Learning to think outside The Wall

January 4, 2008

At a conference at Palestine's Al-Quds University, Mary Evans muses on gender and power.

All readers of The Times Higher will know that a great deal of ink, not to mention emotional energy, has been spent on the vexed question of whether or not British academics should boycott Israeli universities. The following is not a further part to that debate; it is an impression of a recent visit to the Palestinian university of Al-Quds.

From the moment I arrive at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport, it is apparent that this is going to be no ordinary trip to an academic conference. On no other occasion have I been asked with such vehemence the purpose of my visit to a country, or been met with such manifest hostility when I meekly reply that I am going to give a paper at Al-Quds University, and that the paper is on integrating gender into the curriculum.

When I first began teaching women's studies in a British university in the 1980s, furious patriarchs remarked that they would never allow "their" wives to take such a course. Patriarchy, it yet again appears, can transcend the lines of gender and nation: the young woman in the immigration booth gives me a look of such fury that I wonder if I have somehow (as those HSBC posters at the airport remind us) said something that is thought rude in this culture. When we leave immigration, through the fountains presumably symbolic of the waters of the Red Sea, it is with the same sense of relief that Moses might have had.

Ben Gurion Airport is a tribute to everything that the dollar can buy. Sadly, terribly, the same sense of limitless potency is evident in The Wall, endlessly visible between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and redolent of power in its most naked sense. Empires have never been slow to stamp their mark on occupied territories, but they have often sought to soften the blow by a glance, however slight, at aesthetic considerations.

Here there is no such attempt, and both The Wall and the settlement housing give no concessions to their impact on a landscape, or a recognition that everyone, Palestinian, Israeli or visitor, has to see in these constructions. In Europe, we have become accustomed to the idea that architecture has a life, in our experience of it, beyond its actual function. Here that understanding seems to have been abandoned in favour of a complete refusal to acknowledge the way in which buildings can deform the quality of life.

But of course The Wall, and settlement housing, do far more than offend the aesthetic sensibilities of a visitor. Both have destroyed communities, divided families and made daily life endlessly difficult for thousands of people. Friends at Al-Quds now take long journeys to get to work; one person, born in Jerusalem, is not allowed to visit a city a few miles away. Every person visiting the campus at Al-Quds looks out, first and foremost, at The Wall. Academic life, of course, does not stop because of this construction, and it is evident from the talk and the discussion that academic vitality is alive and well. In this sense, precisely because intellectual life is so much about crossing barriers and moving to new places, The Wall serves as a reminder of the rigid and the authoritarian.

Paradoxically, the fact of this concrete division can in some ways only encourage intellectual creativity. In much the same way as the Counter- Reformation tried, unsuccessfully, to limit intellectual inquiry, this absurd and cruel construction stands as a metaphor for all that is repressive and violent in social and political life.

Yet while The Wall is another example of those other walls that have tried, hopelessly, to contain challenge, there is another sense in which this modern wall - and its very intrusiveness - can make us reflect on aspects of the modern. The Wall in Palestine is of course a very modern wall, made of pre-cast concrete slabs. But if that is what the modern looks like, if that is what modern power can do, then there is also a sense in which that version of the modern is as potentially undesirable as, for example, Disney or McDonald's.

This liberating rejection of the modern is very much part of the debate about gender at Al-Quds, a questioning of all those Western ideas about the apparent necessity of individualism. Part of the misuse of women in the recent political history of the West has been the justification of interventionist policies in terms of the "emancipation" of women, an emancipation that confuses Western versions of the modern with human liberation. The "emancipated" - and armed - young women who patrol the frontiers in Israel are not persons to be envied any more than the Palestinian women whom they daily interrogate; both, perhaps, are victims of ancient and inherently undemocratic versions of power.

Mary Evans is visiting fellow, Gender Institute, London School of Economics.

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