Of the three sites I visited during Walking Walls, I’m still debating which one is the odd man out, and whether or not it even makes sense to think about the conflicts through the lenses that would group them in such a way. You could make endless arguments that distinguish one site from the other two: Israel/Palestine as the odd one due to not being part of Europe…the physical borders have yet to be fully constructed….most recently a violent hotspot. Cyprus because the UN is still involved…because the border is built to stop an army instead of individuals. Northern Ireland because the borders are entrenched in neighborhoods…because the walls were requested by the residents.
But even as I was writing that list, I was struck by the number of things that I had to omit after encountering dissenting opinions on this trip. For example, although I cannot articulate the details of the argument, I now know better than to classify the Troubles as only an intra-state conflict. I have come to appreciate that the generalizations I made above are much more complex than I have characterized them to be; I think you could find exceptions to any of them.
I can’t reflect on this project without being comparative because I intentionally went to three different sites to gain a more complete understanding of what it means to live in a physically divided society. The idea was to unite the partition in different places through the common, human threads in my experience. But you cannot separate the personal stories from the conflicts. A Palestinian refugee is not a Greek Cypriot refugee is not a Belfast resident who moved to a different neighborhood to escape car bombs and gunfire. Glossing over this would be a disservice to the individuals, the complexity of the conflict, and the difficulty of any solution.
But at the same time, it’s not very useful or interesting to completely separate my reflections on each site, because it misses an opportunity to deepen my understanding of why and how people build walls, and discourages any transfer of good ideas for solutions from one place to the next. There will be some good insights on the X axis from thinking about the intersections of these three sites, both in commonalities and differences, the negative and the positive.
I’m not sure what the Y axis is at this moment. Maybe it’s the stories of exceptional circumstances, the extremes on the scatter plot, the odd man out. That’s worth thinking about too.
I don’t fully understand the connections between the Republican movement and the other countries represented here by their flags: Poland, Palestine, the Philippines, and China. The relationship between the IRA and PLO is fairly well-known and this connection was most frequently represented in Irish neighborhoods of Belfast (though interestingly, not reflected in Palestine that I noticed). The presence of these other flags, however, remains a mystery to me as I haven’t done enough reading to understand these connections. (Can anyone fill me in?)
It is interesting to note that I didn’t observe the same international connections and relationships being highlighted in Cyprus or Israel/Palestine-the dialogue of these conflicts felt insular, more like an echo chamber than an international community.
February 20, 2012 marked the end of the first leg of Walking Walls, my last day in Israel/Palestine. I spent a lot of time uploading my photos to the cloud, backing up to my external hard drive, and wiping my memory cards to prepare for the legendary search operations at Ben Gurion. Apart from those efforts, I spent a lot of my day in the West Bank, starting the morning with a vigil at Qalandia checkpoint with Maschom Watch and later heading back to Walajeh, this time on foot, in search of a woman I’d been put in touch with by a mutual contact. She had told me to meet her under the giant olive tree in the village. Given my track record at this sort of quest, it’s needless to say that I did not find her or the group she was with. (We met in London a few months later.)
It was a busy day, and none of its hours added up to the milestone I thought it would. Transitions are hard, and they were especially challenging for this low-budget, plan-as-you-go adventure. Finding the time and energy to begin my mental transition to Cyprus didn’t fit in with my action-packed final days in the Holy Land.
That evening, I ordered a Sherut to the airport. I wrote letters to Jesse and Mori. I cleaned out my living space and moved my bags to the living room. And that was that.
I was glad to be going, no doubt, but I hardly knew where I was headed.
A year ago at this time, I again enlisted the help of a Palestinian taxi driver during a foray in the West Bank. This time, I had a more clear destination (Walajeh), but not a very clear purpose or vision for my visit. The taxi driver had no problem stopping whenever I asked him to so that I could clamber out and take photos, but I found it hard to direct him. I was very used to wandering on my own, thinking, exploring any area of my choosing with my feet and camera.
It’s a nice way to work. But I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile this with the fact that you can sometimes accomplish more with a teammate, be it a taxi driver or a tour guide. In short, I was discovering that my workflow, and in some ways, the very nature of the project was incompatible with another person in the picture.
