December 12: “If a tree falls in the forest . . . “
There is barely a single tree here, but nearly everyone today voiced some version of the famous philosophical puzzle about the observer and existence. Or coexistence. Continue reading
December 12: “If a tree falls in the forest . . . “
There is barely a single tree here, but nearly everyone today voiced some version of the famous philosophical puzzle about the observer and existence. Or coexistence. Continue reading
Al-Khan al-Ahmar: still waiting. Now that Angela Merkel has come and gone, and the holiday season is over, and the court has spoken, there are no further obstacles to the coming devastation. Germany joined other EU countries in condemning the planned demolition as a war crime, and Merkel herself is clearly against it; the government politely delayed execution until after she left Israel. We had hoped she might issue a strong statement while here: hope, or desperation, conjures up hopeless dreams. Continue reading
So there is the Big Destruction, the one everyone in Susya and in al-Khan al-Ahmar knows will happen, the one everyone fears, and there are the Little Destructions along the way, the tremors that presage what is to come, as if the army were testing the water. ‘Azzam Nawajeh, whose home is on the demolition list, says he wishes they would do the big one already; waiting day after day, for many months, in the certainty that they will come, is torture enough. This morning we thought it was happening, but in the end what we saw were two Little Destructions. They were awful. Continue reading
Today the shepherds wanted to set out at dawn. In summer, here on the outskirts of Jericho, by 9 or 9:30 in the morning it’s already over 38 degrees (100 Fahrenheit)—too hot even for goats. So we leave Jerusalem at first light, and by 6:30 we find Mhammad deep in the desert, close to the fenced-off date-palm grove of the settler Omer, who calls all the shots. Mhammad greets us happily; he’s in a good mood; so far things are quiet. “Soldiers? Have you seen any soldiers?” he asks. “Not yet,” we say. Continue reading
1. Umm al-Amad
Three weeks ago, resourceful little Walaa was quick-witted enough to use her cell phone to film settlers flying a drone and when the settlers suspected her, to pretend convincingly to be on a call with her aunt. A week later, she leaned against Aziza’s legs, drooping and coughing. Continue reading
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
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.:
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.
“Do you teach about this at your university? Do you teach about our lives here?” asks Fatma Nawaja as she prepares for a meeting of the Rural Women Association.
“I’m not qualified to teach about your lives. I can make a few photographs, perhaps of baking . . .
or the pigeon roost.”
“But I would rather photograph your meeting.”
On March 15, 2016, eleven women converge on a tent in Susiya from four scattered villages in the South Hebron Hills. They are determined, Fatma says, to develop the necessary financial and educational resources to achieve autonomy. As she uses the word, “Autonomy” means individual advancement toward a collective aim. An autonomous woman is able to take responsibility in the family and contribute to its support.
Working together, the women have instituted workshops, school activities and summer camps, but their most important achievement may be that they are meeting at all.
The association is a new idea and it is not easy to arrange the meetings. Were transportation available, more members from more villages could attend. Today the group comes from four of them: Susiya, Al Mufaqarah and Umm al-Khair, all tent villages, and at-Tuwani, home to the high school and two NGOs. The treasurer of the group, Naima, is from the Beduin village Umm al-Khair. Support for the group comes from small annual dues and donations.
Of these towns (and several others), at-Tuwani is the only one that can be found on google maps. The “Susiya” on the map is not the village where we are meeting but the Israeli settlement that took part of the village’s land and all of its name. The archaeological site (see “ancient synagogue”) marks the place where the town was located before the residents were expelled in 1986 to create the archaeological park. The former residents constructed a village on some of their remaining farmland between the two locations named “Susiya.” They have been expelled several times from this location also. According to Wikipedia, Umm al-Khair is located at
The Oslo accords placed these villages in “area C,” under Israeli control, and the authorities have refused the residents permission to construct permanent buildings. In the past few months, the civil administration has carried out several demolitions . Since this meeting, too, it has destroyed a number of structures in Um al Khair. I am told that a demolition order is also pending against a memorial erected at the entrance to Susyia in memory of a Palestinian baby burned to death in his home last year by settlers in Duma.
Naima reports on the group’s financial condition
The women discuss the development of their website – it is unfinished but it lists many of their current and planned initiatives. Many of them center on education. English lessons for example are scarce, expensive, and crucial.
School is another topic. They have been helping children who are struggling, but the school needs trained social workers. Recently one of the woman offered a workshop to children to help them recognize explosives so that the children will stop picking them up on the way to school.
Economic issues are another topic. Many of the women engage in crafts.
They sell their wares at fairs and at their embroidery shop in a cave in Susiya. You can see the interior in a previous post here.
A workshop on techniques for making yogurt and machinery and the skills to spin wool professionally come up in conversation. Wool from the sheep in the villages tends to go to waste in the summer.
Dreams and energy fill the room – including the energy without which the meeting would have been next to impossible. The Israeli government sponsors power lines for Israeli settlements; these bypass the Palestinian villages. But an NGO, Community Energy Technology (Comet-ME), has for some years provided renewable technology to these communities and the expertise to maintain it.
COMET’s office is in a pre-existing building but the added roof over the terrace is subject to demolition. Hence their workshops are in caves:
There a staff that includes Israelis and local residents makes solar panels, wind turbines and water filtration systems for tent villages in South Hebron.
The energy also powers television sets in Susiya. There, a mother and her six children can watch Bollywood films at bedtime with their overnight guest after a day that began before dawn.
text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2016