Does That Make You Feel Bitter? Relieved? Blasé?

An Interview with Yazan Khalili

By Tirdad Zolghadr
  • Tirdad Zolghadr

    Tirdad Zolghadr is a writer and curator. The working title of his third novel is Headbanger.

Yazan Khalili (b. 1981) was trained as an architect, works as an artist, and is co-owner of the landmark Ramallah bar Beit Aneeseh. He recently relocated to Amsterdam to pursue an MFA at the Sandberg Institute.


TZ: You have an MA from Goldsmiths College in London and have decided to pursue another at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. How does art education come across to someone with a trajectory in architecture, activism and art production too? Also, speaking of the subject position of the student, the artworld is in love with Jacotot. No one will admit to being an authority. Everyone loves to insist on how they learn so much from their students. De facto, however, a student is considered a producer of minor knowledges, just like they are elsewhere. How does someone with as much experience as you, and with an ego as enormous as yours, fit into a schooling environment?

YK: The decision to pursue art education didn’t really come from a need for art education, even if it is indeed justified and rationalized by that need. I mean, I use it to justify the fact that I moved to Amsterdam on my own expense, with no scholarship, leaving all I’ve accomplished in Ramallah behind, ditching the financial and social security I’ve achieved over the last few years, just to become a student (again), in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Believe me, it wasn’t easy to explain to anyone (you should have seen the look on my parents’ faces). It was impossible to tell the truth, which is that I simply hate Ramallah, and I needed to leave. Living in Ramallah is like being married to a cousin. Everything stays in the family, the diseases as well as the madness. You keep meeting the same people who have the same issues, you’re stuck with the urgency of the situation, the need to reflect immediately on events that never seem to end, and everything is political or politicized, but no one actually has the power to affect the real politics. A bubble within a bubble within a bubble, a bit like a cabbage, and above that, wrapped with the plastic wrap of the military occupation.

Anyway, I’ll stop whining like a little bourgeois brat; every city has its issues and its reasons to leave it. Having decided to leave, neither my Jordanian nor my Palestinian passport offered any real options. But then I saw a call for submissions to the Sandberg Institute (once again, e-flux proves to be an all-important mailing list), and I realized that being accepted would provide me with a two-year resident visa in Europe.

Many, many Arabs use education as an escape boat, and I’m actually thinking of making a new work on the visa application process. Now you might ask, Why not apply for art residencies? Well, in 2011 I applied to thirteen, and wasn’t accepted to any. The worst feeling ever, especially with the ego you develop as you write the inflated personal statements. A haunting, unforgiving experience. Leaving you with low self-esteem, and doubting the work you do. Is it even art that I’m doing, or a representation of the Palestinian cause? Can it ever really work in an art situation? Is it too anthropological?

But I’m here now, and have to deal with the fact that I’m doing a second Masters in fine art. And my impressions, well, so far they’re confusing. I’m removed from the context I’ve been relating to artistically so far. Generally, I’m interested in art as a tool for political interest, a tool that allows me to withdraw from a direct confrontation with the situation, toward a more postponed encounter with the collective and personal narrative. I’ve also been relating it to failure, to a conscious failure to represent the mainstream politics of the Palestinian public, which is usually what the international and local audience wants to hear from a Palestinian.

Art needs to reference its own history in order to create a context for its existence. At Sandberg, everyone speaks about artists whose names they know by heart, and everyone knows who they are influenced by, and even who they might influence in turn, etc. I myself have no idea about these histories, in fact, I’m concerned with them only when I can trace them from within a broader history. Like Jackson Pollock receiving government support during the Depression, or the importance of the CIA during the Cold War, both to Pollock and the documenta and others more. It’s too early for clear opinions on studying here. In a way, I’m finding this crisis to be a positive sign that Sandberg is opening me up to new knowledge. If art education is important, it is because it allows you to experiment under the umbrella of an institution. Which is why I’m now trying to revisit my work in terms of its formal elements, trying to objectify it, read it from a distance. How does darkness appear when it isn’t a documentation of the lack of light, but points toward a history, whether an art history or beyond? What forms can open up a work to its own wider implications without making it a simple lonely scream against EU visa policies?

