Learning alongside – notes from “Turning our Tongues: Audio Journals from Dheisheh Refugee Camp”
(draft - This essay is scheduled to appear in a special issue of Third Text on tactical media, summer 2008, edited by Gene Ray and Gregory Sholette)
In the Spring of 2006, the 6+ collective began developing “Turning our Tongues”, a project which would involve 18 young women ages 16-18 from the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Palestine. Writing about work that is in-progress, with unforeseeable developments over the next year or so, can run counter to the open-ended practice the collective is striving for. But it may be productive to reflect midstream on some of the tensions emerging within the specific conditions of this project – and which, to my mind, have larger implications on the possibilities and limitations of art in relation to activism. Because the collective values divergent and even dissenting positions, this text reflects both a shared perspective on the project, developed in consultation with the other members, as well as questions which emerge solely from my own commitments and anxieties.1
(Self)definition can be an emergent property that arises out of practice and changes with the movements of desire and action. Definition can be fluid and affirmative--a declaration of strategies, actions, and goals. It can create crucial solidarity in the house of difference--solidarity, rather than unity or consensus--solidarity that is a basis for effective political action.2
6+ is a self-organized group of women artists currently living in different parts of the US. Individually, some of us have been troubled by past experiences with projects intended to address exclusion and disempowerment, but which became instead patronizing “dialogues” on unequal terms. Most had personal or artistic connections with Palestine – either through family ties, or through participation in a range of anti-war, anti-occupation cultural/activist projects. All had (more or less successful) experiences working or living collectively. 6+ begins its life as an attempt to develop a different ethics of artistic cooperation, with a return to Palestine an already imagined commitment.
From the beginning, the group subscribes to the principle of uncertainty, to a practice of not knowing. There is constant struggle with the notion of difference, understood initially as a certain opacity or strangeness expected of each other. We carry this expectation into collaborations that extend beyond the group of 6. Tensions emerge when the desire to cultivate intuition and trust mistakenly presumes familiarity or shared experiential/cultural backgrounds.
A collective imagination develops, reaching for a poetic, aesthetic and political practice leveraged against patriarchy and hierarchy. We understand feminism from different generational, cultural and historical positions. We understand collectivity as a life-thing, not merely a cultural thing, as implicated in the material conditions and struggles of women’s daily lives.
As a group, 6+ tends towards an emphasis on the “6”: Sama Alshaibi, Wendy Babcox, Rozalinda Borcila, Mary Rachel Fanning, Yana Payusova and Sherry Wiggins. As a project it has more to do with the “plus”, suggesting the leveraging of individual positions and privileges towards broader cooperations. As a larger collectivity of women begins to form, a number of tensions surface. A tiered structure of “primary” and “secondary” co-participants threatens to emerge, based on who has what to bring to the table – and although the group struggles for “inclusive and equal cooperations” within conditions of asymmetry, this may yet prove impossible without bringing the table into question.
By the Fall of 2005, the group is exploring ways to support the production, circulation and public exhibition of new work in collaboration with Palestinian women artists. During our repeated self-funded visits to the West Bank, The International Center of Bethlehem and the Sakakini Center in Ramallah offer invaluable guidance. They are part of a defiant network of cultural producers in the West Bank, operating under conditions of almost incessant siege: by then 8 months of international sanctions, daily bombings in Gaza, political posturing for control between Hamas and Fatah, the increase in checkpoints and restrictions on the movement of people and goods decimating the economy, increasing raids by the Israeli military within Ramallah and Bethlehem, a sharp rise in petty crime in the West Bank. We develop a project entitled “Secrets”, which brings together the artists of 6Plus and eight Palestinian women artists: Rula Halawani, Rana Bishara, Reem Bader, Naten Fastas, Natalie Handel, Nadira Araj, Larissa Sansour and Shuruq Harb.
Over the following year and a half, “Secrets” evolves as a range of activities, manifested in different locations – Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jerusalem, the Birzeit Virtual Gallery, Boston, Boulder, Chicago, New York ... It unfolds as a series of exhibitions and social exchanges, a platform, network and publication, among a range of co-participants and publics. An extensive network of friends and institutions forms to facilitate the project. This includes, for instance, securing passage into the West Bank for the foreign artists during the war with Lebanon and immediately after, as many foreign passport holders are expelled or denied entry into Israel. The US-based artists, in turn, become a mini-network of couriers, exploiting their status under Israeli Law to travel within the West Bank and between Palestinian and Israeli territories, meeting artists, transporting artworks.
