Road Trip Palestine
A Camera, a Two-Way Mirror + a Remote Control Device — the Self-Portrait Project Travels to the West Bank
by Karmen Ross
I am a human rights advocate and a New Yorker. Sometimes I make films but usually I promote other people’s visual work. This time last year I was in Whole Foods in lower Manhattan in the oil and vinegar aisle when a bottle caught my eye — ORGANIC PALESTINIAN OLIVE OIL. I thought — wow, who’s bothering with organic standards when there is so much else to worry about in Palestine — water wars, land theft, uprooted olive trees, violence? I saw a phone number on the bottle so when I got home I called it — and pretty much asked them just that.
That’s when I learned about a company called Canaan Fair Trade — the largest collective of fair-trade farmers in Palestine. Some 1700 members, organized in worker cooperatives, grow gorgeous crops like olives, almonds, thyme and a grain I had never heard of called freekeh. Freekeh is a low-gluten, high-nutrition grain that’s been well-received here in the States. What’s so special about Canaan is that they have been employing ancient farming methods dating back to Biblical times — “Jesus walked among these olive trees.” They use permaculture traditions to both get around water deprivation imposed on them by the Israeli government and to maintain sustainable farming practices. They stick together to get their families through tough times and they lift up women in particular through female-run collectives that give moms and wives and the single ladies all kinds of agency. I loved them immediately! But I wanted to know more.
So I called my buddy Andy Lin, also a downtown New Yorker. Andy runs the Self-Portrait Project, a photography series that uses a special kit to enable folks to take photos of themselves without interference from a photographer. He believes this approach creates very different pictures, when people are in charge of their own representation: “As both the photographer and model, you are wholly responsible for the images you create of yourself.” I had stood in front of his mirror in clubs and bars all over NYC snapping pix of myself — they are some of my favorite pictures. Here’s one:
Me: “Hi. Wanna go to Palestine with me?”
Me: “I want to find out what it looks like. All we ever see is people throwing rocks and other people throwing rockets. Do you have a sense of the landscape or what the cities really look like? Or what ordinary folks are doing all day long?”
Me: “Wanna do a road trip? The Canaan olive oil folks I told you about said that we can come visit them.”
Andy: “Hell yeah.”
Me: “Ok you do all the logistics and I’ll do the big thinking.”
Andy: “Nice try.”
So before you can say Ben Gurion, Andy, his photo partner Jelmer, his really heavy Self-Portrait Project kit, and I are all on our way to Palestine to photograph the people who live there — or rather invite them to photograph themselves.
I am going to pause here and address the inevitable question of why we didn’t photograph people in Israel as well. First, we were invited to visit Palestine. And while we are no less interested in Israel, we feel Israelis have much greater access to media outlets that reach us across the world. We see them in street-style photo spreads, in foodie features, in tourism ads and on fashion runways. We celebrate them as we do all people, but they are not going to be our focus here. And don’t worry, we spoke with lots of Israelis before and during the trip so we did our background work.
TEL AVIV ARRIVAL
I am going to skip the part where we stress for two weeks about what to say to the Israeli authorities on the way into the country. Because Palestine is under military occupation, you have to pass through Israeli border controls to get in. And they are not crazy about anyone visiting Palestine (otherwise known as the West Bank and Gaza — names change according to who is talking). Foreigners have ended up in detention centers at the border crossings so we are tense and a little snippy with one another. But in the end, we sail through Ben Gurion airport’s customs controls: we didn’t yet know what would happen when we left.
Jerusalem should be the capital of Palestine but for the time being its status is contested. East Jerusalem is largely populated by Palestinians but as we will see the Israelis are working hard to annex pieces of it so that de facto control leads to de jure ownership. So for now Ramallah will have to do as Palestinian HQ.
Setting off for Ramallah from Jerusalem is intense. We have engaged five amazing field producers, all female and most of them under 30 and we know the trip is planned impeccably. The level of professionalism and attention to detail is impressive — the women of Palestine have it together. But nothing is quite straight-forward in a war zone.
First of all, the rental car. You can’t win with the car. If it looks like it’s Arabs behind the wheel because of the license plate, you are going to be under pressure from Israeli settlers in the West Bank. But we are mainly going to be in areas under Palestinian administration. So we figure we are good with our white van and East Jerusalem plates. Right? Wrong. Turns out after we’re on the road and have pre-paid for the car that the white van screams “SETTLER!”
