Ossified Territory and Theaters of the Absurd: Personal Reflections on Taking Students beyond the River

By:  Elena D. Corbett, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College
The views expressed here are those of the author. Please see the full disclaimer at the end of this essay.

Mural on the Cardo, Jerusalem.

Quite by accident at what is still a fairly early point in my career, I have been at the helm of several study abroad opportunities for American students in Jordan.  Within recent days I returned to Amman from Jerusalem having accomplished a personal first:  as part of an institutional collaboration, a colleague and I had led a group of students forth and back across the river.  What follows is my attempt to grapple with a truly inarticulate mess of thought and feeling about the experience.

I don’t get to Jerusalem as often as I should.  The reasons are many, but revolve mainly around an overwhelming sense of absurdity that grows more cynical as years pass.  An historian of the modern Middle East, my research is based in Jordan, and has explored notions of identity as tied to antiquity.  By necessity this takes me over the river now and then, and I don’t like it.  It is absurd that I can come and go at will when so many people—with much better reasons for being there—cannot.  That I have a choice denied so many others.  That I can sit here in a state of privilege and try to give voice to the absurdity of a situation that, unlike for so many others, in no way determines my ability to live day-to-day as other than a human being who sees great responsibility in being…human.

The experience of Occupation doesn’t need anyone else to appropriate it.

I first visited Jerusalem at the end of my very first study abroad experience—an archaeological field school in Jordan.  It was summer 1996, I wasn’t even 20 years old, and had no idea that it was the start of a life wherein the personal, professional, and political are so inextricably intertwined.  As it had in diverse ways for countless other travelers over the millennia, my journey to Jerusalem became personally symbolic.  Still somewhat teen-aged and full of angst (and having devoted my professional life to working with this age group, I now know that how I felt then and for what reasons was in no way unique), it served as a metaphor for my own consciousness of transition, the so-called rites of passage including everything from tending a broken heart, to deciding what to do after graduation, and cultivating a greater general awareness of the world.

Jerusalem didn’t need anyone else to appropriate it.

As it turned out, however, that short trip to Jerusalem would mark a personal a transition for reasons other than (thank goodness) what angst-ridden teen-aged me initially understood them to be.  Watching Israel’s election returns in a café in Aqaba that summer was my first up-close and personal exposure to that thing variously called in American parlance “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” or “The Arab-Israeli Conflict,” or just “The Conflict.”  These are trite, useless terms that convey nothing, even if those of us who find them so vacuous teach classes called by such names.  I very clearly remember watching—weeks later—as elderly Arab women, one walking with a cane, were led away for special searches at the border, thinking that a lot of the T-shirts I saw in Jerusalem’s suqs were horrible Holy Land souvenirs, and a kid with a bloody nose crashing into one of my traveling companions as we rounded a corner, his pint-sized pursuers shouting at my friend that he should help them “beat him up.”  Given the outward appearances of all involved, the pursuers clearly hailed from one side of “The Conflict,” and Bloody Nose from “The Other.”  After trying to digest the entirety of my experience that summer, I knew that the rest of my life would be in some way tied to the intense desire to speak languages, to understand better, to learn as much as I could.  Jerusalem was a part of that, I suppose.

***

In the state of stress that descends in the days before the impending border cross, it’s easy to forget the inexplicable feeling of awe that overtakes you once you’ve actually arrived in al-Quds.  The stress is absurd, of course.  The worst that could happen to me, for whom this crossing matters so personally little, is that I could be waylaid for awhile (my husband, whose personal and professional life was also molded by fascination with the place was detained in the “special room” at the crossing once for several hours over some question about his religious identity and his name…he hasn’t been back since) or turned away.  During this most recent cross, my passport and its panoply of Other stamps garnered no special interest and off I went.  I was also with a sizable group of white American students, and while we got fast-tracked into an empty arrivals hall with our own personal passport agents to serve us, the busloads of browner people with whom we had waited in line to clear security got herded away for a distinctly different experience.  Ultimately we’re not the droids they’re looking for.

As for the sense of awe, I thought I had reached the point where it feels entirely absurd to me anymore.  On the one hand, I have now spent more than 10 years from dissertation to articles to book manuscript wrestling with the very real contemporary consequences of that sense of awe, and they aren’t pretty.  The devil is an imperialist, and the greatest trick he ever played was convincing the world that, by the same means taxonomy was a science, the nation-state (and everything that comes with it) is normative.  And liberals around the world, particularly the American ones, continue to ride roughshod on unicorns and neoliberalism across taxonomized landscapes that are either colonizer, colonized, post-colonized, or perhaps some hybrid of these, but certainly never de-colonized.  Conservatives, meanwhile, clear the landscape with UAV’s and tanks before reconstruction, and cynical me finds more honesty in that approach.

