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Representing Revolution, Revolutionary Representations: Visual Activism about Palestine from the 1960s to the Digital Age

Panel III-8, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
Representing Revolution, Revolutionary Representations: Visual Activism about Palestine from the 1960s to the Digital Age The question of Palestine is remarkable for the breadth and depth of solidarity activism it has garnered over the decades. This solidarity has been complex and taken different forms in different contexts and at different historical junctures. However, it has always been shaped and sustained by cultural activism and visual representations. From the humanitarian images first circulated by relief agencies from 1948 to the present and the militant cultural production of the Palestinian revolution to projects of mobilization for Palestine through literary translation, digital projects, culinary arts, cinema, music, and other creative endeavors Palestinians and their supporters have used cultural and media spaces to expand awareness about Palestinian issues in innovative ways. This panel focuses on a small slice of that activism, tracing how support for Palestine has been mobilized across time and space in the visual field. It includes papers on the activism of the Arab American University Graduates of the 1970s and 1980s, the poster art of the Palestinian Revolution, Arab cinematic engagement with the question of Palestine during the mid-twentieth century, Palestine in Egyptian cinema of the post-Oslo period, and digital activism within the Great March of Return that took place in the Gaza Strip in 2018-19. Through these individual studies the panel interrogates the relationship between power and technology, the role of cultural production in the creation of hegemony and counterhegemony, the intersection of Palestinian activism and both domestic politics in the United States and intellectual work against capitalist accumulation and political repression in the wider Arab world and in relation to postcolonialism.
Media Arts
  • In a brief scene in Si Moh (1971), an early short by Moroccan filmmaker Moumen Smihi, the eponymous character sits in room with other north African immigrants in France and listens to a man read inexpertly from a newspaper in standard Arabic about the question of Palestine: “To define the enemy’s nature that the Armed Revolution faces in Palestine, we have to understand the role that played and plays Israel and the reason of its existence in the Middle East.” The haltingly read statement can be heard over a montage of footage shot in Paris: a tracking shot along a modest city street, shots of Si Moh and other men resting on bunkbeds in the modest room where the reading takes place, and men working on a construction site. The reading is interrupted by a man asking Si Moh how he immigrated to France. The brief scene evokes both the distance between the Palestinian question and this immigrant community and its immediate concerns over housing and work on the one hand and the larger colonial and postcolonial structures that link him with the Palestinian cause. In many ways Si Moh exemplifies cinematic solidarity with Palestine and the tension between engagement and distance that has characterized that engagement. As part of a larger project tracing the development of “engaged” Arab cinema in the mid-20th century, this paper examines the representation of Palestine in the films of what have been variously called alternative, new, or serious cinema from the 1970s and 80s. Cinema developed around the Arab world at this time at the confluence of overlapping movements for radical decolonization and national development. While at certain times and places those movements overlapped, they often coexisted in tension, if not outright opposition, to each other. While the question of Palestine was central to the former movement, it was famously instrumentalized by Arab leaders to strategically shore up domestic support. Palestine is refracted through the imbrication of the Palestine question with postcolonial national and transnational concerns in these filmmakers’ works. Tracing these tensions is important for a full understanding of global solidarity on the question of Palestine including the structural conditions that limit it even for its most ardent participants.
  • The filmstrip Palestine is the Issue begins with a set of images that would have been familiar to US viewers of the 1970s: commercial airline passenger planes standing out of place in the vast expanse of a landing strip in the Jordanian desert. Small figures stand in the shadow of a plane’s wings. A Palestinian flag flies just below the plane’s tail. A psychedelic symphony of string and horn instruments plays over the still images. The music is simultaneously familiar yet not immediately recognizable: it is a thirteen- second sample of “A Day in the Life,” the final track on The Beatle’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The lo-fi recording gives the music a degraded sound quality, and when paired with the images on screen, this sampled cacophony gives the impression of a jet engine accelerating for takeoff. The narrator begins: “In September 1970, four luxury passenger jets made emergency landings in the Jordanian desert. For the first time, the world at large paid heed to the Palestinians.” By the time this filmstrip began circulating in the US in 1975, the stereotype of the Palestinian as terrorist- hijacker had become hegemonic in US culture through the contextless repetition of this kind of imagery on the news and in entertainment media. Palestine is the Issue utilizes this ripped-from-the-headlines sensationalism as a dramatic hook to draw viewers into the narrative before flipping the script: “Let us now look at the root causes of Palestinian anger.” Based on archival research using the Association of Arab American University Graduates (AAUG) special collection at the Eastern Michigan University Archive, this paper examines the AAUG’s production and distribution of educational filmstrips in the 1970s and 1980s. Through the formation of a mail-order media rental program, the AAUG conceived of and utilized filmstrip production, exhibition, circulation, and spectatorship as a strategy through which to disseminate the organization’s academic discourses on Palestine and Zionism to wider audience outside of higher education, including churches and public schools. In addition to filmstrip production, the AAUG served as an alternative media distributor in the 1980s and 1990s for a number of independent documentary films, including David Koff’s famously censored Occupied Palestine. The AAUG’s methods and goals with regard to media are exemplary of early Arab American activist attempts to leverage media for the purpose of mobilizing Palestine solidarity activism.
