The map that designer Mushon Zer-Aviv and journalist Laila El-Haddad created in the fringe theater exhibition at the ArtTLV biennial, seems at first sight to be a map of Tel Aviv. In reality it is a map of Gaza City.
It is an interactive work that allows one to walk through Tel Aviv's streets but imagine walking in Gaza. Even though ArtTLV will close today, this work will continue to appear on the www.youarenothere.org Web site.
In order to "see" Gaza, one has to hold a double-sided map against the light and thus link the viewer's location in Tel Aviv with the corresponding site in Gaza, even though the names of some of the streets are not written clearly enough.
"We are a minute's walk from Palestine Stadium and two minutes from the pick-up station to the Rafah Crossing," says the 33-year-old Zer-Aviv, in a conversation near Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Some 20 different sites in Gaza are highlighted, chosen by Gaza-born El-Haddad, who now lives in Maryland in the United States. Each site has a serial number that has to be punched after phoning a number attached to the map. Then one can hear Laila's voice talking about that place.
The new municipal hybrid space requires a different physical and conscious approach than normal. They provide a new format for a tourist visit, one that expropriates its validity. Zer-Aviv felt the need for such a space here when Israel pulled out of Gaza. He sought to avoid the rift, "to bridge over the distance that is not geographically large but is very much so from an emotional point of view."
At that time he learned of the blog that El-Haddad had launched about a year before the disengagement, called Raising Yousuf, in which she described her experiences as a mother of a child born in the shadow of Gaza's harsh reality.
"I wanted someone from there to choose [sites] and talk," he says. "There is a problem with Israeli art that talks for Palestinians. I looked for a character that had an unapologetic tone, one that is different from the pleasant and secular Palestinian who is 'easy' for us. Laila for example, does not believe in the concept of 'two states for two peoples' and we do not always see eye-to-eye on political issues. However, she is accessible, sensitive and touches one's heart."
Before this project, Zer-Aviv and three of his friends who studied designing and new media at the ITP program at New York University created a similar work: a tour of Baghdad through New York's streets.
That project sought to stress the irony and cynicism of a possible tour in Baghdad after the destruction the Americans wreaked in Iraq. However Gaza, he argues, "is different. I do not want to create an ironic picture."
He maintains that "tourism can be totally colonialist but could also be a genuine attempt to try and get to know something else. This range interested us. We want to offer a choice."
In correspondence over email, El-Haddad says that at first she feared the project would become another work aiming to present the situation in Gaza as normal. "I felt there was a chasm between the reality one finds in Gaza and the sense of guilt that the Israeli government and its residents feel; I did not want to be part of an absurd initiative that pretends we are tourists in Gaza." She feared the project would weaken her support for a campaign to boycott Israel.
"I believe the boycott is one of the effective and legitimate means left to end the Israeli apartheid regime and occupation, just as it led to eradicating apartheid in South Africa. I was afraid that my participation in the project would clash with my support for [the] initiative, but I do not see a contradiction here. If the project increases awareness of the situation in Gaza, using alternative ways, this means I am taking my own, creative part in resisting the occupation."
As for the chosen sites she says, "We tried to select places that have a connection with parallel sites in Tel Aviv's map, but we wanted also sites that are personally significant for me, as well as sites that are considered popular and places that only Gazans would recognize. For example, every street in Gaza has two names: the official name set by a ruler or an occupier that was there and a popular name that everyone uses and that usually says something about the city and its people."
Sites, smells and tastes
What did you want to emphasize in your description of the sites and the stories associated with them?
El-Haddad: "It was important to describe the site in the most accurate way but also in a very personal one. I did not want to turn it into idle, boring tourist chatter which one expects but to make the participants feel that they are inside Gaza, with me; that while listening, they will absorb the atmosphere, sense the smells and the spices, taste the food, feel the sea water and hear the taxi drivers honk."
Did you avoid using a certain tone or harsh stories?
El-Haddad: "I very much wanted to convey the sense of reality, even a harsh reality that no one wants to hear, such as death and destruction, cutting down fruit trees and the destruction of houses, but not to turn this into a bloody story, because that's what turns people away."
Zer-Aviv adds that the idea was "not to clobber and knock [viewers] to the ground. No doubt there is a reason to feel guilty. The problem is that this is not a productive feeling. If we remain with a sense of guilt which we cannot bear, we distance ourselves. On the other hand, a sense of responsibility fills one with energy, a good feeling, not helplessness."
El-Haddad says that working on the project was a "strong and emotional experience, because of the political situation and because I have been away from Gaza for a longer period than ever before. I recorded and described the places I used to go to with my family even though I am half a world away, knowing that at the moment I cannot return to my home and visit those places. It was a surreal experience. I am cut off from a place that my passport and other documents legally define as my home."
Will you return to Gaza?
El-Haddad: "I hope so. The last time I tried, in March this year, I was held at Cairo's airport with my children for 30 hours. In the end my entry was denied even though I have a Palestinian passport and a Gaza-residence card. I tried twice more but my request for an Egyptian visa was rejected. The additional and main problem is that my children may join me, but my husband cannot because he is a Palestinian refugee with no permit for family reunification. Israel turned down his request for entry. So 'to return' is not as easy as it sounds, unlike Mushon who can hop on a plane and within a few hours is there."
Her blog, she adds, is "an attempt to show how the personal is political for the Palestinians, how the occupation affects everything, including the way a person lives his life, what he eats and how he calculates his movements."
What about a converse tour, visiting Tel Aviv through Gaza's streets?
Zer-Aviv: "We have a problem with the symmetry. There is no symmetry. This is not an attempt at normalization. [The situation is ] not-normal. I don't think it would be right to tell people in Gaza that their reality really doesn't affect the bubble in which I live."
Even though the exhibition with the project is closing, the program will continue. One can download the map from the Web site and phone the number that relays the descriptions. It will be updated with El-Haddad's new columns.
"The project is durable," says Zer-Aviv. "It is a communications platform on which one can build more."
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