Architecture in Oz Shelach’s ‘Picnic Grounds’ + Sorayya Khan’s ‘Noor’

Examine the role of architecture in Oz Shelach’s Picnic Grounds and Sorayya Khan’s Noor.    

Oz Shelach’s Picnic Grounds and Sorayya Khan’s Noor centre on two different partitions – Israel/Palestine and East Pakistan/West Pakistan – commenting on two unique cultural, historical and social contexts.  Due to the distinct complexity of each partition, a single, critical vehicle is required to provide a methodical, yet contextually sensitive approach for examining the nuances of each text.  Without this vehicle, it would be difficult to accomplish the accurate extrapolation of the microcosmic details needed to understand the wider, macrocosmic concern of each partition.  Two main factors support architecture being a useful vehicle of extrapolation.  The first is the universality of architecture.  All people build structures.  They are fundamental for survival, and regardless of a society’s architectural style or symbols, architectural implications, such as its existence as a manifestation of a dominant group’s claim to land, remain the same.  Accordingly, architecture can act as a unifying perspective for analysis of the disparate texts.  The second factor is that architecture can symbolise both domination and reconciliation, which is, I believe, the primary focus of each text.  A degree of bleeding exists, but broadly, Picnic Grounds explores methods of domination in its fragments, while Noor explores healing and reconciliation.  Importantly, these themes are detailed in the design of the architectural structures.  By exploring these architectural details, each texts’ underlying commentary on two different components of two different partitions is effectively illuminated.

Before a close examination of the texts through the lens of architecture can commence, a more general discussion of architecture is required to understand the implications inherent in the lens itself.  Reduced to its most basic form, architecture operates as mere shelter from the elements, but even in this foundational form, it projects a statement that the land belongs to the builders and operates under their customs and laws.  As societies develop and become static, architecture not only pragmatically improves structural durability, but adopts increasingly complex cultural embellishments and adornments.  Religious iconography and architectural techniques come to denote their builders, and through this, structures become potent ideological projections of the religious, social and political beliefs of their builders.  Architecture, therefore, operates beyond a mere manifestation of a dominant class’ claim to the land – it acts as a collective and authoritative voice.  This is especially true in the ongoing power struggles of partition.  Architecture can be employed to dominate, or even conceal minority opinion.  Establishing a dominant architectural style can effectively symbolise and legitimise a dominant group’s claims to territory, and erase and rewrite a subordinated group’s history and cultural identity.  Shelach explores this idea throughout Picnic Grounds, introducing it in the opening fragment ‘One Afternoon’.  However, this is not architecture’s only role.  Both dominant and oppressed groups use architecture as shelter from outside forces and events.  Therefore, architecture is accorded a further attribute of sanctuary.  In Noor, Khan explores various characters’ attempts to understand and overcome the impact of their past, and in doing so, shows that sanctuary facilitates contemplation.  Paradoxically, architecture can both propagate domination and aid reconciliation.

The divergent portrayal of architecture in Picnic Grounds and Noor, can be attributed to three main factors: the varying literary form of the two texts; the historical context of each partition; and what I term, the language of architecture.

Picnic Grounds has a fragmented narrative, whereas Noor employs a more traditional structure.  Noor contains fewer, more detailed characters and settings, including a climactic plot; while Picnic Grounds is comprised of multiple scenes, structures and voices, resulting in a wide ranging, but less detailed catalogue of Israeli society.  However, Picnic Grounds’ multiplicity does not exist just to provide a collection of characters and voices, it demonstrates that multiplicity is critical for the propagation and continuance of a discourse that benefits the dominant sections of Israeli society.  Discourse is, as Foucault states in ‘The Order of Discourse’, “…the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized.”[1]  Picnic Grounds’ literary structure demonstrates that controlling discourse, and forging it into a single unified entity, is central to the synthesis of a single national identity favourable to Zionist interests.  Multiplicity potentially provides legitimacy, but it is the synthesis of multiple voices into a single voice that affords the predominant discourse its power.  In contrast, Noor’s more traditional narrative structure focuses on a single family’s domestic existence.  Discourse infiltrates all aspects of daily life, even private life, but the sanctuary provided by a home, a single structure, can overcome internal strife and project unity and comfort.  This reflects Noor’s focus on healing.

