Essays

In Observance: staying with the body, with Palestine at the United Nations

Tara Fatehi interferes with the rhythm by bringing movement and attention into the archive.

Part of Out of Focusseries exploring ways to traverse the fog of unknowingness and indeterminacy.

 

 

I am sir your obedient servant

Yours very sincerely

Veuillez agréer, cher Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments les meilleurs

I have the honour to be sir, your obedient servant

Your Lordship’s most obedient humble servant

Je vous prie d’agréer, cher Monsieur, l’expression de mes meilleurs sentiments

Veuillez agréer, Monsieur, l’assurance de ma considérations distinguée

I have the honour to be

I have the honour to be

I have the honour to be

 

Image: Detail from the
Image: Detail from the "Letter to the Secretary General of the League of Nations" (1925). Courtesy of the United Nations Archives at Geneva. Photo: Tara Fatehi.

 

The landscape

As I sit with hundreds of pages, folders, and boxes in the reading room of the United Nations Archives in Geneva at Palais des Nations—the home of the UN office in Geneva—under the gaze of four painted portraits of old white men of some power and status in their days, I am not sure where I’m headed with these documents. And they, the men on the wall, keep looking down at me. One of the archivists tells me this is the best room in the whole Palais, the view is amazing. You can see the botanical gardens across the Palais, and the lake, Lac Léman, shines in the near distance. I am told I am the first ever artist-in-residence at the United Nations Archives at Geneva.

I am holding a folder, light greyish-white, flaky on the sides but carefully repaired and strengthened with some fabric by the preservation team. Normally, after the preservation and digitisation process you would not be allowed to handle the files physically anymore. I am focusing on the body in the archive, so it is mutually agreed that I need physical access to the material. I am permitted to hold, to touch, to turn the page, and even secretly smell the documents day after day. Textured thick paper, or is it cardboard? League of Nations, The British Mandate for Palestine: Various Correspondence with the Zionist Organisation, 1925. Scribbles, stamps, and signatures on the cover of this folder, presumably document every journey it has taken between 1925 and 1934. I wonder how many times this folder has been accessed in more recent years. How many people—other than the team who digitise the files with the speed of light—have touched this folder? How many people have gone through these pages? How many know of its existence? Later, as I go through my notes and pictures and videos from these documents, as I’m writing down these words, I’m still not sure where I’m headed. Maybe I’m headed right here, to this moment when I type the words “hazy brain” then slap my right cheek three times. Why three? No reason. I just did it.

I trust that the space and time of not-knowing and not-fixing are a fertile space-time; for thinking, for feeling, for finding; intentionally embracing ambiguity and fragmentation. A space for "suggestion rather than argument" as PA Skantze would put it.1 The question of the body in the archive—my body there, and the bodies referenced in the archive—in the context of research on history of Palestine keeps me going. This attention to the body highlights notions of violence, fatigue, labour, and obedience in the documents and in my body. Then I stop reading, take a note in my journal, about my arrival at the compound that day, the security guards, the lunch.  

 

Image: Tara Fatehi, on residency at the United Nations Archives at Geneva, with <i>Portrait of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. </i> by Francis Owen “Frank” Salisbury on the wall. Still from video (2021). Courtesy of Tara Fatehi.
Image: Tara Fatehi, on residency at the United Nations Archives at Geneva, with Portrait of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. by Francis Owen “Frank” Salisbury on the wall. Still from video (2021). Courtesy of Tara Fatehi.

