Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
July 2, 2009, Thursday, Al Rowwad, Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem:
Mainly, in the grander scheme of things—how the occupation works with a personal slant from my heavily biased reporting—yesterday was the story of Ramzi, the tour guide and olive woodcrafter whom I’d met in late 2004 during the Steps of the Magi pilgrimage across the Judean Wilderness Desert. On none of my last trips before this one did I seek him out, even when in Bethlehem with the delegation in 2007, primarily because of my laziness. This time, sauntering thru town few days ago, I stopped at a large souvenir store, inquired about the guide who works in olive wood and whose grandfather invented the process. Oh yes, that’s Ramzi and here’s his number.
When I phoned, reaching his wife who speaks fairly clear English, she didn’t remember me, nor did Ramzi precisely when we spoke by phone. However when he pulled up last evening around 7:30 at the “Key to the Camp,” our assignation point, he enthusiastically told me, Now I remember you, everything about you, meeting you near Jericho, downloading your photos onto my computer, you staying with my brother and family in the family house.
A highlight of last evening, besides the scrumptious chicken veggie dinner over rice—and the large bottle of Holland-produced beer (a true gift to the spirit since I’ve refrained from beer while living in the camp, self denial as painful as other vices I’m giving up while residing in the camp)—was meeting Iliana. She is 9 years old and her personality soars, and with that her character. Her pronunciation was difficult to understand, despite being first in her class in English. She often exclaimed Wow (but never Cool) and I love such and such. She’s been to France, Germany, speaks German and I think she said French as well (Ramzi studied French, is fluent, and mostly guides French groups).
Iliana (not a common Arabic name, the family is Christian) wants to own 2 businesses when she grows up and be rich; altho her uncle, Ramzi’s brother, sitting with us for a short while (the entire extended family lives in this 4 story complex, with the oldest on the first floor) pointed out mostly to me that being rich is not the only worthy goal in life, not even a worthy one. Whether Iliana will grow out of this stage is to be seen. From what Ramzi and others have told me no one in the family is rich, altho most are entrepreneurs.
On the way from collecting me we’d driven toward Har Homa, a massive Israeli colony, to pick up Ramzi’s wife and daughter who were at a relatives for some celebration. They live in new housing, very elegant housing, on the hill just down from the settlement. Not dangerous here, Ramzi told me. I asked him about the housing complex erected by the Greek Orthodox Church, the man we’d visited in 2004, his house under demolition orders. The same, Ramzi confided, no change, still threatened, they never know.
Now about Ramzi: he told me tourism is down, seriously down, a result of the recent violence in Gaza and the global economic catastrophe, or The New Nakba. And this affects Israel also. Confirming what I’ve heard elsewhere, few people visiting Bethlehem stay overnight. He avoids political discussions while touring because this might endanger his permit to guide in Israel. Whereas his brother, also a guide, specializes in the political, guiding mainly American and Irish groups, and he does not have permission to guide in Israel. So this is one of the throttle points Israel has to cut risks from an otherwise insurrectionary vocation: tour guiding.
Water—my main reason for coming at this time of year—is definitely a problem for Ramzi and family and I arrived at a perfect moment to try to show how this problem manifests. The family had exhausted its water supply and none would arrive until Saturday which is too long to wait. So they ordered a tanker full and it arrived with me. By now darkness had fallen, so the lighting, mainly from a portable fluorescent lamp, made a set of dramatic images. Tanker on street level, high above the house, can’t be seen in the photos, long thick pulsating wide hose, ending in one of 3 metal tanks on the ground. Water gushing forth. 3 tanks so the worker and Ramzi had to move the hose periodically which threatened me with showering and provided more grist for the photo mill.
The brother explained later that all the water used in Bethlehem and probably thru the territories collects in aquifers under the West Bank but is stolen by Israel and resold to Palestinians—usually at rates exceeding those charged t Israelis. The charge for I believe he said 50 cubic meters was $80. What this is in terms of number of tanks I’m not sure but can find out.
All the while the family was apologizing for delaying the dinner. No problem, no problem at all, I’d like to photograph all this.
One brother had tried to set up an olive wood export business in Europe, from what Ramzi said, and tended to live high, hotels, restaurant, and he barely broke even. Thus a failure. Ramzi’s mother, by contrast, apparently did fairly well on her trip to the USA around the time I first met Ramzi. Now however, with the current tourist and economic slumps, business is way down.
Ramzi, I inquired as we slurped down our delicious dinner, the elderly gent in his perpetual pajama top (that’s how I remember Ramzi’s father from my first visit) at one end of the table, Ramzi’s slender wife diagonally across from me next to Ramzi, their very active boy child grabbing and nabbing food willy nilly next to Ramzi (the boy is recovering from very painful chick pox, as is his sister), grandma playing solitaire on the computer, having cooked and eaten, What do you do when touring near the wall? How do you avoid politics?
I say this is the wall of separation. And if they ask how the wall is affecting life for Palestinians? It is making it very difficult, and I give examples. And if they ask how Israel justifies the wall? I tell them Israel says it is for security, and indeed suicide attacks are down. And about Palestinians attitudes now about suicide attacks? No one supports this failed policy anymore.