The settlers are people incentivized by the Israeli government to move onto Palestinian land, in direct contravention of international law, and to start satellite communities where they get luxuries like water and where living standards are often higher than in Israel proper. The importance of the settlements cannot be overstated — they are one of the main sticking points in any negotiated agreement, especially since the Israelis keep building more and more of them (illegally). Some of the settlements house tens of thousands of settlers, with some residents born there and living in the communities all of their lives. We discover that these people, who elicit deep resentment from the Palestinians, are really into white vans. Good to know after pulling out of Jerusalem once the rental guy has gone home for a siesta and is not picking up his cell phone.
We are quickly advised to throw a keffiyeh on the dash. This scarf is a Palestinian liberation symbol and it will signal that we are a friendly presence in the Palestinian areas. Ok, phew.
It all seems a bit casual to me but I do what I am told — the keffiyeh, big smiles and the Beiruti singer Fairouz blasting from the CD player. Basically, if you ever get on the wrong side of an Arab, just start singing a Fairouz song and you’re golden. We are in no mood to be confused with Israeli settlers eight months after the 2014 Gaza war.
Here’s Fairouz, btw, she’s gorgeous.
The checkpoint into the West Bank is disturbing. It is shocking to see the separation wall suddenly emerge as you drive around a bend.
The wall went up in 2002 and has been expanded ever since. The stated reason for the wall is to offer security to Israelis who have been subjected to violence like suicide bombings but the way it has been erected appears to consolidate a land grab by Israel. People hate it and draw on it — messages of liberation, of condemnation and of hope. Foreigners like Banksy come and make art on it too — banners of solidarity.
My first thought when I see the wall is — who the hell put this here? My second thought is — this is the landscape of imprisonment. It is more than a security periphery — it is punitive.
The lines for pedestrians are long and it is immediately obvious that body language is signaling a combination of stoicism and rage. Repressed anger. I had it too by the time we drove through with guns pointed at us and soldiers shouting threats because we approached our turn too soon. The wall and checkpoints of course separate Palestinians from their property, their family members, their most precious places of religious worship, the sea and — hugely important — JOBS. Poverty added to this mix makes it an absolute pressure cooker. We drive through looking down the barrel of an automatic weapon.
Immediately after the checkpoint — at the checkpoint really — is the Qalandia Refugee Camp. Displaced Palestinians have been in this camp since 1949, when the first major expulsion took place from Jerusalem, and other cities now inside Israel, the year before. Palestinians call it the Nakba, the “disaster” or “catastrophe”. Israelis call it the founding of their modern homeland. Palestinians who otherwise would be relaxing in a pretty garden behind their house in Jerusalem have been in cinder block structures with intermittent running water in this roadside UN camp for over 60 years now. Nearly every resident was born here. The 1967 territorial settlement runs along what is called the Green Line but this is not being honored by the Israeli government.
It is poignant to see how close to Jerusalem the Qalandia refugees are — but there is no walking into Jerusalem without license from the Israeli government, and not everyone gets permission. This is one of the most profound impacts of recent Israeli policy: fewer and fewer people are granted work permits inside Israel and more and more of them have to jump over that awful wall to work in the Israeli black market. And no Palestinian is likely to ever reclaim his property inside the Green Line. When you speak with most Israelis, this is taken as a given.
We like Ramallah right away. It used to be majority Christian but now it’s got a mixed population and it’s kind of a swinging town.
There are ice cream shops and cafes and falafel nooks and lots of brutalist residential buildings. We set up the Self-Portrait kit in front of an ice cream shop smack in the middle of town on Rukab Street. Passers-by are curious and playful — and are as confused as everyone at first is when we explain how to work the photo kit. “Where’s the photographer?” — “You’re the photographer! Just look in the mirror and press the remote control when you’re ready.” Those who get the hang of it jump in to help others. We have a hoot with this first shoot, although it’s mostly men that get in front of the camera.
Even from our brief encounter we find gender dynamics in Palestine interesting and complex. We have five fierce, outspoken women producing our shoots but most female passers-by are loathe to pose for a photo in the Ramallah streets. Conservative gender roles are a theme throughout our visit and we see the first signs of this here.
NEXT! The after-school dance class — here come the girls. Ramallah’s elementary-school dance students are so relaxed, so into their fly moves, so open and welcoming — someone is delivering really good parenting here in the midst of this background of conflict and uncertainty. Resources are not the most abundant in the West Bank and they put their hearts and souls into these little dance steps. We love them.
After Ramallah we head north, to the agricultural heart of Palestine and the headquarters of Canaan Fair Trade. I had not expected Palestine to be so verdant — we drive past emerald hills and catch sun shards slicing through rich valleys. The landscape is welcoming, human-scale and nourishing. This is Palestine’s bread basket, or rather its olive bowl.
If other parts of the country lean toward the desert, this is definitely the Mediterranean basin. The keffiyed white van presses on, blasting Beirut’s finest songstress.
