Dr Anastasia Valassopoulos
‘Palestine in the Popular Imagination: From Refugees to Negotiators’
22 March 2017
by Georgia Stabler
As part of the School of Arts and Humanities English Research Seminar Series Nottingham Trent University welcomed Dr Anastasia Valassopulos, a lecturer in post 1945 world literature at the University of Manchester. Anastasia’s area of research includes postcolonial literature and culture of the Middle East and North Africa. She is also particularly interested in the wider cultural production and reception of Arab women’s film and music. She has worked and published on the revolutionary cinema of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and on the role of Egyptian popular culture in revolutionary contexts. Anastasia’s talk was a highly anticipated event for NTU’s School of Arts and Humanities, not only because of her many notable publications including her first monograph Contemporary Arab Women Writers, but also because she was the PhD supervisor of several faculty members in our very own English department who specialise in postcolonial studies!
Anastasia Valassopoulos’s most recent long term research project maps a visual cultural history of Palestine. The project’s most recent working title is Palestine in the Popular Imagination and it centres on the exploration of materials that established and instituted ways in which Palestine’s continuous presence in the visual imaginary was coordinated. Principally, it aims to investigate how Palestine is perceived, discussed, and consumed in the broader popular imagination.
The project has been organised into four major conceptual eras:
Palestine as the Holy Land (1918-1948)
The Palestinian Refugee (1947-1960s)
Icons of Activism (1960s-1970s)
Cultures of Negotiation (1978-9 & 1993-5)
Within these sections that Anastasia outlined in her talk, she explores a wide range of materials including examples of global and international photojournalism, poster art, film, documentary, cartography, photography, and creative outputs produced by humanitarian organizations which have all contributed in creating the lasting images associated with Palestine in the twentieth century. Guiding the investigation of these materials are the socio-cultural moments (listed above) that have framed the presentation of these images. Organised in this way, Anastasia connects the emergence of creative, visual interpretations of Palestine with pertinent political contexts in order to explore the ways in which the Palestinian landscape has been configured within the public imagination. The project investigates Palestine as the Holy Land and the scene of biblical epics; scriptural archaeology at work; information and ‘aid’ films in the run up to partition and the construction of the refugee; the role of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA); activist cinema and the films of the PLO; cultural representation of international terrorism and finally the visual cultures of ‘negotiation’ and the peace accords. The materials that Anastasia drew attention to in her talk have all played a significant part in the cementing of various iconic visual moments, from poster art through to biblical epics inaugurated in early cinema. They present Palestine as a location of historical and geographical significance, the combination of these artistic and archaeological materials have produced a memorable though highly stylised vision of Palestine as a category primed to accommodate disparate global socio-political needs.
I was particularly struck by Anastasia’s engagement with the idea of scriptural geography and how the landscape of Palestine as the holy land is largely understood and depicted in early Western cinema through biblical images. The talk included film clips of the 1947 documentary Portrait of Palestine which makes the connection between communities of Arab peasants and the bible, likening the fishing nets used by the peasants to the ones Jesus’s disciples fished with, for example. In another clip, taken from the 1960 Hollywood film Exodus Ari Ben Canaan (played by Paul Newman) asks Kitty Fremont (Eva Marie Saint) if she ‘knew her bible’ whilst the pair sit on a Palestinian hillside. He then goes on to point out different areas in view, referencing locations and describing their significance in biblical stories and imagery, thus profiling the area as site of religious and historical importance. The clip provided one example of how Palestine is perceived in the cultural imaginary as the ‘Holy land’, and how external representations of the landscape rely on scriptural geography which is then mapped onto actual locations and living communities. For me, the talk and the materials Anastasia discussed highlighted how Palestine is treated by adherents of Abrahamic religions as a physical manifestation of their faith and made me consider the Arab-Israeli conflict from a different perspective. It also raised some interesting and complex questions concerning concepts of ownership, sovereignty and reflected upon broader issues of colonial enterprise.
Anastasia’s project brings together for the first time a set of symbolic and iconic images and themes that have dominated the visualisation of Palestine internationally in the twentieth century, and also explores their associated values that characterize the sustained and uninterrupted centrality of Palestine in the popular imagination.