some images from the west bank

The initial reason for my recent stay in the West Bank was to make new photographs for my drawings; a friend who grew up there and who had seen my images of roads and tunnels suggested that the occupation’s impact on transportation might be interesting for me to see. I did shoot a lot of new work, but the trip was rich and challenging in other ways as well. Before planning it, my understanding of the area and the situation was limited to what I could read in the newspapers, and the only images I could remember seeing in those papers were of Palestinian youths throwing stones. But I spoke to several more artists and photographers who know both me and the place, and they told me they thought it was a good idea … and so I went. Now, I have seen enough to care about sharing some of what I saw with others.

I stayed in Beit Sahour, a town next to Bethlehem, at El Beit Guesthouse. It’s run by the Arab Women’s Union, which also does humanitarian work in the community and coordinates some of the local craft workers. I found them in the Lonely Planet; I thought that staying with women would help me deal with some anticipated loneliness or disorientation. My room reminded me of one and two star pensioni in Italy, spare but clean and adequately furnished, with terrazzo floors, fluorescent lighting, and a kindly elderly lady who asked me to call if I was going to be out late, so that she wouldn’t worry.

Though they have 15 rooms, I would go to breakfast every morning and find only one or two other guests. This was the case in restaurants as well, throughout my stay: tourists tend to arrive in big tour buses that leave them on Manger Square for a couple of hours, then head back to the checkpoint with the requisite stop at the gift shop. The guest house only filled just before Christmas.

I chose Bethlehem because it was the one place in the West Bank I had already visited, with my father and (then future) stepmother, who is from Tel Aviv. I was around nine years old, and I have a very vivid memory of seeing the tiny doorway in the side of the Church of the Nativity and being told that this was the place Jesus was born.  I couldn’t believe the door was so small and it didn’t make sense to me because I knew that Mary was supposed to be riding a donkey.  Shouldn’t the door at least be tall enough for a donkey to walk through in the manger? I still don’t know, but somewhere, we have a snapshot of my brother and me riding a camel that day, grinning and a little scared because when camels get up, they send you leaning way forward then way back and we thought we were going to fall off.

It will take some time for me to process the impact of this trip on my work, and it has been hard to find a voice with which to talk about what I saw there. I came as an outsider and yet people were so hospitable and welcoming, I was never made to feel like one. I felt utterly safe walking and driving around alone, day and night.

This image was taken the first evening I arrived – I had walked down towards the wadi to visit Bustan Qaraaqa, where environmental activists plant trees and practice permafarming.

I took two lessons in Arabic so that I could say a few basic phrases, but almost everybody spoke a little English.  When they didn’t, no matter … people were patient with me and kept trying to communicate until I understood their invitation to come in for a cup of tea; in response to my request for directions, they would make a drawing or if they were going in the same direction they would hop in my car with me so they could show me the way.

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hospitality

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herodion and other hilltops

Herodion is an ancient hilltop fortress built by Herod, then conquered by the Romans, and later used as a base by the Jews during the Bar Kokhba revolt. (I recently read Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, so I was already aware of the revolt.) It was fascinating to see how cisterns and tunnels underneath the summit of the strangely shaped hill were repurposed and extended by the Jewish rebels into an intricate and confusing warren which permitted them to obtain water and move around without being seen from the outside while they were besieged. The map of the underground constructions reminded me of diagrams of the human body’s internal organs and systems, with multiple spleens, stomachs and livers, connected by ducts, tubes and arteries. It was after visiting Herodion that I began to understand to what extent the siting of the new Israeli settlements is the expression not only of what I imagine to be universal military thinking – hilltop towns are more easily defensible in any place or time – but also a deeper and more specific historical and religious connection for Jews to the idea of the hilltop fortress as the locus of past resistance, and perhaps more crucially, of defeat. Later on in my trip we tried to visit Masada but arrived too late in the day; I imagine that would have strengthened my conviction.

Here is a link to the Israeli Parks Department page about Herodion:

http://www.parks.org.il/

Note how the driving directions refer to roads that are identified in relation only to Israeli settlements, and not to any of the other numerous Palestinian villages which surround Herodion.

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other construction

The barrier wall and settlements aren’t the only thing being built in the West Bank. I also saw a lot of new Palestinian residential construction on the outskirts of Beit Sahour.

