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.
One year ago today, I went to Bethlehem for the first time and saw the wall up close. I wish that I had more time to explore it at my own pace, in addition to being whisked around by my enthusiastic taxi driver. Yousef was wonderful, but it would have been fascinating to get a closer look at the graffiti on the wall there. From what I did see, a lot of it was in English, Arabic a close second. Some of it was peaceful, some of it was angry. It felt immediate, important, and unsettling.
I’ve been working on the Walking Walls book for a little more than a month now, on the weekends, and I think it’s far enough along to release a little more information. The whole thing will likely come in around 100 pages. There are five chapters:
Introduction – to the project and conflicts
Key Concepts – walls as a site of security vs. conflict, walls in geographic space or not, and walls as symptoms of a greater ill
My Experience – outlined by revealing moments in Abu Dis, Palestine, middle of nowhere, North Cyprus, and Shankill/Falls, Belfast
Others’ Experience – short description and a quote from various individuals, opposite their portrait
No, I don’t have an anticipated release date, I don’t know how it will be published (ideas and solicitations welcome!), and I likely don’t know much more than I’ve outlined here. Nonetheless, I’ve found it to be a very enjoyable process so far, and feel good about what I’ve done. In that spirit, I’d like to share two mockup pages and would really appreciate any feedback on design, writing, layout, anything. The first page is from the introduction:
The second is an excerpt from “My Experience,” probably the section that feels most vulnerable and scary:
Again, any comments or ideas are very welcome.
Today I traveled to the village of Biddu to meet this man. His house, on the outskirts of the village, has been a flash point for clashes in his backyard and the courtroom for the last 9 years. In 2004, Israeli soldiers destroyed his grove of 123 olive trees and piled up rubbish around his house; they were claiming land for the construction of the wall. There was a scuffle. His father threw rocks, a brother was tackled and arrested. But in the end, the soldiers took the land and the family was devastated. But they fought back. For 9 years, they went to court every month, being gouged by an Israeli lawyer for his services, but without a foreseeable alternative, they trudged ahead. And miraculously, they won their case. The land was returned, they planted new olive trees a month ago. The trees are young and tender in freshly tilled dirt, and there’s no telling whether the bulldozers will return to uproot them. But for now, they are safe again.
This morning I went walking in the northeast part of Jerusalem, from the Jewish (settler) neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev to the Palestinian neighborhood Sho’afat. My route skirted along the Sho’afat refugee camp, which made for some striking, but sad views.
Although Sho’afat Refugee camp is within the Jerusalem municipal boundary, the wall isolates it from the city. Most services are provided by UNRWA, not Israel, and the municipal infrastructure is astonishingly bad. There’s garbage everywhere because no one comes to pick it up. The houses are in bad shape, and 20,000 people are crammed into a neighborhood intended for 1,500. Thanks to the wall, it’s become sort of a lawless land that isn’t taken care of by Israeli or Palestinian police, with the exception of Border Police raids, checkpoints, and tax collection. It was shocking to see the state of the camp, while just 200 yards away, Jewish settlers live in comfortable, new apartments. Furthermore, while the vast majority of the Separation Barrier is fenced, there is a wall in urban areas to protect Israelis from gunfire, which was a legitimate problem in areas of Jerusalem during the Second Intifada. But here, there’s no way the wall would be effective at doing this. It seems to me that the wall is much more important visually and psychologically than it is in terms of security.
This morning I went on a great tour of East Jerusalem with the Israeli NGO Ir Amim. I wanted to share a few quick edits yet today. We’re getting ready for Shabbat here, and although I’m not Jewish, the friends I’m staying with are, and I’m excited to do Shabbat with them. So no posting this evening or tomorrow.
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.
I walked today, expecting to hit a wall.
Starting from the center of Jerusalem, I traveled south by foot and bus, towards the barrier. My borrowed map was nearly falling apart, but with a little help from my trusty compass, it was good enough to get me to the zoo, my first destination. Here, the ground fell away into a steep valley where train tracks ran amid construction. A road lay parallel to the tracks, and then the ground rose again sharply, mimicking the undulating landscape around the city. Somewhere between the tracks and the hill was the Green Line, but there was nothing to suggest it, save this sign.
I continued with the main road toward the east, hoping to find a checkpoint nearby. Before too long, an empty Egged bus pulled over and opened its doors. The driver shouted at me in Hebrew, I tried to wave him away and explain I couldn’t understand him, but he wasn’t having it and motioned for me to come closer and talk with him in simple English. He ended up giving me a free ride to the next intersection, which was pretty cool. He also didn’t seem to believe me when I told him I was just ‘out for a walk.’
After a delay at the Mall, for public bathrooms, free wifi, and pudding, I continued East, now eager to reach Beit Safafa, a neighborhood that was awkwardly bisected by the Green Line, leading to residents receiving different forms of Jerusalem ID and hence very different privileges. On my way, I passed these Palestinian boys perched on the side of a hill:
I ended up not actually venturing into Beit Safafa today in favor of continuing south toward Bethlehem in hopes of reaching the wall, or at least getting a glimpse of it. For the next half hour, I climbed a huge hill toward Gilo, a neighborhood on the very southern outskirts of Jerusalem. I crossed the Green Line and didn’t notice it until I got back and looked at a map.
I had a spectacular view of Jerusalem during my climb, looking back on the city as the sun got low, and panting slightly from the climb. I kept my eyes peeled for a checkpoint on the crest of the hill, and I thought I had a likely candidate picked out, but when I got to the top, I was disappointed to see it was just a lonely petrol station. I scrambled up a steep rise and through a quiet neighborhood. I found an alleyway with steps that faced south and drew in a sharp breath when I turned the corner.
My first glimpse of the wall. It was actually shocking to see in person, even after reading about it, looking at pictures, thinking about it, for months. Two girls sat casually in a park behind me. Everything seemed so normal. But here it was. Massive, unyielding. This is no memorial or history like what is left in Germany. This is now and real.
I didn’t make it any closer today because the sun was getting low and I wasn’t entirely sure how I was getting back. So I turned my back on the wall, for now, and descended the hill. I caught bus 32 which careened through rush-hour traffic into the city center. At King George Street, there was a huge traffic jam created by a crowd of people in the street, completely blocking traffic. They had anti-racist signs and were jumping energetically, positioned squarely in front of a bus. The bus driver finally navigated a corner and started shouting in Hebrew and opened the doors. About half the people on the bus disembarked. Confused, I decided to stay on the bus and stick it out. I shortly realized that he was likely informing us of an impromptu route change, because we didn’t end up where I expected we would. Nevertheless, I navigated back to Nachlaot without incident and collapsed on the couch, stiff and sore from nearly 9 miles of walking. We had an awesome pasta dinner, and some nice company. Tomorrow, I’m heading to Bethlehem to continue the walk up-close and in-person.