Bewildered in Jerusalem

Photo: Mats Svensson.

It was desolate. Quiet. In the quietness I heard voices, whispers, words being repeated. Words that had been repeated for a long time. “Two states”, “peace”, “demolitions”, “negotiations”, “walls”, “rocks”, “keys”, “reconciliation”, “resistance”, “executions”, “we are staying”. I had been served repetitions for breakfast, lunch, dinner. They ruined my sleep. They were in every report, in every conversation.

It was 16 years ago. I behaved like a child. Observed, absorbed, noted. Soon I became a part of the repetitions. Everything I heard, saw and was shocked by was documented, encrypted, archived. Everyone seemed competent, well-informed, engaged. I met a couple of guys from the World Bank who impressed me, and a young man from the British Department for International Development. For a certain period of time, they held the power of interpretation. They had the language, jargon, solutions to the problem. I believe they even believed in what they said.

We gathered a third time. The same group of people, a different office. We came and went in each other’s work environments. A Representative office in Ramallah, a Consulate in Jerusalem, and the last meeting at the World Bank’s office close to Al Ram. The meetings always came with an agenda, some content and a problem. A solution was also presented. Most often, someone had given this some extra thought. Heavy documents, many graphs, arrows, tables, and a clear summary. Someone at the Consulate had forgotten to press the erase button. Few of us managed to digest the heavy text. Towards the end of the day, at the most important meeting, we were all tired. We wanted to leave, go home, shower and change our clothes to attend a small, more relaxed gathering at Borderline, a restaurant at the border of east and west Jerusalem. It lay close to my own office, the Swedish Consulate in Skeikh Jarrah.

When I was new, it felt like I was being inaugurated into something difficult, but still solvable. That was why we were all there. We were all well-educated. So much experience gathered around the table. We had all worked in many countries. I remember sitting there and observing, listening, becoming a part of something, starting to see connections, but with difficulty to understand. The desolation came over me, the silence that contained so many words.

I sometimes felt chosen. I had an assignment, an assignment that actually defined me. The feeling of being part of something very special stayed with me for a while. Meetings continued. The feeling was enhanced by the confidential documents I was writing and reading, documents that were encrypted before they could be sent. The machine worked through the written documents, became punch cards and were sent to a few selected people. Maybe someone read what I wrote, usually there were no answers. The feeling of being important was strengthened as we during meetings shared important information with each other. It was always understood that we should keep our discussions within a closed circle.

I did not know at the time that everyone around the table lacked solutions. As colleagues from around the world, we acted as though we knew exactly what we should do. That was not true, we did not even know what we should have done. We were pinned down in our respective corner. We participated in a refined charade, directed by the superior who represented the unsaid and unwritten. A superior, deaf and blind to what happened just outside our office. We scripted our message with limited wiggle room. We could never explain how it really was. Could not use words such as colonialism or apartheid. Often had to argue to include obvious words such as occupation. To say that there was an ongoing theft of land, demolition of houses or exile of people was seen as taking a political stand. The obvious was denied.

It took time before we dared to open up. Before we knew each other well enough to really trust each other. I slowly became part of the inaugurated group, a diplomatic priesthood. I was in many ways happy to have this crazy job. At the same time, something was gnawing on me. I didn’t feel completely present.

Someone who wanted to see the whole picture, to face reality, could have skipped one of the many meetings. Could have asked the driver to park the security car by the World Bank office, and instead accompany them for a walk a few hundred meters down the small hill to meet the workers. Workers who were just about to finish working on the apartheid wall, where they have used heavy machines to lift nine meters high cement blocks, position and lock them to the ground. They worked quickly. Meter by meter, the wall separated families, shut out, shut in. Everyone became trapped in the madness which was being condemned by the international community, by those who represented us all.