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one of my favorite things

One of the villagers in Al Walaja used old mattress springs as fencing around his house – beautiful.

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drawing tests

These images may or not become drawings, and there are other changes afoot in the studio, but this is some of what I might be working on over the next few months. Most of these were taken in the West Bank, but the parking lot is in the middle of the Bethlehem checkpoint, and the radio tower with the fence is the army headquarters in Tel Aviv.

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mapping, cartography, getting lost

I am usually a pretty good navigator, and I understand the position of the sun and the direction and length of shadows vis-à-vis the time of day and the points on a compass. But I am used to roads having names or numbers, and those names being printed on a map.

One map I had was good for seeing the overall picture but was terrible for roads.  Another map I had was great for understanding where the barrier wall was and where it is being built, but was also terrible for roads. And, even if a map told me the number of the road I was supposed to be on, the road itself was never marked. Google sometimes helped, but I couldn’t browse while I drove, so its usefulness was limited as well. So I just drove around and sort of muddled my way from here to there.  I once passed the same PA checkpoint three times trying to get from one part of Beit Sahour to the other.

The most detailed map for driving in the West Bank was, ironically, the one I came across after I left: the Hertz map that came with a car we rented in Tel Aviv.  It actually had color coding for which roads are Palestinian and which are for Israelis and which can be used by both. I spent much of my time clueless of these distinctions though, and probably benefited a lot from the racial profiling that was done any time a person wearing a uniform peered in to my car. I was reluctant to bring much intentionality to my wanderings. I got lost constantly, both by accident and on purpose.

Israel is smaller than New Jersey or Tuscany, and the West Bank is smaller than Delaware. There are settlements everywhere. Imagine driving from Hoboken to Bayonne, or Jersey City to Elizabeth, or from Colle Val d’Elsa to Siena, and passing two hilltop settlements on your way, knowing there are several others just beyond the ridge of hills that skirts the highway.

The settler access road to Tekoa, below, is well lit, while the highway right next to it, which is used by both Palestinians and settlers, is not lit at all. The road signs indicate only the settlements. While I was driving here, the road itself seemed to be telling me that it was not interested in communicating with me; if my destination was Palestinian, I either needed to already know where I was going, or hope for kindness from strangers.

There are two systems of roads, one fast and one slow, one with adequate signage and the other without, one new and one old, one well-lit and the other dark.  One system is superimposed upon the other and sometimes coincides with it, sometimes run parallel to it, and sometimes crosses over or under the other. I found myself thinking of panopticons and ghettos; and the difference between architecture that emerges organically over time from a landscape, and that which is planned in advance, and formulaic.

 

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insomnia

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seed bombs

Knowing I’d be seeing Elio soon in Tel Aviv, I wanted to plan some kind of a good mom & son activity to occupy our time together.  I brought along our copy of this great book I bought for him last year. We had already used it to leave secret messages on the subway and take random walks in our neighborhood with a cut-out, tape-together die, which has arrows on each face.

Just before leaving the West Bank, I got a bunch of seeds and some red clay from a garden supply store in Beit Sahour, along with some compost.

Walking through the Bethlehem checkpoint with all this extra stuff to carry was not fun, especially since I looked like a crazy person carrying bags of dirt alongside the cheap broken suitcase I had purchased in desperation in Jerusalem when I realized I had to carry my stuff into the old city. But I really wanted to make the seed bombs with Palestinian seeds! Helpful people carried some stuff through the numerous turnstiles for me and made it a lot easier.

My last trip through the checkpoint was my most eventful, since the soldiers saw the tripod in my suitcase with the metal detector, and made me unpack each new metal object they espied and put the suitcase through again five times, each pass occasioning a new state of disarray of personal belongings on the floor. In the next room at the passport control, on the other hand, guards waved me through without even looking at my ID.

On Christmas Eve, Elio flew in from New York via Istanbul, and on Christmas Day we met our numerous Israeli relatives at a wonderful family dinner. We got a little help and mixed up the recipe for the seed bombs.

We let them dry for a couple of days then threw them around Tel Aviv.

One of my inspirations for this effort is the Telegarden, a wonderful project by my friend and teacher Joe Santarromana.

