2 March 2009. A World to Win News Service. Wael Zuaiter, it seems, was the kind of intellectual seldom seen anymore. A Palestinian born in the mid-1930s, he studied philosophy and Arabic literature in Baghdad and spent the last decade of his short life in Rome, where he became fluent in Italian as well as French and English. There he became friendly with many of Europe’s most important writers. He took Italy’s leading novelist Alberto Moravia with him on a tour of the Middle East and Palestine. Mad about classical music and poetry, he knew Dante’s Divine Comedy by heart. His dearest intellectual project was the translation from Arabic into Italian of A Thousand and One Nights (known as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights in English and other European languages). Zuaiter was cut down under the stairway to his apartment building in October 1972 by 12 bullets from silencer-equipped .22 calibre pistols.
Tel Aviv officials claimed that they had sent the Mossad to assassinate him in revenge for the deaths of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics that year, but no link between Zuaiter and that action has ever been established. Emily Jacir argues convincingly that the real reason why Israel murdered him was because European intellectuals found him too likeable, too much like them, and, as a representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, too good at convincing them of the justness of the Palestinian cause. He was one of the first of more than a dozen Palestinian intellectuals in Europe the Mossad assassinated in the following year in an operation called “the Wrath of God”, with god being leading Israeli politicians.
Jacir says she thought about Zuaiter and the meaning of his life and death for many years. Born in 1970, she was raised in Bethlehem (the Palestinian West Bank), Saudi Arabia, Rome and various places in the U.S. Today she describes herself as living between Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Brooklyn, New York. When as a young girl she announced to her family that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up, her family warned her that the Israelis would kill her too.
Today Jacir is the best-known Palestinian artist of her generation. In 2007, one version of her work on Zuaiter’s life won the Golden Lion prize for artists under 40 at the Venice Biennale. As one of four artworks short-listed for the German-based Deutsche Borse Photography Prize for 2009, it is now on view at the Photographers’ Gallery in London through 12 April. In late 2008, she won the Hugo Boss prize bestowed every other year by the Guggenheim museum in New York, putting her alongside today’s most recognized contemporary artists. This resulted in a solo exhibition of another version now at the Guggenheim until 15 April.
At the Guggenheim the show consists of three parts. It begins with a wall of reproductions of pages from volume two of A Thousand and One Nights, showing the page-by-page progression of the thirteenth Israeli bullet, which pierced the spine of the book Zuaiter was carrying in his pocket when he was killed. In the next room, Materials for a film (installation) comprises multimedia materials – including interviews for a film about Zuaiter’s life that was never made – that tell us who he was: the music from his favourite recording (Mahler’s Ninth Symphony), photos of the books in his library (philosophy, poetry, novels and Socialism Utopian and Scientific by Frederic Engels), fragments from his phone conversations taped by the police and brief footage from the film The Pink Panther in which he played a bit part as a waiter (apparently he was offered a speaking role, but couldn’t remember his lines). One picture of this handsome young man shows him leaning out of a window looking out at the world, another lying face down in his own blood still holding manuscript pages. There is also photographic and textual documentation of the artist’s own quest to reconstruct moments of the murdered man’s life – her photos of his favourite café and the courtyard where he died, texts based on accounts of his life by comrades and friends, and his sister and long-time companion, both of whom Jacir got to know. The third part is Materials for a film (performance), an installation of a thousand small, blank white books, displayed on floor-to-ceiling shelves around three sides of a room, each with a bullet hole Jacir fired from the same kind of gun that killed Zuaiter. They represent the unfinished A Thousand and One Nights translation, Jacir explains, all the books he and other Palestinian intellectuals were never allowed to write.
It is no small matter that this show is being seen – by coincidence, shortly after Israel’s invasion of Gaza – in a leading museum in New York, a city where a pro-Zionist atmosphere suffocates non-Jewish and Jewish intellectuals alike, as well as other people. The New York Times acknowledged its importance with a pre-opening interview with the artist, although this was combined with an act of character assassination focusing on whether or not Jacir’s background makes her authentically Palestinian, a point hit again in a letter to the editor and then followed by an attack on the artistic quality of the show itself once it opened. In the UK, where opposition to Zionist intellectual terrorism has been more resilient, the Daily Telegraph, for instance, has been a lot more objective – and, for better or worse, the show far less controversial. (”Border Crossings Between Art and Life” and “Material for a Palestinian’s Life and Death”, NYT 1 and 13 February 2009; “Emily Jacir: pieces of a life”; Telegraph, 23 February 2009. Also see “Her dark materials”, The National – Abu Dhabi, 10 July 2008.)