Canaan is hugely impressive. Their processing plant is pristine and the production line runs like a clock. For the largest collective of fair trade farmers in Palestine, this is no small feat. The Israelis deny them water, confiscate their land, uproot their trees (even though it’s forbidden by the Torah) and arrest their family members for doing things like putting up posts on Facebook. But the crops go on! And in fact have been rotating since Biblical times, which Canaan is very proud of. Setting up the self-portrait kit among the olive trees in a grove, we are taken with the gentleness of the setting.
The farmers have employed sustainable farming practices for 2,000 years and have passed them on through their families and communities like heirlooms. This is clearly a form of cultural — really, of existential — survival. But these practices also hold wisdom relevant beyond the terrain of the Middle East. For example, because the farms have been denied water on such a massive scale, this smart group of innovators has found a way to invent an almond tree that needs very little watering. Hello, California! They came up with a whole new strain of almond that no one had ever seen before. They work the soil and rotate crops in a way that encourages permaculture and stands up to the impact of climate change. The farmers have much to teach the world as we tackle climate disruption.
The central role of the olive tree in Palestinian life is stressed over and over again.
“The olive is Palestine’s symbol. It is mentioned in the Quran and the Bible. We consider the olive tree to be a holy tree.”
“The flavor of olive oil is sacred for us, because it’s from the land of our ancestors. I would rather live under an olive tree than in my own house.”
“These olive trees are thousands of years old. We Palestinians have been here a long time. We exist.”
And inevitably they mention the occupation:
“We are from Jenin. We were born here, but we don’t feel safe in our own home.”
“We are not just occupied by the military. We are occupied by grief.”
So here are the farmers. They’ve been through it, as you can imagine, but are still full of vim and generosity and they loved our traveling mirror and remote control device. They are deeply proud of their land and their legacy.
The first photo is of our field producer Lamis, who works with Canaan and gets their products out into the world, including to Whole Foods in lower Manhattan. If you want to give back to these intrepid people, you can buy their products HERE. I am going for it for end-of-year holiday gifts. You can also donate trees to offset those that have been uprooted — or you can even join Canaan for their olive harvest in the fall.
Next we head south to Nablus, which feels very different but is just as beautiful. Nablus is a bustling town nestled between two mountains, a financial capital for Palestine — it holds the Palestinian stock exchange — and is a home to traders and merchants. Its Ottoman old town is among the most beautiful and its nickname is “Little Damascus” (because the old town in Damascus is similarly gorgeous). Nablus was held by Jordan before the Israelis captured it during the 1967 Six-Day War and was targeted as a hub of Palestinian nationalism. It also holds Joseph’s Tomb so it’s a religious hot spot. You have to have your street game on here, we could tell right away.
We do two shoots. One is in the market, where the merchants assemble, so the energy level is high. We set up the self-portrait kit in several spots and invite shoppers and passers-by to take a snap. There is tons of goodwill but again we encounter some resistance from women reluctant to be photographed. Nablus is a bit more conservative than Ramallah so we expect this. But we do get some charming women and girls to step up and they say great things like “I teach English because we’re always defending ourselves before the world and we might as well do it eloquently.”
Here they all are.
The stories in Nablus are poignant. Nablus has seen some serious political struggle in the ongoing conflict with Israel. It is surrounded by Israeli settlements that sprang up around the city in the 1980s and 1990s. Some of the participants talk about being imprisoned in the local jail, known for its torture practices, during the first Intifada, or uprising. The prisons are now gone and those arrested get shipped across the Green Line into Israel. “Palestine is the only place where you get sent to another country to serve a prison sentence.”
Folks also talk about hard economic times. The economic instability generated by the occupation in fact prompted a local back-to-the-land movement and renewed focus on agricultural self-sufficiency — the subject of our later photo shoot here. The chicken seller tells us he is so happy to be the chicken provider because when things get really lean, he can give people chickens at least and get them through a rough spot. There are obviously many more layers to the story of Nablus but this is what we pick up during the market visit. And then we pick up soap. And we get some yummy sugar-soaked pastries called kanafeh and dried rose petals, all signature treats here.
CANAAN AGAIN, NABLUS STOP
After the market we head to Canaan Fair Trade’s other location — the Nablus farm that also holds a women’s cooperative.
This sounds like sweet NGO talk but actually we hear about some fierce dynamics. We meet women who turned their household relationships around once they started earning. Got their kids through college. Started to wear the pants in the family.
“I support my husband.”
“I also support my husband.”
“Mine keeps pelting me with questions about the thyme — how’s the thyme? Is the thyme ready??”
Some of the women say they feel free for the first time in their fifties.
They’re very practical. “Women were always getting together anyway, so we figured we might as well form a co-op and make some money out of it.”
