From my journal, interviews, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. These dispatches are based on my latest work in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019 and more recent writing. (With major assistance from Fareed Taamallah, my colleague in Ramallah)
From Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz
The need to tell our story to “the rest”, to make “the rest” participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs. The book has been written to satisfy this need: first and foremost, therefore, as an interior liberation (SA, 5-6).
(His recurring dream while in Auschwitz:)
This is my sister and some unidentifiable friends and many other people. They are all listening to me and it is this very story that I am telling… I also speak diffusely of our hunger and of the lice-control, and of the Kapo who hit me on the nose then sent me to wash myself as I was bleeding. It is an intense pleasure, physical, inexpressible, to be at home, among friendly people, and to have so many things to recount: but I cannot help noticing that my listeners do not follow me. In fact, they are completely indifferent: they speak confusedly of other things among themselves, as if I was not there… My dream stands in front of me, still warm, and although awake I am still full of its anguish: and then I remember that it is not a haphazard dream, but that I have dreamed it not once but many times since I arrived here… and I remember that I have recounted it to Alberto and that he confided to me, to my amazement, that it is also his dream and the dream of many others, perhaps of everyone. (SA, 53-54)
—“The Anti-linguistic Nature of the Lager in the Language of Primo Levi’s
Se questo è un uomo”, by Fabio Girelli-Carasi
June 21, 2019, Friday, Palestine-Israel
Yesterday [June 20, 2019] Fareed did much more than translate: he took over the task of interviewing, leaving me the duties of photographer and audio engineer (my audio skills have improved markedly since the year before.). Our modus operandi was to run thru the questions together before we met the person, agree that Fareed would ask most of a set of questions that I’ve been using and that are obvious, beginning with name, village, how old during Nakba, the Nakba itself, where to, when, and how, any return visits, family transmission of stories, and sometimes current health and whether it is affected by the Nakba experience and the question of burial in the village.
I’d throw in follow up questions, Fareed as well. He’d interrupt the speaker to translate for me, sometimes letting the speaker continue if he felt the speaker wished not to be interrupted. He took notes. I watched for emotional displays by our sitters. Earlier, I’d studied and, when possible, altered the lighting and placement of people, aware of the background. We’ve not discussed what to do with Fareed’s notes but I’ll suggest he provide me simple notes, key points, not a fully written account. He reminded me that he once worked as a journalist; he certainly has the skills and impulses. I believe he is also definitively committed to this project, feels it deeply, which is crucial. He needs to sell the project to the person and family, i.e., persuade them about my goodwill and authenticity, that I won’t exploit them. Persuasion can be a chore, as happened during the last of the 3 interviews yesterday. A son was skeptical, asked to see examples. I’d forgotten to bring my prints from portrait sessions the year before. So I struggled with my website, finally got one image to display. This seemed to convince him.
Later, Fareed confided that he thought all the interviews the day before went very well, but he didn’t like this last son [who does not appear in any of my photos]. He felt the son had prejudged the project and me when he learned I was from the States. Unlike working with Ayed, Murad, and Mousa, some of my other Palestinian colleagues (Mousa is now touring New Zealand or Australia and another country presumably with his videos and photos), yesterday (possibly on other days) Fareed didn’t know the people. He relies on friends of friends. Yesterday at Amari refugee camp (because the contact had turned off his phone and we couldn’t reach him, infuriating Fareed), we began at a sports club. (The manager of the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem had suggested asking at sports clubs in refugee camps for participants.) Little by little, Fareed made connections and we found the old woman and her adult children, resulting in a very lively interview.
Soon I intend to cruise thru the multitude of photos I made yesterday, write speaker notes, and ask Fareed for his notes. We meet again on Sunday afternoon for Kalandia refugee camp.
Yesterday at 2:30 pm I met Fareed at the Ramallah Friends School upper camp, expecting to work together until about 9 pm in the evening, including a visit to his home in Ramallah for dinner. Getting to know Fareed better is one of the chief blessings of this trip. Also meeting his family again, including his son studying civil engineering at Birzeit University. His daughter, Lina, is tall and beautiful and shy; she has recently graduated from high school. Her story illustrates the occupation perfectly: less than one-year-old, kidney problems from the cistern water which had become polluted and they had no other water, potential kidney failure, mother at night in the rain races to reach the hospital in Ramallah, circumvents the checkpoints, carries Lina for an exam.
