Digital Project

Promissory Notes

In the summer of 2013, I came across a report about a raid on Wattan TV, the first licensed independent television station in Ramallah, Palestine. According to the article, on the night of February 29, 2012, a group of Israeli soldiers entered the station, ransacked the offices, and confiscated a transmitter, which they claimed was generating a frequency that interfered with telecommunications at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, more than twenty miles away. The raid was preceded by a series of similar offensives beginning in 1996 by both the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority, which was called a “war of airwaves” by the director of the Palestinian Center for Media Freedoms and Development. Following the 2012 raid, Wattan began uploading daily broadcasts to YouTube as a way of decentralizing the station’s archives. This online database provides a fragmented view of daily life under the longest-running military occupation in modern history.

Among the interviews, news briefs, and talk shows, I found narrative dramas produced by the network, including In the Presence of Justice, a procedural crime show filmed at Wattan and starring the crew and staff. After watching the series, I contacted the station’s director, Muamar Orabi. We discussed how the program depicts the developing criminal justice system in the West Bank, and how fiction provides a way around the censorship that many journalists encounter in the region. Following our conversation, he invited me to organize a month-long screening series based on my research on the appropriation of broadcast frequencies in occupied territories, which Wattan aired, using a low-range transmitter, in the summer of 2014. The program included artists who have adapted techniques of broadcast media to represent what the film theorist Mary Ann Doane refers to as “potentially visible entities”: emerging stories and catastrophic events that have yet to be recorded, and are momentarily shaped through speculative platforms such as interviews, talk shows, and field reports.

During the month that the program was on air, I began working with Wattan’s employees on a script for a drama that depicts the labor of broadcasting around the clock. Named after Wattan’s jeopardized terrestrial frequency, UHF42 is a fictionalized account of the daily work of the crew and staff. We began filming the series at the station in the summer of 2016, focusing on the issue that came up in almost every conversation: consumer credit and debt. In the low-wage, high-rent city of Ramallah, a growing majority of workers have to take on debt and work multiple jobs in order to support themselves and their families; meanwhile, the expanding banking sector promotes a vision of urban life free from the constraints of the occupation.

As an outsider who has never spent more than a few months in Palestine, I looked to the research of Kareem Rabie to better understand whether a form of class resentment was being produced by this tension. Kareem is an anthropologist and geographer who has conducted extensive fieldwork in the West Bank on state-building and private investment. He and I share an interest in how systems of representation can contribute to the creation of certain economic models—in this case by encouraging citizens to take out loans in order to purchase homes and cars, or to accept the construction of private housing developments as part of a greater national struggle. The final episodes of UHF42 are informed by Kareem’s argument that the economy of a post-independence Palestinian state is being staged through private channels of investment and development.

Since the premiere of UHF42 in the spring of 2017, Kareem and I have continued to speak about the increasing class stratification in Ramallah, and how television and local advertising contribute to the aspirations and resentments that are forming in response. What follows is a part of that ongoing conversation.

—Mike Crane

Excerpt from “Monday,” the first episode of UHF42, digital video, trt. 20 m. Courtesy of the artist.

Kareem Rabie UHF42 is attuned to the everyday aspects of politics and growth in Palestine. There’s a lot of political change that isn’t sudden or bombastic. Being there sometimes feels geologic: there’s chaos and instability, yet almost nothing changes.

Mike Crane I picked up on that feeling after some time. I never set out to make something about Palestine or the occupation in any general sense. I specifically wanted to work within the limits of this particular television station. I’ve previously studied systems of production, but Wattan is unique as an employer and as a broadcast news agency. The station produces daily reports that cover the injustices of the ongoing occupation while also adapting a mode of narrative storytelling to focus on the daily lives of individuals, which can be violent and aggravating or mundane and prosaic. Both modes are helpful for understanding how politics and economic development shape one another, especially when looking at the everyday experience of workers rather than the more spectacular economic subjects that tend to be covered by major news outlets in the West, such as the stock market or the job creation index.

