As Chana and I have begun to examine the literary and publishing trends in Israel and the Palestinian territories in light of the shifting political situation in the region, I’ve found myself thinking back to a recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, titled: “William Kentridge: Five Themes.” What I find most relevant to our project is the artist’s collection of still and moving images, in particular “Ubu Tells The Truth,” and “I Am Not Me, The Horse Is Not Mine,” since both explore notions of subjectivity in relation to grief, desire, violence, and a geography marked by constant transformation. In the latter piece, a seven-projection installation that draws on Gogol’s “Nose,” the viewer, in the moment of isolating one of the projections, is forced to relinquish his or her focus on the others. In other words, the films draw into relief the limitations of the viewer as he or she is confronted with simultaneous realities. Either the installation is viewed as a whole to the exclusion of the specificities that form its individual parts, or the whole is forsaken in the moment the viewer narrows his or her focus to a specific image.
Later, the same month as the Kentridge exhibition, Brown University hosted a conference on Iranian Film and Literature in conjunction with the Watson Institute and the International Writers Project. The conference was held in celebration of Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari’s feature film based on Shahrnush Parsipour’s novel Women Without Men. During that same conference Shoja Azari screened segments of his experimental film in progress, titled Windows. The film evoked a similar response as the pieces in the Kentridge exhibition. Both provoked me to reexamine the ways in which we reconcile attempts to understand the Middle East at large and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular.
To start, the first segment of Azari’s film portrays a middle-aged couple seated at their kitchen table watching a film that we, as the audience, are not privy to. In other words, the audience can overhear the film and watch the couple’s reactions to the film, but cannot participate in their point of view. We then discover that the piece is further layered: the couple sits against a window that acts as a backdrop, leading the eye of the viewer out, beyond the immediate reality of the couple. Beyond the kitchen a separate reality is in the process of unfolding: a woman appears jogging, at first in solitude, then, a moment later in the company of a group of young men who attack her violently. Just as we are not privy to the film being watched by the couple seated at their kitchen table, the couple are not privy to the violence the audience witnesses through their kitchen window. As in the Kentridge pieces, multiple realities are presented simultaneously, so that one of the challenges posed to the viewer is to crystallize an understanding of his or her own subjectivity in relation to the rich tapestry of events, violent and otherwise, that in any given moment are in the process of unfolding.
But how does all of this relate to the project at hand? Just as the pieces discussed above challenge the viewer to simultaneously absorb and examine multiple realities, I believe that there is an urgent need to arrive at a more dynamic understanding of the Middle East, one that does not forsake the ethnic and religious multiplicity of the region and the inherent artistic and literary practices that reflect the region’s rich and diverse heritage.If we take for granted the region’s highly sophisticated literary and cultural heritage (something that is rarely portrayed in the media since so much of the focus remains on often ill-informed narratives of political and military violence), then we can begin to ask more complex questions. How, for example, are traditional Israeli and Palestinian literary and poetic practices being engaged and reinterpreted to address the contemporary social and political context? How are Israeli and Palestinian communities, writers, and artists responding to the political violence?