Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Audacity and the Wall

I've finished a new draft of my West Bank Wall chapter and will post a short sample soon. It was a difficult chapter to write. There are so many facets to the Wall that I had trouble knowing when to stop.

What struck me most during the writing, and during my time in Palestine earlier this year, is the Wall's audacity. The Wall has a concrete conviction in its own bluntness. It makes no pretenses towards grace or sophistication. It is blue-collar and proud. It is boastful. The Wall is cold and rude and hard and stone. And it doesn't give a shit what you think.

But the Wall is not the whole story in Palestine. What I want to show in this chapter, among other things, is that while the Wall is a potent symbol of the Occupation - something to march against, spray with paint and pound with fists - it is only an example of Israel's audacity in regards to the Palestinians.

Here is another one: A Palestinian organizer of anti-Wall protests in the West Bank, Abdallah Abu Rahmah, has been arrested and charged with arms possession. What were the arms in his possession? Spent IDF tear gas grenades and canisters that were fired at demonstrators during the protests. He had the "arms" displayed in his home like this:

You can find the story about Abu Rahmah's arrest here. It makes me wonder if the Israelis who collect rockets shot at them from Gaza are also guilty of arms possession?

Monday, December 14, 2009

"Books Not Bombs" online

A story I wrote about Tmol Shilshom, my favourite place in Jerusalem and a mecca for writers, is now online on the Maisonneuve magazine site.

You can find it here.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

John Irving on Wrestling and Writing

The author John Irving was interviewed by Michael Enright on CBC Radio a few weeks back. He spoke about how his own career as a wrestler influenced his writing. Irving started to wrestle when he was an ill-tempered fourteen year-old. He told Enright that “you can’t lose your temper on a wrestling mat”, and that wrestling was all about controlling one’s temper. Channeling it. “Wrestling was my first discipline,” he said.

Irving started to write about the same time as he started to wrestle, and eventually made the connection between the two pursuits. Passion, fear and anger are fuel for a writer as much as they are for a wrestler; and just like a wrestler a writer must be able to manage them. He learned how do do this on the mat first through repetition. Through the hours of practice on the mat. He goes on to say that as a wrestler, you...

accept the responsibility of learning a small detail until it becomes second nature. Until a move or a response to someone else’s body becomes instinctive. It isn’t instinctive. It’s a learned process. But it has to be as quick as something instinctive if you’re going to be any good. I was disciplined at that before I became disciplined as a writer. And it helped me.

Irving relates the necessity of a wrestler to constantly repeat his movements over and over to the necessity of the writer to constantly revise. Wrestling taught him the stamina for constant rewriting.

I am thinking of Irving these days as I lay down my rough first draft of the Walls book. Quite frankly, most of what I’ve written is horrible. My experiences overseas were rich, and my notebooks are full of delicious details, but my prose so far is weak and my narrative disjointed. I know that the beauty, if there is to be any, will come later through rewriting. I have a long way to go and I get exhausted thinking about it. I could use a little of the wrestler’s stamina right about now.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Article: "Berlin Wall is gone but Israel’s inhumane barrier still stands"

I found an excellent essay about the West Bank Wall on the Herald Scotland website. The author - who, oddly, is not named - writes eloquently on many of the ideas I mentioned in my last post.

You can find it here.

[Correction: David Pratt wrote the aforementioned Herald Scotland piece.]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Walls in Berlin and Palestine

Along with the Berlin Wall anniversary celebrations this week came the parallels between the Berlin Wall and the wall Israel has built around the West Bank. (The photo is of graffiti on the Wall in Ramallah.)

These comparisons were inevitable, of course, and so was the subsequent scoffing of the West Bank Wall's supporters. There is no comparison, they say. The Berlin Wall was built to imprison East Berliners. Israel's barrier was built to save innocent lives. They point to the fact that attacks within Israel were greatly reduced since the wall was erected in 2002. The Wall is good, they say.

They are wrong.

First of all, the building of the West Bank Wall did not result in the reduction of terrorist attacks in Israel. It coincided with a reduction of violence that was already underway. In the year before the Wall, the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority were already cooperating with intelligence sharing to prevent suicide attacks. Most importantly, key Palestinian groups had already abandoned such attacks as a tactic. The violence was ebbing before the Wall. This is a fact.

Secondly, it is naive to think that the primary purpose of the Wall is about security. If stopping attacks was the goal, then why wasn't the Wall built along the 1967 borders? Why does the Wall divide Palestinian farmers from their land? Why does the Wall appropriate so much Palestinian territory? Why are so many olive groves and fruit trees uprooted for the Wall? I've never heard an apologist for the Wall answer these questions.

