Seeing and Unseeing

After laughter has loosened the fetters of fear and hostility, look at the men here and think not only about their humanity and vulnerability, but also your own.

"Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints," book and video clip in Arabic, English and Hebrew, designed by Sharif Waked, Andalus, 200 pages

Raise your sweater.

I have seen this on television, but it never occurred to me that it would happen here, right in front of my own home. I lifted my arms. He raised his gun.

I am telling you, raise your sweater.

I had to concede ... what other choice did I have? I raised my sweater, but there were a couple of problems. First, my jacket was still covering part of my stomach and back. And second, I had a shirt on under the sweater.

Take off your jacket. Pull up your undershirt.

Now this was really complicating things. Where would I put my jacket? There was no way I would put it on the wet, dirty ground. I love this Bally jacket ... I turned to the soldier: Could you please hold my jacket while I pull up my sweater?

Don't move, kneel down and pull up your clothes.

His voice was getting louder and angrier. I tried to explain: But I am Jacques Persekian. I live right here. You see me every morning. My wife is called Hania, my sons are Rami, Amir and ...

The above is an excerpt from one of the texts in the book under review, whose most important elements are the photographs and the accompanying DVD - along with, perhaps, its cheeky title: "Chic Point: Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints." Here, a series of good-looking male models offer solutions to the problems that bother Jacques. Had he dressed like one of them, he would not have needed to worry about his jacket: His shapely back, if indeed he has been blessed like the models with such a back, and his firm belly would have been easily revealed. For example, by the rapid opening of a long zipper sewn into his shirt, in the front and the back, or by way of a drop-shaped opening in it, or through netting made of large square openings that separate the upper and lower parts of the garment, or by the swift rolling-up of the front of the shirt by means of a special contraption sewn into it, and all kinds of other surprising inventions, which are seen in photos in the book and on the DVD - in a video clip about seven minutes long.

In the video, the models walk toward us to the accompaniment of noisy techno music. They stride professionally, one after the other, to the metallic sounds, slender and erect, their faces serious and sealed, their gaze fixed on an unknown point, near or far, never on the viewer. They pause for a moment, turn this way and that a bit to show off the garments, some of them patting the exposed skin on their stomachs. They then turn around and at that same moderate pace, sometimes swaying their hips a little, return to their place along a runway hidden from the eye, and allow the camera and the viewer to survey their clothing and the charms of their young backs from the rear until they are swallowed up into the blackness whence they came.

The videotaped fashion show ends suddenly in black silence and afterward, in the continuing, embarrassing and almost grating quiet - after the stylized noise that preceded it - a series of still black-and-white photographs appear on the screen. These show men, singly or in groups, exposing their naked bellies and chests to soldiers at military checkpoints, each photograph with the name of the place and year it was taken: Bethlehem, Beit Sahur, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Jericho, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003.

Most of the men in the photographs are neither young nor well built. There are some who are too skinny and some who have big bellies, and many have stooped shoulders and poor posture, perhaps in part because of the force of circumstances. In a few of the photographs, the arms of those who are walking toward the soldiers are frozen in clumsy positions, as though they are wondering whether to keep them in the air in the traditional gesture of submission, or to grasp their shirt or undershirt so that it doesn't fall down again and cover a suspect strip of body. Here, the darkness surrounding the models - whether used to make them stand out or to swallow them up threateningly - is replaced by bits of landscape and scenes of wretched human existence: a dirt or asphalt road riddled with puddles, the bars of fences, concrete cubes and armored vehicles, barrels of weapons and among them human beings, everyone in wretchedness and depravity - both the men who expose their nakedness and the soldiers in their jackets and helmets.

How does one digest something like this, I asked myself after watching the video, which in its seven minutes shook me up greatly and had me swinging back and forth between amused surprise accompanied by outbursts of relieved laughter, and dismay and embarrassment. And I also kept asking myself this question after looking at and reading the book, despite the interesting commentaries in some of its texts. What is this? A gimmick? Wit? A piece of brilliancy borne of a moment and an impression that will also vanish in a moment? And perhaps, after all, maybe more than that? Perhaps a small victory for art? A teeny tiny victory of good over evil? Of the oppressed over the oppressor? Perhaps in a small way - a very small one - this is the fulfillment of a wish of one of the books' contributors, filmmaker Elia Suleiman ("Divine Intervention," 2002), to turn reality upside down?

And as the impression did not evaporate in a moment, and the visual contrast (along with the audible contrast in the film clip) between the very aesthetic pictures of the surrealistic fashion show and the harsh photos from reality-on-the-ground gradually engendered within me more and more thoughts and insight, I am leaning toward the second possibility: Yes, there is more here than a gimmick. There is even a very precise statement here about the nature of Israel's military control over 3 million Palestinian civilians, about the absurdity that is at once dismaying, ridiculous and cruel, which has become an inalienable part of everyday reality. Attracting attention - by force of surprise and challenge to the habits of the usual sensory reception - to the vulnerable body, both covered and revealed, is what accomplishes the work here.

Different eyes

The eyes that look at these photographs are invited to do what the eyes of the soldiers, both male and female, try not to do: to take in the human, personal, vulnerable and unarmed intimacy of some of the hundreds and thousands of people who have been passing through these checkpoints day by day for very many years now - stepping in front of the weapons that are cocked and aimed at them, in front of police and soldiers armed from head to toe, whose eyes strip them naked - seeing and unseeing - as though all those people on foot, from young boys and girls to elderly men and women, have but one single identity: enemy, terrorist, so-called ticking bomb.

Look at them for a moment with somewhat different eyes, they ask us, demand of us, in the short film and the photographs. Now, after the laughter has released you from some of the petrified patterns of seeing and thinking, and has perhaps even loosened some of the fetters of fear and hostility, look at them and think for a moment not only about their humanity and vulnerability, but also about your own weakness - you who are behind all the layers of uniforms and flak jackets and steel, you who are looking for safety from an explosive belt and knives in the possession of so many people in an incomprehensible maze of fences and checkpoints.

Look at them in the wild and varied fashions of concealment and exposure that they are offering you, ostensibly, as a considered challenge, in Sharif Waked's well thought-out work - and perhaps you will find that it reveals in fact more than a glimpse of your own body. Indeed, that it reveals your own vulnerable flesh and skin, which all this absurdity that is becoming ever more sophisticated all around you cannot protect in the long run.

No, it cannot protect us: An interlude that both entertains and depresses, in the company of the short film and the book with its photographs and articles, might bring with it an awakening like this. Although only among a very few, in all likelihood. And perhaps there will even be some soldier who will, under its influence, hold the jacket for Rami and Amir's father when the man obeys his order and lifts up his sweater at the checkpoint right near his home on a cold day, and will turn the whole reality upside down for one fleeting moment.