On the way to Ramallah
New light rail system between West & East Jerusalem, built thru Palestinian regions without permission
Near Kalandia checkpoint between Ramallah & Jerusalem
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)
Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.
— Rainer Maria Rilke
September 10, 2009, Thursday, ISM office, outside on the patio:
No surprise that I’d eventually dream about blogging and journaling. I was giving a lecture to a group of about 20 young adults. The topic was writing generally, mine in particular, and more specifically how I journaled and blogged from the journal. I was laying out all the issues I face, such as not harming or embarrassing others or myself, how honest to be and when. I was animated, I was lucid, I was at the top of my form and my audience was attentive.
Lion’s Square, Ramallah
I am presently [September 10, 2009] residing in Ramallah at the International Solidarity Movement media office, sleeping on a couch in the mid room, alone at first. So I enjoyed the privacy of the space until: about 1:20 am. Someone rang the bell, someone banged on the door, Was this the Israeli army about to arrest all residents of the ISM media office? I called out, who is it? Snuffing my impulse to say, who the fuck do you think you are coming around here at this hour?
It’s Sasha, sorry, I didn’t realize I’d be coming back tonight. She’d called earlier to ask who was staying overnight, said nothing about returning. She came in, loudly, 2 others I think came with her. They banged around, turned on and off lights, luckily I’d chosen a sleep place away from where they were setting up in the computer room and the other sleeping room. Oddly enough, I was not tremendously disturbed by this racket, just ignored it and fell back to sleep…
From East Jerusalem to Ramallah via the usual no. 18 bus, meeting a very beautiful in many ways young woman who chose to sit next to me. Misa, pronounced mi-sa with a long I and soft a, as if mice-a, is from Jerusalem, studying English literature at Birzeit University. I’d noticed the book she was reading, Hamlet in English. Commented and that began our conversation. She excitedly told me about a research paper she’d written analyzing western media’s accounts of Israel-Palestine, shocked to learn of the discrepancy in attention to the several points of view, i.e., dominated by Israeli positions. She sent the paper to her many western friends who in turn circulated it. I was never too interested in politics until I wrote that paper, she confided to me, but now I’m very attentive.
I encouraged her to continue her studies, remain in Palestine, and stay tuned to the issues. Assuming my now customary role as mentor I validated her intelligence and commitment. I find this easier and easier to do now, knowing the words, knowing the timing. This is a role I gladly assume. So many have done it for me.
Leaving the bus she waited for me with all my gear, offering, can I bring you anywhere?
She’d also told me that until she entered the university she’d never been in Ramallah. When I first came here it was a different world to me, I had no idea of life in Ramallah even tho I’m Palestinian and grew up less than 15 miles away.
She also told me that during the Gaza assault in December and January she wanted to go there, knew this was impossible, then decided to give blood. But the attendants wouldn’t accept her after they tested her blood. You’re not healthy enough. And indeed, physically she is a slight person, so tiny and thin, a wisp.
… a brief hello to Diana [principal of the lower Ramallah Friends School] who, like Salim and a few others, asked about Gaza.
Ramallah Friends School, elementary school campus
I usually respond with despair is deep, fear also. The feeling that one cannot be truly happy, and the fear that either the Israelis will attack again or Hamas will fight other groups within Gaza. Plus the generally tough conditions due to the siege, especially the effect on Ramadan—little money to buy gifts and food that are usually part of the celebrating.
Once again, each time someone mentions Gaza I am brought sharply up against the vast contrast between Gaza and most of the rest of the world. Even here in Ramallah, known as the best of the worst, there is a form of normality. Shops open and seemingly thriving, people looking relatively happy and content in the streets, building construction, a semblance of order at the intersections and elsewhere (Escander the barber complained to me that the city is requiring a fee to exhibit jewelry outside his shop), and some increased mobility around the West Bank. However, Palestinians are still occupied. They are a people without a state. They have limited freedom. The threat now is that they will ignore that fundamental fact and continue simply existing under occupation, without resistance…
September 11, 2009, Friday, ISM office, outside on the patio:
Last day in the occupied territories, unless we count East Jerusalem as part of that sad region. Most all end game details completed, now the shift to Jerusalem and the Austrian Hospice for the final 2 days.
