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Shaking the Silence

The river has two banks is a Palestinian-Jordanian art initiative that aims to define creative ways for both art scenes to break the silence

Alia Rayyan, Wednesday 7 Aug 2013
The River has Two Banks
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The identities of Jordanians and Palestinians are intricately linked. Some liken the relationship to that of a majority towards a minority; others say it oscillates between oppression and companionship. Whatever the case, and despite the shared history, the lack of a deeper exchange between the two banks of the River Jordan continues. Under the title The river has two banks, three visual artists and curators from Palestine and Jordan—Shuruq Harb, Samah Hijawi, and Toleen Touq—have shaken up this self-imposed silence by creating a space for discussion and facilitating new alliances among artists from both sides.

In 2012, the curators launched the first edition of The river has two banks with an opening statement that presented the “ongoing segregation across the east and west bank of the River Jordan” as a key issue. The program set out to examine the current status of Jordanians and Palestinians and invited a range of different artists to engage this subject. Over a three-month period, films, discussions, readings, walks, and research projects featuring unexpected stories and perspectives were realized in different locations across Amman, Ramallah, Birzeit, and the Jordan Valley. Those who may have missed the event have a chance to see the works of the artists on the project’s website, where various contributions in Arabic and in English provide thoughtful analyses.

Many Palestinians tend to see Jordan merely as an exit point for their travels; having to cross the Allenby Bridge to reach the airport, it is their only window onto the world. In contrast to the ongoing flow of Palestinians entering Jordan, Jordanians are rarely able to visit Palestine. For them, Palestine thus exists mostly as a political or emotional metaphor. The river has two banks aims to look behind the curtain and confront the stereotypes each group has about the other. Although the title may seem misleading, especially in light of the latest comments by the Jordanian Royal Family on the possibility of a confederation between Jordan and Palestine, the three curators had no such political messages in mind. Asked about the choice of title, the curators disclaim any political attempt to normalize a political model. Instead, the art initiative aims to define creative ways for both art scenes to break the silence. The program has been designed to reach out to diverse social groups, and takes place in social areas like cafes or public spaces. Nevertheless, the original idea—to create a dynamic across both sides of the river by inviting Jordanian artists to the Palestinian territories and vice versa—could not be fully realized; Palestinian ministry officials were unsupportive, thus thwarting the plan of obtaining permission for Jordanian artists to enter Palestine.

Within the art scenes of both Jordan and Palestine, it has become easier to invite European artists for exhibitions, residences, or exchanges than other Arab artists. The river has two banks aimed to explicitly counter this trend and create connections between Jordanian and Palestinian artists. Given the difficulties, the audience of Sandra Madi’s film Perforated Memory watched the screening in Ramallah without the presence of the director. Similarly, Ahmad Zaatari, a writer from Jordan, could not present his paper “Going Around in Circles—Looking for Palestine in the Jordanian Music Scene” at Birzeit in Palestine; instead, he presented it in Amman. “This is part of our reality,” the organizers explained, “and we will not give up trying to bring Jordanian participants to Palestine when we realize our program the next time.”

Zaatari’s presence would have been poignant in Ramallah; his paper analyzed the interrelationship of Jordanian and Palestinian music through the work of the composer Tawfiq Al Nimri, and reflected upon the particular political situation of each place at specific time periods. Starting with the 1950s, when Al Nimri’s worked for the Jordanian radio station in Ramallah, and progressing to the period since the Arab Spring through the lyrics of the hip hop artists Torabiyeh, Khotta Ba, and el Far3i, Zaatari gave a comprehensive analysis that unpacked the roots of nationalist songs and their relations to the trends in patriotic music production today. He also carefully questioned the rise of “alternative” musical movements.

The curators of The river has two banks are to be credited with avoiding romanticism. Their sturdy, analytical yet still modest approach highlights the uncomfortable truths of shared histories, creating room for debate rather than grudges. This was quite apparent in the various film-related contributions to the program.

In “(Re)searching When I Saw You,” filmmaker Annemarie Jacir describes the making of her fictional piece, the motivations behind it, and the challenges she faced while producing it in Jordan. Set in 1967 and told from the perspective of an autistic child, the feature film’s storyline tackles a period when Palestinian freedom fighters were stationed in the northern hills of Jordan. In her contribution, Jacir shares the research behind her selected shooting locations, highlighting anecdotes of finding stray bullets and underground hiding caves. A memorable moment describes Jacir standing on a hill in Jordan, overlooking unreachable Palestinian land, a sight Jordanians know all too often.

Filmmaker Mohannad Yaqubi presented a more questioning contribution with his research presentation “Searching for Godard,” referencing 1970, a time period a few years after Jacir’s. This was the year the French director Jean-Luc Godard was in Jordan taking footage of Palestinian revolutionary fighters for the film Ici et ailleur. Yaqubi uses Godard as a pretext to revisit the controversial events of Black September in Jordan, exploring both poetic and cinematic strategies to critically speak of the unspeakable. His presentation also provided valuable insights into the militant cinema movement of the 1970s and 1980s and the renegade Palestinian Film Unit—a valuable visual record of the Palestinian revolution from an important period for image production in the region.

