Barbur 24000

barbur 24000-2

barbur 24000-1

Barbur 24000 is the name of a performance that I have made in 2004. Its name is the name of my neighborhood (Barbur means Swan) and the zip code. In this performance (that came after Barbur Aswad) I decided to investigate the White as a representation of the pure. The installation was built from 13 tents made from towel cloth (for each member of my family) and a list of purity lows written on the wall, white on white. Aharon Barnea, then a corespondent for arab affairs, participated in the performance as a translator, and was my liaison between Art and life.

A.A.

Anisa Ashkar: Barbur 24000

By Tal Ben Zvi

The performance Barbur 24000 (2004) was presented at the Midrasha School of Art, Beit Berl College. The title was inspired by the artist’s neighborhood in Acre: the Arab neighborhood “Barbur” which acquired its Hebrew name (meaning swan) from the construction of a ceramic factory by the same name in it, a severe hazard to the environment and inhabitants alike. 24000 is Acre’s zip code. In the exhibition space Ashkar installed thirteen models of white canvas tents.1 The bottom part of each bore the title of the exhibition in Hebrew, Arabic and English, in black print, with the swan symbol next to it.

As the performance begins, Ashkar is seen with an inscription in Arabic on her face, wearing a white dress made of terrycloth. She is accompanied by Aharon Barnea, commentator on Arab affairs and Israel’s Channel 2-TV anchorman on the Sabbath eve news edition – in the capacity of translator. Dressed in suit and tie, Barnea leans against the wall, listening to Ashkar’s words in Arabic, trying to translate them into Hebrew for the audience comprised mainly of Jewish Israelis.

The white wall bears an Arabic text in white print, specifying the ten stages of Taharah (purification) in Islamic Law (Wudhu – Ablution). At the beginning of the performance Ashkar is seen erasing the white writing on the wall with a white eraser and vigorous bodily movements. When she is done, she turns to a pile of 1-liter milk bags at her feet, emptying them one by one into a bowl, and then starts rubbing herself with the milk, and simultaneously with the act of bathing, reads out the purification instructions:

Ashkar in Arabic: He should wash his hands up to the wrists thrice.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: Rinses her mouth thrice, cleans his teeth.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: Wash his entire face thrice.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: I can’t see, white on white, white again, everyone’s white, anyone who can, only white, white rules.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: Wash his arms up to the elbows thrice (right arm first) […]

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: In the days of Cleopatra and Nefertiti, they used to bathe in milk.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: Anyone seeing me pour out milk, tells me, why, isn’t it a shame? Instead of just spilling it, they told me, why not send the milk to Gaza, they need milk. I told them: by the time the milk gets to Gaza, it’ll be sour […]

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: My mother couldn’t come to the performance because there’s alcohol here, they can’t because they went on pilgrimage to Mecca, there’s a prohibition on alcohol. I told them it was all right, it’s fine by me. But my sisters came; here they are (she points out her sisters in the audience).

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: They say that white cleanses. What does it cleanse, I don’t know.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: When Mom and Dad went to Mecca for the Hajj,2 in the last days of the Hajj, during the stoning on Mount Arafat, which was very remote […] they erected a tent close to the place so they could get there faster and have a rest.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: And then people said they got lost or died.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: People who came with them to the Hajj from Acre started crying. When we called to see how they were, they didn’t tell us, they were scared, they thought what can we tell them, a family, 11 children, what can we tell them, that their parents got lost? On one side of the mountain, the friends from Acre, on the other side – my parents. (Now my parents are very happy, they are going to make a private pilgrimage, Umrah3). On the last day, the friends from Acre lost all hope –

Ashkar turns directly to Barnea in Arabic: Do you know them?

Barnea in Arabic and then in Hebrew: Perhaps, some of them.

Ashkar in Arabic: I told him: You are about to see madness, I told him to stick with me.

Barnea in Hebrew: She told me to stick with her, that I was going to see the madness, but to stick with her. As long as you are pouring milk on yourself – what do I care?

A female member of the audience in Hebrew: Careful that she doesn’t spill milk on you.

Barnea in Hebrew: Don’t worry, I warned her in advance.

Ashkar in Arabic: I heard you, I’m a good girl.

Barnea translates into Hebrew.

Ashkar in Arabic: Tell them what the woman at the door asked you.

Barnea in Arabic: Say what she said, don’t you remember? You forgot?

Ashkar in Arabic: I didn’t forget.

Barnea in Hebrew: The woman asked if you were my daughter.

Ashkar in Arabic: And what did you reply?

Barnea in Arabic: Well, what did I say?

Ashkar in Arabic: I wish.

Barnea in Hebrew: I wish.

Barnea in Hebrew: Enough (Enough pouring milk).

Ashkar in Arabic: The white has taken me over.

In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas4 maintains that the private body and the social body reflect one another in the symbolical realm, and therefore rituals pertaining to the body often represent social contradictions. Hence, the care for the purification of the body reflects a sense of threat – both external and internal – to the social structure. Ashkar, who bathes in milk throughout the performance, radicalizes this threat through her vigorous body movements and the authoritative tone with which she recounts the biographical text in Arabic.

The audience, Jewish for the most part, clearly trusts Barnea’s translation as supervised by Ashkar and her sisters in the audience.5 In this respect, Barnea’s presence is a paradox: on the one hand, he is alert to Ashkar’s utterances while she generates the content and rhythm of the text; on the other hand, his figure, which knows both Arabic and Hebrew, ostensibly supervises the contents and meanings attached to the biographical text. In the exhibition space, only those who understand both Arabic and Hebrew can supervise the evolving text, and in this sense, both Ashkar and her family, who represent a part of the Palestinian minority in Israel, and Barnea, the commentator on Arab affairs, the main speaker of the hegemonic Israeli-Zionist discourse, are fragments of a single reality.