I dreamt that I was making a movie-still photo presentation. I had some family members posing for me (as usual in my dreams, people are often characters in my life but not resembling the real people, only their social form). I set up a camera and explained, this will begin as a still photo (or movie, I forget the sequence) and then become a movie (or a still photo set). I had to carefully frame the shot so movie and still would match. The camera was on a cheap rickety tripod, making focusing and framing hard. As I explained the transition between still and moving I realized to myself I had no idea where the rest of the sequence would go, what the point was, an all too often dilemma for me in my days of film. And even now: shooting in the dark.
AR wrote warm words to my blog about my last sequence of photos which I’ll include:
How do you DO it, Skip. Your photos are full of surprises. Like little gift packages with unexpected, unexpectable little presents,
– like the row of blue-garbed watchers in the Druze village, the wire fence there, the three silhouetted characters interacting. A moment in time.
And what a waterfall shot — slender blue ribbon, golden and gray cliffs.
The deserted Arab house, doorway opening into doorway into light beyond.
Great splashing river shot — the Banias rapids.
The mysterious cliff carvings and cave of Pan.
And that deserted room with the oval image of light on the graffiti covered wall with the round void above crisscrossed by wire mesh.
The distant windmills, the rusty tank, the warning signs by the dangerous mines.
Such gifts are these.
Always, always, words like these implying deep viewing and thinking hearten me greatly. They counterbalance the fact that not too many on my list of 100 or so actually look at the photos or read the blogs. A few like M will be honest about not reading or viewing. The big blow comes when someone writes to be removed from the list. I never know the reason—blogs too long or photos too many, too rambly, too much about my shits and dreams, too worrisome and troubling, badly written, poorly seen, too shallow…who knows? As with attrition in my teaching, I have to understand this is part of the process and doesn’t necessarily indicate I’m a failure.
Last night as I was settling in to some more computer work, finishing most of what I’d set out to do—another subsite, Galilee to the Golan, with accompanying blog—the office phone rang, Neta. She was inviting anyone here in the office to join her and kids at Baladna ice cream shop for treats. Gladly since we’d not met yet on this trip.
There I met Iyad Bornat, one of the key organizers of the Bil’in popular committee orchestrating non-violent demos for some 4 years against the wall’s incursion into their lands. I’ve been reading his weekly email reports and now to be with him and others, mostly Palestinians, was a delight and honor, way more than I’d expected when Neta invited me. He stressed the importance of media, of designing new themes each week to keep the media attentive. When I asked him why stopping the youth from throwing rocks was so difficult, he answered, we try, but when a boy is shot at by a soldier the boy is angry and responds in the only way he knows, with violence.
They are planning a major event at the end of Ramadan, a secret, he told us. We only say to the media, come on this day, something very important will happen. We are tired now during Ramadan, and so our energies are not fully active. (Which reminds me that when in Gaza hearing some residents speculate that Israel would attack during Ramadan, this gains credence when realizing the Gazan defenders would not be fully functioning during Ramadan, and thus, the region might be more susceptible to attack.)…
I wrote a letter to Wafa’a [who I’d met in Gaza at Popeye’s internet café, the only woman I ever saw there, and who invited me to visit her in her home in Khan Yunis, and later phoned me crestfallen that I’d not visited], attaching 3 photos. I’m still not sure what motivates her interest in me. I wrote:
i owe you a big apology. you were so kind to invite me to visit your home and i never came. i will try to explain. first i had no idea who you were and wanted to check with amal and ibrahem. they said you are great. then i was busy, and then the fighting broke out between hamas and that radical group. amal thought i should not travel very far alone. i tried to find someone from the office to go with me to your home, maybe mosab who i think you know, but we never could arrange it.
