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.
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.
This was the cheapest pasta at the corner store near the apartment. It was a decent dinner too, but let’s be honest: I bought this pasta because it was Russian. In case you, dear readers, didn’t know, I’m a little bit obsessed with all things Russian in sort of an arm’s-length-distance sort of way.
Strangely, of all the places I’ve been, Israel was perhaps the most Russian. About 20% of the population are Russian speakers. This stuff is everywhere. It was fascinating, sort of a weird thrill, and a very, very different aspect of my experience in the Holy Land.
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.
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.
Today, January 27th, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last year at this time, Jesse, Mori, and I went to Yad Vashem in the morning for reflection. We didn’t have much time, but we made a pass through the Children’s Memorial, which was overwhelming and awe-inspiring. The memory I recall most strongly was the feeling of being lost in the darkness of the halls, unsure of the space around me where candles seemed to float at varied distances. It was a very good place to be quiet for a time.
Immediately after our visit, the three of us headed to Mt. Scopus, where local activists were staging a protest against a plan to confiscate Palestinian land for a proposed national park. The idea was to prepare the land to plant olive trees and a small group of Israelis and Palestinians spent an hour or two moving rocks and digging small holes. Most attendees were young, many were children.
Before writing this post, I spent some time thinking about if and how the two parts of this day were connected. I’m not in the business of mashing ideas and experiences into forced revelations so I will stop at a simple appreciation for the role of children in this world. Even as they are inevitably entangled in humanity’s conflicts, their innocence and honesty should be be a source of inspiration and hope for all of us.
The above photograph was featured on this blog last year, but I think it’s worth sharing again. As I was reflecting on January 24, 2012, I realized that hearing this man’s story had been a turning point for me. He had been shot in the leg by a Settler in his own neighborhood, and walked with a cane and a pronounced limp. His story was heartbreaking. Silwan’s story is heartbreaking.
After listening to him and seeing the streets of Silwan for myself, there was little doubt in my mind that the neighborhood was under siege. As I was leaving, I remember being inspired by panic and flat-out running to catch up to the group I had come with after lingering for a moment to take a picture-an uncharacteristic move, I’d like to think.
A few weeks later, the building we sat in while this man told us his story was torn down by the police. It was sickening and frightening to begin to see the human impact of the Occupation.
The language barrier I encountered in Israel/Palestine was probably the most disorienting obstacle I faced throughout Walking Walls. I traveled extensively before heading to the Holy Land and from Paris to Poland, I had always been able to read a few street signs, master some key phrases, sometimes I could even understand and respond to simple conversation in German or more advanced discussion in Spanish.
I didn’t stand a chance with Hebrew or Arabic. Reading was out of the question and I only learned a few basic words in either language during the five weeks I spent in and around Jerusalem. To be fair, I didn’t have the time or resources to make a more serious effort at either language, but my resulting confusion and dependance on the prevalence of English signs and English speakers was both remarkable and isolating.
And a note about the prevalence of English on those signs. In Israel/Palestine, most public signs and notices will include writing in Hebrew, Arabic and English. In my experience, the order of the languages tells you who controls the area and by extension, reveals your relationship to the neighborhood. English is usually last, but it seems to me that the real battle is between first two, Arabic and Hebrew. They switch predictably based on geography, but with an insistence that would make you think someone was keeping score.
The above photo was taken in the Shu’afat neighborhood of East Jerusalem.