Ahlam Shibli

Max Wigram Gallery

In one black-and-white snapshot, Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli captures a seemingly prosaic handshake between an officer and a younger graduate during an Israeli military ceremony that concludes training camp. Fleetingly documentary rather than officially contrived, the photograph bears an oblique viewpoint that situates us behind the soldier, whose downward gaze falls deferentially—and perhaps insecurely—below the piercing confidence of his superior’s. It is one of eighty-five photographs that comprise “Trackers,” 2005, a series portraying the everyday life of young soldiers entering the Israel Defense Forces. The surprise hits when we learn that these men are not Jewish Israelis fulfilling their conscription, but voluntarily enlisted Palestinian Arabs of Bedouin descent.

Given the present conditions of political polarization, one might suspect that for Shibli, this phenomenon represents a double treachery—Bedouins betraying both their own ethnic group (also the artist’s) and other Palestinians. But remarkably, the photographs do not overtly condemn or politicize. Instead, the artist’s approach is documentary and neutral, elaborated with objective distance and through intimate close-ups of individuals. The resulting group of large-scale prints in color and black and white, thoroughly covering the gallery’s walls, encourages a suspension of ethical judgment and presents a psychosocial study of a marginal culture.

That Shibli effectively teases out the complexity of her subjects’ chosen path makes these images compelling. The series emphasizes nonheroic shots that humbly show soldiers during various exercises—learning to fire guns, apply camouflage makeup, hold grenades—and are free from scenes of conflict or of interactions with Israeli or Arab civilians. Portraying camaraderie among cadets, the photographs also grant access to their domestic lives during days off, depicting the young men riding horses—a longstanding Arab symbol of freedom—among hilltop villages. The series subtly uncovers the motivation behind the Bedouins’ volunteerism: Joining the IDF offers financial gain and elevated social status, enabling recruits to purchase for house construction specially discounted land beyond the reach of most other Palestinians. The cost is alienation from their neighbors. While the Bedouin tribes were historically nonterritorial, nineteenth-century agricultural developments encouraged settlement. Their nomadism has since migrated from geographical itinerancy to shifting political alliances, dramatized in one image that shows a proud Palestinian ex-soldier’s portrait painted beneath an Israeli flag. How ironic that these erstwhile nomads now guard the country’s borders from within the Occupied Territories—the traditional job of the trackers, as these Bedouin troops are known.

Shibli has commented that these Palestinian Bedouin are “now being robbed of what it is that once made them a part of their land.” This process of deterritorialization works in reverse as well: Israel’s military assimilation of Palestinians, whose service grants access to coveted real estate, undoes the link between the Jewish nation and its geographical state. Proceeding to judgment—which the photographs resist, but also cagily invite owing to their author’s identity and the viewer’s curiosity—requires consideration of what role this liminal social group might play in the eventual resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Will there be one state or two? Depending on which scenario one favors, “Trackers” depicts either the gradual disappearance of a culture opportunistically exchanging ethnic affiliation for financial independence, in effect identifying with its oppressors, or an avant-garde of multicultural nationality, unexpectedly led by the military, that will remake the face of Israel. Shibli’s photographs brilliantly provide insight into both positions.

T. J. Demos