The hardest part was not the settlers’ attack but sitting in the home of Abu Saddam in Susya. His home—four canvas-roofed tents, an outhouse, a water tank, and a perennial lemon tree—is one of the seven scheduled for immediate demolition, with the blessing of the Supreme Court. The others belong to the Nawaja families. First in line, in the center of the village, is the compound of ‘Azzam Yusuf Jad‘a Nawaja. Almond trees are in full bloom in Susya, intermittent bursts of white amidst thin traces of green and great splashes of brown. They’re waiting for the bulldozers to arrive. It could happen any time. Continue reading
Most photographs here were taken by Margaret Olin in Al-Auja in late July, 2017.
Dotting the slopes on either side of Wadi Auja are the widely scattered houses of Al-Auja. In most cases only three or four Bedouin families live in each such tiny point, some to the west, climbing the steep hill less than halfway up to the ridge that overlooks the Jordan Valley, others, like the homes of our shepherd friends today, further east, near the road to Jericho. The Al-Auja story is a long one; perhaps some day I’ll tell it in full. On April 21st this year, some fifteen masked settlers from the Baladim outpost on the high ridge attacked with clubs and stones a group of Ta’ayush activists accompanying Palestinian shepherds to their grazing grounds. A moment of extreme violence: one activist with an open head wound, another with a broken arm, others seriously bruised. The police did nothing; but not long after this attack, which was filmed and widely publicized, the settlers were evacuated from the Baladim. We hear they may have come back.
A little to the south sits the ranch-settlement, entirely illegal even under Israeli law but, like all settlements, extraordinarily privileged, of a settler called Omer. He has been there for eleven years or so, and gathered around him is a group of young, reputedly violent toughs. Hundreds of verdant palm trees tower over the land he has stolen. For the last many years, because of this settlement and the arbitrary boundary it has set in place, the Bedouins of Al-Auja East have had no access to their lands.Ta’ayush took them back across the invisible but fateful border. At first they hesitated, knowing full well that we couldn’t be with them every day and every hour, and that they were vulnerable to all the weapons and wounds that the Occupation can easily bring to bear upon them. Still, we told them that if we persist, together, in the end it’s likely that they will regain the lands, or most of them.And indeed the first few times we went with them and the sheep, it was like returning to Eden. Settlers, soldiers, police all turned up, all equally taken aback and bewildered. I saw the shepherds weep tears of joy: they had given up on these rocky, thorny hills.Then the normal business of the Occupation took over. Day after day the soldiers, egged on, perhaps actually given their orders, by the settlers, or maybe the orders came from higher up, would produce the devilish piece of paper with map attached declaring these lands a Closed Military Zone. The boundaries drawn on the map varied from day to day. The Occupation can’t allow a Palestinian shepherd to graze on his lands without a struggle. So we were driven off time after time, and each time we came back. It’s the usual story. We have been through it in many places. Every time they drive us off at gunpoint, it hurts.
Eventually, our promise will fulfill itself. There was a taste of it today. At dawn we set off with the herds, a long walk up and down the rocks, and three or four hours later we came home with them, the sheep full now of the thorns they love. The soldiers watched from a distance, not interfering. We spread out over the hills. The shepherds made tea. Apart from wind and sun and clouds, the white birds, the ravenous sheep chewing furiously, we heard only the silence of desert and stone. There is no sound in the world like the dusty sweetness of that silence. Two gentle donkeys made no sound.Strange, is it not, that what should be simple, natural, obvious, and right has to be fought for inch by inch? The Muslim theologians of the Middle Ages say that time is an infinite series of atomic moments called “nows,” aanaat. Each such temporal atom has to be created by Allah, moment by moment, an act of divine will and mercy. Each one is a miracle; life itself, the world and all that is in it, the mind and all that it holds, is thus entirely miraculous. Such was our morning in Al-Auja. One infinite atomic now.
On the way back we stopped for cold drinks and flat pitta spread with za’atar at our favorite café on the outskirts of Jericho. It’s the eve of Yom Kippur. I don’t know how it came up, maybe it had to do with the fact that Arik skipped the morning prayers to come to Al-Auja today. He, too, was wounded when the settlers attacked in April. Now, for whatever reason, he tells the famous story, shaped by I. L. Peretz, hero of my youth, of the rabbi of Nemirov who disappears each day before dawn. The days are the days before Yom Kippur when one says the prayers for forgiveness, slichot. His disciples, a little puzzled, decide he goes up to heaven. A skeptic and rationalist, someone like me, arrives in the village and scoffs at this pious dream; he hides under the rabbi’s bed and, when the rabbi gets up before dawn, the skeptic follows him into the forest. The rabbi carries an axe. He cuts firewood and carries it to the hut of a penniless widow. As he enters the hut, he recites the first prayer for forgiveness. As he puts the logs into the stove and lights the fire, he recites the next one. By the time the stove is fully ablaze, the prayers have been said in full. When the skeptic, who has watched this, next hears the disciples say the rabbi has gone up to heaven, the skeptic says: “If not higher.”Another one of those atomic nows.
