One Saturday, I visited the town of Al Walaja with an activist I had met. The town is being surrounded by the barrier wall on all sides, as fields, orchards, backyards, and family cemeteries are cut off from the families who need them to be able to go about their daily lives. Because it was Shabbat, the construction workers were not there and the hillside was quiet. Some residents suggested I park in their driveway so as not to block the narrow road, and later invited me in for tea. We were barely able to communicate but I learned that several photographers had already come through, and I was relieved to hear that their story was already getting out through press channels. I was able to walk around the construction site freely.
The entrance to Al Walaja lies straight ahead in between these two road signs, but it is not marked.
The road into Al Walaja flanked by Har Gilo settlement, new construction.
The barrier wall between Har Gilo and Al Walaja. At the left is a small lean-to that settlers use to guard the wall. The day I went, two men hung around with rifles and dogs, and they challenged me as I approached. Sorry for the lame composition, but when I took the picture of the wall, I hadn’t really noticed the lean-to yet, and after they yelled at me and saw my camera, I was afraid to go back.
Palestinian home. Construction was halted because it faces the settlement.
This image shows the planned route of the wall on the northwestern side of Al Walaja, and the roads that lead into Jerusalem from the south; Jerusalem in the distance; and just inside the wall construction route in the lower left hand corner, a guy on a horse.
Al Walaja used to cover several hilltops in the area and is now reduced to just one; it is the last remaining hilltop occupied by Palestinians near the southern entrance to Jersualem.
Merry Christmas from Palestine
The first time I walked through the Bethlehem checkpoint felt like an emotional kick in the stomach. The way in is a very long and slightly curved tunnel made of metal bars. Then, a series of turnstiles and rooms which all have a cold, metal, fluorescent feel, in which peoples’ IDs are checked. Suitcases and bags are put through a metal detector like in an airport. When I offered my passport to the guard, she told me with a very irritated tone of voice that I had no visa. I thought back to my passage through customs at Ben Gurion and remembered that I had been given a slip of paper with a rubber stamp on it which I gave to the customs officer when I left, and that it looked different from all the other slips of paper in the officer’s hand. I told the checkpoint guard that story, hoping it would explain why I had no visa. Maybe they had given it to me separately only to take it away immediately afterwards? She continued to try and argue with me, with gestures of anger and impatience, as if to say, “What am I to do with you?” but then just waved me through.
Later, when I was relating the story to some friends, I thought to open my passport, and there, clear as day, was my visa. The whole uncomfortable scene had been useless, and probably purposefully fabricated. The exchange was Kafkaesque; a subtle sense of surreality and instability pervaded my whole trip, as aspects of daily life that I take for granted at home proved to be unnecessarily complicated and arbitrary.
Here is a quote from Hollow Land, Eyal Weizman’s book about the architecture of occupation: “Chaos has its peculiar structural advantages. It supports one of Israel’s foremost strategies of obfuscation: the promotion of complexity – geographical, legal, or linguistic.”
Bethlehem and the surrounding towns are approximately 80% Christian and 20% Muslim. The tree lighting ceremony in Beit Sahour was a big deal, with visitors, public speeches by visiting dignitaries, street food, and traffic jams.
Celebrations of Christmas in the West Bank are a little different, and more community-oriented than they are in the US; gifts are delivered by store employees in Santa costumes to children in their homes, and families gather in public places such as churches and community centers to eat and spend time together on Christmas Day.
The question of what type of images I wanted to shoot and why became most pressing when I went to Al Masara one morning to participate in one of the non-violent demonstrations that happen on a regular basis. There were many video and still cameras wielded by people of all nationalities, and I told myself that I was in the West Bank to make art, not to be a documentary photographer. But as the demonstration unfolded I found myself pulling out the camera anyway, out of excitement and a sense of duty. I also became interested in how staged the event felt: the demonstrators come out again and again every week, knowing they will probably not succeed in simply reaching the other side of the road. The Israeli soldiers looked relaxed, amused even, since it was near Christmas and several demonstrators wore Santa suits. I became interested in how many cameras there actually were, and how conscientiously the demonstrators trained the rest of us on how to recognize the different types of projectiles that would be used against us, and how to avoid their intended effects.
A significant picture I did not take, was of the one young Palestinian youth who held a bottle and a rock in his hands, hidden behind his back, near the end of the procession that approached the road. He seemed young, meek and hesitant. As the yelling and the confrontation with the soldiers began, I lost track of him. I’m glad I didn’t take a picture of him.
The only person who was arrested that day was a young Israeli, one of several who took part. Of course, the demonstrations are not always so uneventful and after I got home, I spent hours looking at footage on youtube of countless others. I watched footage of a demonstrator being killed by a tear gas canister hitting him square in the chest a few years ago, which I came across after reading an article around New Year’s about his sister, who died from tear gas inhalation as she stood up on a ridge watching a demonstration, much as the people in this video are doing.
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.