Where We Come From
For most people the question “Where are you from?” can be answered in a word. Paris, Delhi, Tokyo, Kiev. For a Palestinian, there are several ways of responding, all of them complicated, leading back to a place that is beyond reach or that no longer exists as an Arab town. Lydda today is Lod, home to Tel Aviv airport, but it was an Arab town along with Ramleh, whose 60,000 citizens were evacuated by Israeli forces in 1948. Fifty-plus years later, how can a young man born in Kuwait and now living in Detroit still say that he comes from Lydda? The point is, of course, that he does.
“Palestine” has become a worldwide metaphor for trouble, unrest, violence: for Palestinians, that combination of words evoking fact, memory, and aspiration and the images associated with them stands in for citizenship or passport. In fact, this document simply establishes a person’s freedom to move from one place to another. Impersonal text and a photograph together can do the job, but the less fortunate refugee who is prohibited from movement remains paralyzed. Someone and something else have to stand in.
Palestinians are frequently under curfew, and, as stateless refugees, they are often forbidden to work or travel. They are besieged, their houses demolished; they are made homeless for the third or fourth time. Surrounded by restrictions devised by the modern bureaucratic mentality — laws and scraps of paper that either permit you to go somewhere or prevent you from going — the Palestinian has to resort to improvisation or persistent stubbornness to overcome these obstacles. For the most part, Palestinians wait: wait to get a permit, wait to get their papers stamped, wait to cross a line, wait to get a visa. Eons of wasted time, gone without a trace.
Emily Jacir’s series “Where We Come From” cuts through all that, reducing an intractably untidy mess to the simple, humane question “What can I do for you in Palestine, where you can’t go but I can?” Having done what was asked of her, she further reduces the answer to a creative juxtaposition of wish, wish fulfillment, and wish embodied in picture and text: writing and image elegantly brought together with a clarity that most Palestinians cannot experience in the present. Her compositions slip through the nets of bureaucracies and nonnegotiable borders, time and space, in search not of grandiose dreams or clotted fantasies but rather of humdrum objects and simple gestures like visits, hugs, watering a tree, eating a meal — the kinds of things that maybe all Palestinians will be able to do someday, when they can trace their way home, peacefully and without restriction.
Edward W. Said