Arts Of The Working Class Logo


Tanya Habjouqa and the imagination of Palestine.

  • Mar 26 2024
  • Heath Bexley
    is a writer living in near London. He condemns the 7 October 2023 attacks by Hamas.

There are few more familiar bits of symbolism than the bird in flight standing in for the hope of freedom. But as with so many other fundamental aspects of basic human existence, the bird has a complex status in the iconography and psychology of the contemporary Palestinian experience. As the seemingly endless scenes of war at its most total and apocalyptic have come to dominate the timelines of those following events in Gaza, appearing as a kind of requiem, and imprecation, accompanying these posts often are lines from one of the most famous poems in contemporary Palestinian literature. Mahmoud Darwish’s lines “Where should we go after the last frontiers? / Where should the birds fly after the last sky?” The question is answered bleakly in Darwish’s poem: “We will die here in the last passage. Here and here our blood will plant its olive tree.” A sense of grim inevitability lends the poem a sense of prophecy, but perhaps this ending, if the world allows it to be an ending, will not be the full story. A different kind of olive tree will take root. 

Ultimately, of course, no one escapes death in “the last passage”, but the question of what happened before, how one lived, must remain visible and present in the depiction of the story of the Palestinian struggle for life and self-determination. Tanya Habjouqa’s photographic series, Birds Unaccustomed to Gravity offers a window into the lives lived in Palestine, and Israel as well, in the lead-up to the latest version of the ongoing “Arab Apocalypse” chronicled by Etel Adnan, Darwish, and so many others. Habjouqa has spent decades in the region as a photojournalist. Throughout this time she has also sought out complex, unresolved narratives; not merely death in the last passage, but life in the last passage. The work’s component images are explorations of the full complexity of a situation and a region the discussion of which almost inevitably begins with a beleaguered sigh and an intoning of the phrase “It’s complicated…” 


fig. 1


This truism is perhaps unjustly maligned by activists. Complication is not the same thing as complexity, it must be remembered. Complication needs to be no more than the connection of multiple parts - themselves quite simple - into a “complicated” whole. The kind of thing people could solve if they wanted to. “Complexity” entails many unknown, often unknowable layers. Habjouqa’s work has always preferred complexity over complication. Complexity demands serious attention and creativity in ways mere complication does not (both, however, require an effort to take matters seriously that seem wholly lacking in the Great Power politics of the contemporary Middle East). In Birds Unaccustomed to Gravity, the artist captures the surreality within the mundane horrors of quotidian violence towards which the world has spent more than two decades accommodating itself; constant vigilance, fleeting ecstasies, and, inevitably, literal birds populate Habjouqa’s vision of a sempiternal crisis in which the cycle of violence seems to be embedding itself in the very physical geography. 

The world that emerges in the series is not the same as the one journalists - when they are permitted in the territory and not killed in the line of duty - depict. Theirs is a world of “complications”, knotty problems to be solved by the deft hands of statesmen. Habjouqa’s world is more intractable, replete with terror, humor, and strange visual rhymes, but more than anything else, a determined capacity to tell the truth with a Palestinian accent. The viewer encountering such irreducible complexity must then probe their psyches and pose the same oft-quoted (and often-made-true) line from Darwish. The earth, to borrow his words again, is closing in on us all.


fig. 2





    Cover: Tanya Habjouqa, Birds Unaccustomed to Gravity, Ramallah, Occupied West Bank (Ein Quinya), 2017 © and Courtesy Tanya Habjouqa

    Ramallah schoolgirls from a government school enjoy one of the few open spaces of greenery on the cusp of the city in Ein Qinya. It is “Area C”, so despite deeds owned by Palestinians, no one is allowed to build on their land except to maintain olive groves.

    fig. 1: Tanya Habjouqa, Birds Unaccustomed to Gravity, Occupied Jordan Valley, West Bank, 2020 © and Courtesy Tanya Habjouqa

    The vice-governor of the Tubas governorate in the northern West Bank, Ahmed Asaad (left) visits farmers in the area. The house and grape vineyard of the Moatassam family. They have lush lands but are terrified by what is coming, having lived the diminishing land, access, and water year by year for decades. Water is essential to their lives and agribusiness.


    fig. 2: Tanya Habjouqa, Birds Unaccustomed to Gravity, Mount Meron, 2020 © and Courtesy Tanya Habjouqa

    Orthodox Jews take a pause in nature, a break from the giant bonfires and fervent celebrations of Lag b' Omer. It is one of the largest Hassidic gatherings in the world. It is also the site of a forcibly depopulated Palestinian village.



To improve our website for you, please allow a cookie from Google Analytics to be set.

Basic cookies that are necessary for the correct function of the website are always set.

The cookie settings can be changed at any time on the Date Privacy page.