Account of a Trip to The West Bank as Part of the Palestinian Biennale with RIWAQ
Cultural Tourists in the West Bank. October 2009
In June 2009 two friends of mine, both artists, went to the Venice Biennale, the major international art show. Each country has a pavilion there where they display the work of selected artists. That year Palestine was represented. Their exhibit was conceived by Khalil Rabah, Artist and Director of the Riwaq Biennale. It was called ‘Third Riwaq Biennale: A Geography of 50 Villages’. It was a biennale within a biennale. Riwaq is an architectural organisation working to preserve historic Palestinian buildings and modern communities. They were using Venice to attract an international audience back to Palestine.
My friends Andrew and Cynthia went to see the work and while there picked up a leaflet which invited artists to attend the Palestinian Biennale back in Palestine, in the West Bank, that October.
On their return Andrew asked me if I’d like to go to Palestine with them and I said ‘Yes, without question, I most definitely would. Count me in!’
I am a painter but I was then writing a book, a commission. It would be away for ten days and on my return home I would have to get straight back to it. My book was published in May of this year. Now in September 2011, when the papers are full of interviews with Palestinians asking for independent status from Israel to be recognised by the United Nations, I finally have the time to write up my notes and transcribe the tapes I made on journeys around the West Bank that October.
Over the years I’d watched many news stories showing Israelis furious at another scene of devastation left by suicide bombers and I’d seen towns in the West Bank and Gaza reduced to rubble in retaliation. I’d also seen Devine Intervention(2002), directed by Elia Suleiman, a film about the effects of Israeli restrictions on the Palestinian people. The film is set around a check point in Ramallah, a large town just North of Jerusalem.
Ramallah is where we would be staying on the trip. I have also made documentary films and at the Galway film festival I saw Lemon Tree (2009) an allegory about a Palestinian widow who lives next door to the Israeli Minister of Defence. Her olive grove is seen as a potential hiding place for enemies of the Israeli state and the film follows her fight to keep the trees.
As the time of our journey approached I worried about being caught in the middle. I wasn’t sure how desperate the people living in the West Bank were and I would have to pass through an Israeli airport to get there.
Passport Control Tel Aviv
‘Why are you here?’
‘I’m an artist going to an Arts festival in Ramallah.’
The women at the desk behind the glass screen turns to speak to another woman behind here.
It’s 2.30 in the afternoon and it’s hot.
It’s been a long journey to get to this point. A ride from Cornwall to Heathrow London in a National Express coach with seats fixed at a tilt forward. I wedge myself in for 6 hours, arrive at Heathrow at 5am and take the shuttle train to Terminal 5, a ride into the future, where endless grey spaces make everyone small. This is Metropolis. As I alight from one long grey empty escalator, under electric light, I pass a woman sitting at a desk; I cross the smooth grey floor in front of her and step onto another escalator.
I’m brought up into the departure lounge. Clouds on screens high up near the vaulted roof, all hushed and calm, make it seem like a Terminal for the after life.
The three of us check in our baggage, have breakfast and board the plane for a five hour flight.
As the plane touches down in Tel Aviv I am fearful.
The airport is made of stone. The humidity is high. I am tired and I wonder if I’ve done the right thing coming here.
The women at passport control look at me with disapproval but the first woman gives me my passport and gestures that I can
go. I expect to be stopped again as I pass through. I feel this whenever I go through passport control, even when returning home to England, authority makes me nervous.
I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn.
A young woman with a pony tail and a beige army uniform asks ‘What are you doing here? Have you been here before.Where are you going? Do you know anyone here?’
‘I’m going to Ramallah and no I’ve never been here before. I’m going to an Art Show.’
She bends towards me incredulous ‘An art show! They don’t know what art is in Ramallah.’ ‘Do you know anyone there?’ Maybe she’s concerned for my safety.
‘No I don’t know anyone.’
She straightens herself up and leans back away from me, incredulous, because I obviously have no idea what I’m doing.
I try to look relaxed and smile. It works, she believes my innocence and lets me go. A fifty three year old blonde English female tourist is not going to be trouble. Why am I worrying, what else would she do?
Cynthia, one of my companions, just says that she’s a tourist. She gives the name of our hotel, The City Inn Place Hotel, as our destination and has no trouble.
We are met by a man with a taxi, a black Mercedes minibus, one of many parked outside the airport. He had been booked to pick up a larger party but two others had dropped out of the trip at the last minute. We sit in the back of a minibus with 9 empty seats. There are black curtains in the windows. The driver is tense.
We take off out of Tel Aviv on a fast road and very soon ‘The Wall’ starts to run alongside us cutting off the road from rocky scrub and houses to our left. There are occasional gun towers. At one point there are several surrounding what appear to be a barracks?
We know about the Wall which is still being built by the Israeli government to keep the Palestinians in. Is a fifteen foot high concrete wall expression of failure or of intent?
The landscape is very beautiful. I wonder if the pale rock is lime stone. Rounded hills of rock and scrub slope sharply down to deep valleys. Were they cut by streams and rivers? The landscape excites me. Every slope is terraced and planted with olive trees.
We pass no people just the occasional car.
All seems quiet for about 40 minutes.
Then we reach the check point into the West Bank. We join the back of three queues of traffic, all funnelled slowly by The Wall and fences of coiled barbed wire and razor wire, towards grey machine gun turrets. All around us is rubble and rubbish. We pass trucks, camouflaged green, with wire cages over the windows. Soldiers, men and women, lean against the trucks, machine guns hanging from their shoulders rest across their legs. Hard hats sit above hard expressions on tired faces.
The taxi driver tells us to do up our safety belts or we’ll get him into trouble.
We move further forward in the queue and see beyond the barrier. Three young men are throwing stones at the wall, their faces covered by scarves. Five men, with camera equipment slung from their necks and telephoto lenses on the cameras, move around them taking pictures.
Our driver says ‘The Israelis entered the Aqusa Mosque today.’
We know this must be really bad but we don’t know where the Aqusa Mosque is.
Vehicles pass us going in both directions, some drive across the queue, its chaos.
We move on.
The taxi driver turns to us, smiles and says ‘We are now in the West Bank.’
The border is confusing but we know that we’ve crossed over to another place as everything is different. We’ve moved from a state infrastructure like the one I know in England to the ‘Third World’. There is no tarmac, the road is rough ground, full of holes and covered in debris. There are people all over the place, walking, on bikes and in beaten up cars and trucks. (What
makes)The streets are cluttered, low houses and shops with open fronts crowd for space. There is rubbish everywhere.We have the windows open and when people see our blonde hair and pale faces some smile and wave, some look away.
We are driven on through this into Ramallah.
The streets widen as we approach the centre and it starts to look more like a town with taller buildings and signs, many in English, Lipton’s Tea, Galaxy Chocolate, M & Ms. Palm trees rise high into the air and bougainvillea spills from balconies.
The taxi driver takes us to the main door of our hotel which is off the main road at the back of the building. We pay him ask him to pick us up again in a ten days which he agrees to do.
The City Inn Palace Hotel is quiet and discreet. The hotel reception is a long rectangle with a marble floor, mirrors, beige sofas and a fountain. The man on the reception desk is welcoming and speaks no English. He gives us our keys and we take the lift to our rooms which are spacious and comfortable. There is everything we need, like a small hotel in London. Our bedroom window looks out onto the next building, a six story block with a large sign down the side: OFFICE WORLD. To the left I can see south across the street and over towards the centre of Ramallah. To the right are large houses and gardens. There are many green spaces in this town. The road outside is always busy with cars, taxis and lorries, travelling fast, with horns hooting.
By the time we’ve unpacked it’s dark.
We go down to the street.
It’s a very warm night.
We want to find somewhere to eat but don’t know if it’s safe to explore at this time of night, it’s about 8pm. We cross the road through fast traffic with difficulty. There’s a place open but it doesn’t look good from the outside, there’s a coin operated plastic donkey just inside the entrance. We walk 100 metres up the road but there’s no sign of a restaurant of café so we cross again and walked back to the hotel.
A European couple, well dressed, standing outside our hotel, have been watching us while they wait for their lift.
She says ‘That was a short night out.’ She’s English.
We laugh and ask if they could recommend somewhere. A car stops to pick them up and their friend, the driver, gives us directions to a place in town.
I say ‘That’s definitely beyond us tonight.’
The woman says that she will leave directions for us at the hotel reception in the morning and off they go. They were so relaxed, why are we worrying?
We cross the road again and decide to walk further but there really is nowhere else to eat so we venture into the place with the plastic donkey. We walk up the brown tiled steps and along a corridor until the room opens out into a restaurant where four women in Hajibs are eating chicken and potatoes.
At the far end a man stands at a counter in front of the kitchen. He gestures to us to sit down. Each table is in a separate cubicle. We sit. A tall waiter with fair hair comes over and shows us the menu. He speaks in English with an accent. We order two halves of chicken and potatoes, one kebab and potatoes and Arab salad, which he suggests, we don’t know what this is and Fanta.
