Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Painting the Wall

I am back in Ramallah and just spoke to Mahmoud Abu Hashhash at the A. M. Qattan Foundation, a Palestinian arts organization. I wanted to pick up on a conversation Mahmoud and I started the last time I was in Palestine in 2007 about art and the Wall.

Mahmoud told me that many foreign artists come to Palestine and want to create art with the Wall. Many of them are politically motivated, and want to be in the sort of ‘heated place’ that inspires them artistically. He suggests, however, that only a few of the artists seem to be fully engaged in the conflict, and they forget that everything that the Wall represents – seperation, racism, oppression – all existed before the Wall was built. Mahmoud himself has never been allowed to travel to Jerusalem, for example, regardless if the Wall was there or not. What the wall has become, especially for foreign artists, is an encapsulation of the entire conflict. It is the conflict cast in concrete. A solid, tangible manifestation of an otherwise amorphous and multi-hued struggle.

Mahmoud compares the Wall to the weekly demonstrations that occur in villages like Jayyous. Like the Wall itself, these actions condense the entire conflict into a few hours of marching, slogans, tear gas and stones. For foreigners wanting to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian cause, the Wall and the protests against it provide a convenient outlet. Mahmoud does not mean to belittle the artists and other Internationals that come to express solidarity. Far from it. The Palestinians are grateful for the solidarity and welcome the Internationals into their midst. But the focus on the Wall or on weekly demonstrations can be a rather narrow one.

I asked Mahmoud why Palestinian artists do not seem interested in creating ‘Wall Art.’ The first answer was a simple one: painting the Wall is trendy, and artists do not like to follow trends. But he had another, more compelling answer. Contemporary Palestinian artists seek to free themselves from the patriotic symbols that have occupied Palestinian political art for decades. Artists are not portraying national ideas and collective pain anymore. Instead they are looking inward and describing the situation through their own inner space. Gone are the old symbols. Instead artists are ‘talking’ about disappointment and personal loss. Mahmoud told me that in the wake of the destruction in Gaza, artists there are not talking about grand ideas of loss. They are not waving flags, Instead they are writing about their own homes, their own studios, what has been damaged and what has been destroyed. It is through this intimacy that they express a more general pain.

Artists in Palestine have internalized the Occupation and are creating art from within themselves. For this new generation of Palestinian artists, the Wall is simply too broad a canvas. It is too public and too blunt.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fighting the Wall in Jayyous

The weather was windy and cold on Friday morning. It was a bad day for a protest, I was told. I was in Jayyous, where every Friday since November villagers gathered to demonstrate against the Wall. But no one was sure what would happen on this Friday. Two nights prior, Israeli soldiers entered Jayyous and imposed a curfew. They went house to house and rounded up over a hundred young men. After the soldiers left the next day, more than a dozen villagers remained in custody. Because of the incursion, and the weather, Mohammad was not sure if the weekly Friday protest against the wall would even happen. “The street will decide,” he said.

At first it didn’t seem like anything was going to happen. Then, from the roof of the house where I was staying, a small group of men started to walk up the road towards the gate in the wall. Then another small group. The street had decided, and I followed the protesters to the gate.

It was a strange experience to be there among the stone throwers. To hear the whistle and snap of the sling shots. Their cheers and smiles were surprising to me. No doubt anger and frustration inspired them, but the action was pure joy. They shouted insults. They cheered for Jayyous. They advanced against the soldiers, launched stones into the air, and fled the oncoming army jeeps. Tear gas canisters sailed overhead, trailing pale yellow smoke through the grey sky, but they had little effects in such a windy afternoon. A bad day for tear gas. There were rubber bullets, too, and the boom of sound grenades. Someone said that this battle was much smaller than in previous weeks, but as I stood within range of all of this I didn’t know whether or not to be afraid.

I stayed close to a man I knew, a Canadian who volunteers with the Stop the Wall organization. He didn’t hurl any stones, but I watched as he joined the protesters and heave boulders into a line across the road leading into the village. This was meant to slow the soldiers advance, and for a moment I felt an unexpected impulse to help these men. I didn’t, clinging instead to my safe and responsible – though perhaps cowardly – role as mere observer.

Around one corner, a man invited us into his house. Assuming we were suffering from tear gas, he gave us rags dribbled in cologne from a whiskey-flask and urged us to press the cloth against our faces. We went to his roof and took photos until the soldiers started to target us. A tear gas canister arced towards us, its red ember burning, and narrowly missed the rooftop. We retreated into the salon, where the man put out plastic chairs for us to sit on, prepared tea, and turned on the television to an English-language movie channel. Palestinians hurled rocks at soldiers outside while in the house, Napoleon Dynamite tasted milk for defects.

