Sunday, June 29, 2008

Ramallah is the new Dubai

I was invited on Sunday to a picnic by Yazid. Emily, Reem and a whole load of other people would also be there. Yazid is an architect and teaches in the architecture department of Birzeit University. Emily is a Palestinian/American visual artist and Reem is an art historian who works at the newly opened art academy in Ramallah. We met at 10am by Café Pronto and we passed the first few hours together by getting food for the picnic. We went to the fruit and veg shop and bought watermelons, peaches, tomatoes, lemons and a whole variety of other things. Then we went to one of the street stalls and bought freshly made humus and falafel and we also bought pickled cucumbers and various kinds of mixed salads too. Soon we’d pretty much filled up a whole trunk with food which I would guess would have been enough for about forty people even though there were only ten of us. The idea though was that we were going to eat throughout the whole day. ‘Food is wine’ as Yazid put it when we passed by a friend’s place on the way to pick up a grill. People here love food and they love to spend time eating. We drove out of Ramallah and headed north to a little village called Burham. This place was supposed to be one of the only regions in the Ramallah area where there’s any forest-like growth. Geographically, we had driven north to the border of Zone B that overlooks Zone C. This was on the border of one of the Israeli-controlled corridors that separates the urban areas. We could see a settlement on the hilltop and the settler road that connects the settlements north of Ramallah to Israel. The options for picnic areas and excursions into nature are so limited around Ramallah that the people in the village had decided to close off this one forest to visitors as the forest just couldn’t cope any longer. A local boy from the village came over and told us where we could stay instead and we found a place in an olive grove that was shady and we began to prepare the food. Ahmed, Sandy and Alessandro turned up with their little children and, to my surprise, they had also brought food. Some marinated chicken and lamb shish for the grill, so we weren’t short of anything.

Sandi and Alessandro are both architects and run a project called Decolonizing Architecture which has its offices in Bethlehem. I think Ahmed also teaches Political Theory at the Birzeit University. When there is food, friends and lots of time, there are also a lot of discussions and I’m very impressed with the locals’ ability to constantly discuss the ‘situation’. So today’s big discussion was on the future development of the city of Ramallah. Yazid had already started the discussion in the car when we’d passed a large sign on an empty lot that said ‘Bought by Arab Investment Bank’. He sang a little self-made song: ‘Ramallah is the new Dubai’, and told us that the West Bank has recently been opened for investment by the rich Gulf States. Many aspects of the Oslo Accords concern economic control over the flows of investment and goods into the occupied territories. Within the last few years, Israel and the PA (Palestinian Authority) have, in collaboration with the World Bank and global investors, attempted to open the occupied territories to international investment. Thus a very disturbing mix of military occupation and free trade zone was beginning to take shape.

Much of the discussion under the olive tree was about how the economic and cultural weight is being pushed from East Jerusalem to Ramallah. This process was happening on a variety of different fronts. On the political front, East Jerusalem had already been annexed by Israel in the 1980s and been brought into the municipality of Jerusalem. In this way the Israelis had disconnected East Jerusalem from the West Bank as an area of legal administration. The Israeli-controlled municipality doesn’t do much to support and develop life for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Therefore the Palestinian life of the city is starting to dry out there. Daily life has become too expensive and difficult and there is less and less to do there economically as well as culturally. Palestinians go to Ramallah when they want to have a good time and party. The Wall has isolated and closed Jerusalem off from its hinterland on the West Bank and the Palestinians in the West Bank no longer have access to the holy city. Palestinians in East Jerusalem cannot expand their homes and their neighbourhoods are not developed at the same rate as the Israelis. All the while Israeli settlements are continuously expanding, lately by a 1000 new homes in Pisgat Zeev and Har Homa (, for example. The role of Ramallah therefore is also an important part of this plan which in the end would make Ramallah the main city in Palestine. Traditionally Jerusalem had been the capital of Palestine but this role is fading more and more.

When it came to this slow pressure on the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, there were no limits to the stories the picnic guests could tell of how Palestinians with Jerusalem IDs had had their identification withdrawn in various situations. For example, during departure at the airport for long study trips abroad, the guards would simply take the cards and comment that ‘this is no longer needed now that you’re leaving anyway’. There were currently several ongoing legal cases regarding these events in which Palestinians were trying to get their Jerusalem ID back. The guests also spoke about how, in the middle of the night, at Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, there would be control visits to check whether people actually lived at these addresses. The police would check whether the bed was warm and whether the toothbrush was still wet. This discussion made me sweat as I’d written on the blog about Ismail’s attitude in regard to the Israeli demands for residency permits here. As I was aware of the problematic security situation, I’d changed most names that I referred to on the blog and the people at the picnic figured this was good enough.

Yazid was very preoccupied by this combination of military control and market interests which stimulates life in some areas of the West Bank but makes life unbearable in others with the purpose of displacing people. This was how Palestinians were being moved from Jerusalem to Ramallah. In regard to this process, the discussion turned to questioning what the PA was doing that was in any way beneficial to the Palestinian people. According to the Oslo Accords, the PA is the administrative organisation that should govern both civil and security related institutions in the areas under Palestinian control. However, it seemed pretty unclear which interests the PA in fact represented. According to the opinions shared at the picnic, the PA was entirely implicated in Israel’s, and also the rest of the world’s plans, of dividing the areas. As it was said, the security forces don’t even protect the Palestinian people. The picnic agreed that if the PA was interested in representing the Palestinian people it should dismantle itself.

In fact, Palestine has for many years been one of the very few areas in the world where people have lived without a state and where the cities have governed themselves in a kind of association of city states (but always under the control of various colonial powers, of course). The discussion ended with a certain agreement that the next intifada would not be against Israel but the PA. While the picnic kept steadily moving and following the sun and shade around the tree we were sitting under, the picnickers some how reached the conclusion that there isn’t a need for a one-state or two-state solution but rather a no-state solution.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

War as daily life

If, like me, you don’t read the Arabic newspapers, it can be difficult to follow the clashes that are happening almost daily around the West Bank and in Gaza. The local news stream is mainly in Arabic so it’s difficult to get an overview. Here, I am thinking particularly of clashes connected to the Israeli occupation that, amongst the locals, have a tendency to become normalised and get pushed a bit into the background. This happens especially when you live in Ramallah where, at first sight, the war is not experienced as particularly present. Many of my Palestinian friends are aware of this tendency to just accept things the way they are and not bother a lot when there has been an Israeli raid or an arrest in a village up north. But when we discuss this process of normalisation, several of them have underlined that it’s important to not just accept checkpoints and the armed Israeli soldiers in the Palestinian territories even though it is part of everyday life. It’s just not right! A parallel tendency is that due to the limited freedom of movement, people just snuggle up in the big cities and avoid travelling between the cities in the West Bank. Many say that from Ramallah to Hebron is as far as from Ramallah to New York. The cities have deliberately and definitely been isolated. The connections are limited and people have a tendency to stay in their city and try to make the best of life where they are. During my stay, I’ve yet to meet a Palestinian visiting from any of the other big cities in the West Bank such as Nablus, Hebron, Jenin, and definitely not from Gaza which is entirely cut off. After I’d found the online English-language, Palestinian Ma’an News Agency on the net the other day (, an entirely different image emerged of the situation in the occupied territories. It was a graver picture than what I’d experienced and enjoyed here in Ramallah with the ongoing socialising and parties. When you look at Ma’an’s telegram list, you see that there are constant hits and Israeli raids. In the last week alone four Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in connection with a series of clashes and searches in the West Bank. I asked Samar about this low key war which apparently happens almost entirely hidden from view and she said that there could easily be shootings by Israelis on the main street right now as we were sitting in Café Pronto drinking lemonade and that we would probably never even hear about it. In this way, the war has become daily life. This normalising process has been staged by the very mobile and unpredictable Israeli occupation and, at the same time, from the Palestinian side, this process is probably a natural reaction to living in an environment characterised by continuous war. Ma’an, and also Electronic Intifada (, are very useful ways to zoom out of the everyday and to follow and understand the more brutal reality of the occupied territories as seen from above.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Writing history

The first time I met Ismail he asked me if I would like to go to work with him one day. He is one of the handful of visual artists who live and work in Ramallah and, although I wasn’t sure what ‘work’ meant in this context, he’d mentioned that he worked in a museum in East Jerusalem. When I met him again the other day I said to him that I would like to go with him to work and we agreed that he’d pick me up on Thursday morning around 8.30. We drove off and passed by the Qualandya checkpoint. We didn’t go through because Ismail said that today we’d take the ‘settler road’ which is the fastest. We drove on a wide road that had been cut into the landscape with tall yellow cliffs on either side. Ismail said that this was the general pattern around all larger cities on the West Bank; in other words, the Israelis build roads around the city centres so that the settlers don’t have to drive through the Palestinian cities. Ismail’s ID is from East Jerusalem and his car has yellow Jerusalem licence plates so he’s allowed to drive on these roads. I asked him whether he lived in Ramallah, which had been my impression. Yes, he kind of did, he said. He told me that it’s actually not legal to live in Ramallah with a Jerusalem ID but brushed it off saying that if you did everything the Israelis dictated then you wouldn’t do anything. So you have to be able to thread your way. There were lots of cars with green Palestinian number plates on this road, so it’s apparently not entirely impossible for them to drive here. It is, however, on many of the other settler roads in the West Bank and it’s out of the question to bring a Palestinian car into Israel.