During the walk, they could take the opportunity to approach young Israeli soldiers who guarded the check point, the one remaining passage between Ramallah and Jerusalem. It would remain only for a short while before it was closed. When it disappeared, the commercial center Al Ram would deteriorate, empty out and slowly die. As a diplomat, I had my own lane, meaning I never had to wait for long, never had to be humiliated. But someone who wanted to could stay for a moment. Could sit down and observe from a distance the events being repeated minute by minute. The queuing, humiliation, lies. This was where segregation deepened, Palestinians being separated from Palestinians. Siblings separated on different sides of the wall. Every time a Palestinian had to pass this artificial border, he or she would be filled with fear that would be unfamiliar to me as a foreigner. Would she suddenly be robbed of her ID-card, by a fickle girl who had just finished high school, recently turned teenager. Everyone had seen documents suddenly being ripped to pieces. An unlucky moment could deprive her of the small piece of paper that allowed her to move through this hated, random border. The border where she would meet young people who, at any random moment, could apply their definitive power.

Meetings at the World Bank office used to take a few hours. Skipping such a meeting to kneel on the ground and observe how apartheid happens could have changed anyone. In some way, you became a part of reality instead of discussing it.

This was an extreme form of oppression, with a clear before and after. Before the wall, after the wall. Plans for reconciliation trampled and hidden in the concrete. Possibility for peace diminished. If someone had wanted to, they could have experienced the small daily events taking place right next to the World Bank office. These events could have filled books, changed our encrypted documents, changed meeting agendas.

A lot of what was done at our offices in Jerusalem and Ramallah could have been done in Stockholm, London or New York. But there were things that could not be done at home, that were possible here. You could walk behind the wall, listen to the workers who built the wall, listen to someone who had been shut out. This was where my most important work was. I never liked it. I hated it. It was disgusting, and I was always just as tired when I came home. I did not want to see any more, did not want to be a part of it. I just wanted to sleep.

I started walking during the weekend. I wandered west of Hebron, alongside the wall which was starting to rattle its way north. I was there when the wall’s border was drawn. It was drawn over stolen land, on occupied land, on someone’s land. Drawn on the future free land of Palestine. I saw in front of me how this small future land, Palestine, disappeared in front of my eyes. I could feel, see the despair of a house being demolished, of an olive grove being torn apart. No consultations. Everyone was just doing their job. Someone opposing to their olive grove being destroyed could quickly be defined as a terrorist. Taken away, imprisoned, gone for a long time. It was all done at an incredible pace, with determination. The military order was clear and there was no space for negotiation. Whatever was demolished, making way for something else, was demolished according to plan. Sad eyes did not limit, hinder or stop anything. I remember a young boy, a child who was trying to protect his bedroom, his toys when it was torn apart. The child was carried off by two men who themselves were grandparents. There was no mercy in this action. In that moment, when the child’s home was demolished, I think something happened to the child’s consciousness. Something that would affect the child throughout its life. He saw his mother, father, siblings standing there. Surrounded by neighbors and relatives. Sometimes there were thousands of observers. Nobody said anything, there was a horrid silence all the while the heavy machines hammered through the roof. The child registered and would never forget.

It was a horrific experience to stand next to an old man and witness as his olive grove was torn up and loaded onto a truck. Truck after truck approached the grove. The grove would be replanted in an illegal settlement. The old man’s sad gaze rested on the sight in front of him, engrained in him as an eternal image that wouldn’t ever go away. The destroyer, the dealer of criminal decisions, was also there, but I did not want to keep the memory of him. I tried to make him go away. Did not want the criminal to become a part of me. It did not work, but he faded, like a grey, bulky mass.

The old man remained there, as well as his adult sons and grandchildren who stood a few meters away. Soon, the old man’s grandchildren would be able to tell a story, their story based on their collective memory. In the story, they had a grandfather, who lived in a beautiful house, with a beautiful garden, beautiful carpets, beautiful paintings. He had lost everything just after World War II. They would say that they had been expelled, wiped out by foreigners that had come from terrible concentration camps in foreign countries. What happened right after the war continued, day in and day out without interruption. Every day, he would lose something small. So small that nobody would ever write about it. The small losses eventually made up a life. They would share the stories of his cousins that have spread out across the Middle East. How they all sit in different refugee camps and share the same common story. How they still dream of change, that one day in the future be free, live in peace.

