Untranslatable

How to read the (lack of) Arabic graffiti on the Wall

by Rebecca Gould
Assistant professor at Yale-NUS College (Singapore)

By contrast with the proliferation of the insignia of resistance in English and other European languages, only in rare instances are Arabic-language graffiti inscribed on Bethlehem’s apartheid wall. This linguistic shift from the Arabic graffiti of the first intifada to the English graffiti of the post-intifada apartheid wall attests to the reconfiguration of the demographics of the graffiti artist and of the graffiti’s intended audience. Beyond the obvious linguistic shift, the representations of resistance diverge in other ways as well. Whereas English-language graffiti is configured as a didactic discourse, bent on improving international relations, the Arabic-language graffiti that adorn the segregation wall adopt the representational strategy of allegory. Mired in the immanence of unmediated experience, they suggest no concrete solution, and promulgate no message of hope. Not unlike the Arabic graffiti of past centuries, including the fascinating specimens collected in the Book of Strangers (Kitāb adab al-ghurabā’) attributed to the prolific litterateur Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī (d. 967), contemporary Arabic-language graffiti is less concerned with making sensational claims and more interested in representing everyday life. Among the many mediations through which Palestinian suffering is represented, allegory, the representational mode best suited for injustices that cannot be rendered transparently, plays a prominent role.

The contrast adduced so far has been primarily between English graffiti that, while radiating a simulacrum of transparency, is overdetermined by its many layers of reception, and Arabic graffiti that, while enmeshed in the language of allegory, intimately renders the experience of Palestinian suffering. This distinction, which exists in the form of a continuum rather than as an absolute opposition, generates a paradox: graffiti in English tend to be more overtly politicized than graffiti in Arabic, which utilizes the arts of indirection. It is as though the intifada has become tired of itself, weary of mobilization, and skeptical of the very possibility of change. Meanwhile, Palestine’s international supporters have taken to addressing constituencies far removed from the theaters of Palestinian suffering for the sake of building transnational solidarity.

Reflecting bleakly on the aestheticization of Palestinian suffering enacted by foreign artists who incorporate the wall into their art, Eidelman observes that the wall can only be “attractive for artists who do not have to live with its results.” When they aestheticize the wall that cuts through their daily lives, Palestinian artists do not fetishize it in the way that foreigners do, because, according to Eidelman, “the reality of the wall can only be sexy for artists not affected.” Even though the distinctions between participant/observer and insider/outsider often dissolve when the art on the wall is absorbed and recontextualized in unpredictable ways by Palestinian observers, the aesthetics of international activism was frequently contrasted to the aesthetics of everyday life in my conversations with local Palestinians. “You are one of the lucky ones,” a resident from the neighboring village of Beit Jala said to me one day towards the end of my Bethlehem sojourn in 2012, “you can come and go as you please, observing how we live, and then leave. You see the wall, but you do not have to live with it every day.”

Whereas Palestinian-built walls inspired Arabic graffiti during the first intifada, Israel-built barriers are more likely today to evoke only silence in Palestinians, or, alternately, exasperation. The vast majority of canvases that cover the apartheid wall are the work of foreign artists and activists from outside Palestine, who address their slogans to an international arena wherein Palestine figures as only one theatre among many global injustices. Thus has representation—the rendering up of the world as a picture of itself—complicated the ascription of agency within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not to say that the graffiti of resistance have vanished any more than have the political movements that underwrote political mobilization, but merely that these art forms have gone underground, to spaces where English is not spoken and where local idioms resist translation. Taking translation as a general paradigm for the representation of suffering, the inscriptions on Palestine’s apartheid wall suggest that resistance is that which evades representation.

Theorists of translation have long studied how the rendering of foreign texts deepens our epistemic and ethical capacities. When studying the idioms of resistance in Palestine, it is important to attend to the untranslated, the untranslatable, and to everything that resists translation. Resistance to translation is in fact the surest indicator of a perspective that needs to be heard. Although the many idioms of the graffiti on the apartheid wall originate in different ways and for different reasons, one of their collateral effects is to assimilate Palestinian resistance into global English. Inevitably, failures in translations proliferate. Allusions to the Warsaw Ghetto and the Berlin wall are mistranslations in many respects, and their relevance to everyday aspects of the Israeli occupation is at best opaque for many Palestinians.

When it comes to the apartheid wall, to translate is all too often to be coopted by a global English that conditions political as well as linguistic possibilities. When symbols of local oppression are rendered in this universalist idiom, they tend to be homogenized under an international message that often fails to connect with local realities.

Such brutal realities are not registered on the wall’s global canvas. When, unlike the European graffiti artists and activists who address a global Anglophone audience, Palestinian artists face in their engagements with the wall the daily consequences of the occupation, their observations are allegorical and opaque by comparison, and are therefore less attractive to the international media. This may help to explain why the graffiti of Palestinian resistance has been inventoried less frequently than that of foreign artists such as Banksy.

Edward Said famously began his Orientalism (1978) by citing from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire (1852): “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.” Slightly turning Marx’s formulation on its head, we might say that, when it comes to the apartheid wall, “They cannot be represented; so they refuse representation.”

Before it can become a political statement, the wall is an obstacle, a barrier, a threat to medical health, an eyesore, a drag on the Palestinian economy, and a narrower of passageways.

The internationalization of Palestine is attested on multiple fronts, in citations from the speeches of Kennedy, parodies of American capitalism, and in the photographs by the Belgian photographer Karl Deckers, which cover the easternmost portion of the wall. These photographs of children from around the world accompanied by statements in their native languages, aim to promote the artist’s belief that his pictures demonstrate the “unity, resemblance and the richness of diversity.” Deckers could not have selected a more globally visible space on which to showcase his art. The internationalization of the Israel-Palestine conflict is deeply etched into the spaces that are made available for the representation of Palestinian suffering and resistance. These forms of globalization tempt the uninformed to conflate touristic commentary with lifetimes of suffering and displacement, and to merge the minor discomforts encountered by transnational activists with Palestinians’ uprooted lives. Minimally, the graffiti on the apartheid walls shows us that contemporary technologies of representation have forever altered the nature of global resistance, in Palestine, as elsewhere around the world.

With the apartheid wall now serving as a global canvas on which passersby of all backgrounds inscribe their impressions, and with these impressions now symbolizing “Palestine resistance” to an international audience, one wonders what will become of the spaces between the walls, the spaces uncontrolled by the advanced technology of the colonial state. If, as John Collins puts it, we inhabit a “globe that is becoming Palestinized,” even as Palestine is becoming globalized, one hopes that the cooptation of the Palestinian narrative by international constituencies does not end by silencing voices that evade representation. Were that to happen, it is not only the Palestinians who would suffer; the history of Europe too would be short-circuited, inasmuch as European history continues to be played out in the politics of the Israel/Palestinian conflict, which are in turn shaped by Europe’s collective guilt surrounding the Shoah. Opaque to the global imagination, the spaces between the walls, beneath the cracks, and on the other side of the border, resist representation even when they refuse to comment on or otherwise allegorize occupation.

Rather than critiquing the globalization of Palestine and of activism on behalf of the Palestinians, I have sought here to suggest that we would do well to attend to representations that resist representation, so as to prevent technological modernity from silencing our consciences.

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