Within a few minutes he brings a basket of pitta bread, a plate of hummus and olive oil, a plate of chopped cucumber and tomato, a plate of aubergine paste in olive oil, a plate of yoghurt and crushed garlic, a plate of a grated fluorescent purple vegetable, hot like turnip, and a plate of green chillies, pickled. Then the chicken arrives, grilled, marinated in chilli and herbs and potato wedges roasted in spices. It is a most wonderfully, unexpectedly, delicious meal which costs us about £2 each.
Now we relax.
We go back to our rooms.
There’s a mosquito grill on the window so we can leave it wide open. I pull off the heavy counterpane and lie under the cotton sheet. The lights from the street filter into the dark room. We listen to the traffic below then fell asleep.
We have an itinerary for the trip which was sent to us in England. The first day we have time to settle in and we’re not scheduled to do anything until 8 o’clock in the evening when we are expected at the pre Biennale Reception.
It’s a Sunday. We have breakfast in the Hotel, a large room in the basement, where we help ourselves to pita bread, soft cheese, olive oil with garlic and chillies, humus, hard boiled eggs, fruit Juice and Coffee.
I decide to cover my hair for this first trip out. I’ve been to Morocco and feel that in a Moslem country it’s polite to cover my hair. I see no reason not to do the same in Palestine. Once we were out walking the head scarf makes me more conspicuous. There are women with pale skin in long skirts with scarves on their heads and I wonder if Israeli women settlers cover their heads, or Christian sects? I am an atheist so after a while I remove my scarf. I’d prefer to be a European female tourist of no fixed religious persuasion and uncertain morality. We are conspicuous anyway. I and my companions are tall, blonde Europeans not a common sight anywhere in the West Bank, except Jerusalem.
Some of the older women that we pass wear a heavily embroidered long cotton dress with a belt and head scarf which shows their hair. All the rest have everything including necks, wrists, ankles and hair well covered. Some also cover their faces but not many. A head dress is always worn but some of the younger women wear it in a supple tight fabric pulled close to the head in a bright colour with a short Jacket and jeans. Some scarves were plain, some embroidered with coloured stitching or beads. Some women wear a long elegant tailored coat to the floor in expensive fabric. Many women wear the Hajib, the full black robe, but most women wear colour somewhere. Men wear western clothes, a few wear long robes; very few wear the traditional headdress.
We walk out in the heat. We have no map and find that we are circling the centre. We walk past a neat public garden with Palm trees and a mosque with a mullah calling. It’s one o’clock.
I say, ‘I thought they called at midday?’
His voice is beautiful. Is it a recording? We can see the town below us and work our way down, under pine trees for part of the way, to the central square where a stone pillar is guarded by four lions.
The sunlight is intense.
The streets are full of people.
Everyone is watching us as we walk through, fast.
The West Bank has a reputation as a dangerous place and so we are wary.
Then we walk into a narrow alley, a small souk, and when we round the corner we’re in the market. It’s a square surrounded by tall buildings. It’s covered with cloth canopies suspended from the houses by ropes and pushed up in the middle with poles. In the comparative darkness of the shade are every fruit and vegetable piled high, all large and glowing, fennel, apples, plums, huge purple shiny aubergine with grooves in them, peppers, chillies, perfect pale yellow pears, herbs, nuts, fresh dates.
A man shouts, ‘Welcome, don’t touch!’ A joke, he laughs.
We walk up another street all along one side are small shops with open fronts, one room with sacks of produce inside and on the street, full of dried herbs, camomile, thyme, rich smells. Hanging from hooks either side are loofers, large wooden spoons, grass brushes, tin cooking pans, simple objects. Over the road and in every other street are shop windows full of gold jewellery, long necklaces of golden coins, earrings and rings, which I covet.
We find ourselves back in the square with the lions. On the corner is a shop where you can buy freshly squeezed fruit. The shop is open on two sides. There is a birdcage with a finch in it and a large black and white photograph of the square as it had been sixty years before, no lions and less traffic and people. It seemed elegant then.
There are three men behind the bowls of fruit on the counter, one speaks English. They make us different combinations from banana, ginger, apple, pear and pomegranate for a few shekels. I drink mine fast and want more.
We walk down towards the old town. Most of the shops have signs in English or French or Italian, a car in the street has a sign FOR SALE, in English, and the phone number. There are kebab restaurants everywhere. We stop at one for more small plates of salad, pita and bottled water. There is no colour in the room until the food arrives, red, purple and vivid green. We eat and walk off down the hill but the bustle of the town starts to disappear and it’s hot so we find a café with polythene sheeting around the terrace. Women in western dress are sitting at a table on one side with hookahs, smoking. We order coffee, water and ice cream which is gluey and very sweet.
We aren’t sure how long it would take us to get back to the hotel, it felt as if we’d walked a long way because the town is full of life and difference and we’d meandered through the streets but it takes us only half an hour to walk back.
At the hotel we prepare for the reception at the Azure Restaurant. We had been given a letter telling us where to go, left for us by the Riwaq team at the hotel reception.
3 Riwaq Biennale
Geography: 50 villages
Welcome to Palestine and 3 Riwaq Biennale
You are kindly invited to a pre Biennale reception
Sunday October 11@8pm at Azure Restaurant, Ramallah
Tel.295 7850 (for a taxi please ask the reception at your
Hotel, price around 10-15 shekels)
For the official Biennale Opening Ceremony (October 12
2009) take a taxi go to Kamal Naser Hall, Birzeit
University (15 minutes 30-40 shekels).
Please get there @ 9.00 before His Excellency Prime
Minister Dr. Salam Fayyad
It’s a restaurant such as you’d find anywhere in Europe. There are pictures of Miles Davis and The Beatles crossing the zebra crossing in Abbey Road. We order cocktails because that’s all we can find on the list: a white Russian, a bloody Mary and an apple margarita.
No one arrives, we order another round.
No one arrives. We are starting to get a little drunk. Should we eat now, will there be food?
I ask a waiter when they are expecting the reception to start, we have been told it will be 8pm.
He says ‘Yes, but it’s only 7.30.’
We have been an hour ahead all day, altering our clocks two hours instead of one.
We wait and soon food is put out for us: small breads and pastries and humus and wine and fruit juice.
Some of the participants in the Riwaq Biennale have been formally invited to attend because of their credentials. They are experts in their field, Architects, town planners, journalists and aid workers. Others are like us, artists who want to learn about the place and make work about the situation. Many of them have been before. We meet the Belgian representative of an organisation that encourages contemporary art in isolated places and his assistant. He has been before and has a project on the go. The Biennale is going to offer him the chance to travel more widely around the West Bank, something he has not been able to do before. We are going to have the opportunity to go to many of the towns and villages where Riwaq has helped to finance restoration and visit exhibitions of contemporary art.
I meet two architects: Angus who works at North London University is already advising on rebuilding projects. Richard,
older and more sanguine, is intrigued by the opportunity to explore at his age and not sure where it will lead him.
I am introduced to Suad Almery who started the Biennale and has written a book published by Granta, Sharon and my Mother in Law. The book is about her family and work in the West Bank and the limitations imposed by Israeli intervention and the Intafadas. The second Intafada in 2001 caused high unemployment within Palestine as most of the population had worked in Israel up to that point.
Suad introduces me to Louisa Morgantini, ex vice president of the European Parliament, who takes me to meet Leila Shahid representative of the Palestinian Authority to the European Commission in Brussels and Luxembourg. They are interested to hear that I have made two documentary films shown on BBC4. Isabella has spent the day with a group of Italians in the olive groves looking at the damage done by Israeli settlers to the trees. The Italians were acting as human shields to prevent further damage. She says that she wished she’d known I was there, I could have come too.
Leila tells me that she was born in Lebanon and is married to a Moroccan, that 30% of Palestinians are refugees living elsewhere.
I talk again to Suad and tell her that we are indebted to them for this opportunity to travel in the West Bank.
She laughs, ‘You’ve hit on the purpose of this event early! You weren’t supposed to notice yet!’
I tell her of the questions asked at the airport and ask about the trouble at the Al-Aqsa mosque. She is not surprised by my ignorance, she explains that Moslem’s know it as Haram Al- Sharif, the third most holy site after Mecca and Medina. The Jewish people know it as the Temple Mount; its western wall is the holiest site in Judaism. She tells me that a few days before our arrival Israeli soldiers had entered the mosque.
We eat breakfast then wait outside the Hotel to stop a taxi in the river of fast cars and trucks. We have to go to Birzeit University which we have been told is 15 minutes away.
The Taxi which stops has a girl in the back. She is very beautiful, her head is covered, she wears a long coat. The taxi driver doesn’t understand where we want to go but the girl does and tells him. I sit next to her.
I say ‘Shakran.’ Thank you.
On the outskirts of town she says something to the driver and he stops the car. She doesn’t pay. She gets out, turns to me and says ‘Welcome.’ We smile at each other.
We continue to the edge of town. The buildings thin out but are larger, huge villas with big windows and balconies. New buildings are going up everywhere, palm trees between. Plumbago, covered with pale blue flowers billows next to the petrol pumps. Weeds like yellow Michaelmas Daisies grow on all scrub ground with the rubbish, which is everywhere you look. Taxis are also everywhere, beeping their horns constantly.
The buildings thin out and the landscape is revealed. I can see, far out into the distance, rounded hills with wide empty valleys between and each hill crowned with a settlement like a fortress. That’s how it seems without my glasses to show more detail, like a medieval landscape when the people lived behind a castle wall for protection for marauders.
