Hollow Symbols of an Imaginary State

by Bethan Staton

Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ’s depiction of a system of dress for Palestinian state officials testifies to injustices suffered, whilst challenging the empty symbols and clichés of state-building.

First published: 15 May, 2014 | Category: Culture, International, The State

On 29 November 2012, the United Nations voted to grant Palestine the status of ‘non-member observer’ state.  The ‘upgrade’, the result of a three-year-long campaign, met with furious condemnation and breathless support.  Dubbed Palestine 194, in reference to Palestine becoming the 194th member of the UN, it sent Palestinian leaders – as well as a symbolic blue chair, crafted from Jerusalem olive wood – on high-level delegations around the world.  The process, and the vote when it finally was passed, was enthusiastically lauded by international progressives and governments including China, Russia and Spain.  Many regarded it as a glimmer of real progress in the midst of hopeless stagnation: in the West Bank, at least, it prompted a desperately needed spike in popularity for Abbas and the PA.

In the eyes of some Palestinians, however, the achievement was not a crucial step in the path to self-determination, but another addition to a humiliating diplomatic facade that did nothing for the liberation of the Palestinian people.  And for Omarivs Ioseph Filivs Dinæ – a designer from Jerusalem – it was the inspiration for a project that would arguably subvert the ‘frenzied bid for statehood’, using symbols that, over decades, have become integral to the Palestinian cause.

In the exhibition The Ceremonial Vniform : Birzeit Vniversity Mvsevm, 2014, he has created a system of dress for male officials in what would be the Palestinian state.  The components are objects and symbols: icons that, in the long and grinding course of history, have been constructed, used and reused, and which for Palestinians are mostly instantly recognisable.

This system of dress, and the photographic documentation that accompanies it, are aesthetically seductive, drawing the viewer into the image through the use of these familiar signifiers of Palestinian nationhood.  At the centre of the exhibition one is offered portraits modelling the costumes created from the references to, and symbols of, Palestinian struggle.  They are exemplary of the empty and individualistic rewards of prestigious institutions: in lush, rich colours, subjects dressed in decadent finery stare blankly at the spectator.

The photographs – named The Official Portrait by the designer and made in collaboration with Lebanese photographer Tarek Moukaddem – have clearly been staged in a professional studio.  It seems obvious that the stereotypically ‘oriental’ drapery and fruit and flower arrangement that make up the backdrop have been placed there in an ironic manner, subtly referencing a history of European portraiture and colonial photography characterised by the ‘orientalist gaze’.

It is this backdrop against which an Arab male model is presented, wearing robes reminiscent of traditional female dress that incorporate familiar cross-stitch embroidery, symbols and texts of political resistance, including coins and medals from Palestine’s colonised history.  The exhibition has a ‘tongue in cheek’ quality as images present us with a model who reveals his pink floral pumps that appear ‘out of place’ when coupled with the so-called traditional clothing.  It is items such as these and the very consciously constructed quality of the images that lets the viewer know that neither the uniform nor the representation of it actually corresponds to any real national dress or lived Palestinian reality.

Signifiers such as the torn white robes and the pick axe tucked into a red satin belt, or the sickle tied to a scarf all point to generalised and mythical characters that correspond very poorly to real people and their lives as Palestinians.  As Ioseph articulates visually and verbally, this is an imaginary uniform for an imaginary state.  The motifs and craftsmanship on the clothing, however sophisticated and intoxicating, are redundant: they are flourishes of prestige and recognition, built over the absence, not the substance, of freedom and justice.

The representation is a mirror of the leadership and direction of Palestine today, Ioseph says, ‘in that these are actually just a cluster of repetitive symbols, slogans and cliches.’  While the powerful among the Palestinian people grasp at international standing in a fruitless game of diplomacy, the nation supposedly being forged with seats and signatures is being eaten up by settlements, divided and colonised, its people deprived of rights and routinely killed or violated by military forces.

‘This is tied up with this fixation on a state, as something to aim for, as if the state is the redemption of the Palestinian people,’ Ioseph tells me.  ‘It is as if once we've got this, we somehow miraculously acquire an international status and develop rights and force others to respect us.  But what is the real meaning of what’s happening?  Politicians actually selling out our rights for the symbols of a state.’  A crucial point here is the fact that the projected state only lies within the 1967 lines.  That’s just 22% of historic Palestine, and an assignment that shows little regard for Palestinians beyond those borders – including the global diaspora and those that now make up 20% of Israel’s population.

