Ethnography is the West’s invention. Are there forms of representation that do not have the same effect of objectifying? What parallels can we see between a documentary photographic work or collection on the Other and ethnographies produced in the West for the West? With a particular interest in how the Middle East is represented, how culture is created, how images are invented, and how the subjects are framed, I was drawn to the exhibit “Transitions: Russians, Ethiopians, and Bedouins in Israel’s Negev Desert,” being held at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History from March 1 to October 1, 2000.
Edward Said, in his role as cultural critic, equates representation of a subject to doing violence to it. Writing in “Wedge,” he explains: “The act of representing (and hence reducing) others almost always involves violence of some sort to the subject of the representation. . . Whether you call it a spectacular image, or an exotic image, or a scholarly representation, there is always this paradoxical contrast between the surface, which seems to be in control, and the process which produces it, which inevitably involves some degree of violence, decontextualization, miniaturization, etc.”
If we accept such an assertion, what are the repercussions? For one, it means that even self-representation needs to be confronted. As an anthropologist, who writes on–and, therefore, represents–the Middle East, and as a cultural studies critic who deals with visual representations of the Other, I offer this critique of “Transitions,” the representation of the Middle East by documentary photographer Ron Kelley and his commentators.
Kelley’s work provokes memories from different perspectives: the subjects themselves, the photographer, and ours as viewers, curators, and ethnographers. These memories assemble our relationships to each other in various ways.
Cultural Studies of the Middle East is at an exciting and dynamic juncture; it is a highly charged research field with a volatile relationship to the media. Explicitly and implicitly, Middle Eastern studies delves into concepts of private and public, of autono my, inter pretations of power relationships within the family, the func tion of religion in everyday life, definitions of political activism and liberation, and interpreta tions of the relationship of ethnicity, race, class, and gender to the state, and thus, the nature of poli tics itself.
Further complicating this myriad of concepts and perspectives is the anomaly of Israel: a modernist state that is part of the Third World, and yet is not. It is a modernist state but has conservative ideas. Kelley’s photographs portray it as a postmodernist state: time and space fragmented, ethnicity ambiguous, pluralities abounding, a state at once demonized and venerated. Israel is said by some to be the epitome of the religious state, of a theocracy, somehow springing from Zionism, which is a secular ideology. One marvels at the audacity of gathering together all Jews to live among Arabs, then constricting/confining the Arabs who remain to live among Jews. Israel is the most and the least successful of all cultural hegemonies.
Has Kelley captured these paradoxes and inconsistencies? Has he also captured the ways in which the state of Israel, like so many other states, has treated space as unoccupied, the great desert as open and available (see photo no. 1)? To the Israelis, are nomadic and semi-nomadic people like the Negev Bedouins merely there by accident, interfering with that open and available space like Native Americans in North America? Their mobility must be curtailed, the people confined, because their very existence and their unconventional form of occupying space threatens Israeli occupation. Even their cemeteries–the sites where reside the most settled of bodies–are in the way (see photo no. 2).
The Middle Eastern ethnographer says that the themes of sexuality, subordination, and religion interface with the dichotomous concept of honor and shame. Ethnographic interpreta tions of gender rela tions frequently attribute the passive ideals of chastity, virginity, and feminini ty for women; whereas for men there are the more active characteristics of valor, machismo, revenge, manliness, and brotherhood. These mixed with the patriarchal values of Europe; Kelley will capture them.
The act of cultural observation and understanding should be like drawing back a veil in order to grasp the meaning of cues and symbols of other cultures, rather than imposing meaning upon such symbols from behind the seclusion of one’s own cultural veil. The new ethnographer and the ethnographic photographer try to subvert the symbols of Otherness. Ethnographer Lila Abu-Lughod, shunning the usual simplistic binary construct of honor and shame, offered a complex explanation of hasham [propriety]: “Those who are coerced into obeying [social rules] are scorned, but those who voluntarily defer are honorable. To understand the nature, meaning, and implications of voluntary deference we must explore the concept ofhasham. Perhaps one of the most complex concepts in Bedouin culture, it lies at the heart of ideas of the individual in society. . . In its broadest sense it means propriety.”