It is inspiring to see the far-reaching effects of simply controlling one’s income. As I sit with these formidable women, I get motivated to go home and make more money than my husband.
One of the older Canaan women speaks poetically about wild thyme, the dearer kind, which grows on the ancient Palestinian hillsides but is difficult to reach, so she is forced to struggle up the slopes to get the gold. The woman sitting next to her drily pipes up, “Thyme is too much work. I stick to chickens and eggs. And those eggs are buying my children‘s education.”
I ask for the story behind the beautiful embroidered dresses that they chose to wear for the photo shoot. They’ve had enough of my eager questions by now. “You’re jumping from topic to topic. Stick to one train of thought.“ Haha.
The Canaan women say they think Palestine will change for the better if women are able to weigh in more through their economic power. Across the country we see how the occupation has helped to calcify gender roles, but Canaan is among the notable exceptions.
“Ever since we started to make as much money as men, our opinion matters a lot more. The cooperative is giving women a voice in Palestinian life.”
The husbands are also warm and forthcoming. “Women have an extra advantage in life because they get to have the children,” one tells me. Hmm. I leave that statement alone.
Khader Khader, whose wife Ransis is the head of the cooperative, says: “I used to hear about women’s rights. Then I joined the cooperative and my wife became its head. She plants and cultivates as I do and gets paid the same. So now we share childcare between us. I don’t have to throw stones to stand up for Palestine. This is my way of doing it.”
It’s a feel-good moment at this farm and we hear a lot about how all-natural food has turned around dispositions and energy levels once everyone went organic with Canaan. The group is extremely health-conscious and won’t touch processed food.
“We want most of all to live in harmony in Palestine and to have the chance to grow our success.”
Here’s the Khader family.
After Nablus we park it back in Jerusalem again. We stay in West Jerusalem, which is majority Jewish. My BFF is working there as a diplomat and it’s moving to hear her stories from the Gaza war the year before, where she was responsible not just for political advice to her government but also for humanitarian evacuation of her country’s citizens. I have known her for years, we have been stationed in other post-war countries together, but I am struck by how Gaza has changed her. She is one of the most politically sophisticated people I know but living through the war has brought a whole other level of insight. Her take is unique but it does make me think of the remarkable statements made by international staff during their time here.
The July/August 2014 Gaza war ravaged so many lives — over 2,000 Gazans were killed, the majority civilian including 500 children, and many others were left with profound injuries like amputations. Five adult civilians were killed on the Israeli side of the border, as well as a four year-old boy in Eshkol. Hamas has been accused of human rights abuses in Gaza, has shelled Israel indiscriminately and has dug tunnels to access Israeli territory, but few in the international community regard this as justification for either Gaza’s disastrous blockade or the large-scale killing of civilians. Recovery has happened slowly or not at all — with 1.8 million people living in appalling conditions and crammed into a territory that is 25 miles long and no more than 7.5 miles wide, Gaza is perhaps the world’s largest open-air detention camp.
Jerusalem is as mystical as they all say. I lose myself for a minute and get obsessed with buying a white robe and touching stones — I only later google this and realize I am just another victim of Jerusalem Syndrome — a condition that turns you into a temporary zealot. I am a zealot without religious portfolio — an atheist zealot. I can’t find the atheist quarter in the Old City so I float between all of them.
The stone streets of the Old City are breathtaking and the Al Aqsa mosque is particularly beautiful. I cannot help but feel like an interloper because I am permitted to see this cherished religious site but so many of the people we left behind the wall in the West Bank cannot.
Visiting Al Aqsa is a religious and cultural priority for many Palestinian Muslims and one of the many reasons that Jerusalem is so central to the final political settlement. Many Palestinians have never been allowed to access the mosque due to Israel’s movement restrictions. Jews call the area the Temple Mount and it is considered the holiest site in Judaism. This is the absolute epicenter of the territorial dispute. Any time you hear Al Aqsa in the news, pay attention. Usually something bad is about to happen. The area is generally peaceful but I occasionally hear the sound of angry trills in the area around the mosque from Muslim women, often harassed by Israeli authorities on their way up and perhaps protesting on behalf of the many denied access. They are like angry blackbirds I hear but cannot see.
I am also touched by the people praying at the Wailing Wall, largely Orthodox Jews. I think — wow, this place means so much to so many. Also the Christians who have worn down to a slick the rock in Jesus’s tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also in the Old City. Any political settlement is going to have to honor these competing passions; I have never seen anything like it.
