Tag Archives: Geographical Imaginaries

Hostile Homelands: A. B. Yehoshua Excavates Jerusalem’s Boundary Lines

The Palestinian mutely contemplates the sheer concrete expanse of the Separation Boundary as an exile from his homelands, as if pressed by the newly constructed boundary barrier that he rather stoically observes.  What passes through his head, we can’t say, but this blurred figure, captured as he rather eerily recalls Rodin’s Thinker, seems to contemplate the new future of a redrawn boundary to which he has an existential relation. The erection of poured concrete walls have created an apparently permanent border boundary across what he regarded as a homeland, and would contest. But the existential present of this moment conceals the depth with which such boundary lines were long historically contested and redrawn on maps, in a contest of wills that transcends the individual or present tense.   For the man outside the Separation Boundary contemplates a complicated map of shifting territories, difficult to bound, whose boundaries have been painfully renegotiated in the past as they are again rewritten in the present.

The difficulty of discerning this figure’s face doesn’t conceal that his removal from the city of which he is resident, and the traumatic division among two halves of the city that he once knew as his home.  If the dream of Zionism parallels the time of the commission and production of monumental bronze castings of The Thinker, commissioned in 1880 from the sculptor who began to produce multiple versions from 1904, around the foundation of the political movement of Zionism launched in 1904, to establish the protection and international recognition of an Israeli stage, the fiction of deep affective commitment to the place and boundaries of Israel in the historically defined Holy Land is the subject of seductive palimpsestic unpeeling of the past of one family in A.B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani, a historical novel retrospectively stretched across five generations who seek their orientation to a Holy Land and to Jerusalem in ways that they cannot fully ever grasp–but which the reader begins to as he reads the novel’s five parts, as the boundaries of the state of Israel are peeled apart over time in what seems a modern pentateuch of the state, and a new genealogy of the Holy Land.

The boundary line that has been drawn over an area once easily and regularly crossed by foot suggests the deep stakes at claiming a tortured relation to the homeland by the Israeli state, and the threat that the rebuilding of this boundary creates not only in his psyche, but that haunts the psyche of the Israeli state.  The deep memories of a tie to place that the boundary barrier seems to defend cut off residents from their home, even as they intend to create claims. The contrast between the existential remove of watching the concrete separation barrier recently constructed in the city and the historical attachment to the land of Jerusalem prompts questions of archeology of boundaries, barriers, and attachments to place.  The tension between the most recent barrier and the deep historical ties to place seem to condense the repeated historical redrawing of boundaries in the city and the nation, and  psychological problems of drawing or respecting boundaries between peoples and individuals, and the fragile nature of place across shifting boundaries. If rooted in questions of migrations from Europe, across the Mediterranean, and in Israel, which gains concreteness only in the difficulty to map the psychic relation of the person within this place.

Elias Khoury begins Gates of the Sun by describing the specific romance of the map in similarly inter-generational terms, and in truly global terms as ruminating over over the spinning of a globe in a camp outside Beirut, Abu Salem remembers a past toponymy in mesmerizing manner, shifting from Biblical to Palestinian register that shifts to from rhapsody to melancholy and from a real to an imagined map–“”That’s Acre. Here’s Tyre. The plain runs to heart, and these are the villages of the Acre district. her’s Ain al-Zaitoun, and Deir al-Adsad, and al-Birwa, and there’s al-Ghabsiyyeh, and al-Kabri, and her’s Tarshiha, and there’s Bab al-Shams. . . . . Ain al-Zaitoun is the most beautiful village, but they destroyed in in ’48,'” describing an Arabic Palestinian village that existed from the sixteenth century which was depopulated and left the map, as it entered the new boundaries of the modern Israeli state–within whose boundaries it disappeared, receding from maps into personal memory.

The historical challenges of occupying Jerusalem, and indeed preserving a deeply personal and spiritual tie to land, seems tied to border crossings–and indeed creating boundaries–across the city’s ancient geography that the man stoically overlooks.

