Jumana Manna’s Peasant Politics – ARTnews.com

After the fall of the Palestinian village of al-Birwa on June 11, 1948, its villagers lay in wait for 13 days, relying on the hospitality of their neighbors in the Western Galilee. Then, on the morning of June 23, they decided to recapture their village. Harvest time was about to end, and they wanted to tend their fields before their grain crop was ruined. As informants told Rosemary Sayigh in her seminal 1979 study, Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries, more than 200 men and women assembled and prepared to fight for their lands; around half were armed.

Caught by surprise, the occupying Zionist forces withdrew, leaving behind seven harvesting machines that had begun to reap the villagers’ crop. The victory was short-lived, but beautiful; now, the only remnants of al-Birwa are three houses, two shrines, and a school scattered amid cactuses and weeds. Today, the land is farmed by the residents of a nearby moshav, a type of cooperative agricultural settlement developed by Labor Zionists.

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An installation view shows a projected video in which a man is looking out toward an audience while reading from a sheet of paper.

Around this same time, during what is known as the Palestinian nakba (disaster), Israeli troops headed east from al-Birwa to Majd al-Krum, where Jumana Manna’s grandparents were living. The women in his family related to Manna’s father, Adel, what came next, and he committed it to paper in his new book, Nakba and Survival (2022): the Zionist forces were joined by a contingent from the east, which then massacred some of the surrendered Palestinians in the village’s al-‘Ayn Square. The atrocities that transpired in the Galilee—one of the most fertile and coveted locales in semiarid Palestine—are among the rawest, a subset of Palestinian nakba histories preserved most often by women, who are the custodians of our communal memories.

The Manna family were expelled from Majd al-Krum, joining the people of al-Birwa and the thousands of ethnically cleansed Palestinians marching on foot to Nablus, en route to eventual exile from their homeland. From Transjordan to Syria to Lebanon, the family could have ended their journey there, as mine did, had Adel’s father not done something notable, if not uncommon: he and his wife stole away by sea and returned home, where his mother Zahra had remained.

Palestine is predominantly a society of fellahin (peasants), a class who have played an essential role in the Palestinian struggle, despite their marginalization by landowners and urban merchants. Adel describes the resistance of the Palestinians who stayed in or returned to their homes as occupying “a grey area between the private and the personal, and between the public and the historical.” His daughter, Jumana, whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 location in Queens, has inherited a commitment to navigating these stories.

Grayscale photo showing a vast desert landscape covered in tnets. In the foreground, we see two women from behind; they are wearing hijab.

A refugee camp in the Jordan Valley for Palestinians driven from their homes by Israeli forces, 1948.

Pictures From History/UniversalPhoto History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“BREAK, TAKE, ERASE, TALLY,” Jumana’s first museum survey, features 20-odd works, including sculpture, collage, and video. Her practice examines the networks of social and material relations that protect Palestinians from dispossession—networks that have long produced acts of refusal and survival like those described above. Often, these acts are intimately connected to the soil, a link implicit in Manna’s work. Sets of bent ceramic or concrete pipes perched atop tile plinths or metal grates greet visitors to the show. Water Arms (Cache Series), 2018, is displayed upright, while works like Worms (Limb-Pipe Series), 2021, twist and contort around the corners of the gallery. Dusty and hollow, the pipes are presented in isolation, removed from their places in systems of agricultural production or irrigation. Instead, they recall withdrawn energies, the currents of water or sewage that once flowed through them threatening to return at any moment.

Two roughly hour-long films, Wild Relatives (2018) and Foragers (2022), are central to the exhibition. The nonfiction Wild Relatives traces the 2012 relocation of an International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas seed bank from Aleppo to Lebanon during the Syrian civil war. The abandonment resulted in various losses, so the bank requested emergency withdrawals of backups from the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway, where genetic samples are stored beneath the permafrost in case of disaster. In the film, refugee women lead the accession and planting efforts in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, the unsynchronized migration and displacement of seeds and humans all transpiring amid spectacular violence abetted by the West.

4 adults and one child gather around a large pile of greens that rests on an urban sidewalk. Some wear gloves. There are plastic baskets visible on the sidewalk and in the trunk of a car in the background.

Jumana Manna: Foragers, 2022, video, 1 hour, 5 minutes.

Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York/© Jumana Manna

In Foragers, a mix of documentary, fiction, and archival materials filmed mostly in the Galilee and the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, Manna follows several Palestinians—including her mother, Aziza, and father—as they forage for plants. Some scenes show Palestinian foragers who are brought to trial by the Israeli occupation, which has used deceptive claims of overharvesting to criminalize the foraging of three plants designated “protected species”: za’atar(thyme), an essential ingredient in Arabic cuisine; miramiyyeh (Greek sage), often used in teas; and akkoub, the artichoke-like “king of greens,” said to be good for the immune system. In reality, the laws are a means of extending existing Israeli sovereignty; foragers are subject to fines or imprisonment or both within the 1948 Palestinian borders (Israel) and in the West Bank, despite de jure separation.