I say, “I grew up on that story and others like it. That was when Jews were still Jews.”Arik laughs. All of us laugh. The Palestinian serving hot pitta and za’attar has been listening in, even he laughs, at us or with us. Look what’s happened to the Jews. Except, I think to myself, this story is about Arik.He asks me if I’m fasting tonight and tomorrow. No, I answer. I am going to Not Fast as an act of bearing witness, a moment of fleeting faith that god still exists.
who is taking the house apart one piece at a time with care, unscrewing the fixtures, and laying the pieces to rest one by one,
family friends from the nearby town of Toubas, and Israeli friends from the organization Ta’ayush who work along side him and document everything. Maybe the documentation will convince enough people that such things really happen.
Later, members of another organization committed to non-violent resistance, ISM (the Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement) come to help as well and the work ends quickly.
Then everyone stays to enjoy your family’s hospitality and listen to grandpa tell his story.
This has to be preferable to the usual way. Normally the Civil Authority sends bulldozers that would probably roll through the main entrance to the compound,
damaging everything in their way and crushing the trees surrounding the family home.
The house and anything inside that there is no time to remove on short notice would be reduced to rubble.
The Civil Authority charges families good money for this service.
It’s my first demolition, too, but I have seen “Area C” dotted with little piles of rubble where homes and community centers once stood.
In my few years of sporadic visits I have helped rebuild some of them more than once.
This is life in “Area C,” the approximately 60% of the West Bank where Israel retained planning rights after the Oslo accords. Uniformly the Civil Authority there rejects master plans for Palestinian towns, and issues barely any building permits to individual Palestinians. Buildings that predate the agreement can stay without additions, and new buildings for growing families are forbidden. The policy might seem to keep the villages frozen in time, but of course life doesn’t work that way, and they are in fact in a constant state of deterioration, as structures crumble into the landscape.
When disheartened villagers eventually decamp for the increasingly crowded cities in “Area A,” under the Palestinian Authority, Israeli settlements expand into their lands.
Over a meal and coffee, we listen to the Mahmoud’s father tell us that of his eight children (and sixty-four grandchildren), only Mahmoud, with his wife and three daughters remain.
They struggle to keep their land and the fragments of their homes so that eventually the community may grow and perhaps come together again.
Once, Mahmoud’s father reminisces, he and his family lived in a ten-room house . . .
Many of the Israeli settlements that absorb the Palestinian lands were themselves built or expanded without permits, but demolitions of these settlements, and expulsions of Israeli settlers are rare, well publicized, and may be compensated with other land. Just visible behind the compound is a settlement that could someday absorb the Zouba family land.
The home we are demolishing today, a little metal structure donated by the European Union, attracted the attention of Israeli civil authorities right after it was built in 2015. These donated structures are often confiscated or bulldozed, as well as supporting infrastructures such as solar panels donated by individual European countries. The Netherlands recently protested the confiscation of and damage to some 40,000 Euros worth of solar equipment it gave to the village of Jubbet Adh-Dhib.
No permit was issued for Mahmoud’s house, but attempts were made to block the demolition order through the courts. The order overcame all these hurdles on July 2 and the final demolition order came two days ago. Ta’ayush members requested and received a delay of ten days so that the family would have a chance to take apart their own home in their own way, to take a measure of control over their lives. But bulldozers tend to be impatient, so the family decided to go ahead and demolish the house today.
They can use the parts; or perhaps the house can be rebuilt.
Mahmoud and his family will move into the older house with the yellow door next to this house. It is not bad, I am told, but it has no roof, and the sides are not strong enough to support one.
The family will plant olive trees where the little house stood.
But aren’t the olive trees also illegal, someone asks and can’t they be destroyed like the house?
At least, it turns out, a five year old olive tree may not be destroyed.
On Ta’ayush: https://www.taayush.org/
On ISM: https://palsolidarity.org/
Anyone who wishes to help provide the family with a light covering for their house may leave a note below or contact me directly.
text and photographs margaret olin © 2017
‘Ah, all things come to those who wait,’
(I say these words to make me glad),
But something answers soft and sad,
‘They come, but often come too late.’
Mary M. Singleton Currie (Violet Fane)
I regarded my understanding of waiting as complex and subtle.
In June, 2016, I participated in an exhibition called “The Waiting Rooms of History,” at the Kunstverein Paderborn and attended a stimulating conference at the university there on “Waiting as a Cultural Practice.” In the exhibition, the people photographed by Stephanie Schultz had been waiting seven years in what was meant to be a temporary refugee camp in Germany. The children I photographed in Dheisheh refugee camp were all born waiting, as were most of their parents.
