A meditation by writer Adania Shibli on the art of Mona Hatoum
Six Key Movements to Unlock a Possible History of Materials
It is embedded in the silence of the spaces in which her works are mounted, as well as in the murmur of those walking around them: “Each person is free to understand what I do in the light of who they are and where they stand.” Mona Hatoum says this in an interview, quietly handing us our own key to understanding her work. One can be free as well to understand what Hatoum says in the light of who they are and where they stand, and proceed to interpret her words as: “Each person is free to understand what I do in light of who they are and where they stand—after they walk, tread the ground back and forth, sit, squat, fall, or lie down, under the weight of who they are.”
First, they walk. They walk until they come to a standstill before a long stretch of barbed wire fence which splits one landscape in two, then divides it into countless rectangular frames. The area around the barbed wire is a no-man’s-land about to be overtaken by wilderness, while at the moment the wildest wilderness envelops the poles holding up the strands. In one section a spider climbed up from a bundle of dried grass to weave a web between two strands, dividing the already divided landscape behind into uneven frames drawn by faint lines. Mimesis.
wouldn’t hurt a spider
That had nested
Between her bicycle handles
For two weeks
Until it left of its own accord
If you tear down the web I said
It will simply know
This isn’t a place to call home
And you’d get to go biking
She said that’s how others
Become refugees isn’t it?
Then, they tread back and forth before the barbed wire fence, until they notice a section where the strands have lost some of their tautness. One strand arches up and the one below sags down, making that frame slightly wider than those in other parts of the fence. Once again, each person comes to a standstill. Immobile, they examine the bundles of dark brown human hair and white animal hair hanging from the sharp barbs in that section, declaring silently, that since its invention in 1867, “A person or animal trying to pass through or over barbed wire will suffer discomfort and possibly injury”; and possibly freedom, it can be added, depending on who they are and where they stand. They continue to stand as the spider treads back and forth between the barbed wire strands not far from them. They suddenly crouch down, stretch out their back, and push their head between the bent strands as the sharp barbs pull their hair and their mouth emits a hushed cry. Their hands hold the two wire strands open as wide as possible as they continue to push their chest through, followed by their right leg. The right foot finally lands on the ground on the other side of the fence, while the left foot remains in place. But once all barbed wire fences were torn down, each person would appear as if they were sitting on an invisible chair, or as if a chair was just pulled away from under them as they tried to sit on it while playing the game Going to Jerusalem. Having lost their chance to go to Jerusalem, they are left behind, bending without a chair but with some of their hair left hanging in the air on a barbed wire fence.
“The fence around Jerusalem is 68 kilometers long. The fence changes according to the terrain it passes through. In open areas it is very wide—up to 50 and 60 meters—comprised of the following: barbed wire, a ditch approximately five meters wide to prevent the passage of armored vehicles and other vehicles, a dirt path, an electronic fence that is the heart of the fence, another dirt path approximately five meters wide, an asphalt road approximately five meters wide, another dirt path and another barbed wire fence.
“In built-up areas…it is not possible to build such a wide fence. There a six-to-eight meter high wall will be built. In total, walls will be built in very few sections of the fence.
“According to [the Israeli Ministry of Defence] reports…, construction of some northern parts of the fence around Jerusalem was recently completed…as well as some southern sections…for a total length of 20 kilometers or so….
“Early in October 2003, construction of a 17-kilometer segment…began. Another 14-kilometer section that has already been approved and has yet to be built, will start…southeast…and continue north…. This section will not include … Shuafat refugee camp (15,000 people)…. They will remain outside the fence….
“In total, the fence will separate some 320,000 Palestinians living in eastern Jerusalem and 72,000 Palestinians living east of and adjacent to the municipal boundaries and will also cut off residents of the eastern part of the city from the entire West Bank.”