so i did not come. and i know i missed a terrific opportunity to get to know you better.
if you like writing in english i am happy to be your pen pal. i write all the time and enjoy all sorts of correspondence. unfortunately i can not write or speak much arabic.
i am attaching 3 of my photos from Gaza. i hope they please you. i hope they might persuade you to forgive me.
you are a good and strong person and deserve a better life. i believe you will make a good journalist. let us pray for that. i promise that the next time i visit Gaza i will visit you, if you wish.
fondly and happy ramadan, your american friend,
I strolled thru the jammed streets of Ramallah last night to join with revelers. This season, Ramadan, might be compared with the western world’s Christmas. Lots of gifts, lots of joy, especially after Iftar [the daily meal that breaks the daily fast].
The slow pace allowed me the repose needed to compose the latest subsite and blog. I find this an excellent way to digest my recent experience, make sure it’s stored and not stealable, and that others can experience it if they wish. Perhaps I’ll have time to make one more entry before leaving for the states…
September 12, 2009, Saturday, Jerusalem’s Old City, Austrian Hospice, outside in a garden:
The last full day of this trip [September 12, 2009], and what more appropriate place for it than Jerusalem, the city of love, the city of strife. As the sounds of early morning old city emerge—tractors, quiet talking, fans and other machines humming, earlier the muezzin—I write, wondering what I’ve done and why.
Two dreams I can recall: I was caring for an infant, like the young Ella. She’d sleep, wake, cry, sleep, wake, cry, etc. I was in charge while consulting with her mother—who must have been my wife but resembled no wife or partner I’ve had. We were to go fishing, eat fish, and this seemed to settle her somewhat.
In the 2nd, clearer, I was walking with Y, a clearly personified Y, when we noticed Jim Harney walking in the distance alone. He was returning from a teaching job. He wore no shoes, and might have wished to walk alone. We knew he was in the end stages of his cancer and thought this solo walking might have been part of his way to deal with that tragedy. He looked to be suffering. Hesitantly we came up to him, greeted him, and asked if he’d like us to accompany him the rest of the way home. He joked, must be munching time, meaning lunching time. He’d been fasting.
Confused, I asked Y what she thought we should do. She said firmly; let’s walk with him.
… I packed up in Ramallah, set out for what I thought would be an uneventful trip into the big city. Not to be. It was Friday, I expected little activity along the road. Riding in a shared taxi with 6 others, me with my heavy backpack loaded with the computer and some camera equipment, my shoulder bag with its heavy Nikon and wide angle lens, plus two plastic bags of food and gear that wouldn’t fit in the first two bags (I don’t think the regular no. 18 bus was running because of holy day) as we neared Kalandia checkpoint the traffic grew thicker: buses, serveeces, taxis, private cars, all parked along the road. Then I saw: a huge crowd of people slowly congregating in front of the checkpoint. Now what?
Closed. As usual on Fridays the Israelis were prohibiting worshippers from entering Jerusalem to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque. Like many, perhaps without the religious investment, I grew despondent. How long would we be stuck here? Should I return to Ramallah and wait it out, till after prayer time around noon? Or find a quiet shady place to read? Well, I could photograph, start there. So I wandered around with my 4 pieces of luggage trying to make decent photos while considering how I might get thru. Two tracks of thinking simultaneously: my craft and sullen art of photography, practice it well, now’s the opportunity; and my own survival and agenda. I had no schedule so I was not overly worried.
A young woman asked me, can you speak English? Thinking she might expect me to explain what was going on. Yes. Well, you shouldn’t be here with all the women, men stand over there. And she pointed out where I’d just been standing, where the soldier had told me that if I went to the other side, where the women happened to be standing, I’d find a way in.
I noticed security personnel without the usual military or border patrol uniforms were speaking with the crowd, and occasionally lifting someone over the barricade, children, elderlies. Maybe they’d do this for me if I could somehow reach them. But how, the crowd was thick?
