Stealing a moment in a stolen land

5 March 2012

Electronic Intifada – 5 March 2012

A figure, heavy in a thick black coat, lies prostrate in the middle of a clean, spacious sidewalk in a busy modern city. The angle of view shows his sneaker-shod feet, rather than his face, and a paper coffee cup is placed carefully next to him. A pair of legs — visible only from the knees down — rushes past his unseen head.

This unsettling image, captured on a Toronto street, is part of Palestinian poet Katie Ramadan’s debut photographic exhibition, In A Different Light. It has opened in Nazareth, Ramadan’s home town, and is due to move to Akka (Acre) and East Jerusalem before heading to London. Ramadan is also hoping the exhibition will tour in Europe and North America over the coming year.

Her collection of photographs, most of them in black and white, explores the meaning of home and the boundaries between private and public space in three very different countries Ramadan has been travelling between over the past few years. It is, in Ramadan’s own words, “a journey from the inside outward.”

The “outward” is exemplified by Toronto’s relationship to the man on the sidewalk. He is without a home, but nonetheless it is a strange spot to choose to lie down, fully exposed to the frenetic activity of a big city. Has he collapsed suddenly, or could he even be dead? And why is everyone going about their business as if he was not there?

Meant to disturb

Ramadan admits that the image is meant to disturb and disorient the viewer, echoing her own responses to the city. In fact, she says, the man is sleeping on a heating vent to keep warm against the winter chill. “He wasn’t alone — there were lots of people doing the same on vents along the street,” she says. “You could see them everywhere.”

Ramadan’s photographs present Toronto as a cold place — both in climate and spirit — the architecture dwarfing its inhabitants, themselves too hurried or engrossed in their lives to connect with each other, let alone an aimless stranger from the Middle East armed with a camera.

Toronto, where she lived for many months with her husband, Nasser Rego, as he studied for his doctorate, contrasts with her two other homes: Nazareth, a Palestinian town in northern Israel in which she was raised; and various locations in India, from which her husband’s parents originate. Both places are seen in a much warmer light than Canada: more intimate environments, they are presented as nurturing the family and celebrating togetherness.

Quest for a home

In her quest for a home, Ramadan crosses back and forth between the private and public, between the familiarity of Nazareth and the foreign-ness of her new adopted homes.

Nazareth, where Ramadan has spent most of her life, is seen chiefly in terms of the interior of the family house, the safe space of childhood. A series of portraits of young children show them enveloped reassuringly in oversize sofas or guarded by a well-loved piano. (Full disclosure: I am a long-time friend of Katie and Nasser, and one of my daughters is featured among the exhibited compositions.)

The theme is accentuated by the gallery space itself: a pair of adjacent, vaulted rooms inside a grand old stone mansion in Nazareth’s Old City that now partly functions as a restaurant. The building perfectly complements the opposing moods of Ramadan’s photographs. Visitors enter the first room to view the pictures of home and childhood, and then must venture carefully through a low, narrow passageway in the separating stone wall to enter the second space.

Exotic India

There, we leave the womb of the home for a new world of the unfamiliar. If Canada is unfriendly and quietly threatening, India appears exotic, riotous and sensuous. A multitude of people and pigeons intermingle to the point where the divisions between them blur; a large cluster of white eggs glisten bizarrely in a woman’s hands; and the liquids used in a traditional wedding ritual, messily running down the couple’s arms and legs, prefigure the night ahead.

What is noticeably absent from the photographs is a political message — or least, an overt one. In one of the most politically contested regions on the planet, where news and war photographers reign supreme, Ramadan offers us no obvious view of the conflict or the fraught relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Palestinian minority.

Vulnerable in Israel

But a political perspective is nevertheless present by virtue of its very absence. The one in five citizens of Israel who are Palestinian, like Ramadan, have long complained that the Jewish state makes them feel unwelcome — even like enemies — in the public sphere. Ramadan’s sense of reassurance in family and home contrasts with her uncomfortable relationship with the space outside.

But even her detachment from Canada is a far cry from her tangible sense of vulnerability in Israel’s Jewish space. These places, she admits, feel to her dangerous and frightening.

Ramadan is a graduate of a photography course at the Camera Obscura, the Tel Aviv art school that is considered the most avant garde in Israel. It was a difficult period, she confesses. She was the only Palestinian in the class, and in the midst of their studies Israel launched its brutal attack on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, in winter 2008.

“There were racist comments, statements in favor of the war,” she says. “What was strange was their racism came not in the form of singling me out as a Palestinian but from ignoring the fact that I was Palestinian. They didn’t see me, I just wasn’t visible for them. They didn’t care what or how I was feeling.”

Several of the photography assignments were conducted in Tel Aviv, Israel’s most cosmopolitan city. But Ramadan says she opted out of those. “I couldn’t face being part of the group photographing the city,” she says. “I feel no emotional connection to the place.”

As a consequence, neither Tel Aviv nor any other Israeli Jewish city — or their inhabitants — figures in the exhibition. The Israeli Jew is as distant to Ramadan and her concerns as she is to her compatriots.

Latrun’s savage sky

The only example of Israel’s Jewish public space is a double-sided canvas that fills a large empty window between the two gallery rooms. There, visible on both sides of the frame, are the tall, skeletal stalks and sun-blasted seed-heads of flowers, set against a savage sky in Latrun. This was the battleground when the Israeli army advanced towards Jerusalem in 1948, as one of the key episodes of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) unfolded.

Maybe this beautiful image of fragility and potential rebirth, the boundary between life and death, is as near to a future for Israelis and Palestinians — and the strange hybrid of the Israeli-Palestinian — as Ramadan can currently dare to imagine.

Trapped in middle ground

Certainly, she concedes that, for her, private space — the home, the interior, the family — feels Palestinian, while public space — the city, the crowd, politics itself — feels Israeli. Like other Palestinians in Israel, she is trapped precariously in the middle ground.

This is reflected in the process of photography itself. Ramadan refers to taking a photograph in a public place, rather than in the home or among friends and family, as “stealing the moment.” It seems to her a transgression, the theft of another person’s privacy in the pursuit of her public art. And as such she appears to find the very act of photography discomfiting, forcing her to assume the role of the Israeli — the appropriator of her homeland and the thief who refuses to return the subsequent moments stolen from her people.

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