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Creative activism and the remaking of Palestine

While policy wonks and media pundits wallow in endless debates about Jewish settlements and the threat of terror, Palestinian groups are creatively exploring alternative ways to realise their national aspirations.

Noam Leshem
10 June 2012

The passport is the noblest part of a person. It also doesn’t come as easily as a person. A person can come about anywhere, in the most careless fashion and without particular reason, but a passport never. Therefore, it is recognized if it is good, whereas even a good person often won’t be recognized.

 (Bertolt Brecht, Refugee Conversations)

In an unassuming corner of one of Berlin Biennale’s exhibition spaces, the artist Khaled Jarrar set up a desk and invited visitors to stamp their passports with a specially-designed ‘visa’ to the State of Palestine. The stamp he created features a Palestine Sunbird surrounded by flowers and encircled with the words State of Palestine in English and Arabic.

Palestine stamp

State of Palestine project by Khaled Jarrar.

Obviously, the stamp has no legal validity. It is purely a symbolic gesture. That is clearly part of its appeal: Jarrar freely issues his mock-visas and accompanies the stamping with a warm “Welcome to Palestine!” in English and Arabic. In the hand of the artist, visa-stamping becomes an open act of inclusion and invitation, rather than a state-controlled instrument of policing boundaries. Compare that to border controls in Israel’s international airport, which have become the emblem of the country’s national siege mentality.

By designing visa stamps, Jarrar stakes a claim to the process of defining the symbols and meaning of contemporary Palestinian nationalism. He is not alone in this endeavour: a dedicated academic led the renaming of streets throughout the West Bank city of Ramallah; groups of architects are working to conserve Palestine architectural heritage; religious organisations and prominent Palestinian families have joined forces to save a centuries-old cemetery in Jerusalem that holds national significance. The list goes on.

This recent surge is not incidental. After more than two decades of fruitless diplomatic negotiations, the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state seems as distant as ever. But while policy wonks and media pundits wallow in endless debates about Jewish settlements and the threat of terror, Palestinian groups are creatively exploring alternative ways to realise their national aspirations, even in the absence of a sovereign nation state.

Serious engagement with the symbolic of dimensions of nationalism, like Jarrar’s mock visas, is often seen as secondary to the more urgent tasks of crisis-prevention and post-crisis reconstruction. But it would be a mistake to dismiss these outright. Such initiatives play a decisive role in defining contemporary Palestinian nationalism, its historical consciousness and collective identity. Since the French Revolution, the history of national projects repeatedly illustrates that this is how nationalism is “made”: not only in ideological manifestos or international treaties, but literally, in the streets and in the worn pages of a well-travelled passport.

The cynics would argue that at best, these are cultural minutia; at worst, they make the occupation more tolerable by diverting energy into actions that, whatever their critical potential, are too “polite” to count. These arguments must not be dismissed (and will be discussed at greater length in future columns, but it is impossible to understand the radical dimension of these new forms of Palestinian activism without realising that ‘the occupation’ is not simply a blunt project of land grabbing. The absence of sovereignty is also the inability to design your visa stamp, determine the names of your streets or list buildings you deem worthy of conservation for their historical value – a value you want to assign by and for yourself and your community.

Considered this way, it is not surprising that the conversations around Jarrar’s visa-stamping desk constantly returned to very practical matters. Repeatedly, Jarrar would be asked whether stamping the passport with a “Palestinian visa” would prevent the passport holder from visiting Israel. Time and again, Jarrar assured that to his knowledge, only one Israeli woman’s passport was revoked after border officers noted the suspicious stamp.

Many visitors to Jarrar’s desk seemed unconvinced. They worried about the fate of their passport. As Brecht sarcastically noted, a passport doesn’t come easily, and even a benign artistic intervention could jeopardize its validity. Symbolic gestures, they realised, have real-world impact.

In highly sophisticated manner, Palestinian artists, professionals and practitioners are reclaiming and redefining their culture, heritage and aesthetics.  By doing so, they expand the meaning of resistance far beyond the direct confrontations that typified Palestinian activism during the first and second Intifadas or even the non-violent methods of protest widely practiced today in the West Bank. Without clichés or self righteousness, these projects are redrawing ‘Palestinian space’– from the small pages of passports, to entire villages and urban neighbourhoods.

For some Palestinian youth, stone throwing is still probably more common than heritage stone masonry, urban regeneration or thoughtful design of mock visa stamps. But perhaps not for long: The creative revolution is well on its way.

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