Excerpts from my journal during a three month summer journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles—written while in Palestine & Israel, posted while in the United States touring the south with new photographs and stories (itinerary)
As a Jewish man dons his robe, tassels, and headpiece, brings out his prayer book, and prays in an inconspicuous location for about ten minutes, I start my last journal entry from Israel-Palestine.
Main event [on September 12, 2009] was meeting the family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah. I’d read about this family for months, and wished to meet and perhaps interview and photograph them. Finally, yesterday, when I was considering what to concentrate on for my last hours in Jerusalem, I realized, why of course, walk over to East Jerusalem and look for them.
They now sleep, eat, visit, discuss with interested parties like me, and generally exist under a tent opposite their home. Why outside and not inside? Israelis evicted them, thru a legal maneuver that has been some 35 years in process. The main theme is Judization of East Jerusalem, moving out “Arabs,” moving in Jews. This has started with some housing and most dramatically with the plethora of huge hotels catering to tourists and all owned by Jews. As Mr. Gawi explained to me, the municipality is attempting to surround East Jerusalem with Jewish settlements and call them neighborhoods.
Israel justifies this particular eviction thru a claim that Jews have owned this land for at least 150 years. Gawi claims that a Muslim holy man is buried near by and that Jews renamed and described him as a Jewish holy man. The neighborhood, Sheik Jarrah, gets its name from this venerated person. He claims further that Jews were granted the right to rent the land around the shrine some 130 years ago for a short period, something like 7 years. After the war of 1948 the UN acquired possession of this land and built a refugee camp here, with the same name, Sheik Jarrah. (It is located a short distance north of the American Hotel.) His father arrived in this area as a refugee, and eventually entered an agreement with the UN that in exchange for giving up his refugee rights he could either own or rent (I’m not sure which) the land and build a house.
The house is beside an olive grove, and is home to about 7 families. 3 young male settlers live in the house now, occupying it. I dropped in on them, offering a friendly shalom with a question, how is life in this house for you? I’d hoped to open a dialog. Didn’t happen. They claimed to not speak English and would not permit me to photograph them. Gawi told me one is a recent immigrant from Russia, that they can be violent and beat his brother who was then arrested by the Israeli police.
All he wants is housing, his house back if possible. He told me that the Palestinian Authority does nothing, they don’t care, I have a good lawyer, I’m not worried about the court case, I don’t have legal fees, I just need money to buy a house. He mentioned something like $200,000. Our food is take away and costs 300 shekels per meal to feed the family. When I offered him 100 shekels he refused it, reiterating their need for housing. Is anyone raising money for you? Someone said they would but we’ve seen nothing yet.
He appeared calm and tired. It is Ramadan, it is late afternoon, the day is hot. He reclined on a pile of mattresses while his wife sat demurely watching their 5 children who played on bikes, the youngest with a toy gun. A neighbor, living behind the tent, offering her toilet, visited. The man’s father sat alone. All were willing to be photographed, even seeming happily so. I’m sure they’re now used to this. I said, I’ll try not to let people misinterpret your son’s gun.
I’d called Sasha at the International Solidarity Movement earlier to learn if any political event was scheduled for the day. She thought there was, a march starting at the Damascus gate at 8:30 pm, not a good time for me since I’d be preparing for lift off the next morning early from the airport and hoping to bed myself early (I failed.)
ISM can’t do much, he said, can’t raise much money.
He also told me he has money for daily expenses but I was confused about his source of money when he explained that he has a shop and earns money thru it. He also said, I can’t work there with my kids loose like this. They don’t want to go to school, they can’t concentrate on their studies.
I need to do some fact checking on this case. I don’t doubt his version of the story, especially the larger picture of Judization. As I walked over to meet him the thought occurred to me again: this is ultimately a stupid and suicidal policy of Israel. They are playing into all the vicious stereotypes of Jews: sneaky, conniving, corrupt, manipulating. As if all these traits had coalesced into one big nation, the nation and its citizenry now embodying all the reasons people have hated and persecuted Jews for millennia. God forbid, but national implosion would not surprise me, a consequence of national moral deterioration.