Well, then Ramzi my friend, is the intifada finished? No, it continues in many communities, in many forms.
And conditions now, under occupation, better or worse than one year ago? Better. Fewer checkpoints, more freedom, I guess the Israelis do not fear us as much.
I felt this as well, traveling between Ramallah and Bethlehem. Not one checkpoint. However, conditions in Gaza are worse then ever, perhaps at the nadir of its history. And much of the Matrix of Control, the term Jeff Halper gives to the mechanism of occupation, has tightened and become less visible.
Watching a video of a ceremony for Ramzi’s daughter
Next Tuesday Ramzi leaves for nearly one month of guiding, 3 groups, some of them French. I should have asked how lucrative the job is, thinking it might be very, especially if in business for oneself.
Iliana, living on the top floor, where I believe I stayed when here (I remember it as fairly barren, maybe they’d just moved in, and with one lonely Christmas tree in the main room, lights twinkling thru the night), wandered in and out, finally joining us for the ride back to Aida camp (along with the mother and her 2 children, a curious group to accompany me home). I asked Iliana if she’d like to see photos of my family, she nodded an excited yes, and after studying them responded with, These are beautiful, thank you for showing them to me. Very polite. I’d also brought gift photos, the girl in a Gaza hospital, and gave one to Iliana, inscribing it from me to her. I thought this a particularly apt gift, girl to girl, about the same age, both Palestinians, both suffering.
Before heading back, we talked about the camp. Iliana has never been to one, doesn’t know anyone from them, and Ramzi, when I suggested we could stroll thru the camp before saying good night, suggested this would not be appropriate at her age. In school soon she will earn about camps, refugees, history of the Nakba, and the school will tour them. I wonder about this, should corroborate it with Samira. As we drove past the never used Pope’s platform against the wall, we noticed a throng of teens. Ramzi discovered it was some sort of festival. I decided not to join, the hour late, having to arise fairly early this morning for the walk to Robin’s office.
In retrospect, the evening was extraordinarily rich, more than the food, the beer, the night out, the opportunity to connect deeply with a Palestinian family was vital. We hit it off, you might say, and they extended to me what I understood to be a life long invitation to return. Ramzi insisted I call him in August so we can arrange another meeting.
Ramzi and family were not the entire day. I also made a short walk in the early afternoon heat (probably nearing 90 F, but dry) to the Key, thru the cemetery, charting out my walk of today to Robin’s office. I hadn’t realized how near Rachel’s tomb is to the camp, borders it. I saw the globular roof, high walls, and towers, double and triple security fences. Was the Muslim cemetery originally sited to be near the tomb? And now it is cut off from it. I also wondered if any of the watch towers were staffed, whether anyone was peering at me, wondering who I was, what I was up to, whether I constituted a threat, maybe should be shot. A scary prospect, and a laughable irony if they did shoot me: American photographer killed while walking thru a Muslim cemetery just outside Rachel’s tomb. That would make a story—or maybe not, given Israel’s impunity.
Rachel’s tomb on the Israeli side of the Separation Wall from the Muslim cemetery
At the Center, working yesterday morning in the rehearsal room where I get decent but slow wifi, a most elegant slender longhaired woman strolled thru a few times. I was tempted to introduce myself, but didn’t, being shy. And curious, what could I learn about her by pure observation? Two Palestine men soon joined her, one the rotund sweet fellow that photographed me at the festival. She brought out plastic tubes and appeared to be training them in using them. Then a hoard of small kids, ages about 5-8 years, descended on the room. They screamed, they scampered, one grabbed my Nikon from the table next to me and began trying to use it. Rather than objecting I attempted to play along, giving a number of these rambunctious mischievous children a chance to use a professional camera. As it developed I saw she must be a trainer of trainers, showing them how to use the plastic tubes to build observation, rhythm, play skills. All perhaps pre-theater training.
Finally the kids concentrated, their energy razor sharp on the tubes and what they could do with them. Needless to say, I made a few photos.
Minor point but could be major, I learned what the problem is with my phone giving me a zero balance immediately after recharging it. Somehow I have 2 accounts, the first or primary one does not get recharged and constantly shows zero balance. My secondary account is at 181 shekels or minutes—I’m not sure they’re equivalent. Without much trouble I reached a live support person, an Israeli woman with broken English, who explained to me this odd system and how to access it. She also told me that the balance would be put in storage if elapsed after one month, but could be rejuvenated by recharging. All this is a huge mystery to me. Exactly how much I’m paying for this phone is an unknown.
Clearer is my bank and visa accts. I remembered to check them both, paid on line. Swiftly, cleanly, a gift of the Internet.
Today, another possibly rich meeting, this time with Robin T who on some previous trips has been noticeably absent from my life. I will walk from the guest house, under the Key, past the cemetery, left on the main road (the old path between Jerusalem and Hebron, Bethlehem a way point), along the Wall, to the checkpoint, thru the checkpoint and down the main road to Jerusalem, the same road I walked along 2 years ago on my solo Xmas pilgrimage to Shepherds’ Fields. Akram is due here this evening, so I will have to end my nude romps thru the guesthouse. I will have to wear pants, at least when I enter public spaces.