 

Bending: the rules, the back

Being the first one has its perks. The archive staff keep telling me they have never had anyone like this before but they are very interested. Somewhere in-between staff-artist-guest-researcher, I ghost around conference halls, underground corridors, stairways, vaults, offices, and clunky lifts, hardly being noticed or questioned. I request meetings, private tours, and visits to secret rooms hidden behind ordinary-looking doors. I dance with Rockefeller Jr. on the wall. I walk slowly in the conference rooms, trying to listen with my limbs. I sit, I write. I raise my arm higher than the norm. I bend down lower than the norm. My phone camera is on—this is not allowed, I think. The CCTV is also pointed at me. I sit at the high tech desks in the conference rooms and write—I don’t feel I’m allowed to do this. I go to a meeting room, I pick up the phone, beeeeeep, as if I’m on an important call. I’m not. I sit there and I write. I don’t think I’m allowed to be there. I play Palestinian songs on my phone and walk in the corridors. I go to the office in high heels and make music with my steps in the corridors. I do yoga in the archives reading room. I walk around the Palais and try to see the limits of the places I can enter. I lurk into buildings that are stripped down (Batiment S) and walk with the dust, crumbled paint, and construction material. I steal two rusty paper clips from the Firouz Collection in the archives, I know these will be thrown away when the box is digitised, and my many emails to get some of the pins and clips before they are thrown away never make it up the ladder of hierarchy. I visit the vaults with one of the archivists, five floors under the ground. I stalk another archivist to the photo repository room—I could have just asked him to take me. I make a new poem from the words of my Palestinian friends’ and their mothers’ favourite Palestinian songs. And of course, I read, I read, I look, I touch, I smell, I read, I write.   

 

 

Hefty pile of greasy sludge

Reading decades of administrative documents, letters, reports, and memoranda gives me brain fog. Fake courteous words—yourses, sincerelys, servants—fake smiles, fake facts, and distorted truths drop over my body like a hefty pile of greasy sludge. And pour into my mouth and eyes and cover my skin. It gets harder to breathe. Hazy brain. Blink. Look into the distance. Hazy brain. Sinking body. Sometimes I think I can shake off this haze—of history, of politics, of empty words—by quickly moving my head from left to right, or shimmying my chest and circling my shoulders, front, back, left, back, or lying on the ground and moving my legs in the air, slowly, as if I’m floating in outer space, then the arms come up, gently floating, as I slowly absorb the words or perhaps forget the paragraphs and pages. Sometimes moving my head makes me nauseous.

 

Never dreamed

In the greyish-white repaired folder, I find a memorandum submitted by the Zionist Organisation to the Secretary General of the League of Nations—one of the portraits on the wall—in 1924: The Establishment in Palestine of the Jewish National Home. I read it word for word. Some phrases stand out from the many pages and drill themselves into my psyche:

The initial stage of probation and experiment is drawing to a close
Agricultural Colonisation

to issue a series of monographs on the flora of Palestine

all these lands

three million pounds

arts; the history of human life in Palestine

microbiology; medicine; hygiene

acquired from willing sellers

Colonisation Association

the time is now within sight when a quickening of the pace may reasonably be expected

20,000 acres

there are signs that Palestine is about to enter upon a period of sustained and many sided development

100,000 acres

purchased

having taken up their permanent residence in Palestine, desire to become Palestinian citizens

His Majesty’s government

Political Work; Urban Development

the maintenance of the friendliest possible relations between the Jews and their neighbours of other races

nothing is further from its purpose than to prejudice in the smallest degree the civil or religious rights or the material interests of the non-Jewish population

since the beginning of the British Occupation

approximately £6,000,000

if Jewish enterprise, labour, and capital succeed in rescuing Palestine from the derelict condition in which centuries of neglect have left it, its non-Jewish inhabitants will, in the natural course of events, have their full share in a prosperity of which they have never dreamed.2

 

A prosperity of which they have never dreamed. Bayt Jibrin

A prosperity of which they have never dreamed. Kabara

A prosperity of which they have never dreamed. Barrat Qisarya

etc. etc. etc.

 

Image: A letter dated 17 May 1939, from the president of the Jewish Agency to the League of Nations concerning the Memorandum
Image: A letter dated 17 May 1939, from the president of the Jewish Agency to the League of Nations concerning the Memorandum "The Establishment of the Jewish National Home in Palestine (1938)," courtesy of United Nations Archives at Geneva. Photo: Tara Fatehi.

 

Blowing up of houses

It feels weird, sitting on these seats, writing at these desks, passing through saying bonjour with a smile that from behind the mask becomes only a tightening of the corners of the eyes. I am here and I am moving. I read hundreds of pages but naturally not everything—simply impossible.