Then there is the issue of what I didn’t do: didn’t visit the Harem al Sharif or Temple Mount because it was closed, even tho the guidebook claim s it is open on Saturdays during certain hours. Hours not posted as far as I could see, even at the main entrance. Didn’t walk the wet part of the Hezekiah tunnel system because there’d be nothing to photograph without special preparation. I couldn’t carry my gear and it would be dark, best if someone were to meet me at the Siloam pool after I’d entered at the Gihon spring. For another time perhaps. Didn’t go to bed early to get at least 6 hours sleep, talking with dorm mates and finishing web and download work.
But I did reach the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood, I did have a last supper take away at my favorite East Jerusalem restaurant, realizing I could order kibeh at 4:30 pm and eat it secluded from fasting Muslims— in the garden of the Austrian Hospice. I did say goodbye to some residents of the Hospice. I did talk with Neta about providing photos for her report of settlement activity. I did photograph more of the new light rail line as I walked to Sheik Jarrah. And more.
So now, sitting in the airport waiting for my flight, relatively speaking my troubles are over. I’ve passed thru airport security with 3 people asking the same set of questions 3 separate times, I am waiting for boarding, I assume the plane won’t crash and that Katy will be awaiting me, hopefully with Ella. Life is indeed good.
September 14, 2009, Monday, Cambridge MA
Home again, after 3 months in Israel-Palestine. To resume much of what I was trying to avoid: earning a living, maintaining the house, being bored. Yet, I enjoy how I earn a living, enjoy living in this house and city, enjoy the routine—up to a point. The same piles of bills, unopened mail, solicitations, and requests stare at me. The same tasks demand completion such as signing up for an internet service (no internet last night, I’m blinded and made mute), dusting the many surfaces continually covered with dust (especially my altar), visiting family, and so forth. All part of my quotidian existence. To pull free from this, while honoring it, to maintain my focus on Israel-Palestine, while not being dominated by it are among the central tasks of my life.
I must not forget to write about the new set of photos I’m making, a variant of hip pocket photography that I’ve long practiced, but this time with the fast DX 50 mm lens, the equivalent of an 85 mm lens. It frames close, it cuts off portions of faces and bodies, it accentuates certain features of clothing and the background, all new to me. It seems to be its own eye, with its own point of view, distinct from me but related. I am excited by what I’ve done so far and believe I might be onto a new style of photography, for me at least.
Whether to only minimally alter the photos—light and dark changes— or more massively alter—framing, focus, etc—I’m not sure. Whether to adhere to a strict discipline of this is how the lens saw it, or flex a little and inject myself more thru post production is a question.
K (without grand daughter E, which may have been wise, but I miss the little one) met me at the airport. A joy to see her, she is so exquisitely loving, as is Jo, as is Lynn, as are most of my family. She missed me, probably worried about me, and dutifully listened as I recounted a few tales to her, mostly about the Galilee and the Golan and the kibbutz movement as establishing facts on the ground, 3 of the most eye opening sections of the last 2 weeks of my trip. She also confided her nascent interest in meditation. I need something like that, dad, I am anxious. What do you suggest?
So I outlined some of my practice: 5-15 minutes daily, incorporating prayer and visualization, using the altar, a little each day goes a long way. I suggested she consult Y who is an expert in this, teaches it as well. I promised to find her a book and send her the article about effects of meditation.
And if I were to jump out of my flesh and look candidly at Skip Schiel, what would I find? A self satisfied fellow, aging gracefully, missing an active sex and love life, happy in his photographic pursuits, more and more the world traveler. Coming up with some interesting photos and writing (occasionally, but he could be more consistent), tho he should be more parsimonious in what he shares with others. He drives some crazy with his voluminous output.
And leaving Israel, how was that, did any of my worries about leaving manifest in actuality?
Worried I’d sleep thru the 3 AM alarm, I slept for 3 hours, 10 – 1, then awoke and lay abed worried about going back to sleep. So 1 hour later, pondering my worries, 2 AM, I rose, dressed, packed, and left the Austrian Hospice to enter the dark of the Old City. It was surprisingly active. A group of young people entering the Hospice who looked like they’d been aroamin all night, men setting up their shops, cleaning crews, taxi drivers—no dearth of people even at 3 AM on Sunday morning.
Having staged my baggage at the Jerusalem Hotel in East Jerusalem, I simply walked there, now worried about getting in. Sure enough, no one answered the bell for about 15 minutes. Resigned to waiting outside, not sure what to do if the taxi pulled up with my main luggage still inside the hotel, not sure what I’d do if I had to excrete my pent up food wastes, someone finally appeared at the gate, looking puzzled.
