During the spring of 2017, I walked through Palestine with the Siraj Centre to raise money and awareness for the Medical aid for Palestinians Charity. Though our route at times felt wild and, at times, untrodden, our Palestinian guide, Nidal, revealed that he did not use maps, that “Maps are misleading in an occupied land.” Over the last 50 years, the map of the West Bank shows the shrinking land available to Palestinians as new patterns of settlements, barriers, military zones and settler only roads. Our “right to roam” as western tourists felt contradictory within a landscape where for its locals, freedom of movement is routinely denied. However, despite this I was able to experience another side to Palestine, a landscape in which Palestinians such as Nidal take tremendous pride. In Raja Shehadeh’s book, Palestinian walks: Notes on a Vanishing landscape, he laments “could the land of perpetual strife and bloodshed have such peaceful, precious hills?”. My own experience of this dichotomy of beautiful landscapes blistered with concrete breeze-block settlements and army tanks was important to my understanding of the frayed bond Palestinians have with their land after years of occupation and displacement. As Nidal put it to us, “walking enables a chance to reconnect with the countryside being stolen from under their feet. It is both comfort and a form of testimony.”
The Siraj Centre’s mission is to enhance the image of Palestine as a safe destination for responsible and experiential tourism. It also strives to allow people from other countries to witness first-hand the on-going Israeli occupation by meeting with both Palestinians and Israelis. The importance of western tourism is not only a help in boosting economic benefits to Palestinians living in rural communities, but also to educate internationals of the pertinent issues of illegal settlements being built by Israelis throughout the West Bank, the Israeli Wall, issues around water, border checkpoints, refugee camps and so forth. It is crucial for this centre to reveal the "human face" of the people of Palestine that unfortunately is not often portrayed through Western media.
The film, Palestine, engages with the concept of testimony, revealing the “human faces” of the Palestinian people I met during my journey with Nidal and the Siraj Centre, hearing the stories of their experience of a landscape they feel so attached and connected to, yet has been heavily exacerbated with struggle, oppression and hardship. Ariella Azoulay suggests that in the west we “are used to seeing Palestinians as refugees, what is done to them becomes their attributes''. I agree with her summation that this view is problematic as it further contributes to the assumption that Palestinians were always without a land, or that they exist only as a demographic of displaced people. The two geopolitical entities of the West bank and Gaza strip offer two variations of what Ian Pappe denotes as “the biggest ever human mega-prison[s] witnessed in modern times''. He describes the west bank as an open-air prison which allows a measure of autonomous life under direct and indirect Israeli control. The Gaza Strip, can be considered as a maximum security prison, cordoned as a ghetto and subjecting Palestinians to harsh punishments, restrictions and executions. Although this project does not discount the severity of the Palestinian refugee crisis in Gaza, its focus is on my memory and encounters with those living within the West Bank.
While Palestine highlights the freedom of movement I was granted as a Western tourist, when Nidal, and so many other locals I met are denied. My memory of walking the Palestinian countryside, and the “human faces’ I encountered are ultimately hopeful, engaged and proud of a land which they cherish, even when faced with its daily horrors of occupation. These memories are made tangible in Palestine by way of a series of drawings which demonstrate a gradual compiling of memories. Through animation and colour the film brings the drawn subjects to life while demonstrating the multiple scenes and narratives I encountered during such a short visit. Palestine ultimately strives to continue the mission of the Siraj Centre by celebrating the resilience of the Palestinian communities I met during the trip and the importance of engaging in a vibrant culture that the media can sometimes overlook.