I decide against the white robe and buy some beads from an irate shop owner who says he is glad 911 happened to teach the US a lesson. I was below the Twin Towers on the morning of 911 so he makes me cry. I feel he is better than this. But I can’t crack him. He looks coldly at my tears but then passes me a sweet Turkish coffee and finds the most comfortable place in his shop for me to hang out. We sit side by side in this uneasy love-hate visit for some time, like quarreling relatives. He never backs off but treats me very well. I for the most part shut up and then leave with my beads and a postcard.
We move on to East Jerusalem, where most Palestinians in the city now live. During our East Jerusalem photo shoots we witness some serious heartache. We had come from New York to record a slice of Palestinian life and celebrate culture, art, love, food, the land and the farmers but inevitably we confront some real ugliness. We are taken by one of our producers to the homes of a cluster of Palestinian families who are waiting in terror for their houses to be demolished by Israel. They live in these homes and have done so for decades. They could not be more stressed out.
“We got a notice from the government on April 15. We don’t know when they will destroy our home.”
The first self-portrait participant we reach, Arif Tutanji, is huddled in his house with his kids. He tells us the children wake up any time a car pulls up in the night, panicked that the Israelis are coming to tear the house down. As I said before, the Israeli government is trying to take over Jerusalem as a whole in order to keep it in the final settlement: Israel declared Jerusalem the undivided, eternal capital of the Jewish people many years ago (but not one other country recognizes this). For folks who have lost everything — lost a country really — these last bits of land are truly a life and death matter. Where will they go? How will they live? They know once they are pushed out they will likely never go back. Look at their countrymen down the road in the Qalandiya camp — almost 70 years in a refugee camp after leaving places like this same neighborhood.
In order to do this cleansing exercise the Israeli government came up with a plan — they will designate the land the families own park land. The families will be kicked out after decades of residency here. In their place a public park will be built — a green belt — and WHO DOESN’T LOVE A PARK? How can you object to a park? Do you want to take the park away from us all?
But if you do decide to resist and not leave of your own accord, the government will send a demolition crew, sometimes with dogs and helicopters, and kick you and your screaming kids to the curb. And at that point, you will just be happy to get out without anyone getting injured.
So these families know it’s coming. But when? Is that the car now?
“They came to take pictures this week so they know which houses to demolish. The soldiers are coming soon.”
Sounds are predators in this situation.
“I don’t sleep, I stay awake all night. I run when I hear a car coming. I sleep in the morning. Because they usually come at night to do the demolition.”
The kids are sick from worry. They practice pitching a tent and sleeping in it just in case the nightmare comes true and they lose the roof over their heads. The fridge is hauled into the yard when they think demolition day is close, then hauled back in for use. Hauled out, then back in.
“The fridge is expensive, we need to try to save it.”
Arif, who has 12 kids in the house, is so stressed out that at this point he requires psych support. Social services are thin and we know he is relying more on stoicism and the support of his neighbors, all in the same boat, than anything the government provides. The children dash like shadows between the rooms. We notice a peculiar structure in the yard. Is that a bird house?
“When I found out they were coming for us, I thought first of the pigeon that made its home on our roof. Where would she go? I could not stop thinking about her. So I built her a house. It’s a pigeon house. If they tear down our house, surely they will have the heart to leave hers.”
Arif says he did this to preserve his own humanity.
“This is life. It’s nice to care for her. It makes me happy.”
This is the kind of thing we hear the whole time we are there.
If Arif’s case isn’t heartbreaking enough, then you just have to look to his neighbors, Kasim, Sharif and Nureddin Amro. Three brothers, all blind. Blind men huddled with their families in cinder block houses waiting for the sound of bulldozers. The brothers are pictured first, with Arif’s family next in the middle — their pigeon house furthest back behind them — and the last photo is the family of Hani, whom we hear from below. Nureddin’s story was recently published in the Washington Post.
I don’t know quite where to put myself when I realize all this is happening. Nureddin stands in front of the pile of rubble that was the first house the Israelis demolished a while back, to get the assault going and slowly torment them all. They do a little at a time.
This park is going to be a barrel of laughs. Like picnicking in a graveyard.
Finally Hani Totah gives us the most heartbreaking story of all. Hani is one of the remarkable Palestinian families who have kept Arabian horses in East Jerusalem, despite the instability visited upon them. Hani says that when his earlier house and stable were torn down by the Israelis, his nine-year-old son came home from school, threw his backpack down on the ground and ran at the rubble screaming in despair.
“They tore down the house and they destroyed his little treasure chest full of his mementos, his piggy bank that he had been saving up, all his childhood things. He went into shock. He started screaming ‘I will kill them!’ I panicked and was so afraid he would carry hate in his heart. So I thought quickly and realized I would have to blame myself to spare him. I said, “No, son, they did not do anything, this was my fault. I didn’t file the paperwork, this was my fault, you mustn’t be angry.”