Those that have been following this blog know that I've seen these things first hand. I've come to realize that the Wall is not a 'security' barrier. The Wall appropriates Palestinian land for settlement expansion in the West Bank. The Wall disrupts the Palestinian economy by dividing farmers from their fields, or by destroying their orchards altogether. The Wall creates de facto and non-negotiated borders. Rather than create security, the Wall creates the anger and frustration that inspires violence.

This Wall, like the Berlin Wall before it, needs to fall.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Representing the Other

Yesterday I was part of a panel discussion with writer Sid Marty, and moderated by Pamela Banting, about "Representing the Other" in Creative Nonfiction. We covered several interesting ideas during the 90 minute discussion, but a comment from a member of the audience questioned the responsibility of the author in portraying the Other, and I would like to muse on that a little here.

The gentleman suggested - and I am paraphrasing - that writers must work to reduce the 'otherness' of the Other. To show the reader what we share in common and the ways we are the same. This is a common trope found in travel writing: the idea that people in foreign cultures are "just like us." The claim is oft followed by the question, "So why can't we all just get along?"

This idea is politically correct. It may give us a warm feeling and a John-and-Yoko glow. But it is nonsense. No travel writer - and perhaps no creative nonfiction writer - is interested primarily in what we have in common with the Other, regardless of his or her claims. The writer goes off to seek the differences in the world, the exotic, the unfamiliar. That is the point of the whole exercise. I don't give a shit about commonalities.

Besides, it is impossible to un-other the Other. We can never hope to truly know another person, especially one coming from a background completely foreign to our own. How could I truly comprehend a man who has lived his life in a desert refugee camp? Or an Indian migrant camping out on the edge of Europe? Or a Palestinian farmer watching his olive trees bulldozed to build Israel's Wall? Or, for that matter, the young IDF soldier doing the bulldozing? To suggest that we can understand these people and show how they are, in some important way, "just like us" is hubris. It is also, I think, insulting.

Writing the Other is not about comprehension, but about responsibility. We are beholden to the Other to portray him with compassion. We strive to make our readers sympathetic to and respectful of the Other, not to understand him. Perhaps we work to bust myths and debunk stereotypes. In this way, we write to affect change in our reader. To teach the reader something new.

Much of my writing is about the cultures of Islam. There is no Other more maligned and feared these days than the Muslim Other. In my Iran book, Poets and Pahlevans, I show the reader that the Iranian Other is not a fundamentalist and flag-burning radical, but a sophisticated and reasoned caretaker of rich cultural traditions. The book does not claim that the Iranians are just like us, far from it, but it aims to show the reader that the Iranians are not how they perceive them to be. The book is, at its heart, a 300-page love letter to the Iranian people that celebrates the ways in which they are unique from Us. We can learn much from them.

The gentlemen in the audience stated we can prevent war by showing what we have in common with the Other. My initial response to his comment was that stopping wars is not my job. It isn't, but I wish I'd expanded on that a little more. His point is that we are less likely to drop bombs on people similar to ourselves. I think this is naive. As a culture, and as a species, we don't have much problem harming our own. I suggest instead that portraying the Other with compassion, revealing the beauty in their uniqueness, and inspiring sympathy for their culture is a more realistic path to peace. We are even less likely to drop bombs on those we've learned to love.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Wall of Shame" goes digital

The digital version of the current Geist magazine is now up and running. My story about the Saharawi refugee camps, titled "Wall of Shame," begins on page 53. The good people at Geist did a fantastic job with the layout. My work has never looked so pretty.

This story has turned out to be rather important one for me. It represents the first chapter of my 'Walls' project and it is the piece I worked on during my literary journalism residency at the Banff Centre in 2008. In addition, this 'Geist version' - edited for both brevity and clarity - won the 2009 Dave Greber Freelance Writer's Award.

Here is the link.

While you are electronically flipping through the magazine, look for Billeh Nickerson's McPoems. Fast food can be beautiful after all.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hills, here and elsewhere

My office window faces north and from here I can see the edge of Calgary's Nose Hill Park. The park is a vast stretch of grassland that has avoided the encroachment of subdivisions and suburbs. A miracle in Calgary. I used to run along the trails on Nose Hill Park when I was a teenager. It is the first place I ran out of my own volition. (Before that I'd only endured the forced marches of Phys-ed class). My hill run began on the pathway behind my house and stretched up through the brown and tan suburbs, underneath busy 14th Street, and up onto the Hill. The pathway ended at a picnic table made ragged by pocket-knife graffiti. Initials added to initials framed in lopsided valentines. The mathematics of teenage lust.

