Israel and Palestine: A Walk on the Wild Side
Flying from Naples to Tel Aviv via Frankfurt took all day and we arrived at the Ben Gurion airport late at night. It felt incredible to be at the beginning of the third and final country of our Fulbright library road trip odyssey. Going through customs was surprisingly quick. I think flying on New Years Day must be good because we really didn’t experience big crowds anywhere along the way.
After sleeping in a little, we encountered a very trendy and upbeat Tel Aviv. Our hotel was right out of Lonely Planet with all of the hipster amenities. The coffee shops and cafes were totally cool and really good. All the signs were in Hebrew but many of them had Arabic and English as well. I thought that more English would be spoken here but most people spoke at least some of it, often with an American accent. The central part of Tel Aviv where we were staying was mostly beautiful in an unusual Bauhausian kind of way. This area is called “The White City” because of the large number of Bauhus inspired architecture that was mostly painted white. Ellen and I walked down to the beautiful sunset on the beach and still couldn’t believe that we were in the Levant.
The next day we met our Fulbright contact Noa Turgeman in her office. She was totally organized, helpful and proactive. I immediately felt the energy different here than in Naples. Noa also had a lens that I had ordered waiting for me. As I wrote about earlier, all my camera gear was stolen in Sicily. Fortunately, I had a backup camera body in Naples. Now that I had a lens for my camera I could begin to do some serious photography again. We immediately headed to a rough part of town that contained the Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers. This was a small pop-up library in a park filled with mostly African men. The library had odd hours and wasn’t open on this day. It was located near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station which also seemed pretty run down. But it was a relief to begin to make images again. My old Nikon D800 worked perfectly and my new/used 50mm lens was nifty.
We finally made it to Jerusalem in the evening of Shabbat with black clouds lowering and the temperature falling sharply. Just as our taxi reached the edge of the city we heard on the radio the voice of that famous Jewish American rock star Lou Reed. He was signing Walk on the Wild Side which somehow seemed perfectly appropriate. Later that night it snowed in the higher parts of the city.
The next day we headed straight to the Israel Museum. It is the national museum of Israel and one of the largest museums in the region. It contains a world-class art and archeology collection. We went to the Shrine of the Book which contains the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.
It was very appropriate for our project to come here and I made plans to get permission to come back later with my Nikon and tripod. The scrolls that are on display are rotated through over time to give them a chance to “rest”. It was mind-boggling to see them and another priceless artifact called the Aleppo Codex. I was also shocked to see a photo taken right after the discovery of the scrolls. It shows a photographer with a 4×5 film camera placing his light meter right on the scroll. I am sure that archeological technique would not allow that to happen today! It was a hair-raising experience for Ellen too!
We briefly visited the Israel Museum but will have to come back as we ran out of time.
On a very cold and foggy morning we visited the moving place called Yad Vashem. It is a museum and memorial park dedicated to the Holocaust. Somehow the lousy weather only added to this somber but brilliantly designed place. We quickly took the audio tour through the main exhibition space. I couldn’t help compare it to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Both are important, moving experiences but also very different.
We met the director of the Hall of Names which is a place intended to give a name and face to the Holocaust. Photographs and names are added to the collection as they are received for this ongoing project.
We were then given a private tour of the many different parts of the Museum and met several of the staff members. They were all top-notch professionals that helped deepen our understanding of the place. We saw a photo album by the contractors that built Auschwitz, IBM cards used by the Nazis and a collection of books in the library called Yizkor Books of the names of people of lost communities put together by the survivors.
We also saw an amazing exhibit on photography and the Holocaust called Flashes of Memory.
Like the National Libraries in Athens and in Naples, the National Library of Israel is our host in this country. We are committed to exploring this place with a camera. Hopefully, we can learn something about the essential nature of Israel through this national gem.
Our first tour is of the National Music and Sound Archive. It is an absolutely priceless collection that is focused on Israeli, Hebrew and Yiddish music and sound. The collection goes very deep and includes lots of old recordings and technology from the past. One surprising item was a record pressed into an old x-ray showing someone’s ribs.
I spent one cold morning photographing the construction site of the new National Library of Israel which should be completed in three years. The scale and ambition of this place was staggering.
