Children of the Intifada
from Pictures of Palestine
Khaled forgot. I had rung him for a taxi and, there I was, roasting in the sun, waiting. He’s a lovely chap, useful to know – he’ll fix things, find things and rescue you if you need it. Once, he visited England after falling in love with an Englishwoman from the thoroughly provincial small town of Minehead. But he failed in his hopes of a future with her and a residence permit to go with it, returning in due course to Palestine.
He talked fondly of the consolation prize he gained from all this, seeing Manchester United. Some Palestinian men look on Trafford Park, the team’s home ground, as devout Christians look on the Church of the Nativity. Visiting it was one of the memorable achievements of Khaled’s life. But that day he forgot to pick me up.
It’s something you have to get used to, part of the psychology of a nation which has had its life completely, repeatedly ruined. Plans evaporate and an organised sense of order in life becomes a distant fantasy – something they do in places like England or Germany. I myself had been developing a crisis with this mindset – my patience, perseverance and perspective had eroded away. Some plans were scrapped, some were indefinitely postponed, other unforeseens landed on my plate, things went wrong, some things couldn’t be done until another was done first, which itself was dependent on something else... and, before long, I was stymied, tense and wondering what to do. Then the power went off again, and the internet too. That had finished me off.
My psyche had been jammed, clogged and knotted. Even when meditating, my brains boomed and a mosquito irritated me. I was in a mess. I had lost track of what I had been thinking, exploded as it was in a paroxysm of tangled dilemmas. I had landed up in a heap on the floor, with a few ants examining my suitability as dinner. Well, metaphorically, at least.
Then came the visit to Mar Saba. There I gave myself permission to relax and take a day off and the day after resting, I looked at the logjam of outstanding issues, shrugged my shoulders and got on with the first thing that came up. I had finally joined the Palestinian mindset. I still felt lost but more pleasantly so than before, having accepted my lot.
So there was I, standing by the Hebron road, late for my appointment to meet Fatima and her husband Mohammed. I had rung her to say I was running late, but now I was very late. There weren’t any service taxis – Ramadan, a month-long religious go-slow, was starting.
The phone rang. Fatima. “Where are you, Balden?”
“Still on the Hebron Road at Al Khader, Fatima.”
“We come and pick up you. You wait there.” The phone went dead.
Then it rang again. This time it was Khaled, apologetic – no, mortified – over having forgotten me. Obviously he’d been hit with a case of absent-mindedness, which people can get while they’re fasting from dawn till dusk for Ramadan. I assured him it was okay, that things were sorting themselves out. He was anxious that I might think badly of him. Poor man, shame is such a strong force in the Palestinian psyche. Eventually he rang off.
Then a taxi stopped, peeping its horn, the driver bearing that look of anticipatory expectancy: he wanted my business and, as a rich Westerner, I was honour-bound to give it. No thanks, I’m okay. As they do, he looked bewildered – why should this foreigner want to stand by the side of the road? His English didn’t stretch to understanding my explanation. He saw my demonstrative hand-signals and drove off shrugging, just then seeing an old wreck of a car drive up with a smiling couple in it, both calling to me. It was Mohammed and Fatima.
As I got in, I was half-expecting them to take me to Deheisheh where they lived but, no, they had other ideas. I had been looking forward to visiting Deheisheh, but I needed an insider to accompany me because in places like that it’s not cool to barge in on people’s world with a big camera. Some people there don’t want the Israelis or the PA to see photos of them. So I needed an insider’s company and Fatima had offered it, or so I had thought. But no, they were taking me on a tour of Bethlehem instead. They figured that, as a photographer, I should get some good shots, but not in Deheisheh. Alright, change of plan. Off we went – first stop Irtas.
Irtas is just down the valley, an old monastery village spread across the side of a valley filled with market gardens. It’s a calm, benign village, presided over by the monastery and a big statue of the Virgin and Child. Ironically, the mosque dominated the proceedings as we arrived: the calling to prayers boomed out across the valley, joined later by the contrapuntal disharmonics of another mosque further down the valley, calling its own flock.
I wandered around capturing shots while Fatima and Mohammed loitered in the shade of a tree, trying not to look like conspicuous Muslims trespassing on Christian ground – the monks and nuns here are respected and slightly feared. It’s a lovely place, a haven of homely tranquillity. Except for one thing: up the valley on the hill looms part of the Israeli settlement of Efrat, glowering over Irtas to remind its inhabitants who’s boss around here. Such are the stark contrasts of this land. After a while we were off to another part of the village, to a memorial to Yasser Arafat.
