Between the lines

Rachel Aspden meets a photographer documenting Arab-Israeli soldiers' painful struggle for identity

Two dark-eyed young men lounge against each other in the shade of a breeze-block wall. One, propped lazily on an elbow, rests his head on his companion's shoulder. It could be any summer afternoon in Damascus or Beirut - except for the rifle barrels glinting dully from the bottom of the frame and the Hebrew lettering, half hidden in a jumble of uniform straps, epaulettes and webbing. These are not aimless teenagers, but Arab-Israeli soldiers sheltering from grenade attacks as part of their training for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).

The off-key domesticity of the photograph is typical of Ahlam Shibli's work. Born in an Arab village in Galilee, she has spent much of the past 15 years photographing dispossessed Palestinian communities. "All my work is about houses, about home," she explains over coffee at a Turkish café in east London. "I became fascinated by these soldiers, and by the choices they have to make about where they belong." Unlike their Jewish and Druze fellow countrymen, Arab-Israeli citizens are not conscripted into the IDF - an army permanently pitted against Israel's Arab neighbours - but they can volunteer. The young men in "Trackers", an exhibition of Shibli's work at the Max Wigram Gallery in London, are serving in "tracker units" deployed in the occupied Palestinian territories. They are part, most Palestinians would say, of an occupying army and are oppressing their own people.

"Trackers" shows little of this fraught political background. There are no photographs of the soldiers manning checkpoints or confronting Palestinian civilians; they are simply shown living out the repetitive routines of military training: resting on their bunks, smoking cigarettes before a briefing or preparing for practice patrols. There are no heroics here: privates gingerly cradle grenades like new-laid eggs. But the grip of their new identity is unmistakable - uniforms bear Hebrew tags and the blue Star of David flies over the camp gates. "For these guys, joining the army is a way of saying, 'I belong to you, I don't belong to the weaker ones'," explains Shibli. It is also the only way for them to gain status and security in a society that discriminates against its Arab members: soldiers are exempt, for example, from the body searches Arab men undergo at shopping malls, restaurants and cinemas. And it opens doors to money: as ex-soldiers are eligible to work in Israel's numerous security services, many end up guarding the notorious wall.

Despite the half-built concrete barracks and uncomfortable tents inhabited by Shibli's soldiers, the camp photographs show them "at home" in the state of Israel. But then, in a series of similar lounging poses, the soldiers reappear on the carpets, cushions and plastic picnic chairs of their original homes, the poverty-stricken Arab villages of the Negev and Galilee. Because of the stigma of collaboration, however, they no longer fully belong: "When he goes home, one soldier's father locks his gun and uniform up in a cupboard, so that the neighbours will never see them," says Shibli.

And yet, most of the trackers' families encourage them to join the IDF. After three years of service, Arab volunteers get a 75 per cent discount on 500 square metres of land in their own village. With the impossibly high prices imposed by the Israeli authorities (a similar-sized plot often costs $20,000), it is the only chance many have to own any land. The alternative is bleak. "People whose sons haven't joined the army - well, you see them living five or six families to one house," says Shibli. The headscarved mothers watching their sons take the Israeli military oath have, she says, as much cause for celebration as despair.

Shibli's photography thrives on such contradictions and compromises. She began her career working in "unrecognised" Arab villages where the Israeli state refuses to provide water or electricity, or even to allow villagers to build permanent homes. "Even though they're very cheap, made out of zinc sheeting, each house has a beautiful garden in front of it and is painted in bright colours. It's like paradise," she says. "I wanted to focus on the subjective feeling: even though it doesn't appear on any official maps, the people feel that this is their home." In the unrecognised Bedouin settlements of the Negev Desert, people who refuse to sell their land to the state and to submit to resettlement have no address on their ID cards - in official eyes, they are "homeless".

This is not, however, art as propaganda. The unguarded, anti-heroic photographs in "Trackers" hint obliquely at the cruelties and paradoxes of the soldiers' existence. "Until 1980, Palestinian art was mostly rhetorical, straightforward stuff, only about the naqba [occupation]. It was hardly art at all," says Shibli, rolling her eyes. "But with TV, satellite and the internet, it is developing into something far more complex and interesting." In keeping with the times, she wants to move away from photographing Palestinian subjects and on to tackling more general questions of identity, belonging and exclusion. For the past few months she has been in London working with gay and transvestite men from Arab communities. "They've chosen how to design their own bodies," she explains. They are making, like the Darb al-Ain villagers decorating their zinc houses, a "home" for themselves in the face of hostility and dispossession.

This type of self-expression is, for Shibli, essential to the survival of the Palestinian people. "It will make us into a real society, not a sick one," she says. A rare moment of light in "Trackers" comes from an image of a soldier on leave in his village. A skinny young man in bleached jeans and a panther T-shirt, he stands smiling and chatting into a mobile phone while younger brothers or cousins gallop Arab horses in the desert behind him. It is a rare glimpse of space and freedom, but on land bought at a high price. As Shibli says, "I wanted to ask the soldiers who bought land like this: 'You have your homeland, but what kind of homeland do you have?'"

"Trackers" is at the Max Wigram Gallery, 43b Mitchell Street, London EC1 from 14 July to 16 September. For more details call: 020 7251 3194. www.maxwigramgallery.com

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The house of slaves