The following is part of a series of short posts on photographic practice in Palestine. In the fall of 2014, Al-Azza’s work was exhibited at Tufts University, an event facilitated by Amahl Bishara and her students, a few of whom are featured here in the series. Though focused on the work of Mohammad Al-Azza, the posts speak to the broader situation of artistic practice in Palestine and its effective censorship under the ongoing occupation, but also to questions of intimacy and the public role of photography in the context of conflict.
In a gallery outside the Alumnae Lounge at Tufts University hung 26 photographs, including of youth standing around a fire blazing next to the Israeli separation wall at night; an elderly woman’s portrait taken in a shard of mirror; girls on an amusement park ride in t-shirts emblazoned “Free Palestine;” a man lying in a hospital bed with a bloodied face, a bullet still bulging from his temple. Inside, our guest on November 6, 2013, was a Palestinian photographer from Aida Refugee Camp, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. His name is Mohammad Al-Azza, the same man whose bloodied image hung on the wall outside. He is the director of the media unit at Lajee Center, a youth organization where he teaches photography and documentary filmmaking to young Palestinian refugees. At 23 years old, Al-Azza was barely older than the undergraduate students in the audience that evening.
Aida Camp houses refugees from Palestinian villages depopulated in 1948, and since 2005 it has been pressed against two sections of Israel’s separation wall. As a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, Al-Azza focuses his lens on life in Aida Camp. Al-Azza takes photographs from the position of a refugee and a person in struggle recording the experiences of others like him. His photography of popular revolt captures both the physicality and emotional dimensions of protest and repression. His photography of everyday life in Aida shows us children’s determination and exuberance, the brief thrill of prisoners’ releases, and his community’s environmental challenges surrounding water.
Al-Azza’s work evinces and challenges the restrictions placed on Palestinian expression. These restrictions come with the violent force of a bullet like the one that shattered his cheekbone, but they also work insidiously through the physical and bureaucratic constraints that hamper Palestinian movement. Infrastructures are “built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space.” 1 This definition recognizes the ways that mobility and expression are interrelated in material systems. Palestinians’ encounters with such infrastructures demonstrate that their material elements are inseparable from the administrative and legal systems that structure their use, and that the same infrastructures that facilitate movement for some can restrict the movement of others.
The Route to Boston
In March 2013, I wrote an application to hold the exhibition, “From These Streets,” at Tufts University’s Slater Gallery, a vital space for student- and faculty-led exhibitions on campus. In the application, I promised a collaboration between Al-Azza and students in my advanced media seminar. The project, I wrote, would expose students to “the experiences and insights of a young person who shares with many of them an interest in media and politics, and yet who has encountered these topics with a very different set of resources.” Bringing Al-Azza to the United States, however, would not be as easy as gaining the exhibition space. All Palestinians require visas to come to the United States, but visas for young Palestinian men from refugee camps who have been to prison (more on that below) are rarely forthcoming. Al-Azza and I gathered a thick stack of letters of invitation, including from more than one major American university. By the time the letters were compiled, I was already in Bethlehem doing summer research so I could not deliver them myself. Nor could we rely on the mail system to deliver these to Al-Azza, because all international mail to the West Bank goes through Israel. Delivery is therefore unpredictable, and mail often arrives open. Instead, we had them sent to someone inside Israel who was then able to pass them over to Al-Azza.
After a brief and straightforward online application for the visa on the US consulate webpage, Al-Azza received an appointment for an interview. The U.S. consulate is problematically located in the territory of East Jerusalem occupied and annexed by Israel in spite of condemnation from the international community. Israel prohibits entry to Palestinians from rest of the occupied territory of the West Bank and Gaza into East Jerusalem if the Palestinians lack Israeli-issued permits. Even though permits are extremely difficult to obtain, U.S. authorities do not facilitate Palestinians obtaining permits for the sake of visa interviews. Al-Azza might have applied for a permit. However, he refused to do so, because, as he explained, he will not apply for permission to go to a place that is rightfully his home. His family’s village of Beit Jibreen is a half hour drive from Aida Camp, but he is not allowed to go there. The consulate is even closer. Aida Refugee Camp is less than four miles from the consulate, but Google Maps cannot calculate the route as shown below, as is often the case when plotting routes between Palestinian Authority-administered areas and Israel. But Al-Azza and I figured out the way. 2 Thus, to go to his official appointment at the consulate, Al-Azza risked arrest. In a classic double bind, if he had been caught by Israeli authorities, this could have become just the mark in his security file that might disqualify him from obtaining a visa for travel. It seemed like a small miracle, then, when a week or so after his appointment, his Palestinian Authority passport returned to him with a visa to the United States pasted carefully onto one of its pages.