Manna shows viewers a 1978 TV newsreel, in which an incredulous commentator interviews an Israeli agricultural-administrator-turned-za’atar-entrepreneur named Ze’ev Ben Heru, asking wryly: “So you want to sell za’atar mixes to the Arabs? […] You want to sell ice to the Eskimos?” The comment exposes the dark corollaries that emerge from apartheid: after stealing the land and banning foraging, Israelis can now harvest the crop, and sell the plants back to the Palestinians: there are now only a handful of Zionist plantations that cultivate akkoub, selling entirely to the “Arab market.” The coauthors of the film’s script, Manna and Palestinian attorney and writer Rabea Eghbariah, drew from court transcripts and deposition records to write the scenes in which Palestinians stand accused of violating the preservation laws. These are among the most bracing and infuriating parts of Foragers. A man named Zeidan Hajib—an old neighbor of the Manna family—receives a 730 shekel ($208) fine for picking akkoub to eat, and the Nature and Parks Authority officials force him to dump the thistles out onto the dirt. Another character, named Ahmad Hosni, is brought in for questioning after being caught in Bat Shlomo searching for wild za’atar:

Interrogator: “Do you know that it is illegal to pick za’atar?”

Hosni: “That I know. For Arabs it’s definitely forbidden. For Jews it’s always OK.”

Interrogator: “So, what do you say if I saw you park your car, get out and walk 50 meters down the dirt road, take a white bag out of your pocket and begin picking?”

Hosni: “I won’t answer you. I’ll tell you again. I am nature, OK? I would not harm myself. OK?”

Interrogator: “Thank you Ahmad, we will meet in court.”

Hosni: “So be it.”

The film explores the ways colonialism reconstructs the bureaucratic apparatuses of the state to extend its annihilatory project. Unsurprisingly, none of the accused Palestinians will dignify the Israeli laws: They will continue their work, obstinate and patient, as is the fellahi tradition.

Two olive skinned hands are wearing soft white gloves. The finger tips on both index fingers and thumbs have been removed. The person's right hand holds tweezers, and their left hand holds herbs.

Jumana Manna: Wild Relatives, 2018, video, 1 hour, 4 minutes.

Manna punctures the clinical coldness of the Zionists’ treatment of the land with intimate, human-land interactions, perhaps answering the question of indigeneity libidinally. Manna has an adept understanding of the tactile, which is evident in her sculpture practice, but also in certain scenes from the films. In Wild Relatives, exhausted workers at the greenhouse, brought close by their labors, share a cigarette. In Foragers, Manna’s parents collect a trunkful of hummeid (bitter dock), louf (black calla), shomar (fennel), and akkoub—roaming the valley, accompanied by dogs, unworried and unhurried as they clip and pluck. Later, the elders in the family prepare a meal using the picked plants, discussing recipes and preparation with Manna in the room, off-camera. Far from nostalgic or soporific, these geographically specific scenes involving village topographies, infrastructures, and flora are examples of how peasant politicization is achieved in the face of state- and class-sanctioned exclusion from formal education. In effect, what Manna depicts in her films is resistance.

Manna highlights a type of village consciousness that is particularly pronounced in Palestine, where the village is the central administrative unit and site of sociopolitical identification. Historically, the village was entrusted with the protection of peasant life and the facilitation of access to land, which strengthened self-sufficiency and therefore the ability to resist colonization. The early Arab and Ottoman land systems upheld this peasant tenancy through a patrilineal right to soil on the basis of custom and history, rather than formal deed or law. After the Ottoman land reforms of 1856 and 1858, which were among the earliest Palestinian experiences of privatized land ownership, the later British and Zionist colonizations sought to “extra-territorialize” the land, until it could no longer be cultivated, leased, or labored on by Arabs, leaving them in a state of permanent alienation. This is the context in which Manna’s work must be understood: she shows that stewardship of land is concomitant with resistance.

These antagonisms produce a constellation of vivid personal histories. Near the end of Foragers, Manna’s parents are shown at a lake—her father is reading a book while her mother observes the fish. I couldn’t help but think of Manna’s great-grandmother, and all that she had lost in Majd al-Krum. Could she have imagined this moment of utopian reprieve? The systems of mutual care on which this reprieve was built have endured: Arabs refusing to accept the Zionists’ rules, making sport of them, foraging and doling out their plants like the precious resources they are. In the final moments of the film, Hajib returns to the site of his confrontation with the Nature and Parks Authority, using his plastic bag to hold the scattered akkoub he picks up,which he will share with Aziza and her sister in the morning. That night, he sleeps outside under a full moon.  

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