On the other hand, my work has forced me to confront the reality that identity is complicated, in application it has no sense of being monolithic, static, or cognitively dissonant, that notions of space as tied to identity are complex, and that places mean something to many people for a host of reasons.  As our bus from the border emerged from the tunnel and suddenly the Dome of the Rock was there on the right gleaming above the Old City, the students gasped and chatted excitedly.  It was the first trip to Jerusalem for all of them.  Sometimes their innocence is puzzling, and at others endearing.

***

I had a program in mind that was too ambitious for just one full day and a half to explore, several students in tow and in the first real heat of summer.  The ultimate failure of much of that program is what has prompted this reflection.

For those of us—especially the history and archaeology nerds—who have photos of our much younger selves exploring the living, breathing organism that Jerusalem was (and clearly is no longer), the sheer inaccessibility of much of the city’s ancient and contemporary heritage—by fences and gates, the cost of tickets that support unjust causes, and by discursive and touristic omission—is easily noticed.  Given my interest in Silwan, I have written about this phenomenon of the settlement masquerading as the national park/archaeological site known as the City of David, which lay outside what tourists understand as the Dung Gate, formerly an entrance to the Maghrebi Quarter before the neighborhood was bulldozed in the wake of the ’67 war, clearing the space of those living with the Western Wall to design a very different geography.

Where there once were readily accessible features with traditions of great import first and foremost to local residents of Silwan, there is now a gated community that charges an unbelievably hefty fee, the proceeds of which support the further annexation of the neighborhood by settlers in numerous ways and claims that heritage as exclusively Jewish.  This annexation proceeds apace.  The large area of debris adjoining the Western Wall complex—evidence of the destruction in 70 C.E.—along with nearby archaeological remains related to much later periods, and where not all that long ago one interested in such things could explore for free or very cheaply and without supporting what the fee supports now, is behind a locked gate.  Elad, the group spearheading the City of David project, either plans to or has already opened tunnels under the street connecting the two areas.  Meanwhile, a visit to the Burnt House (an excavated site from the 1st century A.D. that was destroyed about the time of the revolt) above the Western Wall complex now comes with a substantially higher fee than it did just a few years ago.  The ticket that you buy allows limited access to the actual archaeology, but, as the person selling tickets told us, you get to see “things about the House, and a movie about the Temple.”

For archaeology enthusiasts, it has come to this:  someone has decided that some ruins are the Jewish ruins, has sealed them off from the living context of the city of which they were formerly a part, and those who are interested are going to have to pay an arm and a leg to gain access, all the while being told how Jewish they are.  That arm and leg is far beyond what most students traveling on a fixed budget can afford, and supports the most nefarious kind of thing anyway.  As if that weren’t enough, the cruise ship and other package tours on which so many tourists arrive no doubt include the cost of the tickets to the City of David and the Burnt House, so most foreign visitors will have no idea how much they actually cost, perhaps less of an idea what they support.  And while putting bars between people and heritage that used to be accessible, including it in a particular taxonomy, and continuously expanding its “collection” is not the same obvious human tragedy that is war and the demolition of a neighborhood, the net effect is the same:  heritage is rendered not living but dead, urban space is transformed into a museum, and those who appear to live in the contemporary space are just as ossified, the glitter in the snow globe falling just where it should.

I have pictures of me from my first trip to Jerusalem standing next to fallen building blocks for scale.  My students do not.  And unlike my earliest photos from Jerusalem, their photos in the area of the Western Wall capture an unprecedented amount of nationalist swag, and a ramp leading to the Haram that is always closed.  If you don’t know where the other major contemporary access point for the Haram is, through the market and denoted with an unimpressive sign pointing only in Arabic to “al-Aqsa,” you’d have no idea how to get there.  As we arrived on Thursday afternoon, our best chance to visit the Haram and see Qubbat al-Sakhra and al-Aqsa up close was, based on previous experience, first thing Saturday morning.  For more than a decade now, the Haram has been closed to non-Muslim visitors most hours of the day, including all day Friday (which makes sense), but apparently also nowadays for all of Saturday as well.  My earliest pictures from Jerusalem include those taken on the Haram in the middle of the afternoon on some random day of the week.  It has come to this:  you will pay an arm and a leg to special interests to visit what those special interests have designated the most important “Jewish” sites, but your chances of visiting the most prominent “Muslim” site—for the sake of maintaining a consistent terminological theme and because the Knights Unicorn like labels—are slim to none.  The Haram and the monuments that dominate the landscape of the Old City are non-existent once the visitor is inside the city’s walls, and the closest most foreign visitors can actually get to them these days is an elevated point among the swag in the area of the Western Wall complex, which is also where the pedestrian itineraries, such as a walk along the city walls, are designed to lead.  And looking at the tourism office’s informational brochure about opening hours, the Haram is listed simply as the Temple Mount.