‘We have this absurd situation of an unelected group that’s taken it upon itself to define what being Palestinian is,’ Ioseph says.  ‘But my reality cannot be defined by a few undeclared leaders.  It cannot be negotiated.  My identity as a Palestinian is not about subscribing to these slogans, it is much more than that.  I don’t believe that we need a state to have an identity and to live in dignity; these are non-negotiable with or without it.’

Ioseph is speaking at Birzeit University, a leading Palestinian academic institution and the space where the Ceremonial Vniform has been exhibited for the last month.  It’s a short drive away from Ramallah, where the engine of the state-building project is rolling at full power and gleaming towers and NGO offices fight for space with smart cafes kept afloat by international funding.  The Palestinian Authority headquarters are here, and for the last year an enormous luxury villa has been taking shape on a plot overlooking the hills, towards a sea inaccessible to most West Bank Palestinians.  It’s a guesthouse for the delegates and officials that will visit the Palestinian President.

Depending on who you speak to, Ramallah might be referred to as the de-facto capital of the Palestinian state, or a ‘bubble’, isolated from the reality of occupation by consumerism and aid money.  Since Oslo, funding has flooded the occupied territories: between 1999 and 2008, international aid to Palestinian NGOs increased from $48 million to $257 million, and in the six years following 2004 the number of NGOs doubled.  Critics say that aid trends – capacity building, empowerment, advocacy – have come to define what the public get, and the economy is utterly reliant on being kept afloat by international money.  And the problem goes much deeper than finance.  The aid Palestinians are dependent on is tied to stringent political conditions: deviations from the demands of donor nations, among which the United States looms large, could spell economic disaster.

As the peace process benefited an elite and gave Ramallah the appearance of a thriving city, Israel has continued to entrench the occupation.  Since 1993, the Israeli settler population has doubled to 500,000.  Some 7,100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces.  Restrictions, confiscations and the fragmentation of Palestine into 167 enclaves make a mockery of economic or political independence.

For the entire period, the Palestinian Authority has continued to hold fast to the forever delayed promise of building a nation through negotiation, enforcing the agreements of the accords in Area A – the 3% of the West Bank where they maintain power.  ‘There really is no national aspiration to the Palestinian authority, they really are just a subcontractor to the Israeli occupation,’ Ioseph says.  This is not a radical suggestion, but one echoed repeatedly across all strata of the Palestinian population.  ‘Knowingly, unknowingly, willingly, unwillingly: I’m positive that many of them are aware of and are complicit and are benefiting from Israeli occupation and apartheid.’

The particular style of mockery they convey has not gone unnoticed in the past.  In an October 1993 essay that dubbed Oslo an ‘instrument of Palestinian surrender’, Edward Said made particular exception to the ‘fashion-show vulgarities of the White House ceremony’.  The ‘degrading spectacle’ of Yasser Arafat’s thanks, the ‘fatuous solemnity of Bill Clinton’s performance, like a 20th-century Roman emperor shepherding two vassal kings through rituals of reconciliation and obeisance,’ he wrote, only temporarily obscured ‘the truly astonishing proportions of the Palestinian capitulation’.

Now, as the peace process recedes, whimpering, into the dusty annals of historical failure, Said’s comments look prophetic.  In Ioseph’s exhibition, the imagined uniforms of the state the accords were supposed to create, appear almost an embarrassment.  And painfully, the feeling extends to the components that constitute the clothing.  Medals created for Palestine by UN institutions and colonial controllers, have been purchased for a negligible sum from eBay.  A pair of ceremonial clogs is detailed with letters from the original charters of the PLO.  Fabric is printed with hand grenades and rifles, and the design incorporates historical flashpoints: dates like 1948, 1967, the 1917 Balfour agreement, the beginnings of the first and second Intifada.  But the sum of these symbols is nothing but a superficial display: the objects have been elevated in hubris, and are now exposed as hollow trappings of state.

