Kids With Guns: Notes and Photographs from Palestine

By

Palestine Speaks is a San Francisco-based, Kickstarter-funded independent journalism initiative collecting stories of daily life in Palestine. Assistant editor and Rumpus photographer Timothy Faust recently traveled to Palestine with the project. This report for The Rumpus is excerpted from his travelogue.

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ON THE WAY BACK

The pretty girl was not pointing her rifle at me, but she had not given me any indication that she wouldn’t. I sat on a plastic chair in a small room and repeated the one lie I needed to keep telling her. I had been in Jerusalem, I explained, and Jerusalem only. A pair of cheap fuzzy angel wings—the Ben Gurion International Airport version of a Purim costume—looped around her shoulders underneath the strap of the rifle. I was a little bit stoned and a little bit tipsy and for some reason my brain had decided to play Kanye West’s “Heartless” on loop. Her partner asked me to open my email. I was sure I seemed much too sweaty to be trusted. I stuttered over my “sir”s and “miss”es. I was stalling and all three of us knew it He asked me again. I clicked on the Gmail icon and concentrated on not pissing myself.

SACRIFICE

When I left for Palestine, our interpreter, Naji, smoked a pack a day. I brought him a gift of ten packs of Drum rolling tobacco. When I arrived in Palestine, Naji had quit smoking. The Drum sat in my backpack all Monday.

Naji had been arrested at a checkpoint before I arrived, taken to Jerusalem for questioning, and released a few days later. Nobody offered a reason why. Nobody seemed too surprised.

ON THE WAY BACK FROM SOMEWHERE I PRETENDED I HAD FALLEN ASLEEP

D is a policeman in the Palestinian Authority. He and Naji are best friends. He is a broad-shouldered young man who introduces me to Palestinian pizza and gasps when I eat a banana pepper with no difficulty. Upon him rest the futures of his mother, father, and sisters. Importing and exporting Palestinian goods is a joke. In a stagnant economy, what choice does he have but to work for the PA?

It’s one thing for the Israelis to hold the guns to our heads, says Naji. It’s another when they have our own brothers doing it to us.

KIDS MY AGE WITH GUNS

At the top of Beit Jala is a tiny Israeli military outpost. There’s no border crossing nearby, so I didn’t understand it was an occupation barracks and walked near enough to shoot some pretty good close-ups of the razor wire. A soldier left the barracks and walked uphill, away from me. The light had grown smoky and was beginning to dim—a few rays of sun lit his khaki-colored yarmulke and, just a few feet below it, a shining M14. I crouched and got a picture.
If it had been war, I would have been dead: I didn’t see the second soldier, but he saw me. He screamed from upstairs and almost immediately I forgot about the sunshine. The soldier whose picture I had taken sprinted to me and shouted some commands in Hebrew.

“I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I don’t speak any Hebrew.” He spoke to me in Arabic. I figured it would be unwise to speak Arabic to an Israeli soldier so I replied as I had before. He grabbed for the camera wrapped around my shoulder and led me into the outpost.

The Israelis had taken up in what appeared to have been a family residence. All the outlets had two or three doublers plugged in and cords snaked around the room. A boombox somewhere upstairs blasted a remix of some American hip-hop song which was popular five years ago. I did not produce my passport on command. My notebook was taken from me and my name was written down, and I was instructed to sit in what I think was, at one point, a child’s bedroom. A third soldier, who carried a much smaller and nastier-looking gun, joined me.

The third soldier with the short-barrel rifle (a TR-21, incidentally—an Israeli-designed submachine gun intended for close-quarters urban combat which, I am told, handles and fires like a dream) looked to be about the same age as me but had a neck at least three times as thick as mine. Though he questioned me, he never really asked me any questions. He instructed me to state what I had been doing. I’m just a tourist, I explained. I was here for the Church of the Nativity and decided to walk uphill for the views. Where was I staying, he directed me to explain. What was a phone number of a person I was staying with? What was my business in Palestine instead of Israel? And my passport—where was that? With my friends, I said. His face pulled back into the tree-trunk neck and his eyes rolled.

“I will see the camera,” he informed me.

His thumb was yellowed and filthy—the kind of grime you’d expect to see on a 90-year-old if he smoked ten cigarettes a day and gardened without gloves. It rolled over the camera wheel. Every few seconds an objectionable image would appear: a detail of razor wire, Hebrew graffiti, a torn Palestinian flag, a sad-looking man.

“And this. You will delete this now.”

We finished and I sat in the small plastic chair and tried to take surreptitious deep breaths. A few minutes later the second soldier returned with my notebook and I was told I could leave.