Sometimes, when I was lucky, I saw a young deer at the end of the pathway. I don't know how many times this happened - in retrospect, it couldn't have been often - but I remember it very well. The morning moments with a young deer was the reward for my panting and sweat.

Other things happened on Nose Hill, of course. A parking lot on one edge of the hill, just out of sight from my office window, was called, charmingly, 'Pecker Point'. An archaeology of beer cans and condoms lays beneath the gravel bearing witness to what happened here. There were fires, too, started by careless smoking or illegal fireworks, that often blackened the hill to its edges. Sometimes we could smell the ash in the air from the St. Helena Junior High down the road.

My times on Nose Hill were decidedly more chaste. Just the morning runs and the hope of spotting deer at the picnic table.

I am writing about other hills right now: the Khasi Hills in northeastern India along the border with Bangladesh. The Khasi Hills, of course, have little in common with the dry Calgary park I can see from my window. On the Khasi Hills, moisture from the Bay of Bengal collides into the cliffs and pours down in a rage. These hills endure the world's highest annual rainfall, and Indians come in the dry season to stare over the cliffs and imagine the storms. The rains turn the Khasi Hills into jungle, but Nose Hill is only green in the weeks after a grass fire - a brief transition between the black and brown.

Instead of the white flowers that hang along the Khasi roadside, Nose Hill enjoys a brief blessing of crocus. I remember my kindergarten teacher bringing us onto the hill to see the tiny purple flowers. Mrs. Bloy told us to find a blossom and lay on the grass beside it while she told us the myth behind the Chinook wind. I cannot remember the story, but I remember my puffy winter coat and the feel of the dry grass on my face and the velvet petals of my flower. That day on the Hill remains one of my fondest childhood memories.

I mention it here because I became a father three weeks ago and I'm feeling nostalgic.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


I've been the Markin-Flanagan Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary since mid-August and I've had a fabulous and productive month. From my 11th floor office I managed to complete a handful of freelance pieces for magazines and, more importantly, another chapter in my Walls project. A first draft of my Ceuta and Melilla chapter is now in the proverbial can.

I am both thrilled and startled at my productivity here. It makes me wonder why I couldn't get so much done at my office at home. (That office is now a nursery - my next 'project' is a collaboration with my wife and will be released in the next few weeks.) Perhaps I've gotten so much work done here at the University because the writing has never felt so much like a job. I get up in the morning, tuck a sandwich into a Ziplock, and head to the office. I have business cards and an office phone number. I have regular hours in which I do manuscript consultations, an online calender, and - miracles of miracles - a salary.

I already worry what will happen when this delicious gig ends in June. I hope I can keep up my momentum.

I am an alumnus of the University of Calgary and a former member with the varsity wrestling team. I stopped being a competitive wrestler when I graduated in 1996 - though some of my teammates, and certainly some opponents, might say I stopped being competitive long before that. I returned to the wrestling room for a few months in 2003 and 2004 as part of my the preparation for my book Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran. The book chronicled my travels through Iran in search of Persian poetry and traditional wrestlers. I planned on wrestling in Iran and wanted some mat-time back home to get my body fit enough that I wouldn't end up hospitalized.

Now I am back on the mat again. Since I spend most of my day on campus, and since I really miss the sport, I am taking advantage of my proximity to the old wrestling room. Last night was my first practice. It hurt.

There was something intensely satisfying about the rituals of a wrestling practice. The give of the mat beneath my boots. The warm-up stretches. Bending knees and bumping foreheads. Then, on the ground, pressing your body into to the mat to fight the strain that turns to pain before the turn. The familiar feel of ribs against wrist, of fingers on forearms. The slow soak of sweat and knee-pad stink. The brief camaraderie strangers share in combat. I was the oldest wrestler on the mat by at least 15 years, easily the slowest and most likely the weakest. Still, it felt good. Really good.

I am curious to see what effect these tri-weekly battles will have on my writing. In Poets and Pahlevans, I traveled through Iran looking for the connections between combat and creativity. Now I will do the same here on more familiar ground. I just hope I survive.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Great Home Chefs

My freelance writing career has been typically feast or famine. This September I am feasting.

In addition to the Maisonneuve piece I mentioned in my last post, and a story about Tangier in this month's Westworld Magazine, I wrote the cover story in today's Swerve Magazine. In it, I profile five great amateur chefs of Calgary and attempt to understand what motivates them to make magic in their home kitchens. The photos, by Marc Rimmer, are marvelous.

Since any discussion of great home chefs has to include someone's grandmother, I thought I might as well include my own. That's her holding the giant meatball.

