By Taylor Miller
It’s not a typical kind of tourism- to visit a place actively seeking what’s not right. Where the cracks and fissures are deepening, facades are crumbling and cut wires hang from corners like rigor mortis snakes. Wayfinding through ultraorthodox enclaves where simply the sight of any sliver of my skin screams heresy; as they either quickly avert their eyes or lock them to my elbow or knee- a fiery glare like this flesh could just melt away.
I used to fixate on faces- flailing my camera lens towards any person with a pulse because I was unsure of how to reconcile the differences I saw. It took a few trips in between several more years of grad school, and the time to let Edward Said really soak in, until I started to better understand how to see, myself, more clearly in this space. Past the veil of tired stories from a father who’d never even been. Past the lure of milk and honey when you’re hungry. A place I now more smoothly call Palestine, despite how many hours held up by Ben Gurion’s guards.
This most recent visit, it was the silent screeches and splits that called loudest, demanding I move even slower in the soupy Mediterranean summer air. The city had been scrubbed since I last saw it; stencils and sketches on walls and lamp posts erased without trace or replacement. As I sauntered down Rothschild Boulevard between patches of jacaranda leaf shade, I recalled how every ten steps or so on the sidewalk I’d see THERE’S NO PRIDE IN ISRAELI APARTHEID. No longer.
Figure 1. Hasty restoration (2017)
A power washer’s since paid visit. So it’s far less glaring to the untrained eye how to spot where the shackles have tightened, and where to find the tiniest traces of possible colonial collapse. A moment where instinct, presumption and military might all come up against each other, and where layers of plywood and concrete have splintered or chipped.
Flooded by fragments of news stories, it could be safe to presume settlement construction in the Occupied Territories has halted. In the years after the Accords- the Obama Administration, the United Nations and various human rights organizations have all demanded a freeze. And from a distance we’ve likely been deluded from 2005’s disengagement, maybe thinking that since then, the rules have been followed. It’s 2017 and cranes fill the skyline in every direction.
Figure 2. Construction in Florentin (2017)
Figure 3. En route to Raouf and Atina’s (2017)
From where I stood in Tel Aviv, sympathizers to the markets might say this is all part of transformation, routine gentrification of abandoned or worn out neighborhoods. That the bulldozers’ persistence is necessary to this global city. The only gay-friendly part of the Middle East. The most cosmopolitan. A world giant in technological innovation. Part of a natural cycle of change.
It is too easy to plow over the ground’s scars, past the scorched earth where generations of farmers and shepherds once thrived. When there was no competition for whose windows saw the most of the sea. A professor of mine knew I was visiting Ajami, well beyond the threshold of Jaffa’s Old City- certainly no place for a Segway tour stop. This is where they lived before the Nakba. Their home was on the cliff, across from Raouf and Atina’s. Be sure to eat there, too. The seafood is wonderful. Please take a photo for my mother and father. When I arrived, the restaurant had been boarded. Little more than a skeleton of a wine-and-hummus-filled past. Another casualty of speculation. Of occupation.
The For Sale sign and the soil each said something different. The construction dust is white. Rather, a kind of color that comes to mind when you think that something’s dusty. Despite the State’s dispossession and demolishing, there’s the deep ochre that’s turned as the backhoe keeps scraping surfaces- to remind us they’re still here. The stories, the bones from the fishermen’s catch, the orange peels- have all made for a compost rich of resistance. Down deeper than their machines can dig.
Figure 4. Ajami laid bare, pt. 1 (2017)
Figure 5. Ajami laid bare, pt. 2 (2017)
Figure 6. Tension of Turf (2017)
Heading north where the square-foot-prices soar, I am reminded that the plants can only grow from stolen water for so many seasons. Even the astroturf is beginning to die back.