The hostility aimed at Jacir is upside-down identity politics. The New York-based Palestinian academic and public intellectual Edward Said (who wrote about Jacir’s art before he died in 2003) was the target of similar Zionist operations trying to prove he wasn’t really Palestinian and therefore had no right to speak on the issue. This attempt to discredit Palestinians who have been educated and reside abroad would be intellectually shameful under any circumstances, but it is particular dishonest because the Zionists themselves produced this situation by driving the vast majority of Palestinians into exile and brutally denying the rights of those who stayed behind. Jacir’s 2003 video Crossing Sudra (a record of going to and from work) was made with a hidden camera peeking out through a hole in the bottom of her handbag, a subterfuge adopted after Israeli soldiers threatened to shoot her for filming her feet as she walked. The result, more poetry than documentary, depicts the long and dangerous walk through Israeli checkpoints, sometimes facing teargas and warning shots, that is the only way for Palestinians to get from Ramallah to the university where she taught and the surrounding villages. While the occupation troops cut off a people from contact with each other, not to mention the wide world of art and essays, their apologists try to impose one more barrier – an identity check – on Palestinians who manage to become world-class intellectual figures.
It is bitterly ironic, but not uncommon among immigrants, that Jacir now lives and even thrives in the country most responsible for producing the need for her family to leave their home in the first place, in this case the U.S., the main military, political and financial backer of the occupation state of Israel. Her work doesn’t hide these and other contradictions – it is built on them. Where we come from (2002-03) was initially done in book form so it could circulate in Palestine and abroad before being made into a U.S. exhibition version. It records the carrying out of small acts requested of her by 30 Palestinians living abroad and in the West Bank, who are unable to enjoy the privilege she does of travelling through their homeland on an American passport. They include playing football with the first boy encountered in a certain village, kissing an elderly mother, walking down a particular street, eating a favourite dish, lighting a candle in a special place, etc. An untitled audio installation for an exhibition in Jerusalem last year reproduces the now-vanished sounds of the city’s shared taxi drivers calling out destinations for passengers bound for Amman, Beirut and Damascus. These cities were once a short ride away, but are now unreachable by car from Jerusalem and, for most Palestinians, as unattainable as another planet.
One of Jacir’s best-known pieces until now is Sexy Semite (2000-2002), an intervention in which she organised 60 Palestinians living in New York to buy classified ads in the personals sections of The Village Voice newspaper seeking Jewish mates, playing on the irony that the only way these exiles can return is by marrying a person of Jewish descent. Jews from anywhere, by their claimed heritage alone, have the right to reside in Israel under that country’s “Law of Return” that excludes Palestinians born there and their descendants. This simple description might make the work seem one-dimensional when in fact it is many-layered and rich – and searingly funny, another example of the use of contradictions that makes her work so moving.
The Palestinians, mostly women, advertise the sexual delights they are willing to trade for what they want, in the exaggerated, soft-core porno, sexist and often racist language of all the adverts in that section and its omnipresent ilk where “Black Princesses” and “Buxom Beauties” offer what they have – their bodies – in exchange for what they need – the means to the kind of life they seek. Seen in its intended context, the piece is as much universal as it is about the plight of Palestinians. It illuminates the obscene predominant relations between men and women in the rich countries as well as the third world and the equal exchanges between unequal people that are one of the defining features of today’s world as a whole (and capitalism itself).
This has been a basic theme in Jacir’s work ever since the piece that first brought her international notice, Change/Exchange (1998), documenting a process through which she exchanged an initial 100 dollars for the equivalent in other currencies again and again, until fair but unequal exchange at the official rate left her nothing but weary and a handful of coins. Other pieces mock a world in which the exchange of commodities reaches everywhere while borders are made to keep certain people out.
The New York Times attack on Materials for a Film is a case study in hypocrisy. “The problem is with her unexceptional artistry, not her politics,” the critic wrote, but his review meant the opposite. It slams Jacir for her use of Conceptual art and her “Minimalist style”. If someone wants to say they don’t like the Conceptual and Minimalist streams in today’s art or wants to argue against them, that’s fine, but it’s not right to single out Jacir for the aesthetics, formal qualities and procedures she shares with older contemporary artists, such as France’s anything but controversial Sophie Calle. No one criticizes Sol LeWitt, a 1960s American founding father of concept- (rather than painterly- or sculptural skill-) based art for never handling a paintbrush or making art often considered more interesting to talk about – and review – than see. There is a further subtext in the review implicitly attacking Jacir for having ideas in her art at all – if all art wasn’t all about ideas.
