We Travel Like All People
We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing. As if travel were a path of clouds
We measure space with a hoopoe’s beak, and sing so that distance may forget us.
Let me rest my road against a stone.
… Let me see an end to this journey.
Walking under occupation has been Rehab Nazzal’s life odyssey. At once artistic, personal, and political, her journey has taken her through various parts of her occupied land—Palestine. Tulkarem, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Ni’lin, Beit Sahour, Hebron have marked her trajectory and primary objective: to reinhabit, retrace, and document the experience of those who live under Israeli colonial rule. Her photography dispels any amnesia that might efface the plight of her people. Lest we forget that watchtowers, gnarled razor wires, and towering walls of cement constitute the landscape of occupation, Nazzal’s images thrust that harsh reality before our eyes, exposing the multiple ways that occupation disables and divides humanity.
An occupied land is a fractured land. It is geographically torn apart, economically destroyed, and humanly paralyzed. The sheer act of walking—that shared need for autonomous movement, so universally celebrated during our human infancy—is transfigured in today’s Palestine by a constantly shifting theatre of military checkpoints. There, walking is a self-conscious, contingent, and self-censoring manoeuvre. Once a simple mode of transit from district to district, from village to village, walking is now “denormalized.” A complex casualty of oppression, it embodies psychic trauma and physical paralysis. In Nazzal’s images of geographical wreckage, the liberty to walk is repeatedly threatened. Giant road blocks, looming surveillance towers, and a formidable wall drive a wedge between the local inhabitants and their home setting. The rising palisades that divide communities also tear asunder the organic unity between earth and sky. The vistas of natural beauty are eclipsed.
Nazzal’s photography is replete with walls, with an infrastructure of elevations, systematically and coercively erected by a unique colonial power. As it captures a view of the wall snaking around Bethlehem, this photographic work conjures up the emotional trauma of separation and the intensifying disintegration of Palestinian society borne out of various enclosures—divisions that block the corridors of vital economic and social exchange. Slicing through the historic terrain of Bethlehem and strangling the city’s life-line with its serpentine movement, this wall runs roughshod over a heritage site of sacred birth, tearing it apart from its twin city, Jerusalem.
For contemporary youth, the act of walking under occupation is a nightmare without release. For those of an older generation, it harbours within it a dream of another era: a time when the freedom to go on a sarha (on an unrestricted journey) was still possible. To amble, scale, and explore the ancient hills freely marked the normalcy of Palestinian life. Today, the unbridled trek across the ancient terrain of Palestine, with its olive groves and wadis, springs, cliffs and wild flora, is but a vanishing memory, obscured by the contemporary experience of stymied movement. The once voluptuous landscape is now flattened and reconfigured, subjected to the rapacious growth of Israeli settlements. Like a tortured body, this ground bears the scars of repeated truncation. Dismembered, it is incrementally stolen with the barrel of a gun, wrested from the Palestinian farm hands that once tended it unthwarted.
Characteristic of Nazzal’s work is its undaunted documentation of Israeli Occupation Forces. A photo of an individual soldier, with machine gun in hand, or of a wall of soldiers aiming their weaponry on a defenceless population (see the outstretched hand that urges an end to aggression in the image titled “The Wall in Kufr Thulth”) encapsulates the ubiquity of a colonial power. Aggression-in-waiting permeates occupied Palestine: razor wires, barricades, army rifles ready to fire, and metal fences decked with the symbols of prohibition are everywhere. Nazzal’s images offer us apertures into this otherwise sequestered world, a world terrorized by constant surveillance and choked by a network of divisions.
If these photographs impart an aspect of Palestinian life under occupation, they can only offer glimpses of it. For just as the artist’s right to walk freely is inhibited by laws, walls, and military obstructions, so her vantage point as the photographer is curtailed. Her video “Three Thousand Separation Walls” exemplifies the dizzying fortresses of cement, forbidding visual access to the entirety of the panorama. Panoramic scope is the privilege of the watchtower guards who see all, but are invisible to those below. The image of the watchtower (see the photograph titled “Downtown Hebron”) reflects one among countless “military outlooks” that serve to scrutinize the Palestinian population. Yet, transported into the contemplative calm of Gallery 101, this photograph momentarily reverses the dynamics of power, so that you, the viewer, can gaze at the panopticon liberally, unhindered by another’s watchful eye. In this resides the singular strength of Rehab Nazzal’s art.Michelle Weinroth is author of Reclaiming William Morris: Englishness, Sublimity, and the Rhetoric of Dissent (1996) and co-translator (with Paul Leduc Browne) of The Making of the Nations and Cultures of the New World by Gérard Bouchard (2008). She teaches English at the University of Ottawa.