We turn a corner and the roadside slopes sharply down to our left. The road curves round to the right and we are driven up the next slope towards a very large group of modern buildings, unmistakably a University complex, surrounded by trees and plants. We are dropped off amongst dozens of taxis at the main entrance, buses too, unloading students.
At the main gate we ask a self important security guard where we should go. He looks at our invitation. ‘This is in English not Arabic!’ he says in horror. He goes to a list and after looking down it says ‘Yes you can go in’ we haven’t given him any names, it’s all pretence. He tells us where the building is but we don’t understand, a group of students have grouped around us, they take over and help us find our way.
It is a beautiful campus with low buildings well laid out and open spaces full of plants between.
This morning is the press launch for the Biennale. It is so important that Dr Salam Fayyad, the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, will be there to welcome us.
Students stream into the building.
In the foyer we collect our tickets for the tours we will take part in over the week to come.
This afternoon we will be going to the old town of Birzeit restored by Riwaq. Tomorrow we will take a coach trip to Jerusalem in the company of historian Dr Nazmi Jubeh and visit two art exhibitions. On Wednesday we will drive North to Samma’een, Sabastiyah, ‘Arrabeh and, if we are have time, travel on to Nablus, accompanied by the Executive director of Riwaq, Fida Touma, an Architect and Dr. Yazeed Anani who worked in the Department of Architecture at the University. On Thursday we will be taken South to Al-Zahriyyeh and Hebron, again with Dr Nazmi Jubeh.
The only place that I know anything about is Jerusalem everywhere else is unknown to me, except Hebron, I had read of tension there before I left.
We are given books and electronic translators.
We enter the hall.
There are many speakers lined up to talk to us in Arabic and English, among them are all the women we’d met the night before, a few politicians and the director of the University.
Suad Almiry, who founded Riwaq, explained the title Riwaq Biennale, the two elements: Riwaq which was architectural and the Biennale which was art, two complimentary and interdependent expressions of culture.
Riwaq was started in 1991. From 1994 to 2003 the prime aim was to create a National Register of Historic Buildings with maps, plans and photographs of 422 villages and towns in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, this included 50,320 historic buildings. Prior to this Israeli’s and Palestinians were, for different reasons, demolishing many of the oldest buildings that had fallen into disrepair. The initial work concentrated on restoring 24 village centres where Palaces dating back to the Ottoman Empire were falling into ruin.
Riwaq realised that preserving heritage would only work if it became part of the life and infrastructure of each community so they started to fund conservation work. Conservation had to be linked to the income of the people in order to protect the heritage into the future. There has been a steady movement of people away from villages into the cities; olives are almost the only viable crop because Israeli products are cheaper. There is also a water shortage. Many villages need government help to survive. Plans to revitalise the villages was linked to a revitalisation of agriculture.
The ‘50 Villages’, picked for restoration by Riwaq, contain 20,000 historic buildings, almost 50% of the architectural heritage throughout Palestine. Each of these villages had different problems. Many of the buildings were unsafe so vacant. Villagers were consulted to find out what their needs were. Distinctiveness was encouraged. 10,000 of these buildings are housing units providing cheap new homes; restoration is less expensive than new buildings and where unavoidable new buildings were fused with old.
In one year they provided 170,000 working days for craftsmen and training in long forgotten building skills and conservation techniques. All work is carefully monitored, the cheapest materials are used.
By working on a whole village they can recreate community centres and spaces, tourist centres, playgrounds and planting thus rehabilitating an entire community. They have renovated 100 public buildings, working with local councils, for the use of local communities and visitors. They encourage local
ownership by organising volunteer work camps for children and young people to work on the buildings they will later use. They organised a drawing competition attracting 100,000 entries from school children. They plant trees in restored communities.
The funding for all this has been provided mainly by SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and The Ford Foundation with additional funding from Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium and Arab funds for Art and Culture, and Economic and social development.
The Riwaq Biennale of 2009 had been organised to show what they had already achieved and to bring new organisations and people in to help.
Aside from coach trips out into the towns and villages where work had been completed there would also be daily meetings and discussion to evaluate what had been done and stimulate new ideas for the future. These ‘Think Net’ meetings between the Riwaq team, international professionals and the local community were central to the Riwaq Biennale.
The Biennale, or art element, was satisfied by a series of Exhibitions which we would visit. There would be Palestinian and International artists some of whom had been to previous Biennales in Palestine and were now showing their response to their stay for the first time.
After Suad Almiry the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority takes to the stage and after a brief welcome he pledges $2,500,000 to Riwaq for the continuation of their work.
Leila Shahid then speaks.
‘This work is political. History, architecture, archaeology, in other words memory of place and people, part of the right to this land. The Zionist claim for Palestine is: A land without people for a people without land. So the Zionist strategy is to expel people from space hoping to expel them from time. History is still the essence of the Zionist project and this is why settlements are such an important aspect of the Israeli strategy.
For the last nine years we have all suffered from the fragmentation and atomisation of our society, our social fabric, by the wall, by the siege of villages, by the more than 600 check points that are all over the West Bank and around the Gaza Strip and around East Jerusalem. Today there are lives that try to reweave what Israel has unwoven between rural areas, refugee camps, the towns and the cities, like Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Nablus.
When I first came to my country in 1994, because I had no right before that, the whole city of Hebron was closed; a ghost City and I had the impression that the old city of Hebron was more beautiful than the old city of Jerusalem. It was my mother’s city. I saw, months after, with the committee for rehabilitation of old Hebron, how the very light approach of the committee has reintroduced the old population into old Hebron and where there were ghosts now there are thousands of families living in the restored houses of the old city. They are heroic facing the settlers, as are those who face settlers all over Palestine, including Gaza. We can learn from that lesson, this is the best form of resistance. This relation can not be erased, not by tanks, aeroplanes or bombs.
I hope that you will all be there for the tour, we will be together.’
The next to speak are the curators of the exhibitions we will see in Jerusalem and Birzeit
In the breaks between speakers we meet some of the people who were at the reception the night before.
There had been an emphasis that morning on attracting tourism which was worrying me. One aim is to turn part of the historic centres into places for tourists to visit and stay. I live in Cornwall which has sold itself wholesale to tourism and even so was defined as one of the poorest regions in Europe at the start of the Millennium, entitling it to a huge injection of European ‘Objective One’ funding. Tourism debases culture, waters it
down for tourist consumption. Often work provided by tourism is low paid and the tourists end up with more rights than the local people. Incomers from outside the community buy houses for second homes and the native people become marginalised. It’s another kind of occupation, albeit without guns but tourism is a hierarchical trade not an industry.
BUT Palestine already has ‘incomers’, ‘settlers’ who are GIVEN Palestinian land and are then protected by Israeli troops.
AND Palestine has been cut off from the world by Israel and by fear.
It is hoped that if they can attract tourists from other parts of the world then these people will see first hand how difficult life is for the Palestinian people and speak out about it and they can earn income too. They have a great deal to offer the tourist. Their land is steeped in a history that some of the greatest religions of the world have taught.
As yet I had not travelled much around the West Bank and had not experienced the logistics of everyday life there.
After the Opening Ceremony we all walk down through the campus to an exhibition in the Ethnography and Art Museum comprised of pieces from their permanent collection of traditional costume, jewellery, household objects and furniture called ‘Jerusalem Our Home’. One piece of work had been shown in Venice, a wide panoramic photograph by Jawad al Malhi, called ‘House No. 197’, of the Palestinian refugee camp at Shu’fat where the artist lives and works. It seems to be a view from the ‘other’ side of the fence of layers of makeshift buildings, a shanty town climbing up a slope with no space between the buildings.
I hang about spending too long on each exhibit, look up and find that everyone has gone. I’m just in time to catch the last minibus to visit the ‘Historic Centre of Birzeit’. It’s now about two o’clock.
We seem to skirt mountains all the way with valleys filled with buildings. On the road we pass through a small village with two plastic boxes on a mini roundabout with the faces of Sadam
Hussein and Yasser Arafat. All the towns and villages are green with flowering plants and trees everywhere.
We are dropped outside a very old Christian church and taken down to a large courtyard garden with 30 small tables and a long table laden with food. Vine leaves stuffed with rice, rolled thin like fingers, cabbage leaves treated the same way, different small breads, one shaped like a bun with cheese in it and salads.
We don’t know each other very well yet, those who do stick together.
Sweet delicacies are brought to our table, sweets are a big thing here. Opposite our hotel there is a large restaurant with SWEETS written across the front. They serve something that looks like treacle tart which men sit outside in the evening to eat. We are given something with strands of sugar and pistachios.
After lunch we walk down to the historic buildings.
The restoration of the old town of Birzeit is the pilot project for the 50 villages project. The University used to be there until the new campus was built. The first building we are taken to is in the process of being repaired. The stone work is ancient. Two men haul stone up to the roof with sheer legs and a block and tackle. This will be a guest house. Across the road a car sits completely covered in dust. A boy drives an old car through our party.