We drove through a part of East Jerusalem that is still a heavily contested area when it comes to claims for land and territory. This landscape is a part of the West Bank and thus a part of the area that was occupied by the Israelis during the Six Day War in 1967. The Israelis, however, are expanding dramatically with new settlements built on the hilltops. The Wall, which after a while becomes a high-tech fence, zigzags through the landscape far into the occupied territories. These settlements don’t look very temporary and it’s clear that they are built to stay. In between the settlements there are Arabic villages and neighbourhoods that all look a bit older and more organically laid out. You can always recognise them by the minarets that stick up over the buildings. We arrived at a checkpoint by the Wall and Ismail said, “Now we are settlers”. We both relaxed a bit in order to look unaffected and as cool as possible and we were waved through without hesitation by the heavily armed Israeli soldier. On the other side of the Wall in East Jerusalem you couldn’t really speak any longer of settlements but entire neighbourhoods that had been built on occupied land. These neighbourhoods are most likely never going to be returned to the Palestinian people and Ismail sang with a smile ‘Jerusaaaaleeeeem is looooooost’ in a tone of voice that mimicked the prayers that are broadcast from the large speakers on the mosques. Eventually we arrived at the little museum where Ismail works.

There is a slightly sad story attached to the museum. Originally, it had been a Palestinian folklore museum but it hadn’t been open to the public for the last year and a half. It was one of the few institutions that contributed to the task of documenting and preserving knowledge of Palestinian culture but, as has happened so many times before when it comes to Palestinian concerns, internal disagreements had arisen that, in the end, had led to the museum’s closure. Alongside a handful of other people, Ismail had been hired about a year ago as a visual artist to help renew and re-open the museum. It seemed like Ismail was the last one left of this group and he was clearly looking forward to when his contract ran out the next week. Only one year ago a fortune had been spent refurbishing the building “with European expertise”, Ismail said, with a slightly ironic tone but this renovation had been a disaster for the building as all the windows had been covered with shutters and the entire building was about to collapse due to damp. A new renovation had already been planned to save the beautiful building.

Ismail told me that he had tried to change the focus of the museum from being a messy old fashioned and object oriented museum into a museum that spoke more of the context in which the collection had originated. The story behind it was that this collection had been brought together within the framework of a wealthy Palestinian family towards the end of the 1900s, and that the building that housed the collection had been the family’s original villa. Ismail said that he wanted the museum to tell the story of both the family and the collection. The collection consisted mainly of pottery, textiles and craft collected from the Palestinian villages. Towards the end of the 1900s there had been a relatively large and wealthy Palestinian upper class that had their own culture and traditions parallel to those of the Ottoman and European high society that also existed there around that time. The museum owned much of the family’s furniture and personal belongings and these could easily be integrated with all the other art objects of the collection currently on display in the many galleries of the museum. It wouldn’t be like this, though, as the board didn’t like the idea and just wanted a ‘museum’ and didn’t want to pursue Ismail’s ideas. Currently there isn’t one museum about Palestinian cultural history in Jerusalem that is run by the Palestinians themselves. This creates a cultural gap for the Palestinians and makes it easier for the Israelis to reproduce the myth of the Jewish migrants settling in an unpopulated land, the persistent story in the Israeli writing of history. However, in 1948, around 1,750,000 people were living in Palestine, of whom only 31% were Jewish.

Classical Palestinian

On Friday evening, Ismail was going into East Jerusalem to photograph a concert. As he had space in his car, he asked me if I wanted to come along. The concert was with students from The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music ( The Conservatory is a Palestinian music school with an emphasis on classical European and Palestinian music. It’s based in East Jerusalem but also has another building in Birzeit, just outside of Ramallah. This is where they run their summer school. I’d visited the department in Birzeit before when I’d gone to a reception for a mural created by local Palestinian artists that ran along the entire front of the building. The mural was made up of a long musical staff with the melody of the Palestinian national anthem on it. On top of the staff, local artists had painted pictures of young Palestinians playing various classical instruments. The incorporation of the nationalist aspect into the musical conservatory came across very clearly. It appeared to be based on a rationale that says ‘if you are to have a nation, you also need to establish a national culture’. When it comes to music, here it seems to be aimed at a kind of mixture of European classical and Palestinian folklore.

We arrived at The Mormon University where the concert was going to take place. Yes, all versions of all kinds of religions are represented in Jerusalem and The Mormon University certainly isn’t just a smaller building amongst the others. They have a very exclusive, large and relatively new, Modernist style building on one of the hills east of Jerusalem’s Old City. It was air conditioned and uniformed security guards showed us the way to the concert hall in polite American. Everything was very posh and I wondered who actually studies here. Young people do tend to leave their marks on architecture but here there weren’t any signs of life and the atmosphere was a bit like being in a church. The first thing that struck me when we went into the concert hall was that the back wall of the space was made up of a large piece of glass that gave you a view over Jerusalem’s Old City with the Dome of the Rock mosque as the centre piece. It was a very overwhelming view and seen through a glass window from a cool, air conditioned room it makes the entire scenery seem like a postcard. The hall began to fill up, seemingly with mostly family and friends of the music students. Everyone was dressed quite formally.

Then the concert began, apparently with the youngest students first. I don’t know if I’m just getting older and was missing my daughter at home in Denmark but it was so touching to see the little ones sitting there playing their instruments. First there was a little girl in a nice white dress who was no older than five years old and who played a small violin. I think it was J.S. Scholze’s Dance Song. The program was mainly in Arabic so it wasn’t easy to figure out who was playing what. Then there was another girl who was maybe six years old who played another classical piece on her mini-cello. It was a little mechanical, playing back and forth with the bow and with a blank expression on her face and her eyes looking straight ahead being neither in contact with the music nor the audience. However, when she’d finished, her face lit up and she bowed and hurried down to her friends from the music school who were sitting in the first row. One by one they played mainly European music with a few traditional Palestinian pieces every now and then that used a tabla and a string instrument that I don’t know the name of. These traditional pieces were played with the same concentration and devotion as the other classical pieces and it was quite powerful to see all these Palestinian children do everything to recreate a European high culture in front of a backdrop of the beloved Jerusalem — also when the violin didn’t quite hit the right note. I couldn’t help asking myself what it meant that so much weight is put on a classical cultural education. Of course, many of the young musicians were really talented and it was very touching to see their well deserved pride after they showed us what they could do but for me, as a European, there was also a discrepancy and something very melancholic about seeing the young ones sitting in front of the lost Jerusalem, reproducing a European culture which has rarely helped the Palestinian cause much.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Before I’d arrived in Palestine I was convinced that I wasn’t going to visit Israel during my stay. I would have to travel through Ben Gurion airport but that was going to be it. However, after a lot of discussions with Palestinian friends about the political reasoning behind choosing not to visit Israel, I’d reached the conclusion that I better change my mind. I have the possibility to enter Israel, as opposed to many Palestinians here in the West Bank, so why not go to the other side to avoid making myths in my own head. Another reason to visit is that there are in fact over a million Palestinians living in Israel, the so-called 1948 Arabs. The lack of freedom of movement has made it difficult for Palestinians to keep up contact between the populations in Israel and in the West Bank. While life on the West Bank has its conflicts, the 1948 Arabs have their own day-to-day problems, too, living in the Jewish state, so why not go to see for myself?

Nicola wanted to visit some Palestinian artists who live in Haifa with regard to the exhibition in London and so we decided to rent a car together so that we could drive along the Mediterranean to Haifa, which is in the north western corner of Israel. We left early to go to Jerusalem where we would pick up our rental car. To begin with we took the bus from Ramallah bus station around 8.30 but, unlike a good day at the Qualandya checkpoint when the busses passed through in no time, it took an hour on the other side of the control for everyone to gather back on the bus. For this reason we didn’t pick up our car until 10.30 and were quite late in hitting the road because we had planned on coming back that same evening. Before we found our way to the car rental office, we ‘wasted’ some more time on a cup of Arabic coffee at the Jerusalem Hotel. This is an old hotel in East Jerusalem whose history stretches back to the English colonial period. It is a centre for international travellers on their way to the West Bank and here we met Dave, the English activist, who we’d met earlier in Ramallah. He’d been to Haifa himself to visit two organisations that do work around rights for Palestinians inside Israel. One of them was the Mossawa Centre, an umbrella organisation that seeks to shed some light on the conditions of the so-called 1948 Palestinians. The other one is The Association of Forty (, an organisation that works for equality for the 40 Arabic villages that are in Israel but which don’t exist on Israeli maps. This means that they aren’t recognised as villages as such and therefore they don’t benefit from fundamental Israeli infrastructure like road connections and water. As no pipes have been laid to these villages, their water is transported to them in large trucks. This situation especially concerns the Bedouin villages in the Negev dessert. The fact that they aren’t recognised as villages means that the Israelis can take their land and evict them with no juridical problems ( The reason that these organisations are based in Haifa is that this city has a large Palestinian minority. Here Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side and aren’t divided into enclaves like they are in most of Israel. However, the Palestinians are still in a minority and number about 10% of the city’s 250,000 residents.

