There’s more to the Miss Israel selfie than meets the eye

The image belongs to a set of specific, politically-inflicted truths rooted in our understanding of national identity and cultural discourse.

By ANGIE NASSAR
February 8, 2015 21:04
4 minute read.
Miss Universe

Miss Colombia crowned Miss Universe. (photo credit: REUTERS)

The reigning Miss Lebanon, Sally Greige, was forced to defend herself last month after she appeared in a selfie with Miss Israel, Doron Matalon. The photo, posted to Instagram in the days leading up to the January 25 Miss Universe pageant, led some Lebanese on social media to demand Greige be stripped of her title for contact with the “enemy state.”

“From the first day I arrived at the Miss Universe pageant I was very careful not to take any pictures with Miss Israel, who tried repeatedly to take pictures with me,” Greige wrote in a message on Facebook. “While I was preparing with Miss Slovenia and Miss Japan to get our photograph taken, Miss Israel jumped in and took a selfie with her phone and posted it on social media.”

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Many Western media outlets chastised Miss Greige for her response and framed her apology as combative for attempting to distance herself from Matalon. “So much for world peace,” wrote The Wall Street Journal.

The gossip-news website Gawker claimed Greige threw her fellow contestant “under the bus.” And in an opinion piece in USA Today titled, “Miss Universe makeup can’t hide hatred of Israel,” Eliyahu Federman went so far as to claim the incident was not “a kind of petty quarrel or political issue between the contestants,” but “about one-sided hatred against Israel and nothing more.”

To make such an absurd claim is to ignore the very real consequences Greiege could face for being seen in a photo with Matalon. It’s possible she might never set foot in her country again. This is much more the result of the political landscape than it is of her own personal convictions. The fact of the matter is Israel and Lebanon are technically still at war and, as such, any dealing with the Jewish state is considered a criminal act under Lebanese law. Imagine an American being spotted in a selfie with a Soviet citizen during the McCarthy era, or a Pakistani standing next to an Indian officer during the First Kashmir War era. It was more than a selfie; it was an act deeply connected to notions of geography, culture, occupation, politics and war.

Most people would like to believe that culture – especially pop culture pertaining to the realms of music, dance, art and even the Internet – is detached from the political connotations of war and Lebanon’s troubled history of relations with Israel. However, there is an undeniable tacit correlation here between the volatile nature of national identity and the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

The layers – aesthetic, cultural and political – within the photograph cannot be neatly separated. Each refers back to the other in a complex configuration which leads the viewer back to these tensions inherent in the social imaginary of contemporary political society.

It’s this kind of tension that underscores the seeming impossibility of resolution between Lebanon and Israel. It also reflects on the desire by both Israeli and Lebanese subjects to intimately control the contours of the relationship between these two neighboring countries – and how each one is perceived.

Moreover, the incident serves as an intriguing reminder of the way in which images are context-dependent.

We are bound to interpret the image in the framework of ourselves and our history. This would explain how Western media responded versus, for instance, the Lebanese and even Israeli public. There are many possibilities for interpretive variation. The connecting thread is the presence of those contradictions and ambiguities.

And it all comes down to this: should you differentiate between a person’s nation-state and what that person as an individual promotes and stands for? If you believe they are one in the same, then it would seem impossible to detach feelings of wrong-doing and suspicion from the “other.” And in the case of Lebanon and Israel, it would appear to signal a doomed future.

At first glance, nothing about a selfie would appear political or compel the audience – most often in this case a young and reluctant one – to undergo a critical reading of its visual form. But the photograph – any photo, really – is infused with questions of interpretation that are linked with social and political realities. It may not be a form of “high” art culture, but the image belongs to a set of specific, politically-inflicted truths rooted in our understanding of national identity and cultural discourse. If the Miss Lebanon-Miss Israel selfie incident has taught us anything, it is this.

The writer is executive editor at Beirut.com. She previously worked as a journalist and blogger at the Arabic-English news website NOW Media and as a news producer for WROC-TV in Rochester, New York. She loves writing about everything from culture to politics, pop culture and women’s rights. She is a published author on the subject of music in Lebanon in Samir & Roseanne Khalaf. Eds. Arab Youth: Social Mobilization in Times of Risk (London: Saqi Books). You can find her on Twitter @ angienassar.


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