We are split into two groups. Many of the buildings have been repaired. There is a room with an old wine press, still in situ but no longer used. We hear music, there is a wedding. Suad leads us down to the wedding party and walk into a courtyard to join them. The women have very beautiful clothes, LOOK AT FILM they walk past us and off through the town. I’m worried, this is their day, what right have we to intrude but I still film it. There are people from the village selling small embroideries and mosaic, tourist souvenirs, not skilled work. It seems like an experiment.
There is an art exhibition in progress. LOOK AT BOOK Strange signs are here and there.
I break away from my group and walk around the back of the town taking photographs I meet a girl on her doorstep and apologise for the intrusion. A tree stands out against a sheet stretched between two walls and a blue sky.
At the opening ceremony a student had been presented with an award for an installation he designed, a platform around a tree. It’s here, two very small girls play around it.
I walk into a very small square and sit down. A boy calls. I turn and his mother, a villager, offers me a cup with hot ginger and mint tea, it is delicious and rejuvenating. One of our party from the Netherlands, Jack, is also offered tea. We talk. I say that I’m not sure about the way this place has been dealt with. He agrees. The tourism still worries me, we are obviously the guinea pigs. The place is so cleared, all the interest, the personal mess has been cleared away where work has been carried out. It’s like a stage set, the renovation seems to have no purpose, ruins recemented and strengthened but not habitable. One room has another exhibit, French translated into Arabic.
I gain pleasure from black smoke as it drifts across the roofs in the dusk light against a darkening blue. The light is very beautiful, romantic. It seems that the renovation is like a romantic ruin but the decay in areas not yet dealt with is visually more interesting than these golden stone walls.
We walk back to the square where we had lunch. We sit and talk while they set up a PA and another large table for the Muftoul Festival. It’s dark now. Villagers start to arrive. The tables are laid. The event is a competition. Twelve women have cooked a traditional recipe, muftoul, a dish WHAT? Judges have been invited from the best restaurants in Palestine, including the Prime Ministers personal chef. There are four video cameras, one for TV. They circle the table on which the entries are placed in large dishes, closing in on the food, a tomato, an olive, I can see this on the monitors. They smile, it’s a big joke for them but rows of women sit at the front to watch, for them this is serious.
Tom and Sabina, Austrian Journalists and the rest of our party arrive.
We are invited to see how the couscous is prepared. A woman carefully adds water to the grain.
We are served muftoul and then we leave, exhausted. There are cabs lined up outside waiting to take us back to Ramallah. The cab driver is really pleased to have us in his cab, so pleased that he offers to take us for nothing, we have to insist that we pay him. He thanks us for taking his cab.
This is the trip that I have been most excited about. We could have gone to Bethlehem but Jerusalem holds more history. Here Christianity, Islam and Judaism meet and divide.
We are guided by Dr. Nazmi Jubeh A Director of Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation, Professor of History at Birzeit University and member of the Advisory Council of Israelis and Palestinians for the Israel Palestine Project. They work to achieve, through sometimes heated argument, a common historical narrative acceptable to both sides for use in education, tool to encourage mutual respect, hopefully.
Leila Shahid also comes along for the ride, the representative of the Palestinian Authority to the European Commission. Leila was born in Lebanon and now lives in Morocco; her husband is the Moroccan writer Mohammed Berrada.
From the start of our coach journey I realise what a privilege it is to be in their company.
Before I left England I felt that part of the reason for this trip was to experience first hand the problems Palestinians have living in and moving around their homeland. I had thought that most of the restrictions on movement were at the border
between the West Bank and the rest of Israel. I had not realised to what extent The Wall, electrified fences where the wall was not yet built, road blocks on the edges of towns and strategic roads, within their own territory, restricted the movements of all Palestinian people. This is particularly so around Jerusalem.
Nazmi is an eminent historian. History is a matter of opinion, interpretation. It can be used as propaganda. If you look through blogs concerned with the Palestinian situation history is used and abused by both sides. Nazmi knows this. He knows that he has to be beyond reproach. He has to be unimpeachable in his interpretation of historical events in Palestine. While the coach weaves through the villages and towns around Jerusalem he takes us on a journey through time from the distant past to the present. The place that he wants us to know is one of enlightenment, when we were generous to each other, respected religious difference, a place that once existed in Jerusalem.
‘This is the story of all the families in Jerusalem. When Israel occupied Jerusalem the numbers were about 60,000, in 1967. Now we are 250,000 but we got 6% of the construction permits in East Jerusalem. Now we are building for one third of the total population of Jerusalem. So after 43 years most of the buildings in the city are without licences, secondly most of our neighbourhoods are slums because each family was trying to solve the problem by adding a room here, illegally, by adding a roof, by digging below the building.’
As we travel Nazmi explains The Wall and where it’s leading in terms of land devision and Israeli settlement. We have to go around to the far side of the city because no Palestinian can pass through it.
‘You can see the right side of the wall and how it keeps all the empty land outside Jerusalem outside the Palestinian territory.
On the left we have a small village called Shebah, a very beautiful village, and the historical centre that you see now we (RIWAQ) will begin to restore in two months. The huge historic building on the left we will convert into a young persons’ media centre for an organisation called Biellara.
We are driving around the wall now. The social political effect of the wall is most reported in the media but the environmental effects are tremendous. To the right you can see the North Eastern chain of settlements around East Jerusalem which is like an arm. You can see the wall separating the settlement from the Palestinian neighbourhood and look, the Palestinian neighbourhood is contained outside the wall. There are still expansion possibilities for the settlement but the wall is enclosing the Palestinian environment on all sides so that it will not have a chance to expand in the future. On the left side the Jewish settlement has possibilities for expansion, this is typical.’
We pass through a checkpoint which looks like an international crossing point.
‘Now we are driving through a Jewish settlement which was established after 1967. We cannot anymore leave East Jerusalem without driving through a Jewish settlement, the chain is complete and East Jerusalem is isolated from the rest of the West Bank causing fragmentation of Palestinian neighbourhoods in the city, we will see examples of that fragmentation.
Now here is the road that goes from North to South. If you look at the horizon on the tops of the hills in front of us you can see the Palestinian houses and on this side the Israeli settlements. Sometimes the fragmentation is not possible through the chain of settlements so roads are constructed which have the same effect. We are 250,000 people but we are fragmented into 50 small separated islands.
I live not far from here, on the right side. From my window I can see the settlements here from three sides.
Another form of fragmentation is a new train line running through Jerusalem. In most Palestinian neighbourhoods there wont be a station for that train.
We are about two kilometres outside the city wall. There is a very small Palestinian neighbourhood here, an enclave. The people who are living here were originally from a village called Lifta, a few kilometres to the west of here. Lifta had a population of a thousand in 1948. The village is still standing empty but the people were driven out. The majority are still refugees and not allowed to come back to their houses. Israelis declare a right for Jews to come back to Jerusalem and the West Bank which isa Holy right to return. All Jews returned to their houses in Hebron, in Jerusalem and to other towns in the West Bank, but not one single Palestinian even from East Jerusalem managed to get his property back in West Jerusalem.
On the right side is the Ministry of Internal Security. It was built as a hospital by the Jordanian Government and was ready to be used before 1967. After 1967 it was converted to a police station and now it’s a ministry. On the right side of this Palestinian Neighbourhood, called al Shaykh Jarah, there is a small forest and empty land, subject to a planned settlement which will have a University. This is the process of fragmentation I was talking about.
A curve of road through beautiful houses and trees leads to high ground which looks down on The Mount of Olives. The coach stops and we get out for a few minutes into intense heat. Nazmi tells us the story of the Old City from across the valley.
I record him; I ask his permission to do this. He has spoken of his family and how they have been divided by the wall. They work in Jerusalem and so must live within its borders. They used to live in a house together divided into flats, an extended family but now they are spread around the city and because their
movements are restricted it’s difficult to get together. His daughter for example is married to someone who lives in the West Bank and she has a difficult journey every time she wants to see her mother.
The Dome of the Roc with its gold dome and blue tiled surface glistens at the centre like a jewel. Nazmi points to the different quarters of the City. He tells us about William II who was responsible for building and change within.
He point to the Palestinian quarter, the buildings are crowded together the roves covered in clutter.
We get back into the coach and drive down into the valley passing the church where the Virgin Mary is supposed to be buried. We follow the ancient wall of the City as it climbs up the slope on the other side to the ——- Gate. The coach parks and we cross the road to enter the Old City of Jerusalem. Immediately it is quiet, the thickness of the walls cuts through and cuts off the noise of traffic outside.
We are standing in a very long wide passage through the City. Children’s feet can be seen on the floor of a balcony above us. They laugh. We are a group of about thirty people CHECK. A boy walks towards us and walks through our party with a large tray of fresh bread on his head, at nose height, the smell pulls our heads in his direction.
A door opposite has simple painted decoration of flowers and leaves around it, a pale green metal door with scrolled iron work and cut outs. All the doors are similar to this here except when they are very old, then they are metal banded wood, with studs.
The Old City seems like a house, the rooms are the squares; the narrow stone streets are corridors. Homes are secret rooms within this network. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you are inside a private building or a public space, there is ancient stone on the ground, the walls and the bridges between buildings on the first floor level. There are shops selling souvenirs for the tourists,
antiques: Roman lamps, coins and others selling rugs and embroidered silk gowns and scarves.