The story is titled "From their kitchens with love."

Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Biography of a Café

Earlier this year I had the great honour to read at a Jerusalem café-bookstore called Tmol Shilshom. (I mentioned this in a previous post.) I'd been wanting to read at the café for years, and it was a fabulous night.

Tmol Shilshom has a fascinating history. The café's opening night event in 1994 featured the beloved Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and granted the café a literary cachet. Since then, the café has become a place for authors to both read and write. Some of the world's most celebrated writers have graced the lecturn at Tmol Shilshom: Amos Oz, Yann Martel, Frank McCourt, as well as lesser scribblers such as myself. The café is a centre for Jerusalem's contemporary culture, and one of my favourite places in the world.

I wrote a 'biography' of Tmol Shilshom two years ago, and the story has finally has seen the light of print. The piece is called "Book not Bombs" and it appears in a fine Montreal magazine called Maisonneuve. You can find it on better magazine racks in Canada.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Reading about the Saharawi

Last week I 'headlined' the monthly Flywheel Reading series event at Pages Bookstore in Calgary. It was a chance for me to read from the book-in-progress and I am grateful to the Flywheel crew for inviting me to read. The reading was recorded by a local spoken-word blogger - thank you, Dale - and I've posted the audio below. My reading begins after a couple of minutes of preamble by the event host, Stephanie Davis.

The three excerpts are from my chapter about my visit to the Saharawi refugee camps in Algeria in February 2008. Those of you who have been following my blog for a while might remember my posts and photos from that trip. If not, you can find them here, here , and here .

By way of context, and to make a long and complicated history extremely short, the Saharawi are long-time inhabitants of the Western Sahara who fought a war of independence against the Moroccans for the territory in the 1970s and 1980s. During the course of the war, Morocco built a series of defensive walls, or berms, in the desert to repel the advance of the Saharawi forces. On the east side of these walls, on land granted by Algeria, are the Saharawi refugee camps where upwards of one hundred thousand Saharawi live. More than half of them were born in the camps and have never known the land their parent's generation continue to fight for.

I hope you enjoy the reading. Click the little green arrow below to play.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mightily, the Overflood

I was going through some of my old travel journals and came across this little gem. These are tasting notes for Vinium Karalahna, a wine my wife and I drank plenty of during our honeymoon on the Turkish Island of Bozcaada:
"Profound ruby red with violet tints allures to stare at it into depth and strong scents of cherry and plum flood out, mightily. At a first stir, it is a powerful overflood of mellow fruits like cherry, dewberry. wild strawberry. Thorough harmony of scents and savours. Highlight of pleasure which seduces to sip it over and over again."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Making Light of The Wall

This Israeli commercial for a cell phone company is a shameful example of how some Israelis view the Occupation. I don't know what I find most offensive: the light-hearted portrayal of a symbol of apartheid, or the fact that the Palestinians in the commercial remain invisible.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Walls Book Update

I am still working on my walls book. Those who have been following my blog already know I've spent much of the last two years abroad conducting research for the book. So far I've visited Algeria, Morocco, the Western Sahara, Ceuta and Melilla, northeast India, Kashmir, Israel, Palestine and Cyprus. Starting in mid-August I will begin a ten-month residency at the University of Calgary to try to turn my stacks of illegible travel journals into something resembling a first draft.

My original idea for this book had me covering walls and barriers in about a dozen different countries and territories around the world. Lately I've come to the realization that this was, perhaps, rather too ambitious. There is some concern about whether I can manage a narrative line that links all of these diverse places. I don't want to write a series of postcards. I want to write a story.

So, I am going to simplify my intentions. Aside from a return to Kashmir (my time there last November was too brief) and a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, I will focus the 'walls' book on the places I've already been. I am excited, and honoured, to have the time and space offered by my residency to get this done.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

After a long silence

I arrived home from Cyprus in May and have spent so much time hustling for freelance writing jobs that I have neglected this blog. It has been a strange few months. By the time I returned home my grant funding had dried out, I didn't have a bartending job anymore, and my writer's residecy would not start until mid-August. So I've been working hard turning out stories for various magazines to keep the wolves at bay.

In two months I finished a long story about my time in the Saharawi refugee camps, a history of Tmol Shilshom cafe in Jerusalem, a 'reconsideration' of Tangier, an account of the archery stakes in Shillong, a feature about great home chefs in Calgary and two short profiles: one about an Olympic bobsledder and the other about a self-described 'philanthropy junkie.' I also have deadlines for a pair of stories about a retired zoo-keeper on Denman Island who raises rare Pekin Robins. (More on 'The Birdman of Denman Island' in a future post.)

