WILD PLANTS OF PALESTINE

My friend’s mum collecting scallions (spring onions), 2016

September 2016
[1]
It happened that I was accompanying my friend and her family to a piece of land they own and organically farm when I glanced the red tulips. The plot, located somewhere between the Palestinian village Kobar and the Israeli settlement Halamish, neighbours some other plots belonging to other Palestinians; most of them are planted with olive trees and seasonal vegetables. The lands are conspicuously hedged with low stone fences and cascading terraces (familiar with their vernacular Palestinian name: [2] Sanasel - سناسل) , firmly enclosed and preventing wild animals, especially wild pigs and rabid settlers, entering the ground and destroying “everything”, or simply setting the olive trees on fire.

There, in the delightful secluded plateaux, I came across the red tulips. Neat and vivid, quite big yet delicate and similar to the ones one can find in flower shops and posies. Actually, it was the first time I discerned their wild existence in Palestinian nature, as my friend’s father insisted: these are the tulips of al-Jabal (tulipa montana). Scattered in bunches all over the hills, they stood proudly together as for a performance, displaying their desirable enchantment and descending a hush on the crowd. And me, being fascinated by the pure irresistible beauty and marvellous combination of colour, shape and form, unlimiting my compliance with the instinct of ownership, I found myself collecting some of these coveted red tulips and taking them home. Very enthusiastic about their quality, I tried, in several attempts, to photograph them and highlight their wild and natural presence, their latent charm, or finally showing the way they were- disheveled.

Tulips worldwide according to Amsterdam Tulip Museum

[try I] wild red tulips, 2016

Previous attempts to photograph domestic flowers:

Lilium Hybrid- Red Alert, homage to Robert Mapplethorpe's flowers, 2016

 

 Arum Lili- Zantedeschia Aethiopica, 2014

 Arum Lili- Zantedeschia Aethiopica, 2014

 

At that time in March 2016, I was asked by the Palestinian Museum to accompany professors from the department of Biology and Biochemistry at Birzeit University in their weekly tours observing Palestinian flora and collecting data. We were led by a young taxi driver from the village of Kobar who seemed to be quite familiar with the area and its wild uncharted trajectories. For more than three months we used to spend the tours locating the plants in our lists, traveling from mountain to valley, asking passing villagers if they recognised the name of a certain plants and their uses. However, a comprehensive study and survey of the Palestinian flora would never be conveyed completely as our tours were restricted to the territories within the West Bank only. Due to the apartheid separation system and occupation circumstances our (research) area was confined to be between Jenin in the north and the hills of Hebron in the south; the journey itself might even be tackled with many military checkpoints and rampaged soldiers and settlers.  

Israeli military checkpoint/barrier in Beit Jala area (Al Khader village), 2016

 

Anxious about the quality of images I had to provide the Museum with, I spent a considerable amount of time looking for images and references. Interestingly but not surprisingly, I ended up with a bunch of old photographs (1900-1920) of Wild Flowers of Palestine found in the Matson Collection, Library of Congress. A hundred and twenty three mostly black and white photographs (2 not digitised and 4 hand-coloured), publicly open for view and download. These photographs depict plants, which vary between small-scale herbage to bigger bushes and trees, and provide elementary information on the coded photographs/documents rather the captured flora. Looking in detail at juxtapositions in some photographs of the plants and the surrounding landscape, sometimes architecture, and in some cases human beings - dwellers of Palestine in their traditional costumes - would thoroughly raise questions on the purpose of these photographs, on the (political) role of practicing photography in the Levant and North Africa from that era up until today. That photography that conveyed oriented look of the place and its people, captured landscapes, particularly in Palestine, served later colonial projects which deliberately focused on empty swaths of the land ignoring any cultural existence. It would also emphasise images repositories (such as the Library of Congress) positions of mapping (as a tool of sovereignty) and, finally, (mis)representing a place.

Wild flowers of Palestine. Tulip (Tulipa Montana Lindl), approximately 1900 to 1920, American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo Dept., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection

Wild flowers of Palestine. Tulip (Tulipa Montana Lindl), approximately 1900 to 1920, American Colony (Jerusalem). Photo Dept., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA, G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection

 

[potential image I] olive trees in the Palestinian landscape, picture taken during the observational tours with BZU professors, 2016

[potential image II] oak tree in the Palestinian landscape, pictures taken during the observational tours with BZU professors, 2016. I was extremely anxious about the white vehicle possibly being a settler’s

State of Palestine, PALESTINE CABINET'S ANNOUNCEMENT on the intention to consider the iris plant the national plant of Palestine.

