By Jim Miles
Our Eyes and "Dreams of Home" created by the children of Lajee Center with Rich Wiles. Lajee Center, Bethlehem, Palestine. 2007. (For more info visit: www.Lajee.org)
The pictures arrive at first in the sad multi-tones of greys, the ever-present grey concrete walls of the narrow alleys of the refugee camp, the shadows and lines on faces, the abstract shadows of wire and fence on concrete, and the loom of the Wall that separates the camp from its outlying fields. At first sombre within all that grey, the pictures reveal many levels of understanding and feeling, as if each shade has it own significance, each texture its own meaning, each face its own hopes and dreams clouded by narrow horizons.
As described in the introduction “the idea behind this project was for the young people of the Lajee to constructively and creatively respond to the environment in which they live…producing…an international voice that transcends borders and languages…that can get over the Wall…pass through checkpoints…louder than gunfire.”
The photographs by the children of Lajee Center have been displayed at different sites around the world and are now available in this evocative book from the Lajee Center. The centre is a volunteer centre, established eight years ago to provide children of the camp with constructive educational activities to help them develop knowledge and skills. Set in Aida Refugee Camp, established after the 1948 Nakba, Aida camp, with a population of about 4,500 – over half of whom are children – is located 8 kilometres south of Jerusalem, bordering the city of Bethlehem. The children of the camp, provided with minimalist photography equipment, participated in several work-study camps over the pat few years to produce these thematically organized images of life in the camp.
Photography, much more so than the written word, is open to several levels of interpretation. First impressions come from the visual image, the tone, the physical perspective, and the objects themselves. Beyond that is the wonderful world of introspection and changing perspectives: the photographers physical perspective but also the emotional perspective (Why that particular subject at that particular place?); the perspective of the subject, if other than just the immutable, intractable presence of concrete and stone (What is the girl thinking? Why is she here at this place and this time? Where is she from? What are her hopes, dreams, and nightmares?) Finally there is the overall composition, the interplay of elements, human and physical, what inferences can be drawn from the photo?
The first of the four sections of photos, “A Window to Our World”, begins with a full spread photo representing all the elements described above and all the possible aspirations of youth anywhere in the world. As a written description here of course, I cannot capture those elements and aspirations as effectively as simply viewing the photo, but let me try to verbally present the various messages the photo carries. At first, a young girl stands slightly off centre, dressed in a simple yet elegant clean white dress, a white headband pulling back on long straight black hair, and clean white footwear. In the background, a narrow road, a concrete wall, and further down the road a group of boys, teens, and young men walking away down the road, and further in the background, sunlit concrete block buildings.
It is not a rich environment, devoid of grasses, trees, shrubs and not even so much as a hint of weeds, and also devoid of any symbols of what for most would be signs of a rich culture or commercial milieu. It is the girl’s face and body posture that draws the most introspection, leads to many questions and inferences.
She stands, eyes sad, without tears, mouth smiling but not truly joyful, someone’s daughter, sister, future wife and mother. She stands with a touch of adult femininity, her hips and back slightly curved with one foot forward. It is truly a wistful posture, expressing the true definition of that word, showing vague yearnings or mournfulness or unsatisfied desire to understand. In her moment of beauty she stands amid all that is grey and barren. Who knows her actual thoughts? What are her desires and wishes? What are her anguishes and despairs? Does she feel all this without truly comprehending it? Or contrarily, does she fully understand her unique presence, beyond her years, beyond what any child should have to face in life?
In the background, the group of boys – brothers, friends, none old enough to be a parent – walking away. More questions, more inferences. Walking where…and why? Is there a purpose – a game, a school – or is it more simply youth, caged, wandering with no real purpose? They are not running, their motions are not panicked or in flight or attack.
Only three hundred and eighty words, far short of the thousand a picture is worth. But to fill in the thousand would only be my mind making conjectures about what is happening, denying almost completely the emotional impact of the picture, for I could fill it all in with background information drawn from many sources and more than likely take away from the impact of the photo itself. Trite as the saying is, it is better to let the picture speak for itself.
The subsequent photos in the section show daily life as experienced and expressed by the children of Aida camp, the narrow streets, the Wall, the people, young and old, none of whom seem truly comfortable or at peace. The final photo perhaps explains why.
The Wall, eight metres high, its dark shadows looming over the foreground, fading into sunlit brightness in the distance. In the foreground, one small boy facing the camera, seemingly lost in thought, or as with most young people, lost in unverbalized emotions and experiences, stands on a ground of rocks and rubble, where again, no life thrives.
The caption, provided by the photographer, Layan Al Azza, states simply “My favourite thing was that people liked me and let me take photos of them. I don’t like life in the camp.”