I have writer friends who do far more than this, but personally I've never been this productive. There is nothing like potential starvation to spur one on.

(As you can see, I changed the look of the blog. The photo is from the fabulous medina in Tangier. I am not sure about the white text on black background, though. Any suggestions would be welcome.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Tavern Joys

Friday night was one of those epic nights that make me happy I do what I do.

I went in search of a Turkish Cypriot meyhane, a sort of tavern restaurant, that I’d read about. As always, I got lost, but this time I stumbled on the place accidentally as if on purpose. It was early for dinner and I was the only diner in the place. My waiter suggested a bottle of raki. I poured a healthy dram into the glass, added water, then ice – the proper raki preparation I learned in Istanbul on my honeymoon.

I don’t know if the place had a menu, but I was never offered one. The dishes just started appearing: Chunky hummus with smoked paprika. Almonds. Fava beans, both marinated and pureed. Thin slices of salty beef pasturma. Yogurt tzatziki. Pickled celery. Fatty dried lamb. Three kinds of cheese. They arrived rapidly, and as the raki began to dull my mathematics I started to lose count. I do remember that grilled quail was my main course and fresh watermelon was for dessert.

By the time my coffee arrived, a group of men had collected at a table with the owner. They brought over some strawberries for me to try. Then some fresh almonds in green fuzzy jackets. Then they refilled my raki. Then they just decided that I might as well join them.

The raki kept coming, and we all watched a Turkish Superleague soccer game on the television. Afterwards I excused myself to leave, but the men refused. They said I could not go until I’d tried the macaroni that the chef was preparing. This did not sound so exciting, especially for someone of Italian descent. One man must have read my unimpressed face because he said. “This place is famous for its macaroni. It is not cooked in water.”

This was intriguing. “What is it cooked in?”

“Grouse stock.”

I returned to my seat.

Someone filled my raki again. And again. Then a woman joined us. One of the men who was deaf – and perhaps mentally ‘slow’ – had a crush on her and gave her a pink scented candle with Valentine hearts glitter-glued all over it. She was gracious, but not seduced. (She was also, according to one man, a fascist.) Another two men arrived: one a Turkish Cypriot journalist, the other a young man from Abkhazia who played soccer for a local team and only spoke Russian. The grouse macaroni, when it arrived, was dressed with shredded cheese and dried mint, and was rich like no other pasta I’ve ever had.

It was two in the morning by the time I left the restaurant. Someone drove me back to my hotel, but I don’t remember who. Maybe it was the waiter. I do remember that the owner would not accept any money from me. He just kissed my cheeks and walked me to the door.

A real writer would have take the opportunity to get some ‘work’ done. He would have asked the men about the Turkish Cypriot problem, found out if they’d ever crossed to the other side, and scribbled down their comments in his notebook. I didn’t do any of this. My notebook never left my pocket. Someday I might regret this, but sometimes, I think, you just have to surrender.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Walking through the Dead Zone

After spending five weeks amid Palestine’s daily despair, the divisions here in Nicosia seem almost quaint by comparison. The forty year-old conflict between the Turkish North and Greek South has lost all of its heat and momentum, but entrenched feelings of betrayal and distrust keep it going. There is some talk in the newspapers about 2009 being the year the island is finally reunited, but nobody I’ve talked to believes it. I will be here for about three weeks and in that time I want to get a sense of what the divided city means to people today, especially those young enough to have never known a united Nicosia.

The walled Old City is divided neatly in half by the Green Line and a narrow buffer zone that is off-limits to everyone but military personnel. In the south, the area near the buffer zone is a fascinating collection of abandoned homes and decades-old barricades. I am constantly drawn to this line. No matter where I am headed in the city, I make sure I take the route closest to the Dead Zone.

In the Dead Zone, second-floor windows are glassless and piled with sandbags to provide cover for riflemen who haven’t been there for decades. Paint flakes off the walls. I found an abandoned shop filled with trash – broken shelves, empty gas canisters, an old moped frame. The dust dyes it all the same grayish brown. Only an empty soda bottle, tossed in recently, adds any colour. Against the gray it shines like an emerald.

The barricades that block the street are crumbling. The sand bags leak. Old wooden bunkers sag. The rows of sand-filled metal barrels bleed rust. Some of these have become unwitting planters for weeds that grow into yellow flowers. Some barrels are painted in alternating blue and white, in honour of the Greek flag, and remind me of the cheery formica-and-vinyl of 50s diners. And everywhere, of course, is the barbed wire that snags the occasional plastic bag that blows past.