We stop in a street, look at the sign, Via Dolorosa’ in Latin, the way of suffering or grief. This is said to be the road that Jesus walked to his crucifixion carrying his cross, a place of Christian Pilgrimage.
Nazmi points to a building that sticks out into the street, ‘That is where I went to school.’
There are children everywhere; he was once one of these.
All around us are groups of people accompanied by guides.
Nazmi takes us to an ancient street like a tunnel, or cloisters. This is the cotton market, a long wide curved stone roof over a cobbled floor. Here men come up to Nazmi and shake his hand, they greet him with love. This happens three times as we walk through old Jerusalem. He says that really nothing has changed in the old market for hundreds of years.
We walk out into the streets again and pass an Armenian smoking house. A row of men sucking on hookahs in western dress, behind them the room is dark and bare.
Leila says, ‘Look, look, there is nowhere else like this.’
I want to photograph them but wouldn’t it be an intrusion?
We stand and stare at the men, one of whom laughs at the situation, friendly, slightly embarrassed. They are relaxed.
We are in a hurry. We move on.
We are in the Armenian quarter. Nazmi says that Christianity first took root in Armenia and so their religious buildings are the earliest in Jerusalem. He explains that the streets then were about two metres lower than they are now. Layer upon layer has built up. The church he leads us to is subterranean. A sign says SILENCE, he gestures with a finger to the mouth, ‘Hush’. We pass through the room, a very low ceiling, low light, ancient walls and a most beautiful mosaic floor, roughly cut large pieces, ochre and umber make simple shapes, zig zags. ‘How Old is this place?’
We cross the floor and climb up steps on the far side.
He leads us through a network of passages, no shops here, no people, that comes out into a narrow courtyard, a gate at the far end guarded by Israeli soldiers with Machine guns, a door sectioned off with a metal barricade.
Nazmi says, ‘This is an entrance to Al Aqsa Mosque.’
It has been shut off since those days just before our arrival.
We pass the soldiers and go through a small archway to our left, another courtyard, quite small surrounded by high walls.
‘This is a little known section of the wailing wall, where those of the Jewish faith ‘fax’ God.’ There are small folded pieces of paper pushed into cracks in the stone. Not many know about this wall.
WHAT DOES HE SAY HERE: TUNNELING UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE
We don’t have much time and we have to pass through the souk fast to get to our next destination. Nazmi warns us to keep up, if we get lost we will meet at the Damascus Gate.
The Souk is and endless covered market full of wonderful sights and we all want to stop to take photographs of what we see. As we do we fall behind and then run to catch up with the group. We are shepherded through, ‘No time, no time.’ It’s like following the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. There are rows and rows of market stalls, long embroidered dresses, sweets piled into pyramids, cooking pots, birds, hookahs, Jewish candelabra, crosses, fruit, flags, spices, T shirts, bread. Each stall is brightly lit. The stone floor that runs between us is uneven but worn smooth, like glass, from many centuries of feet.
We reach the Damascus Gate and stop to catch our breath on the other side of the huge wooden doors, 20 feet high. As I stand outside and look back into the old city the first sight is a stall ‘$ for cash, change your money here.’
I buy some bread from a stall on the road in. The old man pretends to misunderstand me and keeps 10 shekels, I have paid too much but I don’t argue. I let it go.
We leave the old walls behind us for an exhibition of contemporary art nearby called ‘In the Shadow of the City’. We walk up an iron staircase to a cool stylish gallery.
The exhibits are comprised of the following:
A film shot in an old hospital? People recollect their experience of it or are we eaves dropping?
Photographs of Moslem cemetery which the Israeli’s have taken to turn into a Hebrew garden of remembrance.
Photographs made looking into areas from which the viewer is excluded.
Film of a building with curved balconies like waves. It was built by a family which had owned the land since the 15th century. The building was to be a hotel, first started in 1965, then the Israeli take over in 1967 stopped everything. It remained empty, drug addicts and prostitutes use it now. While we watch the images the subtitles describe a walk towards the building through a park and provide vague remembrances of the building’s history.
We go to lunch at the Jerusalem Hotel, a lovely old building with panelled walls inside. We sit outside in a courtyard, under a roof of leaves trained over wire above us. Here we are provided with another selection of breads and salads and cold meat. We talk to a German woman with short blond hair. She has been working in a library since she arrived and is helping to set up a mobile library here. She has been to Palestine several times before. She says that she has always travelled, that she knows Egypt well. She is quietly knowledgeable but does not offer her knowledge, she waits to be asked. She is modest. Some of the group go to another exhibition but we decide to stay here in a cool a while longer.
After an hour we all leave for the exhibition called ‘The Jerusalem Syndrome’ and now we understand what this means. Jerusalem is made of a mix of circling groups of religious fanatics, of white scarved Armenian women, monks with brown habits, monks with black habits, happy clappy Christians from America, Jews informal in skull caps, Hasidic Jews with hats
and forelocks and us, the cultural tourists, all moving back and forth, squeezing past each other in narrow stone streets.
We re enter the old city through the Damascus gate turning this time to the left we walk up stone slopes and steps to a newly renovated house. We pass through a courtyard with a pool and plants and mount the stairs, up and up past large, beautiful empty room and up a bright green painted metal staircase to the roof.
It is evening now, dusk, and we are one the roof of one of the tallest buildings in the old city of Jerusalem. The mullahs are calling all over the city. There is a soft wind. Warm. A small flock of pigeons circles, two are white, the others rusty brown. Everything else is blue and gold.
Nazmi’s voice is more hushed here. He tells us something about the building WHAT and then we descend to the floor below. The room is empty except for a screen. We all find somewhere to sit, some on chairs, I sit on the stone floor. There is a film projected onto the screen, its on a loop. The Artist who made this work is from Mumbai in India, MORE FROM BOOK ABOUT ALL THE ARTISTS.
We watch the film. A surveillance camera has been placed in a room, maybe this room. We see what it sees. A voice invites another, all of these people will be Palestinians, to focus the camera on what ever they want to see. They use the focus awkwardly and move it from side to side, back and forth, to find what they want.
The first viewer watches Israeli soldiers practicing in the square WHAT IS IT CALLED by the Wailing Wall without saying much. Another is scanning the streets and notices that a man has a hand gun in the back pocket of his trousers. He exclaims ‘Look, look, he has a gun.’ These words are subtitled for us in English.
The third viewer is a woman who watches her own house. But it’s not hers any more. It had been taken from her three months previously. It is a flat in a block. What she can see is the balcony at the back of the flat. She focuses on the Israeli who is
living there now, on his scull cap, in her back garden. She is distraught as she explains that her Grandfather had lived there. She sees that they haven’t watered the lemon tree which she planted, the leaves are brown. They have put up a high fence around the balcony so she can only see the head of the man.
A voice asks her if she feels like a voyeur.
She says angrily, passionately, ‘No. I don’t look at anyone else’s house, I look at my house. This is my house.’
I was profoundly moved. I try to imagine what this would do to me, if my home were to be taken from me and given to another. It is unimaginable. The only consolation for her is that she is not the only one to be treated this way.
The Jerusalem Syndrome Exhibition is spread out through the city. We are taken to another building. It’s dark now but the narrow streets are well lit. Here we walk along a corridor into a rectangular room divided in the middle by a wall which you can walk around. On each side is a projected film. On one side the film is of three young men playing leap frog. Two are Israelis one is Palestinian. They don’t trust each other. The Palestinian is closest to the camera and each time one of the other two runs to jump over his back he stands at the last minute, just before they jump. It’s funny. He talks to the camera about how he doesn’t trust them while the other two joke and talk to each other. He’s not sure if the Israeli will jump or attack him while his back is turned. They don’t understand why he won’t let them jump over him. Each time he does it the Israelis get more angry and turn to walk off. The Palestinian says, ‘No do it again, I wont stand this time,’ and after persuasion they try again but he stands.
The other film is of an old man and a woman, refugees, talking about how grateful they are to be left alone. They are fearful and fragile. The film is a colourful drawn animation, as if the story were for children, which makes the subject more shocking.
We leave for another exhibit in a bread shop. There was a bread shortage in Gaza so the artist thought of ways to get bread in
from the West Bank. He takes photographs of different ways to get bread into the Gaza strip. Post it. Attach it to birds. These photographs hang in bakers and cafes around the city. As we walk in the owner of the shop proudly shows us the photos and some of us buy bread too.
On the move again we walk into what seems to be shop but is another exhibit. A film made in America which is trying to work out how it was possible within American democracy for Guantanamo to have been possible. It’s a film about decay and corruption in American towns.
The next exhibition is in the Swiss Hospital ???? Here are photographs of dolls and mannequins found in the souq, photographed as they were. A bag over one head, another repaired with sellotape, another drawn on. They are like wounded, assaulted men and women, unflinching. In a room upstairs a film is running of all those religious zealots in the city walking around. Scratched onto the screen and almost indecipherable is a poem reciting religious rituals. Throwing stones, drinking blood, walking on knees, starting and ending with the same, an expression of futility.
I am an atheist. Jerusalem is the perfect place for an atheist, it seams that all this religion cancels itself out, becomes meaningless.
