Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
July 10, 2009, Friday, Jenin Creative Cultural Center:
One dream that I can recall: I was driving a large bus, not expertly, and had to turn around in a narrow spot filled with cars. As always the outcome remains unknown. Perhaps someday I will be transported to the repository of my unfinished dreams and can restart them to learn the results.
My sleeping place on the roof of the Jenin Creative Arts Center
The night was tranquil, for a change. The Italians are gone, apparently, if Charley is to be believed, after an argument, so the 2 plus the late coming woman have disappeared and I have the roof to myself. No more chatting and smoking thru the night. I can take care of my nightly needs, groan and fart just like at home. Bliss. And Charley and I coordinated the keys so that I was not locked out of the Center, or into the building. I went for another early morning walk. I’ve yet to try sleeping in the computer room because it’s been blocked—the gang of 4, Charley from Scotland, Lucas from Germany, Sophie from Scotland, and Rob from the UK, usually commandeer it for webwork and, as Charley says, watching “stupid Arab videos.”
The walk this morning brought me to new parts of Jenin. Thru another part of the old city, up and down main roads, shops of course closed this being Friday, the holy day, a few men out, usually older, one woman sitting by herself looking downcast, roosters crowing, cats prowling, cool breezes blowing, and I made a few photos. I appreciate this time of day, free of people, so fewer stare at me.
Abdullah, the young man who’s just graduated high school and wishes to study medicine outside the country, told me his plan is to visit Ramallah where organizations can help find him placements. He is one of the more diligent students in my photo workshop, which met joyfully with full attendance plus one yesterday for the 2nd time. Afterwards he offered to escort me to what I thought he called a castle, and I thought he said it was nearby, walking distance. The reality was somewhat different: we walked about 2 km to the taxi stand, which would have been a 1/2 km walk if not for him wanting to visit a friend in a social center. So what, more to see and show, but it was virtually the same path I’d taken that morning alone. Taxi about 5 km north, Abdullah insisting on paying—this is characteristic of Palestinians, despite their poverty, the chasm between their resources and mine, everyone treats the visitor. The taxi ride, then later, walking home from the Freedom Theater performance, another friend bought me a fruit drink and falafel, and then the entire lot of boys including Abdullah walked me around the city as I did errands. You’re a visitor, our guest, and you might get lost. I would rather walk alone, but I couldn’t tactfully convey this to them.
So, to the “castle,” which in fact, thanks to Abdullah reading the plaque above the main door, was a Jordanian prison or jail built in 1954, 13 years before the 1967 war brought the territories under Israeli occupation. Had I been on my own I would have called this structure either a crusader castle dating back 1000 years or an Ottoman period castle, once housing the very rich, maybe 500 years old. So much for my perceptive powers while lacking Arabi.
The structure, made of limestone blocks, cemented, was 2 story, had turrets and windows that resembled gun ports, a ditch around it that fighters could use, several wells inside and outside the building, the one inside now supporting a vast fig tree empire. No stairs, so the 2nd level could be reached only by adroitly climbing up ruined walls. No thanks, not at my age and in my condition, a fact of my life which I bemoan. Abdullah had made photos here recently, mostly of him and his friends, which he showed me and the students at the workshop. I may have them on my computer since we downloaded them from his mobile phone.
The jail—it might also have served as a fort, especially during the Six-day War—was on a hill spectacularly overlooking rolling hills, all planted and some fields harvested. Most everything looked very brown; I’m not sure what grows during this dry season. Abdullah told me the fields run all the way to Haifa, maybe 30 miles away but infinitely distant because of the Apartheid Wall. The plants I photographed on one of my first romps around Jenin turn out to be tobacco, thanks to Abdullah’s local knowledge. I walked with him to the edge of the plateau the jail sits on for a decent photo vantage point. To reach there I had to walk thru briars and thistle and climb over limestone chunks—in my Tiva sandals, which might have been close to walking barefoot. Robert Capa famously and dangerously said if the photo isn’t good enough, the photographer wasn’t close enough. For a landscape photo one might say if not good enough, the photographer was not in the right position–and maybe should have walked thru the Valley of the Shadow of Death to get there.