“What does it say, Fatima?”
“It says he was killed by the Israelis, that he’s a martyr of the Palestinian people.”
She wanted me to note this: she’s one of those who believe that Arafat was poisoned. Just recently one of the top people in Fateh had thrown a fit, accusing Abu Mazen and some PA men of getting rid of Arafat on behalf of the Israelis, and more than a few Palestinians agreed. Whether or not that was true, it’s certainly the case that Arafat was worn out and in ill-health by the end of his life. His long years of fighting, exile, wrangling, hardship, threats to his life and, at the end, confinement in his Ramallah HQ during the intifada... all these factors killed him. We might never find out whether or not he was poisoned – Muslims bury their dead too quickly for autopsies. But his death marked the end of an era, and the Israelis definitely gained from it. The great heroic champion of the Palestinian cause had gone to Allah.
Instead, the Israelis had the sedate Abu Mazen to deal with, a gentleman more willing than Arafat to compromise and bend. Some Palestinians were quietly relieved because they still believed that, if only they continued playing the negotiation game, something would be gained. It took a few more years to find out this was not to be the case.
Arafat knew Zionism well. He started his life as a fighter aiming to eliminate Israel, and he understood the mentality of elimination that Zionists themselves suffer. Arafat stalwartly stood up against Zionism, but toward the end of his life he grew tired, wanting to achieve a semblance of his dream of a revived Palestine, even if much diminished from the one he first dreamt of.
So in the 1990s he chose to trust the Israelis and the Oslo process by making deals, accepting a modest prospective Palestinian state and hoping for improvements later on. The state didn’t happen and no improvements came. Thus the second intifada in 2000. The Israelis used the Madrid conference and the Oslo process of the 1990s as cover, continuing to build facts on the ground – West Bank settlements, settler by-pass roads, checkpoints, controls and 680km of planned separation walls. When international bodies passed judgement on the legality or wisdom of this, Israelis simply accused them of anti-Israeli bias and carried on.
Fatima and Mohammed wanted to show me this by bringing me to Arafat’s memorial. As twentysomethings, they had been teenagers in the second intifada and toddlers in the first, growing up when hopes were rising, only to see them dashed. They were not angry, just resigned and factual. The Palestinians had lost, and that was that.
They put great energy into their jobs – he a medical engineer and she an occupational therapist at Hope Flowers. They both kept a bright countenance but I knew they privately wondered whether anything would change or whether it might be better to move abroad. They wanted to stay here, have children, get a house, but perhaps it was still worth cultivating foreign friends like me, just in case.
Next they took me to a high-point at the Palestine University, perched atop a hill overlooking Deheisheh and Duha. Ibrahim once told me, slightly scathingly, that this private university was for the richer beneficiaries of the Palestinian dispensation – students with money but neither the brains nor the qualifications to go to Bethlehem or Bir Zeit, Palestine’s top universities. Whatever is the case, Palestine University is superbly located on its hill, and my hosts got me past the guards to take photos. You could see a princely panorama with the ancient Herodeon to the south, Bethlehem and Jerusalem to the east and Beit Jala to the north.
Then we visited a vantage point overlooking Deheisheh refugee camp, a higgledy-piggledy area of buildings clinging to the hillside, where everyone is relatively poor and knows everyone else. It’s an urban village where the disadvantaged, with few prospects, no capital and reduced rights, can live. Many are refugees or their descendants, but others simply lack money or resources. UNRWA provides social services to the area, its Bethlehem HQ adjoining the camp. What’s notable though is that Deheisheh is remarkably well cared for by its inhabitants – it is tidier and more organised than many other parts of Bethlehem.
The issue here is a mindset, a psychological state. Ibrahim Issa grew up in Deheisheh, and his father Hussein grew up in a tent here in the 1950s, when it genuinely was a camp. But they escaped that mindset and, comprehending it, created a school where the mindset could be transformed in others – a majority of the kids being descended from refugees. This transformation involves healing the emotional and mental damage that are brought about by violence, injustice, horror and hardship. The damage becomes a psychological loop, passed down the generations and interlocking with social disadvantage to become an all-pervasive syndrome from which escape requires supreme effort.
Fatima said that Deheisheh is a friendly, neighbourly community. When they were married a year earlier and she moved into the area, everyone knew who she was before she knew who they were. She spoke with pride and affection for the place, but she and Mohammed perhaps didn’t want to be seen with a Westerner looking like a journalist, to be seen to be different, well-connected, for they relied as a young couple on the people of Deheisheh and their neighbourly solidarity.