Ashkar emphasizes her acquaintance with Barnea twice, when she turns to him directly. The first time she asks him if he knows her parents’ friends from Acre, and the second time she asks him to tell her what the woman at the door said. “Did you forget?” he replies, “The woman asked if you were my daughter.” Thus the biographical narrative which puts the story of the family making a pilgrimage to Mecca to perform the rite of Hajj at its core, ostensibly ends with the appropriation of Ashkar as a daughter.

Ashkar, however, is not taken by the magic of the imaginary family, and throughout the performance, vis-à-vis the biographical text, she maintains the binary relations between Hebrew and Arabic, strictly refraining from speaking Hebrew, thus in fact repeating the rejection of the bilingual array that has become rooted in her place of residence, as presented in her performance Barbur Aswad. In Barbur Aswad Ashkar attached the Arabic word “aswad” (black) to the pastoral Hebrew name “barbur” (swan). She mixed the milk with black ink, rendering the blackness a quintessential stereotypical marker of ethnic and cultural differences.

Whereas in Barbur Aswad blackness is indicated as the major concern through the black ink and Ashkar’s black clothing, in Barbur 24000, white is the essence. Ashkar is dressed in white, erasing the white writing from the white wall, and is surrounded by white tents. In the course of the performance she bathes in white liquid and drips white liquid, constantly repeating the adjective white (abyad in Arabic): white on white,6 white rules, etc, ending the performance with the sentence: “White has taken me over.”

Homi K. Bhabha maintains that:7

    “whiteness” is a screen for projecting the political phantoms of the past on the unfulfilled surfaces of the present; but at the same time it resembles what house painters call a primer, a base color that regulates all others, a norm that spectacularly or stealthily underlies powerful social values.

The primer in this case is the Israeli-Zionist – Jewish-Ashkenazi – whiteness which is the source of power and authority of Israeli culture as a whole, and of the art field in which Ashkar operates in particular. Ashkar locates herself in a space which is “white on white,” exposing whiteness as an “unsettled, disturbed form of authority.” 8 She does so through Barnea’s main source of authority – his mastery of the Palestinian Arabic language.

Throughout the performance Ashkar speaks in her mother tongue. Barnea, in contrast, utters most of the text in Hebrew in first person feminine and in Arabic with an Israeli accent, and only rarely does he deviate from his role as translator and speak in Arabic.9

The biographical text, which is based mainly on intra-cultural Islamic Palestinian contexts, emphasizes, for a change, the accent of the Jewish speaker and his foreignness in the biographical textual system which Ashkar unfolds. Despite the reversal of power relations between the Palestinian Ashkar and Barnea the commentator, however, the simultaneous translation only accentuates the repeated friction and the dependence on the mediation between Ashkar and the target audience, the Jewish Israeli audience watching the performance. Ashkar’s position of strength, on the other hand, is temporary and fragmented. It occurs only in one of two continuous sentences, when she speaks in her own language, disintegrating and becoming enfeebled time and again during its translation. The resulting effect is of an interrupted biographical text, distorted and mediated, whose incoherence reinforces the inner relations of power and occupation from which Ashkar operates, writes and presents the story of her life.

Notes

1. Thirteen is the number of members in Ashkar’s immediate family; the tents resemble those used by the pilgrims to Mecca for the Hajj, also alluding to the tents of the Palestinian refugees.

2. Hajj, or the Major Pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the five pillars of Islam; an obligatory duty that each Muslim must perform at least once in his/her lifetime. The Hajj rituals include circumambulating the Kaa’bah (Tawaf) seven times and kissing the Black Stone, as well as standing in Arafah for a sermon, usually given by the qadi of Mecca, from a platform located on Mount Arafat (some 25 km east of Mecca). Pilgrims must wear simple white garments. See: Nehemia Levtzion, Daphna Ephrat, Daniella Talmon-Heller (eds.), Islam: Introduction to the History of the Religion, vol. 1 (The Open University of Israel, 1998), p. 58 [Hebrew].

3. Many of the pilgrims to Mecca revisit the place and repeat some of the rituals. The repeated pilgrimage is called Umrah, or Little Hajj, and is not obligatory.

4. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 2000 [1966]), pp. 151-152.

5. Exactly a year before her performance Barbur 24000 (2004), Ashkar performed Barbur Aswad (2003), exclusively in Arabic, at the Midrasha School of Art, Beit Berl College. At the end of the performance the Department teachers refused to discuss the piece, asking Ashkar to translate her words to Hebrew. Ashkar refused. In her performance at Hagar Art Gallery in Jaffa, the translation of the text appeared on a leaflet outside the gallery. For an elaborate discussion, see: Tal Ben Zvi, Hagar – Contemporary Palestinian Art, exh. cat. (Jaffa: Hagar, 2006), and the Hagar Art Gallery website at http://www.hagar-gallery.com/palestin.html.

6. In the context of feminist writing, “white on white” is read as a white ink, namely as writing with maternal milk. In “Coming to Writing” (1976) Helene Cixous identifies the streams of mother’s milk flowing from the breasts as white ink which enables writing against the current, a non-linear writing that celebrates its linguistic otherness. See: Helene Cixous, Coming to Writing and Other Essays (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991).

7. Homi K. Bhabha, “The White Stuff (political aspect of whiteness),” Artforum International 36, n. 9 (May 1998): 23.
8. Ibid., p. 22.

9. In this context of translation within the postcolonial sphere, Hamid Naficy indicates that the nonsynchronisity between speaker and voice can be counterhegemonic. See: Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001), p. 24.

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