Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Remapping, remembering

Reviewed by Amina Elbendary

The Landscape of Palestine
The Landscape of Palestine: Equivocal Poetry, Eds. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, Roger Heacock and Khaled Nashef , Birzeit, Palestine: Birzeit University Publications, 1999. pp268
"Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock." -- Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory.

"Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villagers are not there either... There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population." -- Moshe Dayan, in a speech at the Israel Institute of Technology, 1969.

Cultural geography and the history of landscape are among the most interesting fields of enquiry to have developed over the past decade. Yet nowhere does the politicisation and urgency of this new discipline appear as clearly as it does in this collection of essays, The Landscape of Palestine. The art of remembering the past, of making history, has always been imbued with political overtones; this collection demonstrates how the making of geography, so to speak, is also an overtly political act.

In his introduction to the book Edward Said refers to the role of geography and landscape in collective memory. As he points out, through the construction of a decidedly Israeli history for the land that is Palestine, Zionist propaganda has sought to legitimate its contemporary agenda. Palestinian occupied territories have been renamed "Judaea and Samaria." Similarly, the Jewish National Fund has been preoccupied with planting certain types of trees to reshape the landscape even down to the vegetation on it.

However the Israeli design to manipulate landscape of course took its most violent form in campaigns to destroy and obliterate Palestinian villages, by so doing attempting to wipe Palestine off the map. In his article "The Mountain and the Plain: Some themes of Continuity and Change in Palestinian Landscapes," one of the contributors to the book, Malcolm Wagstaff, demonstrates that Palestine lowlands were traditionally associated with change, while the mountainous uplands were associated with stability and settled landscapes. However, he shows that since 1967 a new pattern of change has occurred in the uplands, changing the traditional landscape and populations. Most of the Arab villages destroyed by the Israelis were upland villages, and strategic Jewish settlements have been built above the Jordan valley. Wagstaff argues that such elevated sites have been preferred because of their classical association with defence, but also because of their cultural and political connotations of domination.

In a similar vein Ghazi Falah in his "The Transformation and De-signification of Palestine's Cultural Landscape" differentiates different types and degrees of destruction in the 418 Palestinian villages depopulated in the course and in the wake of the 1948 war. He also analyses the significance behind these different categories of transformation, arguing that violent changes in the landscape -- where villages were completely destroyed and levelled -- were often effected by changing land use. Many formerly Arab villages, mostly in the lowlands, were turned by the Israelis into fishing ponds or garbage dumps, while other destroyed villages were hidden among thick plantations of forest. Villages in or near to the suburbs of Palestinian towns occupied in 1948 were replaced by Jewish settlements, with Jews taking over houses abandoned by fleeing refugees.

Geographical and physical obliteration were thus used to ensure political and cultural annihilation. It is self-evident that Israeli policies of dealing with depopulated Arab land were geared at changing the landscape so as to prevent -- or at least severely curtail -- any endeavours by the displaced and dispossessed Palestinians to return. For, following such Israeli rewriting of the landscape, what would they now return to?

This displacement of Palestine is also the subject of Mark LeVine's article "From Bride of the Sea to Disneyland: The Role of Architecture in the Battle for Tel Aviv's 'Arab Neighbourhood'." In it he analyses the planning of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa region and demonstrates the inherent Israeli ambivalence towards Jaffa and towards the Arab communities in general. The battle for this contested space reflects how architectural movements are inscribed in the politics of national identity, contrary to the presumptions of the Israeli discourse on planning, which presents itself as apolitical and concerned only with development.

For Israeli urban planning has on the one hand worked here to erase tradition (for example through using architecture in the International Style in the city) and on the other hand has reclaimed it through a discourse on heritage that reimagines the old city of Jaffa only this time in the Israeli image. Jaffa has thus been swallowed up by Israel's main city, Tel Aviv, which literally grew and expanded on the ruins of the old Arab port, though in Tel Aviv's creation mythology it was constructed as a city on the sands, built on a desert empty of people.

In this context, the renewal of the historical neighbourhoods of what is now Tel Aviv should be understood not as "preserving" the past, LeVine argues, but as "rewriting or inventing" it. Buildings are renovated to correspond to ideal visions of the past and to serve contemporary Israeli needs, leading to the systematic erasure of Jaffa's Arab identity despite the Oriental claims of the vernacular architecture. In addition, the process of gentrification that has been going on in the Tel Aviv-Jaffa region since the 1990s through close collaboration between private developers and the Israeli government has made living there unaffordable to many Arabs, "the market" thus pushing them out of the city, and not the Israeli authorities.

Nowhere is the politicization of geography clearer than in the process of drawing maps and consequently in remapping territories. Maps in this sense are presumptuous creations, presumptuous in that they seem to present objective facts, mirrors of geographic reality, while being in fact cultural constructions. This line of argument is followed by Nabil I Matar, professor of English Literature at the Florida Institute of Technology, in his article "Renaissance Cartography and the Question of Palestine". Here he analyses a 16th century map of the world by Abraham Ortelius in which Palestine is depicted as "the Holy Land" and therefore is mapped in biblical terms. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the map, which is remarkable for its geographical accuracy by the standards of the time.

By tracing the origins of contemporary Zionist remappings of Palestine to such early maps, Matar sees in them the result of a 16th-century European notion of the mapping of the Jewish Exodus, and of an eventual return of the Jews to the Promised Land before the Second Coming of Christ. Such maps "taught Europeans to view Palestine as a meta-Palestine, a holy land without history, people and, given the inaccuracies of the maps, even geography" -- a frame of mind that persists to this day. The construction of Palestine as the "Holy Land" by Europeans is also the subject of Dominique Edd\é's article on the writings of French travellers to the region in the 18th and 19th centuries, as it is of Lynne D Rogers's article on literary snapshots of Palestine in the writings of Mark Twain and William Thackeray.

Just as the Israeli authorities have attempted literally to change the facts on the ground by manipulating the landscape, so they have attempted to manipulate the way that ground is mapped. Counter-histories, such as those contained in this book, can however work to recover the facts that were on the ground, and still are despite Israeli attempts to deny them. In his introduction to the book Edward Said laments the fact that the Palestinians have not thus far given due attention to the construction of a collective history for themselves as a tool in their struggle for national independence. In presenting alternative histories of the landscape and culture that is Palestine, this fine collection of essays is nevertheless an important step in that direction.

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