The second reason for divergence is founded in the historical context of each partition.  Put simply, the partition in Israel is ongoing, whereas for East and West Pakistan, the partition is final.  In Israel, borders remain contested and armed struggle persists, while in East and West Pakistan, now Bangladesh and Pakistan, the borders have been settled and armed conflict has ended.  Therefore, the focus of each text differs.  Picnic Grounds broadly explores an ongoing struggle between Israel and Palestine, while Noor explores reconciliation and the healing process.  Architecture is an appropriate vehicle to reflect this contextual difference, as it too, can be a tool for domination, or a tool for reconciliation and healing.

The language of architecture is the third reason for architecture’s divergent portrayal in each text.  It is seen in the way that both architecture and language operate to project a collective authoritative voice or idea, and is demonstrated in the inherent nuances and ambiguities of meaning and interpretation that both maintain.  Language is versatile and liquid.  It allows one to construct meaning, convey opinion and project ideology; architecture acts similarly.  Sharon Rotbard, in reference to Israeli architects, states “…architects at their best have always served the Zionist project to varying degrees of integrity, humility, dedication, and responsibility, as they… allow[ed] political ideology to infiltrate through architectural forms”[2]. Yosef Jabareen, summarising Rotbard, asserts Israeli architecture is inherently undermined by “…its dilemmas, its blind spots, and its paradoxes”[3].  I believe these statements are true for architecture generally, and are not just specific to Zionism.  Unquestionably, “dilemmas” and “blind spots” exist in language.  There are events, emotions and thoughts that language cannot describe – chasms of description it cannot cross – and importantly, “paradoxes” it cannot avoid.  George Oppen, an American poet at the forefront of the Objectivist Movement said, “…if we still possessed the word ‘is’, there would be no need to write poems”[4].  This perfectly elucidates the inherent ambiguity of language, of even a single word, and demonstrates the ease with which language can be misinterpreted and re-appropriated.  Architecture shares these chinks in its proverbial armor, and its use as a tool of domination, or reconciliation, can therefore be undermined.  Karman Rastegar supports this in his review of Picnic Grounds, asserting “…the political and ideological structures that have arisen around these individuals are never quite as totalizing as they may first seem.”[5]  His use of “structure” here, automatically links it to the permeable nature of architecture and indeed he continues to state that architecture “…often betrays that which it is supposed to hide.”[6]

Therefore, the framing of architecture as a language, combined with the literary form and the historical context of each text, enables an understanding of each novel’s divergent treatment of architecture, and supports architecture’s usefulness as a vehicle through which microcosmic details can be applied to the wider partition.  With architecture’s role and inherent ambiguity outlined, and its position as an effective vehicle validated, a close examination of the texts and partition can commence.

The fragmented form of Picnic Grounds parallels the multiple governmental, educational and religiousorganisations it depicts.  It mirrors that in Israel, there is “…the largest number of settlements per person in the world”[7], and reflects Farhat Muhawi’s view “…that spatial arrangements of colonization were… managed… by… a multiplicity of players – settler groups, political parties, international and local activists, and so on.”[8]  This conflation of powerful actors, who determine Israeli discourse and establish a favoured Israeli identity, recurs throughout Picnic Grounds; however, Shelach confers a considerable role on academia.

A large part of an academic’s credibility derives from the institutions they attended and the institution at which they teach.  Academic institutions are more than a physical quadrangle and buildings – they are potent symbols of knowledge and unfettered thought.  When this symbolism is exploited or appropriated, it can have a significant impact on a people’s understanding of their national history, their identity and their place within history and society.  This is explored in Shelach’s opening fragment ‘One Afternoon’, in which a professor of history keeps the truth of the stones he sees laying among pine trees from his children.  Although he muses internally on the stones’ past use, he “…did not talk of the village origin of the stones”[9], he reuses the stones to create a new structure.  He repurposes the stones as a windbreak to protect a fire his son has lit.  His comprehension of the stones’ morbid past is kept from his family, and he imagines “…that he and his family were having a picnic, unrelated to the village; enjoying its grounds outside of history.”[10]  This deliberate repression of the past hides the reality of the forest from the next generation.  It could be posited that this past no longer constitutes reality, because without recollection it no longer forms a part of the next generation’s reality.

It is the profession of the protagonist in ‘One Afternoon’ that initiates Shelach’s text-long criticism of Israeli academia’s editing the past to create a discourse conducive to Israeli interests.  In ‘A Reflection’, a female student at Hebrew University states that diverse opinions are not tolerated; or are at least ignored or discredited.  Using architecture as the medium, she explicitly compares the lecture room’s design to the narrowness of thought taught at the university: “…designed, the student thought, like the entire Hebrew University, to block any view of the outside, to narrow the mind, to keep everyone focused on their own reflections and ignorant of anything important.”[11]  The funnelled shape of the room further shapes her perception – she describes the room to be made up of eight walls, five of which “…were so small that the classroom looked more triangular than octagonal.”[12]  The repression and synthesis of ideas and thought into one accepted discourse is physically manifested in the varied size of each section of wall.