When I was out of sight I flipped through my notebook. The last few pages—the only ones with writing which could have caused any trouble—were virtually illegible. I had filled the three preceding pages with lines of the Arabic sentences I had been practicing: “I AM ALLERGIC TO NUTS. I AM ALLERGIC TO NUTS. I AM ALLERGIC TO NUTS.” The pages before them contained work notes and sloppy drawings of downcast robots. Still hidden in the back pocket was a photocopy of my passport.

THE FUCKING WALL

No matter where I traveled, where our car drove, where I woke up in the morning: every day I saw the Wall. Get close enough and you can feel eyes watching you from rifle towers.

There’s a pedestrian checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The metal detectors scream when I walk through them but I take my passport and wave it around a little bit. A bored-looking Israeli girl behind bulletproof glass waves me through.

On one side of the wall the suburban lawns are lush. On the other there aren’t any lawns at all. From the sky it looks like a fault line, as if the ground itself had torn apart.

IT IS (STILL) NOT A FRAGRANT WORLD

Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank. Decades of particularly virulent conflict have riddled the Old City’s ancient walls with bullet and shrapnel marks; fear of violence has hollowed out the market centers.

Outer Hebron reeks of frustration and despair. Old Hebron smells of shit and garbage. South of Hebron, in the Yatta dump, children scavenge settler trash.
Israeli colonists have fortified a settlement atop the center of the old city. They throw their garbage down into the Palestinian streets. Their message is understood.

Someone—it could be the PA, it could be the UN—has rigged white nets above the alleyways to catch the trash. The nets sag, laden with dozens of corpse-sized bundles of putrefying waste. This is especially hard for me to process. But I have no choice: it hangs only a few feet above my head, low enough for me to reach if I were a better basketball player, and I walk beneath it through the ghost town.

COULD YOU BELIEVE I GOT A C IN ARABIC 301?

Malek is eight years old and lives across the street from my apartment. He slingshots in perfect English: “Do you like WWE? I like WWE very much. We watch it all the time. American wrestling is exciting! Do you have a favorite wrestler?”

“. . . Yes. I, uh. The Big Show. He is. . . He is a lot big, a lot!” I am a subtle and nimble Arabic speaker. Like an ox. “The biggest. And Kane! He is very many.

No. Big. He also is big, a lot.”

“And football? Do you like football? It’s a European tournament now, on TV. My favorite team is Barcelona.”

“Soccer is. . . you can. . . It is a sport. Yes.”

We make up a secret handshake.

AWFUL, AWFUL IRONY (ALL OF THE LIGHTS)

The road from Ramallah to Bethlehem goes up a steep hill. There were five of us in the car and Mateo’s iPod was playing. Naji tells us to look out from the summit over East Jerusalem: the orange lights are settlements and Israeli-occupied roads; the white, Palestinian-owned territory.

The orange lights are bright and evenly spaced and swallow the land as far as I can see, with meager scraps of white city light and green mosque tower lamps highlighting the broken skeletons of Palestinian cities.

We turn the corner for the full view. The iPod’s shuffle feature chooses Kanye’s “All of the Lights.” The spectacle, the absurdity: I groan and wince and turn away.

THE HEARTBROKEN GIRAFFE

Qalqilya is a small city in the northern West Bank surrounded on three sides by the border wall. It is home to the last zoo in Palestine.

The drive to Qalqilya takes a comical number of U-turns. We drive through the ruralest dregs of the West Bank—little villages smothered by settlement activity. Our car rides low and makes a terrifying metallic scraping sound whenever we drive over a bump in the road.

The Qalqilya Zoo has tiny cages where animals pace in the ceaseless circles of the manic and insane. The floors are littered with shit and candy wrappers. One particular badger scares me; I can’t make myself watch it bash its head into the cage.

The director of the zoo gives us a tour. He stops in front of what appears to be a statue of someone’s un-referenced impression of a giraffe. Its eyes are big green ping-pong-ball-sized things. It is, we learn, a stuffed corpse.

Israel lay siege to the zoo during the Second Intifada, and many of the animals died. Some were tear-gassed and choked to death, some were shot, others died in more gruesome ways; this particular (pregnant) giraffe panicked at the sound of combat and ran into a wall, breaking her neck. Her partner died of what the director labels “heartbreak.”

A zoo depends upon an international zoo union for access to animals, feed and medicine. The Israeli zoo in Jerusalem has repeatedly prohibited Qalqilya from joining the union. Since the zoo is unable to import more animals—its finances are either depleted, woefully “mismanaged” (code here for PA embezzlement) or, likely, both—an enterprising veterinarian decided to stuff and mount many of the dead animals so that the zoo could keep its attractions on display. The result is a sub-zoo of animal corpses.

The ruined animals in the cages need not wonder what happens after death: they end up forty feet away, under low ceilings painted to look like cave walls.