Ben Gurion airport, Tel Aviv, Israel
Who are you, why are you here? he said, with a note of perturbation in his voice. Didn’t the woman at the desk during the day leave you a note? I said. No note. Can I come in for my luggage? Yes. Can I wait inside for the taxi? No.
Retrieving my luggage, the man intent on some paper behind the desk, I asked if I could leave something for Pauline on the hotel staff from a friend. I conspicuously mentioned, and it’s from the Quakers. People seem to know that term, rather than the AFSC or its longer version, American Friends Service Committee. Oh, Quakers, yes, I know them, you connected with them?
And he warmed, finally allowed me to wait by the restaurant indoors so I could more conveniently repack.
Taxi arrived, gradually filled with mostly Jews (I could tell—they spoke Hebrew or resided in West Jerusalem or wore orthodox clothing), maybe all Jews, I the only gentile, and then the 1 hour fast drive to the airport thru the night. Now only one more hurtle: security.
3 different men asked me the same set of questions, apparently curious or piqued by my presence in Gaza. What did you do in Gaza, why were you in Israel, where did you go, where did you stay, etc. I thought this might lead to more serious questioning but it didn’t. Finding some suspicious objects in my luggage during x-ray they insisted —politely, always politely and professionally, I’m impressed—I opened my luggage.
Are you carrying a scissors in your carry on? Oh yes, I forgot about that. And I moved it to checked luggage. And this lens, let’s have a look. She removed the telephoto lens and brought it somewhere for further scrutiny. Earlier I’d been asked I were carrying weapons. Who’d packed my luggage? Had I left it anywhere out of my sight? (I said nothing about the many days of storage of my ailing black hard plastic rolly luggage in the Palm, “a hot bed of terrorism,” and the Jerusalem Hotel, also suspicious since it’s in East Jerusalem.) And twice I heard them say to others and me, someone might have planted a bomb in your luggage. Which I suppose could be true.
That successfully completed, I had little to do in the 2.5 hours remaining but find a comfy chair, recline, sleep, nibble on my breakfast food, watch fellow travelers, and wait. Worries are over. I do not worry about plane crashes. Not much I can do about those (other than pray and chant).
The Tel Aviv airport is a model of efficiency and civility, oddly enough. Internet is free (a rarity these days in airports), water is a design theme (I ruined the photos because I’d forgotten to change from manual to auto focus), security personnel are all serious but not too, friendly to a point, suspicious but not overly so. (Had I been or appeared Muslim, or even had I been younger, my experience might have been radically different.) The eased security might reflect conditions there generally: the occupation is working and largely invisible.
Now about all I had to endure was the 5 hour flight to Paris, the 1 hour layover in Paris, the 7 hour flight across the Atlantic, having managed my 5 hour transit from fitful truncated sleep in the Hospice to boarding the plane. Total time: door to door was 19 hours.
On Air France the food was excellent, service magnificent, fellow passengers distant, flight relatively smooth, a few decent photos, mostly over the Pyrenees with some snow and then south of Paris, the rural area (wondering if I’d flown over ME’s home), and then capping all the photos, my own neighborhood, Boston harbor, Gloucester in the distance. Once again, as happens on each return, I am grateful for where I live, appreciate its natural beauty, its history, its karma. Grateful that I live here and nowhere else, that I am finally home.
Gloucester and Eastern Point, Massachusetts
September 15, 2009, Tuesday, Cambridge MA, back computer room
Dreaming has returned. Is this primarily because I’m reengaging the quotidian?
Here’s a sample of last night’s plentitudinous dreams:
With a group of about 10 young men we were dancing nude in front of an audience which included numerous women. I felt slightly embarrassed by my paunch but did my best to illustrate how an aging body can move gracefully. We were all oily, whether coated with oil or sweat isn’t now clear to me. I concocted a move of sliding along the wall.
I attended a large Jewish ceremony, arriving late, not sure what it was about. As I sat on one side, bowing with the Buddhist posture, not sure this was appropriate, a woman began leading the group in singing, one side at a time. I noted to someone I was standing with the side first to sing a section of the song, and we seemed weak compared with later subsections of the audience.