But if they never planned to play Going to Jerusalem, nor planned to sit on a hairy chair, as they squat there, their eyes catch sight of what look like black marbles lying on the ground. Each weighing 16 grams, these black marble look-alikes weigh down a few dried blades of wild grass. Each has a 15.75mm steel core and a 2mm coating of polyethylene. Each is a kinetic weapon known as a rubber-coated metal bullet. It is understood that, since the year 2002, “A person or animal trying to protest against the construction of the fence (and the Wall) will be shot at with rubber-coated bullets by the Israeli army, and will suffer discomfort and possibly injury”; and possibly death, it can be added, depending on who they are and where they stand. The Israeli military orders of engagement state that “rubber ammunition is potentially lethal, and using it not in accordance with regulations may result in fatalities or serious injuries.” Accordingly, open-fire regulations: a) set “a minimum firing range of 60 meters.”
Each person moves their head slowly to this side of the fence, then to the other side, inspecting the landscape as it extends as far as they can see, aiming to accurately measure the distance of 60 meters with their eyes. b) “Rubber-coated bullets may be fired only at the legs of people who have been identified as “inciters, key disrupters of order or individuals endangering the well-being of a soldier or another individual.” A few minutes ago, they had moved their head slowly to this side of the fence, then to the other side. Before that, they had crouched down, bending their back, and pushed their head between the strands as the sharp barbs pulled their hair, and their mouths emitted only a hushed cry. Then they pushed their chest through, followed by their right foot, which landed on the other side of the fence while both hands held wide the two barbed wire strands. That’s all. And now, they are completely still.
c) “The bullets may not be fired at women and children.” Although at least 12 of the 18 Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli rubber-coated metal bullets since 2002 were children, each person, pretending to be a child bends their legs even more to squat, then push their hands toward those black marble-like forms on the ground and pick up a few. As children, confined to their refugee camps, they mastered another game, trying to defeat despair.
John Berger, Undefeated Despair:
“One tends to forget the geographical scale of the tragedy in question; its scale has become part of the tragedy….
“Three boys squatting and playing marbles in the corner of an alley in a refugee camp…. The dexterity with which the boys flick a marble with one thumb, the rest of the body motionless, is not unconnected with the familiarity of very cramped spaces.”
As they squat, marble players turn their back to everything except for the spot on which a marble lies or flies as they flick it. In their quest to be the best among the rest, they pay no heed to the brutality of exile, to the narrow alleys of cramped refugee camps, or to the sharpness of barbed wire edges. Instead, each person will soon, as when they were children, win all the black rubber-coated bullet-like marbles lying around. They will start to collect their gain that instigates jealousy and now resentment among the rest. There must be in their possession not less than 2,673 black marble-like bullets, all already having been flicked at 2,673 Palestinians, between the years 2011 and 2013. Suddenly they remember: d) “[rubber] bullets may not be fired…in the absence of adequate visibility or lighting.” They immediately bring the black marble-like rubber-coated bullets close to their eyes. It is day that must turn into night at once.
If these were black glass marbles rather than black marble-like rubber-coated bullets, their reflection and that of the world around them would darken as if it were night, and if the entire ground were covered with black glass marbles, it would definitely be night, with flickering light. They throw all they have in their hands back on the ground.
Under the cover of night, they finally lift their left foot that is still on the first side of the fence, and pull it through the barbed wire strands, yet before it lands on the other side next to their right foot, they slip. The ground has now been covered with black marbles that won’t hold still. They quickly try to grab anything in their reach: barbed wires and rubber-coated bullets. But in the mayhem the distinction between roundness and sharpness is obscured, and each person clasps the barbed wires as if they were smooth black glass marbles, and carefully cling to the black rubber marbles as if these were sharp barbed wires. And they fall down. Blood and numbness spread from different parts of their body. Part of their skin is peeled as if they slipped over a giant grater measuring 6 feet 8 inches by 6 feet 4 inches by 3 feet. The skin on other parts of their hands is sliced as if their palms clasped not on what was thought to be small black rubber bullet-like marbles, but was a huge marble slicer measuring 3 feet 4 inches by 3 feet by 3 feet 9 inches. Their hands now were almost everything except a pair of hands.
