cleavage points

I have been studying Arabic again. I’m not taking a class now, but I’m trying to be diligent about working through a book every night and studying the vocabulary and grammar lessons. I find language textbooks extremely frustrating. I particularly loath Arabic textbooks that use transliteration. I was using Speak Lebanese by Maksoud Feghali earlier this summer, but I couldn’t bear the transliteration. While in some ways I find it useful to spend the time spelling out the words in Arabic, at times I find it impossible to comprehend the transliteration. So I abandoned that book and left in in Amman with my friend who has so generously become the guardian of my books (this because there is no way to ship them here nor get them out should I be banned from re-entering at some point). Instead I thought I’d go back to a book I picked up a few years ago called Formal Spoken Arabic by Karin Ryding and David Mehall. In some ways it’s good in that it combines spoken and formal Arabic. And there is no transliteration; they assume you can read and write Arabic in the first chapter, and there are many drills and activities to work through vocabulary and grammar–something that is useful when working alone at home.

Of course one might expect that such a textbook, clearly written for an American audience, might have other issues. I’m reviewing chapters I’ve previously worked through and I’m up to chapter four: and the word Palestine has not been mentioned once. I should say that the book’s focus–clearly composed for CIA wannabes and other state department lackeys–is entirely about the Arab world: its leaders, its countries, its geography. I’ve done tons of exercises at this point about Iyad ‘Alawi, King ‘Abudllah, and Emile Lahud, but only one brief mention of Mahmoud Abbas and never associating him with a country (all other leaders’ names in the book are associated with a country and its system of government). The entire chapter on geography–which also focuses on the Arab world–never mentions the word Palestine once nor does it mention any mountains, seas, rivers, or cities there as it does with every other country in the region. Instead we get a sentence like this:

أما الأنهار و الوديان، فيه نهر النيل في مصر و السودان و نهر الفرات قي سوريا و العراق و نهر الأردن قي الأردن.

I had to type that sentence out. It’s the last part, of course, that is so offensive: since when is the Jordan River part of Jordan? Or only part of Jordan? How can that sentence exist, regardless of what one thinks of the British colonial constructedness of Jordan without even mentioning Palestine? (For English readers the sentence says: “As for rivers and valleys, there is the Nile River in the Sudan and Egypt, the Euphrates River in Syria and Iraq, and the Jordan River in Jordan.) Notice that the Nile and Euphrates Rivers are at least acknowledged as running along or among two countries. But Palestine gets erased yet again–yet again as in Israeli textbooks where such borders do not exist. I wonder what sort of CIA wannabes coming out of Georgetown or whatever other university in the U.S. will do with this type of misinformation. Indeed here is one instruction they give readers/listeners before an exercise:

“In these task activities you play the role of a U.S. government employee or dependent who is listening to a newscast or to Arabs talking to each other. You are trying to get as much information as possible out of the conversation or the broadcast even though your knowledge of the language is limited.”

What exactly are the authors of this book insinuating here about the type of work they expect their students to engage in prior to their completion of the course? Hmmmm…. I wonder. Not really.

Before I came home to work on these studies, after another day at the university during which no students came to class, I took a walk through downtown Nablus. I had a bit of shopping to do and I decided to wander around a bit. I have been dying to find lingerie for girlfriends in Lebanon because I recently learned about a Palestinian company that makes bras and négligées. There was an art exhibition in Cairo earlier this year that came from a French artist named Jean-Luc Moulène called “48 Palestinian Products” or “٤٨ منتج فلسطثني” and a friend gave me the catalog from the exhibit. I cannot do a proper search to see if this catalog is on the Internet because it seems that “Art and Entertainment” sites are also blocked from my university’s server so I will post the relevant photographs here:

To be sure, the exhibit focuses on a variety of products manufactured in Palestine including pharmaceuticals, tahina, water, embroidery, labneh, juice, coffee, soap, steel wool, pasta, Coca Cola (okay, not Palestinian, and this is problematic because of the boycott campaign, but it is technically, I suppose, produced in Ramallah), the famous Taybeh beer, chewing gum, the infamous olive oil, cigarettes, tissue paper, and stones (for construction). But I am on a quest to find the lingerie. The women in the shops I found that sold lingerie here in Nablus were shocked when I asked about these products and had not heard of such a company; I will see if anyone has any in Ramallah and Al Quds this weekend. The problem is that this is an art exhibit and so there is no information in the catalog about the particular brands aside from those that are noticeable on large labels. The introduction to the exhibit, by Stephen Wright, however, has some interesting things to say about the theoretical ideas behind the art project that premiered at PhotoCairo 3/Townhouse Gallery, which,

“seeks to examine the partition of Palestine not as event but as sign, and to do so by directly targeting the partition line between visibility and invisibility, giving visibility to a variety of consumer products–whose existence is as indisputable as it is somehow impossible–from the occupied territories of that country whose existence is also denied, condemned to exist as the object of occupation rather than the subject of production. It is not the vocation of an artwork, Moulène would argue, to be a site of pacification; it is not its role, in other words, to provide reconciliation in the face of the politically irreonciled reality of partition. But nor is it sufficient to merely reproduce the logic of partition. Instead, Moulène has taken the ‘tautological imperative’ inherent to conceptual art practices, and has wrested it from the logic of scarcity, infiltrating the economy of the real. On the one hand, he shows his meticulously composed and framed images of Palestinian products in the space-time reserved for art; and on the other, he has reproduced the images of exactly forty-eight products on thousands of booklets, printed in Cairo, to be handed out freely, beyond the distribution circuits of contemporary art.