Sandra Madi explores similar topics in her film Perforated Memory, looking again at the fedayeen, albeit from a wretched, realistic place that forbids nostalgia.

Perforated Memory is a visually rough documentary, spotlighting the harsh and frustrating, forgotten existence of former independence fighters who are stranded under the wings of the PLO office in Amman, begging for financial charity. Madi portrays Fatah's anonymous cadre as they are, forgoing overt aesthetics and allowing the trodden ex-guerillas to speak for themselves with minimal artistic intervention by the camera. In the actual location of the PLO offices, medium shots capture the isolation of the space, hinting at the current status of the protagonists. The camera does not give way to the exact location of the offices. As in an intimate play, the camera rests silently in the office and lets the protagonists pass it by. The tragic figures of the ex-fedayeen stand as symbols of the futility of the current status of Palestinians in Jordan, literally sacrificial lambs abandoned to their fate. Therese Halaseh, who was once imprisoned for her participation in the hijacking of a passenger plane, found herself left alone in the PLO office in Amman, responsible for the financial assistance given out to the ex-fighters, with very little support from the leadership. Halaseh’s tired face speaks for itself; Madi steps back as a director, perhaps out of respect, using her raw shots to leave room for reflection.

Meanwhile, visual artist Oraib Toukan steps forward as instigator and investigator. Her intervention analyzed the mysterious loss of Mural to a Refugee, a painting by Jordanian artist Muhanna Durra showing a mother holding her little child against a cityscape reminiscent of Jerusalem. The piece was accompanied by a poem by Salah Abu Zaid and sent as a contribution to the Jordanian Pavilion at the World Trade Fair in New York in 1964. After Jewish communities called for ”the immediate removal of the controversial mural in the Jordanian Pavilion which acts as a daily and constant irritant and a source of insult to millions of people in this city, the state, and the world” (to quote the New York Times from June 1964), the city mayor immediately reacted and the mural disappeared. In addition to the painting, a column making up part of the temple of Artemis in Jerash was sent to the World Trade Fair. The column stands today on the grounds of the Queens Museum of Art, what was once the home of the United Nations General Assembly, where Palestine was partitioned in 1947.

Toukan dissects these events through a video intervention and reading performance. Over a four-day period, the video Saeed relates how crocodiles once lived in the river Zarqa (2011) was screened in the lobby of the Ministry of Tourism in Amman. The video presents the current location of the column in the park of the Queens Museum of Art and shows a wide-angle shot of a woman filming the column in a slow vertical pan with her camera. Perhaps unbeknownst to the Ministry’s staff, who enjoyed having video material placed in view of their visitors, Toukan’s unobtrusive way of playing with expectation, imagination, and reality provides ample food for thought on the irony of the screening of a Jordanian treasure abroad.

Toukan also contributed to The river has two banks with a reading performance that took place at Café Auberge in downtown Amman, where the co-curator Samah Hijawi read out the collected correspondence exchanged that summer in New York around the controversy of Durra’s piece. The letters, faxes, and telegrams, all translated into Arabic, are angry damnations of the piece by citizens of New York and detailed exchanges of opinion on what to do with it between the mayor and the Pavilion administrators. The repetition of accusations adds subtle humor to the absurdities of the situation.

Not limited to artistic forms, the first edition of The river has two banks purposefully engaged other disciplines in its program. For example, a day-long guided hike along the eastern bank of the River Jordan and a lecture on the common problems facing both Jordan and Palestine by hydrogeologist Clemens Messerschmidt provided fresh perspectives. The hike, an attempt to get as close to the River Jordan as possible, was marred by bureaucratic difficulties, leaving the participants with limited possibilities: a glimpse of the river while being transported in a military bus that no one was allowed to step out of, and then a walk several hundred meters away from the physical river bank, flanked by intense greenery and watchful military towers. Messerschmidt’s lecture cleverly brought a scientific approach to the program, allowing new audiences to experience the hydrologist’s approach to the deep social, environmental, and political crisis of water. Both events intricately highlighted the harsh realities brought on by Israeli practices.

The curators’ were clear that this interdisciplinary approach was fundamental to their motivations: “We were always interested in an interdisciplinary combination and tried to bring the diversity of practitioners together in our program.” It is this creative response towards reality, and the possibility of intervening in the real environment, which interests the curatorial team. But including a visit to the physical river in the program also alludes to a more symbolic issue that led to the choice of the title of the initiative. The curators see the river itself as a metaphor for the relationship between Jordan and Palestine. It is a natural border between the two, and simultaneously a source for life for the Jordan Valley and beyond. Once used as the platform on which Palestinian refugees escaped the woes of war, it remains part of the imaginary for returning home and being deprived of it. It is a bridge that connects yet divides people. As much as the river exists in the minds of Palestinians and Jordanian alike, neither of them have access to it. “We want to explore the reality and examine the landscape. This landscape can be the artistic one or the actual one. The hike brought us back to the actual landscape,” the curators state, adding: “We are trying to understand the heaviness of our common present and we think we made a start.”

The river has two banks commences its second edition this summer, organizing a program over the course of a year, with eight main events in Hebron, Ramallah, Amman, and other locations. After the promising start of the first edition, the upcoming events should be worth watching out for.

This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.

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