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.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lamenting a Lonely Planet

I found an interesting article about travel and guidebooks by author Stephen Henighan in the very excellent Geist Magazine. You can find it here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Tree Falls

Mohammad told me that he knows every centimetre of his family’s land south of the village of Jayyous. He remembers camping in the middle of the fields in the hot Palestinian summers, and he especially remembers planting olive trees with his father. “It is a special thing for a Palestinian boy, to plant an olive tree,” he told me. “You watch the tree grow with you. And if you grow faster than the tree, you know that something is wrong. Maybe you have to give it more water, or more food. You have to care for it more.”

Now there is something else wrong. Mohammad has not seen his tree, or any of his family’s land, since Israel built the Wall around the village in 2003. There was no warning to the Wall. No meetings or discussion. Instead, notices appeared pinned to trees proclaiming the land was to be confiscated for security purposes. Then the bulldozers came. The villagers resisted, fought hand-to-hand with soldiers, but eventually the Wall went up.

I’ve learned a lot about the Wall in my time here in Palestine, and the more I learn the more I realize that Israel’s claim that the Wall is for security reasons is mere fallacy. Supporters of the barrier point to the fact that since the Wall was erected hardly any suicide bombers have infiltrated Israel from the West Bank. The Wall saves lives, they say, and some refer to the barrier as the ‘Fence of Life.’

This may be true. The Wall may in fact deter the worst of Palestinian militants from carrying out their murders in Israel. But none of this explains why the Wall exiles farmers from their fields, and why this confiscated land is bequeathed to Israeli settlements so they have room to expand. The security argument does not explain why the Wall separates Palestinian communities from each other and turns the West Bank into a discontinuous collection of Bantustans. The security argument does not explain why the Wall penetrates deep beyond the Green Line and into the Palestinian heartland. The argument does not explain why Mohammad’s father must rent land from a neighbor while his own fields lay unused and the trees he planted with his sons wither with neglect.

Olive trees can live for thousands of years. Trees in the Garden of Gethsemane outside the Old City of Jerusalem are over two-thousand years old, and some believe they were witness to the arrest of Christ. Mohammad’s tree will probably outgrow him. And if the bulldozers spare it, the tree may well outlive him. What is uncertain is whether either will outlive the Wall.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Talking Walls in Ramallah

The late winter has brought rain-slicked stones and cold to Palestine. Just like my time in Kashmir in November, I find myself unprepared for the cold. And also just like Kashmir, the unheated hotels bring no relief from the cold outside. My blue jeans which were soaked through during the protest in Jayyous three days ago have still not dried, and my feet have not been warm in a week.

I found some relief this afternoon in a Ramallah restaurant called Pronto’s where the sort of gas heat lamps common on Canadian bar patios are housed inside. (The fire hazard of this sort of thing is quickly forgotten when sitting beneath its delicious heat.) I met boikutt, a Palestinian hip hop artist of some renown who I met here in Ramallah in 2007. We talked about activism, art, music and the Wall.

Boikutt, whose real name is Basel Abbas, supports the idea of painting the Wall. Certainly, as a hip-hop artist, street art like grafitti suits his aesthetic. More than this, though, is the fact that writing on walls has always been part of the Palestinian experience. In the days of the first Intifada, when villages and refugee camps were under curfew, there was often no other way for Palestinians to communicate other than writing on their own walls. Spray-painted messages would announce births and funerals, and would express warnings to the occupying forces: “The PFLP will avenge the death of the following martyrs….”

But boikutt is afraid of ‘commodifying’ the Wall, of commercializing it, and having it become a symbol that, in the eyes of the international community, stands for everything. “The Wall is not the point,” he said. It is much bigger than that.” The Wall appears in boikutt’s lyrics, but only as part of the larger landscape of Palestinian life. Boikutt suggests that without the Wall – and the grand canvas it provides – foreign artists might not be interested in the conflict at all. It is good that the Wall has attracted the solidarity of the ‘Internationals,’ but the Wall is not the Occupation. If the Wall fell tomorrow, life in Palestine would not automatically improve.

Sam, a film-maker friend of boikutt’s had more to say. He explained how the biggest effect of the Wall in Qalqilya - a town in the northern West Bank that is completely enclosed by the Wall - is the increase in Islamic fundamentalism. The municipal government is now run by Hamas. Farmers who have lost their land to the other side of the Wall have no work, no money, and nothing else to do but go to the mosque and pray for God to intervene. He suggested, too, that the Wall has succeeded in eliminating face-to-face contact between Palestinians and Israelis. It is easier to hate someone you cannot see. And it is easier to kill them.

However, Sam believes that the best action against the Wall is to ignore it. Palestinians should not grant it importance, or legitimacy, by rallying against it. He said that the weekly demonstrations do little other than provide a release for anger, and that effort would be better spent improving education and health care in Palestine proper. “We have a bigger wall,”he said.