At a recent United Nations Development Program event for best practices on harnessing the power of social media, we saw a hand-written sign on the entrance door that said a meeting on Palestinian rights had been moved to a different location. A fellow worker joked that the Palestinians are always getting kicked out of places.
Although it was a joke, displacement is the most significant overarching theme in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with each party in the conflict viewing the idea of “home”, “homeland” and “displacement” through a lens of their own historical narratives which are mixtures of constructed facts and reality.
One of the most interesting perspectives on this tragedy of displacement is Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree where he tells the story of the conflict through the narratives of an Arab and an Israeli who are brought together not just by their connection to the same land but also by their claim to the same house. While still reading The Lemon Tree, I was also made aware of an Israeli non-governmental organization called Zochrot that aims to bring the Palestinian Nakba into the Israeli-Jewish public imagination by posting signs and images commemorating destroyed Palestinian villages and sites. Zochrot creates a space for discussion and linking historical, cultural and political memory and context to the people and the environment. The NGO’s website curates maps, images, testimonials, videos, articles, books that tell the story of the Nakba in an attempt to create historical and collective memory of the land and the people. This retelling of the story and bringing the Nakba into the language, landscape, environment and memory of the Israeli-Jewish people is Zochrot’s attempt to start a much needed process of reconciliation between the Jewish and the Arab people of the region.
A similar attempt of connecting the digital, social, political and urban landscapes came from Amsterdam based blogger Paul Keller. “In the last two weeks Mazen Kerbaj’s drawings have been one of the strongest most vivid expressions of the whole mess that is unfolding in lebanon that i came across”, wrote Amsterdam based blogger Paul Keller on his blog referring to Lebanese artist Mazen Kerbaj’s artwork that he posted to his site since the beginning of the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2007. While Kerbaj’s drawings are very striking and evocative in themselves, what Keller did with these drawings is even more interesting as he printed them out and posted them in the streets of Amsterdam.
Keller feels that translating a blog, which is a technology contained within the internet, into the fabric of the city, he is able to make a connection between digitally generated and distributed images and physical landscape. He, therefore, creates a feedback loop between the city of Lebanon, it’s people, the situation of war and destruction, the chaos and emotions expressed in Kerbaj’s images posted to his blog, and the streets of a completely different city, that is, Amsterdam. Both Kerbaj and Keller’s projects perform the very important function of using art, memory and conflict to temporarily modify the façade of the city by asking people to think about a situation that they are very removed from.
This week I discovered a Canadian project, Qatamon in Color, that aims to generate communities of discussion by incorporating the physical fabric of the city and it’s historical and symbolic significance into an interactive website, digital media workshops for youth and a video installations which will be projected onto the houses. The project will be carried out by professors and students from Queen’s and Simon Fraiser University who will work with those who were displaced from the Qatamon neighborhood in Jerusalem due to the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948 as well as people who have lived in the neighborhood since then.
“Space is easily politicized into a Place”, wrote Dorit Naaman, on of Queen’s professors involved in the project, “but this project’s goal is to humanize the neighborhood’s different phases through the various house stories, and thus to bypass what is otherwise usually politicized in reductive terms”.
Where the mainstream media with it’s primary focus on missiles, rockets, bombs, stones and the farcical performances on the international political stage fails the people of the region, digital media provides opportunities to engage people affected most by the conflict. Media projects like the ones mentioned above offering alternative narratives bringing the Arab history back in the Israeli landscape are in sharp contrast with the founding notion of Israel as “a land without people for a people without land”.