Rabie I see that at the end of the third episode of UHF42, when one of the Wattan journalists interviews her coworkers for a report on debt. In response to a question about newly available forms of mortgage financing, two of them initially claim to be in favor of personal bank loans. But it’s not clear that they actually are. When I was speaking to people in the West Bank about privatization and real estate, they first would say something generally favorable about economic growth, then offer a criticism of the developers and the PA doing it on the basis of large-scale private development and mortgage-financed housing. “Oh, of course we support housing development and the private sector, just not in this way.”

Excerpt from “Wednesday,” the third episode of UHF42, digital video, trt. 15 m. Courtesy of the artist.

Crane Many of the workers at Wattan expressed similar ambivalence toward the rise of the banking sector. Debt is often discussed as the only means to enter the labor market in Ramallah. Many of the people we interviewed took out bank loans to buy new cars and to rent apartments in the city. But the banks can automatically garnish wages, which traps workers in an endless cycle where they have two or three jobs just to pay off the interest and still take home a steady income. Almost everyone I worked with knows someone who’s drowning in debt.

Rabie The interviewees in UHF42 all say there’s no way to live in Ramallah without taking on debt. Loans might be a “disease,” but there are few other ways to afford the basics, support a family, or get married. This kind of situation isn’t unique. For a long time, international aid and development have gone along with debt and homeownership. In A World of Homeowners: American Power and the Politics of Housing Aid (2015), the historian Nancy Kwak describes the “consensus language” around homeownership that emerged after World War II, as the American model was exported worldwide. American advisers promoted homeownership as a way to build a middle class, establish political stability, encourage local industries, and support labor markets. As she notes, these ideals and practices “brought together ideas about democracy—whether through widespread access to a consumer economy, a more diffuse sense of equality, or specifically anticommunist dogma—with a very specific, ‘modern’ version of debt-driven, state-regulated ownership that gave at least the illusion of growing affluence and security.”

Where this model took hold so did the “consensus language,” which enabled governments to attract foreign investment and aid as well as satisfy local political demands. However, in the United States and elsewhere, low-income homeownership proved to be “advantageous for almost everyone except the new homeowners themselves: politicians could claim to be helping the poor without building public housing. The middle class benefited from second-tier investments while enjoying the moral satisfaction of their own, ‘earned’ position in the social hierarchy. Bankers and investors thrived.”

In Palestine, as in the cases that Kwak describes, the implementation of an economic model is a question of negotiation, priorities, and abilities; homeownership is part of the larger story of the development of capital. The case of housing development in Palestine demonstrates how global consensus has been translated into local vernacular. Homeownership has provided a way of continuing—or supplanting—the moribund peace process, especially after the global housing crisis, and also of simultaneously expanding and deintensifying the occupation. UHF42 describes how that process is playing out in Ramallah by showing how people experience it.

Excerpt from “Wednesday,” the third episode of UHF42, digital video, trt. 15 m. Courtesy of the artist.

Crane The “modern” illusion of affluence and security described by Kwak reminds me of something that my cowriter, Khaled, and I often discussed. We kept asking ourselves whether the images of wealth in advertisements for credit cards and housing developments were rooted in anything other than wish fulfillment. But we weren’t cynical in the least. UHF42 shows that, in the context of the occupation, debt can be both liberating and constricting. Debt channels collective aspirations through private interests, to which the borrowers then are beholden. But because everyone is so busy working multiple jobs to pay off loans, there’s less time and energy for the national struggle.

Rabie How did the discussions about debt, class, aspiration, and resentment move from personal narratives to structural questions?

Crane Wattan produces public awareness campaigns that use the office as a set and the crew as performers. From the beginning, I was drawn to this scenario of the workers as actors and the workspace as a theater. Many of Wattan’s news programs also look at structural issues from individual perspectives. The shifts from the individual to the social were written with each worker’s personal experiences in mind.

