Barbed wire, dispossession and fear: Laleh Khalili on liminal lives spent in an ever-shrinking ghetto
In Ramallah, all conversations inevitably turn to "checkpoint stories": stories of rude or sadistic Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, stories of being stopped and questioned for hours at Ben Gurion Airport or the Allenby Bridge, stories of interminable waits at internal roadblocks, stories of road trips that should take 15 minutes but last four hours on bumpy roads circumnavigating a labyrinth of settlements, walls, barbed-wire fences, closures and checkpoints. More than anything else, the ubiquity of these stories indicates the gradual and institutionalised shrinking of personal geographies in Palestine, and the extent to which something as commonplace as travelling between two Palestinian locales has become circumscribed by the punitive "security" measures of the Israeli state.
Saree Makdisi's Palestine Inside Out accumulates an abundance of stories and statistics about this very process of contraction of Palestinian horizons. In a manner reminiscent of Noam Chomsky's meticulous marshalling of facts in support of a focused argument, and drawing on reports authored by various international or local organisations and news sources, Makdisi - a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert on William Blake - draws an extraordinarily detailed portrait of the Palestinian condition for general readers.
Each of the book's chapters shows a different aspect of Palestinian everyday life distorted by some Israeli technology of domination. The first of the cryptically titled chapters, "Outsides", tells the story of the wall that is gradually encircling Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, allowing the de facto annexation of Palestinian lands by Israel and effectively denuding Palestinian villages of their land, Palestinians of their jobs (and education or hospitals) and the Palestinian Authority of any substantive control over their alleged territories.
"Insides" examines the lot of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, whose liminal legal status as neither-citizens-nor-aliens locates them in a surreal no man's land of uncertainty and fear, where their meagre privileges (including their Jerusalem residence permits) can be stripped arbitrarily and their houses can be demolished on flimsy pretexts. The chapter also interrogates the centrality of settlements and settler ideologies in the complex of domination techniques of the Israeli Government.
Encirclement and total surveillance in Gaza and the West Bank village of Qalqilya are the subjects of the third chapter of the book, while the final substantive chapter draws a direct connection between the harrowing experience of Palestinians in today's West Bank city of Hebron - subjected daily to the violence of the most virulent Israeli settlers occupying the centre of the city - and the processes of dispossession and despoilment that began with the colonisation of Palestine and culminated in the expulsion of the majority of Palestinians from what was to become the ethnic state of Israel in 1948.
Through the gradual weaving of a tapestry of harrowing narratives in a lucid and measured tone, Makdisi succeeds in portraying the reconfiguration of everyday lives of ordinary Palestinians - "inside" or "outside" their ghettos - by the apparatuses of an occupation that shows no sign of abating.
In his coda, drawing on Returning to Haifa - the poignant novella by assassinated Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani - Makdisi writes that "the point is not to try to recreate a lost Palestine just as it was, nor is it to give up and go away, but rather to invent a new one, one that takes into account the new reality expressed by ... the suffering of European Jewry, but also the needs and desires of the Palestinians, who have also suffered".
Palestine Inside Out provides an account of everyday life and hardships for Palestinians, often obscured by the mass media focus on images of violence. In sketching a future in which the two peoples inhabiting the same tiny piece of ground can "mutually affirm" one another, Makdisi ends this relentlessly grim analysis of quotidian politics with a much-needed note of hope.
Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation
By Saree Makdisi
W.W. Norton & Company 320pp, £15.99
Published 1 July 2008
Laleh Khalili is lecturer in Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.