The group’s involvement with Dheisheh refugee camp begins within this framework.
Rights of Return
We fight in different ways. Some write in the newspaper, some are teachers, or youth activists. […] People are busy in jail, they read books, they discuss and share experiences, some people choose to fight this way. Colonialism [means] to make new land; this is colonialism, everywhere in the world. What is your way to fight? 3
Refugees in internal exile played a key role in instigating and sustaining the insurrection against Israeli colonialist rule, intifada. Refugee camps were turned into battle grounds in the repression of the first intifada; the exhaustion of fighters, and the beginnings of the peace negotiations, lead to a gradual demobilization of camp youth.
In 1995, beginning in Balata and Dheisheh camps, the Popular Committees which had been the primary form of self-organization during the first intifada re-emerged, with a new structure and set of priorities. Feeling betrayed by the “peace process”, and anticipating that negotiations would not address their concerns, refugee Popular Committees worked as an alternative to an increasingly inept and corrupt Palestinian leadership, organizing around two major goals: improving living conditions in the camps, and affirming refugee rights of return as integral to the struggle for liberation. The Committees have been working with increasing urgency since the 1998 cuts in the UNRWA4 budgets dramatically reduced the services provided to refugee camps, paving the way for possible forced resettlement schemes.
The tensions between the refugee struggle for rights of return and PNA efforts at state building continue today. Refugee aspirations are sometimes seen, even within Palestine, as a major block to any “peace settlement”. The Rights of Return movement has become the primary form of refugee political remobilization – and now includes coordination between Popular Committees in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, and activist groups of externally displaced Palestinians around the world.5
Politics is the family at breakfast. Who is there and who is absent and why. Who misses whom when the coffee is poured into the waiting cups. 6
Dheisheh, situated just outside Bethlehem, was established in 1948 as a temporary living solution for 3,000 refugees forcefully displaced from 46 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron. Each family was allotted one 12’x12’ tent, which became a 12’x12’ concrete room, and is now 12’x12’ three or four story concrete structure. Sixty years later, 11,000 people live in an area less than ½ square kilometer, straining an always incomplete infrastructure.
Before the siege of 2002, around 3,000 camp men worked in Israel, dependent on low-pay, day labor primarily in the construction industry. With the building of the 365-kilometers long “security” wall, Israel has annexed 46% of land in occupied Palestine and further expanded its settlements within the West Bank. An extensive infrastructure ensures territorial continuity between colonies, while dividing the Palestinian lands in the West Bank into unconnected cantons. This violent re-inscription of borders has further decimated the economy of the region, leading to widespread poverty and soaring unemployment, estimated in Dheisheh to be at 70% in the summer of 2006. Malnutrition and hunger, especially among children, are a serious issue for the first time since the 2002 siege. The search for food, and the continued danger posed by ongoing incursions of the Israeli military within the camp at night, are forcing young men to leave Dheisheh for the first time in its history.
The Dheisheh Popular Committee leadership is comprised primarily of Communist and Popular Front activists, who locally facilitate dozens of micro-economy projects and education initiatives, and maintain pressure upon municipal and local government authorities. They are also key figures in the international movement, articulating their position firmly within an anti-colonial politics.
In February 2006 Sama Alshaibi and Sherry Wiggins meet Naji Owdah, one of the coordinators of the Dheisheh Popular Committee, and his wife Suhair, a women’s organizer and counselor. The Owdah family generously share their time, home, food and family history, introduce the artists of 6+ to the camp and its complex forms of self-organization, and describe many examples of ongoing projects with regional and foreign partners.7 A deep friendship develops, and discussions begin about possibilities for working together. With great tact and sensitivity, Naji Owdah also establishes the exigencies of a possible cooperation. “He said if we were serious, to stay in touch with them. We did.”8 Between February and December 2006, the group conducts four visits to Dheisheh, each time represented through a rotating subset of members.