Next weekend, I wandered through the neighboring village and documented the same crimes. The criminal was the same, as was the heavy machinery. I saw another old man, standing next to a child. They saw the same guards, the same automatic weapons. The same story was being created.

Once again, it was an olive grown being torn up. The old man began to talk. He talked to me and to his grand child. The man was there when his village had been ruined at the time of Israel’s establishment. His mother and father were forced away, as was he. The family had a beautiful, large stone house. They had lived in a village with a mosque, store and school. The village lay in between Jerusalem and the ocean. The old man had lived his first years here, played with friends, siblings and cousins. Celebrated the big holidays. He had also had two Jewish friends.

Everything changed quickly. Some of the village elders were taken away on trucks. He had fled the village, heard gunshots, cries. They never had time to say good bye. The villagers were scattered. Together with his siblings and parents, he had moved in with relatives near Hebron. His father repeated that they would return soon. He had brought their important papers, keys, evidence. He watched when his village was leveled to the ground. Now, it was the old man’s turn to experience his parents’ despair. His father had never wanted to talk about it. He did not want to relive it. But this time, when the old man’s olive grove was torn up and taken away, he promised himself not to be quiet. He would share the story with his children, grandchildren, anyone who wanted to listen. As he shared it with me, just a stranger on one of many walks, he made me promise that I would share his story, to not be quiet.

This was when I started to feel a contrast between the internal consulate meetings and the reality that I witnessed during my walks. Two realities. We were all in an undefined way requested to participate in solving the problem. To remove oppression, dismantle occupation, stop the wall, fight apartheid. We all agreed on what we saw, we knew what needed to stop, we were clear with our employers, but we did not make progress. We did not find solutions to olive groves being destroyed. We saw what happened. We identified the criminal. Documented, photographed, interviewed the victim. We told each other about our experiences, and all experienced the same despair, the same anger. I became more and more aware that I was living my life in parallel worlds. We all had a common assignment, but no solution.

During the first week, my daughter was with me. Together we came close to something that was vague, undefined. I remember that we often looked behind our back. Felt unsafe. Did not know why, but we had done our research. We had bought the book about the hundred most dangerous places in the world. Jerusalem was high up on the list. The written word became truth. With books as our guide, we came close to reality. I remember that we were highly careful the first time that we walked into Jerusalem Hotel for a simple lunch. We talked about where we should sit. Whether it was better to sit close to the exit. We tried to do the right thing, but did not know what was wrong.

We continued down Via Dolorosa. It was still our first week. We saw a stream of tourists, many from South Korea. I remember thinking that they didn’t seem scared. Had no one told them about the risks? I walked through the Damascus port. I was not stopped, but I saw that many Palestinian men had been stopped and were kneeling on the ground. They were silent, gazes empty. Today was a day when they were not allowed into the old town, not allowed in to pray.

I stood by the side and started to photograph. A very long time ago, a Swedish artist told me:

Slow down, sit down. Let it come to you, sink in. You need to give it time. You rush too much, are in too much of a hurry. Whatever happens, it happens on the side, slightly behind, in the shadow. If you don’t slow down, you will never see it.

Nobody cared that I stood there. Everyone was busy with their own. They were in their own worlds. Young, Israeli boys and girls with automatic weapons started to scream and shout. They forced an elderly man down on his knees. Pulled something from his hand and tore it to pieces. I saw how tourists from all over the world passed by, watched, looked away, continued.