Our final art guerilla act was to deposit our last Palestinian seed bombs in the tacky vases in Ben Gurion Airport, as we left to fly home.

And now, two months after leaving Israel, we just got these delightful photos ….

Some of the photos in this post were taken by my brothers and the last two by Noa and Amnon.

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just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you

During my trip, I had been using google.com to occasionally browse the map of the area, since  the English pages of google.ps and google.co.il don’t have map tabs at the top of the screen. I would have to go home, to google.com, where even if you type in “Ramallah” they show you a map of the United States, and if you type in “Bethlehem” you get a town in Pennsylvania. I would fly across the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, then zoom in to see the road from Beit Sahour into Bethlehem, or to look for the abandoned military camp at the edge of town or Shepherd’s Field.

One day, I got fed up with this situation and complained to Google on a user’s forum: why don’t you have maps on google.ps? It seemed discriminatory, as if they didn’t want people to find their way around in the West Bank and were content to let them wander around lost forever (as I seemingly had done).

A couple of mornings later,  I met a wonderful doctor who had been coming to Beit Sahour every year for 15 years to work with deaf children. She warned me to not have any of my Palestinian pictures, maps, gifts and books on me when I left Ben Gurion airport two weeks later, and told me that everything should be backed up, erased on my laptop, and sent by mail or FedEx. She told me that once, when she left Tel Aviv, the passport control officer looked her in the eye and told her that they knew where she had gone to elementary school.

Already a little uneasy, I went back to my room to research my itinerary for the day.  I tried to visit google.com and found Firefox redirecting me to google.ps. I tried again and again, typing google.com carefully into the browser window and watching with a mounting sense of panic as the letters would change before my very eyes and send me to the map-less local site.

With pounding heart I started changing my browser settings, getting rid of cookies and histories, but that only made things worse, because I wasn’t thinking through what I was doing anymore and some of the changes I made rendered my browsing experience even more alien.

From then on, I experienced about 24 hours of stomach churning paranoia.  I emailed friends who were also traveling in the area to ask them what they were going to do with their pictures, and then immediately regretted it, worrying that I had just set my invisible hackers on their trail as well. I had visions of being stopped at Ben Gurion Airport and separated from my son, who would be left to wait for me alone in some cold office while I was questioned and my suitcase torn apart.

I stopped taking pictures that day and the next, and found excuses to just be a tourist in downtown Bethlehem instead of driving around at night and photograph the incredibly curvy road to Ramallah with a tripod as I had originally planned. The everyday bustle of the market was reassuring to me, and I finally visited the museum to look at old lace and pots and pans.

I skyped with JC and he said, more or less, “it’s certainly possible, so what else is new?” He reminded me of the day DEA agents knocked on our door on Canal Street several years ago because he had taken some photographs of a Federal parking lot and a desolate-looking oil refinery in New Jersey, and the fact that for several years, customs officers stopped him every time he entered the US with a fictional visa overstay story which mysteriously materialized shortly after 9/11.

Paradoxically, the notion that my paranoia could be true helped me to calm down. Since I had done nothing wrong, I pictured Mossad agents spending long, boring days drowning in irrelevant information about harmless travelers, and remembered Jane and Louise Wilson’s pictures of surveillance files gathering dust in Stasi archives.

With time, I gradually understood that this was one of the most important events of my trip, because for a little while I had been occupied, too.

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Beit Ommar

We arrived in Beit Ommar at sunset so there was little time to photograph. Had we arrived earlier, I might have taken a picture of the white truck parked on the road between the edge of this orchard and the nearby Israeli settlement. The town residents who brought us here told us there is a settler (whose name they know) who sits in the truck day in and day out, and shoots at them if they try to harvest their fruit too close to the boundary. Villagers are asking for help – people who are willing to come and help them harvest their fruit, because the settlers are less likely to shoot if “internationals” are there.

Another picture I did not take: empty tear gas and sound bomb canisters scattered on the soil of the orchard. There had been a demonstration just the day before, on the villagers’ own land, yet the IDF came and used crowd control techniques against them.

Recently, Jewish settlers came into the town’s mosque in the middle of the night, accompanied by the IDF, to claim the mosque for Jewish use. The settlers in Beit Ommar are particularly aggressive and have recently come into the town and shot and killed teenagers.

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