TZ: I’m not so sure your moaning about Ramallah is a “bourgeois” thing necessarily, even though it sounds familiar. Could it be generational? If I look at people around their forties and up, Khaled Hourani or Yazid Anani for example, I sense a particular pride of place. There may have been a shift in the way the “culturati” relates to this town.

YK: You’ve caught me on this. I think I use the word “bourgeois” in a pretty loose way (despite my socialist family background) to describe any upper middle class group that is well educated and “critical” toward mainstream culture, and that goes to places like Beit Aneeseh and Zamn café, and is perhaps involved in the NGO business on some level, with what I’d call soft political tendencies. In other words, it describes a good chunk of Ramallah now, a middle class city obsessed with its image as a modern, organized place; with traffic lights and proper sidewalks, and anti-riot police with regulations on where one can demonstrate and where one can’t. Demanding better living conditions as a political gesture of self-determination in itself, and obsessing over the Mahmoud Darwish poem “There’s on this land what is worth living.” I would say this is the new neoliberal slogan for our times: maintaining that the reason for living is being able to consume.

The essential question is: What is the role of culture in the production of the new society? What are we working toward? What is our relation to the mainstream politics of the Palestinian Authority and the neoliberal economy we are immersed in? And by we/our, I mean the loosely bourgeois group mentioned above.

As for the two names you mentioned: both have been living in Ramallah since well before Oslo, whereas I’m a post-Oslo Ramallite, a returnee as it were. I do have a sense of pride as well, I always feel Ramallah is the city of returnees, and contains all the diversity that came with the newcomers, but at the same time I want to always keep one foot outside…

TZ: I actually heard that Amsterdam was Plan C. That before moving there you were torn between Beirut and Lagos?

YK: Yes, when I finish this MFA, these two cities are still on the top of my list. Have you ever heard of the MINT countries – Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey? They’re the update of the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India, and China. The emerging economies that are expected to boom in the coming forty years or so. Well, I do wonder whether such growing economies could be good for artists, and how the definition of art might be affected by the rise of new economies. What is more decisive for art? The shifts in economic power, the weight of the metropolitan centers, or age-old European culture? Could Lagos become an international center for art production (money-wise at least) similarly to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Doha?

It’s funny how artists always have to speculate on economic changes, whether consciously or not; where to be at the right time, what kind of art will be exhibited and so on. Right now, the archive and archival “research” is the big thing; even previous works are being re-read through the notion of the archive. So what would be the next trend? Cultural capital isn’t only about economics but also about the relation to a certain urgency on the political spectrum, one that sometimes lends the art an essential edge. Think of the civil war in Lebanon and its effect on the cultural scene. How will the proximity to the war in Syria affect the field booming there right now?

TZ: Let’s get back to Amsterdam. How is Holland treating you? I cannot resist mentioning a rumor about a fight in a bar, when a tiny teenager dared to poke fun at your outfit. Is this type of thing a common occurrence in your everyday life?

YK: To tell you the truth I don’t remember exactly what happened. All I can say is, I woke up next morning with my clothes all ripped. Common occurrence? I guess I could mention this one night, when I was with a group of friends at an Indian restaurant, waiting for the menu and feeling very hungry. When the waiter came, he asked whether I was from Israel. I laughed, and a friend answered for me, saying, “Not really. Very close, and yet very far away.”

“Palestinian!” the waiter laughed.

“Yes,” I answered, adding, “but why did you think I’m Israeli?”

“You all look alike, you Middle Easterners,” he answered, smiling.

“They are not Middle Easterners. They’re from over here.”

“No,” he answered, “they are not from over here at all.”

“Oh yes they are!”

“No they’re not!”