Parallel worlds. It all happened at the same time. In the same moment, in the same place, under the same famous Damascus port. All becomes one. Reality did not limit itself, only my camera did. There was no film director here to direct reality. Nobody telling me to start filming. Nobody dressing up in costumes, getting their hair fixed. In front of me was just reality, uncensured, disgusting, beautiful, ordinary. Young people with automatic weapons, but above all, with too much unlimited power. The wall was thick, the heavy doors were open. You could quietly and calmly walk in and out of the door. Salespeople were sat both inside and outside the wall. Selling clothes, food, maps, souvenirs, crosses, prayer rugs. A long row of women sat outside with their small fruit stands. Inside the wall were stands of men selling candy, spices. Amidst it all stood young, freckly soldiers, flirting with young soldier girls.

An older woman was struggling to walk down the broad stairs. She held a cane in her left hand and leaned on her son for support. Her leg hurt. She walked slowly. They approached the port. The son was stopped by a soldier and taken aside. They shouted at the son, the son which had just been helping his mother. The old woman was taken to the other side. The son did not move fast enough and got a light beating on the shoulder. A young Israeli soldier shouted at the woman. Weapons were slightly raised. I stop photographing, just followed what was happening with my gaze. The woman was forced back. Stumbled back up the stairs, not home, just away. The son tried to go with her, but was forced to stay. He was ordered down on his knees with cable ties around his wrists.

At the same time, a group of South Korean tourists passed by, most of them carrying a big cross with a small wheel attached to it. A man had rented them the cross on wheels and was taking photos of them. They were singing songs I recognized from my own childhood. Songs of joy. The renter continued to photograph. They arrived at the entrance to the old town.

Tourists from all over the world walked in and out of the old town. They did not stop, saw what they wanted to. They visited holy places and stopped by each of the thirteen stations before they arrived at the holy grave. They returned the cross to the man and paid him for his photos. They lit candles, prayed, sang, felt joyful, took photos, sent photos, called their mother and told her about the stone where the piece of cloth was divided. Told her that they had just cried, cried like everyone else, with joy.

While the tourists called their mother with tears of joy, the kneeling son was released from the cable ties and ordered to leave. He had just been on his way home with his mother and now did not know where his mother was or when he would be able to return home. The son was forbidden to pass through the entrance and his mother was not allowed home. He did not know whether they would recognize him next time, what he had done wrong, why he was stopped, why his mother had been forced away.

I did not know either. Did not understand the codes. I was thrown between calm meetings with colleagues and olive grove thieves with automatic weapons. I heard repetitive words which eventually became reports. But weekend encounters with torn up olive groves did not make it into the meeting protocols. Neither did the old man’s sad eyes or the child who had lost his bedroom. For the old man or the small child, life had not work out as they had hoped. Since they left the village with his mother and father, the old man had always hoped that things would work out, that evil would end and that everyone would start talking to each other. They had tried to get as far away as possible, away from enthusiastic soldiers, but reality had caught up with them. It had taken more than sixty years.

When the olive grove disappeared, the old man started to reflect on who he was, who he was to his children, to his grandchildren. I listened to him, and started to reflect on who I was. I prepared to leave, knowing that I had a few kilometers more to walk, before I reached the bigger road and would wait for a bus to take me to Hebron. I would get into my car and drive home to Jerusalem, to Shuafat.

Only now did I realize that what I had witnessed during my weekend walks were repetitions. One day of oppression added to another day of oppression. What I experienced was only news to me. To the ones I met with and talked to, oppression was normalcy, ever present. I would be there as an observer for a brief period, eventually handing the baton over to a new runner. My successor would be horrified by the torn-up olive groves, the young boys and girls with automatic weapons, and their absolute power over an old man.

When I slowly left the village, doubt crept up on me. I held on to the fictive baton for a little while longer. I asked myself whether I am a foul runner or an adversity runner? I asked myself, what am I doing here?

Mats Svensson’s new book, Apartheid is a Crime: Portrats of Israeli Occupation will be published in the USA on January 6, 2020.