We decided to drive to Tel Aviv and take the coastal motorway to the North. There was something nice about getting to the coast after living locked up in the West Bank for a while. Many Palestinian children have never even seen the sea and this can create problems when they do because of the waves and all the things that characterise the sea. Nicola told me a story about one of Khalil’s brothers who, alongside one of his friends, had jumped over the fence and gone to the coast to swim in the Mediterranean. They had both drowned. Nicola added that apparently they’d also been pretty stoned, but still they just didn’t know what the sea can do. I had also heard from Khaled about how he’d been to the coast with a group of Palestinian children who, when they’d reached the Mediterranean, had started to cry because they apparently were afraid of the open space and the infinite horizon. They’d never experienced anything like it before. It was quite liberating even for us when after a while we could see the light blue Mediterranean from the car and so we left the motorway slightly north of Tel Aviv in order to get down right next to the beach. Here we found a funky tavern and bought a slush ice with fresh lemon and mint. Even here, though, we weren’t free from the ‘security situation’ as Israeli army helicopters flew low along the coast every 5 minutes.

Overall, as seen through the windshield, the Israeli landscape reminded me of the USA being similarly characterised by large billboards and shopping malls but also with Tel Aviv’s skyline in the distance. The motorways were also wide and the signs and traffic information were all very American. However, the signs were written in Hebrew, Arabic and Roman letters and there were lots of blue and white Israeli flags dotted here and there in the landscape. We drove into Haifa and agreed over the phone with Muhammed to meet by the Bahai garden in the centre of the city. Muhammed was one of the local artists who we were going to visit. The Bahai garden is an incredibly beautiful garden that extends in a narrow band across a steep slant and connects the mountains behind Haifa with the city itself. It’s an Arabic garden and its strict organisation reminded me of the Moorish gardens in Andalusia. Muhammed was waiting for us and, after an Arabic salad at a café, we went to his family’s apartment. His workplace was on the roof of the building and he paints his paintings under the sky. Muhammed said that he wasn’t really a political artist but that he took his own experiences as a point of departure when developing his pictures. In this way the imagery of his pictures relates to the situation of his own life. Many of his paintings were caricatures of people with the appearance of power. He had an extensive series called ‘Commanders’ which were some trippy and very colourful portraits of military commanders with all types of ethnic headdresses on and various grotesque animal heads like camels, elephants, horses, and so on.

Muhammed had a huge store of paintings in two small sheds on the roof and he said that it was quite difficult for him to sell anything. ‘If he had been a Jewish artist here in Israel he would have sold everything’, as he put it, and so he was very keen on showing in the exhibition in London. Nicola chose four of his pictures. The view from the roof was incredible, you could see the sea and the shipping harbour that lies next to the leisure harbour and you could follow the coastline all the way to the border of Lebanon. We were also going to visit another artist who was called Sharif and Muhammed came along too.

Sharif’s apartment was in what Muhammed described as the artist neighbourhood, and Sharif and his girlfriend Sherin were waiting for us with a whole variety of extravagant dishes that Sharif had prepared himself. Among other things, there was rice with spices all rolled into vine leaves that we ate with a kind of tzatziki. In Sharif’s opinion it was good in the heat and it was definitely hot in Haifa, a lot hotter that in Ramallah. I nearly boiled over several times during the day.

Sharif was a very entertaining person and, as an artist, has a wide international reputation. His style was also more international than Muhammed’s, who is self-educated and has hardly ever travelled. Sharif was one of the first artists that I discussed the Mohammed cartoons with and he had a very realistic and thoughtful take on the affair. He also said that many people here felt very wounded by what had happened. After I had told him a bit about the campaigns against Muslims in Danish society, he smiled and said that he’d participate next time there was an opportunity to burn a Danish flag here. He then took a gulp of the cold Carlsberg that was in front of him. We laughed quite a bit about this. One of his most well known pieces is ‘Chic Point — fashion for Israeli Checkpoints’ ( where he designed clothes that in various inventive ways are made transparent so that the Israelis can see from afar that anything like a bomb isn’t hidden on the person. All in all he had chosen a humorous take on his situation. He told me how, as a person, he was a good example of the future of Palestine as he’d been democratically elected to become chairman of the tenants association of the building where he lived. With a triumphant smile, he said, ‘Even the Zionists voted for me’. However, he and Sherin also told us what had happened when they had sought refuge in the lower part of the stairwell when Hezbollah had bombed the city in the war of 2006. On that occasion their Jewish neighbours had been more afraid of the presence of Sharif and Sherin than Hezbollah missiles. They’d all stayed in their apartments during the first attacks, but when a missile hit the post office next door and caused a lot of damage they were forced to admit that this wasn’t a joke. However, for Sherin, the war was a defeat for the Israeli army and a well deserved blow to their arrogance. The army said the campaign into Lebanon would only last for a few days but it lasted several weeks. In the end they never found the kidnapped soldiers who they’d said they gone in to get.

It was mainly Russian immigrants who lived in their building; according to Sharif and Sherin, the city had been invaded by Russians when the iron curtain came down in 1989. Many of them aren’t Jewish at all even though they claim to be Jewish and the Israelis are well aware of that. For the officials, though, immigration is important as it’s used to gain a demographic advantage over the Arabs. The immigrants receive comprehensive support from the Israeli state. Amongst other things, Muhammed said, they receive 50% support to buy a place to live and 50% to buy a car when they arrive but they aren’t allowed to decide for themselves where they want to live and get put in areas where there are many Palestinians, like in Haifa. In this way it’s ensured that the Palestinian minority remains a minority.

It was getting late and Sharif was very set on supporting the Turkish team against the Germans in the European Championship semi-finals that would be on later that evening. We never managed to visit the two local Palestinian organisations that we had planned to but the visit to Haifa had made it clear to me that it’s necessary to think within the framework of the entire history of Palestine when discussing the conflict and not just limit one’s focus to Gaza and the West Bank.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On the border of Zone A

The Oslo Accords of 1993 meant that the West Bank was divided into a series of zones. The intention was to leave all control around the large cities in the hands of the new Palestinian Authority. These particular areas were given the name ‘Zone A’. What this means is that the Palestinian Authority is solely responsible for security there and can decide what happens on the land there; for example, using it for building houses on. This division into zones also means that the Palestinian controlled areas have become a series of small islands surrounded by areas under Israeli control. Thus there is no continuous land under Palestinian Authority control and, as such, the Israelis control the traffic between the main cities. So there are Israeli checkpoints that you have to pass through in order to get from Ramallah to Nablus, for example. Around
‘Zone A’ are the ‘Zone B’ areas. These are areas that are controlled by both the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In real terms this means that it’s impossible for Palestinians to build in these areas where Israel retains overriding authority for security. Supposedly only about 5% of the West Bank is actually under the control of the Palestinian Authority. However, this does not stop the Israelis raiding these areas whenever they feel like it. Finally, there are the Zone C areas that are fully under Israeli control.

Until now I had only really been going out from my apartment to the centre of Ramallah and so today I thought I’d have a look around the other side of the hill, moving away from the city. At first sight the centre of Ramallah seems to be far away from the conflict and the battles over land and territory and so I went on a hike out of the city to get an impression of what the situation is like there. Al Tireh is characterised by large pompous villas and apartment buildings and is clearly a wealthy part of the city. Just like the house I’m staying, most of the buildings are brand new and nothing has been held back in the building process. I took a few photos of some of the new houses that are often owned by people who, after the Oslo Accords, returned from the USA or Europe, or they are owned by people who are still living elsewhere in the wealthy areas of the world. Most of the city is characterised by new high class buildings but also by the numerous empty houses that are probably waiting for a tenant to move in or for their owner, who is still in exile, to return. The new houses are exclusive but rarely elegant. In fact, they are often quite the opposite.

I’d got as far as the last houses on the hill and could hear the sounds of saws and hammers as some of these houses were still being built. The roads were also newly laid down with four lanes and a flower bed running along the middle, and from this vantage point there was an incredible view over the valley towards Israel. The hilly landscape disappeared in the distance and I tried to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea but I think it was just past another hill that was further out. Looking to the other side of the valley you can see a large Israeli military complex, and a bit further out still there were several settlements. You can recognise them because they usually settle on the highest points in the area and have tall water towers. A lot of the Israeli control of the West Bank is based on visual control and so the settlements usually tower over the surrounding landscape and look over the Arabic villages that lie further down the hillside. These settlements are, then, an important aspect of the occupation and they also function as military posts in enemy territory. From my vantage point, the new road went down into the valley but I couldn’t see where it finally led to and, as you shouldn’t tempt fate here in the West Bank, this made me turn around and head back. There also weren’t any more Palestinian flags on the lamp posts as there are otherwise throughout the city, so this was probably the border of ‘Zone A’.

