At the souk (market)
Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
July 8, 2009, Wednesday, Jenin Creative Cultural Center:
Whoever fights monsters must take care not to become a monster himself. For, as you stand looking deep into the abyss, the abyss is looking deep into you.
No dreams that I can recall from last night but an unusual sleeping arrangement: on the roof. The 2 Italian theater men, just arrived, found the tiny space we had too small and hot for sleeping so, apparently having experience doing this in Jenin, said, we’re sleeping on the roof, care to join us?
Blessedly cool and breezy, much better than the main room, somewhat better (but further from the toilet and less private) than the computer room where I’d intended to sleep, the computer room cooler and with a slight wind thru open windows, and private. I might sleep here (where I’m writing this) tonight. The peripatetic sleeper. Does it affect my dreaming?
Yesterday thanks to the young man in my photo workshop, Abdullah, I toured parts of Jenin asking to visit the refugee camp and the freedom theater. After a stroll thru the small old city where I photographed the mural with the USAID inscription, we concentrated on the camp. Abdullah told me his aunt, his mother’s sister, had died in the attacks on Jenin in April 2002, part of Israel’s campaign to punish Palestinians for supporting suicide attacks, “Operation Defensive Shield.” That incident was a major stepping-stone in my own story of involvement with Palestine/Israel. Abdullah’s aunt had been assisting fighters by cooking for them and mending their clothing. Abdullah claims Israel knew this, sought and found her, and murdered her along with one son.
Suhada (martyrs): Abdullah Abu Alhijya’s aunt and cousin (created by Abdullah)
We entered the theater from the upper back while a rehearsal was in process. The space was dark, I could make out about 6 figures prostate on the stage floor, with much banging of pots and shouting. A man sitting in the first row leaned toward the actors and gave instructions in Arabic. This was Arna’s son, famous from the movie, Arna’s Children, a Jewish woman who founded the theater. Her son, Juliano Mer Khamis, had made that movie about the theater which helped bring the theater’s exemplary work to a wider audience.
The director stopped the action, strode onto the stage (really the lower floor of a black box theater which might hold about 700 people), and acted the part in the way he wanted his actor to do it: with heavy breathing, expressing confusion and remorse, finally spearing a prostate victim on the floor and then banging a pot.
Freedom Theater rehearsal
I tried, tried hard, to show this with my equipment but because of the low light once again I suspect I failed. This is one of my main problems—low light, the cameras not sufficiently sensitive, the electronic noise or grain equivalent too great. Had I known, I could have used my faster 50 mm lens, left at the center.
Abdullah was in no hurry to return to the Center so we visited the theater, met the blond haired Jenny, the director of projects, and discovered that she’d been in my Haifa photo workshop in April 2006. I was asking if I might photograph a photography training—the theater sponsors a variety of trainings including of course theater, photography, film, and other arts. They are dedicated to using art as resistance to the occupation. Specifically (from their website):
Using the arts as a model for social change, The Freedom Theatre is developing the only professional venue for theatre and arts in the north of the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The aim of this project is to empower and give voice to the children of Jenin Refugee Camp through a unique programme of workshops and activities in theatre, supporting arts and multi-media, ranging in their emphasis from the largely therapeutic and healing, to the presentation of high-quality artistic products.
I met 2 of the photography instructors and I have permission return to photograph today. The theater is also holding a month long festival of children’s drama which I hope to sample. The play being rehearsed will open later this month, perhaps I can see it.
In the camp mostly I photographed structures, buildings, murals. The camp has been completely rebuilt, with money I believe from an Arabic source and Yasser Arafat. The theater also, in a new location, has expanded. During the 2002 war—and it was war, Palestinian fighters standing strong against the Israeli army who’d attacked to quell the militancy the camp is known for—the theater was destroyed.
Jenin refugee camp
Needless to report, posters of the shaheed, the martyrs, were everywhere, much like in Gaza. Along with Gaza and Nablus, Jenin is probably one of the centers of armed resistance. Ironic then that the freedom theater should be here. Are there equivalents in Gaza and Nablus, not necessarily theater, but art as resistance, art political?
Old City of Jenin
I’ve been noticing water use. Water is scarce in the camp, scarce in Jenin generally, and of course scarce throughout the region, including Israel—which could serve to bring parties together in common cause: find water, conserve water. So I show 2 men washing their car, I saw other instances of prodigal water use.
Near the end of our walk we met a family of 4 generations living together in a tall 3-story building. They invited us to stay for drinks, we obliged. I’d noticed an elderly man lying on an outdoor pad, perhaps resting from the heat, and thought to photograph him—but only with his permission, still bruised from my rejection in the souq (market) the morning before. No problem, and they all posed, and you might say de-posed or relaxed once I’d made a few initial images, so I hope for more spontaneous and revelatory appearances. But who knows, sometimes those first utterly posed portraits are the most telling.
Jenin refugee camp
Katy, my younger daughter, wrote a very kind note saying how evocative the camp photos are and how mysterious is the Solomon’s pool set. I’m grateful that she’s viewing them and especially grateful for the comments. Such as these buoys me in my often-lonely and detached journey. I wonder who else is noticing and what they think.
