Questions by Edward Nawotka
Olivia Snaije, our long-serving contributing editor from Paris, has spent the last several years working on a book that is close to her heart: Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes. The book brings together photographers, essayists, and a fiction writer to comment and reflect on the presence of the enormous barrier wall (others call it a security wall) snaking through hundreds of kilometers of the West Bank, separating Palestinians from Israelis.
The book Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Paysages Palestiniens was published in July in France by Editions Textuel, and in English this month by Saqi Books in the UK. A gorgeous object in itself, it is hand-bound in concertina format — mimicking the undulating form of the barrier itself.
We spoke with Olivia about the project, its intent and what she hopes readers will take away from the book.
What was the conception of the book — the general idea behind it? Is this a personal or a political tome?
My co-editor Mitch Albert and I have both been interested in the Middle East for a long time and have actively worked in magazine and book publishing related to the Middle East. We initially thought of putting together a book of photographs of the graffiti that covers the Separation Wall in the West Bank, but we realized that other people were doing this as well and, moreover, that they all tended to be Westerners. We thought it would be better to have Palestinian art photographers express themselves as they are the ones most affected by the Wall. The idea is for people to realize the scale of this concrete mass, which defies international law, United Nations Security Council resolutions, and basic human decency.
Why is it particularly relevant now, considering the state of relations between Palestine and Israel?
With all the talk first of the Arab Spring and then “Winter,” the problem of the Israeli-Palestine conflict remains unresolved and has been this way for 65 years. The situation just keeps worsening, and no one seems to be paying attention in a way that will significantly change how Palestinians live.
There were numerous contributors. How did you find them? Did you seek them out?
We looked for the best Palestinian art photographers around. There are many talented Palestinian visual artists on the scene; many live in exile, others in Palestine and Jerusalem. The only photographer who is not Palestinian is Kai Wiedenhofer, a German who began his career when the Berlin Wall fell and has worked in the Middle East for over 20 years. There are also four essays in the book, one by a sociologist specializing in walls as units of political and social division; a writer and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern visual culture; a young Palestinian fiction writer who wrote a short story for us; and a very personal narrative by an Israeli activist who also describes the very complicated system of roads and checkpoints around the Wall. There is an introduction in the English edition by Raja Shehadeh, an acclaimed writer and human rights lawyer, and in the French edition of the book the introduction is by the writer and Palestinian Ambassador to UNESCO, Elias Sanbar.
Can you cite some of your favorite passages from the book? Why are they relevant to you?
One favorite passage is by Malu Halasa, who poses the question of whether or not the Wall should be aestheticized, as an object in art or for art. She summarizes the point like this:
”The debate over the value of representing the architecture of oppression in art or leaving it alone in the name of resisting normalisation is useful and necessary. However, for artists inside and outside the region, it is not possible to remain neutral on the issue. Those who elect to include the Wall in their work seem to invite and provoke reflection on several questions centred on power and its prerogatives. Given the choice, they seem to ask, where would you like to live? On one side or another of a very high wall, or in countries where there a fruitful dialogue between neighbours is possible, and Separation Walls no longer exist?”
In Adania Shibli’s short story, a man’s beloved view from his house eventually becomes completely blocked off by the construction of a mysterious wall in front of his house:
“He would prepare his coffee, take it out to the terrace and sit with his back to the house, facing the yard and the row of trees that separated it from the river running behind it. He would watch the first ray of light reach the top of the last tree in the row, gradually extend to the rest of the tree, then the adjacent two trees, then the rest of the row, and finally the yard. He felt himself just like that light, capable of moving effortlessly through the space before him, with nothing to stand in his way.”
What do people commonly misunderstand about the Wall and its meaning/significance?
A very common argument, which is essentially based on claims by the Israeli government itself, is that the Wall is a security measure that has proven itself effective. A more persuasive argument, for us, maintains that the Wall is a cynical land grab, placing choice stretches of Palestinian territory firmly into Israeli settler hands. Even if a deal is worked out, the land now sealed off by the Wall won’t be returned anytime soon. The rash of suicide bombings in the early 2000s were a tragic and stomach-turning development, but there is a sense that Israel capitalized on them in order to fragment Palestine even further. The Separation Wall is the device it has used to make intentions concrete, literally.
What would you like people to take away from the experience of reading the book?
We hope that people both familiar and unfamiliar with the area will read the book, take time to look at these powerful images, read the texts and imagine for themselves what it is like to live surrounded by a wall of that size. What it feels like to be closed in, with no possible dialogue. Because at the end of the day, that’s the biggest casualty of all — the possibility of dialogue, of relating to your neighbor. The Wall will create two solitudes in our time, and deepen this mutual alienation for generations to come.
A selection of photos from the book follows:
Photo by Raeda Saadeh
Photo by Rula Halawani
Photo by Steve Sabella
Photo by Steve Sabella