If I forget them, my cousin, my mother, my friends, I might as well forget myself. 9
By September 2006, the group is asked to work with young women ages 16-18, whose creative and imaginative capacities are often suppressed as they take on overwhelming obligations within traditional patriarchal family structures, and who often do not have the opportunity to interact, and develop relationships, with women outside the camp. The desire is to cultivate the strength and vision of young women, considered by our hosts as crucially important for renewing the capacities of the community as a whole. I am particularly drawn to the ways in which the Owdahs speak about education, seeming to directly confront the contradictions of liberal education models under conditions of occupation. In my subsequent discussions and emails with Naji and Suhair Owdah, as well as other friends in Bethlehem and Beit Jala10, we begin to share a waryness of liberal assumptions – in particular the expectations of emancipation and upward social mobility through (Western) education. In a liberal-colonial project that assumes either elimination or education as the only forms of engagement, I am acutely aware that education functions as both a means of empowerment and a site of oppression.
Women also join in the fighting. [A local woman] has three sons in prison for life, her husband is dead, they demolished her house twice. She is strong, she is laughing. 11
Situated at the highest point of Dheisheh camp is the Al Feneiq (the Phoenix) Cultural Center. Three times bombed by the Israeli Army in 2002-2003, and three times rebuilt, it is the dream project of the Popular Committee, an impressive three-story construction built through camp remittances and local labor. My first memory of Al Feneiq is the garden, astonishing and green. Painstakingly maintained in spite of extreme water shortages, it is a vehicle for stories of the lush and fertile Palestine of the past, stories told to those who cannot remember the land before it was robbed of its water. But the garden is also an expression of a remaking of the world. Suhair Owdah describes the garden as a delirious vision provoked by thirst, a kind of laughter/lunacy which I learn to recognize as a specific form of resistance.
On a clear day, the old villages are visible from the top of the building. Young people who were born inside the camp learn the histories of their villages as their own, and memorize the lay of the land. Spatial/narrative practices are at the heart of the Al Feneiq summer camps, as children map the physical and social geography of villages which no longer exist and lands they can only see from afar, onto the space of the building. Al Feneiq is a poetic restaging of mobility and captivity, of past and future.
They speak of politics as “facts”. As though no one had explained to them the difference between ‘facts’ and that ‘reality’ which includes all the emotions of people and their positions. And which includes also triangular time (the past of moments, their present and their future) 12
The Committee has long been working with pedagogy, understanding “experience” –which grounds ones self-knowing -- as constituted within struggle politics, within a web of social relations which extends through and beyond the family. Naji Owdah tells the story of a picnic in 2002, in which his entire extended family crosses into Israel illegally to rendezvous in the old village. The grandmother, age 18 when displaced, is the only surviving family member for whom this village has ever been a material reality. For the rest of the family, the village has been a projection, an immaterial but powerful space of individual and collective identification -- the origin, in absolute coordinates, relative to which all other spaces and positions are organized. Naji admits his own fatigue from a lifetime of rehearsing rituals of belonging and continuity that grow more distant, as triangular space/time unravels into untethered instances, actions, locations. The picnic is a turning point in his life, releasing the past into the future: “They have destroyed the villages, but I saw the stones, I saw the places, I saw the well for the water, the press for the olive oil. Nobody can take these things from my mind. I had stopped fighting – but after that, I continue!”
6+ are introduced to a group of 18 young women, ages 16-18, who have been recruited by the Committee for a series of workshops in the al Feneiq: Haneen Abu Aiash, Rawan Aisa, Roá Alaiasa, Eman Alsaied Ahmad, Fatma Arfa, Alà Azzeh, Majd Faraj, Rofaida Fraj, Tamara Hamada, Baraá Owdah, Haneen Owdah, Lama Owdah, Maram Mizher, Rita Ramadan, Safà Salem, Zahra Salem, Shatha Salameh and Aahlam Zwahra. It is through Naji Owdah that the artists receive permission from the families to begin working with the girls during Ramadan. On a subsequent visit I meet some of the parents, who continue to be supportive of their involvement with the project.
The strategy is to create a project in small and hopefully feasible stages, each concrete in some way, yet without a predetermined outcome. We understand we are working within conditions of extreme uncertainty. The group approaches the situation in a fairly traditional way – making small objects, telling stories, small group exercises, physical play. There is space created for daily meetings to reflect upon and respond to the process, and to modify (in certain instances, completely revamp) the approach at each stage. We are looking to build upon and between small instances, and to work within the Al Feneiq project as a physical space, an institution, a set of political ideals and a kind of pedagogy.
