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Tsfat, Israel

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Jordan River valley, West Bank, Palestine

Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles

Photos

September 8, 2009, Tuesday, Jericho, Sami Guest House, my room

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Tsfat

Last night I met Ike, the former president, in a dream. He was elderly but virile, strong, handsome, forthright. He told me a story that occasionally was interrupted by people walking thru and making comments. Nobody but me noticed who he was. He and I were also working on something, like clearing out a garden. I wanted to tell him I’d just met or dreamt about FDR, who like him seemed to be well preserved.

In another dream I rode a train to Michigan, an unusual sort of train with doors and windows that opened simultaneously. Many passengers got off at a certain station in Michigan, maybe Ann Arbor—no sign of Ann Arbor Anne.

And in the climactic dream it was winter, I was outside photographing with others. Water was the theme. I grumbled about how difficult wearing heavy clothes made photographing. Nearby two thin plastic strands descended from high above, and on each strand men dangled. They were like window cleaners but there was no building with windows to be cleaned. While photographing I noticed that my lens, the normal, had clouded up. I couldn’t clean it. This frustrated me and I thought it would ruin any photos I’d make.

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Roman ampitheater, Beit Shean

Before I left the Beit Shean guesthouse and after I’d exploited the renewed and solid internet connection thru the café—I could have sat there all day doing my web work—I re-explored the Roman ruins, going into rooms, sitting on benches, noticing how different the light was from the evening before. I drove into the second Roman ruins site, the national park, but decided I’d had enough of this topic.

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From my window, Beit Shean

“Down in the valley” for sure. From Beit Shean to Jericho means tracing more of the vanishing Jordan River: wadis that might carry water in a good wet season to the Jordan but now look eternally dry, pipes and pools whose missions are a mystery to me, extensive fields heavily irrigated, rolling dry hills, and hot air, not as humid as I’d expected.

The scene reminds me of several places in the United States I’ve visited: South Dakota and especially the Bad Lands. Lands in this region, in places, are truly bad, in the sense of barren and tortured. I hope a few of my photos show this. Also California, those heaving brown hills near the San Francisco Bay area. And maybe Wyoming with the abandoned buildings, endless roads, hills and valleys. A ghost town-like appearance.

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Valley

Fences. Large long winding fences, some marked “electrical fence” which means motion detecting, not electrified. Sometimes 2 sets of fences. What is inside? Probably lands confiscated from Palestinians by Israeli Jews. I tried entering the settlements in this region which are fenced and gated, but decided not even to ask. One route to a bridge (as shown on the map, maybe not in reality) was also behind a fence. So my contact with the river, if there was a river to be contacted, was zero.

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Gate to former river/border crossing, Jordan River valley

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I’d seen this region in 2003, from the air as I flew home from my first foray into this topic. And then a second time with the Steps of the Magi alternative tour, busing thru here to Jerusalem. But this time was as if the first time because I could stop at my leisure to explore more fully.

I’ve mentioned that this travel mode reminds me of other trips, I’ll list some: South Africa with Y and South Africa with Tom when we rented cars; New Orleans to Chicago during my off period from the Middle Passage Pilgrimage when I drove the pagoda car along the Mississippi River to explore that region in the winter of 1998; the Great Plains excursion of 1982 when I used the family car to penetrate the mid land thought to be too flat for photography and I discovered more of the history of our continent—American Indians and a new theme for my work; and several trips I made in my pickup truck, Cimarron, especially west to Colorado in the summer of 1961 or 62. That trip was probably the first of this series of car explorations to photograph. I’ve had 40 plus years to develop my methodology.

Finally arriving in Jericho, after wondering where I’d land for the day, I quickly found housing at the Sami Youth Hostel. Luckily it was heavily advertised along the entrance road, clearly marked so I could find it. When I first saw a sign I stopped to phone, making sure it existed—a “youth hostel” in Jericho?—and then the price and finally the location.

I seem to the only resident. I asked, when is your busy season? not wanting to embarrass the young man with the husky voice who seemed to be the manager. It’s Ramadan, he explained, and everyone stays at home. Which doesn’t explain why others like myself not observing Ramadan might not be here. I think summer heat is the answer. This place might be stuffed with residents in the winter when people flock to Jericho for its warm winter weather. The room is air conditioned, the electricity so far has not gone off, I avoid mid day heat outside—altho I tried a walk yesterday around 4 pm just to be outside and sample the weather, I retreated to the room after an hour’s walking—and all this for a mere 100 shekels (mere compared with the prices of some previous overnight spots).