Rabie In the excerpt with the office interview, a man complains about the economy and the culture of consumption, which minimizes the use of loans for investing and entrepreneurial projects. But then someone else in the same scene complains about wages being directly garnished for loan payments, which implies skepticism about the degree to which people are even able to engage in consumption, much less entrepreneurship.

Crane The sense of frustration with consumerism, rising rents, and high interest rates was very palpable with almost everyone we spoke to. You can hear it in the interviews with the employees at Wattan. There’s also a fair number of apocryphal anecdotes, personal narratives, and mundane office chatter about these issues, which I juxtaposed in the show with daily news reports that were being broadcast around the time we were shooting. While loans and debt are central to the narrative, the show uses actual televised news broadcasts to address ongoing problems involving the occupation that aren’t related to the banking system. But the matter of debt and how it affects daily life is consistent, as are the feelings of skepticism and resentment that it produces. I’m curious if you also noticed something like class resentment among the people you interviewed for your work.

Excerpt from “Tuesday,” the second episode of UHF42, digital video, trt. 18 m. Courtesy of the artist.

Rabie In Palestine, like everywhere else, class can be understood and seen in the built environment; rich people circulate and live in places that poor people don’t. There are villas, gated communities, and so on. What’s also visible is the tension between older forms of national struggle and politics formed around individual aspiration. I was in Palestine in the summer of 2017, just after 1,500 prisoners went on a hunger strike for forty days to protest detention without trial and solitary confinement, among other things. At the same time, the largest shopping mall in Palestine opened in the new planned city of Rawabi, a project headed by the Palestinian developer Bashar Masri at a cost of \$1.4 billion and primarily funded by the Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company. Masri bills the project, and the high-end mall, as a historic step toward the creation of a stable political and social life. He recently told the Washington Post, “We will live like normal people until the situation is normal.”

In the show, you get at that dissonance and social fragmentation, and at the fantastical aspects of class aspiration. A news report on the strikes is followed by a promotional video for Rawabi. You move from the video’s CGI renderings of the city to footage of reporters driving through the massive construction site, from the image of a complete entity to the reality of work that is (and might always be) in progress.

Crane I wasn’t surprised by how apparent the class divide was, especially in Rawabi. It felt similar to many of the mega shopping centers and gated communities I’ve seen in the United States, Europe, and South America. The physical layout and historical context is obviously unique, but the overall sense of abundance and isolation was almost generic. I included the Rawabi promotional video—which shows a family picnic being disrupted by an earthquake, with Rawabi simultaneously springing up from beneath the ground and falling from the sky—because the housing project was such a ubiquitous topic of conversation at the station.

Rabie It’s interesting that you interpret that event as an earthquake. I see it and think, this is not destructive, it’s spontaneous, natural, and emerging from within (if also above) Palestine‬. Why did Rawabi seem important to the claims you’re trying to make about Palestine and about debt more generally?

Crane It wasn’t originally in the script. I didn’t even know that Rawabi existed until the third day of shooting. As part of a report on debt in the narrative, a crew goes to Um Al-Sharayet, the poorest neighborhood in Ramallah. The manager mentions shooting in Rawabi as a way of diversifying the piece by interviewing wealthier residents. I started hearing different opinions about Rawabi from the crew: that it was “beautiful,” that it was the largest private-sector project in Palestinian history, and that it was a big step toward the founding of an independent state, since it was built by and for Palestinians. Rawabi seemed like such a conflicted site, and, in some ways, like an embodiment of the ambivalent feelings about the rise of consumer culture, the banking system, and the debt “bubble.”