Young soldiers stand next to some of these barricades in a strange juxtaposition of youth and dereliction. How bored they must be, soldiers in a war that is over. All they have to do is wave away the tourists who come with their cameras. There is no photography allowed. Stern signs in three languages warn people like me to ‘Keep Away!’ as if there is real danger here. Meanwhile, the rain and wind and weeds continue their march. Trampling the barriers into the ground. Sucking history into archaeology.

A Settler Home for Purim

(I waited until I left Israel to post this story, and I am not sure why. I guess I didn’t want to have to confront whatever anger it might inspire in those I write about. I tried to convince myself that I was being polite. Now I wonder if I am just cowardly.)

I met a young writer at my reading in Jerusalem. He invited me to join him for the Purim holiday in the settlement of Neve Daniel where he lives. I accepted the invitation right away even though I have strong feelings about the settlements themselves. These communities are built on stolen land in the West Bank and are deemed illegal by nearly every international body. I believe, and so do most Israelis, that the settlements represent one of the biggest obstacles to peace. If violent jihadists represent extremism on the Palestinian side of the equation, than the settlers represent extremism on the Israeli side. I have always believed this.

I took the bus from Jerusalem into Neve Daniel. The Wall followed the highway for part of this journey. For the benefit of the settlers, I suppose, the Israelis have made the Wall attractive here. Some of it is built of textured stone in various shades of pinkish tan and ivory. The implications of the barrier – its effects on Palestinian life, its silent rejection of peace – are whitewashed by a pleasant, garden-wall aesthetic.

Purim is a fascinating holiday. People dress in costume, sometimes as characters from the biblical figures the holiday is derived from. Others in disguises that would befit our North American Halloween. There is a lot of eating and a surprising amount of drinking. For many, drunkeness during Purim has a spiritual component. The bus was filled with young Israelis and American yeshiva-students in varying costumes. I listened to them talk about all events that were planned. Who was going to which party and with who. I know little about Judaism, but I always associated the faith with sombre devotion. It was heartening to see Judaism linked with such silliness and fun.

My settler 'guide' met me at the bus stop and took me to the house where we would have the Purim meal. The place was packed. More than twenty people crowded around the table. The noise was amazing. At times it seemed that everyone was talking at once, with one or two people singing Purim songs at one end of the table or another. With all their guests and the happy noise, my hosts had little time to talk with me about my project. I was relieved at this. I was afraid such talk would lead to a talk of politics, and I knew that my views would be as repulsive to them as theirs are to me. I suspect my hosts knew this, too. I decided to be a quiet and grateful guest, even though this made me feel like a fraud.

Things got uncomfortable, though, midway through the meal. One of the children had dressed up as a cowboy, and the family sang ‘Home on the Range’ in honour of his costume. Afterwards his mother, my host, announced that she knew another version of the song that she helped write. Her husband asked her not to sing it.

“Okay. I won’t sing it, but I will say the lyrics.” She turned to me. “But you have to remember that I am from the inner city.” The woman proceeded to recite a racist version of the song written to insult Mexicans. I don’t remember the middle part, but the song began with:

Oh give me a home,
Where the cockroaches roam…

And ended with:

Where seldom is heard
An English word,
And the bodegas are open all day.

I didn’t know how to react. The woman was clearly proud of this song. And she was beaming at me. I wanted to tell her that the song fit exactly with my image of what settlers are like. I wanted to say that I was not surprised at the song because, after all, the settlements themselves are built out of racism. I wanted to thank her for showing her true colours to me and vindicating my discomfort at accepting her generosity, and for being here at all. But I didn’t say anything.

After the meal, one of the children, a four year-old girl dressed as an angel but with her wings tied on upside-down, decided she wanted to sit in my lap. While the rest of the family was distracted by the post-meal prayer, the little girl reached across the table, grabbed a handful of raw cucumber sticks, and started playing with them as if they were building blocks.

“What are you making?” I whispered in her ear.

“A choo-choo train,” she whispered back.

I like kids. The girl reminded me a little of my niece, who I miss terribly when I am away from home, and I was touched by her immediate trust of me even though I was a stranger. It was a sweet moment.

But as we were both playing with our food, something occurred to me. If you had asked me, in that moment, if I thought that this little girl’s home should be taken away from her, I would have said yes. I would support the bulldozing of her house, of her school, of the playground down the road where she climbs the monkey bars and swings on the swings.

I had a hard time with this. I had a hard time reconciling my opinion of the settlers as a group with the hospitality of this family and the tenderness of this one child. I haven’t changed my mind about the settlements. They are immoral. But things get complicated when we are confronted by individual souls. It was a difficult day.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

In Nicosia

I arrived here in Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus, a couple of days ago. I will soon write a post about my first impressions of the city, and have to catch up with another story from Israel. So stay tuned.