In addition to attaining U.S. permission to enter the United States, Palestinians must also attain Israeli permission to leave the West Bank. Palestinians have no airport of their own and cannot use the Israeli airports, so they exit over land to Jordan and from there fly wherever else they are going. Usually, crossing the border to Jordan is another of the routinely degrading and time-consuming hassles of occupation. But occasionally, Palestinians are denied permission to leave.
A few days before he was to travel on October 12, 2013, Israeli soldiers came to Mohammad Al-Azza’s home in the middle of the night, fully armed (as they always are during such night raids), to deliver a notice that he had an interview with an Israeli officer. When he went to the Israeli military office at the Etzion detention center for the appointment, the officer did not see him. Instead, after hours of waiting, Al-Azza was given a notice to return in a few days—after he was to depart to the United States. When he tried to cross into Jordan, the border control officials denied him exit, reminding him that he had an appointment to keep. We rebooked his ticket. On the day of his second appointment—on Eid Al-Adha, the biggest holiday on the Muslim calendar—he again arrived early at Etzion only to wait for hours. This time, though, he received a handwritten note from the officer wishing him a happy holiday. With these unwelcome wishes, the officer apparently released him from further meetings. The point of all of this, it seemed, had not even been the collection of information for counterinsurgency; rather, it seemed, the point was to demonstrate the ability to command. Al-Azza tried crossing the border again the next day, and the Israeli authorities allowed him passage. Arriving in Chicago, he was delayed for hours by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for the kind of additional scrutiny that is not unusual for Arabs and Muslims today. He missed his connecting flight, the last flight of the day. But the next morning, I picked him up from Boston Logan International Airport. (See McAvoy’s contribution for more on that arrival.)
Detention as Interruption
Waiting all those hours at the Etzion detention center just outside of Bethlehem, Al-Azza surely had a lot to think about. He knew the place well. In the summer of 2013, he had been detained there for two days without shoes after having been badly beaten during his arrest, before he was transferred to a larger prison. What had Mohammad Al-Azza done to warrant arrest?
During the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in November 2012, Palestinians in Aida Camp and around the West Bank protested in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Even after the assault ended, Palestinians in Aida continued their stone-throwing protests. Over the next months, they used fire, drills, and battering rams to bust a hole in a segment of the separation wall. Israeli soldiers immediately closed the opening, but protesters regrouped and reengaged. As the months and years have passed, protests have continued. When protesters are not actively trying to break holes in the wall, they are trying to repel Israeli soldiers back to their base on the perimeter of the camp. The costs have been heavy: Saleh Al-Amareen, 15, was shot in the head and killed by Israeli soldiers. Nuha Qatamish, 40, was suffocated by tear gas in her own home. Hundreds of people have been injured, several seriously. Well over sixty children and young men have been arrested in nighttime raids. Several times a week, clusters of tear gas canisters are shot into the camp poisoning the homes and bodies of those within. On a number of occasions, the Israeli army has sprayed skunk water at refugees’ houses and also at Lajee Center itself, leaving the stench of sewage to linger for days or even weeks.
Mohammad Al-Azza documented all of this. On April 8, 2013, after a very ordinary day of protests, Israeli soldiers shot Al-Azza in the face, just below his right eye, with a rubber-coated metal bullet. At the time of the shooting, he had been taking a photograph from the balcony of his office as Israeli soldiers were walking back to their base. A soldier told him not to take pictures. He replied that he was doing nothing threatening, but he took the precaution of retreating. Still, the soldier shot him. The night he returned home after two weeks in the hospital, Israeli soldiers tried to arrest him. A few months later they succeeded.
The arrest, like the shooting, was an attempt to prevent Al-Azza from continuing his work as a photographer, and perhaps it was also a kind of threat of further action. Such documentation has played an important role: disseminating information across a fragmented Palestinian political and geographic landscape. The arrest was also likely an attempt to assert that Al-Azza was not merely a photographer but also an active and culpable part of the movement against the separation wall. As a photographer, he had a slim chance of making a case in Israeli courts against the soldier who shot him. If he were deemed a protester, this would be out of the question. Perhaps one might say another reason the Israeli army arrested him was that an Israeli soldier had shot him a few months before. 3
Infrastructures of Denial
Al-Azza’s story suggests that it is hard to encapsulate exactly how, twenty years after Israel’s system of direct censorship of Palestinian publications ended, 4 Israel limits and denies Palestinian expression. Physical violence is certainly one way: the Israeli army killed at least seven Palestinian journalists and media workers as they worked during its 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip. This is one reason Reporters Without Borders lists Palestine as having been the second deadliest place to be a journalist in 2014. Israel also killed at least fourteen people in the context of protests in 2013, as documented in the Amnesty International Report, “Trigger Happy: Israel’s use of Excessive Force in the West Bank,” and this pattern has continued in 2014. As Al-Azza learned the day he was shot, even a verbal exchange with soldiers can end in violence.
