Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
July 4, 2009, Thursday, Al Rowwad, Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem:
This dream: P and I were standing along a riverfront, maybe the Charles River at the South Natick dam. It was late winter, early spring, river ice was receding. She wore hiking boots. We stood about 3 m up from the water, boys were nearby playing. We might have discussed the ice, how thin it looked. The thinness did not seem to daunt her. She quickly and without conversation went down to the ice and slowly walked out onto it, toward the thinnest part. She seemed to be courting her own death. I quickly brought out my camera, made series as I thought for sure the ice would crash beneath her and she’d fall in. But she didn’t; with a self satisfied smirk, she strolled back to the shore.
I’ve commented on the curious absence of people in my dreams, who’s present, who’s absent. This morning I notice the curious absence of themes: no Israel-Palestine that is immediately evident, no water, no airplane travel, nothing or little that can be unarguably linked with what I’m doing. No grander themes, no insights, no revelations of character—a desert as far as dreaming goes. Let’s hope this changes. I rely on my dreams.
The main event of yesterday—other than meeting Z, a young woman from Scotland, now living in the guesthouse with Akram and me—was walking to Solomon’s Pools. Told by someone I met as I left the camp they were about 8 km south of Aida camp in Bethlehem and I could take a taxi, I brazenly said, I’ll walk. Turned out to be a very long walk, either much longer than 8 km or my age is catching up with me. Allowing for the hour or so I stopped for lunch (at the Italian restaurant our Cambridge Bethlehem delegation had patronized in 2007) it must have taken some 2 hours. I’d forgotten my sunscreen, mistakenly wore my black Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Dream Now t-shirt in the hot sun, and generally was not functioning yesterday with all my senses. Perhaps my muses were fatigued, took the day off (anticipating July 4th).
But I made it. I was glad I made it, not so much for the self-satisfaction of completing an arduous walk but because the site is grand. Yes, pools, plural: pools. Three of them, descending in elevation, huge, maybe 1/3 km wide, 10-20 meters deep, each hewn from the limestone and faced with something resembling concrete. Apparently the 2 upper pools were constructed during Roman times 2000 years ago and the lowest during the Ottoman period, about 300 years ago. The ruins of pumping stations date back to the British Mandate period, early 20th century. Why Solomon? No one knows, maybe from the following reference: I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. (Ecclesiastes 2.6)
Their original form may be unknown. Did a type of facing material exist then, like concrete?
Pumping station from the British Mandate period, early 20th century
Looking north toward Bethlehem and Jerusalem, direction of the outflow
Many more questions: How were they dug? How did all this function hydrologically? Why so far from Jerusalem? What was the water source? The pools are now empty, altho a photo I’ve seen shows water as late as 1900—Z told me she met someone who remembers a time when water filled the pools, but the authorities drained the pools because of the many drowning. How did the pools connect? How did the water reach Jerusalem? ( By gravity I suppose) What channel did the water flow in, a conduit specially constructed for this purpose or a natural ravine ? (No sign of either at the lowest pool, or the lowest one I scouted) Is this now something of a park area, a recreation area, used for picnics, parties, etc? (I spotted a few parked cars suggesting this, and trails into higher ground which I did not explore) And what would I have discovered if I’d continued walking downhill along the road? (By now I was tired and had to at least walk up the hill to the main road.).
The Pools in 1900
I made an extensive set of photos, probably joining 1000s of others, mostly tourists, maybe some like me fascinated by hydrology. Using the wide angle lens for the walk in and the 50 mm for the walk out, they might seam well together. The light was harsh, as it usually is at this time of year, bright shadowy Mediterranean light, the light of summer. Altho I carried my infrared filter I found nothing to use it on. Had I thought more about this maybe it would have enhanced the set of photos I made of an adjoining modern structure, one so pathetic to observe and investigate as to nearly bring tears to my eyes.