In the meantime, check out the work of Cypriot photographer Thodoris Tzalavras. I had the pleasure of meeting Tzalavras for coffee yesterday, and his photos of Nicosia's Green Line, "Nicosia in Dark and White," capture in image what I hope to describe in words. These are some beautiful and haunting photos. See them here.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Barbed Wire in Bethlehem

I went to Bethlehem to photograph some of the graffiti on the Wall - which I did - but found myself more enamoured with the coils of concertina that is everywhere. Perhaps I have seen too much of it in the past year, but there is an aesthetic to barbed wire that I find beautiful in spite of its nature.

The Walls of East Jerusalem

Today I took a tour with an Israeli-Palestinian NGO called Ir-Amim to visit Jerusalem’s backyards and unholy places. A bus carried a crowd of mostly foreigners around East Jerusalem to show the impacts of the Wall.

I had been looking forward to hearing about the Wall from an Israeli perspective and was surprised that our guide expressed the same objections to the Wall that my Palestinian contacts did. He, too, believes that the Wall is not built for security but is, at its heart, a political barrier. Certainly my Palestinian farmer friends in Jayyous who find their olive groves the wrong side of the Wall would agree.

He talked about how the Wall’s current route in East Jerusalem only serves to segment, weaken and anger the Palestinians in a failing attempt to ensure that the city maintains a Jewish majority. He told us that most Israelis support the Wall as a security barrier because, as he put it, “they don’t know or don’t care” about the Wall’s human price. I asked him how such a media- savvy and newspaper-addicted society like Israel could simply not know, he told me that “they don’t know because they don’t care. They think barrier does not affect their daily lives.”

But it does, at least in Jerusalem, and the tour showed some compelling ways how. First, he told us that as soon as the Wall was being constructed in East Jerusalem, Palestinians on the other side feared, rightly, that they might never again have access to the city. So Palestinians in the West Bank left their homes and flooded into Jerusalem in advance of the Wall. Their numbers increased real estate prices through simple supply-and-demand economics. Soon, few could afford homes. This fact, combined with the sudden inability for poor Arab Jerusalemites to shop in cheaper West Bank markets, poverty in Jerusalem increased. Then crime. And the homes these ‘migrants’ left became quickly occupied by other West Bank Palestinians. So a Wall meant to keep Jerusalem as Jewish as possible resulted in an increase in the Muslim population, an increasingly poor and angry one, both within the city and in its immediate environs.

In addition, the building of the Wall has resulted in the closure of many East Jerusalem hospitals and clinics. These facilities used to cater to Palestinians from both East Jerusalem and the West Bank. With the closure of the West Bank, the hospitals are lacking in patients ans are forced to closed. Now Arabs from East Jerusalem are forced to seek medical attention in Israeli hospitals that, as a result, are operating beyond their capacity.

It was a very interesting tour, but a gloomy one. The guide showed us the myriad of problems but offered no solutions. Even more depressing was that much of what the guide said revealed two basic assumptions. First, the Israeli settlements around Jerusalem are there to stay. Secondly, Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem truly hate each other and do not want to be neighbors. After the month I’ve spent here I am starting to agree with both statements.

Sending a Message

The fingers on Yusuf’s right hand are sore and black. “Some spray cans are more finger-friendly,” he says, and he should know. He finds a broken bottle on the ground, with the bottle cap still on the neck, and discovers it fits perfectly on his spray-finger. The ad hoc prosthetic will make the painting easier. Yusuf also finds an unfired rifle bullet on the ground. He tosses it to me. “A souvenir of Palestine,” he says. I thank him and put it into my pocket, but drop it back onto the ground when Yusuf is not looking. After all my time in the West Bank on this trip I will have enough trouble with airport security without having them find live ammunition in my luggage.

Yusuf goes back to the Wall, peels away some old Palestinian campaign posters, rattles his can, and sprays the next message on his list onto to the grey concrete:

Zahour ma femme
cherie, je t'aime

He moves half a concrete slab to his right, checks the paper in his hand, and writes:

Hey Ruby, let's get married!!

Yusuf is a graffiti writer for Send A Message. The project allows ‘senders’ from anywhere in the world to send a message to a recipient by having Yusuf and his cohorts spray paint it on the Wall. The sender pays thirty Euros for the service, and the recipient receives emailed photographs of the sprayed message. The money raised goes towards a Palestinian youth centre in Ramallah. The project is just over a year old, and already over 1200 messages have been sprayed onto the Wall, most by Yusuf.

