BEIRUT: “How do I get to Palestine?” It’s a simple but loaded question. When Joan Baz drove south with her father in search of an answer, she discovered a wealth of black humor surrounding the contentious issue of Israeli-Palestinian-Lebanese geography and ideology. “People have this light approach to it,” says Baz, an illustrator, animator and member of the Waraq Collective. “We asked one man the question [while] we were reversing in the car. He was like, ‘Okay, go back, go back, go back – be careful, don’t hit Tel Aviv.’
“Another said, ‘Okay, you go straight, straight, straight and once you see rockets, you’re in Palestine.’
“One woman was like, ‘You see that lake? Okay, make a U-turn.’”
Baz’s 2013 trip south was her first.
“The idea of going to the south is always haunting,” she says. “That’s why when I went, there were lots of things that shocked me into saying, ‘Why did I wait so long?’ It was something that we feared that we weren’t supposed to fear, in a sense. ... A lot of times I would think, ‘Wow, this is probably the calmest place in Lebanon.’”
Struck by the paradoxical, occasionally absurd, sights she witnessed along the way, Baz created a satirical book, “Count to 10 With: I went Looking for Palestine and I found.” Modeled on a popular children’s book format, the work explores issues of borders, identity, conflict, reality and ideology.
The book, which Baz created in collaboration with Nadine Touma’s Dar Onboz publishing house, first appeared as a supplement in the March 2014 edition of “The Outpost,” a quarterly magazine. It has since spawned an exhibition, “I Went Looking for Palestine but I Found,” which is now up at a between-names gallery in Saifi Village as part of Beirut Design Week.
Copies of the book, illustrated with a series of simple, digitally colored lino prints, greet visitors upon entry into the vaulted space. On the facing page, one or two words of text provide a satirical spin, making light of serious imagery and imbuing innocent objects with darker twist.
Three slides from a children’s playground are characterized as “training camps.” Five tanks – their gun barrels twisted into loops reminiscent of the knot in the Israeli tank on display at Mleeta’s Resistance Museum – are declared “monuments.”
Six vans flying the Israeli flag are “visitors,” and seven severed body parts are “errors.” Eight UNIFIL soldiers, their weapons a stark contrast to their cheerful thumbs-up poses, are “tourist attractions.”
Nine pieces of unexploded ordnance are “toys.”
“The [subjects] were very obvious to me,” Baz says. “A lot of them have to do with things I personally experienced. For example ... I spent half an hour standing with a couple of [UNIFIL] guys and they were all the time taking pictures with tourists and posing with their thumbs up.
“It struck me as something very poignant, to look at that as a tourist attraction. So there were the objects that I saw and also the relationship between text and image. ... It’s the sarcasm of what you read [juxtaposed] with what you see that creates this double meaning.
“Choosing the words was the hardest part. It’s not about provoking. It’s not about demeaning the conflict. It’s just about saying things as they are.”
Baz has amplified her book’s bleak humor to create a conceptually powerful exhibition, centered on the idea of a tour, in which visitors in search of Palestine encounter first the book, then a wall and finally a shop.
The wall, planks of unvarnished wood nearly 2-meters high, is punctuated by small shelves, each bearing an ink pad and a wooden stamp embossed with a single image from the book.
Alongside each is a small circular hole. By pressing close to the wall and placing one eye to the aperture, viewers can watch a short section of dizzying video footage, shot in south Lebanon and relating to the object on the stamp.
Baz invites visitors to stamp as many copies of each image as they would like onto the surface of the wood, creating their own numerical groupings. The significance of the stamping gesture – redolent of visas, passports, monitored movement and sanctioned entry and departure – is left unspoken, but its weighty presence, particularly in the context of Israel, colors the experience.
Beyond the wall, visitors encounter a second staple of international border crossings: a souvenir shop. Here they are invited to purchase everything from a sheet of white cotton and a handmade wooden stamp, with which to create a customized kaffiyeh, to embroidery fabric printed with traditional-looking designs, into which tanks, widows and weapons have been integrated.
Homemade cookies stamped with UNIFIL soldiers, IDF surveillance vans and mangled tanks are also available, along with fridge magnets, postcards and posters.
The public is invited to partake in the ritual of souvenir gathering by purchasing a limited edition lino print of a body part, or “error,” in a display influenced by Baz’s visit to the Qana Martyrs Museum, created to document the death of civilians in Israeli airstrikes in and around the village.
“I went to the museum, and there was nothing there [except] one wall of framed pictures – horrible pictures – of the events at Qana,” she recalls. “The tour guide was explaining every picture one by one, telling me, ‘This guy lost an eye. His eye is over here. This guy lost a leg. His leg is over here.’
“All these decapitated bodies in framed pictures – I could not but be disgusted. It was very emotional and at the same time very true. ... Victims are ‘errors,’ in the language of the Israelis.”
“This exhibition aims to replicate it, in some way,” she adds. “You can simply pick an ear or pick an eye to take home with you.”
“I Went Looking for Palestine but I Found” is up at a nameless gallery space on Mkhalisiyyeh Street in Saifi Village until June 15. Look out for the signs in the window.