The Visible and the Invisible in Israeli and Palestinian Memory

After introducing the term »civic performance art« in the last blog entry, Ilana Salama Ortar now focuses on her project Villa Khury / Prophet’s Tower, Wadi Nis-Nas, which serves as one possible example for the way how art can engage in social and political conflicts to encourage the exchange between people from different religious and cultural backgrounds. The project aimed not only to show different perspectives on the present, but also implement the past into the present by showing a model of the Villa Khury that had been replaced by the shopping mall like Prophet’s Tower.

»A violent and tense atmosphere pervaded Haifa following the 1948 war, particularly in the district around the tower, which is inhabited by marginal populations: working-class Jews and members of the Christian Arab minority. The neighborhood is suffocating from both an urban and demographic viewpoint.The alienating presence of the modern, geometric mass, clad with mirrored glass, creates a violent slash in the urban fabric of jumbled peoples who find it impossible to communicate with each other. But amazingly, inside the shopping center, a human balance seems to be restored. Activities and expression banished from the street emerge once more in the web of walkways that link the stores and boutiques. Human relations are transformed at a quicker pace here. The local population find the beginnings of a common language in this neutral non-place or ›a-topia.‹«
– Ilana Salama Ortar, 1995

The principal item offered for sale was a double model representing Villa Khury, an ancient Arab structure, enclosed within the modern building. The relative scale of the two buildings, as well as their geographic locations and construction materials, were accurately reproduced. This double model was sold as a »two for one deal,« exhibited on a display table in an empty boutique, as though it were a small TV set or model sports car. The fact that this double model was for sale allowed for at least three readings by the potential consumer, who had then to make a personal choice. By buying it, she might buy into the plural history of the city, or indeed of the land now called Israel; she may inscribe herself in a complex of reality. Alternatively, she might view the model a symbol of her oppressed or triumphant people, adopting a nationalist, identity group perspective. Or she might simply acquire a banal consumer item, which will lose all meaning the instant it ceases to entertain. The latter choice wipes out history. In this initial exhibition, I tried to make the past emerge in the present, restoring the Villa Khury in the mall. I put a monument of a repressed past inside a contemporary monument to suggest how reality may acknowledge the ambiguities of history.

I came to realize that the history of this modern, public building, with office space and a shopping center in downtown Haifa, could provide me with an insight into the conflict between two heterogeneous cultural communities inhabiting the same urban space; two cultures that need to communicate in spite of all that divides them and in the face of all odds, to find a way to live together. This is the greatest challenge facing a complex, ambiguous, and often contradictory urban fabric.

The original project Villa Khury / Prophet’s Tower, Wadi Nis-Nas; The Visible and the Invisible in Israeli and Palestinian Memory looked at history in a manifold way (philosophy of history, historiography, historical research) to define strategies for retrieving and exposing erased stories. The project’s objective was to render visible and audible local memories (Jewish and Arab) that had been erased and silenced. Haifa is an object of investigation and figure for uncovering layers of memory. History and memory merge to create a new gaze with regard to canonical narratives. By reflecting upon forgiveness in such a conflict-ridden situation, the project aimed to define new forms of Israeli-Palestinian communities that may materialize through new types of social relationship.
The project involved the collection of testimonies via questionnaires and interviews, and established installations in various spaces around the Prophets’ Tower.

During the fourth stage of the project, Memorial Park – Living picture (»Tableau Vivant«), October 1997, statements were collected from different people.

A young Palestinian from the Arab-populated city of Taiba (who is employed as a social worker):
»Obviously, my memory is different from yours. We should first define what memory is. The memory of the city today is the change of domination. For instance, this is the Villa Khury that has been important for Palestinian Arab citizenship. Next to it, you show the Prophets’ Tower that is actually a symbol of conquest and occupation. The concealment of the place and its replacement by something newer. Memory here is a complex element, depending on the viewpoint from which you choose to investigate the memory of a place.«

A Greek Orthodox Arab architect (who studied in Russia and returned with his Russian wife) :
»I don’t understand it. I must tell you: after all the ordeals [the city] went through, I was expecting from this people to be clear-sighted. But this is not the case. It’s even the opposite. There is indeed a part of the population which understands where we’re heading to. However, it’s a minority«.

Amram Mitznah, mayor of Haifa remarked:
»When you don’t belong to something whose history and past you know, you don’t have any future. This applies to the city, to the place where you live, to the people, to society.«

Female architectural student, Haifa Technion remarked:
»In my view, memory partakes in the perception of life as continuity. It is impossible to move forward without taking these things in account. It is the part of redemption inherent in life, the way souls migrate according to the Kabbala. Redemption happens now. We redeem now what happened two years ago. In five years, we’ll redeem what’s happening now. Here is the process. Therefore, we must ceaselessly remember. Remembrance is a continuous action.«

An Israeli Male photographer remarked:
»In Israel, we are immersed in memory, day after day, at any moment of our life. We commemorate the day before The Day of Remembrance, and the Day of Remembrance, and Shoah Remembrance Day, and the reminder of Tish’a Be’Av. The Palestinians have the commemoration of the Naqba and the commemoration of Land Day and the commemoration of the Intifada, and the remembrance of Sabra and Chatilla, and…«