Book review: Palestine brought to life in “Behind the Wall”

“Buried alive,” Bethlehem. (Rich Wiles)

Anyone familiar with the work of the Palestinian youth center Lajee in Aida refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem has probably encountered photographer Rich Wiles’ work. Wiles’ foray into publishing began with a series of books (Dreams of Home, Flying Home, and Our Eyes) produced by the youth of Aida camp, collaborative projects that he facilitated. Behind the Wall: Life, Love, and Struggle in Palestine is his first book published as a solo venture, or at least that is how the book may appear at first glance. However, true to Wiles’ collaborative methodology, this is not about his story of living and working in Palestine, but a story about the lives of people he has encountered over the course of the last seven years living in Palestine.

The book is broken down into seven thematically-oriented sections: Memories of Exile, The Wall, The Spirit of Resistance, Purity and Love, Land of Palestine, Strength and Sumoud, and Dreams of Return. The chapters within each section are like snapshots of Palestinians, most of whom are refugees living in the West Bank; interspersed between each section are Wiles’ moving photographs, which amplify the feeling of experiencing close-up images of Palestine. The Palestinians’ stories, told directly to the reader in their own words, are exhibited within Wiles’ frame that provides readers with a context. Little by little one gets a clearer sense of the current situation in Palestine and its ties to history and the fight for political rights, most importantly the right of return as enshrined in United Nations Resolution 194.

To set the narrative, Wiles opens with five historically-grounded stories that connect Palestinian refugees to their original villages in 1948 Palestine and the history of their expulsion in 1948 (referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe) and 1967. In a chapter appropriately entitled “War Crimes and Picnics,” Wiles illustrates the ongoing Nakba by describing a photograph taken in the 1960s of a school in Imwas village. The choice of Imwas is important given the history laid out in the chapter of its villagers’ ability to repel Zionist forces in 1948. Villager Abu Gaush helps Wiles offer a more personal account of the ethnic cleansing of Imwas in 1967:

“My family fled to the mountains as we were frightened that 1948 was happening all over again … The soldiers emptied all the houses in the villages and forced everyone out onto the streets. The only direction left clear was to Ramallah, and they told us to go there. Other soldiers were saying, ‘Go to Jeddah [in Saudi Arabia] — all land before there is ours — and if you stop before Jeddah, we will kill you!’” (18).

Abu Gaush’s narrative is not only significant because it intertwines with memories of destruction during the Nakba, but it involves the Jewish National Fund (JNF) which constructed Canada Park on the remains of Imwas and the surrounding villages with the help of the Canadian government. Wiles builds on this story to explain what the JNF has done, weaving together history, orature and an analysis of its ramifications to provide readers with a way to understand how Palestinians experience the ongoing dispossession.

“Muftah al-Awda” (Key to Return), Aida refugee camp. (Rich Wiles)

The construction of Israel’s wall in the West Bank, buttressed against Aida refugee camp where Wiles resides, is one of the themes in his book that also illustrates how Palestinians are faced with the ongoing Nakba. Given the way in which the wall incarcerates Palestinians in the West Bank and separates them from friends, family and land on the other side of the wall, the subject of imprisonment is a prominent one in this second section of the book.

To highlight the effects of the wall in one particular chapter Wiles uses first-person narrative of his experience following four Palestinian laborers and two 27-year-old Palestinian women through dark and foul-smelling sewage tunnels to evade occupation soldiers in an attempt to cross from one Palestinian neighborhood to another. Wiles’ account sheds light on how Palestinians in the West Bank are cooped up in ways that beg comparison to the elaborate tunnel system between Gaza and Egypt.

The use of sewage tunnels to access another part of Palestine is one way Wiles portrays a form of daily Palestinian resistance. In the section “The Spirit of Palestinian Resistance,” he shares additional ways in which Palestinians resist the colonization of their land: a youth who throws stones, a student active in armed resistance, a man writing in underground newspapers and a man breaking a curfew to bring food to his besieged neighbors. Wiles sketches the contours of their lives to help readers understand why it is important for Palestinians to resist the military occupation. Many of the people he describes pay a heavy price for their resistance, especially the youth, many of whose stories also entail torture and imprisonment in Israeli jails.

But as the subtitle of Wiles’ book indicates, Palestinian life is not only about the struggle, but also about love. His sections “Purity and Love” and “Strength and Sumoud” focus on the steadfastness of Palestinian families, many of whom are separated because so many are locked up in Israeli prisons or cut off by the wall. Wiles weaves together the political context of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners by focusing predominantly on the youth behind bars — children such as Mahmoud from Aida refugee camp, who was only ten years old when he was first disappeared to a detention center where children are allowed to exercise only in what Mahmoud describes as a “large cage” whose roof soldiers covered to block the children from even seeing the sun.

Wiles writes of betrothed lovers Mahadi and Susu, separated by the wall. On the lengths they must go to be together, Mahadi says of Susu, “ ‘It made her so sad that we couldn’t be like normal engaged couples. I just wanted to drink tea that was made by her hands’ ” (101). Such simple desires help readers to render Palestinian humanity visible because Wiles’ narration is so powerful.

Love of family and love of land are important dimensions of “Land of Palestine,” where Wiles gives readers a sense of other kinds of separation from their families as a result of forced exile from their land because of the ongoing colonial expansion in the West Bank. Palestinians who have been pushed off their land or who have little access to their own water, despite the fact that most of the aquifers lie in the West Bank, recount their difficulties obtaining water or harvesting their crops. Other stories detail how uprooted olive trees affect Palestinian families, communities and the land itself.

Indeed it is the land and Palestinian ties to it that keeps their struggle alive after 62 years. Wiles’ chapters throughout the volume remind us of the heart and soul of the struggle: the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their original villages. The final stories in the book in “Dreams of Return” give a sense of Wiles’ broader work with refugees at Lajee Center and his trips with refugee youth to their original villages. Their photographs and stories are represented in many of Lajee’s publications and readers will get a glimpse of them here. These chapters are especially rich with stories from the youth about their experiences seeing their land for the first time and the orature of their grandparents about the history of their villages. The stories come full circle as we see the youth develop a stronger bond with the physical elements — soil, water, stones — of their land. The emotions that emerge when one encounters these stories are solidified by the symbolic and powerful final close-up image of the book: a grandfather handing down the key to his original home to his grandson.

Ultimately the themes and narratives emphasized in Wiles’ book are made meaningful by his images and his prose. His tone is deeply respectful and humble, offering writers a model discourse. When taken together these chapters illuminate the ongoing Nakba facing so many Palestinians while also presenting activists with a sense of the centrality of the right of return.

Marcy Newman is a professor of literature at Amman Ahliyya University and a member of the organizing committee for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

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