What can we make of the proprietary actions of the Israeli state?
For the most part, Westerners’ “good works,” with our anthropological and photographic language of power, have succeeded in essentializing, homogenizing, and fixing people in time. Ironically, this “good work” has had the ultimate effect of exaggerating differences. Others are different from the self. Abu-Lughod’s goal is to unsettle the culture concept and, thus, subvert Othering.
“Transitions” is a central theme of the photographic exhibit. Another theme looks at parallel lines–lines that will never meet–a very different idea that we can see at play in this photo of two women in public (see photo no. 3). Kelley and his curators and narrators are trying to unsettle many of our notions about Israel, such as the successful absorption of Jews from everywhere (see photos no. 4 and 5). What does the concept of “absorb” mean? “Melting pot,” which is different, connotes “blending together.” Is it different from assimilate, which implies taking on each others’ characteristics? Is it unlike “enculturate”–taking on all aspects of the dominant culture?
In an essay by Richard Isralowitz in “Transitions” on Ethiopians and Russians in a caravan absorption center, he quotes a 35-year old Russian immigrant from Belarus. When asked about Ethiopians, the Russian said, “We and they move in parallel lines. We are two lines that will never meet.” This contradicts the physical reality that they do meet: in the train stations, bus stations, passport office, absorption centers, even sometimes in markets.
Kelley is asking if people have been relocated or dislocated. The desert, in lore and history, has seemed an immovable, intractable, wide open, borderless, boundary-less, solid monument to stability. The desert has always been there, says the myth. Unadulterated space. The Israeli ideal was to build rivers in the desert, but instead, the Negev has become a hurried, contingent space, incomplete and makeshift. The Negev mirrors the incomplete and uncertain nature of immigration–and of Israel. The authorities have constructed impermanent enclosures, frames, containers; the Jewish man from Belarus said, “I feel like I am in a ghetto here.”
Kelley plays with visual paradoxes. Things may look the same, even be the same, but not quite, like the example of two young men, both immigrants, each holding an object of desire (see photos no. 6 and 7). Violence and militarism are a constant subtext, even hiding behind the sweet faces of young men.
Kelley captures the contested cultures and contested terrain. Through immigration people do not gain an identity, but find that it shifts with context. The man from Belarus said, “There [Russia] we were Jews, and here we are Russians.” An Ethiopian might have said the same: “There [Ethiopia] we were Jews or Falasha, and here we are Ethiopians.” One becomes something else, but not the something else one expected. The same man from Belarus complained that the Israeli press gives the impression “that all Russian women are prostitutes.” Likewise, in Sudan I noticed the Sudanese used the Arabic wordhabbashiya to refer to an Ethiopian woman (referring to Abyssinia/Ethiopia), but it was also the word for prostitute. Is the Ethiopian walking among Arabs a prostitute?
In this ethnic conflation everyone is considered an immigrant; even the Bedouin is a stranger in his own space. All are being “absorbed.” Who are these women–one an Ethiopian, the other a Bedouin (see photos no. 8 and 9)? Whose home is it? Who are they, looking so similar in this environment? Is thisrelocation or dislocation, resettlement–or unsettling, this juxtaposition of the powerless amongst the powerful, in the crowded bus station (see photo no. 10)?
Kelley has succeeded in unsettling us, causing us to take notice of Israel’s hegemonic mission, a mission that makes the Bedouin look out of place in their own land. Has he accomplished his other goal of challenging the concept of absorption? In his attempt has he, like so many ethnographers, over-stressed difference, perhaps even creating it in places where it did not exist? Do Ethiopian Jews become even less like themselves and, therefore, even stranger to us?
This article was a presentation for “Photographing the Periphery—Immigrants and Nomads in Israel’sNegev Desert,” in conjunction with the exhibition “Transitions: Russians, Ethiopians and Bedouins in Israel’sNegev Desert,” Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, March 5, 2000. The exhibition started March 1 and will continue through October 1, 2000. During the presentation on March 5, the photos were displayed through slides. “Transitions” was also publised in a book, edited by Richard Isralowitz and Jonathan Friedlander, photography by Ron Kelley (Ashgate, 1999).
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 6, no. 30 (Winter 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Al Jadid