The Aliens

Yazan Khalili

The whole act of making a landscape of Palestine, or what can be called “The Open”—that which is “outside” the urban space; of making it a timeless continuation of the imagined biblical landscape, has been part of the Zionist process for colonizing the land and replacing its native inhabitants. This process knows two phases: Firstly, by making the native inhabitants part of the scenery; part of the landscape, the image is lent an “authentic” aesthetic. Secondly, by inverting that very process, and by looking at those very people as undeveloped characters who fail to understand the value of the landscape, it is reasoned that the land should be taken away from them and the desert turned into a blooming country of “milk and honey”. Subjects produce the scenery and then disappear.

This reduction of Palestine into the “status” of a simple landscape alienates Palestinians from the land, but interestingly, not from the image that represents the landscape. Access to the land is limited and restricted by different encounters: temporary and structural, procedural and bureaucratic. The Wall, checkpoints, by-pass and settler-only roads, settlements, military zones, and of course, all the necessary permissions which have become harder than ever to obtain, prevent a sense of familiarity with the landscape. They castrate the possibility of constructing a collective relation in and through the land and its geography. Exile occurs without the indigenous having been expelled; we become passers-by on the road-networks that penetrate the landscape when travelling from one ghetto to another (the ghetto known as Area A as per writ of the Oslo Accords), and we become temporal inhabitants of the roads overlooking that timeless landscape.

Strangely, we, “Palestinians”, cannot see that very biblical landscape; we don’t belong to it because we are it. Our vital space is its continuation through the history, and when we begin depicting that space as a landscape we begin to give ourselves over to that sense of alienation from what used to be a place.

From the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”–or the loss of Palestine in 1948) throughout the years of occupation, the landscape has been represented as an image of vanishing space, from a possible site to a distant sight that represents all these policies and structures of separation and oppression. These images are produced to represent feelings of loss and trauma from the conflict; images of olive groves, of ancient roots of villages, of the terraces, and more. Images that document the actions of the occupation, showing the gray concrete wall penetrating the land, settlements in the horizon, the misery of the queues of people waiting at checkpoints; whether mass mediated or in art, whether by foreign or local photographers. All these images are familiar to us. This is how we see the land: a landscape practiced through occupation and alienation. We become fixated on the visual representation of our political status; we become familiar to this landscape because we become used to seeing it as an alien place.

Clearly I am not implying that we “Palestinians” never did have a landscape before the British Mandate or the Israeli occupation—far from that. Every nation has a landscape that it relates to, constructing part of its collective narrative through both traversal and imagination. The problem is not in the landscape as a scene, but in the act of transforming the space to become a scene. Violence is not only what is practiced through space, but also in making a landscape out of that violence. The Wall is not only there to separate us from the land, it has also become our landscape.