As in the National Libraries of Greece and Italy, we are given an escort as we wander around the library. But as before, we are able to go pretty much where ever we wish.
Conservation Labs are always interesting because they have so much stuff. One surprising and disturbing display was of a young woman who had worked at the library and was killed in a suicide bomb attack a few years ago.
The cartography department was amazing and we realize we could spend a whole day there and not run out of things to see. This is true of most of the library and we found ourselves having to pull out early from some departments because they were so full of interesting stories we would never leave the library.
The American Center is part of the American Embassy in Jerusalem. Like we have seen in other countries, its mission is to engage with the local population and promote the US. American soft power at work. While we were visiting the Center there was an Arab language class taking place for Israelis who are working on environmental issues. There will later be a Hebrew class for Palestinians also working on environmental issues. Once they can speak the same language, they will begin to work together to solve some of the pressing local issues on water, waste, etc. Smart idea and the Center was a logical place for this to happen.
I had tried to contact several Palestinian libraries in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The only one that responded was the Khalidi Library in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was established in 1900 and was one of Ottoman Palestine’s first public libraries. It is the largest and one of the finest private collections of manuscripts in Jerusalem. The building was built in the 13th century and was re-opened in 2015 after being closed for 47 years. The librarian takes us to the roof of the library and I am stunned to see the Al-Aqsa Mosque so close. We were looking out over one of the most contested places in the world. It seemed so ordinary and was filled with laundry and satellite dishes.
We were given a tour of both the old library and new library annex which houses the archive. We met several fascinating people including Raja Khalidi who is a young man from the old Palestinian family that founded the library. He has great plans for the future of the library. We also meet the artist Jack Persekian who has worked with the library and has done extraordinary art work on his own. Finally, we meet MV who is an American academic working in Palestine on a digital/cultural mapping project. Because the library is about to go through some big changes we are given free access to photograph the place now before it is transformed.
After the Khalidi Library we plunge in to the Old City of Jerusalem. We head to the Western (Wailing) Wall. Because it is Shabbat no photography is allowed. I am happy not to be photographing and instead spend a long time just absorbing the amazing scene in front of us. We wandered through the old streets and bustling markets. We had lunch on Via Dolorosa and find out later that the cafe was located at one of the Stations of the Cross. We wander over to the Church of the Flagellation and view Christian iconography of Christ’s last walk down this very street. Again, words are inadequate to describe this place. I am left babbling “Oh my God” over and over.
Perhaps the most amazing place was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. According to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century this church contains the place where Christ was crucified, where he was resurrected and his tomb. As we entered the crowded church a group of monks were chanting and singing close to us. Again, it was almost impossible to comprehend what we were experiencing. All the years of reading the history of this part of the world came rushing back. It helped to have that grounding but the visceral experience of being there was the best. I often find myself with a real mixed feeling when I am in places like this. On the one hand I am appalled by the fanatical devotion to a story that may not even be true. I think of all the blood that was shed in the name of that devotion. On the other hand, there is no denying the power of the place and I choose to experience that at this moment. This was certainly a place I will never forget.
We spent one day taking the bus and giving a lecture at the Central Library in Tel Aviv called the Beit Ariela. There were about 60 people that attended the lecture and afterwards I was interviewed by a reporter for an online magazine. But most of the time we spend in Jerusalem. The two cities are very different. I like Tel Aviv’s more laid-back life style. I am fascinated by Jerusalem’s history and I try to understand the intense feelings that religion and culture have generated here for over two thousand years. The city continues to be a flash point even up to the present. I don’t understand the Israeli right wing’s support of Trump or the Settler’s movement into Palestinian territory. But I am beginning to understand why this place is important. I do know that we are learning a lot and not just about libraries.
The weather has again turned very cold. We are wearing every article of clothing that we brought and hope that it doesn’t get colder. One night this week a storm blew in from Siberia and it snowed again in Jerusalem. Earlier last week a dust storm blew in sand from Egypt. Talk about a walk on the wild side. This city is magical.
Finally, this last image proves that not all parts of this trip are exciting or glamorous. Lots of it has been just plain hard work and sometimes we get a little tired. Here I am resting my eyes while downloading photographs on to my hard drives. Ellen has equivalent moments of road-weariness. And we are sad to think that this amazing trip will end March 1st!