A letter by Jamal Husseini, president of the Palestine Arab delegation, to the Secretary General of the League of Nations in 1939 catches my attention. I am drawn to the no-jargon language and the detailed—and simultaneously self-censored with an “etc. etc. etc.”—descriptions of what was happening to the bodies of the native Palestinians during the rise of Zionism in Palestine and under the British Mandate. These “atrocities of the dark ages,” as Husseini calls them, seem too graphic for bureaucratic correspondence or even for this page, but they are not far from the news we still hear from Palestine, over eight decades later.

We possess no means to know whether the British Government is cognizant of these horrors, but we are sure that neither the British public nor the British Parliament can ever acquiesce to such barbarities being perpetrated in their name in the Land of Peace

a black spot in the history of both Great Britain and the League of Nations

blowing up of houses

blowing up of houses

on the way shooting them dead without any cause

under the guise of investigation

torture and humiliation for hours or days

under the burning sun

without food or water

cells or pits and wells

without means to releave [sic] themselves;

etc. etc. etc.

destroying of all movable properties and food stuffs

carrying away of all valuables and cash

shooting some of them dead without trial

rape; shooting down any person; shooting down many of the cattle;

etc. etc. etc.

severe beating; lashes; bleeding; fainting;

scorching parts of the body; hot iron rods; under a cold shower for hours;

pressure on the stomach and back; evacuating all contents of the stomach; pulling of the sexual organs; pulling out nails; scorching the skin;

etc. etc. etc.

interned; killed; insane; tortures; suicide

demand for a neutral inquiry

 

 

I have the honour to be, Your Excellency’s obedient servant.3

 

A fragment of an idea in the making  

Posted on Instagram: Nov 27, 2021

 

I raise my leg 

We start in the very orange entrance of Salle XVII on the first floor. The beginning of my route is hurriedly agreed upon with my friend and artist Tatiana Efrussi who is operating the camera. The appearance of a school group in the conference hall with a teacher who seems to be explaining the whole history of the United Nations to her class stretches our timing at the entrance. Thinking we’re staff members, the teacher wonders if they’re ok to be there. I am also wondering if I’m ok to be there, and especially with a half-hidden camera following me, but nonetheless I confidently nod to them to continue. “C’est bon. Pas de problème,” I say. In the hall moving slowly, bending over the seats, sitting on the tables, an arm slowly comes up. Someone’s watching from the interpreters’ booth. We continue. A site-responsive walk with small dances: movements that are slowed down or minimised to the extent of becoming invisible at any given moment but in their continuation invite a new rhythm and attention into the walls, halls, and corridors of this mega-institution. I have not sought permission for doing this intervention nor for broadcasting it live on Instagram. After two months of spending time at UNOG, I knew that it would take weeks for people to just find out who is responsible for making decisions on such a request. In-between a performance, a dance, and a secret documentary, we take the roughly five-hundred live viewers on Instagram on a tour of Palais des Nations while holding Palestine in our minds and attentions. Attending to the hardly seen corners, floors, seats, spiral stairs, and footsteps becomes a form of observance, and of care. The status of Palestine in the UN as a “non-member observer state” makes this observance more poignant. How much agency does one have as an observer? How much can we interfere in the rhythm? 

 
 
 
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My presence starts from an intention to dance and move inside these buildings on this day, but at times it only manifests itself as a body, present among other bodies, walls, and stairs. Some of my movements and gestures are inspired by those pictured in the photos in the archive: school girls pointing at the blackboard in their classroom in Gaza, December 1990; men looking into the distance through binoculars, December 1973; UN buildings shelled in late 1960s and in ruin. Others, momentary scores made on the spot.