This repression and synthesis is continued in ‘An Original’.  Again, architecture is the vehicle of exploration.  Here, a professor of philosophy described as a “broad thinker”[13], follows the example of a famous millionaire, known simply as S, and orders “a tall stone wall to be constructed around the house and garden, to prevent the original inhabitants of the house from visiting.”[14]  The wall’s construction suggests collusion between academia and power structures to maintain a discourse beneficial to them – a discourse which dominates the unnamed “original inhabitants”[15].  The anonymity and anodyne descriptions of the professor and millionaire, also imply a broader similarity of thought and collusion among academics and even Israel as a whole.

It is interesting to note the recurrence of stone.  The “…stone construction of Jerusalem is to many visitors the defining aesthetic of the Holy City”[16], but even in this common material, lies symbolism.  “(T)he stones of the city erase the boundaries between the hand of man and the Biblical sanctity of the land itself, articulating a timeless past”[17].  This draws a historical link to the destroyed Palestinian villages and repurposed stones, and demonstrates that even the most fundamental component of architecture, stone, possesses an ability to project ideology.

The historical remoulding spearheaded by academics is uncomfortably continued in references to a psychiatric hospital in ‘One Afternoon’.  The hospital, importantly, is out of sight “…on the other side of the hill,”[18] insidiously reflecting the repression and removal of alternate identities from society’s dominant discourse.  Psychiatric care is provided by government approved academics acting as a barometer of society’s preferred thought patterns.  Insanity often relates to loss of identity or self, and within psychiatric hospitals identity can be reconstructed to suit this preference.  That it is a Palestinian village’s school which has been repurposed as a psychiatric hospital, directly associates Palestinian identity with a disintegrated mental state unacceptable to Israeli society.  In ‘Clause 21′, an Israeli soldier, wishing to be dismissed from Army service, tells his superiors he has converted to Islam.  He is “discharged under the mental clause”[19], proffering an explicit link between Palestinians, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, and insanity.

The architectural significance of appropriating a school, a place which illustrates freedom of learning and thought, into a hospital where the disaffected and insane are housed, or re-engineered into a more acceptable image, is particularly powerful.  ‘One Afternoon’ provides a poignant contrast between the flowering of knowledge represented by a school, and the control and restraint of a psychiatric hospital.  As Foucault avers:

You only have to think of the whole framework of knowledge through which we decipher speech, and of the whole network of institutions which permit someone – a doctor or psychoanalyst – to listen to it, and which at the same time permit the patient to bring along his poor words or, in desperation, to withhold them.  You have only to think of all this to become suspicious that the division, far from being effaced, is working differently, along other lines, through new institutions, and with effects that are not all the same.[20]

Architecture as an expression of domination also exists in other power structures, as in the police station in ‘Complaint’.  “The interrogation rooms deep under the police station”[21] mirror the concealment of the psychiatric hospital.  It is unclear if the “unsettling voices”[22] are screams, or just Arabic spoken by inmates, but the perverse connotations of the interrogation room are heightened by its secretive architecture.  Authority and dominance exude from an architectural design that not only inters, but forces compliance.

These architectural forms, the university, a garden wall, a police station and school turned psychiatric hospital, all provide a figurative and physical manifestation of Israel’s mental reconstruction of the past.  In Picnic Grounds, the partition is still progressing and developing, and architecture is portrayed as establishing dominance and control of thought.

In contrast, in Noor,architecture is equally powerful, but fulfils a different role.  The family home, Ali’s Fort, operates as a sanctuary.  Examining its design can illuminate an understanding of reconciliation after partition.

In Noor, the familial home affords sanctuary and respite.  While Ali’s Fort could have a military and aggressive connotation opposite to sanctuary, in Noor it does not.  Ali’s Fort plays a defensive role; it is a place of safety from turbulence and danger.  It is situated in Islamabad – the epicentre of Pakistani discourse – but importantly, on the city’s outskirts.  Here the family is afforded space to contemplate and reconcile their shared secretive past.  The design of the house reflects their struggles and expands their personal experiences into the wider context of the partition.  The house runs to the edge of the property lines, filling the allotment, showing that it has claimed its territory and is a defensive place of succour and sanctuary.  It focuses on a central courtyard, and the surrounding walls, replete with barred windows, allow this courtyard to operate as a place of privacy, of growth and development.  This role is strengthened in a myriad of details – the grass that grows there and the calls of parrots, rainbow-like in their number.

