Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Political Lives of Tourism

Wilful ignorance is not an option for those who travel at leisure in the Middle East, writes Laleh Khalili

January 1, 2009

Recently, the Lebanese Industrialists' Association announced that it planned to file an international lawsuit against Israel for claiming tabbouleh, hummus and falafel as Israeli foods when in reality they have long been staples of Lebanese cuisine. This nationalism of everyday consumption, and the transformation of leisure products into contentious symbols of belonging, is the central concern of Rebecca Stein's thoughtful ethnography of Israeli tourism.

Itineraries in Conflict focuses on Israeli consumers' desires, including travel to Petra in Jordan, touristic visits to predominantly Palestinian locales inside Israel, the food eaten in the Palestinian restaurants of the Israeli village of Abu Ghosh, and the urban Israeli cafes that, after being targeted by suicide bombers, carry even heavier burdens of nationalist symbolism. Stein's intent is to show the ways in which Zionism is performed as everyday practice, and the transformation of high politics into citizens' subjectivities.

The book's ethnography is fascinating, although in some chapters it is all too brief. In the chapter on Petra, Stein relies primarily on newspaper accounts of Israelis who, after the signing of Israel's peace treaty with Jordan, travelled to Petra.

These pieces read very much like the chronicles of 19th-century "explorers" and adventurers, replete with sentimental cliches, stereotypes about the "natives", and a kind of wilful ignorance about the broader political implications of such visits. Although the material Stein presents is of great interest, I wanted to know and see more of these travellers' thoughts and writings.

Furthermore, the absence of Sinai in a chapter titled "regional routes" is regrettable. Sinai is excluded because the book explicitly focuses on the post-Oslo era; however, a comparison with Sinai in this chapter would have been immensely revealing.

As visitors to Red Sea resorts and villages know, restaurants and cafes named after Begin and Ben-Gurion still serve Israeli tourists. What makes Sinai an interesting case is that it was occupied by the Israeli military and, as such, even the seemingly innocent tourist services there lay bare much of the machinery of its aggression against its neighbours, and further elucidates the ways in which such touristic travel - like its 19th-century colonial counterparts - has strange relations to invasions of a more malign kind.

The chapters on Israeli tourism within its borders, in villages and towns populated by Palestinian citizens and coded as Arab, are equally of interest. These chapters contain some of the more detailed ethnography in the book and, while they are well focused on the questions of leisure consumption as markers of nationalism, they also include subtle discussions of collaboration (the village of Abu Ghosh is apparently known as a village that helped arm Yishuv fighters in 1948), performance of national loyalties predominantly by Palestinians who find their national position vulnerable and problematic self-representations.

These chapters are harrowing in some ways as they detail in a cool and dispassionate voice the manner in which Palestinian citizens feel compelled to repeat again and again performances that prove their loyalty to an Israeli state that has dispossessed them of their land and relegated them to second-class status. The chapter on the cafes targeted by suicide bombers and their transformation into meaning-laden symbols of the nation and as central tropes in performance of Israeliness is equally instructive.

The analytic apparatus used to explain how Zionist political order in Israel translates into personal tastes and touristic aesthetics is founded on the concept of "intelligibility" (and its somewhat less successful food-related concept, "edibility"), which is defined as "a national protocol of recognition, one that effectively regulates modes of perception, that which can be perceived, and how perceived things are to be understood or categorized within its terms".

Although the concept is interwoven with the ethnography throughout Stein's book, its inner workings are left somewhat opaque. If intelligibility tells us that the high politics of Zionist nationalism is consumed by Israeli citizens and describes the effects of this consumption on identities and tastes, it is less clear how this process occurs: through repetitious practice? Habit? Media narratives? Education? Osmosis from the environment?

If the Palestinian providers of touristic products feel compelled to announce their loyalty again and again, does violence play a role in this performance?

What are the differences between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi consumers in their perceptions of touristic products? And how does class shape the touristic encounter?

Stein's book reveals much of the everyday practices and desires of Israelis committed to Zionism to varying degrees; and it does so subtly and thoughtfully. Sometimes her subtlety can verge on pulling her punches, as much of the material she writes about speaks so strongly of the hierarchies and fantasies of power within Israel. But perhaps in letting her material speak, Stein allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the extent to which tourism, when refracted through the lens of unequal power relations, can be like invasion and occupation.

Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Political Lives of Tourism

By Rebecca Stein

Duke University Press 232pp, £62.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780822342519 and 3431

Published 29 October 2008

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