Many of the messages express a sort of long-distance solidarity with the Palestinian cause, but most of them don’t. According to Faris, a coordinator with the project, a full two-thirds of the messages they write are, what he calls, silly. There are birthday messages, wedding announcements, and everyday pronouncements of love. There are also simple ‘ads’ for personal websites, radio stations, or the websites of favorite rock bands. (Perhaps this blog could use some Wall exposure.) Someone had a falafel recipe sprayed on the Wall, and Faris told me that there have been at least a couple of marriage proposals in addition to Ruby.

The project workers will not spray messages that are racist, insulting, or obscene. They will also refuse messages that they disagree with. For example, messages referring to the Wall as the ‘Security Barrier’ will not be written because the Faris and Yusuf – and all Palestinians, and myself – don’t believe that the Wall has much to do with security. And no overtly pro-Israel messages will be written. I told Faris that I’d seen ‘This wall saves lives’ painted on the Wall in Bethlehem and asked if he would accept this message. “No, because it is not true,” he said. Such messages are against the aim and spirit of the project, he told me.

I was skeptical about the project when I first read about it. I’d spent three consecutive Fridays watching the stone-throwers and tear gas at the anti-Wall demonstrations in Jayyous where young men risked injury and arrest resisting the Wall. What was the point of writing something like ‘Happy Birthday Jane,’ on it?

Faris told me that he is asked the same question by many Palestinians who also wonder what good the project ultimately does. Faris said that ‘simple,’ Palestinians, those who the Wall affects the most, understand. The intelligentsia in Ramallah who have grown comfortable and have forgotten what it means to resist are the most cynical. Faris explains that in addition to raising money for the youth centre, the project serves as a unique form of dialogue. The sender and the receiver are linked by a concrete barrier built to separate. This irony, in itself, is compelling. The project also inspires more conversation about the Wall, and the system it represents, by exposing it to people who might not be politically motivated. In this way, the banal messages are most interesting. Those writing Mandela, Gandhi and Pink Floyd quotes are mostly preaching to the converted, or at least to the already interested. But someone who writes a message of love, or a falafel recipe, brings attention to the Wall through a sneaky sort of whimsy.

Another common criticism of the project is that it strives to make an ugly and hated structure into something beautiful. Faris counters this with “you do not notice the nail polish on the hand that is beating you”, but I liked Yusuf’s metaphor better: “If you take a piece of shit and make a beautiful sculpture out of it, you do not change its nature.”

I found the ‘silly’ messages on the Wall surprisingly compelling. I couldn’t help but think that they subverted the Wall’s martial nature. By using this military construction as a medium for decidedly lighthearted discourse, the ‘Security Wall’ becomes, in that moment, no more imposing than a bathroom wall. I didn’t see any “For a good time call…” messages, but I am sure they exist. These messages do not impact the Wall’s real effects – passing through the cattle-worthy gates to the Israeli side was an instant reminder of this – and the project will not serve to bring the Wall down. But it was never meant to. Instead, the messages mock the Wall and rob it of its emotional power.

(The Send a Message website is here.)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Zoo in Palestine

The rain and wind has stopped and it is spring again in Palestine, and I feel good. For me, it is not really traveling unless I can feel the sun warm my face. Perhaps this is a Canadian thing.

I traveled to Qalqilya the other day, a city in the northern West Bank. Qalqilya is known for two things: it is completely encircled by the Wall, and it is the home to Palestine’s only zoo.

Sometimes the metaphors are too easy that one feels lazy even making them.

I went to the zoo on a Thursday afternoon. It is a cheerful place. The benches and railings are painted in bright colours. A new ‘safe’ playground donated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation stands in the middle of the grounds. There were only a few families at the zoo that afternoon. Women in hejab led packs of excited children past the cages and to and from the ice cream vendors. After spending the last few weeks witnessing the effects of the Wall on the Palestinian people, and hearing their despairing stories, it was refreshing to be somewhere a little more lighthearted.

The Qalqilya zoo has not embraced the idea of ‘habitat enclosures,’ though I doubt the place could secure the sort of funding necessary for this sort of thing. Considering the depressed Palestinian economy – hobbled by local corruption, Israeli occupation and global recession – it is a miracle that this place exists at all. One can easily forgive some of the cramped cages, and the fact that the exotic specimens share the space with some rather banal creatures. In addition to a pair of sleeping leopards, a pacing bear, red-assed baboons, and – the zoo’s star – a feces-flinging hippo, there was a cage with a guinea pig in it. And a hutch full of rabbits. My favourite, though, was the chicken cage. The same birds could be found in identical coops down the street at the market. Those hens, however, are for eating.