Issue #143 Twenty-One Sunsets

Twenty-One Sunsets

Oraib Toukan

Sophie Halaby, Sunset Nov 3. 1953 on the way to heaven. Courtesy The Palestinian Museum Digital Archive.

Issue #143
March 2024

It is hard not to respond in light of the times that I am writing from—the total destruction of everything and anything ever known to Palestinian lives in the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip, and far beyond it.*

I ask: What language should I draw from to write this text when the summer of 2023 spent in Ramallah feels like a memory swept up in someone else’s garden? The twenty-one sunsets I never saw. How do I describe a world I imagined just a few weeks back in a way that is still relevant? What lexicon can we draw from going forward, when twelve million of our words seem to have buried themselves with the butchered? How do we speak from heads bowed down to say goodbye? The writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh poignantly asks, when “the atrocious” renders all that was recognizable unrecognizable, what meanings can ever feel novel?1 The violence in the “atrocious” الفظيع (al-fazi‘e), he says, is that it actually wants to deform all that is known; its very function is to warp form.2 And yet he reminds us that in Arabic, the words “suffering” معاناة (mu‘ana) and “meaning” معنى (ma‘na) come from the same root; suffering propagates meaning.3 As he puts it, “In confronting the atrocious that strips us of form, the production of forms, meanings, concepts, representations, and expressions, is a fundamental field of struggle—the struggle for meaning.”4 But what, then, do we write?

And so we once again push our bodies out of these traps of inadequacy. Because one of the tasks of this apartheid is precisely to separate Gaza in global consciousness into a helpless realm of its own. The “tragic” “other” of the Palestinian experience, floating in a gruesome universe “of its own making.” “Free Gaza” as a more digestible form of “Free Palestine.” Gaza as a parallel reality the world has learned to live with, periodically remember, sporadically rewrite, regularly rewatch with entirely separate spectacles. As though the hyper-visible, ruthless, quick-fix violence in one terrain is not the same stereoscopic pairing of the relentless structural violence, destruction, and humiliation miserably located right below the lens, or boastingly in front of it, in other Palestinian temporalities.

My own understandings of images were amplified in the aftermaths of several prior disproportionate onslaughts on Palestinians residing in the Israeli-besieged Gaza Strip. Through the overall Palestinian historic experience of violence, I learned that visibility does not presuppose anything. The Palestinian struggle is painfully observable­­­, glaringly visible, and yet it always feels like it cannot be seen. Over time I conditioned myself to find meaning in the lexicon of the Arabic language on conscience and images. I dove into pictures to look—no longer for damning evidence of injustice, but for meaning in how we come to know things. From their soil grain.

In the aftermath of Israel’s May 2021 war on Gaza, the Communist Museum of Palestine, 16 Beaver, and other collectives organized a forum titled “Reimagining Solidarity: A Conference of Butterflies.” I held dear the words from mathematician and pedagogue Munir Fasheh that I recall: “The Marginals, The Downtrodden, The Besieged, The Smallest, The Wretched among us periodically make us know something of a humanity.” What is that knowledge that sites of strife make us know? Although the rhetoric of celebration from truce to truce has become part of war’s laws of motion too, essentially Fasheh was saying that sites of struggle produce astonishing ways of knowing, despite everything. And although Fasheh also erodes the diverse social fabric of Gaza when he attempts to paint the Wretched (for there were many degrees of disparity), he is modestly trying to push us into other worlds of knowing. Following the conference, Gaza artists Rehaf Al Batinji, Mahmoud Al Shaer, Majdal Nateel, Salman Nawati, and Carmel Alabbasi and I invited Fasheh to speak to our online reading group. He told us that knowledge cannot continue to come in isolation of ecology and the universe, that it can only ever rise from “soil” تربه (turbeh).

From then on, turbeh became an axis mundi for me—it is a pole or a reference point to which I keep returning. That is, thinking through soil earth as a way to explore forms of consciousness that stem from the grain of things. Just like turbeh, the grain of every image—its idiosyncratic noise—contains knowledge beyond what the image represents. Turbeh undoubtedly also speaks to me personally because I was an environmental geographer before I turned to art academies to study photography. One can innately read photographs like topographies, and topographies like photographs, hearing, for example, what a lump of sedimentary rock has to say about past events that shape its appearance today. One can tread the insides of images, as though topographically, and reach out for the grain of an image, from that blur where clarity itself comes into question. In moments when we are deeply in and very apart from something.

