1. In August of 2008 I went to Hamtramck, in eastern Detroit, to see Toby Millman’s exhibit, “Access and Closure: photographs and cut paper work from Palestine,” at the 2739 Edwin Street Gallery, Hamtramck, Michigan. Though I had seen most of her work before, conceptualized and formulated between 2006 and 2008, in different spaces and under different circumstances, still, I wanted to have another brief look before I set out to write this brief Afterword. I got lost, as usual when I go to Detroit, and not only because of the everlasting construction work on the I-75, which I had to cross in order to get to Hamtramck (or so I had been told by Mapquest). Eventually, I managed to get to my destination, with endless directions from Toby over my cell phone.
There was something about the splendid space of that gallery that lured me in as soon as I stepped into the door on the second floor; something about the arrangement of Toby’s cutouts in and around and through that space, that immediately told me I had arrived at the right place and the right time; that I no longer needed any directions; that art can take our hand and gently lead us in the right way. The cutouts, the incisions in the white paper on the walls, all pointed me in the right direction, and took me to where I wanted to go.
I looked first at the huge map cutouts of the West Bank, their incised, shifting borders suspended by a thread, threatening to fall off the map at any minute and leave the Palestinian fragmented territory behind, floating into invisibility, outside time and space. The white, scarred paper seemed so fragile and frail under the weight of the powerful image, yet so evocative and succinct and enduring. A couple of weeks before, Mahmoud Darwish, the national poet of Palestine, had died, in Houston, Texas, so far away from any virtual home he’d known after his expulsion from his native Al-Birweh in 1948. He died of a ruptured aorta, two weeks after I’d met him in Haifa for the last time, and the incised maps on the gallery’s wall seemed to me like the maps of his itineraries, his Palestinian blood vessels, his ruptured poems.
2. John Berger argues that unlike, say, drawing, photographs do not translate from appearances but, rather, quote from them. One of my most favorite moments in this book is the one about Hussein’s older sister, who happens to walk into Toby’s frame while a photograph is being taken, hair uncovered. The awkward moment, at the intersection between different identities and social norms and conventions, makes Toby delete the image; delete the inadvertent quote, off her memory card, and off the sister’s memory of embarrassment. The sister then wants the photographer to take another shot of her, to replace the first, after she arranges her headscarf. Then, pondering her act for a minute, she looks at Toby and takes off her headscarf, asking her to go ahead and take her photograph, make a quote. She smiles for Toby and for her camera, a smile of someone who suspends what marks the boundaries between the self and the foreign other who is coming from the other side, across national and political and lingual divides, a smile which is an intimate gesture of absolute trust.
These snippets and vignettes of the quotidian, these minor and low-keyed interventions on the margins of the Palestinian page, in images and in words, guide us and tell us where and how to look and listen; they attract and direct our gaze ever so gently, in a friendly gesture, as if we were involved in a conversation among friends; and they interpret and translate the complex Palestinian reality for us so effortlessly, so casually, and so intimately that we hardly feel what could have otherwise been thought of as a form of intrusion. And that’s exactly what makes these works so unique in my view: they have the power to transform a photo, taken at random, into an astonishingly incisive statement, as the incision—now embossed—becomes the statement itself, and the anecdotal paragraph across the page—an afterthought of sorts, a bemused comment, a verbal glimpse of reality—illuminates the image, foregrounds it, traces out what will adhere to our visual memory, through the subtlety and compelling expressiveness that Toby Millman manages to bring out of the vulnerability of the white paper.
A visual storyteller, with a fine-tuned attentiveness to issues of representation, Toby Millman turns her quotes into acts of translation.
3. As I’m thinking about Toby Millman’s work, I’m reading—for a seminar I teach on torture and pain—an article by anthropologist E. Valentine Daniel. The article is based on field interviews he has conducted during the eighties with former Tamil prisoners, victims of torture, illustrating “the limits, the particularity, the unshareability, and the incommunicability of pain in torture.” Daniel is primarily interested in the similarities between pain and beauty, as they both resist articulation in language. One of the former prisoners he has interviewed, a survivor of a military forced-training camp, had been tortured by hammering a nail up the sole of his right foot and leaving it there overnight, and then, as a warning to the others of what could happen if orders were disobeyed, his legs were broken. Years after the incident, and even though he was completely paralyzed below the waist, the prisoner could still feel the excruciating pain caused by that nail, in only this single spot, “no larger in circumference than the point of the nail.”
Now as I look at the map that opens up this book, at the embossed Bisan, the Palestinian city whose six thousand inhabitants were expelled in 1948, I can see that it’s no larger in circumference than the point of a nail. The map is drawn and pulled toward that embossed point, as if the memories of lost Palestine, the lost time and space, are distilled into this tiny point, the only quivering point on the flattened-out map. Toby Millman tells us, in the accompanying text, that after choosing a different name for herself every day, she and the shebab agreed “Bisan” should be her name on Friday. Some five hundred Palestinian villages and communities were razed to the ground in 1948, and their inhabitants were scattered upon the face of all the earth, as the Tower of Babel story has it, pushed out of history, all carrying a tiny spot in their souls, the size of a nail’s point, as a painful trace of the place they were displaced from.
One day at a time, then, Toby carries the memory of those nails and passes it on, one nail at a time. And that’s what art can do: transform the unshareability and the incommunicability of pain, the pain of loss and dispossession, into sheer beauty. Pain resists and destroys language, as Elaine Scarry tells us; beauty, on the other hand, may resist language, but it always finds another form of representation, another sign to carry on what could not be carried on. The phantom pain of the amputated Bisan is now an embossed point, which is easier to carry, easier to remember.
4. “I don’t want to be involved / Don’t get involved,” Toby Millman translates for herself, and for us, toward the end of her project. The Arabic root, d.kh.l, alludes also to an entrance of sorts, as if getting involved means opening a door and going in. And that’s exactly what she does for us: she opens the door and invites us in. And we stand there, pondering our involvement or the lack thereof.
It’s an astonishing door, and the invitation is very hard to resist.
1. This beautiful essay was originally written for Toby Millman’s book: Access and Closure [Stories from in and out of an occupied Palestine] and is included here by the kind permission of Anton Shammas and Toby Millman.