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Looking for Survival Amid Catastrophe

26th October 2023


By Wendy Kozol, author of The War In-Between (forthcoming May 7, 2024)


Who among us hasn’t been emotionally gutted by the images from Israel and Gaza circulating on media platforms since October 7? The problem, though, is that as we continue to watch this horrifying and escalating war unfold, it gets easier to suspend critical judgment of this heavily curated archive. Spectacles of suffering and violence may help sustain international attention to the ongoing crisis, but they also delimit our understanding of the complex histories of this region by envisioning spaces of militarism as only and always dramatically explosive geographies. Repetitively gazing at moments of violent eruption drastically reduces complex demands for national sovereignty and security by both Palestinians and Israelis to singular positions of victim or aggressor. To state the obvious, such spectacles have profound political consequences.

In so narrowing the visual field, global media representations elide the everyday strategies of people living, surviving, and enduring in war zones. Lack of attention to such survival strategies, which can refute simplistic narratives of self and other, aids in the cultural politics of polarization endemic to armed conflicts. What, in other words, would it mean to look for survival even as the bombs continue to destroy lives and property?

Tanya Habjouqa’s Occupied Pleasures (2013-2015) visualizes coexistence with catastrophe for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem through photographs of momentary abandon and quotidian pleasures. These include pictures of women doing yoga, parents playing with their children, couples eating dinner, and a group of girls on a boat ride in the Mediterranean. At first glance, this project may seem far distant from the current disastrous conditions in Gaza. Studied more closely, though, Habjouqa’s depictions of the Occupied Territories resist before-and-after temporalities. Frequently set against backdrops of shelled concrete or confined by the Separation Wall, the Israeli Occupation is a constant presence. Equally important, scenes notable for the absence of spectacular injury instead foreground subjects whose identities exceed iconic figurations of victim or terrorist.

Rather than diminish attention to violence and suffering, I propose that aesthetics emphasizing the everyday compel viewers to reckon with survival amid conflict, not despite it. In this photograph, as in Occupied Pleasures as a whole, Habjouqa insistently turns the camera’s gaze to the complexities of survival. Here two furniture makers sitting in armchairs take a break from work in Hizma on Palestine’s West Bank while behind them rises the massive concrete 26-foot tall Separation Wall. Bright sun light emphatically differentiates the grayish-brown rubble on the ground and the monotone gray of the concrete wall from the clear blue sky, the red upholstery, and the men’s colored shirts. On one man’s lap sits a little girl dressed in jeans rolled up to her knees, sandals, and a sleeveless shirt with cherry red sunglasses. She playfully reaches over to touch the other man’s hand as they lounge comfortably on their self-designed plush armchairs. The scene takes on an air of absurdity as the elegant chairs and comfortable demeanor of the subjects seem out of place in this bleak landscape of concrete, rubble, trash, and weeds. Taking a break from furniture making in front of the Separation Wall situates the subjects in a landscape in which occupation coexist temporally with ordinary activities and enjoyments.

To talk about survival as a crucial element of armed conflict is a means of reckoning with the other as human, a means of pushing back against stereotypes of good and evil, us and them, citizen and enemy. Operating in quotidian registers, Occupied Pleasures and the other images I examine in The War In-Between: Indexing a Visual Culture of Survival envision the complex means by which people endure and persist, often against tremendous odds. Comprising a record of what I describe as the “war in-between,” these visual archives provide alternative ways of looking at militarized violence that unfolds in interstitial spaces not usually considered battlefields. Terrains of the war-in-between are not safe or idealized spaces but places and ways of being that persist alongside gunfire, bombs, and other modes of destruction. The concept of the in-between acknowledges the radical complexities of survival in places saturated by war, where daily life is marked by endurance and injuries that often remain invisible to outsiders. Against a sensationalized visual economy, the case studies that make up this book examine visual cultures that depict the ordinary and non-spectacular conditions of enduring military conflict. 

The War In-Between troubles the assumption perpetuated by global media that the only way to garner worldwide attention to military conflict is to feature dramatic scenes of violence and trauma. Hard as it might seem in this moment of enormous loss of life and intense suffering, we need to expand the archive to include images that provide different vantage points on militarism, whether it is the banality of everyday violence for non-combatants or the daily struggles of soldiers living with physical and emotional trauma. To survive militarized violence is to carry on living alongside war, to reclaim the sphere of one’s own existence no matter how small, or how rapidly shrinking, to persist, if sometimes barely, without succumbing. To take survival seriously is to depart, often, from ideological absolutes, for sometimes the work of survival is messy and ugly. Likewise, we need to avoid idealizing resistance since the work of survival is often utilitarian rather than heroic. Of course, the daily work of maintaining a life, of continually pursuing some kind of material existence in an environment designed to extinguish that very thing, does not in itself resolve social conflicts, redress harms, facilitate justice, or remedy the violence that imperils it. But still: it is not nothing. In contexts of structural violence, in other words, survival itself is political. Likewise, looking at images of survival that offer non-determinative, contradictory, or unruly ways of seeing war itself is a disruption of the hegemonic. This departure, in turn, hopefully opens space for alternative intellectual, affective, and political possibilities.

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Also forthcoming this Spring from Fordham University Press, An Honest Living: A Memoir of Peculiar Itineraries by Steven Salaita (March 5, 2024)

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