This structure, about 5 levels high, very wide, with alcoves, walkways, places for plants, is called a Palace. It is loosely attached to a building once used as a khan or way station for travelers, the Castle, erected about 400 years ago during the reign of the Ottomans. It reminded me of Jersash, the ancient Roman city of Jerash originally part of the Decapolis League, the 10 main Roman cities in this region. I visited it in 2003. Jerash had been a complex of shops, temples, amphitheaters, and as far as I know thrived as a metropolitan center. It now is mostly abandoned, a standing memory of another era, another people. Unlike Jerash, the Palace at Solomon’s pools is memory reversed: nothing ever happened here once the Palace was built, as far as I know. Its intended purposes were never fulfilled. It might have evolved during the Oslo period, when hopes were high, money was plentiful, the Matrix of Control had eased somewhat, dreams soared. And then the 2nd Intifada and the failure of the Palace. Shops decayed, never used. The amphitheater might have seen a few shows, and then none. Weeds grow thru cracks, limestone facing falls off walls, electrical fixtures dangle from ceilings, doors are locked, barricades erected. This is very sad—a testament to he occupation.
I wonder how many tourists and other visitors to the pools photograph the Palace, and if they do, how do they do it, with what motivation, what intention? Mine is to create the semblance of a fantasy, a failed fantasy, which demonstrates clearly the cost of the troubles in this pained land.
Reaching this place makes scant story, just long, hot, mostly uphill, nothing much to photograph. The lunch delicious (chicken over veggies, sitting out on the patio alone as Friday prayers finish and men stream out of the nearby mosque). Transitioning from commercial-residential to mostly industrial and less built up. Past Dheisheh refugee camp, but I felt I’ve seen it enough times so I didn’t stop in.
I noticed in the many produce stands not one banana. Raising the obvious question: what happened to all the bananas? When I arrived 2 weeks ago, there was plenty of bananas, I ate one a day. I need them for the potassium to inhibit my night leg cramps.
Returning to the camp was more a story, not much but a story. I was determined not to walk, a yellow service taxi pulled up, I said Aida? Going to Aida? They 2 young men consulted each other, speaking Arabic of course, I understood nothing, heard an occasional shekel, thought they might be considering driving me—it was Friday, not many people were looking for service taxis, business was slow—and if so how much to charge me. They finally looked at me and I thought said, arba, 4. I held up 4 fingers to confirm this (and 4 seemed reasonable since the man who’d directed me here said he thought I could find a taxi for 2, he might have meant a service and these guys were now operating as a special taxi, price goes up, but still, 10 shekels I thought was the upper limit for anywhere in Bethlehem, oh the joys of being a foreigner).
So I got in, they indicated I should wear my seat belt (Ramzi had told me that the Palestinian Authority now required seat belts), no problem from me here, we drove less than 1/2 km when we stopped and the men chatted with an older guy in a taxi. You can get out and ride in my taxi, the older fellow commanded, I’m driving to Aida, I live there. Just pay this driver who is my son.
So I found a 5 shekel coin, handed it over, the driver looked puzzled. More conversation. Oh, not 4, arba, but 40, he exclaimed.
What?! I thought we agreed to 4. I held up my fingers to confirm. I realized holding up 4 digits might signal either 4 or 40 or 400 or 4000, makes no difference.
Ok, arba. So the driver returned 1 shekel and I felt miserly.
Do I pay again at the end of your ride? I asked the elder. No. you’ve paid.
So he drove me directly to the camp, refused my tip of 5 or 10 shekels I forgot what I drew out, I was trying to redeem myself. He told me his son was one of the debke dancers about to leave for the US on tour. He knew many of the staff, seemed very grateful for the program, explained to me that he’d spoken to the parents of kids going on tour, alerting them to the realities of life in America. I told him about my work with the Center, and I believe now he refused payment because of our mutual connection with Al Rowwad.
I’ll save writing about Z for another time (if ever, same old story).
Today: last day at Aida, for now, depending. I might return if Gaza does not work out. Call Amal to see about the permit, call Yusef to learn how to reach Jenin, maybe put up one more subsite, one more blog from aida, help Chris with the photography teaching, and gird myself for another ride thru the Valley of Fire, to Ramallah.
Including the old photo and link to history