As we have seen, Israel’s closure policies represent one of these infrastructures for denying and limiting Palestinian expression. Closure is best understood as the physical infrastructure of walls, checkpoints, and other barriers paired with an administrative structure of permits. 5 Not only was closure an obstacle to Al-Azza speaking in the United States, as I described above, it prevents Palestinians from the occupied territory from taking photographs in Palestinian communities in Israel or from speaking in any capacity inside Israel. It also prevents similar kinds of communication between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The systematic detention of Palestinians is another infrastructure for denying Palestinian expression. Approximately 20% of the Palestinian population of the occupied territory has been detained by Israel since 1967 (see also Cook et al 2004:7 and Nashif 2008). In Israeli prisons, communication is heavily restricted: Prisoners are allowed no phone calls; they may only receive visitors who are first-degree relatives who have also received military permits; of course no photography is allowed, except heavily regulated prisoner portraiture. Even beyond the prison walls, the ever-present risk of imprisonment means that community-based photographers like Al-Azza must be careful which pictures of protest they publish. A photograph of a subject throwing a stone can lead to the subject’s arrest, ill–treatment, and torture. Indeed, photographers must even attend carefully to photographs they store. During two separate night raids, Israeli soldiers took a hard drive and a cassette tape from Al-Azza’s home. On a much larger scale but with similar tactics, Israeli military raids and attacks have undermined formal journalistic institutions. While Americans learn to back up their data, Palestinian photographers learn to expunge theirs: to blur, to hide, and even to erase.
Al-Azza directly addresses limitations on Palestinian expression in one photograph in “Behind the Screen” (2011-2012), a series of composed photographs taken through the frame of an old television screen that Al-Azza found dumped next to the separation wall near his house. In one image, a crowd of young protesters gathers behind a woman in a helmet marked “TV.” Behind them is the flat gray of the separation wall. On this afternoon, community members – some who had learned photography from Al-Azza at Lajee Center – told a story together with, for, and through Al-Azza’s lens. In the photograph, what looks like a soldier’s arm juts in from outside the frame in an attempt to block the journalist’s face. She swats the arm down, and their limbs blur in movement. Each photograph in “Behind the Screen” contains such blurred motion, Al-Azza’s signature in this series. Here it is the arms, in another it is the grain his grandmother tosses in the air above a traditional sieve. In a third, it is children flying a kite in a narrow alleyway. The motion elicited is a motif of resistance, of life, of resilience, and an assertion of how they are often one and the same in Aida Refugee Camp.
Preparing the Exhibition
My seminar students and I had been forced to hold our first meeting with Al-Azza over Skype after he had been denied permission to leave the West Bank. During that meeting, we looked at about 100 images as possibilities for the exhibition. The inclusion of one image sparked more discussion than the others, the one of Al-Azza himself in a hospital bed, with his face bloodied just minutes after he had been shot. I had been hesitant about including it in the exhibition because it was graphic, but Al-Azza’s narration of the image convinced me that the fact of Israel’s colonial project cannot be abstracted from such incidents of highly visible violence:
[In the emergency room] the doctors just started cleaning the blood to see how they can start [treating me]. Maybe it was a little confusing or foreign for me. I was thinking it was very important for me to take a picture of my face like that, and show it to the people who don’t know…what is happening here…So I asked my friend to take a picture, and the first picture doesn’t work. So I take the camera from him, and the doctors are working on my face and cleaning. So I make him the setting, and I tell him, [get] back a little bit, and take the picture like that. I started telling him the technique of taking the picture…I know it is a hard picture to see, but I think it’s very important for people who don’t know anything about the situation in Palestine to see one of the stories that happened there. I’m not the only journalist in Palestine to get shot. There are many, many journalists who get shot, and some of them killed.
Al-Azza knew better than I did: Sharing this work should not be easy. “From These Streets” is not only about sharing a Palestinian refugee’s ethnographic eye on his own community. It is also about asking people to confront the painful evidence of Israel’s highly militarized occupation.