Hani chokes on his words and starts to weep. “I was so afraid for him. That he would become a criminal. That the anger would destroy him. I wanted him to grow up to be a doctor. So I told him we had done this to ourselves. Better this than the rage.”
I am very sad to report that Hani and Arif’s homes were demolished on May 17, 2016. They and their families no longer live here. The Amro brothers are still waiting for their bulldozers to arrive.
After the East Jerusalem demolition vigil, a switch in gears. We take the self-portrait kit to a company of young dancers in East Jerusalem. Douban is a professional ballet troupe and also dedicated to dabke — Palestine’s oldest dance tradition. Everyone is in their teens or early 20s. What a crew! Every dance tells a story and the political messages are gentle but unmistakable.
“The music is about the Palestinian cause. People being forced to leave. It’s not a happy dance. You see our faces, we are sad.”
Rand, a young woman of 18, says “The movements and costumes tell a story. Sometimes you are not allowed to speak. You are forced to shut up. So my necklace represents the vocal chords.”
Hanna, the male troupe leader, jumps in: “Exile is an important message for us. We try to impart this to our audiences.”
“One of the dances — massar — is about how we Palestinians always look to the outside. We take from the outside and forget all that we have here.”
With a largely female troupe, women are a big theme.
”We combine traditional Palestinian dance with modern dance. And we have something we do differently than other groups. We show the struggle of women. This is important for Palestine and for the Arab world as a whole.”
They show us their dance about a woman who is both beautiful and really mad.
“Women in the Arab world do not have full rights. Especially under occupation. When you see photos of resistance, you see women. They’re not staying in the kitchen. We have a bigger role.”
“We think women are complex and our dance reflects that.”
Bring it, girls. And Hanna.
The team is a traditional dabke troupe but incorporates all kinds of modern twists. The kids have YouTube. They travel. They see foreigners who come out to local nightclubs throw down moves picked up from all over the world. This cross-pollination is incorporated into the ancient dance numbers.
I am also touched by how adamant the dancers are that we not treat them like they are missing out on life.
“Some people see us as poor people. Some see us as victims. Others just as people living under occupation. We want to show them that we are people who have everything, like them. We are open. We can dance. We have a culture. A civilization.”
Hanna makes all the costumes himself.
“We didn’t come from nowhere. We are Canaanites. We have been here a long time. All of the costumes and jewelry have this same message in them.”
I’m trying to find signs of an adolescent attitude problem but the empowered quotes keep coming.
“We don’t want to be sad Palestinians. We have a good life. As good as anyone else’s. We just struggle with some things.”
Ethar, who is a young woman of 22, leaves us with the abiding impression from our visit. I ask her what’s important in Palestine:
“Love and peace. A lot of groups only focus on the conflict, but we show the other side. We want peace and love. That’s our religion in the dance troupe. We want to demonstrate to the world that we are peaceful.”
So here they are. Keep an eye out for them and celebrate them if they come your way. Hell, invite them to your city to perform; they would be over the moon. They are making something beautiful in the eye of a storm.
Finally, we set the photo kit up at Hebrew University. Hebrew U is politically complicated. It is an Israeli university which stands on occupied Palestinian land and like all Israeli universities, has a relationship with the military (the occupation force). The university has at times encouraged its citizens to engage in military activity and this is a deep dilemma for those who ethically oppose this role. The Arab kids feel they have no other choice in East Jerusalem and have to get a university education. The other nearby school, Birzeit University, is on the other side of checkpoints and far away in Ramallah.
Not everyone on our Palestinian production team wanted to include the Hebrew U photos but in the end we decided to publish them here, along with some background info. Also for the record no Israeli that we talked to wanted to be photographed once they found out that the project was about Palestine. So what you see here is Palestinians and a couple of foreigners. They study law, design, political science, Hebrew, art history, you name it. Cheese!
SOUTHERN WEST BANK
The final three stops of our trip are in the southern part of the West Bank, in an area south of Jerusalem. I don’t think we are fully prepared for what we are about to see of the occupation. Our field producer Nora first takes us to near the periphery of the Negev Desert. The landscape is very different here — the verdant farmlands of the upper West Bank give way to an arid terrain. The warm gray of the land is dramatic and inviting, I always feel good in the desert.
The West Bank is broken up into Areas A, B, and C, according to the Oslo Accords. Area A is theoretically governed by the Palestinian Authority — Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering and are warned of danger by the Israeli government. Ramallah, Jenin and Nablus are, for example, all in Zone A.
Area B is a hybrid of Palestinian service provision and Israeli security; and Area C is held completely by Israel, which provides both. Approximately sixty percent of the West Bank falls under Area C — and the idea is to expand the control.