Every year schools in the southern West Bank petition the Jerusalem zoo. Let our kids come see your zoo, they say; Qalqilya is so far away; let our kids go to a decent zoo and see some wild animals. Every year, without fail, the zoo denies the request.

HOW AN INTERROGATION REALLY FEELS
(FROM A SPEAKS INTERVIEW WITH M—, AN ARTIST AND FORMER POLITICAL PRISONER)

“You are in a small room, and there is someone in the room behind you—but each has a different experience, a different story. I went into the room for the investigation, two meters by two meters, white with air conditioning, and white light, a table, and computer. And a person. There’s a chair in the middle of the room…fixed in the ground, immovable. They cuff your hands behind you, behind the chair. …You can’t move a millimeter.

“You are asked questions 24 hours of the day—someone is always there. …Some people have hallucinations. I fell asleep hundreds of times, but just for a second in the chair. When they see this, they wake you up. With water, with pushing. Not exactly hitting, but moving you very hard. After two days of waking up, sitting, not moving… Your legs and hands become . . . flaccid? They feel very hard. It’s not easy.

“…They bring pictures of your family. They say, “we hurt your family, we killed your brother, we destroyed your house.” [None of this is true?] No, but— You don’t see any person. You cannot see the light. You don’t know time, what time it is, evening, morning. It makes you confused. You sleep a few hours, and you don’t know whether you sleep one hour or one hundred hours. You don’t know the day, which day it is. You don’t know anything…”

TAKE-HOME LESSON

Arak is an anise-flavored liquor like ouzo or sambuca. There’s a distillery in Bethlehem. It mixes very well—very very well—with Earl Grey tea. We go through a bottle every few days.

AFTER I CLICKED “GMAIL”

Before I left Bethlehem I made a fake account on my computer. Its wallpaper was a slideshow of Google Image Search returns for Nicolas Cage. The “Gmail” shortcut on Chrome led to my work inbox, which was blessedly innocuous. The “Pictures” folder led to a bunch of pictures of Rumpus events. If the pretty girl with the ugly rifle had asked me to open the Minesweeper folder, though, she might’ve found a series of audio files which contained the names and addresses of a few political ex-prisoners we had interviewed.

What this positive panic reinforcement portends for my future bursts of insecurity, I don’t care to imagine.

ONE NIGHT WE SAID “SCREW IT”

and went to a hotel bar in West Jerusalem. The hotel was for extremely wealthy foreigners, but they let us in anyway. I ordered an Old Fashioned and it was terrible. I got a second and a third drink even though the first one was lousy. I fell asleep in the car with my passport in my pocket but we weren’t stopped at the border.

COLD AFTERNOON

The sky was gray and the wall was gray and they were the only two things I could see. I turned and a guy in olive fatigues holding an assault rifle looked back at me. I panicked. I waved to him and said hello in Arabic. He waved back with the unrifled hand. We were probably the same age.

TAKE-HOME LESSON 2

In Palestine, there are a whole lot of terrible things people like you and me and everyone we know—who have jobs and families and who hate being stuck in traffic and who have a favorite kind of sandwich and who have “liked” a sports team on Facebook and who would think 2Fast 2Furious is a dumb name for a movie—are doing to other people who are also like you and me and everyone we know. It breaks my heart, and I don’t know what to do about it, and sometimes I stand in my bedroom and shout and throw books at my pillows, and while nobody is taking this lightly, until so me group of people changes its mind this is going to keep happening; one day we might look back and shake our heads and say, “Man, what a tragedy, it’s hard to believe we were capable of this, let’s put on our solemnest faces and promise it’ll never happen again, ever,” like we have, like we do, like we’ll keep on doing, forever and ever, until death do we all part, amen.

THEY DON’T LOVE YOU LIKE I LOVE YOU

A graduate student at Bethlehem University gave us some maps which you can’t find on Google. They show the actual Israel-Palestine border (as of 2008), the declared Israel-Palestine border, and what of the Palestinian land is actually Palestinian and what’s been settled by Israel. The brown splotches of settlement overwhelm the outer borders of the Palestinian territory and, in some places, creep far inland. The whole thing looks like a rotting banana.
My map is pinned to the wall in my bedroom in San Francisco. I brought a girl home one night and traced roads with my finger and began talking about settlements and checkpoints and highways and stray dogs. Eventually I noticed it was quiet and that I must have run out of words. She sat on the bed and looked at me. I went to get a drink of water from the kitchen and stayed there until I had finished.

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See more of Tim’s Palestine photos here.


Timothy Faust is a fast-talking Wisconsinite living in San Francisco, CA, who loves sports, shouting, storytelling, and occasional bursts of sentimentality. He works for the internet during the daytime and practices photography on the evenings and weekends. He shoots the Monthly Rumpus and keeps hoping to win the raffle. More from this author →