By dramatizing these signifiers, slogans, symbols and clichés, Ioseph calls attention to the challenge of identifying with them, potentially subverting the capitalist urge to uncritically consume them.  The deeper suggestion, too, in his empty symbolic recycling is grim.  Things which, perhaps, were once part of a living resistance are degraded by their co-optation into the state-building project, and turned into clichés that generate a plastic vision of a nation or power.  ‘These are adopted as the things that make up Palestinian identity,’ Ioseph says.  ‘But what are they, really?  These things are not the identity of the Palestinian people.’

It follows that, even before it is wielded as a political tool, efforts to preserve and articulate precisely what Palestinian culture is distances the practice and understanding of culture from its lived reality.  In uprooting and destabilising Palestinian culture, the Zionist project has forced the colonised people to draw clear lines around it, often regurgitating the European, state-centred forms of the colonial powers themselves.  The result is the reduction of lived reality to ‘cultural artefact’, easily packaged for consumption. 

‘I don’t agree with the term cultural heritage.  These things are meant to be made and used,’ Ioseph says.  ‘People talk about our culture, our heritage having been robbed, taken away from us, that the occupation has destroyed these things, but what has actually been destroyed is the sensibilities of material and its reality.  You cannot rob or destroy an approach, but you can change the ideology around it and I think this is what happens with material history in order to transform it into cultural heritage.’

If that process is occurring in Palestinian society, it has been catalysed and enabled by the NGO economy.  Economic empowerment projects, generally targeted at women, often focus on traditional crafts, and it’s become fashionable for cooperatives to incorporate folk patterns into modern, ‘wearable’ clothing, often marketed abroad under ethical branding.  Ioseph believes the trend reduces what was a ‘quotidian craft’ to ‘revivalism and charity’, managed and shaped by those who do not produce. 

‘There is this warped and romantic idea: “because you're a woman, you must be interested in embroidery, this must be a sort of dignified way of creating an income”.’ he says.  ‘It’s very condescending and chauvinist, and it does have a colonial aspect.  A large majority of the people involved in embroidery do not produce it for personal consumption, moreover a large majority of the people running or advocating for these charities are themselves not involved in the menial tedium of embroidery.’

The project itself attempts to counter that narrative by working with individuals and organisations that work in functioning industries, including shoemakers from Ramallah, mother-of-pearl carvers from Beit Sahour, and embroiderers from Yatta and Beirut.  The clothing, Ioseph explains, is made ‘for people to wear and consume, not from the point of view of solidarity, charity, or just revivalism, but as a living system.’

The work, and Iosephs’s writing on it, convey a deep dislike for the regurgitation of symbols and clichés that he believes so often constitute a national movement.  But given what’s at stake – the identity and liberation of the people themselves, it’s not surprising.  ‘Even things like right of return, end of occupation, self determination: these are non-negotiable aspects, of needs and wants and demands of the Palestinians, but now they have in themselves become just slogans,’ Ioseph says.  ‘So even if you go beyond the pomp and circumstance, and all the florid language and so on, you find that even these mean nothing any more, they’re just shells.

‘It can become very comfortable to be an oppressed Palestinian.  You have the NGOs, you have the lingo, the whole class that’s been established to take care of you, you have these words to talk about freedom, you feel edgy.  It’s become a role that we've become comfortable playing.  That's a huge problem.  We should never be comfortable playing in this victim role: we should never become reliant, consumers of this.’

The picture of a Palestinian people trapped in comfortable victim roles, attempting to break out of oppression through the reproduction of slogans and clichés, is bleak.  It demands change through the creation of new paradigms and ideas: the recognition, Ioseph says, that ‘you can’t bring down the master’s house with his own tools’, as Audre Lorde puts it.  The necessary alternative is producing for self-sufficiency, creating new theories of thought and new ideas.  ‘The revolution that everyone talks about, an ongoing Intifada, it’s become stagnant as well,’ he says.  ‘It’s not being produced, it’s being consumed.  It’s not tackling the reality, it’s consolidating the reality, and it’s comforting and consumed to comfort.  That’s where I think the potential for change lies.  When you stop being an inert consumer.’

Bethan Staton is a writer and editor based in based in Israel and Palestine.  Her work has appeared in publications including New Internationalist, Left Foot Forward and PolicyMic, and she writes regularly for Palestine Monitor.  Previously she was a staff writer at The Day, and she has worked as a researcher and writer for a range of arts and charitable organisations.

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?