrayed Palestine as a land with no inhabitants, " (p. 140) and hence also no political or social identity. Ortelius's Theatrum gave rise to the myth of a de-Arabized and mute Palestine. Unlike other maps in the collection which had utilitarian navigational/topographical features, the Palestine map focused on divine locations and made the mythical exodus its centerpiece, thereby confirming the route of the biblical exodus. The themes of empty Palestine and the return of Jews to it, created and sustained a powerful image that was appropriated by the Zionist movement. As Matar points out, "This conflation of faith and cartography ... led to the emergence of one of the strongest heresies in the sixteenth century, that the exodus was a prophetic anticipation of the 'Restoration' of the Jews to the Promised Land in preparation for the Second Coming." (p. 149)

Lynne Rogers describes in her "Literary Snapshots" how Mark Twain and William Thakeray viewed Palestine, which they understood as the Holy Land. Both men reacted to Palestine and its people negatively. However, as Rogers notes, complete rejection of the Holy Land would have meant casting aside Christianity and the values therefrom. Instead, she continues, they " ... kidnap Jesus and absorb him into their own cultural and imaginative landscape." (p. 162) Palestinians and Palestine are severed from the image of the Holy Land in the West. In fact 135 years after Twain's visit, his condemnation of Muslim rule in Jerusalem would be used by Zionists as justification for Israeli sole control over the city. Rogers sees the "cultural evacuation" of Jesus from Palestine as a license to justify an "... unchristian foreign policy ..." by Christian countries toward Palestine. (p. 171)

W.J.T. Mitchell in an extraordinary essay, "Landscape and Idolatry: Territory and Terror," dissects how the ideology of Zionism connects to an alleged biblical landscape in which Palestine is promised to the Jews and where all the inhabitants must be driven from the land in the face of the Jewish crossing of the Jordan into Canaan. They are implored to destroy the carved images and idols of the inhabitants, and to possess and settle the land given to the Jews by God. Rejection of any treaty with an idolater is central to Jewish biblical thought. Idolatry is thought to defile the one true god. "This defilement is most concretely and literally realized when the idolatrous agreement concerns land, the sacred, inalienable territory that God has given to Israel." (p. 251). The irony here, notes Mitchell, is that the zealots of Zion have made the land itself an idol -- not a graven image, but a substitute nonetheless. This worship of the land as idol constitutes a violation of the second commandment, i.e., the prohibition of idolatry, and is considered the worst sin a believer in the bible can commit. But Mitchell concludes that making Israeli settlers aware that their obsession with the land violates not only international law but also their most treasured commandment falls far short of persuading them to abandon their errant course.

The short essay by Karl Sabbagh, "Palestinian Landscapes in Film and Documentaries," points out that many in the West get their views of the Palestinian landscape from biblical films which are assumed to be factual when they are not. The latter, combined with selective direction, filming techniques, and conceptualization of a film, reaffirm the disfigurement of Palestine and Palestinians.

Note should be taken here, however, that the collection under review does much more than focus on the ideational formulations about the Palestinian Landscape which exclude Palestinians, their history, culture and social life, and which are used to confirm and justify Western/Zionism attitudes, actions and claims in Palestine. There are also essays that address the physical environment and art of Palestine and Palestinian cultural signification, whether prehistorically or in more recent history. Together, they attest to the continuity of Palestinian presence and settled life in Palestine. They challenge the invented myth of predominantly Jewish spatial and continuous association with Palestine. Several essays in this category stand out.

Ghazi Falah traces what happened to the Palestinian villages depopulated in 1948 and thereafter in his "The Transformation and Designification of Palestine's Cultural Landscape." He concludes that while Israel attempted to obliterate the villages as a form of validating Israeli denial of the Palestinian Cultural and physical landscape, " ..., the ruins of the villages continue to represent a significant element of lost cultural topography. ... They provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins [and] they also constitute the best material evidence for refuting Israel's claim that they [the Palestinians] are not part of Palestine. ..." (p. 105)

In his "From Bride of the Sea to Disneyland: the Role of Architecture in the Battle for Tel Aviv's Arab Neighborhood," Mark Levine articulates the process by which Israel has attempted to absorb the Palestinian Arab city of Jaffa into Tel Aviv -- a rather new city without traditional appeal. By appearing to restore Jaffa's traditional architecture, appropriating it into Jewish history, and attaching it to Tel Aviv, Israel aims to create a global city with modern and traditional seductive tourist attractions (Disneyland metaphor). The gentrification of Jaffa's sea coast areas is resulting in the destruction of the traditional Palestinian fishing industry and the freezing out of Palestinians from the expensive, luxury housing market. Nonetheless, Jaffa's Palestinians have organized to challenge Israeli attempts to physically disenfranchise them from their historic city.

Samira Halaby points out in her "The Landscape of Palestine in Arabic Art," that there was no real break in the artistic process with the coming of the Islamic period. Early Arab art was expressed in mosaic form in church floors and elsewhere. Clearly biblical sites are in Palestine, but Westerners use biblical names by which they can filter out the Palestinian Landscape. Still, she notes, Western Christians view post-Islamic Arabs in particular as heathens who believe in "Allah."

Ghattas Sayeg presents irrefutable evidence in his "The Origin of Terraces in the Central Hills of Palestine" that the use of terraces in Palestine were not a function of the Israelite invasion and settlement in Palestine under Joshua. The Israelites were nomads, while terraced agriculture required extensive experience and studied familiarity with the Palestinian landscape. Indeed, Sayeg points out that "In fact, intensive archaeological surveys contradict this theory [Israelite origins of terraced agriculture]." (p. 204) Rather he points out the long duration of terraced agriculture dating back to the first human occupation of the area. He concludes that terracing was "... a function of topography and population growth, rather than an innovation by a specific ethnic group." (p. 204).

There is so much more to this collection. Its strength stems from the exacting research that went into each of the contributions. Resulting from that research is the beginning public reversal of the politically popularized images of the Palestinian Landscape. The volume also stands as a refutation of a conclusion drawn in the otherwise excellent book by Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, in which he claims that Palestinians returning to their ancestral Palestinian landscape would have difficulty identifying their homes and villages. Indeed, the May 10, 2000 March of some 5000 plus Palestinians to sites of depopulated villages is a further indication that what may be physically destroyed and/or transformed in part or whole, yet remain a part of the spatially visualized Palestinian Landscape by Palestinians.

The Landscape of Palestine: Equivocal Poetry is must reading for any serious scholar and human rights advocate engaged in understanding the Palestine/Israel conflict.