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Beyond the Wall

Palestinian & Jewish Kids with Cameras
Shoot in the Holy Land

by Jason Eskenazi

I arrived in Jerusalem armed with 26 point & shoot cameras and over 250 rolls of film. It was my first trip to Israel and I spoke neither Arabic nor Hebrew. I wandered the old city's Muslim quarter looking for 13 potential students with a letter I had someone write for me in Arabic inviting kids to a free photo class in a local community center. I also made friends with an enthusiastic and talented local photographer Jonathan Weitzman who worked with me throughout most of the project.

A few days later about 40 screaming kids showed up for the first class shouting in a language that I could not understand, banging on the door, creating a whirlwind of chaos. I had learned later that a rumor had started that there was an American (me) giving away free digital cameras. When they found out there were no digital cameras and that the free film cameras had already been given out some of the kids threatened to burn down the community center and managed to break a few windows in the days that followed. After this incident I was informed that we could no longer teach inside the center and had to hold the class outside in the sun-baked courtyard.

The 13 Jewish kids, who were chosen by their community center, were placid in comparison. The only thing that the two classes had in common was that each kid could not stop popping the bubble wrap that the cameras came in.

I was new to the situation and conflict in the Middle-East. A fellow photographer from Magnum Photos suggested that I take a short trip to the outskirts of Jerusalem to the construction of the barrier wall in order to understand the polarity in this land. From that day on I knew that there was no way that a class could be held with Arabs & Jews together.

I was given a grant by Kids with Cameras; a non-profit organization begun by Zana Briski. She taught the children of prostitutes in Calcutta, India with the aim to empower them through photography. The Israel project is the second in the series. But instead of an economically marginalized community, as was in India, Jerusalem was politically and culturally divided. The goal was to make a portrait of Jerusalem from their perspectives.

I gave each class a set of rules and suggestions for taking better pictures. The first thing we had to do was to make them stop taking posing pictures of their friends and get them to explore their city. The classes met twice a week in their respective quarters. Jerusalem is made up of four quarters: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian. The kids ranged from 8-13 years old. We kept individual photo albums for each kid with their best photos. I did not hide the fact that I was teaching Arabs and Jews from each class but I was careful not to pit one against the other in the fear that they might pull out. I thought that in time they will come to learn about each other and if they were interested in seeing each other's photos and even to meet then we could arrange it.

But one hot day Jonathan and I decided to take the Jewish class outside to a common rooftop area that straddles both the Muslim and Jewish quarters. It's a place where Jews and Arabs seem to tolerate each other's close proximity. A few of the Arab students live close by. I was showing the Jewish kids Zvi's photos, he's one of the best, when we heard our names being shouted from far off, "Mr. Jason, Mr. John." In the distance I saw one of the Arab girls, little 10 year old Isra, inching her way towards us. She was shocked that I was teaching the Jewish kids as well. She was intensely interested but at the same time afraid to come near. Isra braved the big gap from her house to where we were sitting and was immediately surrounded by the Jewish class. She looked at their photos when some not so nice Arabic words were exchanged between them. She tugged on my arm trying to pull me to take her back over the divide to safety near her home. She was afraid that once she turned her back on them that the Jews would chase her. The noise alerted some of the other Arab kids and a confrontation was barely avoided as we called back the Jewish kids, saying that the class was over for the day. We had seen numerous little conflicts on the roof in weeks past. An hour later Jonathan and I returned to the roof and showed the Jewish kids photos to Isra and Raneen. They slapped the photos when they didn't like them because of the fact that they taken by Jews but about others they commented with the few English words they knew, "Good, no good", "Good, no good", and another slap.