  • The production of an Egyptian film about the Palestinian struggle has faced challenges and contradictions since Egypt’s opening to global capital under Anwar al-Sadat’s neoliberal infitah policies from the early 1970s onwards, and Egypt’s subsequent move toward a “peace agreement” with Israel at the 1978 Camp David Accords. Yet the Egyptian-French co-production Bab al-Shams (2004), directed by the prominent Egyptian auteur Yousry Nasrallah, illustrates how even a couple of decades after Egypt normalized relations with Israel, the unresolved Palestinian struggle continued to be an urgent concern for politically committed Egyptian artists and the public at large. Indeed, popular perceptions and artistic expressions of support for the Palestinian cause have been comparatively consistent, even as Egypt’s official policies vis-à-vis Palestine have fluctuated and adopted different forms over the years. At once critical of Egypt’s normalization with Israel and the state’s embrace of neoliberalism, leftist intellectuals and artists such as Nasrallah engaged in cultural activism for a cause they understood to be intimately connected to their own struggle against capital accumulation, political repression and problematic foreign policy. This paper offers an aesthetic analysis and politico-historical contextualization of the epic, two-part film that traces the history of the Palestinian struggle up until its diasporic present in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut during the 1990s. An adaptation of Lebanese writer Elias Khoury’s (1998) meticulously researched testimonial novel, the film represents a paradigmatic example of cinematic solidarity and transnational collaboration across nations and media, and a creative act of resistance toward the political status quo and the persistence of the Palestinian Nakba. It is a polyphonic oral history about the loss of Palestine and its enduring aftermath, in which reflexively staged acts of telling and listening become just as significant as the multiple histories themselves. In its commitment to preserving historical memory and to redirecting attention to the Palestinian diaspora and its right of return, the film constitutes an important counter-narrative emanating from of Egyptian cinema at the time.
  • I began writing this paper during an intense escalation in violent Israeli armed interventions in Palestinians’ daily lives in the Occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip that began in May 2021 and continued throughout 2022. This was a period that animated digital spheres, as well as public spaces, with words, creative and subversive images, videos, memes, stories, graffiti, and poster art, constituting what Marwan Kraidy (2016) has termed revolutionary creative labour1, entailing the convergence of expression, production, and revolution. The ubiquitous contemporary Palestinian revolutionary creative labour enabled to a large extent by the creative and subversive use of digital technologies to construct new imaginations of Palestine recalls an older equally radical productive ‘conjucture’ in Palestinian history: the Palestinian revolutionary period of the 1960s and 1970s. That earlier period, too, saw the Palestinians’ public and private spaces, animated with creative imagery of Palestine and Palestinians in media, film, art installations, music, and poster art. I use the concept of conjuncture as an orientation rather than a theory to address the dynamics of hegemony and counter-hegemony, and power and resistance, in Palestinian poster art, the most ubiquitous creative visual symbolic site of Palestinian creative interventions particularly during contexts of total social, political and economic upheaval in which everything is up for grabs. These contexts of tremendous flux and peril often compel people to mobilize and to enact subjective and objective changes to the world they live in. I do not suggest here that other periods in Palestinian history – such as the first and second intifadas, the post-Oslo period and Israel’s regular violent incursions in Gaza – are not worthy of attention nor do I suggest Palestinians’ creative revolutionary labour and interventions in popular culture are episodic. On the contrary, these interventions continuously and actively produce Palestine while articulating Palestinians’ changing experiences as “dynamic and articulated social presence(s) in the world’ 3 through and in which structures of feeling shape cultural meanings and values that have been and continue to be “actively lived and felt” (Williams, 1977: 26-27). In this paper, I focus on Palestinian political poster art not as a space of exception, but as an affective space of appearance through which Palestine is re-appeared and re-centred in aesthetic and political interventions in the relationship between Palestinians, as the ruled, and Israel, as the ruler.
  • This paper examines an image from Gaza in 2018 of a drone-shaped cardboard cut-out attached to helium balloons. Launched during the aftermath of the Great March of Return, kites and balloons flown by Palestinians used smoldering payloads to ignite fires in Israel, resulting in over two thousand fires between March 2018 and July 2019. The kite and balloon launches have entered into Israeli public consciousness as a threat to sovereignty, with some news articles dubbing the practice as a “kitetifada.” The image of a drone-shaped flammable payload raises questions about how new media and digital technologies are understood by Palestinian protesters and the Israeli public. This paper reads the cardboard drone as a mimicry of Israeli security that underlines the ineffectiveness of high-tech tools to secure Palestinian land. Rather, we can understand new technologies as rhetorical expressions of power. Incendiary kites and balloons reformulate the relationship between Palestinians and technology, while undermining popular notions of digital technology as faster, more seamless, and more efficient.