But the reviewer’s real problem is that his own politics – which, since they are more sympathetic to Israel, are taken for granted as if they weren’t politics at all – blind him to the content of Jacir’s work. This leads him to concentrate on whether or not Wael Zuaiter had anything to do with the Munich massacre, which presumably would justify his murder and thereby invalidate Jacir’s piece, although the NYT itself, in the earlier article cited above, points out that Palestinian organisations denied that he was involved “and subsequent accounts by investigative journalists have also raised doubts that he was involved in those killings.” The result is to treat this artwork as though it were an investigative journalist’s exposé or primarily a protest of the murder of an innocent. That’s far from its main theme, which is probably why Jacir herself stays away from any conclusive statements about Zuaiter’s involvement.
As she insists in the interview, her work is not about her politics in that kind of direct sense – it isn’t topical and doesn’t serve a concrete agenda. She seems to want to make art that will have meaning far into the future when today’s issues are no longer timely and even forgotten, art that future generations, in some totally different and better world, would look at not as mute archaeological objects but as something that speaks to them.
Any sincere person who seriously examines Material for a Film will come to the conclusion that Jacir’s choices and the themes they imply give us a lot to think about. It’s worth pondering why she puts One Thousand and One Nights at the centre of her definition of her subject, the figure of Zuaiter as she chooses to represent him. The overall plot that frames this collection of stories drawn from pre-Islamic Persian, Indian, Arabic (including Jewish) and North African folktales is about an ordinary young woman trapped in a potentially fatal forced marriage who outwits her husband, a brutally misogynist king.
Jacir’s subject is someone who could be considered the paradigm of an Enlightenment intellectual shot dead by those who claim to be the Enlightenment’s heirs, including not only the Israeli establishment but also the U.S., Italian and other governments who gave the Mossad assassins a free hand, an act ultimately defended by liberals such as Steven Spielberg whose 2005 film Munich depicted Zuaiter’s killing as sad but justified. In contrast to today’s most prominent Palestinians, he was neither a would-be American client nor a religious fundamentalist. Today’s situation exists in no small part because Israel and the U.S. killed off as many people like him as they could in hopes that Islamic religious fanatics would prove less dangerous to Zionism and its own religious project. A passionate secular intellectual who considered that he was working for revolution in Palestine and declared himself an enemy of all forms of oppression – such people are in short supply these days, and clearly Jacir misses them.
It’s funny when you realize that at the Guggenheim her piece, with this content, is being shown alongside the museum’s current blockbuster, “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia”, which is not about any part of the East but the rise to respectability of religious mysticism among Western intellectuals. It is an exercise in what the author Said called Orientalism, the West’s construction of an imaginary eastern Other onto which it could project its own fantasies to serve its own colonialist and imperialist interests. That show, it must be said, contains a lot of one-dimensional and “unexceptional artistry”, Zen Buddhist propaganda. This kind of thing makes us miss intellectuals like Zuaiter and Said even more.
The contradiction Jacir addresses – the West’s betrayal of the Enlightenment – is worthy of all sorts of explorations. As others have written, this is a complicated question because the Enlightenment itself was contradictory. The same rise of capitalism that displaced the absolute authority of religion and promoted the idea that everything is knowable through reason and science also, in Marx’s words, “arose dripping blood from every pore” from the looting of Asia and Latin America and the enslavement of Africans. That contradiction can only be resolved by moving to a higher level with an outlook that is as thoroughly committed to the liberation of humanity as it is scientific.
Today we still see the West deploy both its own religion and Enlightenment ideals as justifications for invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and other forms of imperialist domination, a cloak for an outmoded imperialist system waging war against its – unfortunately – currently most influential and often most passionate opponents, the medieval-minded Islamic fundamentalists. If Jacir’s Material for a Film is in some way an outcry against this situation, we can only agree with her.
(Jacir’s artwork and writings are easy to find on the Net, including at electronicintifada.net and universes-in-universe.org. Often, however, descriptions and even video clips and still photos don’t fully do justice to the power of experiencing her work and its sometimes indispensable formal aspects, such as the ironically neat and ordered presentation that only foregrounds the messy and chaotic world she critically embraces.)