Jericho sprawls. And entrances are often blocked by Israel. The ditches remain, those ditches that I first encountered in 2003 when our delegation attempted passages thru the 2 checkpoints, denied at both. So we parked our bus behind palm trees and scurried across the ditches to meet a representative of the PLO. On this attempt to enter Jericho the first road I tried in the north of town, clearly marked Jericho, had a roadblock. The second brought me to a checkpoint and the soldier wouldn’t allow entrance, even after I flashed my USA passport. Noticing a busload of Palestinians behind me heading for the same checkpoint I assume this is passage for residents of Jericho. He directed me, right and right and right again. And this finally brought me to an entry road, the main road, with one Palestinian waving me thru, greeting me with welcome to Jericho. Driving past the International Hotel where the Palestinian section of the Steps of the Magi walk began in 2004, I swiftly found the Sami Guesthouse.

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Israeli settlement/colony, West Bank, Jordan River valley

The new reality of Palestine slowly seeped into me as I drove south. First a checkpoint just south of Beit Shean, not stopped, reminded me that I was leaving Israel for the West Bank, nominally the West Bank, nominally Palestine. However, the abundance of settlements suggests something else—more infiltration of Jewish Israelis, more land theft, and this among the most arable lands in the region. Huge groves of date palms and banana trees, other fruit and olive trees, cultivated fields with brown slash on them, pipes, valves, and ponds, all this suggests Jews are here to stay. Because of the relative inaccessibility of this part of the West Bank I believe few visitors ever see it, and thus are not aware of another manifestation of the settlement movement.

We could classify the settlements into at least 4 categories: the best known settlements of the West Bank mountain spine from Jenin to Hebron, East Jerusalem and its “neighborhoods” like French Hill that do not resemble conventional settlements, the kibbutzim in the Galilee and Golan that I’ve recently visited, and now the settlements, colonies, illegally stolen lands of the river valley. There may be other types as well, related to Bedouins and the Negev, but I have no experience with these.

My final days’ plan is finally taking clearer shape. I’ve decided not to visit Ofer and his wife who live in or near Modi’in, meeting him thru Couch Surfers, because I realized yesterday when studying the map that he is on the other side of Jerusalem, requiring a long drive. So tonight I will reside in the Palm Hostel in East Jerusalem, one of my favorite spots for sleeping. Before that I’ll drop off the car in Wes Jerusalem at Avis office (braving Jerusalem traffic and drivers). After first leaving my large heavy black plastic hard cased ailing wheeled luggage at the Palm. Then to Ramallah for 2 days at the ISM media office, backing up files, getting my hair cut, paying for the final month of rent at the school, picking up my stored stuff from the school, saying byes, etc. And finally the old city of Jerusalem, residing at the Austrian Hospice for my final 2 days, departing early for the airport on Sunday. All god willing, inshallah.

~~Good news from my gut. The first solid output in about 4 days. My stomach feels relatively normal. I’m eating freely again.~~

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Jereicho checkpoint (Palestinian)

Returning to the theme of Palestinian reality, first the checkpoint, then the sharp contrast between Israeli and Palestinian areas along Rt 90, the main road thru here. I’d been wearing my white t-shirt with the Hebrew lettering, slowly growing aware that this might not be appropriate for some of these regions. At a rest stop where I ate lunch with about 30 Israeli soldiers, that t-shirt fit right in. I changed it before entering Jericho, back to my yellow Quaker Fellowship of the Arts t-shirt. Next, the issue of Ramadan, people are fasting all day, even in this hot area. When yesterday in Jericho I mistakenly opened a door to what I thought might be the Internet café, I woke a man slumbering on a couch in a barbershop. Remaining indoors and maybe sleeping are ways to grapple with the Ramadan fast.

What about my shorts? Manager said, not a problem. Maybe because of the presence of tourists in Jericho. I refrain from drinking or eating in public during the daylight hours. Also Palestine is now on winter time, one hour later than Israel summer time which changes in a month of so. And I say shukron not toda for thank you and greet people with marhaba or salaam elekum not shalom. I’m noticed more in Jericho than anywhere in Israel. The kids again, keefalek, how are you? Drag out the old mubsut and montaz, happy and excellent.

A minor adventure last evening. I was hungry, I trusted my stomach, I wished to dine at the elegant restaurant near the terminal of the cable car which runs up the Mount of Temptation. Not sure how to find it, carrying a map from the guidebook, I set off at dusk, hoping not only for food but for photos. No photos, eventually food. Lost but aiming at the mountain, circling around, I found the place, just in time as they were closing. Without rushing I wolfed down roast chicken and rice, pickles and olives, flat bread. And was served the traditional Ramadan pancake sweet as a bonus, no charge. All for 50 shekels plus tip, a bargain.