Where do things come apart? This question, which is somehow intrinsic to all of Moulène’s work, is crucial to the Palestinian Products series, which accentuates the symbolic line of partition between or within the products themselves, through either fusion or disjunction. The images depict the objects two-by two–two plastic bottles of olive oil, two tins of tomato paste–or focus on the seam in the packaging: for to be a cleavage point, a partition line is always a contact point. Depicting everyday foodstuffs, lingerie, tissue paper against a perfectly neutral background, the images have a reality–estranging function, formally accentuating their incongruous objecthood, that is their Palestinian producthood. Just what is it that makes a Palestinian commodity so incongruous? Because they come from occupied rather than sovereign territories, Palestinian manufactured goods have no access to the world market. Looking attentively at the image of a box of chocolate wafers, one can just make out, ‘PROD…JERUSALEM CO…GAZA STRIP’, next to the strange looking bar code; not the alternately thick and thin bars of the universal twelve-digit code, which ensures product identity in the global economy–but which can be attributed only by Israel or a foreign NGO–but an obvious fake, as if in acknowledgment that the integration of Palestinian goods into the world market is reserved for fiction. It is the very normalcy of the goods that is made utterly unreal when they are exported as an artistic product–one of the few avenues of circulation open to them–for what comes to light is not merely the absence of Palestinian goods in Western supermarkets (indeed in any foreign supermarkets), but the brute existence of these goods that are at the same time utterly impossible. Art is one of the few spaces that can accommodate such an existence that is at once impossible and indisputable.”

Art aside, even purchasing products here in Palestine, as I’ve written about before, that are made in Palestine and by Palestinians is a daily challenge. I choose to buy only such products–excluding Coca Cola, however, a product which I don’t understand why people find necessary or even enjoyable to drink–that are Palestinian and also refuse to buy foreign products wherever possible (tampons being the one exception) that have Hebrew writing on them. I think it is important to do whatever it takes to not give one shekel to the Israeli colonial regime. But it remains a challenge to shop this way. Take, for instance, these images I shot last night in the supermarket:

These images feature products such as laundry soap, coffee, water, and hummus. There are Israeli and Palestinian versions of these products side-by-side. But I wonder why would one choose to purchase products from those colonizing you when you have a choice–and pretty much it seems that you do have a choice with most staple items you would need for your kitchen or bathroom. As I mentioned above, I have found only one exception to this issue. I have heard common complaints from people in the boycott movement here that some people have some gross notion that somehow Palestinian products are inferior to Israeli versions. I have no way of knowing given that I refrain from such consumption, but there are ways to improve on the products and I’m sure that supporting these Palestinian businesses would only enable these companies to improve their work and, importantly, hire more workers. I also will never understand the fascination with Nescafe in this region that I first encountered in Egypt a few years ago. First of all, in Egypt, at least, there is an Egyptian version of the product called Master Cafe. Second of all, why would you want to drink that brown water when you have some of the most wonderful roasted coffee beans laced with cardamom for your morning Arabic coffee?


And one more final bit while we’re on the subject of shopping: the siege in Gaza is also affecting back-to-school shopping as this Al Jazeera report illustrates with nice specificity and detail (just click this link of the You Tube box doesn’t appear as it should:

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4 thoughts on “cleavage points

  1. I don’t know how relevant this is, but I’ve bought Victoria’s Secret underwear in the U.S. that had a tag reading “made in Palestine” (the majority of the rest is made in Bangladesh, Jordan, and unfortunately, Israel)

    (I’ve been reading your blog for awhile, by the way – I’m captivated!)

  2. thanks for the feedback. you bring up an interesting conundrum that one deals with when involved in a boycott campaign under the constraints of globalization. les wexner, the founder/ceo of victoria’s secret is a notorious zionist who donates thousands of dollars to the zionist state every year. he also owns express, limited, structure, senza (which is all over beirut) and other such stores. so that company is in fact on the boycott list.

  3. Wow, I am ashamed to admit I had no idea.

    Well, no shame in learning and moving forward I suppose. What is the most accurate boycott list?

  4. there are a number of links under the category of “boycott, sanctions, and divestment” in the right-hand column. you should check those out. but first rule of thumb: never buy any product that is made in the zionist state. the primary american/european companies to boycott (because of palestine, but also because of many other issues related to labor, the environment, racism): starbucks, burger king, mcdonald’s, coca cola, pepsi, phillip morris/kraft foods, estee lauder, johnson & johnson, and nestle.

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