Once again, at the end of a trip, I was scorched, depleted, hot beyond measure, sweaty, tired. To relieve my insignificant suffering I doused myself with hot water from the shower (who among The Gang heats up the water in this season?), followed by a sweet sleep. And then…
At the entrance of Jenin refugee camp, this horse, constructed in 2003 by a German artist, is made from parts of an ambulance (and two cars) ridden in by a Jenin doctor when he was killed by Israeli forces, the ambulance exploded, al -Hisan, the horse
Off to the Freedom Theater for a children’s play, The Swing, as part of the month long fest. Little did I know Abdullah and his friends also planned to see the play, so we went together. Because of the heat they insisted we taxi there; they paid, as is the custom. Then a long wait before the show began, which gave me an opportunity to observe a German TV film crew interviewing one of the staff, a robustly handsome young man who smoked incessantly and spoke about the importance of providing alternatives for youth, other than hate and vengeance. I chatted briefly with Jenny again, my former student from Haifa. She’s not only been working here for 3 years, taking the job shortly after we met in Haifa, and is the chief fundraiser, along with doing graphic design and photography, but she married the director, Juliano, son of the founder. Is this dumb luck on my part, to have this potential link? Is it the working of my ever loving, ever reliable, ever resourceful muses?
The play, of course in Arabi, played to a packed house sitting in air-conditioned comfort. 3 men (from the Hebron based troupe, Yes) pretended to be boys, then young adults, then middle agers, then the aged, then they died, but not before fostering sons who replaced them. Very clever. Curious there were no women in the play, except for off stage characters. A swing hung mid stage, the main prop. It allowed us to see how the men aged, how they used the swing. The audience, young and old, loved the play, and despite not understanding more than a few words, I felt resonance with my condition, one mark of good art. When the 3 were aged, decrepit, exaggerating their infirmities, I felt for them, I identified with them. And thought: ah, this is me, this is how I might look now, or could look in a few years—hobbled, groaning, twisted, about to keel over.
Juliano Mer Khamis, director of the Freedom Theater
Why, I wondered, did the theater offer a raffle prize of 100 NIS to the lucky ticket holder? Tickets were free, altho limited. A pre-show video advertised their upcoming adult presentation, the one we’d earlier observed in rehearsal.
I photographed, and hope to return to photograph more, not so much the plays but the ambiance of the theater complex. Which brings me back to what I’m supposed to be doing in Jenin, helping Yusef with the website while teaching photography.
The teaching seems to be going well. Full participation, lots of fun, people seem to be learning and interested, convinced I know what I’m talking about (one of the primary questions: does the teacher know much about her subject?). My ploys might be effective for dealing with tardiness and poor preparation. I’ve had to scold those who arrive late (one boy 1 hour late, just as we were ending) and who “forget” to bring cameras. What! You forgot to bring your camera to a photo workshop? Suppose this was a French class and you forgot to bring your voice? How do you expect to learn the language if you have no voice? Or a violin lesson and you left our violin at home? Or a piano lesson and the piano were broken? How do you expect to learn photography if you don’t bring your camera? By now, with my years of experience teaching in Palestine/Israel, I have regrettably come to be unsurprised by this sloppy and laggardly performance—from some, gratefully not from all. My response? I yell, lovingly. I scold, respectfully. I cajole, while expressing compassion. Let’s hope it works. (And is not symptomatic of Palestinian destiny)
Ala’a, as is her way, disappeared from the class, despite what I thought was her role, to assist me and translate. She said, asking forgiveness, I was too busy translating for the Italians. Yusef looked outraged when I told him this. Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?
At Ala’a’s suggestion, after viewing what we could of their photos—the criticism of prints worked especially well—we climbed to the roof to photograph. Once I’d made a few, I asked, anyone want to use my camera? And one girl did, I think this is Mays, one of the brightest students, who, when I saw what she made with my Nikon, I feel has a good eye.
I’m trying to learn their names: Abdullah, my personal tour guide, his chubby, giggly friend, Yahia, Mays who I think is the talented girl, her friend Haya, and the little girl who accompanies them, Somar. Who is Toluene, written in my notebook? Most names are new to me and as always I have a tough time pronouncing and remembering them.
Yusef, the Center founder and director, and I have a huge problem. To design, store and maintain a website requires money. He has none, apparently. So we’re trying to do it free. I will donate my services, such as they are, but who provides the domain name, the server, and the maintenance? To surmount this problem I’m experimenting using WordPress, designed for blogs but possibly bendable to a website. Katy uses it; I’ve found online info about how to do it. And yesterday I signed up for a blog, but I had to use his email address. Which means, for now, unless I can change the address, all communication between me and WordPress goes thru Yusef. Not very expeditious. In fact, insane and possibly dooming our enterprise to failure.
