A War in Postcards
Tim Jon Semmerling, Israeli and Palestinian Postcards: Presentations of National Self
University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, 2004, 233 pages, $ 24.95
Last Passover, as I prepared to bite into an Israeli Matzah, I noticed something odd about the picture on the box, a photograph of Jerusalem taken from Mt. Scopus, to the east of the Old City: the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock had been airbrushed out of existence.
Tim Jon Semmerling might smile at such a visual spin of geographical reality, perfectly illustrating the subject of his book “Israeli and Palestinian Postcards- Presentations of National Self.” An independent Middle Eastern scholar, Semmerling sets out to shed light on a small but growing field of inquiry: national self perceptions, or the way people look at their own society as well as at the “Other.” In this book, Semmerling focuses on those small artistic and commercial objects familiar to anyone who has ever donned a tourist cap — the picture postcard and the greeting card.
There is a rich tradition of representing the “Holy Land” in drawing, painting and photography, with many works by and for foreigners, often with colonial and racist undertones. This book is devoted to indigenously produced portrayals and how they express “competing claims for national identity and political rights…a struggle over national selves.” Semmerling aims to show how Israelis and Palestinians use postcards and greeting cards to represent themselves and how the visual objects foster and create a sense of national identity and legitimacy over the contested land and its history. The raging “sign war,” and the strategies the card makers consciously choose in promoting their own nation while downplaying or even denigrating the other nation, is nothing less than “the struggle for the ‘power to produce reality.’” Indeed, to Semmerling, the tourist who buys postcards is not just a tourist but rather “the ultimate semiotic accomplice.”
The bulk of the book is devoted to profiling representatives of both sides of the battle, although in an unequal and occasionally biased way. Despite the title of the book, Semmerling gives only one chapter to the Israeli side, which he entitles “Palphot’s Israeli Self,” after the chief Israeli card company. The cards he describes include images of high-leaping Hora dancers in 'peasant' outfits, ultra-orthodox Jews in Mea Shearim, soldiers praying at the Wailing Wall, and a falafel with an Israeli toothpick flag stuck in it. In contrast, he writes several chapters on Palestinian cards, dividing the subject according to distinct expressive styles as they relate to Palestinian selves: Cards produced by artists and showcasing individual histories, “Janus-Faced” cards where the Palestinian national self and the national Other are presented as a duality with emphasis on good versus evil, ecologically themed cards showing the land’s natural beauty and the deep Palestinian attachment to it, cards whose makers meet what they perceive as the West’s idea of the land, i.e. as the Holy Land, and “heritage-enriched” cards which attempt to fight what is perceived as Israeli appropriation of music, food, clothing and dance.
Among the Palestinian artists we encounter are Ziad Izzat, who hopes that his nature photos will help heal what he considers to be the Palestinians’ growing alienation from the land; art professor Kamel Moghani, who depicts his life, including imprisonment for political activity, in evolving styles, from Social Realism to Abstraction; and Bethlehem-based Maha Saca, whose cards provide images of strong modern Palestinian women while also celebrating traditional dress and customs.
In the last decade there have been several books and exhibits that similarly take on artifacts from popular culture and explore their quiet messages. Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum’s “A Trip Across the Country- Games from Mr. Barlevy’s Store,” for example, displayed colorful board games created before and during the first years of the Israeli state that promoted nationalistic values. Israeli geographer Yoram Bar-Gal, in such works as “The Good and the Bad: Hundred Years of Zionist Images in Geography,” and Daniel Bar Tal and Yona Teichman in their studies of the representations of Arabs in Israeli textbooks and children’s human figure drawings, have offered incisive studies. There have also been scholarly looks at postcard portrayals of the region by the Dutch anthropologist Annelies Moors, Sarah Orham Brown and others, some of which Semmerling acknowledges in his bibliography. Semmerling's book, however, is the first devoted entirely to the way the two sides use the postcard to make their case, and it stakes out important territory for further exploration. He does an excellent job of examining individual cards and their artistic expression, symbolism, and the interplay between technique and politics. We get a clear picture of the lives, inspirations, and motivations of the individual Palestinian artists and of their diversity
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