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We are perhaps all too ready to project his traumatic relation to the the contested boundary lines of contemporary Jerusalem, where concrete walls cuts Palestinians from the very regions of a city they long inhabited as it seeks to redraw its map, as if to further traumatize its residents.  While the figure of the Palestinian echoes the notion of a Rodin’s Thinker, contemplating his place in the world, he has a far more clearly located place than the famously mobile piece of sculpture, whose reproduction in casts and in marble transited around the world, moved on a pediment to any space, evoking an idealized act of thought in whatever context it stood:

Legion of Honor, San Francisco, CA

Multiple casts of Rodin’s statue were famously mobile, able to circulate globally, independent of site, as icons of man’s intellectual superiority over the world and his surroundings. But the man sit with a site-specific sense o reflection, and effectively caught in the act of being displaced from his surroundings: a city which has long been praised because of its integrity in the religious imagination, and translated to a nation a term that was long reserved for applying to a people, has been beset by divisions that the boundary wall has mapped in Jerusalem is both palpable and insurmountable reminder. It reveals a pragmatics of division that is oddly and paradoxically described as intended to preserve the integrity of the city, by defining its place and security in the public imagination.  

The strong sense of an occupation of the city by generations–“All the generations before me/donated me, bit by bit, so that I’d be/erected all at once/here in Jerusalem, like a house of prayer/or charitable institution,” poet Yehuda Amichai evokes the deep tie to a past that physically ties him to Jerusalem’s present and pasts.  The proprietary sense tied to generations of Jews as bound  to the city of Jerusalem by a binding tie to place defies mapping. But the excavation of this actually quite modern sense is excavated in Amichai’s poetry and an inevitable subject of Israeli fiction.  The next poem in Amichai’s 1973 collection, Poems of Jerusalem, turns from the ties to place to the disruptive nature of the border barrier already built in the Old City, on each side of which flags are raised–“To make us think that they’re happy./To make them think that we’re happy.”–but that obscure who is flying a kite over the Old City, on a string held by a child who stands on its other side; if he cannot ever forget his tie to the city, its walls of separation are never able to be forgiven, but “If I forget thee,/let my blood be forgotten,” to describe the tortured relation that he felt in 1973 to the mapping the relation of the city so closely intertwined to his blood-line.

The issue of bonding to place within one’s blood line was more clearly mapped across time when A.B. Yehoshua compiled a fictional dossier on the testimonies across six generations of men residents in Jerusalem in Mr. Mani, a five-part 1992 historical novel that rewrites a Pentateuch of the Israeli state, or at least the Zionist dream of basing a Jewish state in Jerusalem, a city whose layered history Yehoshua knew well from his father, a local historian of the city, and that in a sense captures his own deep ambivalence to Jerusalem as a homeland or occupied city.  By tracing testimonies of the male members of the Mani family who settled in the city and manufactured this imagined tie to place, he allows them to give evidence of their ties to the city across generations we read in chronological reverse, in ways that seem to unpeeled their own deep internalization of their ties to the city of Jerusalem–and the cross-generational desire to create or recreate a physical tie to place. Even if it is only textual, and returns to landmarks in the city, more than to boundaries that we can understand as fixers, the novel traces mental boundaries, offering poignant testimony of the redrawing of Jerusalem on the map.

While the novel is removed from historical mapping and remapping of the settlement of the city, it traces a deeply psychic map, preserved in Faulknerian fashion of what might as well be a fictional country but could not be disguised as such. The intensity of personal projects of mapping a relation to place and remapping the desired union of each generation to the city, as if to realize the frustrated desires of their forefathers to map and thereby to create a new relation to place, without attending to its residents, so deep was their desire to protect, redraw, and identify with the place of the ancient city.  The creation of one side of the conversations of the Mani men provides a basis to excavate the deeply unfulfilled emotions needs that they bequeathed their descendants, and the incomplete relation that each transmitted as a failure to bind their own family to the city, and the difficulties that they have mapping their relations onto the presence of the city’s actual inhabitants.  The deep neediness of Mani men reveals the strength of ties of rooting oneself and family in place, and the heightened trauma of such a desire for attachment that has built up over generations, a traumatic tie to place that is visited upon its other residents.

The trauma of the Palestinian who regards the concrete barrier is not, literally, on most maps constructed of Jerusalem or of the Holy Land.  Indeed, the trauma of excluding Palestinian presence in the city that the Jewish state has adopted plans to occupy fully, and the provocation of publicly acknowledging it as a capital, seems to seek to enshrine the trauma in maps.  For the boundary barrier expanded the line of Israeli control over the contested city–and even exceeded the territorial claims the so-called Green Line of the 1949 Armistice, or the pre-1967 bounds–but were never intended to provide a territorial boundary for the state.  If those bounds were treated as the new boundary of a national territory after 1967, the expansion was tired to be remapped by the progressive construction of the barrier or boundary wall much further in recent years, as if to over-write and banish earlier memories of settlement, and to stake a rewritten Israeli sovereign relation to the city, now provocatively defined as a national capital on maps.