The architecture of Ali’s Fort suggests a lively spiritual home and it is here that Noor, operating like the Oracle of Delphi, draws on her smooth marble slab.  Free of any structural lines, she works separate from the physical and mental borders that partition erects, producing drawings, which like the Oracle’s prognostications, require interpretation by others.  Her drawings, composed incessantly over the novel’s span are supposedly renditions of a hidden past; however, these drawings may or may not hold the significance afforded them by her family members.  It is likely viewers subconsciously construct what they need to see.  This is especially true at the start, when Noor draws using a single colour.  As she gets older, her drawings become more tangible and colourful, but by this stage it is likely that her family members have trained themselves to selectively interpret their past.  This is redolent of George Oppen’s view of the ambiguity of language, and therefore architecture.  Indeed, Ali’s Fort, both linguistically and architecturally, can simultaneously be interpreted as a symbol of conflict and a protective place encouraging reconciliation.  Here, the partition is largely settled, the separation finished, and its architectural details reflect this settled state.  Ali’s Fort has found its territory and does not seek dominance, but rather safety and comfort within its design and boundaries.

Through the critical lens of architecture, Picnic Grounds and Noor provide commentary on the wider contexts of the Israel/Palestine and East/West Pakistan partitions.  The ambiguities and complexities inherent in the language of architecture reflect the complex context of each text.  In both novels, architecture’s role is to underline and reinforce each partition and provide a vehicle to examine its intricacies.  In Picnic Grounds the themes of domination and control are expressed in the physical architectural designs and descriptions, while Noor explores healing and reconciliation through its architectural images.



Conlon, James, ‘Review: Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation’ in Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism, Vol. 5, No. 2 (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) <> [accessed 02/04/2014]

Foucault, Michel, ‘The Order of Discourse’ in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.)

Jabareen, Yosef, ‘Review: A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture’ in The Arab Studies Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Arab Studies Institute, 2006) <> [accessed 02/04/2014]

Khan, Sorayya, Noor (University of North Carolina Wilmington: The Publishing Laboratory, 2006)

Muhawi, Farhat Y. ‘Review: Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation’ inJournal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (University of Califronia Press, 2008), <> [Accessed: 02/04/2014]

Oppen, George, The Selected Letters of George Oppen (‪Duke University Press, 1990)

Rastegar, Kamran, ‘Review: Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments’ in Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), 2004) <> [accessed 31/03/2014]

Rotbard, Sharon ‘Wall and Tower – The Mold of Israeli Adrikalut’ in A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture Rafi (Babel, 2003).

Shelach, Oz, Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2003)


[1] Foucault, Michel, ‘The Order of Discourse’ in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.) pp. 52-53

[2] Rotbard, Sharon ‘Wall and Tower – The Mold of Israeli Adrikalut’ in A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture Rafi (Babel, 2003).

[3] Jabareen, Yosef, ‘Review: A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture’ in The Arab Studies Journal Vol. 14, No. 2 (Arab Studies Institute, 2006) <> [accessed 02/04/2014] p. 139

[4] George Oppen, The Selected Letters of George Oppen (‪Duke University Press, 1990) p. 249

[5] Rastegar, Kamran, ‘Review: Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments’ in Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA), 2004) <> [accessed 31/03/2014] p. 302

[6]Rastegar, p. 302

[7]Jabareen, p. 138

[8]Muhawi, Farhat Y. ‘Review: Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation’ inJournal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 37, No. 2 (University of Califronia Press, 2008), <> [Accessed: 02/04/2014] p. 110

[9] Shelach, Oz, Picnic Grounds: A Novel in Fragments (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2003) p. 1

[10]Shelach, p.1

[11]Shelach, p. 35

[12] Shelach, p. 35

[13]Shelach, p. 25

[14]Shelach, p. 25

[15]Shelach, p. 25

[16] Conlon, James, ‘Review: Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation’ in Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism, Vol. 5, No. 2 (University of Minnesota Press, 2008) <> [accessed 02/04/2014] p. 76

[17]Conlon, p. 76

[18]Shelach, p. 1

[19]Shelach, p. 31

[20]Foucault, p. 53

[21]Shelach, p. 49

[22]Shelach, p. 49

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: