Photo by a Hamas security officer when I dropped by for a visit and he borrowed my camera, after tea
Quaker Palestine Youth Program Popular Achievement coach
Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles
August 3, 2009, Monday, Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, my apartment:
On my first night in Gaza only one slender dream—about a boy, who like me had suffered some minor abrasion on one of his toes. A group of boys had gathered to examine him and comment, when an older man appeared. We told him the story. Which was just like mine: 2 toes mysteriously began rubbing together, chafing one of them, when they never did before.
Yes, I’m in Gaza. Thank god, Humdila. And the transport to Gaza and the Erez crossing was surprisingly easy: taxi from Ramallah directly, meeting the taxi at the Ramallah Friends School lower campus, over to Adel in El Bireh to pick up fabric for Jan’s group in Gaza, a minor problem when I directed the driver (based in Jerusalem, usually drives only in Israel, a Palestinian, he did not know Ramallah), down the main road toward the upper Ramallah Friends School the wrong way on a one way street, stopped for this, brought to the supervising officer (the driver, Husham, suffered this cheerfully, a testament to him and the way many Palestinians act when faced with adversity, one of their most endearing qualities and demonstrating how newly efficient the Fatah security forces have become, thanks I’m told to USA sponsored police training in Jordan), the 1.5 hr ride (costing 300 NIS ($75) plus a 20 NIS tip, Jan offered to pay 1/2), noticing the green fields and orchards (even in the height of summer), the terrain changing from stone to sand, the many amenities for Israelis along the road (such as gas stations, restaurants, housing, repair facilities), photographing this to use as contrast with what I will soon, inshallah, cruise by in Gaza, stop for a pee at the same restaurant I visited on my first try at entrance in 2005 (just in case I can’t use the toilet at Erez), and then the imposing, foreboding, grey and glassy, nearly empty Erez terminal-checkpoint-crossing point-strangulation point. And again the question: what right does Israel have to control entrance to Gaza?
Mod’in, an Israeli town, part of which is an illegal (by international law) settlement/colony in the West Bank of Palestine
After sitting for about a 1/2 hr with 2 Italians who were later joined by 3 more, beside the road, with flies swarming around our faces, reading Poets Against the Killing Fields that Susan R gave me, and answering a single question at this first interrogation station, are you carrying any weapons? (I might have answered, you bet, my pen and my camera), I entered the complex, no idea what to expect, how long this will require, whether I’ll meet again the man who’d interrogated me for so long on my last entrance in January 2008, whether I’d get in. A long row of “passport control” stations, resembling an airline terminal, with one major difference: virtually no people and no amenities, certainly no duty free stores. Someday?
New light rail line connecting Mod’in with Jerusalem
No security personnel except for one staffed station encapsulating 2 young military women, looking their usual wary, bored and disrespectful selves (one, looking at me sullenly, wouldn’t allow me to back out of the cubicle to use a toilet), and virtually no “customers.” I did see one traditionally dressed Muslim woman with children, apparently exiting Gaza. They checked my passport against a computer record and after about 10 minutes let me thru.
I used a dolly for my heavy load of luggage: one hard black plastic rolly, weighing 25 kilos (60 pounds), heavy because of the 2 bottles of whisky and 4 D batteries, among other gifts, I was carrying in for some folks supporting Gazans; my knapsack with computer and Nikon camera; my shoulder bag with another camera (which I hoped to use when passing thru Erez), and a 10 kilo or so bag of fabric for the deaf adults and children at Atfaluna, the crafts training center.
Big change from last time: no anonymous barking barely comprehendible commands, only 2 turnstiles (a tight squeeze with my huge load thru the turnstile, at the first I cut my finger trying to pack all my gear and me in one small space that then had to slowly rotate—and no backing out), no huge body X-ray machine, no luggage inspection. (I should check my notes from other trips to see exactly what happened going in, going out. I might be conflating the 2.) Despite following the posted arrows assiduously, I suddenly found myself in what appeared to be a small locked room with no exit and no intercom. Trying the door several times, noticing the handle dangled ominously, as if someone else had in panic tried to escape (into what, where, Gaza?), not sure whom to call on my mobile phone, I finally managed to open the door. It was stuck.
Destroyed villa along the Mediterranean Sea
Free: to Gaza. Immediately a Palestine man took my bags from me. I resisted. No thanks, I can carry these, then I relented, thinking how few jobs he must have, being a Gazan. How much? 20 shekels, but it is a 2-kilo walk, meaning 2 km. He loaded my gear except for my backpack with its sensitive equipment onto a dolly and escorted me down a long walk way enclosed with rough cement panels, a small version of the Apartheid Wall, the tall concrete form. Thinking this might get me all the way to the taxi stand, I thought maybe not a bad deal.
A few meters in I noticed a boy with an IV dangling from his arm; he was loaded awkwardly onto a dolly, waiting with his mother and siblings to exit Gaza. He might have been one of the rare few with a permit to leave for medical reasons. I quickly brought out my camera and prepared to ask them by holding the camera up and gesturing ok? if I might photograph. Before I could, my handler adamantly pleaded with me to put away my camera. Had I been alone I might have persisted and made some dramatic photos—or I may have been spotted by the Israelis and turned back. One of the mysteries of my trade and sullen craft.
Quaker Palestine Youth Program Popular Achievement coach
My flat in the El Remal district of Gaza City, one & one-quarter rooms
Outside my flat, where I do my early morning writing before the muggy heat of the day strikes me
I was mistaken about the luggage handling. Another group of similarly desperate looking Palestinians awaited me. My first lugger handed off my gear to 2 more men. How much for this? I inquired. Another 20 shekels. The first walk had required about 5 minutes. Not bad pay for 5 minutes of pushing a dolly. La shukron, no thanks, I’m strong, I can carry it myself. I had to forcefully take the gear from one man to demonstrate my resolve (I had mixed feelings.). I pleaded, I don’t have much money, I’m not rich (compared to them of course I am), I’ve just paid 20 shekels for a short walk, I’m strong, I can carry it myself. Thanks anyway.
Soon I felt I might have made a big mistake. Not only another long walk, maybe 2 km again, but at times thru sand and gravel, not too healthy for my old ailing black plastic luggage with wheels. Another team of Palestinians greeted me, this time one driving a huge bulldozer, the other directing him in clearing a road. The director beckoned me to wait; they would clear the road for me of debris. And so I finally arrived at the Gaza side, looking for friend and taxi driver, Awni.
Summer Game run by the UN Refugee and Works Administration
Unlike other occasions, the Palestinian border control, thanks to the ever-efficient Hamas, had some definite procedures. The officer recorded my passport number; I filled out a form giving details of my visit, and then watched as another officer opened my luggage to inspect its contents. Oh oh, the liquor. Luckily Awni was with me, chatting up (as we say in the States: making diversionary small talk) the officer. He swiftly found the first container, Black Label, and asked, how many more bottles? Should I confess, one more? Awni told me that they allow one, but 3 or more are definitely forbidden—this is Islamic territory and devout Muslims do not drink alcohol. But two? Maybe two. I passed, all luggage intact. The 6 International Solidarity Movement folks would be very happy indeed.
Mohammed AM, who I’d met last time in my photo workshop and then at Dr. Mona Al Farra’s party, greeted me at the ground floor of the office building and valiantly lugged my black hard plastic 25 kilo wheely luggage up 5 flights to the Palestine Quaker Youth Program offices—on his shoulders, without puffing. Great service, I recoiled against the idea of toting it myself. Sitting down with him he told me his story of the war (as it’s called now by most Gazans, even tho it was barely a war, more a massacre, in my view). His family fled their home because it was in a dangerous area. His mother has diabetes and so could not swiftly move. They traveled at night, taking refuge in the home of Adham’s family in Jabalia refugee camp. This home was situated further from the fighting and thought safer. While there Adham, his host and friend, and Adham’s mother told Mohammed about me, remembering my stay with them in 2008. Mohammed often could not sleep. Nor could the rest of the family, for the bombs and rockets and machine guns attacked thru the night. He thought he’d die.
He told me I am scarred for life; I will never forget my fear. He is now volunteering for the Quaker youth program and with the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) which Dr. Mona al-Farra works with. He hopes to learn photography and writing better. He may be my assistant for the photo workshop.
AK has an equally powerful testimony. Earlier this summer he was sitting on the beach with several friends, one a journalist, one a woman from Gaza, when two men approached them and berated the Gaza woman for not covering her hair. At some point AK intervened. He insisted on asking the men who they were, who they represented, and what authority they had to declare clothing norms to the woman and apparently take one of the other men away. They beat him, he told me, and held him in prison for a short time. They declared him equivalent to an enemy of the nation, of Islam. Last night as he and S, my neighbor and his friend, and I sat on my “porch” or “patio” in the relative cool of the evening, he told us that he hates living here, hates Gaza, and wishes to flee. Forever, maybe to Norway. In my slide show about Gaza I feature AK and his blog. This story will update his profile.
Beach refugee camp
At the office after profoundly greeting Ibrahem with hugs and kisses, I asked him about our mutual friend Yousef AG. Gone away, we both realized, and maybe permanently as an illegal alien in Sweden. Ibrahem told me Yousef had been invited to Sweden by an organization for ten days or so. Yousef had written me shortly after his departure, or just before, telling me he was going to Europe but not disclosing where. When I asked him later where and what doing, he was vague. He wrote the same way to Ibrahem, and the same to his own girl friend. Altho he did write his employer that he was quitting. Thus we conclude that probably he is illegal and can’t publicly disclose his location or plan.
Eva, meeting her at my place, giving her the whiskey, chocolate, batteries, battery charger, cash and cigars that she and other ISMers had requested, told me that she often counsels people like AK and Yousef AG who wish to flee. She tells them, life could be worse in your new country—locked away indefinitely with no communication, no legal help, without explanation, treated badly in something like a prison camp. This, she said, is true not only of the USA which is infamous for its treatment of undocumented immigrants (as Jim Harney so powerfully portrayed) but Sweden, Canada, and many countries of lower Europe like France. No easy life as an immigrant. Yet AK persists in believing—he told us that despite what might be reality I want to have hope for a better life—that he can succeed in Norway, eventually gain asylum.
More on these testimonies later, I hope. Life is unfolding rapidly.
Last night I declined the invitation to attend a wedding with Ibrahem and Adham in Jabalia camp—Ibrahem showed up at my home at 10 pm, too late for me—but accepted the invite to find some pizza. While Adham and S and I were chatting on the patio, we heard sounds of an Islamic wedding (Adham realized this, noting how in weddings of this sort they sing the traditional songs but with lyrics appropriate to Islam) and I concocted a plan which I vetted with Adham. After pizza I’ll wander over and photograph it. What do you think?
No problem. They’ll pick you out as a foreigner and greet and welcome you to photograph. Whereas if I tried that they’d be very suspicious. So, despite the late hour and my fatigue—I felt newly energized, maybe from finally being in Gaza after weeks of yearning—I joined the wedding. To my great delight and surprise, not only was I welcomed but I was (maybe) another honored guest (along with the groom and bride and their families I’m sure and local notables, but I was unique: a foreigner, the only foreigner). Men hoisted me on strong sweaty shoulders and danced me around the circle, they gave me a Hamas flag to lift high, they invited me into their circle dance, they photographed me. I tried to artfully dodge one young man’s earnest question, Hamas?, (meaning do you support Hamas?) by mumbling, I’m not sure, let me think about it. Holding the flag while being photographed might turn out to be a huge blunder, should photos of this become widely circulated.
An Islamic wedding
Unlike friend X in Guatemala who writes that she is unsure how to photograph the people there because of their suspicions about being exploited or stolen, here I had to struggle to photograph while being danced about. They invited me to photograph them, and perhaps one of the best photos of the series will be the one of the man posing.
They resisted me leaving, they asked me what I’d do with the photos and seemed pleased when I told them I’d show them widely in the States, to show how Gazans live—the joy and the sorrow. The man in the photo asked my contact info and I expect to be called later, maybe invited to his house. Such is the hospitality of the Gazans.
Hamas security officer