There is something good about waiting without an end in sight. To wait with a deadline, knowing that the decision will be either up or down and that you can do nothing about it anymore, can be worse, especially when you realize it will probably be down. In November, in Singapore, I gathered to watch the American election returns on television with a group of expats and visitors. I understand that kind of waiting. As the dreaded moment grows near, people instinctively gather, stare apprehensively at screens, the mood increasingly dark as the decision takes shape.
So when David suggested that we go to Jinba on the day that Israel’s High Court would issue an important decision affecting the very life of the village, I thought I understood what I would encounter.
I feel at times that we are all waiting, each situation and place in its own unique way, with its own pace and rhythm. In the South Hebron Hills alone: settlers waiting for the Messiah to vindicate their biblical nationalism; Eid and Naama from the Bedouin village Umm al Khair waiting for horrid Wednesday to pass, the day when many demolitions take place and they go to work in fear they may not see their home again; A.O waiting for the magical transformation of the seasons in the village of Jinba – in winter she listens to the voices of rain and in spring the land fluctuates to green and in summer everything is yellow, yellow, yellow – everything is golden [A.O. “Jinba is Magic”]; the falahin waiting for the change in the seasons so they can plow and harvest; workers waiting for permits to work in Israel and then waiting in long lines to enter; Nasser from Susiya, banned from entering Israel because he works for the human rights group B’tselem, waiting for the day he can visit with me in Yaffa; waiting for the occupation to end. Waiting entails solitude, helplessness, anticipation and sometimes hope. – D.M.
It’s early in Umm al Khair, Eid’s village in South Hebron.
We meet Eid here so that he can accompany us to Jinba.
The decision that we expect today has been on hold for nearly two decades. It concerns the inhabitants of some dozen villages in the West Bank area of South Hebron located in Masafer Yatta, or as Israel calls it “firing zone 918.” Firing zones are areas that the Israeli army proclaims military training grounds. Normally the military may confiscate land for this purpose without providing compensation. It created firing zone 918 in the 1970s after conquering the West Bank. Now the zone includes several Palestinian villages in area C, the region left under Israel’s control by the Oslo Accords. A village with the bad fortune to be encompassed by it faces major strains. If your village is in a firing zone, the army may arrive at any time and evacuate you and your family for hours or days so that it can conduct “exercises” on your land. When you add this to the aggravations faced by every village in area C, like getting by without connections to the power grid and living in constant fear of attacks by settlers, it makes living in area C even more stressful than life elsewhere in Palestine under the occupation.
As stressful as is life in a firing zone, the high court ruling could make it far worse. It could allow the army to eliminate permanently any village in the zone and expel its inhabitants. No doubt such villages will eventually be incorporated into the nearest Israeli settlement that craves their land. Perhaps Jinba’s land will fall to nearby Mitzpe Yair, a settlement outpost already connected to the power grid and enjoying a plentiful water supply despite its illegal status even under Israeli law. Evacuation orders were issued for the Palestinian villages in 1999, but Israeli civil rights organizations helped them contest these orders, and the case has dragged its way through the courts, in one or another form, ever since – nearly twenty years by now. Some residents of the area were to travel to Jerusalem for the court session, and Israeli activists went to support them. David and I were both urged to attend, but instead we have come to offer our support to Jinba itself. The plan was to arrive early in the morning and assess the mood, to be there when the verdict was announced, and to share the experience.
We three visitors do indeed wait, talking to one another and to whichever of our hosts has time for us.
But they don’t have much time. There are chores.
All the places in Palestine are beautiful. I love all of my country very much, but every human has a special place where he/she finds safety, quietness, and freedom. For me, this special place is my village, located in al-masafer.
The most beautiful thing in al-masafer is the golden sunrise, when the women wake up to bake the bread in their taboon [wood-fired bread ovens], a fantastic smell blankets the whole place. The women make fresh bread and tea on fire for a breakfast that all family members sit and eat together. – A. O.
There are many other topics and problems to talk over: marriage, education, opportunities for employment, few of them directly related to Israel or the occupation.
A mother allows me to photograph her family’s appointment.
Sometime during the day, I forget when, the news arrives.
I always ask myself about the meaning of al-masafer. l can think of so many meanings: maybe al-masafer refers to the people moving from one place to another, or maybe it simply means “the traveler”. I don’t really care about the name itself, what I truly care about is the history, the land, the people, and the life there.
Al-masafer is not only one village, it’s a group of very small villages, each one of these villages has its own strategic location, perfect for its farmers, their sheep and other animals.
Day in and day out we are facing the Israeli wall, the wall that stands between us and our goals and dreams, by God’s will this wall will soon be demolished, and every centimeter in Palestine, will be free. – A. O.
Unsurprisingly, the decision is postponed. The state is given time to prepare a new proposal for the firing zone. It is probably the best news we can expect, since at least it means a reprieve. The process will continue to drag along and who knows, maybe when the occupation ends, as it must, Jinba will still be in place, either here or at least nearby.