But for the members of my seminar, working with Al-Azza was also a lot of fun. He told me not to inform them that he had made it into the country, and so made a theatrical entrance into our small seminar room. On the long day we hung the photographs, we were flagging a bit when suddenly I saw Al-Azza on the shoulders of one of my students. They were trying to adjust the overhead lighting. I was sure university procedure would require intervention from Facilities Services for this, if the lights were meant to be adjusted at all. I realized that Al-Azza, like many Palestinians from Aida I’ve met, had a different attitude toward infrastructure than many Americans I know. For him, it was something to work on and around.
At the opening, Al-Azza spoke eloquently and in a register of non-academic, non-fluent English that is rarely heard amplified through a sound system on our campus. For this register alone, I was grateful. He described how he had learned to be a photographer in the same youth center where he now works, and about the challenges of covering the military occupation as a subject of that occupation. During the question and answer session, an audience member asked what stood out about his experience in the United States. The answer was simple, but highlighted vividly the disjuncture between himself and the majority of his audience. He appreciated the lack of checkpoints, he enjoyed the chance for a longer shower, since water is in short supply in Aida Camp (a topic that Al-Azza has addressed in a documentary film), and he slept better knowing the army could not come pounding on his door in the middle of the night.
Our seminar had designed a feedback mechanism for those who came to the opening. To cards that read, “These photographs made me feel…,” an audience member responded, “like throwing a rock, taking a picture, writing a poem.” The photographs made people feel “shocked,” “hopeful,” “grateful of my life,” “Palestinian,” and, perhaps my favorite, “a lot.” When Skype works, it can seem like the internet is a panacea. But there is nothing like voice, presence, and photographs properly enlarged to gather people and hold their attention, to make them feel “a lot.” There are infrastructures and procedures in place to limit Palestinian movement and speech. These are, of course, part of larger global infrastructures that encompass U.S. professors and students as well, though the differences in our various positions cannot be erased. Roads, borders, security cameras, metal detectors, runways, the internet, the separation wall, and gallery walls on which photographs may be hung: they connect us even as they maintain hierarchies that allow some people to speak more readily than others. It is good to remember that, at the very least, we can climb on each other’s shoulders to adjust the lighting.
I want to again thank Amy Schlegel and Lissa Cramer of the Tufts University Art Gallery, my colleagues in the Department of Anthropology, the Ex-College at Tufts University, the Center for Palestine Studies and Middle East Institute at Columbia University, Mohammad Al-Azza, and all of the others involved in this exhibition for making this collaboration possible. I am also grateful to Lila Abu-Lughod for suggesting I write about this experience and Casey Primel for his editorial work.
To see more of Mohammad Al-Azza’s work, follow him on Facebook.
Amahl Bishara is an assistant professor of Anthropology at Tufts University. She is the author of Back Stories: U.S. News Production and Palestinian Politics, and the director of Degrees of Incarceration, a documentary about the impact of political imprisonment on Aida Refugee Camp. Her most recent publication is “Driving While Palestinian in Israel and the West Bank: The Politics of Disorientation and the Routes of a Subaltern Knowledge” in the American Ethnologist.
Bishara, Amahl. “Across Infrastructures of Restriction: Bringing Palestinian Photography from a Refugee Camp to an American University.” CSSAAME Borderlines, 3 April 2015.across-infrastructures-of-restriction
Abu-Zahra, Nadia, and Adah Kay. Unfree in Palestine: Registration, Documentation, and Movement Restriction. London: Pluto Press, 2013.
Bishara, Amahl. Back Stories: U.S. News and Palestinian Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013.
——–. “Driving While Palestinian in Israel and the West Bank: The Politics of Disorientation and the Routes of a Subaltern Knowledge,” American Ethnologist 42:1 (2015): 32-53.
Cook, Catherine, Adam Hanieh, and Adah Kay. Stolen Youth: The Politics of Israel’s Detention of Palestinian Children. London: Pluto Press, 2004.
Committee to Protect Journalists. Journalism Under Occupation: Israel’s Regulation of the Palestinian Press. New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, 1988.
Hass, Amira. “Israel’s Closure Policy: An Ineffective Strategy of Containment and Repression,” Journal of Palestine Studies 31:3 (2002): 5–20.
Larkin, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 327–43.
Nashif, Esmail. Palestinian Political Prisoners: Identity and Community. London: Routledge, 2008.
- Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” 328. ↩
- See Bishara 2015 for more on similar journeys. ↩
- For a more thorough analysis of the difficulty of determining intent in the Israeli army’s shootings of journalists and for more on how military force and bureaucratic means together limit expression, see Chapter Two of Bishara, Back Stories. ↩
- Committee to Protect Journalists, Journalism Under Occupation. ↩
- Abu-Zahra and Kay, Unfree in Palestine; Hass, “Israel’s Closure Policy: An Ineffective Strategy of Containment and Repression.” ↩