Back on the street we followed the stone throwers. Some young boys. Others in their thirties. Some wrapped kefiyas around their faces while others shouted bald-faced at the olive uniforms taking positions in greenhouses and on the roofs of private homes. Their slingshots were hardly accurate. I never saw anyone even come close to hitting a soldier or a jeep. But accuracy was not the point. Resistance was. Standing up to the high-tech Israeli war machines with homemade weapons made with twine was the point. Each flung stone was a statement of defiance. ‘We are not going anywhere. And the Wall must come down.’

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hooked on a Feeling

Yesterday, on my brief foray out of my hotel room and into the fresh air, I visited a bookstore in Arab East Jerusalem called Educational Bookshop. The place is little more than a stall, and its main function, as its name implies, is to sell textbooks and school supplies, but the store also stocks an excellent selection of books in English. They have translations of Arabic poetry, volumes about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and other titles about the culture and religion of the Middle East. It is one of those dangerous places where I always end up buying something, regardless of how many books I am currently hauling around.

As I was browsing, I listened in on a conversation with the shopkeeper and a white-haired British foreigner. I heard the Brit tell the Arab shopkeeper that he had recently visited Akko, a town on Israel’s Mediterranean Coast. I visited Akko, also called Acre, back in 2000. It is a very pretty walled medieval town that, due in part to its distance from both the West Bank and Gaza, has suffered relatively little from the decades long conflict, though I am sure there are Palestinians that would disagree. The more interesting Old City is populated mostly by Muslims – and my nose remembers the whole place smelling divinely of sheesha smoke – while the new town is mostly Jewish.

“Akko was very nice,” the Brit said to the shopkeeper. Then he added, in a sort of conspiratorial whisper, “but it felt occupied.”

No doubt this was just a cheap line meant to endear himself to the shopkeeper. Before 1948, Akko was a Palestinian town, but I don’t think there are many who would describe the present city as ‘occupied’, especially relative to towns in the West Bank. Simply put, I think the Brit was full of shit.

Still, his comment made me wonder if occupation does have a particular feeling that a visitor can sense. Certainly having soldiers on the streets and checkpoints imparts a specific brand of unease, but out of sight of barriers and military, what does occupation feel like? Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinsky wrote that a writer must must experience events on his “own skin,” and it is “this feeling along the surface of your skin, that gives your story its endurance.”

Can a writer feel occupation on his skin?

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In Jerusalem, with cold

I spent twenty-seven of my first forty-eight hours in Jerusalem in my hotel bed, and yesterday slept for seventeen hours. A cold and a cough that descended on me the day before I left Canada turned into a full-blown phenomenon on the plane ride into Israel. I became that coughing, sputtering, disgustingly snotty guy on the plane no one wants to sit beside. By the time we touched down in Tel Aviv my airways felt like they were on fire and every sneeze seemed likely to shatter my arms.

The last time I traveled alone to Israel I had a passport filled with stamps from Iran and Turkey. And so I spent six hours in security while the customs officials made sure, through some mysterious means, that I was not up to anything nefarious. This time my passport was lit up with stamps from Jordan, Algeria, Morocco and Pakistan, and because I spent two weeks last year passing in and out of the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta from Morocco, I had twenty-eight Moroccan entry and exit stamps. I figured I would beat my six hour record by a couple of hours at least.
This time, however, the travel gods offered me some mercy. I was through security in less than an hour. Aside from asking me if my wife was Moroccan and how I could possibly be a writer if I didn’t own a cell-phone, the airport security officials had little interest in me. I am sure it helped that I am scheduled to do a reading at a Jerusalem bookstore-café on the 23rd, and that my name and face are currently on the café’s website. (www.tmol-shilshom.co.il) I will write more about the café, which is one of my favourite places in the world, in an upcoming post.

I am feeling better this morning – my lungs have stopped burning, anyway – and I am looking forward to getting started on the research into the West Bank wall. I am waiting for my contacts here to get back to me. They include an anthropologist, a human rights lawyer, a Palestinian hip hop artist, a cultural centre official, and people from organizations that campaign both for and against the security barrier. I am casting my net wide in the hope of finding some stories that have not yet been told. That, I think, will be my biggest challenge on this leg of the trip.