[potential image III] Iris Germanica (3) (Bearded Iris / as-Sawsan), picture taken during the observational tours with BZU professors, 2016

The joint enterprise of accompanying the BZU professors in their observational tours was fostered by the Palestinian Museum as part of the preparation for its opening ceremony. The Museum wished to provide its guests with a printed brochure consisting of photographs and basic information on the tilled plants (peculiar to Palestine) while guests meander through its gardens. And so it was. Despite the abundant collection of facts and information I came to know about the Palestinian flora throughout these arranged tours, I found myself more transfixed by the mountainous landscape and multilayered yet appealing topography of the West Bank, particularly the west northern area of Ramallah/Birzeit and the surrounding villages. Passing through the trajectories of this place, which is replete with its own history and fraught with its own tense silence, made it impossible to not let my eyes to cruise along the invisible memories and incidents of the land. An omniactive visual experience that photography and images could never entirely guarantee.

Rural mountainous landscape (with urban intervention) in Battir village, 2016

Battir village area: the Israeli train railway and surrounding Israeli settlements, 2016

 

Who is likely to receive information?

These observational tours have allowed me to look through my photographs again, to remember how enjoyable photography could be and to infer its pedagogical potential — yet highly political and selectively vague for its phantasmagoric and surveillance quality [4]. Moreover, through its digital widespread presence and myriad ways of usage and application, photography has been widely misused and, importantly, misunderstood. In her contribution to Visibility Machines, Hilde Van Gelder says that due to photography and film’s attitude for claiming to testify about [an event], they are both considered a way to approach reality as not only the result of a committed process of investigation, but also as a personally recorded experience. Thus, “photography and film”, she continues, “become a privileged instrument [through their wide and democratic use in the age of Instagram and selfie] to artistically contribute to imagining a more egalitarian world.” [5] However, photography would rather be a didactic instrument that encourages the viewer to see through the obvious information and to look at what is “hidden” inside the image itself. That is to say, the urgent role of photography and film is to empower the spectator, fostering her/him to perceive everyday reality from a different angle. [6]

These very particular trips steered me towards the red tulips, the archival flora’s photographs in the Matson Collection surveying the wild flowers of Palestine (in 1900-1920), and the planted Balloon Satellites function (see images observational tours V-VIII below). All drew my attention to the fawning and allegorical attributes of photography and its various practices and uses. The integration of photography and image production have been prominently constituting a structural dowel in realms (of capitalist) tourism, observation, espionage, surveillance, domination, etc., and yet are informationally restrictive. This would only emphasise the gaps and imbalance in the so-called visual culture, and thus the knowledge-as-power concept worldwide. It would also make me wonder how objective and un-ethnographic photography, tool and practice, could, or could not be. As well as, I would question the representative image/s a museum, or any other institution in Palestine, is trying to convey. Could an image of the Palestinian landscape ever utterly and truly represent Palestine?

[observational tour III], Eli Israeli settlement from behind the car’s window, 2016

 

[observational tour IV], Silwad village - the highest minaret in Palestine, 2016

 

[observational tour VI], Silwad village (notice the upper right corner), 2016

[observational tour V], Silwad village (notice the upper right corner), 2016

 

[observational tour VII], Tall Asur, 2016. Tall Asur - is a hill and one of the highest points in the West Bank, with an altitude of 1,016 metres (3,333 ft). It has two peaks, one of them is an Israeli military base.

 

[observational tour VIII], operational art, 2016


FOOTNOTES:

  1. Wild Flowers of Palestine is the title of a photographs collection (circa 1900-1920) found in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue (PPOC) of the Library of Congress. The list, belonging to G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, depicts 123 photographs of wild flowers and plants growing in various places in Palestine. Amongst the flowers and angiosperms are: wild pink onion, wild catnip, wild garlic, almond tree in blossom, lily of the field, chamomile, tulips, and many others. Direct link to the list: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=wild%20flowers%20palestine&sg=true
  2. These terraces were traditionally formed by stonewalls erected by local villagers, transforming the hilly landscape into graduated steps that were more suitable for agriculture. See http://www.palmuseum.org/language/english and http://palgbc.org/index.php/en
  3. Determined to “make the desert bloom”, rejuvenating the earth and later on greenwashing the occupation, the Zionist movement (and the Jewish National Fund aka Keren Kayemet LeYisrael) transplanted some of the European flora to Palestine. Altering the Palestinian landscape while covering the ruins of the depopulated Palestinian villages for the sake of creating forests and recreational parks. Amongst these plants are most common the conifers and eucalyptus trees. For more information see http://jfjfp.com/?p=33219
  4. See Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History - XI. Eternal Return, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1998.
  5. Hilde Van Gelder, Reclaiming Information, Rebuilding Stories: Reinventing Fundamental Rights, 2014,Visibility Machines. Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen p. 66, UMBC Centre for Art.
  6. Ibid

 

 

-----
PHOTOESSAY BY: ALAA ABU ASAD