In Desert Bloom, Sheikh turns from the lasting legacy of the Palestinian Nakba (‘Catastrophe’) of 1948, as explored in Memory Trace, to that of the ‘Bedouin Nakba,’ beginning in 1948 and continuing through 1953, during which period the Israeli military violently expelled an estimated 90 percent of the 100,000 Bedouin inhabitants of the Negev Desert into the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Egypt, in the process erasing the traces of their settlements and their presence on the land.⁵ Across Memory Trace and Desert Bloom, Sheikh’s photographs and their accompanying captions and testimonials not only honor the ruination of villages, settlements, families, communities, and modes of inhabiting the land, but also bear witness to the subsequent camouflaging of these historical acts of erasure, and the persisting mechanisms and consequences of this in the present. In Desert Bloom, Sheikh explores the manner in which the Zionist dream of settling the Negev, encapsulated in Ben-Gurion’s invocation to ‘make the desert bloom,’ has transformed the desert. Reading the land, we witness how decades of irrigation and afforestation have gone hand-in-hand with urbanization, militarization, mining, construction, contamination, and destruction, as well as the continued displacement of the Bedouins. Here, through the shift in vantage point, Sheikh’s aerial images make eerily visible the manners in which the rhetoric of conservation, environmentalism, cultivation, and commemoration in fact serves as a smoke screen for continued racism, expulsion, and dispossession.⁶ Exemplary of this is the case of al-Araqib, an ‘illegalized’ Bedouin settlement that has been destroyed and rebuilt more than 85 times in what has come to be known as ‘the battle over the Negev,’ an Israeli state campaign that aims to displace Bedouins from the fertile northern threshold of the desert in order to re-appropriate their lands. Displayed at the Slought Foundation is a video, made by the villagers themselves, that documents the repeated destruction of al-Araqib. This is accompanied by historical documents (for instance, maps and land contracts) and photographs, as well as recent photographs by Sheikh, that together record the historical and contemporary presence of Bedouins, and—in the case of many of the documents—have been used to buttress their legal claims to the land.
⁵ See Eyal Weizman, “The Conflict Shoreline: Colonization as Climate Change in the Negev Desert” in Eyal Weizman and Fazal Sheikh, The Conflict Shoreline (Göttingen: Steidl, 2015), esp. p. 37.
⁶ Regarding the rhetoric of environmentalism as a smoke screen behind which political conflict takes shape, see Weizman, “The Conflict Shoreline,” esp. p. 31.
Location: Negev, Middle East
Text: Shela Sheikh