Though isolated from even the neighboring Bethlehem community, and struggling to maintain connections with the world outside camp walls, Dheisheh residents speak of a chronic lack of solitude, privacy, silence, especially for young girls who are often confined to overcrowded living quarters, tending to domestic duties for long hours of the day. Our first workshop in bookmaking is an introduction to simple collage and book binding techniques. Girls help each other make journals, a small but concrete space for private reflection, doodling and so forth. We share our own journals, are embarrassed. There is much laughter and mischief. We are hopeful this experience is the beginning of a relationship between each participant and her own book.
Initial journal entries are largely formal texts that are not exceedingly intimate – eloquently narrated family stories, events from camp life, folkloric poems or songs, or formal declarations of love to unnamed (and quite abstract) boys. The multiple translations in this stage -- from Arabic to English to Arabic, from shared to private to shared narratives – generate multiple possibilities for transformation. We focus on identifying and expressively unfolding one small moment in each story – working with verbal and non-verbal means of emphasizing, editing, compression.
Each story is then converted into a maximum 60 second oral recording. The problem of compression, and of moving from written to oral Arabic, opens up the narratives to new interpretive possibilities. I notice the girls begin to listen to each other more intently – to hear, perhaps, different nuances and interpretations emerging within familiar stories. The recordings offer the exhilarating, strange, embarrassing sound of a voice that is, and is not, one’s own. We are surprised by, and somewhat underprepared for, the girls’ exuberance and intensity.
4. Spaces, materials, sounds
Using digital recorders, we work in small groups to generate, record, and listen to ambient sounds. Objects are manipulated and the acoustic possibilities of the space are explored. The Al Feneiq library and computer center -- empty rooms awaiting books, computers, and the people to use them -- are full of sound, of specific material and physical information, of expressive potential. We also work on the balcony and in the garden, inside the bathroom and in the stairwell.
5. Choreographies – 60 seconds
Each participant identifies small moments in the story that can be paired up with particular sounds. She can also utilize the bodies of her collaborators, directing and choreographing a series of actions that produce desired sounds. In repeated “rehearsals” the girls act upon each other and the built environment, reviewing their recordings to understand the possibilities of the “instrument”. We begin to pay closer attention to the specific materiality of the building, and the material qualities of sound as vibration. But the sound-space emerges also from relative qualities (relationships between sounds, relative distance or speed, transitions from one location to another) and from the subjective ways in which sound/text become internalized. Each participant produces a maximum 60 second recording, an ensemble performance recorded in “one take”, combining the use of spoken and sound elements.
6. The web
We try to establish email “circles”, inviting the girls to continue their recordings, and to email us their sound files. We would then upload them to a website, hoping this structure can allow us to continue working together in the long breaks between our visits. However, email communication is nearly impossible to sustain. Over the next two visits we learn that the girls continue to work with their journals, but not with the recorder. Haneen Owdah tells us the journals are full, and the girls have been teaching their younger siblings and cousins how to make small books of their own. In conversations with their mothers, the girls insist the books are private and cannot be shared – at the same time they insistently ask for this stage of the project to end, after only one more sound workshop during which to record the most recent journal entries and put them online.
They will exercise the compassion of the victor over the loser 13
The workshops have only just begun to explore the expressive potential of sound, which we had planned to incorporate into a larger digital/spatial project extending to locations throughout the camp. We are however moving away from what was a rather fashionable mapping project, and returning to more sustainable and, we hope, useful forms of making. The next stages of the workshops will continue the journaling; they may involve different visual narrative forms, possibly exhibiting the work inside the camp. We are also invigorated by the girls’ desire to teach others what they have learned, and are concerned with finding processes that can be productively sustained beyond our visits.