I had to think of the history behind all this anger, the Holocaust, the white Christian Europeans annihilating the European Jews in the gas chambers, and instead of apologizing, by encouraging them to become equal citizens, they work with the Zionists to export the survivors to the Middle East, so they become someone else’s problem, and become the victims of both European discrimination and of Israel, especially the Arab Jews, who were disassociated from their Arab origins to become part of the European project of colonization, so they’re now despised by all other Arabs. I was getting angrier and angrier at this giggling waiter who thought I was Israeli because I look Middle Eastern, saying European Jews weren’t Europeans, as if to ultimately imply that the Holocaust had a reason to happen, even if I as a Palestinian had to lose my land and get sucked into all this shit, and even if generation after generation had to deal with this mess forever, just because this stupid motherfucker white European wanted to have a white Christian Europe, as is plain to see in the immigration policies, in the discrimination that is so embedded and regulated it’s become normalized. “Racism Without Racists” is the phrase that suddenly started echoing in my head. “Racism without racists,” I shouted, and a fight broke out, so basically I broke his face into pieces, then threw the plates and glasses at him, along with every fork, spoon, chair, Palak Paneer, and Chicken Masala I could find, plus the porcelain elephants and paisley curtains, everything, the napkins, tables, chandeliers, doors, even the remaining restaurant guests, then the streetlights and the bus stations, I wanted to keep piling it up on top of him, when the police came. In the police station, I tried to explain, I tried for days, first to them, and to the judge later on, that it wasn’t my fault, that I was just doing what needed to be done. I kept screaming but they thought I was crazy, and this whole thing went on for weeks. So this is why I kicked that waiter’s ass. I simply didn’t want to explain everything from the beginning anymore. To explain to him that for a Palestinian all Israelis are white, regardless where they come from, simply because the Zionist project is a white colonial European project.

TZ: Unless I’m mistaken, you were involved in the petition against the Sharjah Biennial in the wake of Jack Persekian’s dismissal 2011. At the time, it caused a real stir. But today, Sharjah is already OK again. Does that make you feel bitter? Relieved? Blasé?

YK: Let’s see if I can actually answer this – not sure I have enough critical distance from the event. Did it ever even end? Or is it still ongoing?

Artists are more powerful now, they play the same game the sovereigns are playing with art and culture, as an image-building tool, especially in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Doha. The Gulf Labor campaign for the rights of workers on Saadiyat Island is another example of the empowerment of artists vis-à-vis government-funded institutions and petrodollars. Artists now acknowledge that it’s not (only) through their work that they can impact the real politics, but by getting involved in classical methods of protest. We just saw what happened at the Sydney Biennale.

What happened in Sharjah came from the same sense of power – remember this was all happening during the peak of the Arab Spring. Although the petition was against the dismissal of Jack, it was also against the censorship of artworks, and the direct interference of the sovereign within the art scene that he directly sponsors. The petition raised questions on relations between artist, institution, and the sovereign in a globalized world in which positions are getting completely diluted. In other words, I do feel relieved that the Sharjah Art Foundation is OK once again. In the end the petition was neither about destroying SAF, nor about Jack getting his job back, but about democratizing the relationship between art institution and artist when facing a sovereign that tries to capitalize on that very relationship.

TZ: You once said that to boycott is to submit yourself to restrictions that will haunt the outcome. That austere self-limitation, even in the name of a good cause, is a conservative and self-defeating tactic. Is this the reason you’re critical of BDS Israel?

YK: First and foremost, I’m supportive of boycotting Israel, I find it one of the most essential tools to create a new political dynamic, and to voice the ethical and moral demands of the oppressed. I recently wrote two articles about the BDS, one for 7iber e-zine and the other for Tidal. The first was written in Arabic and criticized the institutionalization of the boycott as a hierarchical political body, one that becomes an international reference for good and bad politics; such power in the hands of what is supposed to be a grassroots movement scares me. The second text is in English, coming up on tidalmag.org. I was trying to think of a possibility for the boycott movement to call for the seizure of the Zionist state, not only in the support of the Palestinians but also in the support of the Jews, meaning that I was reading the Israeli state as a continuation of the European atrocities toward the Jews rather than a resolution thereof. The boycott movement should speak on behalf of all the victims of the Zionist state – the Palestinian and the Jew – otherwise, whatever result will come out of such struggle will be the continuation of injustice.

TZ: One night in August 2013, when three Ramallah kids were shot dead by Israeli troops, Ramallah shut down in protest. As a visitor, I was utterly amazed. Then I found out that some young local dudes were “encouraging” people to close shop. This I found disappointing. When I shared my disappointment with locals, some of them called me a starry-eyed airhead, who wanted all politics to be spontaneous and cutesy. You yourself, as co-owner of Beit Aneeseh, were negotiating with those young local dudes. What is your take? Are you a starry-eyed cutesy airhead like me?

