by Juliette Mareste
Reality can change in the eyes of the spectator. For some, it is what only can be seen on the surface of their existence, in their own lives and daily business. But for others, reality is allowing yourself to see beyond the end of your nose. Tamar Goldschmidt, activist and filmmaker, decided to film the Qalandia Passage/Checkpoint, the northern exit from Jerusalem to Ramallah and Qalandia refugee camp in 2004, where every day, thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank and residents of Jerusalem neighborhoods which are located behind the Separation Wall pass to go to Jerusalem, often waiting several hours in line. Passing and waiting is a gauntlet for them, for most a part of their daily routine. In the West Bank itself, a whole network of checkpoints and roadblocks are restraining the movement of Palestinians, leading to tensions and clashes with IDF soldiers. The average amount of time required to pass Qalandiya checkpoint can be between forty-five minutes to one hour on a normal day and hours on other days.
A fragile reality
Shortly after her initial filming, Goldschmidt (great granddaughter of philosopher Martin Buber) met Aya Kaniuk, an activist (and daughter of Israeli author Yoram Kaniuk). Together, they devised their own project that aims to collect and store testimonies, reports and stories from Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. “Mahsanmilim”, meaning “a storehouse for words”, has since then collected hundreds of stories creating a voice made of many voices, unheard before Goldschmidt's translation from Arabic to Hebrew. The main objective was to not simply retell reoccurring stories from checkpoints, but to relate what reality is like for the Palestinians living with the military occupation, under another legal system.
After collecting a great deal of material and recordings, they thought about a way to present the testimonies, without their own words interfering.
“We cannot put our stuff in somebody else's perspective, without taking it out of its context.”, Kaniuk states, as she also explains why they decided to go to those places in the West Bank as themselves, and not in the framework of an organization. By translating the stories and illustrating them to stand alone, the two activists had the idea of creating a blog, because it is “an existing thing you can enter from many sides - the things are separate, but they can also interact, they dance with one another, they dance alone, they even reflect on one another.”, Kaniuk explains.
Art as a medium to let the testimonies stand for themselves
Most of the written stories resemble prose, like recording someone while speaking, a simple conversation, or a told event. What one remarks right away while entering the website, is its use of art to illustrate the articles, mostly pieces of Goya. “In the beginning I wrote “the site of Tamar, Aya and Goya’”, Goldschmidt jokingly states and Kaniuk adds: “He is an example of an artist who penetrated the universal through the particular”.
In that sense, both agree that art itself is in a sense timeless and that it is meant to reflect the times and the context of a society - a mantra that has stayed with Mahsanmilim, as they do not put emphasis on the publication dates of their work. Further, art can be used to illustrate the individuality of every voice. Through their collections, Goldschmidt and Kaniuk always search for the person in its individuality that is at a special junction with their personal fate. One example that can be found on the site is the story of Abu Omar, who was arrested when the Israeli army was looking for an alleged perpetrator in his town of Qalandia. He was kept in custody with other older men for a couple of hours, being denied entrance to his own house afterwards. The story is written down as a telephone conversation between him and Kaniuk. At the end, his own personal reflection about the age of the soldiers and why they are behaving the way they did is absorbed by Kaniuks reflection - but she gives him the space to stand for himself, not restraining his perception or experience.
“We don’t look for a second opinion”
The reality that is presented on the blog is the Palestinian one - both creators of the site felt that the already overall prevailing reality in news coverage and media is the Israeli version, which is why they do not include soldiers’ comments or reflections they encountered during their work in the West Bank. Another aspect that plays into their work is the importance of translating stories from Arabic into Hebrew - through the help of Tamar Goldschmidt who has been studying the Arabic since her early childhood. Through this ability, a new channel of words and testimonies has been made accessible to non-Arab speakers. Through the translation, it became possible to see the perspectives of those who had been restricted from telling their versions due to language barriers - which are mostly women.
Furthermore, Kaniuk and Goldschmidt have helped families to stay informed about detained relatives and have given them contacts with lawyers, in order to assist them during the processes. Although the website of Mahsanmilim has not been fed lately, both are staying active on Facebook, where a lot of the translation work and news circulation is being processed. One famous case, a woman named Isra Jabees, who has been convicted for an alleged attempted terrorist attack, was in a critical state due to heavy burnings she had sustained during the alleged attack. Goldschmidt translated a post of Jabees’ mother on Facebook and managed to contact two lawyers who were ready to counsel the Jabees family. As for the real events concerning Isra Jabees, certain details and motives of the event remain unclear and vague. One version, which is mostly the Palestinian perspective, tells that she was moving her furniture to her apartment in East Jerusalem, in order to keep her Jerusalem residency. In this version, a kitchen gas canister took fire in the backseat and she tried to extinguish it, as a police officer from the checkpoint 500 meters away, was approaching to help her. The version given in the verdict was quite different. The report spoke of suicidal tendencies, domestic problems and distress, and mentioned a lighter she allegedly purchased a day before the incident, that she was accused of having used to set the fire in the first place. In November 2016, she was convicted to serve 11 years in prison, where she only has restricted or no access to medical treatment for her heavy injuries.
This case has shown how reality can be bent, rewritten, and used by either side to make their point. The work of Mahsanmilim bears in mind this situational characteristic and dares to look beyond what one wants to see - giving it an alarming topicality and simultaneously a timeless touch.
At Qalandiya Checkpoint – Photo: Tamar Goldschmidt
For further information about Mahsanmilim, visit the website: http://www.mahsanmilim.com/