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I met the owner, a jovial character speaking excellent English. He told me business is good, come back tomorrow for the open buffet, 60 shekels for all you can eat, starts at 11. I might try it. He also told me the restaurant had two wireless networks I could use, sitting in my car since they were about to close. Another man helped me access with the codes, I connected, we chatted while I sat in the car showing him and another man leaning over him my most recent blog entries, stopping at the image of Raghda, wondering how they perceived her.

The man explained that he was from Tubas in the northern West Bank, taught computer use in Jericho, also managed the computer network at the restaurant and tourist shop and did the accounting. Like many he was impressed that I’d been in Gaza, really, one month? We discussed all those who’d like to emigrate from Gaza. And you, I asked, what would you like to do? No clear answer. He explained to me that leaving Palestine required one be older than 45, married, and have children, if I understood him correctly.

The Internet connection soon faded, as it often does, so I did little. But may try again this morning.

Now one question remained: would I be able to find my way to the guesthouse in the dark?

Happily I did. Then a strange feeling came over me last night as I sat alone in this lonely hostel: eroticism. Was this temptation anything like the temptation of Christ? Is there some earth force in Jericho that affects human beings? We are at the lowest point on earth, 260 m below sea level, in an earthquake zone. I’ll check my feelings throughout my stay in Jericho.

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My room, gazing

LINKS:

ItsapartheidVideoLogo

Itsapartheid video contest

“Israel, Colonial States and Racism” by Michel Warschawski, Alternative Information Center

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Arm ripped off by Israeli shell when playing football (soccer) on the previous field during the last assault

Excerpts from my journal during a three month journey of photographic discovery in the Land of Troubles

Photos

August 9, 2009, Nagasaki Anniversary, Sunday, Gaza City, The Gaza Strip, my apartment:

A relatively rich night of dreaming:

For the first time in recent memory I’ve apparently dreamt from a more Israeli point of view, something about fearing an attack from an Arab entity. I forget the details but remember the fear—powerful and all encompassing, driving me to concentrate only on it.

Another dream related to Palestine/Israel—a house I lived in, large and spreading out, with trees on one side planted by Israel, and on the other by one of their opponents. The Israeli trees were well managed, fully watered, trimmed, healthy, beautiful, while the second set of trees were haggard, wizened, dried and dying.

I can’t recall the dreams with much detail or intensity, but at least I’ve recovered the outlines. A glimpse rather than a full view.

A letter from ME, the first since June. She writes marginally about where and what, but with more details about favorite authors, suggesting some more to me. This is proving the best part of our sketchy relationship.

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Another packed day with photography, late developing as usual. I expected to be with Dr. Mona and Mohammed most of the day, at one or more of her projects, but instead Ibrahem called later and invited me to accompany him and several Quaker Palestine Youth Program staff to several sites in Beit Hanoun and along the water. Glad I did, because it provided 2 platforms for photography I’ve wished for: the widespread destruction of buildings, and views from the water back to the land.

In Beit Hanoun, driving there in a taxi packed with Islam [his actual name] and 2 others, plus Ibrahem and me, we observed the first session of a 3 full day workshop in CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and other first aid techniques. They live in a very dangerous area, so close to the border. The recent violence motivated this group to choose this topic, to receive training and then to train their peers so when and if another attack comes they will be able to perform at least rudimentary rescue techniques. This was lacking during the recent assault, especially because of Israel blocking the medical personnel from rapidly reaching victims. There was something grisly and awful about this first training, thinking how others might be reacting, since the instructor demonstrated on a dummy lying prone in front of everyone. Did this evoke memories of the terror and horror? Even tho I’d not experienced what they’d experienced I felt a chill run thru me when looking at the dummy.

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The 2nd site was a field young men had cleared of debris to make into a football field. Their initial field had been close to the border and the Israelis had repeatedly attacked it, severing the arm of one young man and the thumb of another. Ibrahem introduced me to these two fellows and they allowed me to photograph them. By hand and with the help of a Caterpillar bulldozer they’d completed the clearing and today [August 10, 2009] plan to line the ground with a permanent playing surface and install goalposts. I’m not clear if I will return with Ibrahem today to photograph it.

Ibrahem is such a good guide, patient with me and knowing what will make good photos. He invited us to visit the site of the previous field and there in the near distance sat Sderot, the Israeli town whose residents, all civilians, have been repeatedly targeted by the homemade, poorly targeted, but terror-inducing rockets fired by Gazan militants— not more than 2 km away. I could pick it out by its greenery; it looked like a lush park compared with the surrounding terrain. I tried to show this proximity with each of my 2 lenses, wide and normal, but I doubt I have conveyed the nearness—certainly not the effect of the nearness, the fear and suspicion.