YK: Look, with the Oslo Accords, cutesy spontaneous politics make no sense anymore. Even the strikes, which go back to the first Intifada don’t work anymore. Who are they even addressing?

The new geography separates the oppressed from the oppressor even while the oppression continues. What happens in Area A doesn’t affect the Israeli apparatus, because the Palestinian Authority works as a buffer to make sure the separation is maintained. One can, however, read the strike as a conscious political gesture saying we don’t recognize this separation, therefore seeing the PA as the same apparatus as the Israeli one, an extension of it, and also seeing the current local economy as a result of this extension. So getting shop owners to close becomes a political statement against this economy.

Or you can say that these kids are old-fashioned, out-dated revolutionaries, still stuck in the image of the first Intifada, but bereft of the spirit of a genuine grassroots movement that acts spontaneously and publicly. They think closing shops is enough for a political statement, but miss the point that it should be about creating an economy that depends on the solidarity and the genuine participation of the masses. It’s tricky to have a business in Palestine. I’m the co-owner of a bar that depends on the stability of the current situation – and the current situation is one of normalization of destruction. So I’m torn between personal success and collective failure.

TZ: There was quite a hubbub around Eyal Weizman’s book Hollow Land. Especially his discovery that Israeli paratroopers were using Deleuze to chart rhizomatic paths through Palestinian towns and villages. I too was very excited and considered this excellent proof that activist-intellectuals in privileged positions should focus on mechanisms of oppression, not on lending voice to the subaltern or some such. Weizman, in other words, was doing the very best an Israeli researcher could possibly do. You were actually his student. And you once shared an interesting footnote to the whole thing, saying that these rhizomatic movements may have been gleaned not from Parisian theorists but from the way the Intifada moved through urban spaces. Which in turn raises good questions regarding the strategically “removed” position on behalf of more privileged intellectuals.

YK: In the first Intifada, there was this agreement that no one closes the front door, thereby allowing young men and women to escape from Israeli soldiers as they move from one home to another, and from one garden to another, without having to knock. This alternative urban map reminded me of the going through walls strategy that the Israeli army used in their invasion of Jenin and Nablus. But these experiences aren’t mentioned by generals who prefer to link their practices to theory and philosophy. Bestowing themselves not only with the power of the gun, but also the power of the intellectual. And claiming that they are developing their policies regardless of the occupied.

TZ: Colour Correction (2007-2010) is the most widely exhibited of your works. Something of a signature work Why that one? And has your perception of it changed over the years?

YK: Buuuffff. Colour Correction. It made an artist of me. It transformed all my architectural trials into a single artistic one. I began working on it after a trip to Istanbul. Do you remember the Istanbul Biennial in 2005, when they painted the exhibition sites pink? This made me think of the chromatic possibilities of concrete facades, and of Palestinian regulations regarding limestone cladding on all buildings and the reason for all the limestone being the maintenance of a supposedly Palestinian architectural identity. I hate the monotony that ensues, and I began searching for possibilities to paint the city, for moving beyond this stagnation in tradition. The only place this coloring would even theoretically be possible is in the camps, simply because they’re built with concrete, and with cement blocks. This analogy between the city and the camp (with all the political, social, and economic issues involved) became the anchor of my work, and coloring the camp became my subversion of Palestinian identity. Only the camp as a symbol, even a symbol of destruction, can construct a new identity that is emancipated from architectural traditions.

But enough of all this bullshit, the work was successful because it contained the essential elements of Palestinian representation: tragedy and hope. Something the international audiences love to see. Even if, looking back, I have to say that this artwork did affect my later work, its relation to the fictional and the factual, the fine line between the documentation of photography and the fantasy of Photoshop. Landscape of Darkness (2010), for example, came from that place precisely. How does a photograph of darkness liberate sight from what is constructed to be our landscape? The Wall isn’t only meant to separate us from our vital spaces; it is also there to become our landscape. Can we liberate ourselves from having to depict it?