Going in Blind: An adventure through (and to) the ‘Dimensions of Territory’

On Wednesday I went on a mission.  Stuart Elden, whose blog, Progressive Geographies, I recently started following, was in Jerusalem and giving a talk at the Al-Quds Bard University campus in Abu Dis, and I decided I would go.  Al-Quds is the Arab University in East Jerusalem, and it has a partnership with Bard College, New York.  The Abu Dis campus is about 5km south-east of where I’m staying near the Damascus Gate.  Geographically, that is…but the separation wall means that you have to take a very circuitous route to get there via a checkpoint and the settlement town of Ma’ale Adumim (past it, not through it).

This artwork, 'Noman' by Noa Arad-Yairi, is on the seamline in Jerusalem.  It is said to represent Palestinian youth who are arrested by border police.  For me, walking past it today, though, it captured how blind I felt about finding my way on the other side of the wall!

This artwork, ‘Noman’ by Noa Arad-Yairi, is on the seamline in Jerusalem. It is said to represent Palestinian youth who are arrested by border police. For me, walking past it today, it captured how blind I felt about finding my way on the other side of the wall!

I had very little idea where I was going or how to get there.  Being in this part of the world has made me realise how dependent I have become on having maps, google street view and GPS on the phone, which basically enable you to completely demystify new places before setting foot in them.  None of those have been available to me for Palestine, though.  Street view stops this side of the wall, and the mapping of roads beyond (on google and apple maps) is pretty incomplete (ie. the road the university was on isn’t even marked!!)  So getting places is something of an adventure, one on which you must depend a lot on the kindness of strangers.

Luckily people here, Jews and Arabs alike, have been nothing but friendly and willing to help during my visit (sometimes a little too friendly, like the old man last week who took advantage of the bottleneck through the Damascus Gate to cop a surreptitious pinch of my bum!)  On Wednesday, I couldn’t have found my way without the help of the girl who walked with me for 10 minutes working out what bus I needed to take, and where, before seeing me onto it, the bus driver who told me when to get off and gave me directions, the ‘service’ (shared taxi) driver whose Ford Transit I hopped into only to realise he spoke no English so I couldn’t communicate where I wanted to go (luckily the university was hard to miss) and who dropped me off with a high five, the university security guard and the student he had escort me to all the way to the building I needed, the shopkeepers who told me where to catch the bus back to Jerusalem and the friendly passenger who guided me through bus changes and checkpoint etiquette and shared her chocolate with me.  All that to finish up 5km from where I started!  And some people have to make this convoluted journey every day for work and study (albeit without needing quite so much assistance).

I was a bit busy finding my way to take photos, but here's a hasty one of the separation wall from the university gates.

I was a bit busy finding my way to take photos, but here’s a hasty one of the separation wall from the university gates.

Elden’s talk on ‘The Dimensions of Territory’ was thought-provoking and well worth the trek!  He has carried out extensive research on territory– its origins, its inextricable connection to violence to terror, and now its three-dimensionality.  He argues that since territory is three-dimensional in terms not just of topography but also things that are below and above ground, cartographical representations (maps and plans), which are flat, mask the complexities of reality.  He used Eyal Weizman’s excellent work on the West Bank as an example – Israeli settlements on hilltops tower over Palestinian villages in the valleys, and new Israeli roads plough a straight line across valleys and through hills, over and under the pre-existing, Palestinian roads that tend to follow the contours of the land.  A map simply cannot convey these layers.  Nor, argues Elden, is the vertical dimension (section) alone sufficient to fully describe variables such as tunnels, services, angles and inclines.  Drawing on the work of Foucault, Paul Virilio and Weizman, among others, his current work seeks to provide a conceptual framework with which to consider territory in all its many dimensions.  Clearly he explains it much better himself, so check out the papers and filmed lectures on his blog if you’d like to know more.  His work certainly helps convey the multi-layered and complicated nature of reality in this part of the world much better than any map ever could.  But I’m left wondering how you can better visually represent territory?  I look forward to seeing what emerges from Elden’s future work.

The cover of Weizman's book illustrates the dimensions of territory, with military aircraft, the wall and checkpoint, and a new Israeli Road over a Palestinian one.

The cover of Weizman’s book illustrates the dimensions of territory, with military aircraft, the wall and checkpoint, and a new Israeli Road over a Palestinian one.

References

Weizman, E. (2012) Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation. London: Verso

Elden, S., (2013) Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power, Political Geography, 2013: 32. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0962629812001655

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