I turned around and took a different route back on yet another large new road but after about 100 meters a Palestinian security guard with an AK67 came walking towards me. He stopped and asked me something in Arabic. His friend, who was dressed in full camouflage, followed shortly after him. They couldn’t speak a word of English but kept repeating the word ‘Israeli’ to me. I tried to explain to them that I was from Denmark and took out my passport in which the word Denmark is repeated in several languages. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t say it in Arabic and I silently cursed the authorities at home. In the end I got through to them and they understood ‘Dinamarka’ but I still didn’t know whether I was free to go or what was going on. As they had some intimidating weapons that I’m not used to being around, I waited patiently to see what they would do. They then asked me if I had a phone and I showed them my new Jawwal mobile phone, which they recognised. They then called their own mobiles on it and vice-versa and also looked over my contacts which I think at that moment listed only four people. Eventually they waved to me and said ‘come’ and we went to their hideout which had some plastic chairs in it and they offered me one. They also offered coffee while they continued checking through my phone. I tried to tell them that I could call Samar who would explain who I was after which they finally gave me the phone back and I called her. Samar spoke to them in Arabic and everyone started laughing, including me, but not quite as loudly as they were! Later it dawned on me that they’d just wanted to be welcoming and hang out a bit. Once it was clear to them that I wasn’t Israeli, there was no problem. Later I heard that only 500 meters away down the hill was an Israeli settlement and this isn’t something to joke about.

Then a small man came out of the house next to the little control post to water his plants, which was probably just an excuse to check out what was happening. We got into conversation through the hedge and fairly soon he invited me into his garden. His name was Jadz and his English was pretty good. I asked him about his large new house and he told me that his son, who was a lawyer in the USA, had given it to him. His son’s company had led one of the large lawsuits against the tobacco industry over there and he’d had about 1500 lawyers working under him. They’d won about 800 billion dollars and so the son was hardly short of money. Jadz had been a travelling tradesman for the German chemical company Bayer but now he’d retired to his place of birth. Ramallah had originally been Christian and he told me that he was a descendant of one of the seven clans who had settled here about 700 years ago. At this point he invited me into the house for coffee and cake. Jadz explained to me that ‘Zone A’ in Ramallah was about to be ‘filled up’ with lots of new houses and that increased demand for the land had driven the prices way up. His land was now worth millions although he had bought it for nothing. I’d earlier read a piece of research that showed that in certain areas of Ramallah land prices are way above those of Manhattan, which says something about the wealth enjoyed by the richest Palestinians ( The three refugee camps in Ramallah aren’t on the market as the land is owned by the UN, so refugees don’t enjoy the benefits of the rising land values. No surprise there. After several cups of coffee, I headed home and on the way back the two soldiers gave me a ‘low five’, which is the way friends greet each other here on the West Bank.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Good intentions

As I mentioned earlier, Ramallah is Palestine’s face to the world and the place where most international visitors arrive when they are going to visit the occupied territories. On a global level, there are many people who support the Palestinians and it’s almost a tradition for progressive artists and intellectuals to support the Palestinian cause, just as I do. In this sense Ramallah, the most stable and Westernised city in Palestine, has become home to a whole variety of international cultural festivals. June is especially packed with cultural events, usually of a particular bi-lateral pattern: Palestinian/Swedish cultural festival, Palestinian/German literature festival, etc.

On Monday evening I went to two of these events, mainly to observe how these meet-ups unfold and to see to what degree of collaboration we can speak of as there are so many heartfelt Western intentions that can rapidly become patronising and colonising when they arrive here. So I went to a Palestinian/Belgian poetry night in Al Mahatta, an artist-led gallery in the city centre. The space consisted of a huge room with perfect white walls — a true white cube. The group behind the project had fixed everything up themselves. Any gallery person in Europe would be envious. On this evening Al Mahatta made space for three Belgian poets and a Palestinian to present their texts.

It was a true séance from Babel, with French, Dutch, English, Flemish — and Arabic, and there’s a certain pleasure in listening to languages you don’t understand. You inevitably start listening to other things than just the literal ‘meaning’ of the words. I became more aware of the style of presentation and especially the body language. With this in mind, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with what I saw from my European colleagues. They were, of course, nervous about the context they were presenting in and were probably overdoing it in order to underline their status as artists. Most of them made a lot of exaggerated facial expressions and slightly too energetic movements during their reading, although perhaps I‘m just being oversensitive. The Palestinian poet read a couple of poems from a collection in a more concentrated manner, and that was that. He didn’t try to translate or make up for anything by performing.

The first question from the audience was, in fact, directed at the collaboration: What collaboration had there actually been between the Belgian and Palestinian poets? I didn’t quite understand the answer but it became apparent that the group of poets were going back to Belgium together to do the same performance. The theme of the event was ‘identity’, and there was an interesting discussion about where the production of identity is located. A member of the audience explained that in Arabic poetry identity is embedded in language — it is shaped through language. What was implicit in what he was saying was that identity is not created by the person, which, for me, was exactly what we’d just seen examples of from the Belgian poets who were very preoccupied with making their words their own, so to speak.

We left the séance before the discussion ended and decided to go to another event: a Palestinian/French jazz session. It turned out to be a French jazz-quartet who had incorporated a Palestinian percussionist as a fourth member. The percussionist was a young man who did his best to accompany the three Frenchmen who were playing piano, bass and trumpet. The band played American jazz classics, cool and bebop, and played them well. At one point, the drummer switched his drum kit for a Palestinian drum: a tabla, which you play with your hands. He was good at accompanying the music but it immediately sounded strange to my ears, although strange in a good way. Then a young local man from the audience took over the drum and went on a wild solo that quickly dismantled the rest of the orchestra. They just stood and watched the temperamental drumming of the new band member. The original percussionist continued at the back on his drum kit, blending in with the rhythms of the tabla. After a while, the French musicians attempted to play along but were slightly awkward although in the end they were slowly able to rein in the music and pull it back to the safety of traditional jazz. It seemed like the Palestinians could play along with the jazz but the French couldn’t contribute much when the music started moving into unknown territory for them. All in all, however, it was a good concert and the café owner Bazem was really proud of the event.

Monday, June 23, 2008

SIM card

Samar had suggested several times that I should buy a local SIM card for my mobile phone so that I could call people directly and people could call me. Around midday I got a text message from Samar on my Danish mobile phone where she said that she’d drop by in about ten minutes so that we could go and buy a SIM card. That’s fine, I said, but I’d rather she came in twenty minutes because I’d been writing my blog and still had to have a shower. When I was clean and ready, I left the apartment to meet Samar on the way. She was coming in her car. My apartment was in a neighbourhood called Al Tireh, just slightly outside of Ramallah. The weather was very hot so I settled for a slow tempo. After fifteen minutes I’d almost reached Ramallah and came to a large crossroads but I was now a bit unsure whether Samar had taken this route. I called her and it became clear that we had misunderstood each other. We agreed to meet in an hour at a café called Café Pronto. I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to try and find my own way around. I’d been told that I should walk straight until I reached a gas station where I should turn right in order to get to the café. After ten minutes walk from the suburban area where I was living and into a slight more densely built urban area, I found the gas station and turned as I’d been told. There were many small shops and workshops in the streets on the edge of the city centre: bakeries, electrical goods, shops with spare parts for cars, etc. There were also a lot of people in the streets. The shop owners often sat outside their shops on chairs reading the newspaper.

There were two improvised memorials around the gas station for what I assumed were martyrs killed by the occupation forces. Firstly, there was a memorial with pictures of a very young man, almost a boy, who must have been killed at this very location. There was a stone slab with Arabic writing as well as several flags and Palestine-checked clothing, red and black, blowing in the wind. This memorial took up part of the road by extending half a meter outwards from the curb. Further down there was a similar memorial. This time there was a grown man on the pictures. Apart from the stone slab with flags and so on, an electric sign had been erected that had a picture of the militant on when still alive lying in a landscape aiming a large machine gun. I’d noticed the sign before but couldn’t entirely understand what it was about until now. It almost looked like an advertisement sign for a restaurant but now I could see that it was a memorial for a martyr.

On the streets you often meet small, short-haired boys under ten years old selling chewing gum. This time was no exception and a little boy was trying his luck, walking with me part of the way and trying to sell me gum for 2 shekels. After a little while, I got him down to 1 shekel. Finally though, I thought what the heck and gave him 2 shekels and took a packet. His face lit up and he took the money and ran back to where he’d come from. On the way back he shouted to his friends about his luck and immediately 4 or 5 chewing gum sellers came after me. I said, ‘Next time’, but they answered, ‘No next time!’. I ended the whole thing by stating very clearly ‘No way’. The Palestinian boys, however, were good businessmen and had clearly started their training early about how to earn money through selling. I noticed that Samar often has long conversations with the young vendors and her tone is not always friendly, however this doesn’t always stop the little ones.

I soon reached an area that I couldn’t recognise at all and started to consider asking someone for directions, but then I saw the bouncy castle next to the City Hall and this brought me back on track — and to Café Pronto. This was a bit of a victory for me as I was now feeling independent from Samar’s very friendly help and protection.

