Last year on this day, 25 people were given a choice on the side of a highway in the West Bank: get back on the bus or be arrested. One of those choices was mine to make and with little hesitation, I climbed onto the bus and watched as many of my companions were taken into custody.
A half an hour before that, I had been talking to a Palestinian girl on our way to the weekly protest in Bil’in. She told me how her parents did not like her going to the protests for fear she would be arrested or injured. When our bus was pulled over at the flying checkpoint, I described what was happening outside and when they collected our IDs, she passed me her papers and I handed them over along with my American passport. I guided her into the aisle when they ordered us off the bus. I did all of these things because she was blind.
When we were given the ultimatum at the guardrail, she stayed, I left. I felt a bit like I had abandoned her, but I stand by my choice today. There was a great distance between us in that moment. It is even greater now.
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.
How do maps address divided space and occupied territories?
This map was produced by B’Tselem and shows where the separation barrier has been built, has been approved to be built, and where the green line is. Yes, these are three different places. Naturally, the most complicated part of the map is the area around Jerusalem, where lines snake and weave. It’s just as messy on the ground.
I got this map from a lady in a booth right after the passing through the Lidra Street checkpoint to enter North Cyprus. This cartographer solved an awkward problem by simply omitting all detail in the Republic of Cyprus. Here there be dragons.
This is an official tourist map courtesy of the Republic of Cyprus and a Carleton alum who marked it up for me with helpful notes. The area to the north of the Buffer Zone contains some sketches of streets (I wonder if they’re accurate?) but otherwise notes resignedly, “Area under Turkish occupation since 1974.” I wonder if this phenomenon can be partly attributed to the two sides competing for tourist attention? (Maybe they won’t visit if they don’t know what’s over there..) Every map has an argument.
Unsurprisingly, my maps of Belfast never marked the Peace Walls. The Walls do not denote any sort of change in rules for the powers that be, only for the people that live there, so the Walls are not added to maps. Furthermore, it would be an unsightly blemish to wares in the Belfast Tourist Center, where I acquired this booklet. So, it was up to me to look up the locations I needed to visit, and mark them on my guidebook, sometimes with an R or L for Republican or Loyalist, so I could remember which side was which when I visited. My entire collection of maps is marked up with these lines and notes.
I wonder how someone living in these neighborhoods would map their city or world? Sounds like another project…
Our bus of Israeli and international activists was stopped en route to a demonstration in the village of Bil’in this morning at a temporary checkpoint in the West Bank. Because of police action, we were denied the right to demonstrate at the seventh anniversary of the world-famous protests against the wall in Bil’in. A police officer boarded the bus at 11:25am and collected everyone’s identification for a “routine check.” For myself and other internationals, this meant reluctantly handing over our passports. We sweated it out for about ten minutes on the bus, before being asked to disembark. An experienced international activist called the other foreigners together and discussed with us the merits of attempting to walk through the checkpoint sans passport. It could, he argued, confuse the police and force their hand, which would probably result in us getting our passports back, and possibly result in our arrest. Luckily, we didn’t have to choose because after another five minutes or so, our IDs were passed back unscathed.
However, this did not mean that our path forward had been blessed by the police. On the contrary, we had been deemed a potential security threat and were ordered to return to Jerusalem. A loud discussion in Hebrew ensued, while more officers arrived on the scene and began filming us, recording our faces for posterity. I’m not sure what, if anything, will become of this footage. There wasn’t much to see. We were just standing there. They already knew exactly who we were from our passports. I’m sure they had already updated our information in whatever huge database the Israeli police are maintaining on its population and those who enter their country. Even so, I put on sunglasses and ducked a bit.
Then, the police gave us an ultimatum: get back on the bus in five minutes, or be arrested. All of this in Hebrew. The internationals were getting spotty translations from anyone with a spare ear and the presence of mind to think bi-lingually. Then our party began to splinter apart. A few attempted to walk forward, sat down, and were arrested. I got back on the bus with a handful of others. Another man sat down and refused to move. Four officers carried him to a police car. All in all, eight activists were arrested, Israelis and internationals alike. They squeezed seven people into the police cars (over capacity, I believe), and one man, an Israeli-Palestinian, was left behind to wait for another vehicle to take him away. I don’t know what happened to him.
About ten of us remained on the bus, but our adventure with the police was far from over. They had kept the drivers’ ID, and were holding it until we were back in Jerusalem and they were satisfied that our venture in the West Bank was spoiled. We had no choice but to follow a police car for perhaps 20 minutes until they finally let us go somewhere in North Jerusalem. During the ride, I learned that the police had known of our plans (unclear how) and set up the checkpoint specifically to intercept us. We had received a very unusual military order, only valid in the West Bank, featuring a map with a red box drawn around Bil’in. The police were preventing “suspicious” people from entering this area. Another bus (maybe from Tel Aviv) was also stopped.
We headed to the police station in Giv’at Ze’ev where the other members of our party were detained. We learned that the detention center only had room for half of the people they had detained, so some were inside, while others waited outside in the increasingly nasty weather. Clouds blew in and the temperature dropped. There were rumors of snow in Ramallah later on, and we were all expecting rain. We also learned that the majority of the activists had just been detained, not arrested, and they could only be held for three hours. However, it is subjective when the three hours starts, so we worried that the activists waiting outside might not start their three hours until the first group was released and they could be moved inside. With Shabbat approaching, this could make things unpleasant for getting home that evening.