The Area C village we are visiting is called Susya and its residents have been through a lot. They live in what already looks like a camp, rather than a proper village. That’s because their first village nearby was destroyed in 1986 so they escaped to caves for a while — hard to believe but we saw them. The caves were then blown up so now the Susya residents have temporary dwellings. Except those temporary dwellings have been in place now for over 30 years.
And that’s the bureaucratic rub. The Israeli authorities won’t give the Susya residents building permission for permanent structures. So the paperwork paves the way for the population removal. This is so urgently on the minds of the Susya dwellers that some of the girls we meet are going to school — miles away with no transport — for many good reasons, but among them the hope of educating themselves enough to try to secure this paperwork.
As one young woman, Asma, says: “We long for a better future and are learning skills in school to advocate for legal permission to build our houses again. This is the most important thing right now.”
We meet Muhammed Nawaja, who functions as the elder of Susya, which appears to be one big extended family. He is an oak tree. Or perhaps an old, sturdy olive tree. He has endured decades of harassment, bullying, mortal threats. He knows what he is up against. And he stuns us with his stories.
“We got a demolition order a month ago, they told us that our houses will be destroyed any day now. We have nowhere to go. We will not leave. We are awaiting demolition any day now. Everyone in this village, 35 families. I don’t sleep.”
Sound familiar? This is nowhere near East Jerusalem, btw — it’s 150km away. The Israelis are using these removal tactics consistently all over the country. This is one way to establish the occurrence of systematic violations of international law — consistent patterns across territory. They move settlers in, and they move Palestinians out. This is a breach of UN Security Council resolutions, of peace treaties and of humanitarian law. And it’s all breaking over the Nawaja family of Susya.
Susya has received a good amount of international attention, but this has done nothing to help them. The Israelis appear to be impervious to public shaming.
Another young woman, Jubreen, quiet at first, says softly, “Our greatest wish is to have a natural life like everyone else has. To be settled and not have to constantly worry about our house being demolished.” She looks away from us as she talks.
The Israelis often claim that the Arabs just got to this land yesterday. One of the reasons they are targeting Susya is because there is meant to be an old synagogue near the village and they want to establish this as an archeological site of note. They are trying to say that the Palestinians are recent arrivals and need to move on, so they don’t obstruct access to the site. But Muhammed has words for them.
“I am 70 years old, older than the state of Israel. And I have been living on this land since my birth.”
Another family member, Sameda, wants to make sure people understand what’s behind the photos they are taking, “Our faces are smiling but our hearts are tired.”
That kind of sums up the disposition of most of the people we meet here. There is indeed a pall of sadness over Susya.
Muhammed’s daughter Fatima is as gracious and dignified as her dad — they are a great father-daughter duo. Fatima runs a women’s collective in Susya. They manage to make honey and pretty embroidery out in the middle of nowhere. Again, something beautiful in the middle of a war zone. They keep their stuff in one of the caves, so they don’t have to move it when the IDF comes back. They also bake delicious bread in cave ovens, which they kindly load us up with when we leave.
Here’s the family in the photos. The younger men are out with the olive trees, so we get mostly women that day. They may not be on this spot anymore by the time you read this. Check here.
We almost don’t go to Hebron because we are trying to pour a quart into a pint pot in terms of time (seven cities in a week) but in the end this is a must-see in order to understand the extent of the occupation.
Hebron is something special. It’s Palestine’s largest city. It is beautiful, with stately stone houses, wrought iron fences and another vaulted stone-walled market in the Old City. It holds Abraham’s tomb so that means it’s dear to all of the local monotheistic faiths. And of course this spells trouble.
Hebron is particularly violent because settlers — many of them from Brooklyn, in my city — took up residence inside the city itself. Most of the West Bank settlements are satellites, they look like suburban islands you might find driving on the highway in northern California. But in this case permanent conflict was unleashed by allowing settlers to remain in homes marbleized among long-term Palestinian residences. Some 400–800 settlers are now backed up by 4,000 IDF soldiers that enforce a buffer which has crippled life for Palestinians in the city center. The settlers sit in their apartments on upper floors in the Old City and drop garbage and urine on top of people below, including kids. There are tarps up because they hurl so much rubbish onto passers-by.
I feel a coldness creep into my bones in the market in Hebron. Its once bustling streets are like a ghost town and the sellers of wares have the look of people who are witnessing madness unfold before them — like a bad dream in slow motion. It is very different in this way than the market in Nablus. People in parts of Hebron are cut off from their own homes, with areas designated street-by-street according to whether Israelis or Palestinians are permitted to walk there. Some of the Arab residents have to go up to their neighbors’ roofs and then crawl into their own window to get home, because their front door has been deemed off-access. I have never heard of this elsewhere. Fences are erected in the middle of town in the most incongruous of places. There is no attempt to even integrate the symbols of occupation.
