Reports from the West Bank.
2003

I spent a lot of 2003 in the Palestinian Territories, mostly in various parts of the West Bank - writing about the Gaza Strip proved much more difficult. I was there doing academic research and shooting a documentary film. But I would also write reports to send to a student-run radio station in Slovenia called Radio MARS. Below is each of the reports.

 

Checkpoints, Yellow Plates, Dirt Roads: No Freedom to Move for the Palestinians. January 23, 2003.

You think that you’re in a traffic jam, when suddenly everyone in the taxi you’re in begins to get out of the over-crowded car. You recognize you’ve arrived because there are no more buildings, and instead a long line of cars, a collection of parked taxis and vans whose drivers are screaming out names of near-by towns, urging each passerby to get in to their cab. At first sight it looks like remnant of a war-torn place, with barricades, large stones and sand bags surrounded by a muddy dump... read report

 

Making the Desert Bloom. February 1, 2003.

Since 1948, with the creation of the State of Israel, the Israeli government, as well as its people, have maintained that they have brought “civilization” to the Holy Land, best summarized in their axiom that Israel has “made the desert bloom.” Of course such a statement denies the fact that much “civilization” existed in this small piece of land for long before 1948, or indeed the 20th century. The city of Jericho (in the Palestinian Territories) for example is globally accepted as the city that has had the longest consecutive inhabitation, dating back twelve thousand years. Never mind the various forms of civilizations that have existed here ranging from the Philistines to the Romans, from the Crusaders to the Ottomans, from the British to the “indigenous” Palestinians... read report

 

Observations, Frustrations, Hope. February 19, 2003.

It's been around 6 weeks or so since I've been here. Much of the time feels incredibly boring, essentially having to hang out at home and suffer through incredibly crappy television shows or inane conversations with my roommate. I think I've watched more TV here than I have in the past ten years put together, from Friends to Buffy, from Dynasty to Full House, movies ranging from Miller's Crossing and Last Action Hero to Sleepless in Seattle and Scream 2. As well as the range of crappy Arabic programming (content-wise and technically) like Arabic versions of Who Wants to be a Millionaire (or a similar show called Your Weight in Gold), to interviews with Arab singers and movie stars, Arab music videos, incredibly stupid Egyptian comedy shows or incredibly badly-acted Syrian drama series. And of course news, usually on Al-Jazeera or sometimes a competing satellite channel called MBC (can't stand the sight of CNN), all of which is War on Iraq, deaths in Palestine and occassionally other stories like anti-war demonstrations, deaths in the underground in South Korea or snowstorms on the US East Coast. I occassionally buy the newspaper (the International Herald Tribune, bundled with Ha'aretz, the most "open-minded" Israeli paper) and after I get through it, I wonder why I've bothered to spend the $1.80, as it frustrates me to no end to read news that doesn't at all jive with the realities on the ground here. If I have to read one more time that what Israel does is because of "security measures" I think I'll go insane!... read report

 

Hesitant Observer. March 5, 2003.

Hanging out a checkpoint. I was doing that for many reasons: to see the internalized ordinariness of something as surreal as a checkpoint. I’ve also been working on making a film about this specific checkpoint. Checkpoints are interesting, in what they represent - the obvious, physical presence of the Israeli military in the Palestinian areas, the cantonization of these areas, the new social and economic centers of Palestinian lives where people trying to get from A to B must all pass. They’re also the places where foreign observers come to ensure that Palestinians aren’t any more humiliated than necessary by the soldiers. These observers stand on the outside, watching the Palestinians stand in line, with their IDs in hand waiting to be let through, and often turned back. They don’t interfere, they just stand there for a few hours. They don’t go through the lines to feel the intimidation of having to be scrutinized by soldiers. They don’t argue with the soldiers who decide for no logical reason to turn someone back. They don’t attempt to tear the checkpoints down. They just stand there for a few hours and return to their comfy homes and feel like they’ve somehow participated in the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, human rights and freedom... read report

 

What’s in a Name? March 5, 2003.

Lightning. Barak in Hebrew, Sana in Arabic. Lightning. Illumination. Light. Something powerful, strong, perhaps unstoppable. Godly. Heavenly. Frightening. Awe-inspiring. Radiant. Playful. Beautiful. Natural. Necessary. A meaningful and beautiful name, in Hebrew, in Arabic, in any language. My two closest friends here share the same name... read report

 

A Sensitive Topic. March 6, 2003.

A sensitive topic that I dislike to discuss is suicide bombings, or martyr attacks as they are sometimes referred to. Even thought I’m spending time in the Palestinian Territories and Israel trying to learn about the political realities here, I feel reticent to ask people what they think about the attacks. I suppose I find it such a surreal event that I’m not really sure how to approach it. I feel much the same way talking to people about difficult or sad events, such as a loved one’s death, how someone became handicapped or how they survived the Holocaust. I feel it’s none of my business, plus I wouldn’t know how to react... read report

 

Pieces of a Political Puzzle: Conspiracy Theory Explained. March 13, 2003.

My whole life I’ve been hearing Palestinians, and Arabs in general, ramble about the conspiracy against them. I often think that holders of such beliefs are usually people not so keen on admitting any social or political “mistakes” they may have collectively made, instead basking in the glorious days of the Muslim Empire, 800 years long dissolved (not including the Ottoman Empire). They tend to go on about the innumerable contributions of Islam: to mathematics, astronomy, literature, sciences, anatomy, poetry, political theory, the list goes on. It is generally accepted that the Muslim world in its glory was budding with innovation and creativity. It is also accepted that many minorities – such as Christians and Jews – lived mostly in peace within the Islamic Empire, although subjected to higher taxes and lesser rights but rarely subjected to genocide or abuse. Arabs eulogize about how, for instance, the Jewish people and their culture flourished during such times, about how many of the Jewish scholars wrote their works in the beautiful and rich Arabic language, that were only much later translated into Hebrew. Or equally revel in the fact that the European Renaissance would not have happened were it not for the contributions of the Islamic world, such as translating the works of the Greek philosophers in which Western Civilization is still strongly embedded. How could the people of such an Empire have lost so much in the course of history and now suffer at the hands of the very people they helped and let thrive?... read report

 

Helpless At a Checkpoint. March 14, 2003.

There’s a checkpoint in the middle of the Northern West Bank. Sheve Shemron. There’s a settlement by the same name, which is why, presumably, there is also a checkpoint. This checkpoint is manned by a few Israeli soldiers who like to hide out in the nearby bushes and take passersby by surprise. It’s really in the middle of nowhere, on top of a hill overlooking a small village... read report

 

The Absurdity of Waiting for the Unknown. March 18, 2003.

Read an American newspaper: the war is starting, hundreds of thousands of troops are prepared to invade Iraq and surround Baghdad. Watch Israeli news: people are sealing up their rooms and have already picked up their emergency kits. Read between the lines: war will happen regardless of public opinion, French stubbornness or whether or not Saddam really has weapons of mass destruction. Talk to Palestinians: you get an array of responses... read report

 

Fishing for Culture. Finding Politics. March 22, 2003.

I’ve been obsessed with trying to find displays of Palestinian culture. I try to go to the cinema and see locally-made or produced films. I walked out at the end of one film crying at the grim future expressed by the kids in the film. At the end of the second film, my friend was crying at the sights of destruction from last year’s bombings. I saw a play a few weeks ago. I was sad afterwards, although I had found the mockery of the Israeli soldiers funny. I found a museum close to Ramallah but when I left I found it difficult to describe it as a museum, instead a random, poor collection of pottery, embroidered dresses and old ID cards from the British Mandate period. I’ve found a few stores that sell Palestinian paraphernalia and souvenirs – not including the tourist traps in the Old City of Jerusalem – and I wonder how much of the embroidery is locally produced. I ask people about their ways of culturally expressing themselves and I usually get responses about Occupation, death, imprisonment, a wish to escape, immigrate or die. Sometimes I don’t ask, but I just hang out with them long enough to observe their daily routines. I listen to conversations, I observe... read report

 

Watching the War from the Middle East: Thank God for Al-Jazeera. March 26, 2003.