There were other places we went to but these are the places that stuck in my head. We were moved on fast. It was an extraordinary experience. A group of thirty people on the move rushing from place to place in the dark of an ancient city. When we reached the end we walked back through the streets to the coach. We passed American Christians singing and a man in a white robe blowing into two gazelle horns. At 10pm we boarded our bus and I don’t remember the journey back to the hotel.
At 9.00 am we still aren’t sure which trip to take. The trail devised for tourists through villages, Birzeit where we had already been, Jifna, Al Jalazon Camp, E’is Sinia, Silwad and Al-Taybeh with Dr. Suad Almiri and Dr. Nazmi Jubeh, who we had spent the previous day with. Al-Jalazon is a refugee camp and we were particularly interested in seeing what life was like there.
After breakfast we walked to the Riwaq building and arrived at 9.15. It was a short walk through quiet roads at the back of our hotel. The coaches were waiting. I asked one of the girls working in the office and Dr. Yazid Anani who works in the Department of Architecture at the University for more details. Yazid was guiding the second tour to Jamma’een, Sabastiyah and Arrabeh. I had been told that this trip was ancient palaces and wasn’t sure if I wanted to go but he said that we would also visit a Roman site and that this tour would take us out of the mountains to the fertile plain in the North of the West Bank. That decided it. The chance to see more of the landscape was for me crucial, not so much the buildings, though as this is an architectural trip I didn’t say this to anyone.
I think a lot of the others felt this way. I had thought this trip would be less popular but the coach was full. Two of the Architecture students had to take the other trip. This was an opportunity for them to travel more freely than they could normally and I felt guilty that we might have taken their seat but Fida Touma, who would also guide us, said that they would go on the other trip.
When Leila also joined us I knew we had made the right choice.
As we pulled out of Ramallah, Fida, a young Architect, told us about the edges of the city. She pointed out the Prime Minister’s house and the armed guard and the end of his road, which was now private. She pointed out a settlement where, ‘If it rained in Moscow they would put up Umbrellas! It has been said.’ And another settlement on a hill close to it. She said that
the settlements were restricting Palestinian expansion on that side so Ramallah was expanding towards Birzeit. There is an Israeli Army Base on the edge of Ramallah and that road is now blocked, we take a detour that everyone now uses to get to Birzeit. And she pointed out the huge villas on the edge of town, built by American Palestinians with too much money, ugly buildings sprawling out into the wilderness.
Fida was a passionate guide. She educated us about this landscape and all the changes that had been wrought in her life time. She has short dark hair, a good sense of humour and an inability to tell left from right, she was wrong every time.
‘On your left, I mean right, is another illegal settlement,’ Forty heads turned on way then the other. Leila or Yazid corrected her.
We drove out past the University where she and Yazid worked. We passed a small tower of stones. Fida said that they were used as look out towers and for shelter, some had a room below. They were built be shepherds who would sleep on a platform on the top. Many are now ruined. Some are thousands of years old. NAME? Look at the BOOK
Fida spoke about buildings; Yazid spoke more about the landscape. He would point out terraces made on the hillside for olive trees and the effluent flowing into the wild valley floor from an Israeli settlement nearby. Fida showed us the yellow lines on the road which meant that a road was for Israeli use only. TAPE And the road signs which only mentioned the settlements, Palestinian villages were left off them. Roads now ran from settlement to settlement, hill top to hill top, cutting off the Palestinian villages on the valley floors. The Palestinians now made detours around settlement roads to pass from one village to another.
The settlements shone white on the hill tops, like fortresses. Some sprawled out with infilling to follow. Others had rows of temporary buildings on the edges. Fida said that if the Israeli Government wanted to show that it had reduced a settlement then these mobile homes would go, for a while, to be put back when convenient.
The Israeli building plan is ruthless and the landscape loses every time.
We passed through a valley with no buildings apart from an abandoned road block. A Plaestinian sniper had taken aim from the hillside and shot HOW MANY Israeli soldiers dead. Fida was almost incredulous that he had done this and not been caught. Her English was not perfect and she expressed her surprise at the sniper’s ‘professionalism’ in this act. She meant that getting away with something like that was very unusual, his success remarkable. He came out of no where, no one knows who he was and he disappeared into the hills. It was shocking to hear her respect for this man. She was such an amusing and interesting guide and she had already gained our respect. It illustrated how deeply the Palestinian wounds are felt, how powerless she felt herself to be and how unjust their situation.
We started to rise through the hills. Enormous quarries appeared on either side as we pulled into a village covered in dust. Here too were new buildings between the trees and flowering shrubs.
The coach pulled up in the shade and we stopped to visit one of the Riwaq sites at ??? We were met by the Mayor. He talked about the project and what it would do for the town. TAPE Then we walked around the 15th Century Palace now cleaned up and renovated. It had a large courtyard at the centre with many rooms scattered around it. Sometimes on led into another. Sometimes there were stairs on the outside to the room above. There were stone alcoves for fireplaces half way up the wall. All these rooms were square with a low domed roof, scrubbed stone outside and pale yellow lime wash inside with one door and not nay windows. There were flat roofs and terraces between. Richard, the older architect from England loved it all. He spoke of ‘The pressure of light,’ forcing its way in through the doors and windows, past thick walls. The rooms glowed.
A local man brought water and sweets for us, rolled bread with figs, pastry with sugar coating.
We walked around the town, completely deserted because they were all in the olive groves gathering the crop. It was now the end of the harvest.
The town was low hill, the streets meandered around the houses, each one different, many with a high wall. One had a shed made from a fifty year old van with the Star of David on the side. One of the buildings was a blasted shell where a missile had hit it a few years before, weeds grew out of the rubble. The ancient curved roof hung on twenty feet above us.
It was a hot day and dusty but as always there were plants growing everywhere, fig trees, bougainvillea, oleander and cypress against a deep blue sky.
As we walked the streets a green van appeared ahead of us. The family inside were bewildered by out party and drove slowly through as we moved to let them pass, the children stared at us. I smiled and waved but there was no response. The father at the wheel looked scared. Maybe he thought we were settlers.
A fast walk took us back to the bus.
We set off for lunch at Sebastiyah, also known as Samaria, which was close by.
The triangular centre of the small town has large pine trees surrounded by railings to protect them. Along one side there is an ancient wall with steps down to an equally ancient pavement and the entrance to a building three metres below street level. Hanging on the great wall was a banner 10 feet high printed on cloth with a colour photograph of Yasser Arafat. It moved slightly in the breeze.
We were led away for our lunch in another building preserved by Riwaq in close association with a women’s group in the town.
We stepped through the door to a reception committee led by children singing, in local costume on either side.
On the far side of the courtyard a room with long tables was laid for lunch. We ate a large flat bread filled with fried onions, pine kernels and chicken with yoghurt. We ate with our fingers, greedily.
The man opposite me at the dinner table was ?. He was one of the curator of the Biennale. We spoke about the Palestinian situation. He felt that the Israeli point of view was one of incomprehension, why are the Palestinians still here? And anger that they cant do what the British and Americans have done in the past, just move people you don’t want off the land you want. I said that there is also their collective feeling of injustice, that are owed. I wondered if there was a collective desensitisation. In each family the grandparents and parents who survived the holocaust told stories of their experiences for so long and now, as in any family the trauma becomes part of life and is repeated, they are doing to the Palestinians what was done to them. The abused child abuses others. Only of course it’s not so bad, they don’t gas families.
After half an hour we were told to move back to the courtyard where the children would dance for us.
They were about 8 to 10 years old. The boys, and a few of the girls, wore the Arab head dress CALLED?, a pale tunic and dark trousers with soft shoes. The rest of the girls wore orange veils decorated with coins. One boy was the leader of the troup. He indicated to the others when to make a circle, form a line, link arms, while he danced from one end of the courtyard to the other, twirling his headdress with a raised arm above his head. He jumped high and landed light, a gifted dancer, his expression serious and confident.
It was joyous.
Towards the end the some of the students from Birzeit and Leila joined with them, to show their prowess, kicking out their feet and jumping to the music.
As we left the woman who had greeted us stood in the door to shake hands. She took mine and said. ‘I will come to your country.’ As I held her hand I said ‘Yes’. I looked into her eyes and moved on as people spilled out of the door behind me.
What did she mean? Did she want me to help her get there? She was my age. Why did she want to come? What did she think would be there for her? Or perhaps she was just happy that I had
visited her home and wanted to show that she was an equal and would return the complement if she could?
We were led across the street and stone the stone steps, we’d seen on our arrival, to the sunken area under the pine trees. The wall in front of us was twenty feet high with a stone flagged yard in front. Weeds grew between the cracks. The ground was uneven. Below the huge photograph of Yasser Arafat was an arched doorway which led to another walled area, this with a smooth surface to the stone floor. At the far end of this great space was a raised area and beyond this the doors to a Mosque, the tower on the right. A great Roman stone pillar lay on its side to our right. Another stood upright in the centre of the space with an Arab??? archway on its right. There was a small Arab??? building in the centre of the space with a low dome and a carved circle in the side wall a metre across, at the centre a round hole only six inches wide. Opposite this was a covered cloister and in front of this a lemon tree. Most of the lemons were ripe. The high walls sheltered us from the afternoon sun.
A few young men from the town joined us. A local man told us about the place.
