A Hole in the Orient

Today I was fortunate enough to make it to the Yale Center for British Art’s Pearls to Pyramids: British Visual Culture and the Levant, 1600-1830 and The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, 1830-1925 exhibits. Showcasing rare and original paintings, prints, maps, sketches, and artifacts from several great painters of the period. “Pearls to Pyramids” is only being presented at the YCBA; “The Lure of the East” is being shown in London, Istanbul, and Sharjah (UAE) through 2009.

Setting aside its obvious academic and artistic value, The Lure of the East possesses one curious element: the total absence of Palestine. Several paintings in the exhibit, especially landscapes, depict historical Palestine, be it the Jerusalem cityscape, the Jezreel, the Masjid al-Aqsa, the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, etc. Unfortunately, these scenes are never described as presenting “Palestine.” Throughout the exhibit these are described as depicting “the Holy Land” or “modern day Israel” or “present day Israel”. Indeed, the exhibit’s opening text blurb tells us that “Orientalist painting took for its subject matter the diverse peoples and places of what the British called the Orient, an area that roughly corresponds to present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, and Algeria.” The omission of the term “Palestine” from the exhibit, even for cities and regions that are not within Israel’s borders — notably Bethlehem — seems as deliberate as the de-listing of “Palestine” as a “hometown” (and in effect, a place) on Facebook.* Whatever the cause of this omission, it does not greatly affect the quality of the overall exhibit, which stands on its own.

* [ Facebook users from the Palestinian Territories can now list a town, say Gaza City, but not the Palestinian Territories or Palestine as composing their “hometown”. The “hometown” field on Facebook usually consists of a city or town and a region, state, province, or country, such as “Boston, MA” or “X-town, North Jersey”, the result, I am told, of pressure from the Israeli government (which complained that the social networking site had become too “anti-Semitic”). While there are networks for various universities, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and countless world and American cities and sub-divisions, there is no network for Palestine. In other Facebook news, Facebook users are able to describe themselves in their “political views” field as members of the Syrian, Jordanian, or Sudanese Arab Socialist Baath Parties; they can also state that they are members of various Sudanese political parties (SPLM, National Islamic Front, Umma Party, etc.); the only Syrian parties listed are members of the ruling coalition). ]

4 thoughts on “A Hole in the Orient

  1. Nobody in the period 1830-1925 would have described Bethlehem as being in “Palestine”. The usual expression was “The Holy Land”. Bethlehem would be particularly holy.

  2. They would have and did (the British Mandate of Palestine started in 1920 and the area was called “Palestine” for some time prior). Why they would have called it is irrelevant; the exhibit calls regions “modern-day” or “present-day X, Y, or Z”. The only exception is the Palestinian territories. Bethlehem is especially a part of the Palestinian administered areas, not Israel or a unit now called “the Holy Land.”

  3. oh my goodness, amazing post.

    This whole political rejection by omission is a fascinating issue and could not be more relevant with the Palestine “question.” It’s ironic actually, because before I lived in the West Bank when I told people of my plans to work in Palestine I would VERY often get corrected by people saying “Don’t you mean the territories?” or “Do you mean Israel?” and at that point I didn’t even know how to grapple with the political implications of those statements or “corrections.”

    P.S. I got in to some intense angry email fights with Mark Zuckerberg over the facebook issue and his concession was to allow West Bank cities to be listed, but like you said without ever mentioning the word Palestine. Most startling to me is that he also lists Israeli SETTLEMENTS as possible hometowns for facebook with the option of Israel or Palestine as the location of the settlement even though they are all in the West Bank.

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