space exodus

While the visible landscape provides an oral, tribal culture with a necessary mnemonic, or memory trigger, for remembering its ancestral stories, alphabetic writing enabled the Hebrew tribes to preserve their cultural stories intact even when the people were cut off, for many generations, from the actual lands where those stories had taken place.

By carrying on its lettered surface the vital stories earlier carried by the terrain itself, the written text became a kind of portable homeland for the Hebrew people. And indeed it is only thus, by virtue of this portable ground, that the Jewish people have been able to preserve their singular culture, and thus themselves, while in an almost perpetual state of exile from the actual lands where their ancestral stories unfolded.

Yet many of the written narratives in the Bible are already stories of displacement, of exile. The most ancient stratum of the Hebrew Bible is structured, from the first, by the motif of exile - from the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden, to the long wandering of the Israelites in the desert. The Jewish sense of exile was never merely a state of separation from a specific locale, from a particular ground; it was (and is) also a sense of separation from the very possibility of being placed, from the very possibility of being entirely at home.

This deeper sense of displacement, this sense of always already being in exile, is inseparable, I suggest, from alphabetic literacy, this great and difficult magic of which the Hebrews were the first real caretakers. Alphabetic writing can engage the human senses only to the extent that those senses sever, at least provisionally, their spontaneous participation with the animate earth. To begin to read, alphabetically, is thus already to be displaced, cut off from the sensory nourishment, and so to yearn, to hope, that such contact and conviviality may someday return. “Because being Jewish,” as Edmond Jabes has written, “means exiling yourself in the word and, at the same time, weeping for your exile.”

The pain, the sadness of this exile, is precisely the trace of what has been lost, the intimation of a forgotten intimacy. The narratives in Genesis remain deeply attuned to the animistic power of places, and it is this lingering power that lends such poignancy to the motifs of exodus and exile. The stories of the patriarchs are filled with sacred place-names, and many of these narratives seem structured so as to tell how particular places came to have their specific names. While these sacred sites never seem to have an entirely autonomous power (many, for instance, take their sacredness from the fact that YHWH there speaks, or otherwise reveals Himself to one of the protagonists), earthly place nevertheless remains a structuring element of biblical space.

Moreover, the trajectory of time, for the ancient Hebrews, was by no means entirely linear. The holy days described in the Bible are closely bound to the intertwined cycles of the sun and the moon. Further, the nonrepeating, historical time alluded to by Eliade seems to correlate with the sense of existential separation and exile.

It is thus that, in Hebrew tradition, the expulsion from the eternity of Eden (and later, the destruction of the Temple) is mirrored, at the other end of sequential history, by the promised return from exile, the coming of the Messiah, and an end to separated time. The forward trajectory of time, that is, will at last open outward, flowing back into the spacious eternity of living place (the “promised land”), and so into a golden age of peace between all nations.

Eternity lies not in a separated heaven (the ancient Hebrews knew of no such realm), but in the promise of a future reconciliation on the earth. Time and space are still profoundly influenced by one another in the Hebrew Bible. They are never entirely distinguishable, for they are still informed, however distantly, by a participatory experience of place.

—  from the Time, Space, and the Eclipse of the Earth chapter of David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous

A Space Exodus (2009) - Palestinian Artist LARISSA SANSOUR

A Space Exodus quirkily sets up an adapted stretch of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey in a Middle Eastern political context. The recognisable music scores of the 1968 science fiction film are changed to arabesque chords matching the surreal visuals of Sansour’s film.

The film follows the artist herself onto a phantasmagoric journey through the universe echoing Stanley Kubrick’s thematic concerns for human evolution, progress and technology. However, in her film, Sansour posits the idea of a first Palestinian into space, and, referencing Armstrong’s moon landing, she interprets this theoretical gesture as “a small step for a Palestinian, a giant leap for mankind”.

The film offers a naively hopeful and optimistic vision for a Palestinian future contrasting sharply with all the elements that are currently eating away at the very idea of a viable Palestinian state. In A Space Exodus, Sansour does finally reach the moon, although her contact with Palestine’s capital is cut off. - LS

Watch a Short Clip from the Film Here