Eventually, we leave with Eid and drive through the South Hebron Hills where we visit Ibrahim from Susiya, who works on the Living Archive Project, and meet the new baby that Ibrahim is showing off to a gathering of friends. Night finds us back in Eid’s home in Umm al Khair. I have never seen his sculptures, so he shows me several that have returned from his recent exhibition in Berlin, curated by Ai Weiwei.
Afterward our rented car inches its way down the rocky slope from Umm al Khair in darkness.
The people of Jinba have been threatened with expulsion over and over for decades. These are not empty threats, and when they are carried out – the last, terrible, time was in 1999 – they leave scars. This history determines the climate of waiting in a firing zone. In the United States one might wait on a specified day for the unimaginable to happen. Here, except for brief intervals when the unimaginable is actually happening, or, in the aftermath of the unimaginable, while engaged in finding another place to construct yet another forbidden home, one is always waiting. At any time, whether backed by supreme court orders or not, settlers or army can and do attack, expelling everyone and making them homeless with their elderly parents and their young children, with their animals and goods confiscated and their homes demolished. To many the unimaginable has happened often enough to make it seem like a way of life. What difference does yet one more deadline make when there are immediate chores to do, when the goats must be fed, when children have a chance to see a doctor, and when visitors have come? Why spend one’s time waiting for a message of doom when today a child might have the opportunity to grow?
Postscript: Margaret, you bring to mind the question: What is the difference between waiting and patience? Some kinds of waiting seem to lack a form of agency while patience seems to be an act of waiting as means to an end, a calculated form of waiting that knows when to retort, when to strike back and when to let things pass. I wonder if in the South Hebron Hills the simple everyday life tasks of staying on one’s land, which may seem mundane and banal, are acts of waiting – or of patience – for the right moment to reclaim dignity and freedom. D.M.
photographs © margaret olin 2017 texts © margaret olin 2017 except as otherwise noted. Very special thanks to David Massey for all sorts of things at every stage.
Two scenes from January 2017, for D.M.:
The tenacious Sa’id ‘Awad has been mentioned in these pages before. This link will acquaint you with the combination of legal subterfuge and open seizure that have wrested his land in the South Hebron Hills away from him. To hang on, Said’s family has an outing each week. The picnic and the boy’s soccer reinforce his continued presence. Otherwise, the civil authorities can consider the land abandoned and make it available to Israelis whose settlements watch comfortably above on land already taken from Sa’id. They may do that anyway.Volunteers from the NGO Ta’ayush try to keep settlers from disrupting the games, but today is peaceful. The settlers remain hidden somewhere behind their eruv poles.*Volunteers pass the time with Sa’id and his family while the boys play soccerand the Civil Administration plays its role. Today, fortunately, this means that the soldiers, very young and very bored, mostly stay put in military vehicles.
text and photographs © margaret olin 2017
text David Shulman; photographs Margaret Olin
Asael, possibly the ugliest of all the illegal outposts in the southern West Bank—and the competition is fierce—is rapidly expanding. Yellow bulldozers, parked at the perimeter fence of the settlement, have carved out a huge swathe of intermeshed, criss-crossing gashes in the hill and valley just below. This wide, deep wound in the soil has been sliced, needless to say, through privately owned Palestinian land. We know the families. We’ve plowed here, on the edge of the outpost. There have been many bad moments with the Asael settlers, the ones we can see this Shabbat morning walking their dogs over the hill or praying to their rapacious god or swinging their children on the swings in the painted park just under their pre-fab caravans.
Winter morning, sunny, ice-cold. Guy is photographing the earthen gashes meter by meter. The families who own the land will submit a complaint to the police, not that it will do much good. The Civil Administration stopped the bulldozers earlier this week, but the fact that they’re still parked here bodes ill. Each one of them costs a few thousands of shekels per day, and they’re still here. Actually, everything bodes ill here at Asael on this sun-drenched day.
The soldiers appear on cue. Three of them clamber down the hill to put a stop to our intrusion. They’re in winter uniforms, black on top, with ski-masks and heavy weapons. Their officer, affable enough, asks for my identity card. I hand it over. He studies it. “You live near my grandmother’s house. What are you doing here, and why are you photographing me? You’re old enough to be my grandfather, aren’t you ashamed?”
“Why should I be ashamed?”
“I don’t like it when you photograph me. It’s impolite.”
I can see what’s coming. Harmless chatter, nothing worse. I turn off the camera. Peg is still photographing, despite the officer’s repeated demands that she stop. It seems this business of the cameras is all we have to talk about today. Over and over again he tells us that we’re not being nice.
He consults his superiors on the phone. “There are four Israeli citizens here,” he reports, “they have the right to come here and photograph the bulldozers and the digging, they haven’t invaded the settlement, and they won’t stop photographing me.” By now this is becoming an obsession. I’m tired of it. Moreover, the cognitive dissonance is eating away at me, so wearily I say to him, “Look, forget this stupid thing about the cameras, I’m not photographing you now, just look around you at what is happening here. You know as well as I do that this outpost is illegal, and you can see that they’re now stealing more Palestinian land.”