Edward W. Said, Out of Place:
“My hands in particular were large, exceptionally sinewy, and agile. And to my mother, they represented objects both of adoring admiration (the long, tapered fingers, the perfect proportions, the superb agility) and of often quite hysterical denunciation (‘Those hands of yours are deadly instruments’; ‘They’re going to get you into trouble later’; ‘Be very careful’).
“To my mother they were almost everything except a pair of hands….
“For my father my hands were noteworthy for the fingernails, which I chewed on and which for decades he tried to get me not to chew…. All to no avail, though I often found myself hiding my hands in my pockets, as I tried not to expose myself to my father’s gaze.”
Their hands, too, were now without fingernails, though they never chewed or bit them. They had tried to do so in the past but they failed. They even asked fingernail biters to try and bite their fingernails, to no avail. But while their nails resisted getting broken under the weight of their little teeth, they at last broke under the weight of who they are and where they fell down.
Without further delay, each person tries to rise from the ground and stand, but they are too heavy for their bleeding and numb hands. Very soon they give up and lie down next to their broken fingernails scattered like dead bodies over the black marble-like rubber-coated bullets and the dried thorns and wild grass. Nearby, the spider continues to weave his web between two barbed wire strands.
As time passes, each nail begins to grow again, already dead, from underneath their skin. Fingernails grow very slowly. Although they may grow faster on the larger fingers and on the right hand if a person is right-handed, and on the left hand if a person is left-handed, and faster during the day and in the summer, “no matter what they do, they won’t make their nails grow faster. They can’t hurry their nails.” Their nails go on to grow very slowly, measuring the duration of their lying on the ground, as they endure anxiety and impatience. Each person must willy-nilly wait until their hands heal and regain the power to bring their body to stand again.
Suddenly a voice is heard:
“This little fact is big with meaning. For here the time I have to wait is not that mathematical time which would apply equally well to the entire history of the material world, even if that history were spread out instantaneously in space. It coincides with my impatience, that is to say, with a certain portion of my own duration, which I cannot protract or contract as I like. It is no longer something thought, it is something lived. It is no longer a relation, it is an absolute.”
As their nails grow, so do their anxiety and impatience. Finally seeking a refuge from the worst, they try to flee to sleepiness on a bed of black rubber-coated bullet marbles, barbed wires, wild grass, and thorns. Yet in their bed too, the distinction between roundness and sharpness has been obscured, and the bed becomes a nightmare that wakes them up and throws them out of sleep time and again. Their sleep hurts as their nails grow slowly and time passes viciously until it’s nighttime. The barbs on the wires have turned into little nearby stars as they reflect the distant light of watchtowers. Sleeplessness sticks like rocks on their forehead, on their back, on their side, on their other side, and every side they turn on. Since 2008, “A person or animal trying to sleep on a Dormiente created by Mona Hatoum will suffer discomfort and possibly injury”; and possibly insomnia, it can be added, depending on who they are and where they stand.
The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole—
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.
His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.
His head is a little interior of grey mirrors.
Each gesture flees immediately down an alley
Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance
Drains like water out the hole at the far end.
He lives without privacy in a lidless room,
The bald slots of his eyes stiffened wide-open
On the incessant heat-lightning flicker of situations.
In an interview, Hatoum did say, “Each person is free to understand what I do in the light of who they are and where they stand.” But she did not reveal that she left them with shaky grounds on which they would walk, tread back and forth, sit, squat, fall, or lie down, before they could stand.
Sources: Quotes and facts on the Israeli Palestine wall come from Haaretz and B’Tselem Information Center for Human Rights’s “Crowd Control: Israel’s Use of Crowd Control Weapons in the West Bank” (2013). Nail growth facts from American Academy of Dermatology. Fady Joudah poem reprinted with his permission, and Sylvia Plath excerpts from her Collected Poems are courtesy Faber & Faber and HarperCollins. Mathematical time quote from Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution.
Adania Shibli is an award-winning Palestinian novelist.
© 2018 by Adania Shibli. Reprinted from Terra Infirma: Mona Hatoum, by Michelle White et al., published by the Menil Collection, Houston, and distributed by Yale University Press.