With a friend we were on our way to hear a lecture by Norbert Wiener [the inventer of cybernetics.] My friend told me that he’d died 2 years previously. The fact of his death did not seem to contradict his giving a lecture. To reach the hall we had to slide or leap down a steep muddy hill. Many college men were doing this as if it was easy and normal. I demurred, afraid I’d hurt myself and get my clothes muddy. Man after man plunged, I thought heedlessly, into this abyss. Not me. My partner did, I tried to find another way around to reach the hall, failing.
As I stood at the peak of the hill, puzzling what to do, a young man showed us how he prepared a fish for eating. He used a device that squeezed and cooked the fish simultaneously, he then ate the fish. I asked him, what kind of fish is that? Rather than, how does that device work?
Less than 24 hours after I’d returned home I decided to show last night [September 1, 2009] at the photography collective, White Light, parts of my new hip pocket portrait series using the 50/85 mm. It cuts off the scenes at surprising points, highlighting aspects of face, garment, background and lighting, in ways I’d never think of doing. It is wild mind photography, not using the viewfinder, while imagining what the lens might see. A combination of play and discipline.
This seemed to go over very well last night at White Light. To avoid the pitfalls of printing—and the inherent problems of showing prints on the small magnetic board with the single bright light that we use—I chose to project the images thru Light Room. And, thanks to the good system Freddie provides, they looked splendid—bright, sharp (when actually sharp, since I include some blurry ones as well), lively, colorful, distinctive.
I begin the series with more usual photos of the Old City skyline and the Garden Tomb and one suggestion of Golgotha, and conclude with the series of the family in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood, evicted from their home by a dubious court decision and backed up by settler violence. About showing the toy gun there were multiple opinions, from don’t, it will be misleading and hard to explain, to don’t worry about it, people will understand it is a toy. Eric suggested painting the barrel tip red because, in the States at least, this is a sign of a toy.
A bonus of attending White Light was visiting with M, the short, intense, compassionate physician who works in an emergency room. I’ve always liked him, felt a special affinity between us. At the conclusion of the evening we sat together, he praising my photos, me inquiring about his photography (none recently), medical work and views about the medical industry. He was angry with another photographer at our session who’d “pushed buttons” by claiming those suffering in ER have brought it on themselves. M’s view is that we’re all in this together, that society plays a major role in determining who suffers and how. He also expressed upset at the industry, dominated by the entrepreneurial instinct. He told me, this all changed in the last 20 years while I was in medical school. I’d anticipated general practice, like the country doctor in Smith’s photo series, but when I graduated this was not economically feasible. Now medicine is specialty and production line.
I suggested that he and I both might suffer the consequences of witnessing the suffering of others, secondary trauma. He nodded agreement. How do you meet this? I inquired. I don’t really, except by attending groups like this. I spared him my outline of what I do, including the yoga and meditation I did this morning. And not confiding to him what may be my excessive concern with love.
My home is a mess, hopefully a creative mess. Little by little—and especially because Jan H is due here tomorrow for dinner and I wish to make a profound impression—I’m cleaning up and out. This morning I wash dishes.
The days have been warm in the sun, cool in the evening and morning. Pristine and classic autumnal New England, my favorite time of year. To celebrate I bought a bag of Macintosh apples, my first of the season, fried pancakes this morning using the last of my natural maple syrup, cooked beans and rice yesterday too late to eat so that will be tonight’s special treat.
I’ve finally visited the Garden Tomb—on one of my last days in Jerusalem. This was a significant find. I’d known about it for years, as an alternative burial site for Jesus, as postulated by some Protestant groups (Church of the Holy Sepulcher is dominated by Latin and Eastern Christianity). Contrasting sharply with the burliness of the big church, this is in a garden setting with fewer people, some guides, a tranquility and peacefulness pervading the atmosphere. Feels more tomb and Christ like.
A Brit, a believer, was guiding a group that I attached myself to, and when the tour ended, telling him how excellent I thought his presentation was, I asked some specific questions that he answered by bringing me to different sites. Including the supposed Golgotha hill, place of the skull. Indeed, the two small caves look like eyes, the mouth is now buried by city debris. The site is at the back of the bus station, littered with mounds of human poop. I peed here once when I couldn’t find a toilet. I include photos from this site in the opening of my new slide show about the Old City.
Along the Maine Coast