After Deheisheh they took me to the Church of the Nativity. There was something touching and significant about two Muslims taking me to this Christian shrine. Nevertheless, though it is historic and holy, the atmosphere there smelt somewhat of ‘moneychangers in the temple’, its sanctity drowned out by flashing tourist cameras. Today it was crawling with Italian visitors, happily snapping on their digitals as if God was busy elsewhere and it hardly mattered. I loitered in a corner, futilely trying to imbibe a sense of the holiness of the place.
But then came the real purpose of our visit: my hosts showed me where forty fighters had died during the intifada in 2002, having taken refuge in the church. The Israelis laid siege and placed snipers on the roof, picking off Palestinians one by one until starvation and destitution plus international intervention led to a negotiated end to the ordeal. This was an act of heroism and resistance that many Palestinians see as a critical point in their recent history, a final dramatic act of resistance before giving up the fighting.
We then went down to Beit Sahour, the quaint centre of which is Christian and, this being Sunday, closed and quiet. The shops were shuttered and the streets empty except for cats, who seemed to have deduced the advantages of staging feline tactical operations on holy days. Beit Sahour is where the shepherds watched their flocks by night, as the legend goes.
We drove up to Beit Jala, then off on a side-road and around the hill behind the town to the grounds of the Cremisan monastery, famous for its wines. The pinewoods and greenery here were lovely. But our destination was further along the hill – a vista overlooking Jerusalem and, on the neighbouring hill, the glaringly modern Israeli hilltop settlement of Gilo. Mohammed showed me the empty, tree-clad land below us, where Palestinians without passes can smuggle themselves into Israel, dodging IDF soldiers. The security wall had not yet been built here so, with some nifty footwork, it was still possible to get into Jerusalem illegally, bypassing the checkpoints.
Close by, an old Bedouin was sitting on a rock. He was quiet and still. Watching him for a while, I realised from the way he was sitting that he sat there a lot, presumably waiting for someone to come up the hill, smuggling themselves back out of Jerusalem. I longed to photograph him but something in me didn’t want to steal his space and secrecy, so I refrained. This old man had seen the long saga of the conflict unfold throughout his life, and now he was reduced to sitting patiently, waiting, perhaps for a son or relative.
There are significant numbers of wanted men in Palestine – wanted by the Israelis, Hamas, Fateh or disparate factions. When you meet them, they’re friendly until you ask a personal question or wish to take a photograph, and then they look stern, say No and start disappearing, fast.
Finally Fatima and Mohammed took me to a high point above Beit Jala where, on a clear day, you can see the Dead Sea valley eastwards and the Mediterranean westwards. It wasn’t clear that day. This place is significant to Palestinians because they are penned up, with zero chance of visiting the Mediterranean or the Red Sea and only a slightly better chance of relaxing by the Dead Sea. My friends showed me a panorama of their land, a land that isn’t theirs, where they are indigenous yet treated almost as aliens.
They were bright and optimistic, yet there was a resigned helplessness in them too. In the car, I interviewed them for a podcast. On some questions they shrugged their shoulders: they didn’t know what would happen next, what the future would bring. They both did the best they could with each day. They talked of having children and progressing in life; Fatima had a dream of opening a school for disabled children. I wondered what lay ahead for them.
This is what happens to the psyche of a Palestinian: attending to whatever comes next, you hope that the rest will work out. You go forward more with faith than with realism, because realism gets you down. You stay as happy as you can, hoping things will get no worse. Someone expressed the downside of this to me: it’s not a matter of good days and bad days, but bad days and worse days. So staying happy is a survival strategy for dealing with perpetual uncertainty and adversity. Yet strangely, Palestine is an uncannily happy place. This is a perverse crisis-managing happiness, an insecure, volatile cheerfulness that can plummet or turn ugly if Israeli soldiers appear over the hill.
This psychology also means that you drop having ambitions, you cease cleaving to an aspiration of hope. Yet Palestine is a well-behaved place with near-zero crime, good behaviour and friendliness in the streets, so this firefighting mentality has its virtues.
But nevertheless, Khaled, bless him, had forgotten to pick me up – a classic example of this syndrome. Forty-five minutes had elapsed between my call to him and the arranged pickup, several things had happened in the meantime and it had slipped his mind. But it all worked out well anyway, as it does, if you let it: Mohammed and Fatima showed me their world, giving me a glimpse of life through their eyes, and I was deeply grateful to them for that. I just wished I could magic them up a new car.
© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop