THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN NARRATIVE PROJECT.
“You know you don’t have to go if you are scared. You don’t have to prove anything”.
Messages of this kind and similar ones poured into my facebook inbox and my mobile phone.
I admit, it was not an easy decision to partake in this project. From about a week prior to the journey to Beit Jalah, I stopped sleeping. Nightmares returned at night and by day my head was full of difficult thoughts and fears. In between, I repeated in my head, like a mantra, a sentence that my friend Gilad Chushani said to me a few weeks earlier: fear stems from lack of knowledge. And I knew that I don’t know, and that I’m afraid. Rational or not, this fear was tangible even though I didn’t allow myself to get carried away with specific worries concerning possible dangers that might lie in waiting for me in the Palestinian town, in an encounter with people about whom I knew nothing except that they are Palestinian artists.
My last encounter with Palestinians on Israeli/Palestinian soil was very bad indeed. It was on the 21st of December 2000; I was a soldier in the Nahal and volunteered to help members of my peer-group who had settled in Maskiot in the Jordan Valley. While I was playing backgammon with a girl from my unit in the Meholah Junction, waiting for a lift to Maskiot, a young Palestinian man aged 20 or 21 sat next to us. Half an hour later, exactly at the moment of my sweeping victory in the game, he arose and walked towards the bus stop. A disturbing thought crossed my mind. I didn’t hear any approaching bus. I turned my head to follow him and suddenly felt him standing behind me, gripping me from behind tightly. I grabbed his hand that surrounded my neck in an attempt to break free when he screamed something in my ear and then there was a colossal explosion. I will skip all the graphic details. Later I spent 5 months recovering in Rambam Hospital, followed by a year of rehabilitation. Ever since, I suffer from loud ringing in my ears, and my daily activities brought to a standstill from time to time, with flashbacks where I re-live this experience weighing me down. This happens nearly always when I hear Arabic, see Arabic script, hear the explosion-like sounds of car engines, and all sorts of other benign situations; in short, what is considered a full post-traumatic phenomenon. So there, I have explained a bit about the reasons for all my anxieties and the fears I felt in anticipation of my visit to Palestine.
And indeed, as I arrived and took in on which side of the Separation Wall I stand, I was engulfed by anxiety. For about four hours I felt myself under an offensive of anxiety and flashbacks which were in stark contrast to all the smiles and polite head gestures exchanged by everyone. After getting to know the Palestinian participants and as I was getting used to this strange situation and to the simultaneous translation which was constantly whispered in our ears by Ahmed Jafary the skilled translator, that the many tensions bottled inside myself were only just then slightly eased (that particularly pacifying peace-pipe that we jointly smoked certainly didn’t hurt).
All the participants in the project gave chilling testimonies on their encounter-points with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it was generally felt that all the artists who took part were there not for the sake of apportioning blame but in order to find a starting point for the future – a future without violence, occupation or bloodshed. I will not repeat here the terrible stories that nearly choked me when I heard them, and I will not delve into the details of the traumas, which people on both sides grew up so much so that they seem an almost “natural” and inextricable part of life.
In the website of the Bereaved Families Forum (www.theparentscircle.com ), the objects of this “Narrative Project” are described as follows: “To build trust and empathy, to further mutual understanding between Palestinians and Israelis and to provide tools for recognition and understanding of the national and personal narratives of the other side”.
I think that this is exactly what we did, or at least started doing. Through the honest sharing of our personal narratives, by means of the mutual curiosity and interest of the art created on the other side of the divide, and by identifying with the basic and universal difficulties faced by artists wherever they are, we came closer, feeling our way, trying to get to know each other better. Mostly though, we learnt at close range what perhaps seemed obvious to most of us beforehand, but was better understood in Beit Jalah, namely, that people and their actions are a direct product of their lives’ circumstances.
One of the most interesting parts for me was on Saturday morning, when two professors of history, Eyal Navah and Khalil Baader arrived, and introduced us to chapters from a history book written jointly by them, which describes the two narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the respective viewpoint of the two nations side by side. They spoke about Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, the White Paper, the Holocaust, the Naqba/War of Independence. Each of them told the history as told in their society. The gaps between the national narratives are huge. I was very familiar with the Israeli narrative. Probably my bizarre interest in history since childhood had instilled this “knowledge” in me very well. The Palestinian narrative, on the other hand, was almost entirely new to me. Previously, I never understood their perception of historical events that I assumed I knew so well.
There were incredible moments for me when, for example, I was sitting with a nice Palestinian guy on Friday night for an in-depth chat into the early hours of the freezing night in Beit Jalah, and between exchanges of photographs and stories, on art, politics and anything in between, for a flash I glimpsed at this situation as an observer.
There was I, a former IDF soldier, who was mortally wounded by a suicide-bomber a young Palestinian student, sitting and having a conversation about political art, religion and music, with a young Palestinian student and painter, who some years prior to this, was in an Israeli prison charged with a failed attempt to cause an explosion against Israeli soldiers in Nablus.
I cannot describe what I felt, but it soon turned into a recognition, that he is participating in this project with me today and he wants to encounter other voices in the Israeli society, beyond the ones he already knows, those of soldiers and settlers. And here we are by ourselves, chatting and everything is alright, no one is blown up and the conversation flows, and at times even makes us laugh. The dialogue about art helped me bridge many of the strange moments that passed through my head almost against my will.
One of the most significant things that happened to me on a personal level during this weekend, was that I managed to dissolve to some extent the hard cognitive connection forged in the last decade, between spoken and written Arabic and death and terror. In my mind new associations emerged, between Arabic and good, interesting art, between Arabic and good, interesting people, and between Arabic and people like myself, who are seeking freedom of choice in their profession, creativity, time and life.
I want to summarize and tell you that through this project I met people who are similar to me as far as religion, a wish for secular state for both people and conceptual art are concerned. In fact, in many ways the similarities exceeded the differences. I met people who are interested and willing to co-operate in artistic and social matters, do not believe in boycotts and want to be creative and be active. I hope we will exhibit our art jointly, here in Israel and in Palestine, and in the world. After all, we have much more in common than just a tragic history, a blood-saturated earth and perhaps a few genes.
We are going to meet again in a fortnight in Lifta, a site of a former Palestinian village at the outskirts of Jerusalem, whose inhabitants abandoned during the 1948 war, and I eagerly anticipate this meeting.
I warmly recommend to you to follow the activities of the Bereaved Families Forum and to try and participate in similar project arranged by the Forum in the future.
Omer Golan, 31, a painter and new-media artist. His works are created on the seam-line that combines technology, science, sociology and art. Omer studied new media programming in order to create his new-media works. Using computer, sensors, cameras and unique software that he created, he generates certain rules that help him manipulate the space in which he displays his works and produce dynamic works that react to the audience’s response and transpose passive viewers into participants.