Regardless if nothing is planted, the water still flows around the clock from irrigation lines, probably in hopes that the sidewalk can sprout. One can follow the line as it stretches through scores of seared shrubs and beetle-ridden pines. This heedlessness distinctly separates an Israeli lawn from a Palestinian one. The wastefulness is an overt display of Israel’s politics of verticality, here as it pertains to the depth that water pumps are allowed to reach:
Israeli pumps may reach down to the waters of the common aquifers whilst Palestinian pumps are usually restricted to a considerably shorter reach, only as far down as seasonal wells trapped within shallow rock formations, which, from a hydrological perspective, are detached from the fundamental lower layers of ‘ancient waters’. (Weizman 19)
Towards Jerusalem, via the 405 bus that instigators and agitators say could be blown up on a dime. Everything is white here, too. With the same broad strokes of erasure like its hip friend on the coast. Heading east, you have to read this city not for its aura of holiness, its mystery and lore. No—it’s far more fragile than a few centuries of armies’ aggression uphold. Limestone layers are peeling back to reveal the haste of concrete pours. A land grab so quick they couldn’t even consider a level. The 1968 masterplan for Jerusalem professed its “’commitment’ to the orientalist aesthetics and urban development principles of ‘colonial regionalism’, a sensibility characteristic of the period of British rule over Palestine (1917-48), especially in its earlier years” which “on the urban scale, [is] expressed in attempts to dissolve ‘old’ with new, archaeology with living fabric” (Weizman, 27). Politicians and religious leaders alike place tremendous value on the visual impression projected by the stone. With demand for this limestone so high, architectural compromises are made out of desperation to sprawl and uphold this political-aesthetic. On new structures across Jerusalem, the stone serves as a mere cladding; Israeli building standard allow layers of sawn stone just 6cm thick (Weizman, 30). Psychical and psychical fortification around every corner- visual occupation as far as the eye can see.
Figure 7. On the sustenance of national narratives, pt. 1 (2017)
Figure 8. On the sustenance of national narratives, pt. 2 (2017)
Figure 9. The stone bylaw (2017)
Explosions and incessant pummeling have forced the sidewalks and retaining walls to heave- Styrofoam slabs as an equally hasty and hideous shim. But in this, there’s hope. Even where the sidewalk momentarily ends- likely that in just a few months a new road, deeper into the West Bank will be built- it is glaring that these foundations are laid at an unsustainable pace.
For a split second, the world watched thousands of bodies in the street bowing in reverence, defiance, with foreheads on the pavement- in refusal to enter the compound on the occupier’s terms. In these cracks are planted seedlings of revolution, growing evermore strategic; we are witness to the rapidity and efficacy of nonviolent direction action.
Figure 10. Crumbling of the Dastor Stone (2017)
Photographing these interstices is a way to at once observe the past-present-future of a space too many declare too complicated to figure out. In a land where the forest often obscures the trees, noticing the nuances of demolition and decay have proven integral to my understanding of body-in-place, body-amongst-conflict. Bearing witness to the Nakba’s residues- the shell of Raouf and Atina’s, my cautious steps on the ruin’s of my professor’s family home, keeping tally of all the Sotheby’s signs- is an effort to avoid abstraction of another’s pain.
It is all too easy for travelers to explore Tel Aviv, or even Jerusalem, without seeing glaring signals of trauma and insidious imperialism. Though it should come as no surprise that these sites are strategically planned to obscure such dissenting lines of sight. Gil Hochberg argues how when it comes to visual mediation, “what is generally called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not always appear [the same way]. This is partly because different kinds of spectators are exposed to different images of the conflict, but also because even when these different spectators view the same images, they do not necessarily see them in the same way” (Maimon & Grinbaum, 76). There is much to be said on subjectivity, but what many of the resultant images of my wayfinding speak to are stories walked over and through in occupied lands, by the occupier, with relative ease. Conflict here can be conveyed without blatant bloodshed. But glimmers of resolution (or at the very least, reconciliation) are observable in discontinuity and disintegration.
Maimon, V., Grinbaum, S., & ProQuest (Firm). (2016). Activestills: Photography as protest in Palestine/Israel. London: PlutoPress.
Weizman, E. (2007). Hollow land: Israel’s architecture of occupation. New York; London: Verso.