The crowd was also unusually patient. No shouting, little visible anger, mostly deep frustration.
Could this become a riot? What if someone threw a chair at a soldier, how would the military respond? There were hundreds of security people, some perched on concrete barricades, others grouped ominously. Some spoke civilly with people, even when one woman tried to breach the barrier and was pushed back.
Lots of photos, for this I’m grateful but I still don’t know if I can pass or must wait. And what is the Israeli rationale for preventing passage? What about others coming from other regions of the West Bank? Are they also blocked?
Different information: the officer that told me the gate was on the women’s side, the right. Those going thru on the left, the men’s side, were humanitarian cases, he explained. Media seemed to have some flexibility, inside and outside the perimeters. Someone told me if I just walked along the road to the left I’d find a way thru. And finally, speaking with a friendly Palestinian traffic officer—with a nearly impossible job since people and vehicles mixed freely—I learned that the vehicles we saw slowly inching forward could get thru, not thru Kalandia but on some other route. Maybe, I suggested to him, I could ride with someone. Not a bad idea, he responded. The first driver, in a car with white diplomat plates, shook his head no. Most cars were already full. Then, after about 5 tries (persistence pays off, sumud): eureka, someone with space and willingness to take me. A woman crawled in as well and off we went.
On a route I wasn’t familiar with we passed one checkpoint without being stopped, then, nearing Jerusalem, another where a soldier examined our papers, asked to see my visa, and let us thru. In. Ramallah to Jerusalem required about 3 hours.
The man, my benefactor, living near a-Ram, with a t-shirt shop in the Jewish quarter, usually needs about 20 minutes for this ride. Expressing wonderment he said, I’m not sure why they (the worshippers) do this every Friday, they know they aren’t allowed in but they come to Kalandia anyway.
He dropped the woman off at the entrance of the underground parking garage, and invited me to see his shop near the Jaffa Gate. I was headed for the Hospice but since I had time and felt I owed him as much friendliness as I could muster, I said OK. When I mentioned needing a post office he said, I know one in the Jewish quarter that is never crowded. You can wait hours in the main post office, trust me. His store has a variety of mostly silly t-shirts and baseball caps, the best were the ones with crude sex jokes, like the one about poor Mr. Dick leading a hard life: a head that can’t think, hanging out with two nuts, etc. This raw humor appeals to me. Also, inadvertent humor when I discovered an Aussie style hat in camouflage with the words, Israeli army, and thought, what if I came home with one of these?
He was instantaneously busy with numerous potential customers. He was affable, helpful, not pushy, fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English. Too bad, I thought, that his many talents are devoted to selling such memorabilia. He preferred that I not photograph him but I made a few of the store. And then departed, with instructions to the post office.
This brought me to the Jewish quarter and sections I’d never seen before. Mailing the last of my backed up files on DVDs, feeling safer than on any previous trip, I dropped my gear at the Hospice, signed in, and set off for more exploration…
The Old City streets swarmed with people, mostly worshippers, tourists and workers. The worshippers were either Muslims on their way to or from the Al Aqsa mosque—I was caught in their traffic twice—or Jews going to Shabbat services on Friday evening. The two holy periods coincided: mosque around 1 pm, Shabbat around 7. Today is off day for Jews, on day for Muslims. Tomorrow is off day for Christians.
Old City of Jerusalem, Friday afternoon
I grew weary of the crowds, the press, the noise, the excitement, and needed refuge. Thank god the Austrian Hospice provides that. Prominent but hidden away, with 4 floors of private rooms and dorms, plus common spaces like the café and gardens, I hear much German spoken here. The age mix is fairly large, compared with the Palm, young to old, few backpackers in the crowd. At 18 euros or 35$ or 140 shekels, compared with 50 shekels for the Palm, it is roughly 3 times more expensive. But I needed it…