On Narrating Gaza...
Guy Mannes-Abbott - 03/01/2011
When it comes to sieges, precision is required to argue precedence. Besiegers appear all over the place and all over time. The besieged are always the same; rendered animal as time ceases and place becomes that time. The air is stifling, the end is collective yet still bespoke; you are abysmally alone. The military siege belongs to earlier ages but is too crudely effective to be left there, hence ‘Gaza’. Gaza, where one and a half million people -mostly refugees- have been besieged since June 2007 for their audacity to want to live in their own time and place. Where on December 27th 2008 their besiegers began celebrating New Year early, culminating in the gift of white phosphorous shells for surviving school children. Witnessed by a never more seeing world.
Two years ago, then. I was at home reading a novel that morning which I finished eventually with helpless determination while the state of Israel stepped up its ‘campaign’ of what, as Mourid Barghouti said at the time, is simply called murder. Yet another paradigmatic massacre and further dispossession of the dispossessed. Yet more uniquely compounded atrocity. It went on and on and the world remained silent, as it had been while the siege was laid and maintained to punish an election result. Silence. Nothing. Barely a word of criticism. Nothing consequential. So it has been for two years. Years since the densely populated coastal strip, blockaded by Egypt at one end and the state of Israel at all other points -emptied of settlers so that when the killing began no Israelis would be hurt- was remoulded into a single word; ‘Gaza’.
‘Gaza’ signifies this latest assault on Palestinians ethnically cleansed from the plains of Palestine, confined and besieged in the port city and so-called ‘strip’. If this single word were fully unpacked, it’s story would detail a uniquely chronic violence extending over six decades, recurring images of homes furnished with dead bodies, grandmothers mown down as they venture across rubble, children hurled at history’s wall. Repetitions that spiral upwards in scale with ever more extremity, ever less cause. This conventional job of historical archiving will come to fill walls in libraries far into the future -as our humanity insists.
Narrating Gaza is an attempt at a different form of narrating, closer to the insurgent anecdote. At its core the people of the word ‘Gaza’ are speaking, showing, proving their existence. It’s essential that their story is heard and this is what Narrating Gaza is designed to begin; inviting voices and visions to join in an act of resistance by telling. The entire world saw what happened in those weeks that extended from December into a more mortifying January. They saw, watched, knew and still the word ‘Gaza’ silenced them. Seeing made no difference in fact. This is a chance to make a difference by using the present continuous of the verb to get narrating.
What is narrating? It is an act of joining or bringing together, journeying amongst separate points, people, places, to link or cut a pathway, to light up a trail towards understanding and a more distant horizon where the sun will rise upon justice. Narrating is the opposite of silence or the single word. It is the mobilisation of words, sense, outrage and memory. It involves a journeying out from the singular self or word, towards the sentence of the other as it tips across a page or screen. Narrating turns the one; alone, isolated and unattainable, into the many, a coherent, collective and common ground.
The site is launching with images, poems, stories, accounts of what the word Gaza signifies and an invitation for more to join, speak or show. When the state of Israel came visiting that fateful Winter it brought only blind hatred, left devastation and death wherever it wished to go. This is what Israel means with ever less equivocation. As Judith Butler put it recently; “Israel in its present form cannot do without its mechanisms of dispossession, without destroying itself as Israel.” Here company is being offered to Shareef Sarhan’s image of a single child’s hand emerging from rubble, amongst other images and from which a narrative becomes possible.
‘War Traces’ by Mohammad Musallam shares images of the choices made by an occupying army and military superpower; faeces-filled domestic bathrooms, children's paints smashed and thrown, domestic interiors shot up, paintings and furniture dishonoured on the floor, whole dwellings crushed, streetscapes smashed along with all who previously sang there [in Shareef Sarhan’s photographs], join together in sudden alliances in which stories can at last be told. The image of a fallen painting, shot to pieces, under-trod by a boot subsidised by the most powerful nation on the planet in 2008-09, can be restored to a wall -my one here, yours wherever you are. New paintings await you elsewhere on the site to join these others and a song, albeit a sad one, begins to sound again.
In fact, ‘Sad Song [Five Days under Attack]’ is the name of a story or poem by Najah Awadallah that exquisitely renders the ‘First’ to the ‘Fifth day in Gaza’. It begins with the rehearsal of Tchaikovksy’s ‘Sad Song’ by violin beneath raining murder, with Najah saying goodbye to her teacher “before the lesson is over.” As the “metal birds play their music from the score of Gaza’s remains” she joins the resistance offered by grammar on the page of a sheltering book. Days of silence, hiding behind curtains, delighting in the way that the truth of this Gaza is impossible to hide. On the fifth day her foreign teacher has been evacuated, the music surrendered, tears now rain on “my violin’s aloneness.” This resistant narrative, translated expertly by Fady Joudah, made it to the horizon for me.
Elsewhere, there’s evidence of collective support for this important project. John Berger -recent memorialiser and translator of Mahmoud Darwish- reads Ghassan Kanafani’s ‘Letter from Gaza’ with a humble whisper. There are news reports, survivor diaries, photographs by Raed Issa of a destroyed gallery with its resistant art, others of ash rising to meet the silvery flock from hell, bodies in fridges afloat in blood, a portrait of Darwish surviving the rape of its owner’s homely quarters, that big boot print on the back of a savaged canvas, that red sleeved hand of a dead child reaching towards the same horizon that this insistent act of narrating makes more concrete.
Most striking of the images at launch are those taken by Shareef Sarhan of the murderers in flight. One shows from below bombs being released over the same dense cityscape seen from above on Narrating Gaza’s homepage. Another image condenses ‘Gaza’ for me; to the right is a military helicopter -kept in the air by spare parts from a supportive Britain perhaps- while four squiggling cloud trails ejaculate left across the image. I don't know what they represent but am more intrigued by what letter or word is being written on the stolen sky. ‘Restraint’, or more probably ‘ethics’, that war cry of the Israeli army wherever it indulges its monstrous violence. Death or hate is what it means, of course, but viewed from a different angle here, with comradely imagery and active narrating, it’s been re-narrated and reframed with its opposite.
Narrating Gaza represents resistance in the love evinced by and between words and images and where they take us. A love of what is promised just over the horizon and a means of foreshortening the process today. It is a way to join eyes together, to hear stories being told, read the testimonial truth, see the horror and the process of it becoming a new art. Of course the only light over our horizon is universal, one that all eyes and minds actually share and in the name of which we must act, by narrating with any and every means possible.