This was one of Herod’s palaces. Here Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist. There was not time to explore this extraordinary place.
It was wonderful to see such an important historical site with weeds between the stones, uncleaned, no signs, rough and used still by the town. You could feel the history and see the passage of time in architectural styles. The guide told us that it had never been excavated, that there were probably statues beneath our feet. Those that were small enough had been moved by the Israeli forces in 1967? under Mosha Dyan. And taken to the Israeli museum WHERE? No one knows what was taken but the Palestinians feel that their art treasures were stolen.
The West Bank is divided into zones. In zone A ?????, Zone B ??????, Samaria is Zone C and the land under the Palestinians feet here is under Israeli governance, they are not permitted to excavate it, for water, cables or archaeology. He says that
Israeli’s are not interested in investing what is within the Palestinian land with historical significance.
We go back to the coach and travel just a short distance outside the town. We park in a huge car park or is it a football pitch? Next to it are the most complete Roman ruins that I have ever seen. A street or market place with a row of pillars down each side at one end a semi circle of stone, 10feet from end to end seemed untouched by two thousand years, a seat with a curved front edge and high back.
Yazid called me over, said, ‘Look at this.’ He scratched around in the dirt, an inch of dust, to reveal a mosaic and all around were tessari that had worked their way up. All this too unexcavated, unprotected. I held a tessarae and was tempted to keep it but it had lain there for so long and would have no meaning elsewhere.
We followed to one side up a dusty slope. Beneath our feet were broken shards of Roman pots, everywhere, covering every acre of this site. Ahead of us was a stone platform and to the left of that an amphitheatre. Leila said that it was built in the 4th Century BC. It rose up around us as we walked into it. Forty people looked up at the stone seats many still perfect. I walked down the mud slope to the stage, stone paved, and crossed to find my place in the auditorium as I did so I sang two high notes to test the acoustics, clear and loud. Some of the students followed. From all these seats, and the top row was forty feet above the stage, you could look out across a great valley of cypress trees to the hills two miles away to the West.
There were so many ghosts here. Actors. Plays. Orators. I sat and listened to them.
‘No time, no time, come on we must move on.’ I followed Leila higher up the path around the edge of the amphitheatre. At the top corner a great carved bastion, a massive stone wall curved on one side. What was it for? No time to ask. We walked through olive trees over Roman broken pots, some black, some brown, ridged and smooth. In England one piece of pottery would be an exciting find carefully recorded. Here were pot handles, interesting glazes, pieces of ornately carved porticos
and fluted columns lying around in tiny ploughed fields between the olive trees.
We stopped again. In front of us was a graduated stone work 10 metres long and two metres high.
‘These are the steps to a palace.’
The bases of eight columns sat on either side each four feet
across. I stood among them. This was the edge of the site you
could see for miles now on both sides. On the third side I looked
down into the rooms of the palace, some walls still thirty feet
tall others crumbled into the space they used to surround. I
walked among them as far as I could then moved to the high
ground along one side, among the olive trees, to look down on
the whole site and try to make sense of the building.
A local man who was walking with us. He was a computer
programmer. He knew some of the history. The site had
been excavated for a long time. He said that it was possible to
tell from the construction which parts of the building were
Roman, which Byzantine, which Persian and which were Greek. The earliest buildings are associated with wine production.
SEE NOTES PRINTED ON HISTORY OF THE PLACE.
IVORY Treasures in London and JORDEN? The guide says that
this is a very important historical site which UNESCO could do
something to protect but because it’s in Zone C UNESCO
ignores the situation. As we walk round the back of the site we
look down on a double row of columns, the processional route
into the palace winding up to the summit of the hill on which we
stand. We walk away to our left and back towards the coach.
The plain stretches away on this side too but here it’s covered in
olive trees. As we walk down the slope we pass a very large
breeze block, two story modern house built into the side of the
ancient bastion, this unexcavated site where so many culture
have met in Samaria. I ask the guide about it.
He shakes his head ‘The man who owns it has an Israeli
passport, though he is a Palestinian. So he was able to apply
straight to the Israeli Government and bypass the controls of
We walk side by side.
He says ‘This place is crazy.’
I say ‘Not as crazy as we are led to believe in England.’
We climb back on board the coach, all of us quiet. We watch a
group of children playing football as we drive away.
We are supposed to be going to Nablus next but the guide
would like to bypass it and meet the other party for beer.
Those amongst us who know the city, such as Leila, fight to
continue our journey and win.
We pass through two checkpoints on the way. At one we are stopped but they let us continue fairly quickly. As we arrive at the next the students in the back of the coach are singing, Fida asks them to be quiet. The car in front of us has stopped and is being searched but we are let through again. The blonds in the coach, of which there are a few, including myself, seem to be easing our passage.
We arrive there at about five o’clock in the evening just as
It’s getting dark and hit the town. A large party of historical
tourists streaming towards the old town before the light goes
completely. Fida points out a stone building, erected in the
18th Century but used as a prison by the British and the
Palestinians, it will soon be taken down by the Israeli’s.
No time to stop as we pass walls made from stones
plundered from ancient sites, these newer walls now also
ancient, we pass under low broad arches and walk through ruins.
Children start to follow us, excited by this unusual
presence. A small girl counts us as we pass her. We march
through the souk, the metal doors to market stalls closed or
closing, the men hold up their hands- a chance to make money
missed. And we reach a square with a tall watch tower. The
Ottoman’s put a tower in every town in Palestine. This white
tower was the model for many more. It was first erected at the
gate to the city then moved on a whim to this position. LOOK
INTO THIS AND THE PRISON??
It’s dark now we are surrounded by children. A grinning teenage boy with short black hair, filthy skin and a tooth missing
offers me a small Palestinian flag from a bundle in his hands. I give him too many shekels for it. The rest of my party, I’m sure, thinks that I should not have encouraged him.
Near the bus we buy food. A sweet, deep fried, cheesy, fast
food. There’s a long queue of people waiting for the next batch
to be ready. As it rises out of the oil it’s cut into large squares
and served on paper plates. It’s too hot and burns our mouths but it is delicious so we eat it anyway.
We get back into the bus and drive back to Ramallah. It doesn’t take as long as I expect it too. We are all tired and there is a lot to think about.
We have breakfast. We walk to the Riwaq Headquarters.
Today we will be with Dr. Nazmi Jubeh again. We will travel south to Al-Zahriyyeh and then travel on to where he will give us a tour of Hebron and its historical centre accompanied by the Hebron rehabilitation Committee. I don’t know what this means but there is a definite feeling of even greater expectation than usual in the coach, I’m not sure where it’s coming from. We sit and wait for the coach to fill and when Leila Shahid joins our party I am pleased because I really like this woman. Leila has an open face, she’s short, always looks stylish in black, she talks to everyone, she has everyone’s respect and she laughs with warmth. The Architecture students are the last to get on the coach. Just before we leave Leila tells us that some of the students don’t have the correct passes to travel to Hebron so could all the blonds move to the front of the bus. There are so many of us who want to make this trip that there is also a mini bus full and we travel in convoy.
Nazmi doesn’t start the journey with us because he doesn’t have a pass which would entitle him to travel through the Jerusalem district, where he lives, to Ramallah and then on to Hebron.
Palestinians can’t pass through Jerusalem they have to go round it. We will pick him up in Bethlehem on our way south.
We pass through several check points as we leave Ramallah towards Hebron. The Wall is cut into sections with observation towers between, all made of grey concrete, barbed wire is rolled out in a seemingly random fashion, layer on layer, there are barriers at the roadside and rubbish caught in everything.
We are now used to the queue of cars as they wait to pass through, some are taken to one side and searched, we are always allowed to continue. Part of the reason for this visit is to experience the problems that every Palestinian faces moving around their own territory. The land is devided into A, B and C categories. DEFINE IN MORE DETAIL ‘A’ category land has total Palestinian governance but there are still road blocks.
We travel away from the city and out into open country. We see ahead of us a wild empty landscape of mountains and deep valleys. Is it lime stone plateau smoothed by water? Do rivers flow between the high points cutting round and through? The terrain is like an immense eider down with rounded cushions. Each of these hills is covered with rock and low scrub. Sometimes the hill side have terraces, some centuries old, with dry stone walls on the front edge to hold the earth. Most of these have olive trees growing there.
We get stuck in along queue of traffic on a hillside, waiting in the heat, when we move on we realise they are mending the road, laying tarmac. We travel down a steep slope and approach a road block. Leila says that this is a very difficult check point. She asks us to put away our cameras. The Israeli soldiers do not like to be filmed.
The checkpoint looks like all the others. A barrier on each side of the divided road and sentry boxes one in the centre and one each side for the soldiers to get out of the sun, or for cover. On high ground to the side one of the cylinder towers, 12 feet tall, narrow windows at the top and a flat roof, the Israeli flag flying. This is all Palestinian land, a Palestinian road. There are six soldiers on the ground, all armed. It looks like one officer
and several new recruits, they are all tense. This is Palestinian land, they are pushing Palestinian people around on Palestinian land, who would not be tense? We wait. This makes us tense. These men are afraid of us and they have guns. One soldier on our side of the road lets cars through. A car is being searched to one side. We get to the head of the queue and a soldier gestures to the driver that we are not to go straight through. His face is very serious. We move to the side and stop. One soldier is ordered on board the coach. Leila and the driver talk to them.