Rabie Rawabi has led to more long-term loans in the West Bank, which weren’t previously so accessible to individuals. Prior to announcing the project, developers bought properties in the area, which the PA later tied together through eminent domain. As I understand it, for the first time there was clear title over a large swath of land, which then could be used by the developers as collateral. As large developments with apartments for sale emerged on that land, international aid organizations created vehicles to make loans for mortgages. One such \$500 million project was established by a handful of state development agencies, including the United States government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation and local Palestinian banks. A lot of these private projects are insulated from the market, thanks to new types of aid from foreign governments. It’s not entirely clear what will happen if the loans fail—and many development projects in Palestine stall, fail to attract tenants, or are destroyed by Israel. I can’t imagine that the burden of these loans will fall on developers.

Crane You’ve mentioned to me before that, in researching investment and development in Palestine, you had to triangulate many sources rather than depend on any trove of reliable information. When discussing debt with the Wattan crew, I also had to work with a very loose thread of personal accounts. I lost the ability to discern the factual from the apocryphal. But the marketing language around all the new developments was very familiar, as was the polarizing effect on the population. A friend who lives just outside Ramallah told me he hates these new housing developments because they embody everything he despises about the wealthy elites who are now returning to the West Bank to invest after being abroad for so long.

Rabie Rumors play a big part in my research, and they speak to how various discourses, images, ideas, ideologies, and forms of capital circulate, but also, again, to the limits of what is even possible to know in Palestine. What can you know when a place has been produced as a site of memory, of dislocation and consolidation, and as a site that is open to certain kinds of intervention? It’s a mess‬.

Developers initially focused exclusively on attracting internal migrants because they wanted to avoid building a “ghost town.” But as a result, most likely, of slow sales, they’ve started targeting the diaspora and presenting Rawabi as a potential site for return. This is a different phenomenon than the Palestinians who returned around the time of the Oslo accords, or who summer in Ramallah. But because access to land and homes is an issue related to ownership, and Ramallah is one of the only places where people can visit or settle with relative ease, it’s no wonder that resentment is growing among most Palestinians, who cannot so easily substitute class aspiration or accumulation for political rights.

If developments like Rawabi are making promises in the name of the nation, and only a few can really participate in the fulfillment of those promises, they’re likely to be objects of resentment, given that most people are excluded from the economy that Rawabi represents.

Crane Right, if empathy and solidarity are constructed through relations of sameness, then resentment can also form around relations of difference or exclusion—not that the two can’t coexist. I’m interested in how marketing language plays to these emotions, whether in Rawabi or the United States. What you said about the promises made by Rawabi in the name of the nation reminds me of a Morgan Stanley commercial from a few years ago that uses the tagline: “The value of capital is to create not just wealth, but things that matter.” The ad speaks about the value of “critical thinking,” “a new sports arena,” “team spirit,” “a telecommunications system,” “talking to your mom,” “one more tree,” and “art—art open to the public.” The line between an emotional and technical understanding of value is blurred. Everything is reduced to capital.

Rabie The ad separates art from the market: art, like “team spirit,” is outside the logic of accumulation. Of course, the ad is simultaneously bogus and accurate—which speaks to the politics of Morgan Stanley, and of liberal capitalists in general.

Crane Yes, and as a bank that deals in financial trading, it’s significant that Morgan Stanley uses the term “capital” in the traditional sense: money used to buy something only to sell it again for a profit, or wealth generated through circulation rather than production. The implication in the ad is that there’s a causal relationship: capital enables the building of homes, stadiums, and museums, which is where the “things that matter” take place. We begin with trading and end with personal conviction. The promises made in the marketing of Rawabi resonate with this language.

Rabie Real estate developers like Masri often use language suggesting that Palestine is either a “ticking time bomb” or “an amazing opportunity” to defuse the bomb and profit at the same time. If the occupation ends, according to Masri, Palestine “will become the hottest place to invest in the world.” The answer to the question of who is poised to benefit from capital accumulation and development is obvious. Yet the feelings that Palestinians have about their country—and the ways in which those feelings are conditioned by economic development—aren’t uniform, of course. They feel resentment as well as enthusiasm and hope, skepticism and weariness.