The second section presents photos from a workshop with the theme on “A Child’s Rights in Palestine.” The short commentary at the beginning of the section ends with the poignant comment “A couple of hours after the exhibition had opened in Aida Camp a 13 year old child was shot in the head with a rubber coated steel bullet by the Israeli army less than 100 metres from the gallery in which children had proudly showed their work discussing human rights protection for children, a child’s rights in Palestine…”
The photos do not show the blood and the wounds to the body. Instead they show the wounds to a society struggling to survive. They show children laughing, sad, the Wall graffitied with “Stop Apartheid” and “Stop the Racist Wall”, a young man waving the Palestinian flag in front of the wall, posters, a street scene, more walls, a classroom with one smile among many faces against more grey walls, more narrow alleys, girls giggling, peeking over a railing, more concrete, pock-marked with bullet holes, a child crying, playing marbles, cooking, more Wall with thistles, and finally, a round steel gate with metal fences and concrete walls to represent Article 37 – “The Right to Protection from Torture and Deprivation of Liberty.”
The final section, “Our Dreams and Nightmares” was photographed in August-October 2007. Basic dreams – the right to a home, to be a farmer, to travel, to play volleyball, and most prominently, freedom and to have an education to make a better society – the dreams of all children around the world. The nightmares – of losing a home for the second time, of a worsening economic situation and no work (the simplicity and depth of children’s thinking), the killing of a family and friends by soldiers, prison, suffering.
The final four photos summarize it all: a smiling face with candles, “My dream to live in a world full of innocence and hope;” next, a gnarly tree with the vague outline of an old face, “Time is passing and I’m afraid that one day this face [lonely and old] will be mine.…”
The final two, simple and powerful, perhaps show the height of the dreams and the depth of the nightmare. First a photo of books, one titled “English for Palestine” and the caption “…with my culture and my studies I will build a better future.” In contrast the final picture of a shoe lying on its side on a gravelly street, dark shadows in the background, and further back, again, the Wall. Under the shoe lie the dark splashes of blood pooled in the roadway: “My nightmares are full of blood…Last year my brother was shot whilst playing in my bedroom.”
Is this what the world allows for its children? Is this the price of our western lives lived in relative luxury, our own children “full of innocence and hope” to be denied to others?
Dreams of Home
The fourth set of photographs from the workshops involved the children at Lajee Center interviewing the elders of the camp, the underlying theme clearly and simply as with the title, dreams of home, of the right of return. While those over sixteen could not enter Israeli occupied territory, the youth of the camp were allowed to return and visit the sites of their grandparent’s homes and villages. The photos in this section are colour, and they do not carry the grainy gritty evocativeness of the black and white of life in the camps, but the ongoing wish to return to home, to where the heart is, to where life at one time flourished and passed peacefully.
It is a book that expresses in words and photos the basic dignity of the older generation, all of whom had to flee their homes in the Nakba, most taking little but the clothes on their backs. Throughout though, two symbolic elements seem constant: the keys to the houses left behind, and the deeds of land that showed ownership. The main theme is of course the wish to return, of the importance of a home and land and the culture that goes with those elements. Accompanying this are the connections made between the original refugees and their grandchildren, passing on their memories, but more importantly their hopes and dreams of a return to a better future. For all the children it is pride and hope, as expressed by one participant Suhaib, “I get very excited and proud; as this house stood, my family and I will continue withstanding until we return.”
The photographs show the full range of human emotion and the geographic beauty of the land, including the remains of houses and buildings slowly succumbing to nature. For the refugees, a stoic pride, a dignity, shows in their clothes, demeanour, and facial expressions. For the youth, the full range from sullen hostility to the innocence of mugging for a camera. For the landscape, the beauty of the flowers and trees, the rock walls and crumbling houses that give lie to the Israeli myth of a barren land without people. The irony of “The Silver Family Nature Trail” plaque set in concrete in what used to be a Palestinian village. The ever-present, fences, barriers, metal spike belts in the roadway, and inevitably, the Wall. And in the distant background, the flash of a modern high speed train, an image of freedom and travel denied to the refugees behind the wall.
Above all, strength, dreams of a better future, and hope.
All the photographs in both books are a wonderful testament to the will of a people to survive in a hostile environment, not geographically, but imposed on them by an occupying force that denies them the basic elements of human rights. The work continually reveals different levels of emotion and understanding within the viewer as well as within the photographer. It is through the eyes of children, of being able to stand back from our supposedly adult intelligence and knowledge (but mostly our ingrained prejudices and unmoving ignorance), of renewing our vision of a better future and hope, of knowing with child-like conviction and emotion that the world can be a better place, a place of freedom and love.
These two books provide us with a wonderful opportunity to enter that vision, that world, to realize that the wishes of children are not just foolish immature desires and dreams but the expression of humanities strongest goal – to have a land and a culture that we call our own, to live in peace and in harmony with our neighbours near and far, and to know and feel free, to have friends, to love and be loved in a secure environment.
-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.