“That’s none of my business. If you have a problem with the settlers, work it out in the courts. I have my job to do.”
Later, thinking back on it, I find the conversation insane, and I’m sorry I got into it. A monumental crime is taking place, here and everywhere in the occupied territories. It’s picking up speed. The soldiers are complicit in it, though it’s coming from far above them, from the prime minister’s office on down. And on this bright winter morning, the officer on the spot thinks we’re being impolite.
Last week something unusual happened at Susya. A group of fanatical settlers had produced an inscription made of stones on what we call Flag Hill—Palestinian land, of course (newly plowed). The stones were stacked up to read, in Hebrew: “Revenge.” There was also a big stone-piled star of David. Our people came upon these rocks, and the settlers came at them, and the soldiers turned up, and the settlers attacked them, too. This was too much even for the soldiers, who wrestled them to the ground and arrested three of them. They let them go in the evening, but for a brief moment the tables were turned.
These are violent days in South Hebron, also in the Jordan Valley. We reach Twaneh around 2:00 and find a Ta’ayush detachment still shaken after being attacked by masked settlers from Chavat Maon. The Ta’ayush volunteers were there to protect Palestinian farmers who had come to plow. The plowing was successfully completed, and the volunteers were on their way back to Twaneh when fifteen settler thugs attacked, hurling big rocks, lots of them, and assaulting our people with their fists. Dudy was hit in the head by a rock. Danny was beaten. One of the Italian volunteers living in Twaneh was hit, and her (expensive) camera stolen. By sheer good fortune, no one was badly wounded or worse.
Guy calls the police, who eventually respond. We head uphill toward the site of the attack. The settlers are still flitting through the trees at the end of the path. We have good video footage, but it rapidly becomes apparent that there’s little point in submitting a complaint. The police will do nothing, the settlers were masked, to fill out the police forms is hardly more than a ritual gesture. We move on. Fifteen years ago, almost to the day, I was attacked, beaten, stoned, and shot at by the settlers of Chavat Maon at this same point. I know what it feels like. I know for sure that they are celebrating their splendid raid and reveling in their spoils. Maybe I shouldn’t care.
Eid is waiting to welcome us to Umm al-Khair. He’s become almost famous, with exhibitions of his sculptures and installations in Tel Aviv and most recently Berlin. It’s been many months since I’ve seen him. We embrace. We run through the dismal litany of house demolitions from the past few months. For the moment—always only for the moment—the courts have put a freeze on further demolitions at Umm al-Khair. Eid says: “No matter what we do, the Israelis will never let us live here; sooner or later, they will take these lands too.”
The settlement of Carmel abuts the shanties of Umm al-Khair, and recently the settlers have invented a new form of torment for their neighbors. Their sewage now flows through pipes that open onto the fertile fields in the wadi and the Palestinian grazing grounds. We pick our way over the rocks to study the large open pipe.
It’s one of those crystal winter afternoons. Every thorn stands out on the hills. Sheep cluster around the well on the next ridge. Ruins from the last four demolition raids are neatly stacked beside what used to be tents and homes. We’ve rebuilt a little, for the umpteenth time. The hills across the Jordan River turn to limpid mauve. It’s cold; one of the young girls, maybe four years old, in ponytail and a blue sweater, stands barefoot at the entrance to her home. Goats bleat; toward sunset, they get hungry. Tea appears. A wild parabola of pigeons swirls over the golden slope. Beauty is made from pain, great beauty from greater pain.
Text © 2017 David Shulman; photographs @ 2017 Margaret Olin except as otherwise noted.
On Ta’ayush: http://www.taayush.org/
The essay, “Kafka in Area C,” tells the story of the place in these photographs: here where the ‘Awad family sheep are grazing, is a spare wadi where members of Ta’ayush, the all volunteer group whose work in South Hebron I am following, is stopping briefly at the beginning of our day.
In the photographs it is early June, 2015. We watch the patterns that the sheep make as they process down the wadi or gather in groups.
We look across the wadi at a few makeshift houses on what had been the ‘Awad family’s hilltop. Maybe Israeli settlers, in their Shabbat morning peace, are looking back.
I am told “we’ve been here hundreds of times,” but the visit is quiet. We leave within an hour to visit Susiya, a village of tents and caves where rough conditions are a constant, infuriating reminder of injustice.
Today, a year and a half later, Susiya still stands, at least most of it, at least for now. But the ‘Awad family, its livestock and its livelihood, have been denied rights to their land. The article, by a Ta’ayush volunteer, explains the absurd circular process of dispossession that has become business as usual. If the comparison to Kafka fails to appeal to you, think “Catch-22.” But after you glance at the photographs, read it. here.
photographs and text © Margaret Olin 2016
A few days ago the New York Times published an article about the German pavilion at the Venice Architectural Biennale. This year the theme was Germany’s open borders; its heartfelt welcome to refugees; and consequent social changes. You may read it here. The exhibition represents open borders by cutting openings into its building. The pavilion’s website provides access to a database of projects for housing the new refugees who are pouring into the country in record numbers. Yet the reviewer notices that “Absent from the database are the voices of refugees or meaningful consideration of what it feels like to live in these spaces, something the curators acknowledge, but attribute partly to the fast-changing situation on the ground.”