However, a different dimension of the project has emerged, initially expressed as a website, later as a sound installation and then a video, directed towards sharing the recordings with the world beyond camp walls -- one of the requests repeatedly and passionately made by everyone we met in Dheisheh. This signals a shift away from working within a local context, in close collaboration with a highly organized community. If this project is to facilitate the circulation of audio and other creative “works” in the circuits of the international art/culture market, neither the young girls, the Owdah family nor the Committee are in a position to operate as co-participants in the same sense. We are struggling as we become untethered from our relationships within a specific social movement and its political aspirations, which until now have helped guide our work. This may explain a rather cautious, hesitant approach to the website – lacking translation, descriptions, minimal (visual) interpretive framework – at least until further visits would allow us to learn how we might be useful. Instead, the group has chosen to “travel” the project off-line, through presentations at several conferences14. We understand the importance of defying Israel’s efforts to isolate Palestinians from the rest of the world, and these conferences have been ways to present possibilities for working alongside the Dheisheh community, “to encourage others to go there and do their own work”15. We have invited critical input into the strategic possibilities, and political/ethical implications, of re-imagining our project in order to “circulate” it abroad. We are currently exhibiting a video of narratives from Dheisheh16; discussions around the production of this video have refocused our commitment, and suggested how we may experiment with different possible ways to imagine our role – as well the context of artistic production/exhibition in the US, the strategic alliances we may develop with other self-organized projects, and the necessity to situate the project politically while retaining the experimental and poetic intent of many of the narratives.
Throughout the process, we have been in some disagreement as to whether increased representational visibility is necessarily linked with political agency, and have internally questioned the ethics of representing the work of young people and children, especially in relation to the production and conditioning of feeling. Some members, myself included, have voiced strong opposition to existing models of “community arts” in the US, which often work to conceal structures of oppression and domination.
Between the financial squeeze and our commitment to advocating for collaborations with self-organized refugee communities like Dheisheh, the pressure is on for a clearer politics, and a more efficient strategy of dissemination. My own long-standing commitments are mobilized at this moment of the project in something approaching a state of emergency. I am troubled by my own position as potentially complicitous in commodifying the work. I am troubled by the possibility of being recast as the globe-trotting artist – a surrogate for the privileged social strata of art consumers, who is parachuted into so-called “problem” communities or situations – and whose mission is, ostensibly, to either “give voice” to otherwise voiceless people, or to offer aesthetic experiences that can refine and “sensitize” the locals. The massive deployment on the global art market of “participatory”, “community” or “relational” practices since the early 90’s functions to reinforce poverty, oppression and inequality as problems of specific communities, and not of capitalism, while suppressing the implication of artist and audience in the structures that produce and maintain uneven power relations. The crisis, for me, is provoked by the ways in which both aesthetic pleasure and the philantrophic mobilization of art often function to “manage” the threat of systemic critique.
“Going global” is not meant here to suggest the sudden appearance of the global at this stage of the project. From its inception, global capitalism has been present in the lives of all co-participants, and in the conditions of our working relationships -- but it has not been recognized as such. I am suggesting instead that interrogating our working principles in relation to global capitalism has now become urgent. But can a unifying politics vis a vis capitalism emerge alongside the imperative of preserving distinct, and often divergent, personal and artistic trajectories? What practices, strategies or forms could mediate between particularisms in this sense?
…that ‘reality’ which includes all the emotions of people and their positions. And which includes also triangular time17
…a person pays closer attention to a place where he has a presentiment that, one day, he will have to retrieve from it something forgotten. 18
These tensions may help refocus the question of commonality as interrelatedness – not assuming a universal shared experience, but acknowledging rather a field of political forces within which we are differently positioned, and by which we are differently impacted. In a series of internal correspondences and interviews, 6+ try to individually make sense of the ways in which they are repositioned as political subjects through this work. Members speak of the transformative power of “experience”, in ways that echo an understanding of self-knowing as knowing in relation to others. The primary ground that structures this “relation to others”, the web of interrelations between all co-participants in the project, is initially identified in the correspondence as the legacy of colonialism.
Imagining a shared politics that is yet to be calls us to recognize the traces of possible futures. While productive in many ways, speaking of colonialism as a political process in the past tense is insufficient, if it forecloses the question of our implication in global forces today, or if it relentlessly anchors us as actors in the theater of the past. Our task may be to develop, in the various spaces of our daily lives, in the locations and conditions within which we live and work, practices of creative resistance and struggle that can attend to “experience” as a dual hinging or triangulation – to open up the self into an ensemble of social and political processes – to open up the past and future into the present.