Samar arrived shortly afterwards and we drove to a quite comprehensive shopping centre. We quickly agreed that the existence of a shopping centre must be one of the preconditions for taking a future Palestinian state seriously. So, one of these now existed, of course, and it looked like any other shopping centre in the world. Here we bought a SIM card at Jawwal, the Palestinian telephone company. I could have bought Orange, which is the Israeli-based company but although Samar says that she is not very politically-minded, I’ve noticed that she always makes sure to buy Palestinian products. That’s why she took me to Jawwal. Then we went shopping in the large supermarket that is also a part of the centre. There were a lot of good fresh products on the shelves and it reached the standards of European supermarkets. However the produce was in an entirely different league with fresh wild tomatoes, squash, aubergine, salad, and so on. By chance we met Khaled, who I’d met the other night, in the supermarket. It was starting to dawn on me that Ramallah is not very big although it’s still difficult for me to find my way around.

If you want to get hold of me you can reach me on my new Jawwal number: 00972598016846. Speak to you soon.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Hamas on Palestine

People have tried to explain to me several times what happened at the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. Hamas won the majority of the votes and defeated Fatah who had been in power since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Fatah is traditionally the socialist inspired Palestinian party that was established in 1954 by Yasser Arafat, among others. Hamas is a relatively new Islamist party formed in 1987 and inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt. Everyone says that people voted for Hamas as a protest against Fatah, especially here in Ramallah which is a very worldly city with a mix of Christians and Muslims and where it’s hard to find any trace of Hamas and Islamists on the streets. Many women wear the hijab but, especially with younger women, the scarves are incredibly fancy and mostly look like fashion statements. On the other hand, I’ve heard that only ten years ago you would hardly see a woman wearing the hijab amongst the Palestinians on the West Bank. This development, however, isn’t just Hamas’s work, as Fatah, I’ve been told, is increasingly employing religion. Hamas supposedly has more influence and plays a larger role in the North where people’s lack of basic needs is greater, and also because they actually do a lot of work there, helping people in their everyday lives, through local initiatives and institutions.

I was at the premiere on Saturday night of the documentary ‘Hamas on Palestine’. The screening took place in the Ramallah Cultural Palace which is an enormous building at the top of one of the hills in the city. The centre had been donated by Japan and to me looks more like a nuclear power station than a social space. The concert and theatre hall are accordingly large and can probably hold a couple of thousand people. For this film showing there were about 200-300 people. Before the film started, we’d met one of the featured personalities. Nicola, who I was with, knew him. He hadn’t seen the film until the day before and wasn’t convinced about its quality. He was an artist, about 60 years old and was one of the voices in the film that was critical of Hamas. I asked him whether his comments would cause him any problems. He shrugged and pointed towards a short man with a grey beard who’d just arrived. He told me that this man had been a minister in the Fatah government and had taken about 20 bullets in an attack by Hamas. ‘But he can still walk’, he commented dryly.

The film was basically one long attack on Hamas. Its connection with the Muslim Brotherhood was described and also how, during the party’s formation, it was supported by both Israel and the USA. The Israelis and the US wanted Hamas as a means to create divisions amongst the Palestinians. This division was illustrated through shockingly bloody images of dead and wounded people from sectarian Palestinian infighting in Gaza. These accusations weren’t necessarily untrue but they were certainly bluntly portrayed. Another criticism made of Hamas was that it had never had an independent Palestinian state as its goal but rather was working towards a pan-Muslim caliphate. After the film, which was hardly very analytical and rather just more opinionated, there was a discussion. It was conducted in Arabic but Nicola and I stayed for a while to see how it would develop. Two wireless microphones were circulated among the audience and the female film director stood on the stage answering questions. The debate was very heated. One of the questions (as far as I could understand) was about why Hamas didn’t get to speak in the film. I don’t think there were any representatives from Hamas in the audience but the discussion began to get even hotter and came close to ending in a big fight. People started speaking at the same time through the two microphones and the whole thing ended when the previous Fatah minister gave a long speech. This seemed to calm things down a bit. It was a shame that I couldn’t understand what was being said, but one thing is certain: politics in Palestine is never simple because the daily reality is constantly shaped and reshaped by political decisions made, not only in Ramallah, but more so in Tel Aviv and in Washington. Daily life in Palestine is a result of global and geopolitical decisions made somewhere else but the impact on people’s life is very concrete. When you talk about what appears as local politics you’re actually very often talking about a geopolitical situation that is out of reach of the Palestinians and this, of course, creates lots of indignation and anger when it comes to a political debate like this one. There is no local solution even though the infighting between Hamas and Fatah has many very local consequences.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Beach holiday by Tel Aviv

At first glance, life in Ramallah can seem quite liberated where people really like to go out and have a beer or a glass of wine in the handful of bars that serve alcohol in the centre of the city. As well as that, people are very welcoming and often invite you for another drink at their home. During my first week here, I’ve been out every evening and almost without exception I’ve returned home late after drinking substantial amounts of Palestinian beer or wine. It’s been really nice and there’s always a lot of laughs. Perhaps there’s a tendency to turn one’s back on the problems and all the restrictions that the various occupations impose, but there also lies a certain kind of stubborn resistance in this insistence that life goes on despite all of the problems. Ramallah is also the wealthiest city on the West Bank, the base of the Palestinian government and president, as well as a centre for all of the international organisations that operate here. I still haven’t been north to Nablus and Jenin where the atmosphere is supposedly a lot heavier and the feeling of hopelessness is much more prevalent. And Gaza is bleeding, as one of my friends said. Nicola and myself wanted to go to Gaza and visit some of the local artists who are totally isolated just 75 km from here but we couldn’t go as it was impossible for us to get permission from the Israelis. People told me that if I could get permission then I should go because the people in Gaza need to be heard.

Returning to ‘the good life’ in Ramallah: on Friday I went to yet another party at Khalil and Gabriele’s place. They are on their way to London and have now had at least three
goodbye parties. I have been to two of them. At this latest party there was a German person I knew called Lisa. She had organised a couple of exhibitions that I’d been in over the years and it was a surprise for both of us that we were to now meet in Ramallah. Khaled was there too. He is a local artist and organiser who over the last year has been involved in establishing a Palestinian art academy in Ramallah. Before this academy there weren’t any actual art schools in Palestine, just a few courses at the various universities, of which there are six in the West Bank. Through the academy, Khaled is trying, to establish a more critical and internationally oriented culture around visual art in Palestine. The academy is a subsection of the art academy in Oslo, Norway, that apparently finances the whole project. I am going to visit the academy one of these days and it will be interesting to see how it works.

Lisa said that the reason she was here was to attend a conference in Tel Aviv that had the theme ‘Art and Nationalism’. At the conference she’d spoken about the changing role of art institutions in a globalised era. Her argument was that art institutions were about to break free of the state and various nationalist projects that otherwise had been their main point of departure since the 1800s. It was like throwing a bomb in the party, when she told us that she’d put forward this argument at a seminar in Israel. In Europe, where art institutions are increasingly privatised, she might have been right but in Israel art institutions and the writing of cultural history is used as a political tool in the construction and justification of the Jewish state. On the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel there’d been a series of exhibitions that erased nearly all traces of Arabic culture from their history.
In such a way these institutions contribute to the very myths that preserve the Jewish state and Israeli nationalism.

I was pretty upset by Lisa’s story. In my opinion, it’s very problematic to contribute to these kinds of conferences in Israel even if you have a critical angle. In such a context, this critique merely functions as a justification of the state as it makes it possible for the Israelis to claim that they give space for critical voices even though they continue their everyday atrocities in the occupied areas. It’s probably quite typical, however, that today’s professional art administrators simply take part in these contexts without taking into consideration the wider political implications. Hotshot international exhibition organisers (like Charles Esche) were also contributing to the conference about art and nationalism that took place in the Digital Art Lab in Holon outside of Tel Aviv. (

Our argument led to a discussion about the campaign for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel that is starting to gain some attention in the West. For example, in Great Britain there are several academics that are said to have made the decision to boycott and stop all academic and cultural cooperation with institutions in Israel ( Most recently, the French film director Jean-Luc Godard had been invited to speak at the opening of the Film festival in Tel Aviv in May. Initially he’d agreed to do it but then, after political pressure from Palestine, he had decided against it ( It seemed peculiar that Godard would have appeared in such a context after he had made a film in the 70s and 80s about the Palestinian struggle for liberation.

From what I’ve seen, heard and read during my brief stay here I don’t actually think there’s any other way other than a total international boycott of trade and institutional cooperation with Israel. In this way it would then be up to the Israeli people to work out with their leaders what is to happen with this insane occupation. Lisa said that, as a German, she had some specific historical problems that made it difficult for her to refuse an invitation to a conference in Israel. In her opinion, the Holocaust was decidedly the most horrific crime against humanity ever committed and that, as a German, this fact could not be easily dismissed. Gabriele disagreed though. Gabriele, who, as I said, has an Indian background, suggested that the colonial era was equally as horrific and with even more victims as a consequence: ‘First the Europeans did it to others, then they did it to themselves’, she said. But Lisa insisted that it was difficult for a German to distance herself from Israel.

