The Saaheb Collective
Dream Homes and Community-building
The Saaheb Collective is a group of friends who have come together through their engagement in the South Hebron Hills area of the occupied West Bank. We work together on projects that attempt to use art and creativity to bring about social change. To describe our project as one based on notions such as friendship and creativity might seem naïve, or that we have fallen into the trap of normalisation, of suspending politics in our efforts for people normally kept separate by the Israeli occupation to come together to create alternative realities. Whilst we would defend ourselves against this charge, of engaging in normalisation as the illusion of cooperation, we might concede to one of the suspension of politics in the conventional sense, for the ideas of friendship and creativity are indeed radical in a regime that militates against them. We take as inspiration the ingenuity of the struggle of the village of Bil'in or the Jenin Freedom Theatre established by Juliano Mer-Khamis – both examples of collaboration and cooperation that need not ignore but are not determined by the house demolitions, the night raids, or the detention of children. That is to say, they succeed in using art as a tool for resistance, a tool through which alternative realities can exist, even for a short moment, in a context of violent conflict.
The South Hebron Hills area, in particular, lends itself to these kinds of creative experiments. Situated in the West Bank, south-east of Hebron and much of the region in the administrative category of 'Area C' – as stipulated under the Oslo accords, the area is under full Israeli civil and military control, and home to many of the most extreme ideological Israeli settlements – it is a region that could be described as a kind of borderland, one in which everyone from the Israeli state to the settler movement to the Palestinian Authority is trying to impose their laws and 'facts on the ground', whilst its Palestinian residents are left to deal with the mess and the constant harassment and violence resulting from this situation. As Fredric Jameson puts it in his discussion of the 'politics of Utopia', one encounters here 'a situation in which political institutions seem both unchangeable and infinitely modifiable: no agency has appeared on the horizon that offers the slightest chance or hope of modifying the status quo, and yet in the mind – and perhaps for that very reason – all kinds of institutional variations and re-combinations seem thinkable'. Within this kind of space, the creative projects with which Saaheb has been involved have attempted to make their own 'temporary autonomous zones,' to use Hakim Bey's term, in which it is no longer only these other actors and authorities that determine its cultural and political narratives.
Here, we reflect on two of those projects – the short film Eid and our engagement with the village of Susiya. Both of these projects used different media as tools in the creation of these alternative spaces and social realities. The use of certain kinds of media, however, in particular newer forms of digital and virtual media through which we are told 'democracy' and 'participation' can flourish, were approached with caution. As the following images illustrate, less rapid, more basic forms of communication and media played important roles in these projects, which relied as much on face-to-face interactions and the building of mutual trust and respect, as on the immediacy and publicity promised by new social media. All of this work relied on weekly visits made to the area with an organisation called the Villages Group, whose model of building relationships and collaborations we were inspired by, and with whom we continue to work closely.
Eid Hthaleen is a Palestinian Bedouin living in the village of Um el Kheir, which is neighboured by the Israeli settlement of Karmel. The short stop-motion animation film Eid, produced by the Saaheb Collective, is a portrait of Eid and his art, in particular his ability to create models of hope from images of destruction. The models Eid creates are of the vehicles of occupation he has come into contact with – the bulldozer that demolished his and other homes in the village, or the apache helicopter that flies overhead. Thus the film also tells the story of the constant threat of demolition people in Um el Kheir face.
Saaheb Collective, Eid. Courtesy of the artists.
After the short film was completed and screened at several festivals and on the Internet, we created a website showcasing more of Eid's work and interviews with him and his family. This project developed out of the desire to put the village of Um el Kheir, and the persona of Eid – which so captured other members of Saaheb as it has many visitors to Um el Kheir – on the virtual map. Ironically, in such an over-mapped and bitterly contested region, villages and stories like these can all too easily disappear. The section of Eid's website titled 'My dream home' poignantly captures this aspiration to create a safe and comfortable place called home that could be recognised by others as such.
Photos of Eid's 'dream home':
So, whilst Saaheb's work with Eid Hthaleen is in some ways engaged in kinds of story-telling processes via digital media, it does so in a way that does not presume universal participation in order to be successful. Most of the people living in Um el Kheir don't have access to the Internet. Indeed, until recently, Eid's email and Facebook accounts were only sporadically accessible via the wi-fi connection Eid could sometimes pick up from the neighbouring Israeli settlement. The use of these media, therefore, does not presume to give everybody there 'a voice', or to represent those people in any direct way. It is, however, one avenue through which more people can know of the existence and situation of the village and perhaps to protest against further demolitions or expulsions. This is the way in which the Saaheb collective attempts to use different media, as they are appropriate and useful to different contexts, rather than the other way round. This point is illustrated further when we turn to our engagement with people from the village of Susiya, a few miles down the road from Um el Kheir.
The work of the Saaheb Collective in Susiya culminated in the website SusiyaForever, which was launched in June 2012 in reaction to demolition orders being issued on the whole village – the latest stage in a protracted attempt to move the Palestinian residents off their land in Susiya. Until this point, our main work with residents of Susiya involved the establishment of a centre encouraging creativity, learning and cooperation between residents and visitors from outside the village.
Images from the Susiya Centre:
Whilst we try to avoid being overwhelmed into a reaction by political events, the threat to people in Susiya demanded some kind of response. Various websites and online initiatives were launched by different groups in the days that followed – most were run by Israeli and/or international activists via platforms such as Facebook or local activist news sites. These sites were open to comments and participation by whoever wanted to access them. The efficacy or otherwise of such virtual activism aside (and when the Israeli Ministry of Defence had their fax machines jammed with thousands writing to protest the demolitions, it is clear that some kind of effect is indeed felt by the authorities), these sites, although they utilised this supposedly open and participatory medium, lacked an important element – namely, an idea of who the people from Susiya are, what their lives are like, and what the destruction of their homes would do to them. We felt it important not just that there was a reaction to the demolition orders, but that those reacting might have an idea of the lives affected. The site SusiyaForever therefore attempts to take its visitors into the village through various media – for example, a short film that was made by resident Ibrahim Nawajha in reaction to the demolition orders entitled My Home is Everything, and images from a photography project undertaken by women from Susiya to document their everyday lives, together with the collective ActiveStills. These photographs were not only composed by the women, but were later also exhibited in their homes for others in Susiya to engage with their creativity and their visions of life in the village.
My Home is Everything, directed by Ibrahim Nawaja. Courtesy of the director.
Images from the women's photography workshop:
These and the other images and videos one can see on the website are intended to demonstrate that it is not only against the event of the demolitions that activism is important, but also for the lives of Susiya's residents, their everyday routines and their creative visions. Whilst the website SusiyaForever was made in close collaboration with, and the approval of, residents of Susiya, the site is static – it does not involve the kind of real-time discussions or debates of a platform such as Facebook. However, the content is not copyrighted and is free for whoever would like to take from it, and attempts to give an honest representation of parts of life in Susiya. In this sense, the website SusiyaForever is a democratic platform just as much as those launched in the social networking sphere, and their apparently more 'open' models of participation.
The launching of this site was the product of our longer-term engagement with Susiya, which involved the development of a creative and learning centre in the village, and weekly visits with the Villages Group. It was only through the gradual development of close friendships and working relationships in this way that the projects we have described here – our work with Eid and with residents of Susiya – could come about. Digital media and virtual networks were used as tools in these projects. The fundamental basis of the work, however, lay in building these relationships, in a way that showed imagination, creativity and friendship as forces that can create spaces in which to circumvent the ideology of separation that operates so powerfully in this part of the world.
All images courtesy of the artists.
 El-Haj, Nadia Abu, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2002).