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.

When I first arrived, I wanted to make a film about the Old City of Jerusalem. I wanted to interview religious leaders, film the religious rituals of the three monotheistic religions, catch people in the old markets, try to portray how small the Old City is, how full of history it is. I found it increasingly difficult to so. There were logistical issues to be dealt with. Because of the conflict I wasn’t allowed to go to the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque – arguably the two most important Muslim sights in Jerusalem. In order to get to the Wailing Wall I had to get hassled through security checks. When I tried to film there, soldiers kept walking in front of my camera. I felt like I was filming a military installation, not the most important Jewish religious site. Perhaps the only place I didn’t encounter problems were the Christian sites – the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the various monasteries and churches. But I didn’t want to make a film about Christians only. I wanted to show the multi-dimensionality of the religious claims over Jerusalem. I wondered how I would show how small and tight-knit the Old City is. I thought about filming from over the ramparts, or over the roofs – which used to be popular tourist destinations. I wanted to film from Mt. Zion and the Mount of Olives, on the outside of the Old City with spectacular views. The ramparts were closed off, the Israeli military standing by the entrances. On the roofs I was welcomed by Israeli police. At Mt. Zion and the Mount of Olives I was welcomed by police and military Jeeps wanting to know what I was doing with a video camera. When I managed to convince a friend of mine to go with me to the Al Aqsa mosque and pass as Muslims, I wasn’t allowed to take a camera in with me. I thought that my desire to leave politics aside was ridiculous. I’d perhaps be more successful at making a film about the Israeli military and police presence in every nook and cranny of the Old City. Maybe I could film the Israeli flags flying over previously famous Arab buildings, or film Israeli soldiers giving a local merchant a hard time because he was selling t-shirts that said “Palestine” on them. I gave up making a film about Jerusalem. It was too impossible to film, it was too oppressing to be faced with military every where I go, to notice the video cameras installed in the markets watching my every move, to see the soldiers ambushed on top of each entrance to the Old City. Besides to make a film about the multi-religious claims over Jerusalem would be a lie; for Jerusalem looks more like a militarily-protected zone than a religious haven.

I went to part of a wedding ceremony last week. The wedding takes place over the course of three days. I was there when the groom and his family came to pick up the bride and take her back with them. So I thought about writing a report about the wedding. Describing the beautifully colored garments the women were wearing, how they were dancing in a circle singing, how the mother of the groom took center stage in the dancing ceremony, how the father came to escort the bride away while the men stood outside watching, how the beat of hand held drum filled the room with a heart-beating like sound…

But the whole thing lasted no more than half an hour. Of course I came with the groom’s family, so I can’t say for how long the bride’s family had been singing and dancing. You would think that I only spent half an hour with them, but that wasn’t the case. I spent over six hours. Only most of that time was spent in a taxi trying to get to the bride’s village, which is exactly 9 kilometers away from the groom’s, and back again.

Earlier that day I was with the taxi driver. We stood on a hill overlooking the sights around and he pointed to a village and said “that’s where the bride is.” It didn’t seem far. So when he asked me if I wanted to come along, I said yes thinking that it would take no more than 20 minutes to get there. Maybe a little bit longer, because we had to backtrack to the refugee camp to pick up the groom’s family and then drive over to the bride’s house. We reached the camp, the men (father, uncles, brothers of the groom) getting into the taxi one by one. We were about to leave when one of them screamed out the window to a kid to get him a bottle of water. “The road is long and it’s a warm day.” I didn’t make much of the statement at the time. We headed out, and I began to wonder why we were heading North when the village was to the South of us.

We went through seven villages before reaching an unpaved road which passes underneath one of the main highways connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. From the hills I could see Tel Aviv through the smog. We had traveled perhaps 30 kilometers North-West before we began to turn around and head towards the village. The unpaved road was a disaster. The men in the taxi happy that it was not a rainy day, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to make it. The sights were beautiful. The rocks poking out like veins along the ridges. The olive trees and shrubbery on the mountains. The clear blue sky above. The occasional shepherd and his flock. A lot of the times the sights were of settlements, looking out of place with their fences, walls and modern style cookie-cutter architecture on top of nearby hills. The entire journey – lasting two and a half hours one way – was tense, the driver, the men and myself looking out the window to see if there were any military Jeeps or tanks around. At one point I fell asleep, exhausted at the bumpiness of the road of the never-ending journey. I woke up to the repeated phrase “there’s the military.” I opened my eyes and saw a Jeep passing by us in the opposite direction, but we had already reached the village. There was no way for the soldiers to know that we had “illegally” traveled all the way from the Northern outskirts of Jerusalem to get here. In a couple of minutes we reached the bride’s house. The men got out of the cab, stretched and had their cigarettes.

I went in to the house, to the room where the women were celebrating. I was taken away by the sound of the drum and singing. I was in awe of the colors of their dresses (the traditional Palestinian embroidered dresses). The bride was beautiful, sitting in chair below a large Palestinian flag. The kids flocked around, wondering who I was. The women danced and sang and soon after the father came in, placed a black cape with a golden rim around the bride and walked her down the stairs, the women following still singing. The bride was escorted into the car along with her mother-in-law. The doors closed, the women standing outside still singing. The taxi driver signaled to me that it was time to go. I got into the taxi again and in another two hours we reached the restaurant where the festivities continued. The ride back was uneventful, more unpaved dirt paths and by-passes off the main streets. At one point I thought we’d fall over the ridge of the mountain and no one would know that we’d disappeared. We made it back. I felt exhausted, although I had been sitting for over four hours.

My memory of the wedding ceremony is taken over by the political situation of our journey there. I cannot write a report about a wedding without having to deal with the reality of by-passing checkpoints, taking unpaved roads, passing villages with posters of martyrs, without repeating that a ride to a village only 9 kilometers away takes upwards of two hours to reach.

I think about my obsession in trying to find cultural expression. I increasingly feel like it’s a ridiculous hunt, for all I come up with is the reality of political oppression. I try to find a Palestinian song that doesn’t deal with death, rape of land, or blood. I try to find a Palestinian film that doesn’t deal with a demolished house, a martyr, a tear, or a checkpoint. I can’t find any. I wonder to myself what Palestinian culture is about these days. It’s about politics. The politics of Occupation, apartheid, oppression, death, extinction, exile…


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