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Book review: A Country in Fragments: The Subjective Atlas of Palestine

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'Colour Correction' - Khalili.

'We have on this earth what makes life worth living:
April's hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn, a woman's
Point of view about men, the works of Aeschylus, the
Beginning of love, grass on a stone, mothers living on a
Flute's sigh and the invaders’ fear of memories.' -- On This Earth, Mahmoud Darwish

By Roger Sheety

5-8-2010
A light yet enlightening book on a heavy subject, The Subjective Atlas of Palestine is a beautiful, award-winning art book edited by Dutch designer Annelys de Vet and features both individual and collaborative contributions from over thirty different Palestinian artists, photographers and writers who were asked to “map their country as they see it.”

If there is just one theme running through its compact 160 pages it would be the search for normalcy and unity under brutal and endless Israeli occupation, ethnic cleansing and land theft.  “There is a lot of melancholy hanging in the air, a sense of black humour and even boredom,” writes Hassan Khader in the introductory notes.  “The map is formed and deformed, joyfully or sarcastically; daily activities are cherished as precious proofs of resilience.”  It isn’t a question of “How can I normalize my life?” says Khader but rather “How can I keep time-tested means of normalcy functioning and oiled” while living under occupation?

Thus the entry of hand-drawn sketches of maps of Palestine ranges from the full pre-1948 Palestine (from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea) to a dancer posed in the shape of Palestine to scattered, tiny dots and disconnected scribbles, the latter reflecting the continuing Israeli land confiscations as well as the current bantustans, cantons and ghettoes that millions of Palestinians are being forced into.

Just as striking is the section titled “New Flags for Palestine.”  As with the ever-shifting maps, the new flags reveal Palestinians’ utter frustration with the so-called “peace process” with its misleading and outright false promises of freedom and independence; a process which has accomplished little except buy time for the Israeli establishment to further divide and fragment Palestinian society.  As Gazans, West Bank Palestinians, Palestinian citizens of Israel and Diaspora Palestinians are today forcibly kept apart, so Maissoon Sharbawi’s series of four flags begins with the traditional solid Palestinian flag which then slowly unravels like an unfolding paper airplane until each of its four sections separate and literally drift apart from each other.

One of the most heartbreaking entries is titled “My Own House Where I Cannot Be” by artist and cartoonist Baha Boukhari.  In just two pages of photographs, pictures, maps and text Boukhari describes how he lost his historic home on the Via Delarosa street in Jerusalem which has belonged to his family for generations.   “My family history resembles the Palestinian way of life,” writes Boukhari.  “We are open minded ordinary people who love life and want to do something with ourselves in a civilized way.  Islam never stopped me from being an artist and it never stopped my father from being an architect and a pilot.”

Just before the 1948 war the then-four-year old Boukhari was in Syria with his father who was working in Damascus as an architect at the time.  “When we came back, the political situation had changed, and all of a sudden we were called ‘immigrants,’” continues Boukhari.  “Now I can’t live in, nor visit my house as I am not allowed to go into Jerusalem with my green ID card.  The only time I can be there is when the Israelis give me permission to enter Jerusalem, for instance when I have to attend a funeral of a family member.  At the moment my cousin occupies the house as he has an ID card from Jerusalem.”  This quiet form of ethnic cleansing has been a typical Israeli strategy since its inception and in fact continues to this day.

Despite the inherent bleakness of the subject, there is still much humour and even joy throughout the book.  Sami Shana’ah’s comic and ironic entry, “Signs For What’s Usually Prohibited, But Not In Palestine,” features signs such as “Smoking allowed everywhere and at anytime.” A sign with a cell phone pictured signifies “Use of mobile phones is always permitted, also during meetings.” A parking sign with the almost universally recognizable capital P on it here means “Park wherever you like.  No parking fees, no fines.” Of course, anyone who has been to Arab capitals such as Cairo, Beirut and Damascus can see this last rule on full display.

But perhaps the most captivating and joyful entry is Yazan Khalili’s “Colour Correction,” a spectacular two-page photograph of an over-crowded Palestinian refugee camp which as been colourized in bright purple, green, yellow and orange hues. The photo, also featured on the book’s cover, is highly symbolic of how Palestinians imagine and thus re-create themselves even in the darkest of times and most oppressive of places.  

The only disappointment is that the book’s size, at 16.5 by 22 cm, is somewhat small and this tends to diminish some of the beautiful photography and artwork. This is, after all, an art book and as such its contents, whether they are hand-drawn sketches, pictures of playing children or sublime landscapes, need to be seen on a larger scale than a normal sized paperback.  Nevertheless, with its unique, soft, rounded edges and simple, unpretentious presentation, The Subjective Atlas of Palestine is a gem of a book and makes an excellent introduction to the rich and varied cultural life of Palestinians.

Although I highly recommend you seek out the softcover paperback, The Subjective Atlas of Palestine is available as a free download from the publisher’s website at http://www.annelysdevet.nl/palestine.

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Gretta in Lebanon 2012

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