In film and photography, the last hour before sunset and the first hour before sunrise is commonly referred to as “the magic hour.” During this hour, things look simply, clearly, unconditionally what they are. Bark is bark in that hour and that belief stands out as unequivocally true. This is not unlike our current hour in all its violence, where light is refracted so low to the ground that we unmistakably, uncategorically know what is absolutely true. This light comes with certitude. Even on all that which exceeds our comprehension, this light is unquestionably true. In part this is because the image it delivers is what it is. Indeed, these images are what they are. They pierce the thickest layer of our heart because they need no mediation. They win because they are fundamentally uncognitive—they need no reading.

It is also true that photography itself is an encounter with the fact that things are not what they appear. That they are in fact appearances. Eyes travelling through this occupation need to adapt to yet another kind of light. One with enough strength to expose and then decode the symbols of settler-colonialism that order one’s field of view: prickly pears growing over shattered limestone, expatriated palms and pines, color-coded rooftop water tanks, rose-red corrugated roofs, multibillion-dollar separation barriers, demolition rubble, expansive checkpoints, and bypass roads around shrinking enclaves of Palestinian-only areas. In other words, the ability to read the signs is part and parcel of decolonizing vision. So too is understanding the original fabric of historic Palestine so as to read through the layers of what has been erased and replaced against what has been appropriated. Edward Said described Jean Genet’s travelling gaze on the exiled Palestinian as such: “Genet was no ordinary visitor, no simple observer or Western traveler in search of exotic peoples and places to write up in some future book.” His movements, Said writes, “had something like the effect of a seismographic reading, drawing and exposing the fault lines that a largely normal surface had hidden.”5 Indeed, perhaps the motivation to travel is in the question awaiting: So what did you see? And yet, however many travelling eyes have seen it, however many mouths have uttered it, however many have been silenced, punished, and demonized for uttering it, why is everything that was ever seen negated to a nothing has been seen?

There are things the eye sees that the mind alone cannot decipher. Separation, such as body from soul, loved one from bereaved, and all the communities where we can sense separation is at stake, belong to the domain of the sensory organ of the heart. The heart is a way into repressed forms of knowledge when the intellect just cannot know. When it continues to foolishly slap the attributes of one thing onto another no matter what the eyes are seeing. Because it is the heart that recognizes injustice. It is the heart that fathoms what we see when we look at separation. Certainly, one of the hardest attributes of photography is that it is a frank encounter with the very harsh realization that something can no longer exist. We understand ephemerality through early summer poppies, but also by travelling into a photograph. Death, the transition from the state of being to not-being, nonbeing—one of the most difficult ideas to fathom—is woefully built into photography. Indeed, there is unequivocal knowledge to be found in getting swallowed by a picture of someone who was just alive. In that profound awareness that a whole life and the universe it contains­­—ends. Just like that. Taken somewhere unreachable, untouchable, absolutely unbearable, and unable to be known.

But we are also beginning to understand death through a traffic of images of entirely wronged Palestinian bodies. Disseminated in desperately urgent and evidentiary times, but received, by some, in ways that are far less stressed than these relentless, brutal experiments on human stress we are being asked to just stand by and witness. Wanting to separate from the polemic of watching degraded and degrading images comes from a need to better understand the process of awareness itself. From where in the body are we fathoming images of suffering in the first place? A cosmological return to consciousness itself could begin in moments that emanate from “care” عناء (ana’a), the etymological twin of “suffering” معاناة (mu‘ana) that Yassin al-Haj Saleh also reminds us of. From the tender and innate, the intricate and the humane. It could originate in the haptic ways of images, too, which part ways with the evidence-based documentary value or indexical capacity we also (absolutely) need from the Palestinian image. And in the potential of transforming consciousnesses stemming from this earth with which we bury—which no amount of anyone’s displacement or erasure can ever refute.