Some of the activists were making phone calls to lawyers, another pair ran off to buy food for the detainees. We waited for maybe an hour and a half, and the suddenly most of our companions were released. The Israeli-Palestinian, who had actually been arrested “for refusing arrest” was not among them. By this time, food had arrived and it was 3pm. We tore into the bread and fruit outside the station as it began to rain.
It was extremely frustrating to be prevented from going to the protest in Bil’in, especially because this was my one and only chance to attend. However, the experience reminded me of a paper presented at a Border Conflicts conference I attended last Fall which argued that modern borders are being moved back into countries, manifested in airports, cities, and of course, checkpoints. They are no longer geographically tied to the borderline itself. This paper was based on the situation in Ukraine, but the theory was demonstrated clearly today in Israel/Palestine. What better case study than a country where borders operate on a de-facto basis and are still being formed and defined? The police who stopped us at the checkpoint today represent a wall that is every bit as real and physical as the concrete blocks that loom in the West Bank.
Walking walls is not simple. It means checkpoints, trepidation, foreignness, obstacles. It means running into subsidiary fences that sprout out of the barrier like offspring, like a child who has learned to carry a gun, built by a different hand but for the same purpose. It means walking twenty yards before going back down the hill to find a way around this particular snake on the militarized Medusa head. Sometimes it means walking on a ridge that is in sight of the wall but on the opposite side of the valley because there is no way across. Walking walls means using a 300mm lens to photograph watchtowers. Walking walls means Arab buses to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Walking walls means stepping in dog shit.
Walking walls means being invited for tea and coffee by strangers who turn out to be really nice. It means eating felafel that is consistently cheap, but wildly varied in taste. Walking walls means playing it cool at the checkpoint, and switching out memory cards beforehand. Walking walls means navigation by compass. It means meeting sheep and goats daily. It means wishing I spoke more languages hourly.
Walking walls means being in sight of where you want to go and having no way to get there. Experiencing frustration and angst, but ironically this is exactly what you hope to experience by going here. To understand, a little, tiny sliver, for one day, what its like to live with the wall. Walking walls means the wall will walk on you.
I’m in Tel Aviv this week and went on an excellent Machsom Watch tour yesterday of the northern West Bank. I’m (mostly) taking a break from Walking Walls today, but I wanted to post this picture: sheep crossing an Agricultural Checkpoint near Qalqilya. More later.
When I stepped off the bus in Bethlehem, I was immediately swarmed by taxi drivers looking for work. Slightly overwhelmed, I tried to wave off a few of them and walk down the street, but I ended up talking to one of them who offered to show me the wall, and I decided to take him up on it. For the next several hours, Yousef drove me around the city to see the sights, told me about the city’s recent history, and shared his perspective. It was invaluable, and I know I made the right call in hiring him.
Yousef smoked out the window of the cab as he told me about his seven sons, who are between the ages of 7 and 25. He’s sending them all to university, somehow, with his meager salary working two jobs, and some family help. In the mornings, he is an Arabic teacher at a local high school, which, apparently, is a persona he cannot shake in the afternoons. He tried his best to teach me a few words in Arabic, and quizzed me on what I’d recited at unexpected moments, like when I had just gotten back in the cab. In the end, only a few things stuck after I finally had the sense to break out my notepad and jot down phonetic notes and translations.
After seeing the city and stopping for prayer and postcards in Manger Square, we drove a ways out of town to a hill where I had a view of everything from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. From there, the landscape looked rugged, unforgiving, unimaginably ancient. We could pick out Jewish settlers’ communities by their red tile roofs. They seemed more numerous than the Palestinian housing. A small Israeli military base kept watch near the road, ensconced in barbed wire. Yousef told me that if he were president, he would institute a one-state solution (with a presidency that rotated between Israelis and Palestinians) which was something I hadn’t heard before. When I mentioned it to Jesse later, he told me it was actually a pretty common idea among Palestinians.
After our excursion to the hill, Yousef invited me back to his home for tea. This is a very common gesture of hospitality and I was thrilled to accept. He taught me a few Arabic greetings for his family members and I managed to remember them during the short drive to his village. At the house, I got to meet 4 of his sons, and his wife, who prepared a delicious, traditional Palestinian soup in addition to mint tea. They were so welcoming and generous and I felt very comfortable in their home. Their youngest son, Akram, took this picture of myself, Yousef, and his wife using my camera. He was a pretty good photographer after a few tries and a quick lens change to account for the dim living room.
We headed back to the Bethlehem bus stop and parted ways. I was a little nervous about the checkpoint but didn’t have any trouble at all, but several other passengers were checked outside the bus. It was astonishing to see the security installations around the road to Bethlehem. Consisting of a tunnel, walls around the highway, numerous watchtowers, and a 5-lane checkpoint, the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is essentially a military fortress. These installations and accompanying laws have prevented Yousef from visiting the City of David since 2001 despite its proximity. Unfortunately this is a very, very common situation for Palestinians living in the West Bank.