The problem of housing the refugees, providing them with a permanent status and a way to seek work and education did not begin with the present crisis, however, as the curators of the Biennale well knew. The country is already crowded with thousands of refugees immobilized by bureaucracy, prevented from working, and isolated from society in facilities that the refugees refer to with the loaded German term “Lager.”
In the pavilion, you will find a selection of photographs by Stefanie Schulz, a young photographer with whom I had the honor of sharing an exhibition, “The Waiting Rooms of History.” The exhibition, at the Kunstverein Paderborn, is open until June 6, 2016. For a year, Stefanie followed refugees in a camp at Lebach. Originally intended as a first admittance facility for brief sojourns of a few months, the camp instead devolved into a long-term residence where some refugees have spent as much as fourteen years. Those who were born here are growing up knowing no other home. While her intimate portraits (you may view some here), do not substitute for voices from refugees themselves, they offer a glimpse into lives in stasis and contradict the idealized vision of Germany’s open arms and heart cherished by many on my side of the Atlantic. Her title “Duldung” means “tolerated” with the connotation of “but just barely,” or “endured.” It is the official status inscribed on refugee’s identity cards until they acquire permanent status – if they do. The feeling goes both ways. The refugees barely tolerate the stasis in which they are forced to live. Duldung is better than nicht geduldet (not tolerated), but in no way does the term mean “welcome.”
I visited a refugee in Berlin who has lived for more than three years in a facility in an abandoned school. In 2012, refugee activists themselves occupied the Oranienplatz, a square in the Kreuzberg neighborhood in central Berlin, where they camped out in tents and then wooden huts. The activists were eventually evicted from Oranienplatz; the tents demolished. The activist artist group Bewegung Nurr, built “the house with 28 doors,” a gathering place and resource center. Activists continued to meet there until March, 2015, when arsonists burnt it down.
Late in 2012, some of the activists occupied the nearby Gerhardt Hauptmann School on Ohlauer Strasse. The plan was to live there and create a refugee center with facilities for workshops in music, theater and crafts. The refugees demanded access to German lessons, the job market, and education as well as an increased period of “Duldung.” There were several attempts to evict them and many left. But the refugees remaining in the school ultimately won a court order allowing them to stay and for now they remain.
Only residents may enter and leave the building. The ritual of locking and unlocking is repeated interminably. The guard rises from a chair
or leaves the guardhouse
unlocks the gate, locks it up again, and returns to his place.
The rationale for the guards and the padlock is that they protect the residents from skinheads who would break in and attack them. They also protect the residents from visits by journalists, educators, and friends.
The police were adept at dodging the camera. If I return long enough to become better acquainted I will photograph the resident activist I met there.
But for now, a portrait of a wary padlock will have to do.
All photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.
I owe the comparison with Birthright to Abby Glogower, so this post is for Abby.
“I came to think that there was something very special in this land that a lot of people recognized and wanted to claim for their own.” Stephen Shore, about his contribution to This Place
It’s all about the land. The same land visited by young Jewish men and women in free trips organized by Taglit-Birthright with an eye to giving them a closer connection to that land and encouraging them to marry other Jews. Similarly, the project This Place brought twelve world-famous photographers to Israel and the West Bank for extended periods to offer them a chance to forge a visual relationship to “this historic and contested place.” The hope was that they would portray Israel in a “universalizing” way and transcend the “polarizing perceptions and familiar images of the region in the mainstream media.”
The introductory text on the opening wall of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition This Place did offer a comparison, but not to Taglit. The text states that this project, spearheaded by Frédéric Brenner, rivals the photographic project of the Farm Security Administration, an undertaking of the United States government during the Great Depression, and the Mission photogtraphique de la DATAR, a French documentation of the French countryside in the 1980s. The differences here, according to the same wall label, are that This Place was privately funded, not publicly, and that its photographers were foreign, not Israeli. On the face of it this comparison is ambitious: I won’t speak to the French project, but the Library of Congress has put 167,000 Farm Security images on line.
It might seem superfluous to enumerate the differences between it and This Place, but here are some anyway. Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Gordon Parks, photographers of Roy Stryker’s project, were in their thirties or even younger, much of their famous work still ahead of them. They came to document poverty amid an economic crisis in their own country. The photographers that Brenner has gathered are all well established; most are in their sixties, seventies, even eighties. They were not brought in to document a crisis, although one certainly existed and most of them wanted to see its effects. Brenner had to be persuaded to allow them to visit the West Bank as part of the project; he wished them to avoid politics. Several of them touched on it only obliquely. Certainly they did not come as part of a New-Deal-like effort to combat rural poverty and inequality out of a commitment to social reform. No Migrant Mother can be found in the exhibition, and although part of the bargain with each photographer included the publication of a book, no Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is likely to emerge.
