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In 1994, an American-born Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshipers in the Cave of the Patriarchs, an ancient building in central Hebron that stands over the putative tomb of Abraham, “father of multitudes” and founding prophet of Judaism.
Or, depending on your source, in 1994, during the holy month of Ramadan, an American-born Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque, an ancient building in central Hebron that stands over the putative tomb of Abraham, “father of multitudes” and founding prophet of Islam.
Either way, Goldstein murdered at least 29 people and wounded more than 100.
Since then, the green metal door between the building’s mosque section and its synagogue section has been controlled by the Israeli border patrol, and whenever a muezzin needs to cross the Jewish section to get to the room from which he will issue his call to prayer, he is escorted by a squad of machine gun–toting soldiers and police — a manifestly schizophrenic process that seems to epitomize, theologically as well as politically, the situation of the whole territory in which the building stands, whether you call it “the state of Israel” or “the occupied West Bank.”
Israeli artist Nira Pereg has documented this deadly comedy in “Ishmael” (a name traditionally interpreted to mean “God has heard”), an elegantly devastating four-channel video piece presented by Tel Aviv’s Braverman Gallery at On Stellar Rays on New York’s Lower East Side. The film begins at dawn, according to English and Arabic titles on the leftmost screen, with a short young man in a light jacket crossing a room with dirty white walls, a dark blue mihrab, and a floor covered in carpets to bang on a metal door with a large key. While he waits, like Hagar in the wilderness, for his call to be answered, he bites his nail and glances self-consciously at the camera. Once the door creaks open, he crosses into the second screen, where the walls are covered with Hebrew text on books, posters, and wall-hangings, and joins a squad of soldiers in flak jackets, fatigues, and berets. They escort him down a corridor. He unlocks another green metal door and disappears behind it. The soldiers sit patiently on a bench while, behind that locked door, the muezzin proclaims to all the world, “God is greater!”
Over the course of the day, more crossings occur, and they begin to overlap. At noon, a second muezzin crosses screen 1, which is now full of Muslim tourists sitting close together on the floor, and raps on the door while slipping on his shoes. The soldiers who open the door are now teamed with two policemen in navy uniforms and ball caps. Pereg has edited out most of the sound except the banging of the key and the muezzins’ melodious voices; we see the soldiers using their walkie-talkies and chatting with one another, but we don’t know what they say. In the afternoon, the room in screen 1 is empty again, and the muezzin smiles tentatively at the camera.
Pereg’s deft overlapping of moments serves both to amplify their absurdity and to demonstrate how quickly we normalize violence. When I first saw the piece, the machine guns moving back and forth made me so nervous that I had to leave the room. But I quickly came to take them for granted — at least enough to make notes and think ahead to this review. I reminded myself to mention Ambrose Bierce’s famous definition of marriage (“a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making, in all, two”) and Stefan Zweig’s novella “Chess Story,” about a captive of the Gestapo who drives himself to the brink of insanity trying to play both sides of a chess game. I made a note about my admiration for Pereg’s light touch with her massively overdetermined material: In both the Jewish and Muslim traditions, Ishmael/Ismail is Abraham’s first son, but in the Torah his mother is a slave and Abraham ultimately drives both mother and son away into the desert, while in the Koran it’s Ismail, not Isaac, whom Abraham is commanded to sacrifice, and Ismail declares himself ready to submit to God’s will.
What kept coming back to me, as the uniforms and rifles slowly lost their impact, was the doors. A rifle, when it’s not shooting, is only potentially or implicitly violent — but a door, every moment it stands, shuts out and divides.
At sunset, instead of the muezzin, a settler stands outside the building and bellows into the distance in a bizarre mirroring of his rival’s practice. Jews have no call to prayer, so what he yells is simply the name of the evening service, Minha. (Normally a muezzin would be chanting at this time, too, but of the five Muslim calls to prayer each day, this one has been forbidden to make room for the settler’s.) After dark, it’s the night muezzin again. One of the cops on duty flirts with a female soldier partially off-camera, while the other shows one of the soldiers his new sunglasses. And then one by one, back through the day, the two muezzins cross from right to left again and the whole thing starts over.
Ishmael continues at On Stellar Rays (1 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through June 8.