The Fantasy Principle

Purple. Pink. Green. Orange. The brightly colored, flat-roofed, concrete residential buildings immediately stood out. No more than three stories in height, some incomplete, it could have been any Palestinian or Israeli Arab town, albeit one dipped in a United Colors of Benetton ad. I imagined that it might even been a picture of one of the communities lining the highway between my parents home and Afula. However, if you weren’t familiar with such scenery, you might very well have assumed that every eastern Mediterranean Arab municipality looked like this.

The picture in question was not a colorized shot of any such things. It was a promotional picture for a London art show. Occupied Space 2008, a showcase for new paintings and photography by Palestinian and British anti-occupation activists was just about to open. Overshadowed by the opening of an equally significant exhibit of contemporary political art from China at the Saatchi Gallery, the show had received a small but favorable preview from the progressive British weekly, The New Statesman. Given its subject matter, I was going to have to go see it.

A photo of a Palestinian refugee camp altered by Ramallah artist Yazan Khalili, the portrait had an alien quality to it perfectly politicized for its foreign context. Of course these buildings would appear differently. They were out of their element. Though the colorizing was intended to push the viewer to take a second look at something they might have otherwise taken for granted ( to wit, the same piece, “From the Camp Series” was titled “Color Correction” in an ’07 collection entitled Subjective Atlas of Palestine) having just moved back to the UK for the first time since 1979, I imagined I was being asked to see Palestine anew, through local eyes.

The walk between Earls Court tube station and the Qattan Foundation gallery did little to persuade me I was being asked to do otherwise.  It was as though I was in one big art installation, moving to the center from the periphery. First, there were the Arab restaurants lining each side of the street.  Halloumi, Turkish coffee, shwarma, hummus Beiruti,  the ever-popular mezze platters. Then there was the bilingual Arabic/English real estate agency sign, followed by a curiously Israeli-looking blue and white advert for a dentistry office featuring Arab-named physicians. Palestinian oral surgeons, I joked to myself, as I stared in awe at the sign.

If you wanted to communicate the precise origins of these dentists in code, it would make sense to place such information within the context of such a color scheme. Originally from Baka-al-Garbiyeh? Get your molars capped here. However, what was even more interesting was that it listed the nationalities of the dentists following their Arabic last names: Denmark, Sweden and finally, Slovakia. For paranoid Jewish rightists, who believe Europe to be a hotbed of Islamic extremism, it was a dream come true. Here, listed on a piece of commercial signage in central Londonistan, was testimony to how far Europe had strayed.

Granted, the persons on the sign could very well have not been from Palestine. What I was doing was allowing myself to imagine how the most reactionary members of the American Jewish community would respond to being placed in such radically mixed cultural circumstances, and enjoying how perfectly uncomfortable it would make them feel. Everywhere they’d look, the only thing they’d see would be the  enemy. As though there were no Arabs in the United States. As though there were no Palestinians living in close proximity to the New York neighborhoods in which this kind of fear of Muslims flourishes.

There is nothing pleasant about allowing oneself to inhabit such spaces. Indeed, it is exceedingly painful, its own form of ideological masochism. However, it is also an experience that has become an inescapable feature of American Jewish life since 9/11, and its one which contradicts every aspect of my upbringing as  as someone who grew up in Israel during the 1970s, and in a London in which nearly half my elementary school classmates were from the Middle East. I had come half-way home, so to speak, to the place where I first learned what it means to be Jewish, by living in community with Arabs.

Excerpted from an essay currently in progress