Admittedly, my perception that documentary photography is more of an individual pursuit than film-making was one of the reasons I was drawn to the field, after spending the latter portion of my teenage years agonizing over the fact that my friends never seemed to share my grand visions for movies we made for schoolwork or our own amusement. For the first year or two of focusing on still photography, I did feel more free, and it was great.
But I think that as my photography projects get more ambitious and demand greater insight and detailed planning, and as I find myself, ironically, working full-time at a company that produces documentary films (and other media), it’s definitely time to give this teamwork thing another go in my personal projects.
Last year on this day, I went on a wild goose chase around the Palestinian Territories just north of Jerusalem. The result was a meeting with the man pictured above, whose struggle with his property status, the wall, the Israeli army, etc. was so similar to that of another man I’d been trying to find, that I’m still not sure whether or not I missed my true target. This is remarkable and telling in and of itself, but what I didn’t discuss last year was how I got here in the first place.
Word of mouth is always a tricky thing to chase. I must have been feeling extremely adventurous because I headed to Ramallah with a vague description of a man who’s house was entirely surrounded by the wall and lived in Biddu, or some village close by. The promise that “everyone knows who he is” obviously emboldened me.
Ramallah was loud and busy as I began the delicate process of finding a cab-it’s tricky because you have to first speak with the cab boss, who is always shrewd and never the actual cab driver you will be assigned to. So when I asked for a driver who spoke English, I was not entirely surprised when I discovered, a few minutes after driving out of town, that I had been lied to.
The cab driver was decent and earnest, but we simply could not understand each other. He drove in the direction of Biddu and for the next hour and a half, we picked up an assortment of people that the driver knew in small villages along the way, most of whom spoke a little English. Between myself, the driver, and various guests, we took some guesses at locations to investigate. Was it a Christian monastery on a green hillside? Nope. Down this road? No, try the other side of the bridge.
Eventually, we found someone who seemed to understand my quest and directed us to a small house surrounded by red dirt. Its front door was overlooking a shallow green bowl of land filled with olive trees and cordoned off by a section of the wall. The house wasn’t exactly surrounded quite like I understood from my source, but I was willing to settle.
No one was there, so we drove into town where the homeowner was at work in his shop. I suddenly found myself sharing lunch with 5 or 6 other Palestinian men: pita, tomatoes, yogurt, and some kind of meat. They were generous and I was surprisingly hungry. Eventually, I spoke to this man; he spoke excellent English, luckily.
It literally took a village to lead me there and the path was strange, but not unpleasant, though I’m still not sure where it took me. And I can’t believe I ever thought I’d find where I was trying to go.
February 6, 2012 marked the first day my girlfriend spent with me in the holy land as she had some time off from work in Vienna. We ventured to the Dead Sea and explored a desolate beach where we could see hazy visions of Jordan on the opposite bank.
The desert was wild. It was especially strange to see the contrast between ragtag Bedouin villages and the well maintained roads and smart-looking signs that marked elevation along our descent to the lowest place on the planet.
Every so often, Israeli fighter jets broke the thick silence by racing along the length of the Sea, exploding out of the south. This was the only indication that we were essentially sitting on a tense international border. In the eeriness and isolation, I was glad not to be alone.
On this day in 2012, I went down to Silwan again. While I was there, young men and women with guns carried a number of heavy bags into the City of David “National Park.” This event is far more strange in my memory than I found it at the time. In Israel/Palestine, there is nothing very unusual about young men and women with gun carrying heavy bags, or doing any number of things, although there should be.
This protest/Friday prayer was super cool and fairly well-attended, but I think it could have been twice as big; this girl in the foreground was one of the only females present. Considering the dynamic role Palestinian women have played in other protest movements, this seems like a missed opportunity.
It’s not easy to imagine how physically intimidating and oppressive the wall is until you get right next to it and feel its weight. A year ago today, I wrote about how I touched the wall for the first time. I (almost) would have liked to say that I felt some unmistakable negative energy flowing into my hand through the contact; it would have been a dramatic story. But it would have been a ridiculous lie. Instead, I felt cool, rough concrete. Nothing more. Nothing less.
However, the weight of the wall, the feeling you get from walking or standing next to it, is derived from much more than it’s physical presence as a concrete monolith. Its power is almost entirely based on the ideas, fears, and laws that guided its construction and are continuously reinforcing its structure. Concrete crumbles without symbolism and idolatry as supports.
But here we are. Cool, rough, concrete.