And so, enter desire. Desire to attain what the mind pictures. The right to desire. The desire for dignity. Knowing that pictures of suffering may have a claim etched somewhere deep inside them for an equal right to joy. The joy of smelling, touching, knowing, too, that someone or something that is absolutely not within reach. In one golden summer, I press my camera onto flora and fauna inside and outside of Ramallah. In retrospect it feels like I just wanted to squash summer petals with my camera lens. Inside crevices, brushing my lens on a summer night’s jasmine bush in ‘Ayn Misbah, on thirsty wild carrots in ‘Ayn Qiniya (“Queen Anne’s lace”), on open fields in Tireh smothered with the purple plastic foil of expensive American chips, on a feather. Light’s effects on that feather. Comparing the feather to our dog’s fur back in Germany. Looking back, from what feels like another world, I wonder if I was practicing the luxury of being able to engage with desire for desire’s sake. The opulence of making pictures in nature without codes, as if that’s perfectly okay. “And why not?” asked John Berger in the conclusion of his loving book Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance; for nature photographs “record and admit pleasure.”6 Trees are asked “to stand there, wearing themselves” for us, upright and all. I still wonder why Berger chose to end this book of all books with a chapter dedicated to Jitka Hanzlová’s beautiful forest photographs in Czechia. What did he seek in that gesture? Suddenly, away from his profound reflections on urgency as the center of our existence, he throws us all into a silent world. Enter the forest as history: “A forest is what exists between its trees, between its dense undergrowth and its clearings, between all its life cycles and their different time-scales.”7 Perhaps he was desperate to breathe himself, or perhaps desperate for a timelessness away from the stories upon stories that come out of “events.” No doubt, his was a seeking-out of joy, recording nature as one moment, one nod to joy, one “break-out from the prison of modern times.”8

Of the twenty-one sunsets in Palestine this summer that left me, one returns. With my window let down, and with that loyal summer mountain breeze I know very well, a taxi driver explains to me that one yearns for turbeh all the more when one loses someone dear. He too understood soil differently after loss. Brown earth becomes solace, in the way things are, in the cycles of life sleeping within. Terra Rosa, that exact hue of Mediterranean west bank soil. We both point to a chunk of it on our way up from Jericho, possibly eight hundred meters above sea level. An urge, perhaps, to grasp, take and hold, someone where they may be right now.

He recites, “إنّا لله وإنّا إليهِ رَاجعُون”

We talk about the feel of soil earth below our feet.

How much more padded it feels to me in the woods of Germany where I now walk. In beginnings and endings, in somewhere, and elsewheres where we meet the humblest form of our selves.

*This text was published in December 2023 in Ways of Traveling (Qattan Foundation, Ramallah), a residency book on artists’ travels in Palestine departing from the late John Berger. The scale of everything written is nothing but a fraction of what has been witnessed since.


Haj Saleh, Al-Fadih wa Tamthiluhu: Mudawalet fi shakli souriyah al-mukharab wa tashakuliha al-assir (The atrocious and its representation: Deliberations on Syria’s distorted form and its tumultuous formation) (Dar al Jadid, 2021), as introduced and summarized in English by Haj Saleh on the Henna Platform .


The “our” and “us” referred to by Haj Saleh is his homeland Syria, in which he crucially maintains that “any point of entry into knowledge of Syria is Syrians’ most cruel, atrocious experiences” (The Atrocious, via Henna).


Haj Saleh, Al-Fadih wa Tamthiluhu, 157.


Haj Saleh, Al-Fadih wa Tamthiluhu, 157.


Said, “On Jean Genet’s Late Works,” Grand Street, no. 36 (1990): 30.


Berger, Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance (Verso, 2016), 127.


Berger, Hold Everything Dear, 127.


Berger, Hold Everything Dear, 127.

Photography, War & Conflict, Nature & Ecology, Philosophy
Palestine, Middle East, Planet Earth
Return to Issue #143

Oraib Toukan is an artist. She is currently a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin and was a Clarendon scholar at the University of Oxford’s Ruskin School of Art, where she completed her PhD in 2019.


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