THomas Coex:AFP Getty

Thomas Coex/AFP

At what cost?  The project of a unified Jerusalem will hardly conceal the deeply pained relation to the territory, however, and seems destined to only augment its military defense.  At this point, it may be opportune to return to the historical excavation of the pained nature of these boundaries–and the compromises that they create in the occupation of lands–is addressed in deeply psychological terms in Yehoshua’s Mar Mani, or Mr. Mani, which traces or excavates the ever-growing costs of such a divide.  The curiously retrospective structure of the five books of the novel peel back historical layers of mapping a personalized Jerusalem through the testimony or discussion with men in a family of Mediterranean Jews and their ties to Jews of central Europe, that throw into relief the intensity of a psychological concentration that takes the Holocaust as its justification for the fulfillment of a Zionist project for retaking the Holy Land.

The project of settling Palestine is seen through the eyes of the long stateless Jews and the ties they have staked to the land from the late eighteenth century.  While often cited as a justification for the existence of Israel as a state, Yehoshua includes the genocide of the Second World War in his novel about five generations of a family who settled in Jerusalem, but throws the history of their tortured relation to place in a far broader context of the ways that people have long pressed against boundaries, and indeed, confused their own personal boundaries with relations to barriers and boundaries that existed, were drawn, or were being redrawn on maps, even as they tried to use maps to navigate their relation to the city for their descendants.  Is the tortured relation to the city something that was bequeathed as a failure to define personal boundaries, and to understand the boundaries that might have existed between Jewish settlers of jerusalem and its inhabitants, that continued to inform either the construction of the wall that extends beyond the pre-1967 border line–

Jerusalem:Epicenter

–and the hard place of the wall that divides the complex expansion of the old municipal border of 1949 to encompass its Palestinian and Jewish populations, and the tortured relation each feels to its place.

jerusalem-demographic-map2

The border boundary that divides Jerusalem today as emblematic of an utter divide between populations, illegal and asserting itself to be a concrete evidence of the application of the law:  the boundary wall seems to deny any past habitation and any past, to create a new realty of borders, even as it seeks to affirm and inscribe a new divide in the city, even if under the pretext of protection from terrorist attacks.  But the broad historical conflicts of claiming Jerusalem as a Jewish city–even in the face of a Palestinian majority presence–and ruling it as a sovereign part of a Jewish state, rather than one the acknowledges its multiple ethnicities, conceals the tortured relation to place that is the result of denying any voice to its original inhabitants.

Building the boundary reminds us of the existential quality to any line of partition, and the deep effects with which it immediately effects the place and its inhabitants.  The wall, one might say, stares back at the man, sheer concrete without any sense of history or human habitateion, to protect the area extending past the Green Line as if to fix its future movement in the historically shifting map in stable terms.  This unstable map–which seems poised to be shifted once again, for national gain, in the 2017 annexation of the new construct of “Greater Jerusalem” including settlements along the West Bank, transforming a place previously without integrity to fulfill a prophecy of the “expansion” of the city as a part of the Jewish state, using a term of false if apparent neutrality to conveniently conceal and not account for the historical presence Palestinian inhabitants of the same place.

The wall is a remapping of history, and human habitation, after all, and a defense of claims by the Israeli state, built as if concretizing a timeless prophecy, and built as a timeless construction.  The remapping of space and the space of Jerusalem seems the subject of the e classic novel of A.B. Yehoshua about six generations of a Jerusalem family whose intent to throw the immediacy of the current conflict into historical relief continues to have bearing on the apparent absence of population in the retracing of shifting boundaries and the claiming of sovereignty over lands that, in the historical myopia that sees the utter tragedy of dehumanization of the Holocaust–or the condition of statelessness–as the fulcrum for its foundations if not the justification of its existence, but removes its borders and boundaries from history or from the land’s inhabitants, by cartographically declaring it to be an almost timeless truth of territorial advancement and an iconic image without need for an explanatory legend.

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Filed under boundary walls, collective memory, Israel, Jerusalem, Jewish diaspora