Khaled, who was at first sympathetic towards the idea of a boycott, chimed in that it was important to know the Israelis otherwise you run the risk of exaggerating or distorting the other side. He said that people in the wider Arabic world often imagined that Sharon drank blood when he was thirsty and ate humans when he was hungry. However, the acquaintance between Palestinians and Israelis that had existed before is about to disappear because the Israelis have now closed all work related and regular commuting from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel. Palestinians also no longer watch Israeli TV as they did before. Now they watch Al Jazeera. This separation has become much more pronounced in the past few years and thus the myths, prejudices and images of the enemy are becoming more and more black and white. Khaled sees this as a big problem. He would read Barak’s and Netanyahu’s autobiographies in order to understand their way of thinking. Barak was clearly the worst according to Khaled. At least, you know where you’re at with Netanyahu. Lisa offered, with a smile, the chance for me to come and visit her in Tel Aviv next week. She was going on a beach holiday by the Mediterranean coast. Khaled said he thought that it sounded like a great idea but I replied that I didn’t really feel like going.

Friday, June 20, 2008

1032 channels

I was pretty exhausted when I got back from Bethlehem and just wanted to see a good football match on TV. I’d yet to turn the telly on in my apartment but now was the time as the European Championship was just beginning to reach its climax. The TV was clearly receiving via a satellite antenna, so I crossed my fingers that I would find a channel with the European Championship on. On the menu tonight was Germany vs. Portugal. I turned everything on and started browsing the channels. After I’d flicked through the first hundred it wasn’t looking good as I hadn’t found the game. I thought there would at most be a couple of hundred channels. Half an hour later I’d reached channel 704. Finally, here was a German channel that was showing the Championship. However, it had taken so long to get through all the channels that the first half of the game was almost over, Germany being ahead by 2-0. When the game had finished, with Portugal losing badly to a dead boring German team, I looked through the rest of the channels and made it to channel 1032 before it started all over again. Most of the channels were showing Arabic-speaking men who were making statements about this or that. Well, that was my guess! Once in a while there would be women, with or without a veil, speaking and then even some channels with Arab XXX that mostly showed commercials as far as I could see.


Nicola arrived in a taxi to pick me up at about 8:30 in the morning. She was going to Bethlehem to visit some artists in connection with the exhibition in London and so I accompanied her. There are several routes you can take to get to Bethlehem but we chose the most direct one through Jerusalem. This is a route that is reserved, however, for people with a Jerusalem-ID or for foreigners with international passports. People with the green ID from the West Bank aren’t allowed on that road and instead have to take a long curve around the city. From the bus station in the centre of Ramallah, we took the number 18 bus which drives through the Qualandya checkpoint to get to Jerusalem. When we got to the checkpoint, Nicola told me that older people and foreigners could stay in the buses whilst all the other passengers had to get off and go through the control inside the building. I thought about going along into the building but decided to stay in the bus with 8 to 10 other people. A very young Israeli soldier with a machine gun and bulletproof vest got on the bus, looking over everyone’s documents and messing around a bit with peoples’ bags and so on. The machine gun dangling at his side was pretty overwhelming for me but for the Palestinians it was obviously completely commonplace. The control wasn’t very thorough though and the bus rolled through the checkpoint to pick up the other passengers on the other side. Apart from one person who’d apparently had problems in the control building, everyone got back on board and the bus carried on towards the bus stop at the Damascus Gate. After a few problems finding our next bus in the confusion of the Old City, and after a cup of Arabic coffee, we took a number 21 bus and drove on towards Bethlehem.

Jerusalem is dispersed across several hills and it’s quite fascinating to see the many views that appear whilst the bus is moving. Bethlehem lies to the south of the city but because of the settlements that have been built on the hills between the two cities it almost merges with Jerusalem. After going through several checkpoints, it was difficult at times to tell which side of the wall we were on as the journey was very curvy and hilly. The different areas of the city lie like tongues next to each other; the settlements and the Palestinian neighbourhoods in between one another. Beit Jala is a smaller city next to Bethlehem and we drove down there to meet Samira. Samira is married to the Palestinian ambassador in London but as their son wasn’t happy about living in London, she was back at home in Palestine. Nadira, a friend of Samira, was visiting her. She introduced herself as an ‘amateur artist’ but it turned out that she had made some good things. For example, she had made a game of cards of all the various UN resolutions over the years that had condemned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people. These resolutions had, however, never changed a thing. There were many cards in the pile. I’m not entirely sure why she had chosen a card game to represent the uselessness of the UN. It might have had something to do with suggesting that the international community plays games with the fate of the Palestinian people — or something along those lines. Samira had baked for us some small breads stuffed with cheese and some excellent cakes with a lot of nuts in.

Nadira told us something about Samira’s house being broken into but Samira misunderstood this and took out pictures from 2002, a time when their house had apparently been hit by an Israeli missile. She thought this was what we’d been talking about. One could see from the pictures how the missile had dug itself through the outer wall and then exploded inside the house and caused a lot of damage. The family had been in the house at the time but no-one had got hurt because the missile had hit the furthest side of the house. There was also a picture of Samira’s son, who was about 10 years old at the time, proudly holding up the missile canister. ‘Made in the USA’, Samira said, which sure enough was written on the side of the canister. She told us that there had been people from the Palestinian militia in the area and that they’d fired rifle shots towards the Israeli settlement Gilo that is on the next hill in the direction of Jerusalem. The Israeli response had been the missiles. Samira jokingly complained that no one from the militia had even been in their fairly large house, because “at least then we would have deserved the missile”, as she put it.

Samira was clearly from the Palestinian political establishment but had a wide political engagement. She works, amongst other things, in the organisation Open Bethlehem ( that strives to get tourists and more life back into Bethlehem. The city has become completely squeezed by the Wall which now surrounds it, and at the same time tourists in Israel are told that it is dangerous to stay in Bethlehem for too long at a time. So the city’s hotels, restaurants and shops are dying. Open Bethlehem is trying to change this development.

Nadira, Samira, Nicola and I left in Nadira’s car to visit another artist in Bethlehem. Here we met Samar, who does watercolours and computer graphics, mostly of women with very large eyes. We were also fed a lot of coffee and snacks here. Samar’s mother then started cooking hot food for us which we had to politely refuse as we were by now already full up. There is no limit to the generosity when it comes to both food and stories here.

After we had visited another artist on Nicola’s list we went to the Nativity Church at the heart of Bethlehem. Everything was peaceful and joyous, with a wedding procession outside and tourists on the inside and in the cellar where it’s said to have happened — by this I mean the birth of Jesus. I could not help but think of a big battle that had taken place in the church only five years earlier when a group of militant Palestinians sought refuge in the church which was then put under siege by the Israelis. Approximately 25 Palestinians died on that occasion. It’s quite peculiar how in Palestine such traumatic experiences are very quickly normalised so that life can go on. There were no traces to be seen of the siege. I only noted how few tourists there were in the church and the narrow streets of Bethlehem were quite deserted, which was sad to see.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Fire Brigade Union

After I’d had dinner with Nicola and Samar (we’d eaten tabouleh, Arabic salad and lamb shish), we then went out to meet a group of solidarity travellers who’d come to Palestine from the UK. Nicola knew them as she had been hired by their organisation to put together a solidarity exhibition in London with Palestinian artists. The organisation is called the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) ( The exhibition is to raise money for both the PSC and the Palestinian artists.

It was quite a big group that was sitting and eating in the little park by Ramallah’s Town Hall. The park is really half park and half amusement ground, with a bouncy castle, a playground and plenty of coloured lights and candles. There are also restaurants to eat in, to have a Palestinian beer or a cup of Arabic coffee. The group turned out to be a mixed group of people from the campaign plus trade unionists from both the UK and Palestine. Nicola introduced me to Mike, the coordinator from the PSC, who told me about the group and their study trip. There were, among others, two representatives from the British Fire Brigade Union who had been travelling around with the group in Palestine. Today they’d visited Hebron where they’d got up close to the Israelis settlers who were living in a settlement in the middle of the city. They’d spotted a piece of graffiti that said ‘Death to the Arabs’, or something like that, and had gone up to have a closer look at it. While they were there a group of very aggressive and armed settlers had shown up and this experience had been very intense — and quite depressing.

Back in Ramallah, the group had met with some people from the Stop the Wall campaign (, which is a Palestinian research group that is mapping the Israeli seizure of Palestinian land in connection with the construction of the Wall. They are following the process closely through a multitude of local groups that are based in villages along the Wall. Over the next few days, the group of solidarity travellers were going to travel a bit more through Palestine to Nablus and to Jenin, and then finally to Israel where they would visit some of the Palestinian villages that are still in ruins after the cleansing of 1948.

Before I had travelled here, one of my questions had been — what does solidarity with the Palestinian people mean and how it can be practised in a way that truly supports them? Many of the numerous initiatives that exist around here are made up of people from all over the world who come to create what they call ‘peace’ and ‘dialogue’. In reality, this often seems more like self-therapy for the visitors than offering any genuine support which the Palestinian people would actually gain something from. It’s obvious that the Palestinian people will not benefit from people coming here to encourage a dialogue with the Israelis whilst, on a daily basis, the occupation forces are extending an almost unhindered land grab from the Palestinian farmers and making their lives unbearable. For the Palestinian people, as far as I can see, the situation is about fundamental rights and so ‘encouraging dialogue’ is pretty useless: why should they speak when their voices are clearly not heard?