I stand in front of the UN podium where I imagine they deliver press addresses and announcements branded with the UN logo and blue drape in the background; someone makes a statement, people clap, others nod. Now there’s no one. I raise my leg and hold it parallel to the ground. I am one leg missing. I am one leg broken. Like the Broken Chair outside, across the road from the Palais—reminding any passer-by who cares to read the plate that land mines and cluster bombs are, to put it simply, bad.4

In and out of the conference halls, corridors, rooms, stairs, and lifts, up the escalator, and down into the gardens and the peacocks—did I mention there are three peacocks living in the gardens?—my small dances continued. Foot up, down, knee bend, up, down, collapse, control, twist the wrist towards the sky, wave an arm, down, up. Minimal movements that sometimes burst out of the walk like a little moment of madness and then blend in with my walk and others walking around me—the definition of madness under the pressure of an institution like the UN is a question of course. Is madness a finger or an ankle that doesn’t follow the rules? A left hand that seems to want to run away? A leg going backwards on an escalator? A back that bends in unexpected places? Or someone with a secret camera following another person through the corridors? I hold a roll of red ribbon in the air, unroll it through the underground corridor, I swing my tiny scissors, I cut and disperse pieces of the ribbon along my way and tie bits of it to the furniture, or the lifts, leaving a trace that becomes almost invisible or unnoticeable as soon as it appears.

 

Image: Girls’ School in Gaza, December 1990, taken by John Isaac. Courtesy of United Nations Archives at Geneva. Photo: Tara Fatehi (2021).

 

To hold a wave with two arms and a belly button

Since 2021, this project has had different manifestations as lecture-performance, installation, conversations, videos, and musings in exhibitions and conferences in Geneva, Tehran, Singapore, and London. Following a lesson from Trinh T. Minh-ha that I always carry with me, it has escaped clarity, decisiveness, and conclusions—it is open, ongoing and evolving.5 This essay is also not an all-inclusive or conclusive view of the project. It offers one access point—with its selections and omissions—while leaving out some others. The different iterations of the project—performative, tactile, verbal—are all fragments that bring attention, even momentary attention, to engaging with the histories, the geographies, the archive, the institution, the body, the politics, and the narratives. Does that leave room for imagination? Maybe. Does that raise more questions than answers? Sometimes. Is it ok to end here? I think so. 

 

 

*My time at the United Nations Office and Archives at Geneva was made possible by the Embassy of Foreign Artists and the canton of Geneva.

 

 

Tara Fatehi (b. Tehran, 1987) is an artist, writer, and performer. She has been working across yearlong daily projects, performance, theatre, video, music, spoken word, dance, and writing since 2006. Her work is at the intersection of the sociopolitical and the poetic and is primarily concerned with the ephemeral interactions between memories, words, bodies, and sites. She has performed at the V&A Museum, Royal Academy of Arts, Stadtgarten Köln, Teatro o Bando, SPILL Festival, Nuffield Theatre, Battersea Arts Centre, HighFest, and Molavi Theatre, amongst other international sites. Her current projects include From the Lips to the Moon, an unusual music and poetry night in London, Always already, an eight-hour duet performance, and Mishandled Archive, 365 days of dispersing a family archive in public places. 

 

Notes

1. PA Skantze, Itinerant Spectator/Itinerant Spectacle (New York: punctum books, 2013), 7.

2. “The Establishment in Palestine of the Jewish National Home: Memorandum submitted by the Zionist Organisation to the Secretary General of the League of Nations for the Information of the Permanent Mandates Commission,” October 1924. https://archives.ungeneva.org/the-establishment-in-palestine-of-the-jewish-national-home-memorandum-submitted-by-the-zionist-organization. Accessed at United Nations Archives at Geneva, 2021.

3. “Letter to the President of the Permanent Mandates Commission, The League of Nations by Jamal Husseini, President Palestine Arab Delegation,” 12 June, 1939. Accessed at United Nations Archives at Geneva, 2021.

4. Daniel Berset, The Broken Chair, 1997.

5. “Clarity is a means of subjection, a quality both of official, taught language and of correct writing, two old mates of power: together they flow, together they flower, vertically, to impose an order.” Trinh, T. Minh-Ha, Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989), 17.

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Tara FATEHI

Topic
Essays
Date
Mon, 13 Nov 2023
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A series exploring ways to traverse the fog of unknowingness and indeterminacy