Camping in the Third Space: Agency, Representation, and the Politics of Gaza Beach
Jawaheer, a woman in her twenties from Khan Younis, has just returned from a nearby cafeteria with ice cream and sweets to share with her friends. Making the best of a summer under siege, she and the other women affirm joy and the aesthetics of life in Gaza Beach (see fig. 1). This image brings forth the hoping Palestinian subject, whose space of enunciation has, during the intifada al-Aqsa, become increasingly marginal and unrecognizable within dominant discourses on conflict.
The images presented here of Jawaheer and other Palestinians camping on the beach were produced in response to several questions and concerns surrounding the politics of representation of Palestinian agency. First, why has the second Palestinian uprising, the intifada al-Aqsa, been characterized by increasingly polarized and dichotomous representations of the Palestinians? In these representations, the political subjectivity of the Palestinians tends to be portrayed either in terms of Islamic militancy and suicide or in terms of passive victimhood. Second, what forms of Palestinian political subjectivity and agency exist today beyond these narrow parameters of militancy and victimhood? And third, to what extent can these other, subaltern aspects of Palestinian subjectivity be represented? In other words, if representation is, as Gayatri Spivak argues, always conditioned by discourses against which utterances are interpreted and given meaning, how is it possible to move beyond this discursive poverty and to create more complex understandings of Palestinian political subjectivity and agency?1
The problem considered here, then, is the way in which the boundaries of discourses on war and conflict are implicated in the politics of representation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Further, who can speak through these discourses? As central sites of contestation among oppositional groups, discourses on war and conflict are inherently polarizing and tend to privilege sites of spectacular violence and high-profile politics. Accordingly, dominating discourses of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exclude the many shifting ways in which Palestinians experience, negotiate, and contest the Israeli occupation in their day-to-day lives; they also prevent the articulation of Palestinian voices and subject positions that are more complex and ambivalent than dichotomous representations. What I hope to suggest, through the image of Jawaheer and through the following ethnography on the politics of Gaza Beach, is that in order to move beyond this discursive poverty, it is necessary to shift attention away from sites of conflict that are taken for granted toward un(der)represented spaces of Palestinian everyday life. These spaces, I argue, invite the possibility of epistemological “third spaces,” where meaning is not governed by preexisting interpretative frameworks and where the condition of aporia forces attention to other, subaltern aspects of the Palestinian struggle (see fig.2).
The concept of a third space to which I refer was first developed by Homi K. Bhabha, who suggests that signification is marked by a disruptive temporality and a passage through a third space of enunciation, where the authority of dominating cultural signs is provisionally displaced.2 This third space, a space of hybridity and ambivalence, presents a permanent threat to the fixity of meaning and thus to binary structures of power and knowledge. Accordingly, Bhabha argues that it is through the exploration and use of hybridity, as disclosed in the third space, that the subversion and renegotiation of hegemonic systems of power and signification become possible.
Bhabha uses the notion of third space, and the elusive strategies of hybridity implicated in it, to theorize about colonial power and resistance. As such, his theory of third space has received justified criticism for dispensing with the notion of conflict in colonial relations of power and for ignoring the central role that physical and institutionalized violence have played within the context of colonialism.3 Most especially, as this essay will demonstrate, his dogmatic trust in the status of hybridity as a condition of subaltern empowerment, and his subsequent disregard for the specific contexts within which different hybridities take place, is problematic.4 In contrast with Bhabha, I suggest that the concept of a third space can gain critical potential and become more useful if activated as an epistemological strategy and referenced to a physical space where enunciations of Palestinian political subjectivity take on manifestly hybrid forms. Instead of being an end in itself, the condition of hybridity, as disclosed on the beach of Gaza, becomes a starting point that enables a movement beyond dominating representations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is with this conception of third space in mind that I now turn to Gaza Beach.
Stretching forty kilometers along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, the narrow Gaza Strip, never more than twelve kilometers wide, has plenty of beaches, and this aspect of the landscape does not go unappreciated by the Palestinians. In contrast with Gaza’s otherwise tightly built and densely populated landscape of crammed and crowded refugee camps and towns, the blue sea and the soft, sandy beach is, for the 1.4 million Palestinians that inhabit Gaza, practically the only open space where one can spend time outdoors and escape the pressures of daily life (see figs. 3 and 4).
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My greatest gratitude goes to Julian Reid, whose insightful and inspiring comments and thoughts have been invaluable since the beginning of this project. Very specific thanks also go to Mark Laffey for his support and suggestions during the process of writing, as well as to Louiza Odysseos, Stephen Hopgood, and Joana Breidenbach for helpful comments on earlier versions of this essay. In addition, I am very grateful to Abdellrahman Abdoullah, to his family, and to the Qasir family, for the invitation to go camping.
- Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Gary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1988), 271 – 313.
- Homi K. Bhabha, “The Third Space: Interview with Homi Bhabha,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 207 – 21; Homi K. Bhabha, “The Commitment to Theory,” in The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 2004), 28 –56.
- Benita Parry, “Signs of Our Times: Discussion on Homi Bhabha’s The Location of Culture,” Third Text 28 – 29 (1994): 5 – 24.
- R. Radhakrishnan, “Postcoloniality and the Boundaries of Identity,” Callaloo 16 (1993): 750 – 71.