This is not Uganda

From This is not Uganda. Courtesy of Tine Fetz.

More than just a graphic novel, This is Not Uganda is like peeking over the shoulder of the artist, the Berlin-based Tine Fetz, and seeing everything she sees. The book, released late last year by German publisher Ja Ja Verlag, is a chronicle of the time that Fetz spent studying and traveling in Israel.

Despite the title – a reference to the proposal to establish a homeland for the Jewish people in the British colony of Uganda in 1903 – and the image of the 19th century Zionist leader Theodore Herzl on the front cover, This is Not Uganda is not a political piece as much as an observational one.

Fetz allows the reader to come to their own conclusions, a strategy that is part-and-parcel with the non-linear and almost dialogue-free approach she has to putting together this book.

As someone who follows critical culture about the Middle East (I’m Israeli-American) and is a lifelong fan of underground everything, Uganda naturally intrigued me. Fetz spoke with me about her work, this week.

– Yoni Kroll


Tell me about your visits to Israel. You were first there for school, right? But then went back for more art-related visits later? How did your opinion of the country change over time?

I studied visual communication in Jerusalem for five months as an exchange student. Since then. I try to visit Israel as often as possible.

Before I came to Israel, I was much more influenced by the German left discourse. But I felt that German’s talking about Israel is in fact more talking about themselves and their position towards the Shoah and German nationalism, which is only partly connected with the reality in the Middle East. So I decided to go to Israel and meet people who actually live there.

I went to study at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem for a semester, where I found out that the place and it’s people were much more diverse than I thought. And as always: the more you get to know, the less you understand.

I don’t have a clear-cut view on the conflict with the Palestinians or about Zionism after visiting Israel, but I think that I’m able to place the different narratives in context now.

Also, my connection with the country became a personal one. When I think about Israel, I have my friends in mind, and not Abbas and Netanyahu. That’s a very nice thing.

“I don’t have a clear-cut view on the conflict with the Palestinians or about Zionism after visiting Israel, but I think that I’m able to place the different narratives in context now.” — Can you explain what this context is to you? Is it a political one or more something cultural?

What I mean is that my image of the place got a thousand more facets since I’ve been there. I learned that when there’s turmoil in the Old City of Jerusalem it doesn’t mean that the whole country is a war zone. That it’s possible to sneak through some checkpoints from the West Bank to Israel without being checked. What a settlement looks like. What gentrification in Jaffa looks like. How similar Tel Aviv hipsters are to Berliners. All these things you don’t hear in the news.

But there’s more to it. Israel is a country with people living in it. People that struggle to pay the rent, break each other’s hearts, listen to music. There’s also a scene from Lemon Popsicle in my book, the only Israeli movie I know that has absolutely no political message. I think people in Europe forget that sometimes.

What was the reason for making the book? Who do you think it appeals to? Do you think that the book has a universal message, or is it meant for a specific audience?

I made the book three years ago, at the time when I just returned from another two month stay in Israel. I witnessed the social protest in the summer of 2011, and it was right before Abbas’ bid for statehood at the UN. There was a huge tension in the country, and it felt like things would change soon. I wanted to preserve that very moment when I was there. I did that by illustrating photos that I took. I’m showing a very specific time in a very specific place.

Unlike other comic artists before who also made graphic novels about Israel, I’m not trying to explain how the country works and what the conflict is about. Reading This is not Uganda requires a basic knowledge of the political context. You won’t get the first part of the book if you never heard the name Theodor Herzl before.

I do think that there is something like a universal message though. In general, I want people to look closely, to include different aspects to their judgments. Questioning those Western clichés of kids throwing stones with rage, when there’s also kids playing with fire out of boredom.

How has your book been received in Germany? I know that there are sometimes problems when it comes to speaking out about Palestine and Israeli abuses, even within the left. When I lived there, I encountered a number of Antideutsch who were upset because they expected me to be on their side. It was very strange.

It’s interesting that you mention Antideutsch. I guess this discourse seems odd for someone from abroad. I was a bit anxious about the reception of my book in Germany, since “Israel” is one of the most controversial and divisive topics I could have chosen. But surprisingly enough I only got positive feedback on my work so far.

I expected some people to blame me for not being pro-Zionist enough, or whatever. But nothing like that happened. I even got a very nice review from a traditional left-wing magazine that is prone to support Israel. The author liked my point of view. I think people understand that my book is an observation and not an attempt to convince people of an attitude.

One work that came to mind when I was reading This Is Not Uganda was Palestine by Joe Sacco, though it has a lot more stated plot than your work. Why did you decide to keep your book more abstract and basically wordless? Do you think that your book falls into that category of comics and graphic novels on the topic of Israel/Palestine or is it somehow separate?

I think This is not Uganda is more a travelogue than a graphic novel. I don’t use a lot of words, because drawing is my preferred language. The words I use are only quotations – by friends, from songs, or by Herzl. So they are also following my basic idea: observation.

I think that Joe Sacco’s work is different. His observations are characterized by a very strong opinion. His approach is to tell the world about the Palestinians.

From This is not Uganda.
From This is not Uganda.

In my book, there are no Palestinians. Although I think that their absence makes them even more present. I don’t believe in pointing to something until the last one gets my idea. The plot, that also seems to be absent in my book, exists within every single spread, but more as a suggestion than as an elaborate story. This is not Uganda was a formal experiment for me and it is definitely not a self-contained last word on the subject.