Leila turns to us and says ‘They want all your passports please pass them to the front of the bus.’
The soldier takes the passports and leaves the coach. I am on the left side of the coach. I leave me camera hidden but running and I watch the soldiers in the roadside kiosk at the checkpoint go through the passports, checking the details on a computer, making sure that we all have the Tel Aviv entry stamp on our passports. There is baggage in the hold. Belgian woman who has been here many times before and who has been working to build an art facility in Palestine is leaving today from Tel Aviv. She is taken off the bus for further questions, her baggage removed. Will it be searched? The boys in the minibus next to us are also being checked. They are out of the vehicle on the right side of the road answering questions. Those of us who cant see what’s going on stand and move to the front. They bring our passports back and tell us all to sit in our seats. One of our party calls out our names. She is Swedish and she has joined us for today only. She says that it’s an unusual way to be introduced to us all. The soldiers have taken all the Palestinian passes and as we know that not all of the students have them this adds to the tension. These are still being checked, I watch. I look up and see a soldier in the observation tower. Does he have a gun trained on us? The soldiers on the ground walk to the far side of the road and put on flack jackets and helmets. The tension mounts. We are told again to put away our cameras because it will intimidate the soldiers but we can’t resist. They are preoccupied anyway.
We have been sitting now for an hour and a half. Leila says that we are alright now in the mellow heat but this happens in winter when there is snow on the ground. It’s now about mid day and for those of us who are not used to it the heat is intense. I have run out of water. I am in increasing need of a toilet, this need now fills most of my thoughts.
Leila realises that we might be concerned about our situation and says ‘We have nothing to fear, all this is just to make life difficult. There is nothing to worry about. Most of us are Europeans: French, Belgian, Italian, German, English, Swedish and Austrian.
They are still checking the passes belonging to the students. Most of the Palestinian students are in the minibus. It has the name of the university written on the side, BIRZEIT. The mini bus has been searched. I think that they may let us go soon. I look to the right and see that a soldier has one of the students at gun point. Leila leaves the bus to see what’s going on. He lost patience. When his pass was handed back he flipped up his arm in disdain, to no one in particular but it was seen by a soldier searching the vehicle. He is a well known singer and has attitude. The focus of the soldier’s attention is now all on him. He is ordered off the minibus. He is taken to a metal box at the side of the road and strip searched, at the side of the road, in this place which is in the middle of natural terrain, no buildings anywhere. At midday. Some of us stand up again in concern, we are ordered by a soldier to sit down again. We are ordered to leave without him. So we do. We are very quiet.
Half a mile down the road, and round a corner out of site of the check point, a car is parked on the right side of the road. The driver flags us down. The singer’s friends have phoned ahead to the next village. The people in the car will take him from here when he is released. Leila explains all this to us.
Leila reassures us again ‘Don’t worry.’
We move on.
Because of the road block we have been on the road for hours. Many of us are now desperate for the toilet. We stop
outside a restaurant in the first village we meet. Twenty people queue for one toilet through the centre of the restaurant, which is full of people eating their lunch, while the waiters continue to serve food. The owners and dinners are not worried not even amused, this is not a problem, this is just part of life here.
I am relieved in two ways. One of which is that some of the party buy food from the restaurant while the rest of us stand in line.
We have a lot of time to make up so we pee as fast as we can and move on.
We travel the road to Bethlehem. Three biblical towns have joined here now. As we pass through Leila points to a huge white settlement on a hill top, always there on our right. It was built after the Oslo accord LOOK THIS UP. It looks like a holiday resort from the road. The Wall winds round it. Where the fence is not yet constructed there is electrified fence, barbed wire and buffer zones between of empty land. On the Palestinian land nearby the olive groves have been cut to the ground by Israeli soldiers so that only the stumps remain. The trees were seen as possible vantage points near the Israeli settlement for Palestinians with guns. The land is bare and blackened with poisoned stumps in rows where there had once been trees and shade from the sun. As we pass through Bethlehem the settlement is always there on our right.
In the year 2000 the town of Bethlehem had made buildings to prepare for an influx to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ but trouble erupted. The town was besieged and the people of Bethlehem never recovered. LOOK THIS UP.
Leila says ‘Prepare your self for a shock.’
We all look at the road ahead, what will we see?
Then there it is.
Across the main road through the town, in the centre of Bethlehem is The Wall. We drive towards a dead end, fifteen feet high. As the coach gets right up to the concrete it turns sharply away to the left.
There are a few seconds of disbelief. In Bethlehem.
We move on.
Nazmi has been waiting for us for two hours when we finally get to him. Nazmi is tall, grey haired with a moustache. He is in his sixties. He is standing at the side of the road.
As we drive south from Bethlehem the hills become lower and the valleys shallow. The terraces gradually become small fields with stone walls. The earth is orange/pink. Rows of cabbages fill one of the fields, the rows are widely spaced, the blue grey leaves a perfect compliment to the colour of this earth. There are vineyards now between the olive trees. The trees are larger. Some of the vines are short others tall enough to walk under. Strings running from vine to vine make a criss cross that the tendrils grip and grow over so that the vines shade the ground under them. This agricultural land was very beautiful, a patchwork of different greens, pale stone and pink earth and a relief now from the scorched hills.
Sometimes at the side of the road, in dry places, there are huts made of corrugated iron and black plastic. There are goats wandering around. These are the Bedouin encampments. Is it really true that they are forbidden to have tents by the Israeli’s? Must they be settled too? Or is it that they can’t move across the borders and through check points so they are forced to settle on land that no one else wants?
We arrive at Al Zabriyyeh three hours late. The coach parks outside a stone, two story building on a wide street. There are huge canopies tied across the street to provide shade from the intensity of the afternoon sun. They have had food ready for us all this time. Spicy chicken with onions and nuts, bread, water, everything we need. A women takes my hand and smiles, leads me to the table. We eat in near quiet for a few minutes, we are hungry, then speech erupts out of us. We have a lot to talk about. Then they speak to us about how important it is for them to be able to entertain us, how honoured they are to receive us.
But all is done with urgency, time is running out. The mayor is there and leads us away across the street to see the work that Riwaq has done.
We walk down narrow streets to the old heart of the town, passing a butchers with sheep’s heads lined up on the floor and carcasses hanging freshly slaughtered, blood everywhere. A boy with blond hair poses for my camera with a sheep’s head in his hand, his father and uncle behind, all laughing. We turn another corner in this ancient street and a boy of 8 rides toward us on a stallion. We stop and watch in awe as he directs the horse to side step and perform perfect dressage moves for us, then they turn and canter off through an archway, and down the narrow passage we follow. The boy and horse have disappeared. Domed buildings have been remade, walls rebuilt. In one a small child sits on a ledge, at head height, behind an iron grill, his small feet sticking out towards me. I would like to grab one and kiss it. Buildings are reforming everywhere out of rubble, ancient carvings re- placed on lintels, steps lead up and down to passages, cobbled courtyards and dark rooms. Washing is strung between.
We are led to a large open space with high walls, yellow in the light, children stand near the top. Seats in rows have been placed for a performance by children from the local school of singing and playing instruments.
The sun is going down and we still have to get to Hebron.
Back in the coach we are stunned by the day.
Soon enough we reach Hebron in the dark. Children crowd around us immediately, when I return home to England I have nits, I think I got them here.
Nazmi tells us to keep close, we don’t have much time. We move fast through the noise and heat of the ancient city. He leads us to the souk, closed up for the night, above us a grill of wires and netting has been put up to protect the people from debris thrown down from the buildings above. This is where the settlers live, at the end of the street are gun emplacements to protect them.
Nazmi: ‘You see to the left is a one floor building built by the Jewish community who lived in Hebron before 1948. We just passed watchtowers; they are watching all life in this area. The area behind this fence is preserved for Jews; non-Jews are not allowed to use it. It was a major market place, with another market behind and the bus station was there, now shut up. The bus station was converted into a military camp. This three story building existed before 1948 as a Jewish house, after 1967 they took it back and rebuilt it with more floors. Everything is totally militarily controlled here. This has led to the evacuation by Palestinians of most of the old city; it’s difficult to raise children here especially as most buildings are closed by military order. Since the evacuation 35 buildings are abandoned because their owners can’t reach them anymore. Any that remained were thrown out. All these buildings are now lived in by young settlers, mostly boys.’
Nazmi pointed to lights in settlers’ windows above us and from the slits in the watchtowers gun barrels were visible. He hurried us through.
So here in Hebron it was not possible to reclaim the old buildings as had been done by Riwaq in the other towns we’d visited. Why had Hebron been singled out for Israeli attention? Because of history. In 1929 following a rumour that Jews were massacring Arabs in Jerusalem and had taken over the wailing wall, the Jewish community of 800, mostly Ashkenazi Jews, in Hebron, then a city of 20,000, were attacked, pelted with stones, 67 Jews were killed and 9 Arabs. The first attack was in the bus station. The Jewish community dwindled to nothing until the return in 1967.
The tension was strong in the heat of that night, the dark streets, the dirty children surrounding us, running alongside us, one with the small Palestinian flags for sale, as we rushed back to the coach.