My setup here at the Center varies from day to day. Currently I haunt the computer room, having snagged one computer for my regular use. Because its shelves offer a fair amount of spread out room for my gear and papers I can put my laptop on the main counter, switch relatively easily between the PC with its good Internet connection and my computer with zero connection. To transfer files I have to use the compact flash USB device, a pain. To manage my blog, I use the PC, and to manage my site I was not able to install Dreamweaver on the PC for some reason, altho I suppose I could download another trial version, but at the last desperate minute last night, tired and hot, I remembered I can use MS Explorer to send files to my site using FTP. I could also download the file transfer software I use on my laptop. So, as always, there is a workaround.
And then there iare the computer instructions mostly in Arabic. Daunting, not incapacitating, sometimes nearly so, make me want to shout: what’s all this Arabic stuff, don’t you realize everyone speaks English?
One of my photo workshop students, Mays
The first photo workshop session went ok, but the group consisting of 2 girls, 3 boys, all mid to late high school age (Abdullah just graduated, hopes to enter a university out of the country for medical training, but is not enrolled anywhere, not having funds or connections), giggled for at least the first part. Ala’a, who’d agreed to translate and assist, mysteriously disappeared about 2/3’s the way thru. I intend to ask her about this, I felt abandoned, winged it, had troubles with language, but valiantly struggled. Will they return, always the question, did I serve them properly?
I’d worked out a plan with Ala’a’s help which seemed appropriate: ask them what they want to learn and how they wish to learn it, tuning to them as much as possible, trying to avoid the many mistakes I made at Birzeit University and Baladna in Haifa, show some of my photos with comments (part of Spring Light, showing them part of the Atlantic coast, a site that may have astonished them since they can’t reach the Mediterranean because of the occupation; the dinner with Ibrahem in Gaza section from my website with maybe more to come, this seemed to work well, I also passed around family photos in print form, to demonstrate what I mean by a print). I’ve asked them to bring prints from their family for discussion. I outlined the steps that I use to make a good photo, with demonstrations, and asked them to practice those steps on whatever topic they’d wish.
A big problem is equipment. About half had cameras, others want to use their mobile phones. But we’ve still not discovered how to download from phones. Ala’a offered to buy a cable, I’m not sure she did. Typical in arrangements like this is what westerners might term duplicity, what Arabic people might say is being kind. No one says no, I’m not willing to do that. They nod yes and then depending on their real feelings do or don’t do what was promised. Of course this is highly annoying, or can be, but thru my years of experience here I’ve come to expect it and not rely on anyone’s word. Too bad, this might be part of the problem with organizing the resistance. Or even more generally: facilitating the re-rising or resurrection of Arabic-Muslim culture.
Most remarkable on my shared taxi ride here from Ramallah was the absence of checkpoints—none, not even the infamous and terrifying Huwarra south of Nablus. Gone. Throughout the West Bank this seems true: a relaxation of some restrictions. Now I can ponder, why is this? USA pressure, Israel making the Palestinian Authority look good, internal economic reasons, perhaps even internal political pressures, a sop to the international community, both to the Palestinians and internationally, a ploy to hold on to the territories with minimal resistance? This checkpoint decrease seems under or not reported in the States, while, Fareed informs me, it is in the Palestinian media. Very curious. I suppose in time we might know the rationale.
I continue my dialog with the Israeli foreign ministry person, he’s now identified himself as Dan Rosen. Previously I thought it might be a woman, and could imagine falling in love. What a story that could make: falling in love without seeing each other and across a wide chasm. Perhaps I will “fall in love” anyway, a new form of “falling.”
Still no permit to enter Gaza, despite calls every day from the Gaza American Friends Service Committee office to inquire, or so Amal, its director, claims. I’ve written Senator Kerry by way of his policy aide in Boston who I’ve met, Chris, with contacts provided by Amal, and copying my letter to Dotty to urge her to follow-up with a phone call.
After yesterday’s huge mid day shuwarma, beef probably, eaten while with Abdullah and his friend on our tour, I felt I needed nothing more to eat for the day. But last night, wishing to “get out of the house,” I found the fruit drink place, had another (apples, pears, ginger), chatted with the proprietor, a handsome man about mid 40s in age. He told me he’d lived in Florida for 2 years, working with his brother as a chef in a chicken and fish restaurant, and had to return to Palestine because his visa had run out. But he wishes to live in the States, can’t. I love America, I want to live there, he stated with some passion. He suggested he would have learned English better had he an American girl friend, but because he’s married, couldn’t and didn’t. We joked that maybe what I need to learn Arabi is an Arab girl friend. Why not, I’m single?
Today: blog, photograph the freedom theater, stroll, work with Yusef on the website, maybe. It’s always maybe. No set schedule. Everything is loose here. Pick up some fruit to share, and some toilet paper—I use more paper than my share.
Arna’s Children (with clips from the movie)