Palestine’s endangered vistas captured in “Masharef”

Emile Ashrawi’s “Golden Hills”

The Shat-ha walking group leaves Ramallah every Friday morning. The group, founded in 2006 by Dr. Saleh Abdel Jawad, a Birzeit University history and political science professor, and economist Samia Botmeh, has explored the West Bank from its green north to desert south. Now Masharef (Vistas), an exhibition of new photographs by members of the group, brings the threatened beauty of the Palestinian landscape to a wider audience.

Many readers of The Electronic Intifada will be familiar with Raja Shehadeh’s book Palestinian Walks, a moving retelling of nearly three decades of walks in the West Bank countryside, and of the slow destruction of his familiar landscapes by the Israel occupation and settlement-building program. Many of Shehadeh’s more recent hikes have been undertaken with fellow walkers from Shat-ha, both the local residents who form the core of the group, or international visitors such as Masharef curator Susan Moffat.

Shat-ha — which means picnic in colloquial Arabic — “aims to reconnect people to the land, promoting public awareness and responsibility towards preservation of the beautiful but endangered landscape,” says Moffat. She was inspired to join Shat-ha’s walks by friends who saw Shehadeh speak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2008 and arranged for a group of Scottish visitors to take part. One of the results of the trip has been the Masharef exhibition at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in the heart of Edinburgh. Made up of what seem at first glance to be bucolic images, the exhibition handout points out that “Palestinians, international residents and visitors enjoy exploring the surrounding countryside together, and quietly and peacefully assert their right to do so. It is a right we in Scotland now take for granted. As far as possible the group avoid the Separation Wall and the Israeli settlements which hem Ramallah in. They are forbidden territory for Palestinians.”

The Masharef exhibition comprises photographs taken by five regular walkers with Shat-ha. Some are professionals, including Issa Freij, a founder of Al Ma’amal Foundation for Contemporary Art in Jerusalem, who has spent quarter of a century working for various photo agencies in Palestine, and fellow photographers Bassam Almohor and Emile Ashrawi. They are joined by lawyer Gerald Horton and former teacher Karen Sears, who says that “Before coming to Palestine I hadn’t done much photography but here, the beautiful landscape with the changing seasons, colors and light, presents an endless array of amazing and unique images. I just photograph what is there.”

The diversity of photographers results in an exhibition of many styles and subjects. Sears’ images concentrate on flowers and trees — from a lone vivid purple anemone, to a glorious burst of scarlet poppies and golden mustard flowers which could have come from any English field, to a small boy, his back to a grey concrete wall, gazing at a dandelion with a child’s intense bemusement. In Horton’s pictures, the scale and starkness of the landscape is emphasized through contrast with individual objects, be they passing goats on a rocky slope or crumbling graves in the desert near Nabi Musa.

Bassam Almohor’s “Pastoral”

Issa Freij’s photographs show a fascination with the geometrical and structural shapes to be found in the Palestinian countryside. Hillsides cross over in symmetrical patterns or curve round to hug one another, while a striking sunset sends rays into a fan shape above a minaret. The familiar subject of a gnarled olive tree trunk interests its photographer for the sharp shadow it casts, seen as a sundial on lush green grass.

Bassam Almohor’s dramatic black-and-white photographs are very different. Despite titles such as “Pastoral” and “Vista” the people in his pictures have a heavier significance. In “Vista” an older man with a walking stick gazes wistfully out over the endangered land, while in “Fury” a young boy, jaw set, glances back at the camera. The picture opens up only questions: what is he so angry at? What has been taken from him? Our knowledge of the kind of situation we know he could be growing up in fills in our mental blanks. Even in “Tranquillity” an over-exposed white glare gives this image of a man carrying a small child an impression less of tranquil calm than of a disoriented figure fleeing through a rocky landscape under Mourid Barghouti’s “sun like a scorpion.”

Emile Ashrawi’s pictures, meanwhile, seem infused with a double-edged quality which evokes the political message of the entire exhibition. In the glorious “Golden Hills” the desert takes on a rich, almost luminous aspect but is overshadowed by dark clouds patterning the blue sky, while in one of his “untitled” pictures vivid red flowers are trapped amidst slashing dark dead stems and thorns. The tensions within Ashrawi’s photographs are an oblique reminder that, however beautiful the countryside in which Shat-ha’s walks take place, encounters with soldiers, settlers, walls and pollution often disturb their progress, affect their course and dictate their participants.

Masharef continues at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh until 25 September.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.