The Arab class was much more difficult to control even on good days. Each potential translator flaked out on us and we were left with screaming kids whose mantra became, "Give me camera, give me film." Luckily we had Rannen, our star Arab student, who spoke enough English to quell the chaos. The Arabs gave me shot film with their names on little pieces of paper squeezed into the hole on top of the film canister. We sometimes got back crushed films from a frustrated Isra, and Wala would open her camera back in the middle of a roll just to get a new roll of film. We taught them by showing them their good photos and giving back their bad ones. Every good one was added to their own little photo albums. And they often asked me to show them theirs. Once when I was tired of seeing pictures of friends posing I crossed out some of Wala's photos with a bold marker and gave them back to her. She was so upset that she tore them up and threw them in the air. But she learned her lesson and she respected me more from that moment on. I realized that each kid just needed some special attention and they would blossom, especially Isra, who always had a sour and sad face until I told her she was the bravest photographer and then was transformed.

I started to do the same thing with the Jewish class, in which late in the course some admitted that they didn't want to be little photo-journalists but just wanted to add photos of their friends to their family albums. When we praised their individual photo albums and showed them special attention they became more enthusiastic. While the Arabs seemed more reactionary in their picture taking (as little Isra hit a priests shoulder to slow him down for her picture) and wasted alot more film, the Jewish kids were able to sit more quietly and absorbed some photo-concepts like foreground/background, composition, and light. They were less inclined to take pictures of strangers. When I commented on one of Hodaya's photos saying that if she had waited for a person to pass by it might have made the picture better she said that she instead waited for the person to leave before she clicked the shutter.

We sometimes went on little excursions with the Arab class in the old city because they had more free time. They liked going into the churches. But not all the kids showed up for each class. Once I saw a despondent Ala-Salami trying to sell postcards in tourist dry season due to travel warnings from abroad. He sometimes braves the road that connects the Muslim quarter to get to David's Tomb where there are more tourists. When he showed up to class with a bandaged arm he said that some kids had sicked a dog on him. Some days later he asked Jonathan and I if we wanted to go to David's tomb, but we think he just wanted an escort. I saw a Jewish kid trying to trip him on the way.

We had more contact with the Arab kids on a daily basis while walking through the old city. The Jewish kids were less visible mostly because they're confined to the Jewish quarter because of security reasons since the start of the second Intifada. Zvi, one of the best Jewish students, lives in the heart of the Muslim quarter. On one Sunday he was the only one who showed up for class. We decided to take a walk to his house. We saw how he moved swiftly through the labrinynth of left and right turns in the Muslim quarter not staying in any one place too long. We ended up in an Arab courtyard and quickly into his house and up to the roof to see the view of the old city. There are about 65 Jewish families living in the Muslim quarter. Zvi took a few pictures of the Dome of the Rock through some chicken wire. Then we headed back down to the street and eventually ended up on the rooftop of the Petra Hostel, where I'm staying in the Christian quarter, for one of the best vantage points of the old city, which would make for a very picturesque puzzle of Jerusalem. For Zvi, though, that one blue piece, the sapphire of the Muslim world: the Dome of the Rock mosque, that stands out from the sand color and sun bleached stones that make up the old city, would not fit into the puzzle of his world. That last piece would be replaced by the third temple, which is prophesized to be rebuilt, fitting snuggly into its place.

The Arab class wanted to go on a little trip after the class and one of them suggested Abu Dis, the same place where my photographer friend wanted me to see the wall when I first arrived. It's only about 15 minutes from the old city, but once the kids got on board the bus they started to sing and clap like they were going to a faraway summer camp. We walked along the Israeli side and some of the kids had not seen the barrier wall up this close. A bond seemed to have formed between us on the bus that day, amid the chaos of the photography outing and the ice cream the followed, as we headed back to the old city for falafels.

