New York

Emily Jacir

Debs & Co.

For “Where We Come From,” her first solo exhibition in New York, Palestinian- American artist Emily Jacir posed a question to other Palestinians living around the world: “If I could do something for you, anywhere in Palestine, what would it be?” With her American passport and the freedom of movement it ostensibly conferred, she carried out the wishes of twenty-seven compatriots unable to return to or move freely about their home country. The records of these acts, mostly colorful photographs and a few videos, convey a quietly affecting glimpse of the devastation and intimidation that has come to define the occupation of Palestine.

Jacir’s 130-minute video piece Crossing Surda (A Record of Going to and from Work), 2002–2003, also installed here, is testimony to the strife. After an Israeli soldier tossed her passport in the mud and held her for three hours at gunpoint, the artist decided surreptitiously (and illegally) to record her traversal of the heavily guarded West Bank no-man’s-land between Ramallah and Birzeit University. This harrowing document features the hallmarks of the security state: a lengthy twice-daily walk along a pitted asphalt lane past checkpoints and guards armed with machine guns. Should inter-Semitic antagonism not end up consuming the globe in the apocalypse so giddily anticipated in, for instance, the theology of US Attorney General John Ashcroft, Crossing Surda will one day appall future generations who’ve had the good sense to abandon this kind of imperially exacerbated feudal animus.

Yet it’s the requests that Jacir receives from her displaced countrymen that most vividly illustrate the price the occupation exacts on the lives of individuals. Most are as simple as they are painfully telling. She’s asked to light candles in churches and mosques, to play soccer with the “first Palestinian child you meet in Haifa,” to “visit my mother, hug and kiss her,” to “go on a date with a Palestinian girl from East Jerusalem that I have only spoken to on the phone.” The photo Jacir has taken to document her proxy fulfillment of the last request is of a beautiful, sophisticated-looking young woman, the expression in whose eyes will leave only the stonehearted unmoved. Other requests are more mundane: Jacir eats a bit of sayadiyeh, a fish-and-rice dish, for Sonia; buys some arak, a clear anise liquor, for Habib; and spends “a day enjoying Jerusalem freely” for Osama.

Between the mutually perpetuating fanaticisms of the suicide bombers and the militant Israeli right, Jacir hollows a tentative aesthetic space in which it’s possible to sense, without feeling obliged to make excuses for the savagery of either side, the bitterness of exile. The responses she’s gathered seethe with a sense of loss that’s beyond retribution. Jacir’s project individualizes people often reduced to the stereotype of zealot or terrorist, and in our obscene moment, these reminders of Palestinian humanity will no doubt strike some as sentimental, disingenuous, or worse. But such codification of sensibility recalls Hasidic scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel’s aptly titled Insecurity of Freedom: “He who sets out to employ the realities of life as means for satisfying his own desires”—including, we may presume, the desire for security—“will soon forfeit his freedom and be degraded to a mere tool. Acquiring things, he becomes enslaved to them; in subduing others, he loses his own soul.”

Tom Breidenbach