When I come back from yet another trip to Israel, which I was planning for a long time, I have a huge dilemma: how to summarise the stay, what to show, what to describe? Only now, a few months after my arrival, I know I could create several albums with the photographs and write several articles, each of which telling a different story.
I was wrong thinking that the subject of war would dominate most of my photographs. It turns out that it is the people composing this interesting country together with their cultural and religious diversity who become the main heroes in my pictures. What draws my attention the most and thus is recorded in my work is the lifestyle of both individuals as well as whole society groups: so various, sometimes extreme, but always interesting.
When me and my photographer friend are walking the narrows streets of the old Jerusalem, we are able to feel and observe the cultural melting pot, where very different social groups have to exist together. They have to and they do coexist, however, it is not the easiest life. One can see orthodox Jews praying zealously at ha-Kotel ha-Maarawi – the Wailing Wall surrounded by soldiers and metal detectors – and little market stalls run by Arabs selling everything and nothing, humble and dilapidated housing estates inhabited by Palestinians and colourful streets where tens of other nationalities live their lives. They did not arrive here yesterday. They have been living here for centuries and they treat now Israeli cities as their own. However, every now and then, we can observe military vehicles passing by, which reminds us that this is not a peaceful area free from conflicts.
My main goal is to photograph the Mea She’arim quarter of Jerusalem, which is located North-West of the walls of the Old Town. It is an Israeli part of town and a place inhabited by orthodox and ultraorthodox Jewish families. I have heard before that it is extremely difficult to photograph people in this part of town. It turns out to be very true. I am not surprised that older inhabitants of the area are very skilful at quickly turning away from the camera. However, I did not expect children to do the same! As soon as we enter small yards or narrow streets of Mea She’arim, people shout the word “strangers!”, which causes everyone to turn away from the camera so that the only thing we can photograph is their backs. I understand that everybody has the right for privacy, but the will to immortalise the people in my photographs is so strong that I decide to take pictures before lifting the camera to my face, before anybody notices that I am actually holding one. I have to admit that to some extent it feels like making a war reportage or being a paparazzi.
My passion for photography also takes me to the poor part of Jerusalem inhabited by Palestinians. I have read about the dramatic conditions these people live in, about the poverty that would most probably kill even more people if it was not for the help from abroad, from the West. The place, called Silvan, does not encourage you to stay here longer. Among destroyed houses, you can see Palestinians just sitting there and doing nothing for hours. There is a considerable difference between the parts inhabited by Jews and those where Palestinians and Arabs live. The latter are filled with omnipresent dirt and bad smell. We want to take a few photographs to show the prevailing poverty and the difficult living conditions. On our way, we meet a few teenage boys who smile at us. It is a pleasant feeling that does not last long: a few moments later we see stones flying in our direction. Not just one or two, but tens of stones thrown by everybody around. We feel as if we were participating in a regular war. Maybe we are not shot at, but at this time it does not matter to me whether I am hit by a bullet or a stone that is as big as a fist. We owe it to our agility that we get out alive, although one stone lands on my friend’s backpack and another one on my shoulder, some 10 centimetres away from my head. Some time later we encounter another group of “friends of the West” and now we approach them with a totally different attitude. We cannot go around them, so we just smile to show them we mean no harm. They obviously return our smile and ask where we are from and why we are there. When we finish our conversation, they smile at us one more time and say goodbye. We leave the place as quickly as possible and a few moments after, we need to run away from stones thrown in our direction. After these events, the memories about two-faced Palestinians will stay in my head for a long time.
We want to see something more than just Jerusalem so we rent a car and drive through the Palestinian Autonomy up to the Golan Heights in the North. We stop over at the coast of the Dead Sea, crowded with Russian tourists, who take mud baths never parting with their gold jewellery. We pass through several checkpoints, which turns out to be not the most pleasant of experiences. Sometimes the checking is more thorough, sometimes not. Palestinians seem to be dependent on their work on the Israeli side, although they do not like their neighbours. On the other hand, Israelis do not hide the fact that they are not going to grant them easy access to the Jewish side. It only shows how much the two sides are separated from each other. During our journey, we also try to get to the Gaza Strip. Our passports are checked, but it turns out that we lack the necessary documents. Luckily, our press IDs work miracles. If only for a few moments, we want to enter the area behind the huge wall and tons of barbwire. A polite lady informs us that the border closes in 3 hours and that we will not manage to come back within the time. We do not need that much time! We want to see the conditions the people live in, cut off from nearly everything. She agrees. We can go through. Suddenly, a high-rank officer appears. He browses some internet pages, checks something and after a few minutes he refuses to let us through. This time our press IDs are not much of a help. As he does not speak English, we ask a Palestinian boy going through the border for help. It turns out to be not the best of ideas: using perfect English the boy tells us that he is not allowed to even talk to an Israeli soldier if he wants to avoid severe punishment. Tough luck. We turn back and walk away still feeling that we have lost our chance. We are followed by two men in a white car until they make sure we leave in the right direction. They come back to the gate afterwards.
Our visit in the Palestinian Bethlehem coincides with the arrival of the US state secretary connected with peace talks. The city is filled with armed soldiers and young people shouting out slogans. One of the people in the crowd, who notices a lot of photographic equipment on the backseat of our car, warns us not to go any further. He says that we may put ourselves in danger just because we are driving a car with an Israeli number plate and adds that our equipment will be completely safe in his parking place. Luckily, I have read about it before and still remember other tourists warning us against friendly parking place owners. There is not much of a chance that you will find anything in your car when you come back to such a parking place. You may consider yourself lucky if you can find the car itself. We step on it, which causes his hand to let go of the door handle, and we safely arrive in a parking place that we are not so strongly encouraged to park in. Bethlehem is very friendly. It is enough to say that you are from Poland. This is always the first thing the inhabitants ask you about: “Where are you from?”. It is asked straight after the word hello. A friendly hello.
After travelling the length and breadth of Israel, we arrive in Tel Aviv, where our journey started. The place is totally different from Jerusalem. Apart from the not so friendly surroundings of the coach station, occupied by African immigrants, the rest of the city is filled with young people, hotels and wide beaches. The war and the omnipresent religion are not found here. There are no black-clad orthodox Jews here. People live their lives in a totally different way. One can feel like in any other southern European town. It is an ideal place to relax after what we have been through.
I leave Israel with my head full of positive as well as negative experiences. This country is one of the places in the world that I would like to come back to. However, a certain époque needs to come to an end. Maybe, after some time, people visiting this country will be able to focus mostly on its beauty, and both the war and the differences between its inhabitants will be nothing but a bad memory. I hope it is possible. Nevertheless, after what I have seen, my hope does not seem too strong.