The summer was coming to an end. We had our last classes for the season. The Arab children earnestly asked for an official diploma when they were leaving but we gave them Kids with Cameras T-shirts instead. Later that day we set up a meeting with the two best students in each class to show them each other's work. It would be Raneen and Zvi, both the eldest and talented in their respective photo-classes. As the hot afternoon started to turn to soft gold we went to the roof where we set up the rendezvous. Raneen showed up first with a few of the Arab kids from the class. I remembered that it was Raneen's birthday and brought her a T-shirt of her favorite Egyptian singing star. We were all nervous that Zvi would turn away when he saw that he was outnumbered. And one his main concerns was if Raneen was taller than he was. They sat on either side of me and we opened their little photo albums. Little Isra, who was so scared to come close to the Jewish class a week before, came near and bravely slapped Zvi's foot, but he stayed calm. Fathi had a piece of a gas pipe in his hand on the ready until Jonathan said to him that Zvi was our friend and instead Fathi sat next to Zvi and shook his hand. Raneen said of Zvi's photos, "This is beautiful, this is very beautiful" and Zvi admitted that he liked Raneen's photos as well. The meeting lasted only a few minutes; the sun sat behind the hill and we all went home and rested. Tomorrow was a school day.

Coming Back

I returned to Jerusalem in mid-January. It rained for three weeks. My corner room at Petra Hostel leaked creating small pools in the dips of the cold tiled floor. I used rolled up blankets in front of the windows to block the cold air and soak up the moisture. I was warned that there was a winter in Jerusalem and like most places here also people stayed inside on rainy and cold days and the kids would not be out as they had been in the summer. In the Petra we huddled around the stove to keep warm since there was no heating in the rooms. And like always an endless stream of tourists, backpackers, and dreamers arrived and left. Only the fanatics stayed around and eventually found menial jobs at the hostel.

I met with the KIDS and showed them their photos in a slide show on my laptop and in an Israeli photo magazine called CONTACT. The Arabs slapped the Jewish photos when they saw them in the magazine and when I showed the slide show to four Jewish kids in the class the girls made a spitting sound I didn't think could come from them. Anat, who's now helping me because Jonathan was now based in Gaza, didn't want to repeat to me what they were saying. So here I was back teaching but the tables have turned and now it's the Palestinian kids who are not coming to the class. But I can hardly call it a class because we meet now in front of the Martin Luther Center on the street. Isra had started going to school in a suburb outside the city and showed up only once in 2 months. Wala complained that she lost her camera. Isak promised to shoot but only took film but never gave anything back. Only Zuhir and Khalid came a bit more regularly. After much begging I did buy Wala a new camera but in the weeks that followed she gave me no shot film. It was hard to find the kids even though I'd stop by their house and they would promise to come but most never did. I was most disappointed that Raneen never showed up again.

It was easier to gather the Jewish kids together since it was hosted by the Jewish Center and Pnina put out the word that I was back, and they came. This time around I only met with the kids once a week mainly because of their own obligations to school. And I wanted to get out of Jerusalem every now and again. They were more enthusiastic this time; a photo class being a respite from their studies and a chance to hooliganize. They did shoot and deliver spend rolls to me at every class. The weeks went by. At the end of each class they gave me film I got it developed and showed them the results at the next class. I kept the good ones and created new albums to replace the ones that were lost by the airlines. We set a last class after Purim in March where I hope they would shoot the festivities for the class.

I printed out diplomas because I remember how Isra had come to me the first time around and I wanted to bring some closure to the class. But at the last lesson only a few of the Arabs showed up so I had to leave the diplomas with one of Raneen's family members for all the kids. Only Zuhir and AlaSalami got theirs in person. The Jewish class had a warmer ending and everyone thanked me and they got their diplomas as well.

In the end all the kids were brought together just by being in the same project seeing Jerusalem from two vantage points. I hope somewhere down the road in a time to come that some of these kids will remember taking pictures and stopping to think how their counterpart might view the world. I see these groups (Muslims & Jews) as a people separated from a tree-trunk so long ago that their limbs reach into different gardens where their fruit has seeded other trees always to be living side by side as neighbors but never together. And now the gardens have two different keepers and a high wall that separates them. But I'm still hoping to return to Jerusalem next summer and make a special evening in the yard of the Martin Luther Center and invite all the kids and their parents, the mayor of Jerusalem, and show their work on a big screen in the open air, congratulating each one with a book of the project that they can take home and show their friends and one day, perhaps, even show their kids.

Humus and champagne included.