“In my book there are no Palestinians. Although I think that their absence makes them even more present.”

Can you explain what you mean by that? There are many in Israel who would like it if there were no Palestinians present in Israeli society, or if they just stayed quiet and didn’t protest. I’m slightly confused why you would purposely not include Palestinians in your book, especially as you certainly don’t ignore the conflict. Did you meet many Palestinians during your visits?

You also say that, “I think people understand that my book is an observation and not an attempt to convince people of an attitude.” I did not feel like your book is a politically neutral observation. I mean, I bought it at an anarchist bookstore, so I expected it to be left wing and maybe that’s why I interpreted it that way. Still, just by choosing what images to include you are making a political point, even if it is more abstract and open to interpretation.

Sure, it’s not a politically neutral book, that’s not what I meant. But it’s not as definite as other works on that topic.

As you said, you bought it in a left wing bookstore, reading it as a left wing book, so that’s what it is. On the other side, it’s also being sold at the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and I wonder how people who find it there might receive it.

I did meet Palestinians, when I travelled to cities in the West Bank, of course. But there were none in my closer social environment in Israel. There were no Palestinians in my classes in Bezalel, and in the bars and cafes I used to go. And I am well aware of the problems that lie within this invisibility.

But my book is about what I experienced: Being surrounded by the conflict all the time because of the immense presence of the army, M-16s, helicopters, checkpoints, but never being personally involved in it. Except for my journey to Hebron, where I got arrested by the Palestinian police for loitering and supposedly being mistaken for a settler. But that’s another topic for another book.

This is not Uganda deals with the Jewish side, if you will. From the very unique perspective of a non-Jewish German art student.

You mentioned that you work by illustrating pictures you’ve taken. How does working off of an image affect your art? Which is to say, a lot of artists might just illustrate something on the spot, or maybe do a brief sketch and build the image from that or even just take some notes and then work from memory. It seems like what you’re doing is adding an extra step and I’m curious to know why and what this adds to your work.

I’ve always been more interested in observing what is around me than inventing a completely new world. My work points at things without pointing at them.

I do a lot of sketching on the spot, too. That is also an act of collecting – just like taking photographs, which I’ve always done a lot. But there’s a slight difference between sketching and taking a picture. I could never imagine a situation with all the arbitrariness of a snapshot.

When I was in Israel the first time I photographed everything like crazy. I was collecting every detail, every random corner. Back home I decided to continue working with the pictures by depicting some of them with black ink. So I needed to make a selection and to sequence the pictures. Drawing from the photographs requires another level of selection: What to focus on, where to leave white space? Also some time had passed since I’ve been in the situation, so it’s an attempt to acquire and reinterpret what I saw.

When I was living in Berlin, I definitely had a very specific angle or viewpoint from which I saw the city. That was shaped by my cultural background as an Israeli and American, my subcultural background as a punk and activist, and the fact that I was staying in a hausprojekt in Friedrichshain and therefore the Germans I was meeting were of mostly similar beliefs. What were your experiences like in Israel and how did they shape how you viewed the country?

My experience was pretty similar. I sojourned mostly in a circle of art students and musicians; left wing and liberal people that shared the same beliefs and listened to the same music like me. And it was great to meet so many critical young people, there is a lot of discussion and ideas about the future, which I’m happy to have been part of.
But of course I knew that this was some kind of a bubble within Israel’s society therefore I joined my friend Yuval Ben-Ami on his journeys to Hebron and to a settlement in the Judean mountains, where I met people with a completely different mindset, refuting the clichés in my mind.

I also had a few random encounters with people that reacted quite hostile to my German origin (still much less than I expected though).

“I expected some people to blame me for not being pro-Zionist enough or whatever.” What about the opposite: criticizing you for not being anti-Zionist enough? Has that been a response at all? There is the one page of the ripped Israeli flag and the words: “This country is full of shit and expensive, I wouldn’t bother coming here.” That’s a pretty direct commentary, even if it’s not coming from your mouth, and I’m sure it’s created a very strong reaction in people. Related to that, what has been the response to the book in Israel? I saw that you have had some events there.

As you said: It is a direct commentary that is not coming from my mouth. Also, for me, that is not the key sentence of the book.

What is missing here is the conversation around that statement. It’s a friend’s quote, who would always claim that foreigners shouldn’t come to Israel, so they wouldn’t support the country with their visit. I disagree with that; I think it’s important to visit Israel before judging its politics. And people from abroad can bring new ideas and influences that can help to improve the situation. Also, I dislike the “Boycott Israel” movement. I can’t help but being reminded of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses.

So this sentence is one of many remarks on the country, standing in contrast with some other pages of the book.

In Israel, This is not Uganda was received very well, I got a lot of positive feedback. People said that my observations were very precise for someone from abroad.

But I also got a negative comment on the absence of the Palestinians. And although I think that there’s nothing “missing” in my book, I get the point of that critic.

Still, I don’t think that Israel is an Apartheid state, nor the cutting edge state of emancipation. All that I can say for sure is that Israel is not Uganda.


Images courtesy of Tine Fetz. All Rights Reserved.

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