Crane Comfort is what I often heard when I was there. It’s understandable that images of prosperity can instigate a sense of security from simply having one’s basic needs met. As Masri said of Rawabi, people just want to live a normal life. A new car allows you to get to the city faster. A new mattress helps you sleep better. A vacation is rejuvenating. There’s a scene in UHF42 where one of the workers takes out a bank loan so that he can invite his girlfriend out on a date to an expensive new restaurant, which is based on an actual account. These comforts and the status they signify are appealing—which is understandable for an oppressed workforce trying to cope with the pressure of daily checkpoints, lethal raids, and violent seizures.

Rabie That’s the thing: comfort is also about stability. In a political situation organized around so many kinds of insecurity, the appeal of a stable, peaceful, green, free, prosperous environment is enormous. But what are those visions doing at different geographical scales—local, state, regional, global? In terms of the relationship with Israel, what we’re seeing is the emergence of a an economy that is subsumed by Israel but also is liberal, regional and global, profitable, and sure to continue to foster accumulation.

Crane I think that’s why the sentiment expressed in the Morgan Stanley ad makes more sense in the context of the West Bank, given the conditions of daily life impinged on by the occupation. Here’s a commercial for a Palestinian bank that conveys a similar logic.

Crane The commercial shows scenes of Palestinians in their everyday domestic and working lives: children playing with toys, fishermen hauling in a catch, a family dinner. The ad culminates with a woman shaking the hand of a man outside the bank, then a Palestinian pilot flying over Jerusalem. Even though it’s a total fiction, given that all the airports have been demolished and Palestinians are not permitted to fly planes, I don’t find this to be laughable in any way. It’s quite serious. It’s a vision worth investing in, even if it can only exist as a fantasy for the time being, given the circumstances. Who knows if someday it will be enabled by the banking sector.

Rabie I wouldn’t go quite that far; I don’t think this is about achieving a total banking economy. The bank is the National Bank and the song is about the nation. It speaks of dreams and tomorrows, of loving the nation and being a part of it. The commercial is juxtaposing that nation and those images of a very Palestinian landscape—see the woman wearing traditional embroidery—with the comforts and technologies of … I don’t know, wealth? Class advancement? The language and imagery around economic development provide people with a form for imagining themselves. They craft aspiration in relation to the promissory note that can be provided by images of a new Palestine. The implication is that this future is realizable, but the terms are narrow and sometimes bafflingly noncontextual. The place of some of the existing ideas of the nation, or of national struggle and liberation, is diminished in a state driven by economic development. And this reality also seems to be a source of resentment.

Crane Another part of what’s being obscured is the unstable conditions of labor and wage dependency, which give rise to class resentment. This type of imagery around economic development is often attributed to neoliberalism by its detractors, who forget that the basic premise of neoliberalism is to keep down the cost of labor. Everything that the neoliberal economic world view aims to accomplish—privatization, free trade, corporate personhood, social reproduction—is made possible through the suppression of collective bargaining. In the context of an indefinite occupation that determines everything from whether you get to work on time to whether or not you live to see the next day, there’s no possibility for unionized labor.

Rabie And the sweeping changes that are produced by that model are difficult to understand, much less oppose, when they’re experienced in such an atomized society, nearly exclusively in individual terms.

Crane Right, but that’s the thing about class resentment, it’s a relatable sentiment almost everywhere you go. Meanwhile, this vision of the future being shored up by the banks and Wall Street eclipses the older struggles for higher wages, greater public benefits, and better working conditions.

Rabie That’s why it’s valuable to pay attention to the real-life experiences of representations. What UHF42 shows, and what I hope to show, is the second-tier class fragmentation that is a clear (but not obvious) outcome of uneven geographical and economic development in a place that, because of the occupation and colonization, is often understood as without analogue, as somehow apart from the rest of the world.