The photographers of This Place were strangers come for extended, but still limited times. The question, what can a stranger’s eye hope to illuminate in this situation, applies to me as well in my own ongoing project, and this is the light in which I see and worry about This Place.
Some of these photographers are my favorites, but their contributions to this exhibition are not my favorite work. Thomas Struth was well aware of the ethical situation in which he was enmeshed. His almost surreal look at the settlement Har Homa is perhaps the classic image of that terrible place. But within the framework of the exhibition it is little more than an example of one of his classic genres, along with others: monumental street photography made with a view camera, family portraits, cityscapes and landscapes.
Josef Koudelka sought to portray Israel’s “security wall” as a force for the destruction of the environment. I appreciate Koudelka’s attention to the way in which the wall affects the landscape and I take his concern seriously. Yet his work, beautiful here as always, in the main shows me what I have already seen and photographed. Murals in the Aida camp, for example, the way the “separation” wall loops through the landscape, swooping to enclose a bit of land in a greedy fist, and the barbed wire that stretches and curves everywhere in the world, but for some reason, is almost irresistible to photograph here. All these subjects immediately strike my eye.
But I could never have duplicated Faisal Sheikh’s series Desert Bloom. It sent me back to my own photographs to look at their subjects differently. He arranged his photographed traces of Beduin villages in the Negev, taken from the air, in a tile like grid format on one wall of the exhibit. I have no interest in making areal photographs; it is too important to me to stay down on earth among people. Yet I could not tear myself away from them.
The unremittingly pale brown, washed out beauty of these desert tiles pulled me in. Subtle deviations in the ground are indications of cataclysmic changes. They signify the nearly effaced suggestions of the people who once lived there. The ominous feel of the title, “desert bloom” alludes to Ben Gurion’s call to the Jewish people to “make the desert bloom.” Here the “bloom” looks less like fertility than like the cruel beauty that keeps a desert from sustaining life.
Once I have looked at these distanced photographs, oddly similar to Alan Cohen’s photographs of boundaries in close-up, I can no longer see the ground in the same way again.
Sheikh has provided ample reading material to explain the subtle clues to large changes that have taken place in the land. I look for images like those that Sheik has photographed from far away but writ large that will explain for me patterns of dispossession and camouflage and the sheer effort to go on in the face of them.
I wonder what areal views of green strips of land might look like where Palestinians and their sheep are not allowed.
I wonder also about areal views of green strips of land where only Palestinians and their livestock are allowed.
Can you see isolated solar panels from the air? abandoned fences and poles and destroyed houses?
How does an exhibition with well-intentioned photographers fail to attain the complexity to which it aspires? The curators may have something to do with it. The calm, cold beauty, the isolated photographs, the laconic captions with little or inadequate explanations. Jeff Wall’s photograph of Beduins sleeping near a prison in the Negev desert, “where this traditionally nomadic Arab people has lived for centuries.” What exactly does he know, assume, about their centuries-long Nomadic life? Have they always lived in the Negev? What does it mean to be a nomad? Did they always sleep outside on the ground covered only with blankets? Wall himself explains, in an interview, that he sees and photographs in a bubble, but that the photograph “knows” more than he does. I am with him this far, but not when he goes on to say that he can detach the social conditions of the work from its aesthetics.
Sometimes there is no explanation at all.
In an effort to bring to light some of what the photographs, if not the photographers might “know,” demonstrators on Saturday supplied new captions for Stephen Shore’s landscape photographs of “this land that a lot of people want to claim for their own.”
There are other strategies. The small photographs taken by Wendy Ewald’s workshop participants are arranged on shelves. Wall copy is also arranged on shelves, but viewers cannot come close enough either to the photographs or to the written explanations to examine them and perhaps have their assumptions challenged.
The exhibition strives for complexity but what is complexity? For the most part it seems to suggest that complexity is even handedness. Once one side occupies the other, however, it is impossible to deal an even hand. Similarly, complexity is not universality. To universalize tends to normalize the unacceptable. Complexity demands a degree of nuance that some of these photographs possess but that the framework keeps hidden. All of the photographs “know” more than their photographers, just as my own photographs “know” more than I do. But the neutrality of the installation mutes this knowledge.
The private funding does, too. That the organizations and individuals that funded This Place are not governmental entities means that the organizers did not have to confront the cultural boycott advocated by BDS, the movement that uses cultural boycotts among other strategies to force an end to the occupation. But all the same the funders for the most part fund Zionist organizations; some of them funnel money to settlements and even the Israeli military. None of them fund initiatives to help Palestine or Palestinians. The exhibition itself, which prefers the term “West Bank” to “Palestine,” has tamed its subject.