For the moment, many of the “Christian” sites remain free of charge, while becoming increasingly freer of local Christians and their heritage.

***

As a modern historian, I would be irresponsible if I didn’t try to take my students to see something that more obviously bludgeons them over the head with “The Conflict,” since the politics and socioeconomics of cultural heritage can be too subtle.  Most of the students in my part of the group had taken at least one course with me, and, because I use pictures in class that were taken several years ago when The Wall and checkpoint were still newer and shifting in Abu Dis, I figured that taking them there in person would be an easy way to get them out of the Old City and confront the reality of the contemporary situation.

Just as I usually find excuses to avoid crossing the border, admittedly I had found reasons not to visit Abu Dis in recent memory—or anywhere else I would have to cross The Wall or one of its checkpoints.  Shame on me.  My sorry excuse—again—is that I find it absurd to travel to a concrete wall that ruins lives and that I can cross at will for no good reason—while people argue over terms like “apartheid” and “separation” and “reservation” as if the nuances embedded in such policies really make a difference given the overarching paradigm in which we get all such colonial phenomena.  Yet I have old pictures there at Abu Dis—of myself and a friend for scale, of the artwork and graffiti, of the view of Qubbat al-Sakhra from the side of The Wall that determines who can and can’t go there—a participant in a touristic ritual bizarre as any of gawking at…at… “Insert Meaningless Term that Captures Nothing of Reality.”  As I was taking those photos years ago, I remember a young man standing on his porch answering his cell phone.  I imagine the person on the other end asking, “What are you doing?”  I imagine that because his answer was, “I’m watching foreigners take pictures of The Wall.”  Absurd, indeed.  And shame on me.

Having been told that the bus we’d have to take to Abu Dis late on a Friday afternoon was not the direct one, I was nonetheless surprised when the blue and white microbus left East Jerusalem headed for the highway.  What I remember as a slow and breathtaking ascent in the hills above the Old City is now a long, out-of-the-way trek beyond those hills, the most obvious landmark along the way being Ma’ale Adumim.  Abu Dis is at the end of this trek, accessible by a road with a banner hanging over it, much like the one that used to (and maybe still does) hang over the youth recreation center in Silwan, crediting USAID for the funding.  “From the American People,” indeed.  But who on Earth is going to turn down money for a road or a recreation center for the youth?  And who among the Knights Unicorn will, instead of patting themselves on the back and loudly declaring to the world that we’ve thrown Them some crumbs, will note publicly how messed up it all is?  Alas, the point is, in fact, that billiards are only so useful when the eviction notice or the wrecking crew arrives, or when the teenagers with guns come to haul you away for administrative detention.

The way I remember Abu Dis from quite awhile ago—and what made it so instructive—was how easily one could take a microbus up a hill, stand with the Old City behind and below, and find oneself in front of a gargantuan concrete wall bisecting an entire community, along which one could walk quite a ways and cross using a passport.  And it was one of those places where the actual checkpoint—which could move from time to time—could involve hoisting oneself or launching the elderly and the small over an obstacle, while an IDF teenager with a rifle, and thus the power over life and death, stood absurdly by looking either bored or stoned, or maybe both.  So much to my surprise, by the way we arrived there, the spectacle that had been made of Abu Dis is just several concrete panels, mostly visible as the microbus rounds a sharp curve in the road coming from the direction of USAID Street.  Evidence of the checkpoint is nowhere to be found there.  In fact, not realizing I had missed what little one can see of the spectacle, we rode the microbus about a half kilometer further, at which point the driver said, “This is the end,” and, after I explained to him what I was trying to do, he turned around and dropped us back at those concrete panels.