One of the people from the Fire Brigade Union got up to the table and made a very nice speech about the issue of solidarity with the Palestinian people and their right to independence. He told us, with his very Scottish accent, about how The Fire Brigade Union had been the first union in the UK to support the ANC in South Africa and had actively worked for a boycott of the apartheid regime in the 1980s. That boycott had worked as planned, and from there he drew a straight line to what was happening in Palestine and Israel today except, he said, that the conditions here are even worse than what you could have seen in South Africa then. He had been touched by all the people he had met and also all the stories that he’d heard during his travels and when he got back home, he wanted to do everything he could to support the Palestinian cause by speaking out about their conditions. Not only would he work actively for a British boycott of Israel but he also wanted to give financial support although, he said, when it came down to it, it was the Palestinians themselves who would have to settle with the Israelis and achieve their independence. He didn’t want to try and give lectures on how exactly they should do that, so the only thing he could say to his Palestinian friends around the table was “Good luck”. In respect to the Palestinian’s right to self-determination, he didn’t want to offer up any solutions on their behalf about how to end the occupation; instead he would work to expand the international awareness of the atrocities that he had witnessed — and in this way, build support and solidarity for their struggle for independence on an international level. The fireman’s thoughtful grasp of international solidarity and his good humoured compassion for the Palestinians ended with some magic tricks. Among other things, he put out a burning cigarette with a Palestinian scarf without burning a hole in it. He explained that they had a lot of time at the fire station to learn those kinds of tricks.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Al Qattan

That afternoon we visited the A.M. Qattan Foundation in Ramallah ( The Foundation is a private organisation that supports and coordinates a variety of disciplines in Palestinian culture, including education, visual art, and culture for children, among other things. It’s financed by a wealthy Palestinian family based in London. I was with Nicola, a British artist and curator, who was visiting Ramallah for the purpose of organising a Palestinian solidarity exhibition in London in the autumn, and together we met Mahmoud, the head of the art and culture department. He was a bit tired and rushed but nonetheless found time to speak to us about the organisation. Mahmoud started off by describing his recent journey to London from which he’d returned this morning. The journey home had been demanding and had taken him two whole days which was why he was tired. Palestinians who carry the green identity card for the West Bank don’t have permission to travel through Israel and so Mahmoud, on his way back from London, had to travel via Amman in Jordan. That’s the normal route Palestinians from the West Bank have to take when they want to travel internationally. No wonder he looked exhausted.

Mahmoud works as a coordinator in support of Palestinian visual art, not just in Palestine but across the world. The organisation supports Palestinian visual artists who live in Israel, the so-called ‘1948 Arabs’, as well as all Palestinian artists who live in the region, especially in Jordan and Lebanon. It also supports Palestinian visual artists who are spread across the world including those who’ve never ever been to Palestine. He explained that in this way they strengthen Palestinian culture across the borders and walls that otherwise characterise the culture of the West Bank. This is how the Qattan Foundation resists the powers that try to limit Palestine to the areas delineated by the Wall and to strengthen Palestinian cultural presence in the region and across the world.

Another area of investment for the Qattan Foundation is in children’s culture. They run a children’s cultural centre in Gaza, with workshops and the largest library for children’s literature in the Middle East. He told us that even during the recent disturbances and armed conflicts in Gaza between the rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, no one had touched the children’s centre. ‘Not a single bullet’, he said. The place is built like a ‘souk’, an Arab market, with workshops and other rooms dispersed off a long corridor that runs all the way through the centre of the building. It would be interesting to visit the centre but it is extremely difficult to get permission from the Israeli officials to visit Gaza. I wasn’t even sure whether Mahmoud had ever been there himself.

On his desk, Mahmoud had a pile of identical books with the title, ‘Story of a Siege’. It was a book of photography about the Israeli siege of Palestinian governmental buildings in Ramallah in 2002. This was where Yasser Arafat was confined while the Israelis flattened all the buildings one by one until there was almost only one left. The book ends with Arafat’s burial, which took place at the same place shortly after. ‘The Israelis took his life’, it was said. I asked if I could buy a copy and Mahmoud said that there was no bookshop in the Qattan building and that there didn’t exist any actual book shop in Ramallah at all. These kind of interesting books have almost no distribution, which is quite symptomatic of the Palestinian condition. I bought a copy from Mahmoud for 100 shekels. Then he gave me a book from their latest exhibition of Palestinian visual artists called ‘The Young Artist of the Year 2006’, an exhibition that they organise bi-annually in Ramallah. It turned out that Nicola had organised this exhibition.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Native Informant

After spending the day settling in a bit, Samar picked me up at the apartment. I’d found a local supermarket but I wasn’t entirely sure whereabouts it was in Ramallah that I was staying. I’d tried to find my accommodation on Google Earth but without much luck. There don’t seem to be any tourist maps available of Ramallah although there were rumours that a map had been produced which you could only get your hands on by ingratiating yourself with the staff at one of the better hotels. Samar said that she would find one for me. A year ago, Google Earth was useless for looking at the Occupied Territories but lately the real picture had become clearer and I could easily see the roads in Ramallah even though I couldn’t find my own house.

We drove to a bar and restaurant that rested beautifully on a cliff over a pine valley. The place had a large, wooden outdoor porch. At the end of the porch, there was a bar with a camouflage net over it. This was a little strange. I guess it’s an easily accessible material during war. Before we’d had time to order, Gabriele and Khalil arrived. Gabriele is a British/Indian artist and Khalil is a young local artist and also her boyfriend. We ordered red wine, but decided to wait for dinner. As the conversation across the table grew, Gabriele made some really interesting remarks about colonial relations that still exist today between the West and the rest of the world. Colonial power is all about domination and retaining a certain hierarchy of values: economic, cultural, etc. Although the British withdrew their troops from Palestine long ago, the relations that remain still continuously reproduce aspects of the old hierarchies, especially in terms of culture. As an interesting reference point for these relations, she highlighted the idea of ‘The Native Informant’ as developed by the Indian philosopher and postcolonial thinker Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak ( This conversation developed almost as a continuation of the discussion I’d had with Adham the day before about the types of images sought from Palestinian artists by the surrounding world. The Native Informant is, according to Spivak, a colonising projection from the Western visitor put upon a person in a foreign culture, and is connected to the experience of a radical Otherness. The term is an elaboration on ideas of the ‘raw’ and authentic human identity that supposedly exists in non-Western and more or less primitive cultures. Spivak’s ‘Native Informant’ is typically the most destitute woman from the third world, but a black commentator on TV talking about black issues is a similar informant. Through a sense of Otherness, this informant builds a bridge between the ‘unknown’ and the ‘enlightened’ West. But the ‘Native Informant’ is constituted by and constitutes the colonial subject. In the context of our being in Ramallah, the Native Informant is the supposedly ‘authentic Palestinian’. Although such an authentic Palestinian exists only as an external colonial projection, it is constantly reproduced and has power nonetheless over the images created within Palestinian culture.

Of course I am not entirely without guilt when it comes to this ‘gaze’ upon foreign cultures and foreign people. I guess no-one is. As a European, I also carry this colonial gaze as baggage even though I’m constantly attempting to be self-critical and somehow repress it when I notice it. My expectations of my visit to Ramallah are, however, informed by what I know. Most of the traces of this colonial projection usually dissolve once I get closer to the people that I meet here but I have to admit that I’ve been surprised by the variety and level of reflection in our conversations. That’s my dumb colonial mind! I have to unlearn it. Even after just a few days in Ramallah, I can see that all of the people I have met have different stories, histories, educations, nationalities and a whole variety of perspectives on Palestine. However, it is probably this image of the Native Informant that many Palestinian artists are asked to fulfil when they are invited for shows in the West.

The Three Occupations

Our company kept talking and, under the pine trees, another conversation emerged about how much responsibility one could place on the Israeli occupation. Samar kept repeating “Don’t blame everything on the occupation”. But Khalil proposed that it wasn’t only a question of one occupation but of at least three as he saw it. First there was the Israeli occupation, which was the most comprehensive. Secondly, there was the Hamas occupation, in other words an occupation by fundamentalist Islamism that also imposes limitations on people’s lives. Finally there is an occupation in the domestic sphere via male domination. Palestinian macho-culture has lately been mapped out through research into the conditions of women in the town of Jenin, Khalil said. There the frustrations that men felt in their everyday lives due to their hopeless living conditions often got translated into violence towards women, both in the home and in bed. Violence permeates the everyday life of women and even their sex life. A certain agreement developed that you could separate the various occupations; they are all interrelated but need to be resisted in different ways.

Suicide bombers
To return briefly to the notion of the Native Informant, Khalil — from an outsider’s view — could quite easily become the ‘raw’ Palestinian. He was an amazing and very thoughtful person. Coming from Hebron, one of the most troubled and conflict-ridden cities in terms of occupations and settlements, he would jokingly say whilst holding his shoulder that he’d got a strong right arm and that he’d thrown many stones at Israeli soldiers and tanks ever since he was a boy. Spivak suggested a transnational perspective to replace the colonial relation, which of course would be fair, but then again we are all products of the cultural conditions we are living in.