Hebron is a circus, except a dangerous one. Extrajudicial killing of Hebron residents by Israeli security forces happen on a regular basis, elementary school children are arrested while their parents howl in protest, people with disabilities are dumped into the streets right out of their wheelchairs, children are forced to see their parents humiliated at internal city checkpoints, settlers are undeterred by the Israeli army from roaming the streets armed and furious.
We meet some of the kids. They belong to a girls club inside a pink powder-walled stone house in the old city. The grown-ups who run the club say it is one of the few places of real refuge for the girls, who are dealing with the knock-on effects of occupation.
Birlam, our guide and a Hebron native tells us: “Being a girl in the Old City is not an easy thing. We used to have much more freedom but parents got scared about the soldiers’ harassment so they started to keep their children at home. This is one of the few safe places for girls outside of their own homes.”
Arwa, one of the program heads says: “There is an extra responsibility for this group to be a trusted place for the girls. It is a big deal for parents to leave their children in this climate.”
And another ads: “More threatening than the soldiers are the settlers. It is not safe with them here. They want to take our land and won’t stop until they do so.”
What must systematic humiliation and violence produce at home? Fear, anxiety, sometimes more violence. The place is a pressure cooker. But look at these girls. Bright stars. They make our day.
After Susya and Hebron, the final leg of our journey is by comparison relaxed.
Bethlehem. Birthplace of Jesus. No more than three percent of Palestinians are Christian today, but in Bethlehem it’s 40 percent, down from 60 percent in 1990. The Church of the Holy Nativity is in the town center and it’s easy to sketch in your mind’s eye the manger and the nativity scene. And your childhood buddy dressed as Mary in some elementary school version of the story. There is a peace to Bethlehem. The historic center is small and the buildings are made of white Mediterranean stone. It is a very feminine city, gentle and gracious.
Until you turn the corner and see THE WALL again.
The prison wall, covered in graffiti, completely incongruous with this jewel of a town.
These are the lovely people we meet in the streets of Bethlehem. The first are Rana and Osama, who run Peace by Piece Tours — be sure to use them if you visit Bethlehem, they are top shelf and will take impeccable care of you. Regardless of your religious background, Christmas is a very special time in this city.
See also the twin girls in the photos below, both students. One veiled and one not. This is Palestine.
When we leave a week after arriving, again through Ben Gurion airport, we are questioned by no fewer than eight people. I am struck in particular by how aggressive the young female Israeli officials are. They waver between sympathy when I tell them I have kids with medical needs I need to get back to at home — and taut suspicion when I provide details of our visit. I overhear one of them screaming at an East Asian woman nearby about why she has an Iranian stamp in her passport. It’s guilty until proven innocent. They want to know why we went to the West Bank in the first place. What’s to see there? Why take photos? What are we UP TO? Just visiting people is suspicious enough, but photographing them? I honestly think what saves us is that no one quite understands what the hell the self-portrait project is.
The interrogation lasts hours. We are separated from one another. Questioned again. We know a party just before us had been taken away and held in a detention center for doing no more than we had on this trip — producing an art project and engaging with the population. I really don’t want to spend time in an Israeli jail and I am thinking of my family waiting for me at home. I am tense. Our photos are backed up, on clouds, in vaults on drives, we leave some behind — there is no way we are going to risk them after all that we — and our team and subjects — have invested. Some of the photos don’t get out until a year later.
They finally let us through and we head to the relative calm of Istanbul, one of my favorite cities. But I miss it all the second we take off.
And so here we are today, with the photos finally all assembled. Hope you enjoy them as much as we did producing them. We think of the folks from the streets of Ramallah, the little dancing girls, the Nablus shopkeepers, the families awaiting demolition in East Jerusalem, those similarly huddled in Susya, the after-school club in Hebron, the faithful of Bethlehem, the Jerusalem ballet troupe and Hebrew U students and most of all the Canaan Fair Trade farmers keeping Palestine alive in spirit and deed by producing their historic crops year after year.
Oh, and if you are touched by any of these stories and want to give back, in addition to buying Canaan’s amazing products, you can also make an important material contribution by helping our youngest field producer get to the University of Manchester in the UK. Elham has been accepted to the 2016/17 program and needs to gather the funds to go. This bright, intelligent, curious young woman will have to turn down her place at uni if she cannot gather the funds to live and study there — and soon. If you can pitch in, thanks so much!
It is fitting to end our account with the Beiruti singer Fairouz’s words: “Take me home, plant me as a tree.”