One week since its start and the war wages on in Iraq. In which direction, it is difficult to tell, although few doubt that the U.S. and Britain won't succeed in their mission. But few of us can claim to really know what is going on in Iraq. We rely on the reporters who seem brave to us, standing open-air in Baghdad while bombs fall, surging through the desert in military tanks. As in all wars, the media is our only window to the events, but as in all wars truth is the first victim. We zap between channels to watch the spectacle unfold, to the detriment of analysis and perspective... read report

 

Not Just a Wall. April 8, 2003.

It's an absurdity difficult to describe. The Israelis call it "the security fence." The Palestinians have many names for it; which may be accurate given its various forms – fence, barbed wire, wall, concrete, electric fence... In its most general form it's really a border, a separation between the West Bank and Israel. Only it doesn't follow the Green Line – the "accepted" border between the West Bank and Israel; it doesn't seem to follow any logic at all, whether on a map or in real life. In some places it reaches far into the West Bank, in order to go around various settlements to include them outside the wall. It's costing the Israeli government millions of dollars to build, at the cost of health care, education, even military spending – that favorite Israeli cash cow. The Israeli government's plan is to complete the "fence" by 2004... read report

 

In The Line Of Fire. April 19, 2003.

It was a beautiful morning, my first day in Palestine’s largest city, Nablus. I thought I would explore the old city market, with its magical charm of vaulted passageways, domed roofs, arched entrances. I took my camera along of course – planning to photograph the historical architecture, the men sitting out by the side of the street with their nargilehs.
I had fallen asleep the previous night to the constant sound of shooting, to the glare of light bombs falling slowly from the sky. Everyone on the streets in the old market was talking about the events of last night: where the shooting came from, who was taken, who was injured, how the F16s also started flying overhead at around midnight... read report

 

A Non-Event. April 28, 2003.

It was the end of the day, maybe around 5:30 or 6pm, I was in the living room. I could hear F16s passing by overhead, I didn’t make anything of it since the roar of engines can be heard quite often. Two from the family I was staying with were on the roof, seeing a military jeep speeding down the nearby street. Within a few minutes the whole household was on the roof. The entire village was out: girls, women, boys and men on their roofs or looking out of their windows. Something was going on. Suddenly we heard a loud bang and saw a cloud of smoke rise up from the bottom of the hill where the town ends, about a mile away. A car had been blown up by the military. News traveled in various ways, people yelling to each other over the rooftops, all the neighbors sharing their information, and tons of cell phone calls – to family members living down the hill, to others who happened to be traveling on the road back to town, others who might have seen what had happened earlier in t he afternoon. The rumors were that one person was killed and two seriously injured, the car that had been blown up was suspected of carrying weapons. No one would later be able to confirm this, people who happened to be in the area will explain that the car was emptied of its passengers, its doors and trunk were open when it was blown up. As for the dead and/or wounded I would not find out, instead the people around me wondering who the victim might have been – was it someone from the village, a neighbor or a relative?... read report

 

From This Side.

I’ve been back one month, exactly. At night, in my sleep, I seldom feel like I have returned. I dream of Palestine every night. I dream of Palestinians. I dream of the new friends I’ve made, I dream of the people I’ve met, of the places I’ve been. I wonder what’s going on at the checkpoint I used to film at. Probably the same thing that’s always going on, regardless of roadmaps and political summits: people are turned back and forbidden to pass, cab drivers are arrested for taking people through the hills, the kids come out and throw stones and the soldiers retaliate with tear gas and bullets – not all of them rubber or rubber-coated. It’s probably hot and dusty, the ice cream merchants are out in full force... read report