Perhaps the funders of Taglit-Birthright felt some kinship between This Place and the mission of the Birthright trip to tie young Jews to the land and to one another. The co-founder of Taglit and several of its donors are among the organizations funding This Place. But sometimes a Birthright trip backfires. A young birthrighter may come to see the agonizing contradictions between the framing narrative of the trip and the intolerable ethical situation that confronts any visitor whose Jewish education taught her to regard ethical responsibility as its basis. If so, she might leave feeling that she has been used, and these photographers should do the same.
and one more thing: The demonstration on Saturday, May 6, yoked two protests together, a pro-Palestinian protest aimed at exposing the ideological “neutrality” of This Place and another that targeted the museum’s role in gentrification through pandering to real-estate moguls on its board. For that protest, the demonstrators targeted an exhibit, Agitprop, about the use of art for social justice.
if not otherwise identified, all photographs and texts © Margaret Olin, 2016.
Photographs tend to personalize, not to visualize, as is the nature of microcosms. It is hard to avoid the temptation to focus a camera on the lone child standing beside one ruined house rather than on the systematic character of land appropriation as seen in borders and structures and other visual signs that articulate land through materials and shapes.
On this day the microcosm is a micro victory: The members of a Palestinian family were too afraid for years to enter their land next to the Israeli settlement Metzad (Asfar). But they realized that visual signs of neglect on the land could eventually lead to a declaration of abandonment followed by confiscation. They decided to risk returning.
With the promise of support from Israeli activists from the organization Ta’ayush who accompany them, they began to tend their land again. Last week, they made their micro victory visible. From a thicket of dense bushes they trimmed away years of neglect, first with a power hedge trimmer and then with more delicate clippers.
Watchers and learners helped make or gazed through piles of trimmed branches – – farmer’s child, volunteers, and soldiers from the civil administration
and the shape of an orchard began to emerge like a statue freed from a block of marble.
And abandoned eruv poles. An eruv is a symbolic courtyard used by orthodox Jews. You may read a previous post about eruvin here or familiarize yourself with them visually here. For one day each week, Shabbat, an eruv turns a neighborhood encompassing many private dwellings into one shared home for anyone who lives there and wishes to take part. The transformation allows its inhabitants to carry things (a prayer book, a meal, a key or handkerchief) from their private homes into the public space and throughout the eruv, an activity otherwise forbidden on that day. For some people, Shabbat would be a somber affair without an eruv. To construct one involves a complex series of rules originating in a notoriously difficult Talmudic tractate devoted to the subject. In South Hebron, as in Israel, characteristic eruv poles connected by strings or wires high above the ground usually mark the “walls” of the shared home. People who do not need an eruv may never notice it, and often something must be attached to the line to make it even faintly visible to those who do. Yet the owners of the land through which the eruv runs, whether users of the eruv or not, must give permission for the boundary markers through their own authorities.
When I first heard of the eruv I thought it beautiful, a subtle way to mark space that makes community while acknowledging others among whom one lives.
Yet when I first visited South Hebron two years ago, I immediately noticed differences in the eruvin. Eruv lines extend for miles through what appears to be wilderness, through farmland and uninhabited areas where I thought eruvin were not supposed to go.
In these settlements, or rather near them, an eruv helps create facts on the ground that can, like untended olive trees, encourage dispossession. I knew that it would be just a matter of time before I would cross an eruv line and have to show a passport. It happened sooner than I thought it would, about a year ago near the settlement Mitzpe Yair, not far from which some of these photographs were taken, as I passed under the eruv shown in the photograph below.
An eruv is a sensitive border. Its movements, in relation to utility poles that it parallels and which tower above it, to barbed wire fences along which it runs; and to the movements of shepherds and the civil administration, articulate the land.
When the land changes, the poles are abandoned.
Or they are abandoned because the symbolic walls are replaced with real ones
The new, agressive significance of the eruv is well understood. When, in a rare move, the civil administration demolished a settlement building, it also uprooted and broke the eruv poles used to claim the land around the building.
A few meters away settlers had uprooted olive trees.
The day at Asfar ended badly. Fortunately the new walls and fences, if not the defunct barbed wire and eruv poles, kept the young settlers far enough away to give us time to escape the heavy, slow moving rocks with which they celebrated Shabbat.
Later they taunted us
while police and civil authorities ignored our complaints. You can watch the incident in Guy Butavia’s video here.
We only hope that the farmers, who fled with their frightened three-year-old child, will return again.
In the long run, the most important spatial articulation involves stark juxtapositions like this one
between a neat red-roofed Israeli settlement on the hill and a poor village of tents below. The authorities, after evicting the residents of Susiya years ago from their historic village, will not issue a permit for a single permanent structure in the village that the farmers reconstituted on their lands. If villagers look up they see a settlement and beyond that the huge power lines that service it. Perhaps they see the eruv lines. What do the settlers see when they look down?
Here the eruv allows residents to live against, rather than with, other people, and some residents make use of its blessings to carry, and to throw, rocks.
text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016