Later in the evening, and after a good amount of red wine, we moved to Samar’s house for dinner and Ismail and Nadia, as well as Rana, joined our company. Ismail and Rana are both artists, while Nadia is a social worker. At this point, Khalil had begun to share his knowledge of Palestinian suicide bombers. He’d apparently researched Palestinian suicide bombers and had ploughed through every case since the phenomenon took hold after the first Intifada. He’d been close to several suicide bombers as four of his family and friends had committed suicide attacks but he was very dismissive of the approach, insisting that suicide bombers are brainwashed and used as pawns in a political game. There was nothing sacred about taking such an action and he fleshed this out in a curious manner by explaining how lots of suicide bombers were detonated by remote control before they’d even reached their target. Their purpose was not to necessarily kill people but to create fear (although the bombers inevitably have killed many over the years, in addition to themselves). But there was no holy mission and these poor people served as props in a political game. The dream was of course to make some difference and to be depicted on martyrs’ posters around the city and to become celebrated as heroes. In this sense, Khalil said that he could possibly put himself in the mind of the suicide bomber but that on a political level he couldn’t understand the point of it. The people who went on a suicide mission were drugged in the preceding months and weren’t fully conscious when they committed the action. For Khalil, it was clear that a suicide mission was a mission of hopelessness.

Monday, June 16, 2008


The apartment was far up a big hill and had a beautiful view over the valley where there was a large new building complex. It looked like a sports centre but it was hard to tell what it was. On the other side of the valley, on the next hill, you could see a row of new high-rises which were probably residential. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and the sun was glaring, but as Ramallah is approximately 1000m above sea level there was usually a light breeze and the temperature wasn’t unbearable. After looking around the apartment and at the landscape, Samar and I drove towards the centre of Ramallah. Here we found an Italian café diagonally across from Ramallah’s town hall, which also boasted a little fountain in its small park. Samar told me that the water was probably full of dirt and had never been changed because water was a scarce resource in the West Bank. Therefore, with this in mind, it was a strong and powerful symbol to erect a fountain here. Israel still controls the underground and ground water in the West Bank, which doesn’t leave much water for the population here. Due to water shortages the water supply is at times disconnected entirely which is why most houses have 4-10 large black water containers on the roof serving as a reserve for times when the supply is cut off.

After a coffee, a local artist joined us at the café. His name was Adham. We sat and talked for a while, and he told me that he was a bit worn out because he had been at work and had been out in the sun. He explained that he earned money producing backdrops for what he called “the boring Palestinian movies”. Recently an entire industry has been emerging around Palestinian movies and it was from this that he had got his job. A total of five movies were to have their opening night this year, which was a lot considering that the first Palestinian movie was produced, according to Adham, only 18 years ago. But Samar claimed that films were already being made in the 1960s. She had taken part in organising the Palestinian Film Festival in London last year, so she should know what she was talking about. But Adham was calling for more less boring movies, as the ones he knew of were all so serious, stiff and full of clichés. Apparently there has only been one single comedy produced over the years.

For a short while he pondered why the West expects particular cultural expressions from Palestine, in particular the kind connected to the conflict and occupation. He then went as far as to say that it was a great advantage to be a Palestinian artist because there was so much attention and demand internationally and there were a lot of artists who took advantage of this attention and delivered the images which were anticipated from a Palestinian artist. He claimed that in Ramallah everyone is an artist, “Ramallah is flooded with artists”. It was often enough for a young artist to take a single photograph of a refugee camp and their career would be kick started. He stated that his own work did not build on the theme of the occupation and joked about having only ever produced three pieces and so even if I was interested, there wouldn’t be much to see anyway.

We talked a bit about hip hop and how black people in the USA use music to get out of the ghetto. One can hardly blame a young artist for playing the game if a curator or producer is waving a plane ticket in front of them. Adham didn’t agree with the comparison. He wouldn’t ever go straight for the gold the way the hip hop artists did. No, there was more to it than that. However, he was currently faced with a dilemma: he had been offered a place for a MA in Fine Art at the Royal Academy in London as well as at Columbia University in New York. In that sense he was having his own share of the international attention that Palestinian artists are often met with. He had chosen Columbia, as they had offered him a scholarship. The ‘American Zionist university’ was the way he described it as it was supposedly directed by Israeli special interests. What I knew of Columbia University was that they are extremely good at educating their students to go for the gold in the art market. Perhaps that is an altogether different story though. However, Adham was definitely leaving for the USA at the end of the summer.

The apartment in Ramallah

Youssef picked me up around noon at the hotel. The weather was not as hot as I had feared as there was a light breeze that made the sunshine tolerable. People wear considerable amounts of clothing here, the men wear jeans or cargo trousers. Very few wear shorts. We drove towards Ramallah but the journey began in the direction of Tel Aviv. We drove upwards and Youssef pointed across the landscape and said that right over there is the Dead Sea. What I saw was the Wall, snaking its way through the valley. That fact that the Dead Sea is visible from Jerusalem made it clear to me what Larissa (a Palestinian artist based in Denmark) had pointed out to me before my departure: the land is continuous with a continuous landscape. Palestine/Israel is a connected continuum and the borders that are now so violently drawn with walls and fences are artificial and separate people who should be living together. Larissa had also said that the Semites historically are a single people and that the religious differences, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, came later. All the people here are Semites, both Palestinians and Israelis. Why anti-Semitism has later been interpreted to mean only anti-Jewish only the gods would know.

In Youssef’s taxi, with its Israeli number plate, we flew right through the Qualandya checkpoint, which controls all traffic in and out of the West Bank. The checkpoint is manned by Israeli border police, a notorious section of the Israeli army. The soldiers are young and their casual behaviour at the border is disturbing. They carried their loaded automatic weapons as if they were musicians in a grunge band just carrying instruments. There was a lot of running around at this opening in the wall, which spread out in several branches around the checkpoint. There were various buildings set back from the passageway, wedged in between the branches of the wall. There were a lot of mini-buses parked on the Israeli side and there were all the different groups, women, men and children, gathered all around, on their way in or out of the various buildings. From the cab it wasn’t clear what was going on but Youssef told me that they had probably been waiting for an hour or two and that all of them would then be searched, the men, the women and the children. The Palestinians are not allowed to bring their own vehicles through the checkpoint, so all the small buses on the Jerusalem side of the checkpoint were mini-buses with Israeli number plates to bring people into Jerusalem or wherever they were heading. Cars with Palestinian number plates are simply not permitted for use in Israel. But cars, such as Youssef’s, with Israeli number plates can also be used on the West Bank. The armed soldiers, wearing dark glasses, were mostly, however, surveilling the traffic that was heading in the other direction and leaving the West Bank. They ordered people who wanted to enter Israel to get out of their cars and open their trunks while the soldiers looked on. After we had passed through, Youssef told me that it was probably going to take him about an hour to get through on his way back after dropping me off at Ramallah.

When we drove through the checkpoint it dawned on me that, of course, the Israeli soldiers don’t care about who gets through to the West Bank. All their attention is directed at those who wish to leave the West Bank and drive into Israel. There is obviously no Palestinian border control as the checkpoint and the Wall are exclusively an Israeli project. This is probably why on the Palestinian side of the wall there was a huge painted graffiti piece asking for a reboot: Ctrl-Alt-Delete.

Now the quality of the roads changed dramatically; they were full of pot holes, and plastic bags swirled about in the dust. The landscape still had a lot of buildings spread out across the hills and there were quite a few brand new ones with 3, 5 or 7 floors. Almost all of the houses, tall as well as low, were built with yellow sandstone. Youssef told me that the new houses had appeared after the Oslo Accords between the Israelis and Palestinians in 1993 and the establishment of Palestinian sovereignty in 1994. Palestinians who had lived abroad had returned to invest in the development of the future Palestinian state but there had been no urban planning and Youssef complained about all the buildings that had been built with no overall coordination: a tall 7-floor building stood right next to a small 2-floor one, etc. In his mind this was a big mess. I, however, found it slightly liberating for my Danish control-resistant mentality.

After we had driven for about 20 minutes we were met by a white Mazda. It turned out to be Samar who was waiting for us. She would take us to the apartment where I was going to stay for the next 6 weeks. We drove up and down and back and forth for about 10 minutes through the hilly landscape until we arrived at a rather exuberant villa with a double garage surrounded by a fancy cast-iron fence. It was a true rich man’s mansion; and, to my surprise, there were quite a few in the outskirts of Ramallah. So this was the place where I was going to stay, in the ground floor apartment with the owner living above me.

As I was the first person to use this apartment, everything in it smelled completely new and there were still stickers on the sink and the toilet (but no toilet paper). There were two rooms, with a large combined kitchen and lounge as the main room, and a bedroom with two beds — in other words there was plenty of space. All the rooms had a cool, tiled floor and the sofas in the lounge fitted the style of the house — exuberant. Samar, who had invited me down here, was a very friendly woman, and we got along easily. She had lived in London for some years but had now returned to Ramallah where she was in charge of ArtSchool Palestine. It was nice to finally attach a face to all the many emails we’d exchanged before my departure.