A man stops his car, turns off the headlights and switches off the engine. He steps out of the vehicle and in the soft darkness sets up his tripod and camera. He starts to take pictures. Click, click, click. He is aiming his camera at a distant colony and he knows that what he is doing is going to be seen in a negative light if he is caught.
Sure enough — out of the darkness come the soldiers and they are not happy. Is this a scene from a film? No — it is a day, or rather a night, in the life of the Palestinian artist Yazan Khalili whose attempts to photograph the Israeli colonies in Palestine were cut short by Israeli soldiers just as he had feared. He had prepared to diffuse any misunderstandings by stashing a bottle of whisky in the car (message: I am not a jihadi) and by carrying a borrowed press pass to indicate his professional interest as a photojournalist.
The soldiers told him he had two options: hand over his camera or accompany them back to the barracks. He chose the first option and the soldiers went through the film and deleted any image that they felt might compromise the security of the colony. Khalili has a good sense of humour and he acknowledged that their instincts were good. Every picture they selected, he himself would have selected. Those they deleted were the best in terms of clarity and detail.
“What they deleted were the images I wanted to keep; in a way we were in agreement, me and the soldiers, that these photos — the ones we see now in the exhibition — are useless,” he said.
Khalili could have abandoned this project and discarded the remaining images as useless. But instead he has kept them as mementoes of the act of looking that night and the way that looking was curtailed. So the hazy images of the colonies with their brightly lit boundary roads are not that wonderful technically or artistically but they tell in their own way a story about the kind of constraints endured by Palestinians today.
Khalili wanted to tell a story through his pictures about how the presence or absence of light in a landscape can reveal who is dominant and who is oppressed.
In his sixth Palestine Notebook entitled “Sabreen” (Patience), the writer, Christian Salmon, described his impressions of looking out over an Israeli colony in Palestine.
“A few kilometres away as the crow flies the city sparkled with thousands of lights. Between us and the city lay areas of shadow with a few scattered, flickering glimmers — Palestinian houses — and then, farther to the right, a zone of intense light from which an empty, well-lit road led to an Israeli [colony]. In this shimmering of nocturnal light I recognised the gleam of the border.”
Salmon added: “Here the border represses, displaces, disorganises. Whether in Israel or the Occupied Territories, the area has become hostile, an area without content or contour that makes insecurity universal. ‘Suppressing distance kills,’ René Char wrote.”
In his latest work “Regarding Distance” being exhibited at the Edge of Arabia Gallery in London, Khalili explores the scarred landscapes or the West Bank where he grew up. He shows the Dome of the Rock in the old city of occupied Jerusalem as something distant and unreachable. He once wrote: “There is a spot which overlooks [occupied] Jerusalem; it’s the only place where the green ID card holders can see the Dome of the Rock with their bare eyes. It’s so far away that one needs to gaze for a few minutes before seeing the shining dome. A close friend used to joke that we should install binoculars there and offer people (for money of course) the chance to see it. ‘If they can’t be there for real, they can see it for real,’ he would say.”
Khalili accepts that he feels a great sense of anger about the political situation in his country. He, however, wants the anger to be coherent because when the pain that people try to express through words is not understood and they simply end up screaming, nothing is achieved except making them perpetual victims. “It becomes a re-enactment of pain — of showing pain without an aim — because you become so complicit with the anger,” he said.
His art, he says, has been inspired by and connects with a long line of artists, past and present, whose work emerges from areas of conflict.
“It is essential for me as an artist and someone who is trying to hold a certain narrative to simplify the message. That makes my anger readable instead of being a scream that is heard as pain. I’m not saying that the art world will produce a political action but it can produce a way to see,” he explained.
“I am trying to create a Palestinian discourse through images. Images are used to stereotype us — to oppress us. Through images we are oppressed and through images we can be emancipated,” he added.
He gets frustrated, he said, when people shut down any discussion about the situation in Palestine with the comment: “Oh, it’s very complicated.” This dismissive attitude, he says, often goes hand in hand with an attitude that thinks the problems are insoluble.
One of his drawings shows how as a child he always used to depict Palestine as a simple standing triangle. This simple drawing is accompanied by a handwritten note pinned to the wall.
“When my mother first taught me to draw the map of Palestine, I used to simply draw it as a standing equilateral triangle. Later I got to know that it isn’t exactly equilateral; its lower side is longer than the upper one, and the latter is concave with a salient closer to its top, and the upper angle is actually a flat straight line with another salient coming up towards the north. There is also Tiberias Lake, and the Dead Sea, and the many destroyed villages and the 1948 green line. And there is Israel and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the Oslo accords and Area A and Area B and C and H1 and H2, the checkpoints, the wall, the settlements, and I don’t know what and when and how ... but until today, when I want to draw the Palestine map, I draw it as a standing equilateral triangle.”
Denise Marray is an independent writer based in London.
“Regarding Distance” will run at Edge of Arabia Gallery, London, until May 24.