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And then the climax: a wide swath of destroyed buildings, just like I’d imagined before arriving here. Wanton destruction, no apparent reason other than location—too near Israel. Not targeting of Hamas, of fighters, or because of threat to Israelis, just a group of rioting young men, soldiers, with machines, all of them lethal, under the guidance and provocation of their elders, including rabbis. Is this not a war crime? And because I was with Ibrahem who has the heart and tools and language to dig deep we met a few of those displaced, living in tents and caravans, the caravans similar to ones used by settlers stealing land for Israel. This series peaked when we cruised by a cement factory.

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Ibrahem offered to stop so I could photograph with more concentration. He pointed out a cement truck that had been smashed into a portion of the factory. A decapitated truck, its head or cab with motor dangling from the rest of the body. And a tree planted recently in front of a ruined office building. Perfect: cement factory demolished, and if rebuilt, no cement allowed in. I commented to Ibrahem, Very clever of the Israelis: take out a house and you ruin life for a family, maybe 10 people. Take out a factory, especially a cement factory, and you ruin the lives of the workers, owners, and many customers. The multiplier effect. Is this partially what motivated Israel? Is this not a war crime by international law?

When I stood in the field next to the factory, gazing at the carnage in a 360-degree path, I thought, panoramic.

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And finally for a pleasant respite from all this despair-inducing wreckage, the beach. But this time I had the pleasure and terror of riding in one of those large motorboats I’d observed earlier. The plan—and I wasn’t quite sure what the plan was at first—was to unfurl banners announcing the upcoming Popular Achievement festival, and ride around in the wind and waves awhile. I quickly surmised this had one or both of 2 objectives: to cruise up and down the beach advertising the festival or, since we had me and a video crew with us, make visual material that could be circulated on TV or by web.

After a harrying 15 minutes or so lurching up and down and side to side in the waves, me hoping we’d not capsize and lose all our equipment, not to mention our lives, trying different angles because the wind was so fierce often the banners were invisible, we headed to the shore. This allowed me photos from the boat inland. Walking back to the car Ibrahem asked, And what did you think? Well, Ibrahem, exciting, but what was the point? And he explained, the website.

Very clever and innovative, but effective? I’m not sure.

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We’d had a speedy lunch of shuwarma and accessories in the car as we aimed at the beach, and then we dropped off some of the staff at their homes in Beach refugee camp before leaving me at my door for a much needed shower, rest, snack. Ibrahem and I later visited the nearby art gallery which was hosting a show by 6 or so artists. I wish I could report being more impressed with the art, but it struck me as either too abstract for my tastes (“fine, but not for me,” as TS Elliot put it to someone submitting to his poetry journal) or flat, generic, banal (the photos particularly—what I’m afraid my photos too often are). I had a chance to ask 3 of the artists a few questions, among them:

Why not more political content in your art?

We do, in other exhibits, very much so, but we all chose not to reference that aspect of our daily lives in this show.

Why not, I’m not sure I understood the answers, or they my continually probing question.

How do you earn money?

Part of this project is subsidized, and we all have jobs (Shareef Sarhan, painting and photography, is a UNRWA photographer; while Basel al Magossiu and Majed Shala, painting, have jobs with the government, I believe they said). I think some teach at the gallery, called Windows From Gaza and might receive funding for the gallery.

What are your relations with Hamas?

No interference but not much cooperation. We’ve invited them to submit, they haven’t. And when they invited some of us to exhibit they selected on the basis of Muslim attitudes and principles. This reminded me of the most repressive periods in Soviet art. Nazi art also, when ideology ruled, rather than esthetics.

How able are you to move your art thru the border?

Not very, but we can use the internet for this. We’ve been invited to show in several venues outside Israel-Palestine and we’ve been able to convey our work. Sometimes in the distant venue (“Al Aqsa gallery”?) they’ve printed what we sent them via email.

Their space is large and clean, the lighting good (altho electricity shut down part way thru the interview I was trying to audio record), no one else visited while we were there, yet I thought Ibrahem had told me this was the opening (meeting Stephanie later I learned it had occurred earlier), and the facility includes a digital studio for training in digital photo-making and video. We briefly discussed the slight possibility of my QPYP students having an exhibit there. And might bring them to see the current show, despite my misgivings.

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A rich moment, I usually feel very brotherly toward other artists, I only regret the language barrier.

LINKS:

Windows From Gaza

Young Adult Friends (Quakers between the ages of 18 and 35, roughly) Delegation Palestine/Israel—Summer 2010

Sponsored by the Middle East Working Group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and Friends International Center in Ramallah

Download informational flyer

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