Lina needs a transplant, mother offers but not compatible, father offers but his kidney too big for the child. He spreads the word, Anna, an activist Brit living in South Africa offers, problems getting Lina to an Israeli hospital (no facilities in Palestine), problems getting Anna into Israel (because of her activist history), finally succeed, the transplant, Lina lives with Anna’s kidney, and so far as not met Anna (because Anna is banned from entry to Palestine).
I believe I met Fareed thru this story, told me by Hannah Mermelstein, a friend of his—as an activist, journalist, activist farmer, and good person, he has many friends worldwide. As he reiterated parts of Lina’s story, we considered the possible effects if the story had ended tragically. Still, I argued, it would be a useful story to tell: the consequences of the occupation. We also debated the value of storytelling, agreeing that some people with their Nakba stories find the storytelling too painful and might resist doing it. While others, I believe most, find the telling healing and cathartic, as I hope is true for people we interview and photograph. I quoted Primo Levy in Survival at Auschwitz, in short: a recurring nightmare of many prisoners was to find themselves released, yet no one wanted to hear their stories. With the refugees, I do not get this sense of either not wishing to talk or others not wishing to hear. Many times other family members and people outside the family sit in on our interview.
I mentioned to Fareed that 2 nights previously Ayed, another colleague, had toured us thru Aida refugee camp where Ayed lives, because Steve (who I worked with on the Alternatives to Violence Project) hoped to visit a camp. Steve confided to me that his image of present-day Palestinian refugee camp was tents. As might be true for many, who are perhaps influenced by contemporary imagery from Africa and parts of the Mideast or have just not updated their information about Palestine.
Riding back in Fareed’s car, I shared a possibly sinister thought about the right of return: since a fairly high proportion of survivors expressed to us a wish to be buried in their original villages, how about a limited right of return?—their corpses. Fareed winced at this, and pointed out (as someone had earlier that Israelis might vandalize the burials) that this might represent defeat of the right of return. How so? I asked. By suggesting that the only way Palestinians can return is as a corpse.
Fareed and me
During the entire interview sessions, I suffered from a sore eye and a bloated, gassy feeling. Was I about to shit mush? Would my eye become worse? These thoughts distracted me. Extraneous thoughts often distract me. I rarely experience single stream, serial thinking. Nearly impossible to concentrate on the photography while also listening to sitters and Fareed and attending to the audio recorder. Would be much better to expand our field team from 2 to about 5, all proficient in their roles.
Thirty-five years ago, in the pages of the Journal of Palestine Studies, Edward Said made a surprising admission about the limits of fact-based evidence to change world opinion in the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians. Despite withering criticisms of Israeli atrocities during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon documented in the 1982 MacBride report of international jurists, and the detailed descriptions of the unremitting abuses committed by the Israeli military in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) in works such as Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, Said reasoned that such “objective” presentations of Israeli criminality invariably failed to convince the public of Israel’s moral turpitude. Probing how Israel had largely escaped international condemnation alongside its success in depicting itself as the beleaguered victim of implacable Palestinian aggression, Said concluded that Palestinians had to frame the conflict in a discourse different than that of fact-based positivism. For Said, such a project had to reside in an epistemological break that would redirect representations of the conflict away from a detached empiricism and toward the virtues of national culture and national historical narration. Two years later, Said himself hinted at what this impulse might entail. In After the Last Sky: Palestinian Lives, Said pondered how, “for all the writing about them, the Palestinians remain virtually unknown” and used this observation as a prelude for his narration of arresting images of Palestinians captured by photographer Jean Mohr. In this way, Said concedes to the camera a role in rendering the Palestinians visible while crafting a narrative of the Palestinian encounter with Zionism in a new language.
- (Lina’s story) Palestinian pain, one kid at a time, by Fareed Taamallah (2006)
- Fareed Taamallah’s Facebook page
- Fareed publishes on Middle East Eye
- Fareed speaks about agriculture, water, and climate in the West Bank—Fareed Taamallah #FoodforChange (video, 2018)
- Israel-Palestine: Breakdown in cooperation over COVID, now putting lives at risk (United Nations, July 21, 2020)
TO BE CONTINUED