Photographs by Philip Touitou
Three eighty-year-old olive trees are supported by three steel columns, fifteen meters above the ground. This environmental sculpture, called The Olive Park, on the outskirts of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel sits in what was once no mans land, on the border of the green line with the West Bank.
To its right is a lucrative field of organic cherry trees belonging to the nearby kibbutz and maintained by foreign workers from Thailand. Between the cherry trees and the Olive Park, a narrow road leads to the Palestinian village of Sur Baher on whose lands the cherry trees are now planted.
The park is deserted. I have always been amazed by this major public space placed ironically in one of the most contentious areas of the city. Only five years ago, these olive trees had the mesmerizing view of the single mine-field left by the municipality in place since 1967. If one wonders how the Olive Trees survive, they are connected to an internal drip nozzle irrigation system. I searched on-line for what the artist had in mind and found the following quote “The work deals with concepts of rootedness and disconnection that mark the complex relation of our civilization with the earth …Olive trees, ancient symbol of strength, fertility and peace, continue their life in a transplanted and disconnected state.” ( Ran Morin, Environmental Sculpture.)
I discovered the park about ten years ago, I had a motor bike at the time, and a particular hobby was to ride through unexplored areas of Jerusalem. I was attracted to the seemingly afloat trees from afar, a dramatic view of the desert behind them. It was a hot summer day, and rather late in the afternoon. I drove my scooter on to the dirt road leading to the pillars of concrete. I reached them, and looked around, listening to the crickets and watching the small lizards racing about. I felt I was in the opening chapter of Camus’ “The Stranger”. Then, in the distance behind me, under the Olive Trees I saw a young man. Just like in the book. I must have been standing there for a few minutes when the young man came up behind me. The encounter did not feel particularly friendly, but, as I was studying Arabic at the time, I could think of nothing else to do but try speaking it, Maybe out of embarrassment or having nothing better to say.
After a few unsuccessful attempts at what was obviously coming out all crooked, he grabbed my cell-phone from my overalls pants and within seconds I was on the ground. The man was now on top, emptying my pockets and trying to rip my clothes off. I remembered his clear blue eyes looking past me, nothing behind them but a terrifying emptiness. There is probably a moment when one realizes that other people’s horrors become their own and this was one of them. I screamed a scream I did not even know existed within me, scratching and kicking him off as hard as I could. I managed to run. I ran and ran and ran without looking back, not at him, not at the scooter, through the trees to the narrow road leading to the village. Cars drove by without stopping; maybe understandably so -after all I was a hysterical young woman running out of a field crying for help. Finally one car stopped, two young Palestinians got out, and offered me a cigarette. One took out his cell-phone and called the police. He asked me what had happened, and walked towards the trees. The scooter was still there. He wanted us to go back. Then the man turned to me: “ I am not the man who attacked you. “Repeat that,” he said, “And remember it when the police come”. I started to cry. A few minutes later, the police arrived. Their first question was about the man with me, “what is he doing here?”
Ten years later, we live five minutes away from the same park. It is still deserted. The Olive Trees are still alive. We have a membership to the swimming pool in Kibbutz Ramat Rachel and my children walk to the pool alongside the field of cherries. At 5 Am every morning the lifting sounds of the muezzin at prayer wake us up from a soft sleep. We rented a house in the desirable neighborhood of Arnona, a one-story house with a garden. It seemed like a tolerable place to live, at least according to the liberal book: it had never been an Arab house, it was still within the Green Line, there was nothing about it that reminded me of my childhood. It was only when the landlord arrived to introduce himself that he asked me if I knew the story of the house. Why? He told me it had belonged to a man named Tubol, he was killed by suicide bomb in a café in the German Colony while having dinner with his wife.
Great, I thought. I thanked him for the “useful” information about our house. Now I constantly think about the interior design of cabinets, closets and bathroom décor Mr. Tubol made when building it. We were living in his space and surely he never intended others to live in his “dream house”. We are the first renters of the house since then, the fact is too eerie to contain. I take my sons to the pool of Ramat Rachel, I like the idea that we can walk there alongside the park and cherry field. The walk is often too tense to bear. Young Palestinian kids walk down towards the industrial area of Jerusalem while joggers and a few other dog walkers make their way up the hill. The Palestinian kids know they can be intimidating, I have no way of being anything but what they wish to see me as, just like ten years earlier when running out of the fields.
Ala, a friend whom we recently met, lives in Sur Baher. I told him about what had happened to me ten years ago. He asked me what the man looked like, the color of his skin, he smiled, was it like mine? Ironically I told him, he did have bright skin, just like him. “then he is surely from Sur Baher” he said. Ala, a former soccer player married a Russian woman who made aliya and fell in-love with him. They have two kids and his dream is to play professional soccer again. I told him I’d never gone beyond the trees and he offered to take me “in” as he put it.
A few weeks later we met by the Olive Tree park. What looks like a village from the outside, is a little city from within. Hundreds of houses spread out into the valley and over the hills. On the Eastern side beyond the village lies the Separation Wall which at this part is a fence flanked by a paved patrol road used only by the army. We visited a few families living in homes under the constant threat of demolition. The municipality does not give them a permit to build for enlarging families, and when they must, they are, instead given a monthly fine to keep the house from being demolished. On the right flank of Sur Baher is Har Homa, Wall Mountain, the grandiose settlement built in the late 90’s. The suspicion is that a main highway will now be built to connect the settlement of Har Homa and East Jerusalem. Given the logic so far, it makes sad sense that this is what city planning has in mind.
We reached the border. The fence is still within the municipal area of Jerusalem. A few men were watching a group of horses let free to mate. They were hoping the female would conceive through a beautiful Black Stallion who was making his rounds by the fence. These areas do not require a special permit and to be developed one oddly needs to get permission from the Palestinian Authority rather than the Jerusalem Municipality, even if technically the houses lie on the Israeli side of the fence. As we came to the border of the village I noticed a house completely surrounded by the fence.
Ala explains that the army gave the occupants a special key which only they can use to get in and out of the fenced area. We asked to come in but when they saw the camera they refused, The family is in constant fear of losing the “privilege” of the key. I stood staring at the house, with the same disbelief I had ten years earlier seeing the Olive Tree sculpture alongside side the mine field.
One wonders who the artist had in mind when he placed the three Olive Trees high up on the air and mused about the symbolism of their disconnect. I personally muse on The drip nozzle irrigation system keeps them alive, just enough to survive – high, disconnected, uprooted. Who are they? Will someone get us out of this state of hell.
Sometimes when I feel particularly lonely I read through my father’s journals, looking for answers, searching for his spirit. As I wrote these words, I did the same, he loved to write down metaphors and literary references and then use them in conversation, in his articles. The one I found gave some sort of a clue to this blog. It is a reference to Popeye The Sailor: The “Identity Racket”. Popeye must have had them in mind when he said “ I am what I am and that is all that I am…” under the reference he jots down…The world is built out of stories .. .all the rest is theory…