Interview: Mapping the disappearance of a nation

Malkit Shoshan (Dirk Jan Visser)

Malkit Shoshan’s The Atlas of the Conflict — Israel-Palestine won the annual book design competition in the “Best Books from all over the World” category at the Leipzig Book Fair in Germany on 18 March. To produce the book, Shoshan, an Israeli architect and designer who was brought up in a Zionist context, painstakingly mapped the creation of Israel, which erased Palestine in the process. The atlas is the result of her determination to understand the full scale of the creation of one nation and the disappearance of another.

The Atlas of the Conflict offers insights into the development of regional and state planning. An international jury at the Leipzig fair selected the atlas out of almost 600 books, and praised the book’s design which “brings structure and light to the chaos.” The jury considers the book to constitute “visual communication of the highest order. An instrument to facilitate understanding, discussion and reflection. Not a gratuitous design book but one which is both essential and eminently usable.” The Electronic Intifada contributor Adri Nieuwhof spoke with Malkit Shoshan about the atlas and the motivation behind it.

Adri Nieuwhof: Can you tell us what inspired you to publish The Atlas of the Conflict?

Malkit Shoshan: During my studies I discovered that you cannot separate architecture and spatial planning from national and political agendas. I wanted to investigate the links between policies and design. I have been working on this book since my third year of my studies at the Technion [University in Haifa]. I became obsessed with drawing maps; it was my way to understand my surroundings. Slowly, I came to a deeper understanding of the Israeli spatial structure and the policies that construct it. The themes that are the most influential on the decision of policy-makers and on the design of the Israeli space are reflected in the book. The choices of the maps are content-driven — for example: borders, the wall, settlements, settlements typologies, landscaping, archeology, water, Jerusalem. To show the first claim to the land I drew maps of Biblical borders. Each map has a story behind it, every line and dot have a relation to the large-scale map.

Another reason to create this book is simply because it does not exist. It took me so many years to research all the themes. I wanted to make the information available to the public. It is a conclusion of ten years of research. I would like to see my book as a public space, a public platform of knowledge that brings people together. I hope that it will help shift the status quo around the conflict toward more sustainable proposals. 

AN: Can you be more specific about what triggered your interest in the subject of your book?

MS: I never had any interest in political organizations; I am not a political rebel. It started as basic human curiosity. Where do I live? This is where I am coming from, no political affiliation. During a design exercise for my architecture study I came across an aerial photo of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. I saw the different reality of then and now. Where there were cemeteries, there were now parking lots and parks. A lot had changed in fifty years. I am the second generation [of Israelis]. I had never seen, never heard about these changes explicitly. I did not know how big the transformation was; it made me more curious. The scale of the change was incredibly shocking. Coming from architecture and planning practice, I learned to give everything scale, to size and illustrate it. This is what I did with my and others’ findings on the conflict; I mapped and diagrammed it. I gave it a translation into territorial representation. Eventually, I ended up with a book of maps; I called it an atlas. Every map took a long time to make, to choose the right layers to show the history, as well as to have a constant comparison between the two nations: blue for Israel and red for Palestine, these are running next to each other [throughout] book.

AN: Are you satisfied with the result of the book? What message do you want to convey to the audience?

MS: It is not about satisfaction; it is about making information available. I am part of this conflict. I wanted to understand this conflict and I want Israelis to understand. Palestinians don’t need the atlas to understand the conflict; they experience it on a daily basis. They know what it is about. I have no futuristic message; I am not a politician. While creating all these maps you actually become more frustrated than satisfied. You don’t see the end of it. The book is about creating awareness about the conflict and the scale of it.

After my studies I started FAST (seamlessterritory.org), the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory, an alternative architecture and design practice on the intersection between design and politics.

At FAST, our main message is that as architects, and planners, we do not design on a tabula rasa; emptiness is never a natural condition of working, but in an existing space with a history and with a present. We do not create models as if it has no impact on people. In this aspect, the atlas exposes the relation between reality and design. If you [Israel] build a settlement on a Palestinian location, it means destruction.

AN: When I read the atlas I felt the language of your maps, which show the vast scale of the occupation, was stronger than the language in the second part of the book, the lexicon in which you document the media coverage of key topics, and include a timeline of important events.

MS: The two parts are completing each other. The maps are sterile snapshots, exposing always one condition, one theme along a timeline; they have a very clinical character. The lexicon shows a different type of snapshot — snapshots of the complexities of reality: legal terms, regulations and laws. Other snapshots are photos of the people; it is not staged. When I selected them, I went through my archive — I have a large archive of photos — as every time I am in Israel I take pictures of the same routes. [The pictures are] almost like the timeline maps in the book, but these are of daily life. You see a photo of two boys selling shoes near the wall at Qalandia checkpoint. They seem completely happy. It is the roughness of these pieces of different realities that bring life into the maps, through links and hyperlinks or just associations.

In the lexicon the kibbutz as “living wall” is explained. In Israel everyone knows what it means, a living wall, but it was so difficult to find a formal explanation for it. I found an article by [journalist] Robin Shulman that describes how kibbutz Menara was crucial in building the Israeli border. The lexicon is linked to the maps of the kibbutz to show the relations between popular terms and space.

When you try to capture the conflict in an atlas you miss a lot of daily life, encounters or richness. I have included snapshots from a YouTube video about the tunnels in Gaza. The last story in the lexicon is about how expensive it is to have a zebra in the zoo in Gaza. There is a picture, given to me by an artist from Ramallah, Khaled Hourani, of two donkeys painted as zebras.

The maps and the lexicons are two separate things. The lexicon is messy and complex; it has no hierarchy, no visible layers, it’s like driving along the road and taking snapshots of your environment. Each frame is different, in color and content, from boys in Qalandia, to donkeys to kibbutz Manara, to leaflets and to UN regulations.

AN: Is your book for sale in Israel?

MS: You can buy the book online. This week there were two articles published, one in Israel — Haaretz newspaper — and one in Palestine — the Jerusalem Foundation. It is interesting to see their review and the impact of these two pieces. It makes me think of producing two more editions, one in Arabic and one in Hebrew. I think the Arabic version can help strengthen the narrative and strengthen the Palestinian claims for equality.

Adri Nieuwhof is a consultant and human rights advocate.