M, the recent college grad without a direction, who tells me there is nothing to do here, no jobs, little hope, hangs around the Center, seeming isolated by his slightly older age. He asks me, when are you going to pick up the CD with the new software on it, what’s it called? Dreamweaver? So after the play I told the boys that I had to pick up some software specially ordered for me. They took me to a different shop which had Dreamweaver, so I bought it: 5 NIS and it included: Flash 8, Fireworks 8, Homesite 5.5, Freehand MX 11, Coldfusion 7, Contribute 3, and Captivate 1, most of which I’ve never heard of. 5 shekels! One dollar and 25 cents.
As I’ve done before, I marveled at the cheap price. Of course this is ripped off material, not fully reliable and incapable of upgrading or support. Do you know how much just Dreamweaver along would cost in my country? I asked. $400? No, more like $700.
I intend to install it on the PC I use at the center, and possibly work with it to design the Center site. But if I do, how will it be maintained?
Talking with Jenny at the Freedom Theater I learned who does their website and might meet with him to gather insights. Plus I can hope to justify my fascination and respect of the Theater to yusef by mentioning this avenue of concern.
Ok, it is hot here, and dry, and sunny, and water deprived. What did I expect? I am living my anti dream. I chose to come here in the summer, knowing the conditions, and now the conditions are upon me and I have to survive. And thrive, make the most of them photographically. For instance, on my morning walk yesterday I came upon a water tanker and 2 men with a hose. They were watering the landscaped traffic circles and squares. Most unusual. I photographed. When I tried to close in on the main man, show his face, he waved me off. Now, learning how to handle this rejection, I smiled, said ok, masallam, shukron, and trotted merrily off.
To live with this heat I follow this routine: sleep in a cool spot, the roof for now, tho I might prefer the computer room for its coziness and privacy, but never again in the sleeping area which is hot beyond belief. While indoors and not during the day when it is open to clients, I wear shorts and a tank top according to the latest Palestinian dress code. Avoid being outside during the heat of the day. Shower late in the afternoon, followed by a nap. Outside for part of the evening. And so forth. Seems to work. I’m not abjectly suffering.
However, I worry slightly about what is probably merely a mole on my right lower arm, near my wrist. It is about 1/3 inch in diameter, uniformly red, with sharp edges, not itchy or bleeding or pussy. Looking up skin cancer on the web, struggling to find a site with photos—you’d think skin cancer symptoms require visuals, but I found few)—I learned that my “object” or “issue” is most likely a mole. I’ll monitor it. And try harder to use sunscreen. Since I can’t always anticipate where I’m going and how long I’ll be under the sun, perhaps I should just carry sunscreen wherever I go.
I’m also mildly concerned about my heart. Occasionally I feel some discomfort—I wouldn’t call it pain—in my left chest area. Is this my heart giving signs of distress? Or merely gas or muscle twitches? How would I know?
One contrast between the way I’m living now, constantly on the road, new location regularly, and when I’m home is predictability. Now virtually nothing is predictable, other than my morning routine which includes a smattering of yoga, meditation, journal writing, walking, email, and my photo work including making, selecting, processing, arranging , and showing.
Whereas at home, my life becomes entirely predictable, a dreadful bore. Same routine every day: same eating time, same meals, virtually, the same people, same bed, everything, even the walk and bike routes. Once a week with Ella. Sundays with Quakers. Teach on Tuesday evenings. Quaker Youth Program committee every 2nd Sunday. Agape steering council every quarter. Etc. This is fine, for a while, and then becomes deadening. I don’t know how others can survive such tedium endlessly. So I conclude, one big reason I travel is to relieve the boredom.
Once on the road, I long for the end of the road—home at last, thank god almighty, home at last. Back to my comfortable routines…for a short while, and then…
Bullet hole in a mural, presumably from the Battle of Jenin, April 2002
Today: day off more or less, being Friday. Webwork to include a new subsite and new blog entry. Play around perhaps with the new Center website. Walk somewhere, but not midday. Read. See what develops if anything with the local Gang. Avoid them at times, join with them at times. They are reasonably thoughtful, trying hard, given their age—college. Maybe catch up with my notes from Bethlehem to add to my journal. Maybe try to reach Sabastia, the Roman city not too far from here, but not during midday.
It is now 8:12 AM, and no one is stirring, not even a cockroach. I’ve just chatted with Dotty via Google chat. She promised to follow up with Kerry’s office. Who else can I drop in on? Or wake up? Little devil that I am, awake, while most of my family and friends back home, 7 hours time difference, are sleeping or about to hit the sack.
…It is now 9:30 AM, I’ve revised my entry, attempted to enter the toilet to pee, realized someone was in there, stood to the side ready to say, good morning, hoping to not scare whoever was making his or her morning toilet. But in fact I scared Sophie, she jumped, I apologized, she asked me how I am, I pronounced myself alive.