The students were confused.  This was not the surreal landscape I had described to them, nor did it look like any of my own pictures that I had shown in class.  And I was confused.  The rest of The Wall, the checkpoint, and the rest of Abu Dis are not visible there.  Not because something has magically resolved itself, but because the spectacle is hidden, and access to it is increasingly limited.  And the spectacle of access, the window onto the lives of those forced to partake in it (and without the right ID there’s not even forced participation for most) has itself been rendered inaccessible. If you didn’t already know what it looked liked beyond those few concrete panels, you would have no obvious way of finding out.  And the only landmark we had from that perspective to give us any sense of where we stood in the incomprehensible geography was the “back” of the Mount of Olives in the distance.  Who would have thought years ago that more distressing than the meaning of gauche Occupation tourism is what is meant by the fact that engaging in it now is such a hidden issue of access and disorientation?  After taking some absurd group photos in which we wore pretty absurd facial expressions (how does one pose in such circumstances?), we boarded the microbus to go back, and I tried to convey what was going on here, what had changed, and why it was so troubling.  I’m pretty sure I failed, and I’m pretty sure I’m trying to wrestle with that failure here.  As we pulled away, one of the students said, “This makes me sad.”  A few minutes later an IDF teenager with a gun would board the microbus, make a show of combing through our passports, take two teenagers off the bus and then let them back on again.  No conversation ensued.  After arriving back when the Friday sun had just set, several students wanted to observe the activities at the Western Wall, and the group split up.

***

And this idea—students going at sunset to the Western Wall complex as it exists now, today—brings me round to what I think is at the root of my struggle to comprehend this most recent cross-river excursion.  While Jerusalem may appear so alive to its sincere participants and sincere observers, it is actually on life support, and a toxic cocktail of occupation, nationalism, and neoliberalism is responsible, if one is even aware of their interstices or the existence of these phenomena at all.  The incredible amount of time I spend dealing with issues of identity and heritage has taught me that peoples’ natural interaction with heritage—all heritage—renders it fluid and alive, and it is modernity, still so shaped by colonial taxonomies, their concomitant institutions, and the power we give them by refusing to question them that has threatened heritage or outright suffocated it in so many places.  The irony of making the living spaces of the taxonomical Other disappear while creating gated living spaces of antiquity for the taxonomical Self is that the Self, unlike the Other, willingly surrenders its agency.  Like the biblical Holy Land skits at Chautauqua a century ago, the Self in its sincerity looks and behaves as it should, assuming a dutiful role ossified among the ruins and the swag as a player in a satire made for internal and external consumption—not since 3,000 years ago, but since the gates went up very recently and the bus route was established sometime thereafter.  As of yet, that Self is never the teenager with the rifle participating in another kind of sincere reality show on the last microbus of the night to the No Longer Spectacle for the disappeared Other who just sincerely refuses to disappear entirely.  And most of the foreign consumer-pilgrims are sincerely—and absurdly—none the wiser.

 ~~~

Elena D. Corbett is Assistant Professor of History at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.  Her research, based in Jordan, considers notions of identity as tied to archaeological heritage specifically and cultural heritage more broadly.  Her work has appeared in Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism and Middle Eastern Studies, and she is currently completing work on a book manuscript based on her dissertation.

Additional info:

Works published:

  • “Hashemite Antiquity and Modernity:  Iconography in Neoliberal Jordan.”  Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, 11(02), 2011, pp. 163-193.
  • “History Lessons in the City of Dawud:  Jordan’s Past and Complexities of Identity beyond Silwan.”  Middle Eastern Studies, 47(04), 2011, pp. 587-603.

Works in progress:

  • A Canvas for the Nationalist Mind’s Eye:  Archaeology and Narrative in Jordan (book manuscript).
  • “Building against Disaffection: the Case of Jordan’s Maqāmāt” (article manuscript).

~~~

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One thought on “Ossified Territory and Theaters of the Absurd: Personal Reflections on Taking Students beyond the River

  1. Elena,

    This is a complex and (I think) a courageous essay.

    It reads like thinking and truly does convey a sense of “grappling” with issues not of our making, but that necessarily must be confronted and somehow—what?—”neutralized”? (Wrong word.)

    At this moment, I’m crafting a grant proposal that will take me back and forth across the very border you traversed. So I’ll be spending some time, myself, thinking about how to view your “theatre of the absurd”.

    I can understand that your students might be quite uncertain (and wary) spectators of this frustrating Chautauqua—an apt characterization.

    Thanks for the post. Most provocative.

    RAH [Rick]

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