London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In 2011, award-winning Canadian photographer and filmmaker Afzal Huda was commissioned to take photographs of Palestine’s separation wall for a book entitled, Love Wins: Palestinian Perseverance Behind Walls.
[inset_left] Love Wins: Palestinian Perseverance Behind Walls By Waleed Abu-Ghazaleh, Afzal Huda, Phyllis Bennis Olive Branch Press, 224 pages Massachusetts, 2014[/inset_left]
Growing up in the hustle that is Karachi, he was already committed to inspiring change through his work. He went to Palestine with cameras and a map of the areas most affected by the wall. The initial concept was to visually demonstrate to the world how Palestinians’ lives are affected by living in a closed-off, constricted environment. As he started on his assignment, Huda had assumed that his brief was to play up the unacceptable face of the wall and depict the hardship and misery of people trying to live and work under military occupation.
However, instead of overpowering suffering, his work has revealed the unexpected and contrasting realities he witnessed. In images of people of different ages and backgrounds, their faces and body language for the most part reveal emotional resistance rather than endurance, creativity rather than hatred, hope not despair and, maybe, above all else, perseverance, in order to maintain optimism, sanity and even laughter.
Waleed Abu-Ghazaleh, a Kuwaiti–Palestinian designer, conceived and designed this remarkable, heart-warming book using Huda’s photographs. Abu-Ghazaleh found this revelation of resistance, perseverance and hope remarkable, especially as it contrasted with the usual images in mainstream media of downtrodden, angry and violent Palestinians—which is, in fact, the other devastating effect of the wall, which also cannot be denied. Deprived of their land, their rights, their livelihoods and even their family members by this inhumane barrier, it’s small wonder there are so many negative media images of Palestinians.
Phyllis Bennis’ foreword to Love Wins is a cogent, heart-rending history of the wall and its effects on Palestinians. Bennis is the author of several books including Understanding the Palestinian–Israeli Conflict (Interlink Books, 2002) and others relating to the region and US foreign policy towards it. She writes about how the wall was built in 2002, and how the Israelis said the separation barrier was “to keep Israelis safe; and to keep Palestinians out.” But it didn’t follow the Green Line, the internationally recognized division between Israel and the West Bank. Only 15 percent of the wall is built on the Green Line, according to the United Nations. Some 85 percent of it snakes through the West Bank, stealing more than 15 percent of the already tiny Palestinian territory. The result is that not only have the most important water resources ended up on the Israeli side (83 percent according to the UN), but all the major Israeli settlements housing the vast majority of the more than 600,000 settlers live in Jewish-only areas built on Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
It quickly became dubbed the “Apartheid Wall” by Palestinians and people around the world concerned with international law, human rights and equality. What’s more, indigenous Palestinians and Israeli settlers are governed by two completely different legal systems. Israeli citizens are governed by Israeli civilian courts; Palestinians existing under Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip face military courts for anything to which Israeli soldiers object. Thousands have been taken by force to disappear in jails inside Israel in direct violation of international law.
As Bennis points out: “The Wall doesn’t just divide Palestinians from Israelis, it divides them from each other.” Villagers are cut off from nearby cities that provide doctors, markets, schools and jobs. Entry and exit to most of Bethlehem and all of Qalqilya, which are completely surrounded by the wall, is permitted or forbidden at the whim of Israeli soldiers. Ambulance travel time has increased by 1,100 percent, and there have been at least 40 (recorded) infant and maternal deaths in ambulances at checkpoints. The Foreword celebrates that “one of the extraordinary accomplishments of this book is its depiction not only of the wall’s impact on Palestinian life, but how Palestinians have responded to this huge threat to their land, their families, their rights.” They have created admirable strategies of resistance to their occupation, such as weekly non-violent protests, which have attracted international solidarity; they have also brought lawsuits to Israeli courts, challenging the land and water thefts; and professional and amateur artists, as well as children, have used the Wall as a backdrop for highly creative protest.
Love Wins contains four parts: ‘Faces of Walls,’ ‘Faces of Life,’ ‘Faces of Support’ and ‘Faces of Hope.’ Each starts with brief statistics from United Nations sources, such as for the first section, ‘Faces of Walls,’ which tells us how unemployment in the West Bank and Gaza is at 26 percent, that 500,000 olive trees were uprooted to build the wall, and that 41,525 acres (165,921 square meters) of land were confiscated to build Israeli-only roads in the West Bank. Each section has a short introduction in English, Spanish, German, French and Chinese.
‘Faces of Walls’ shows images of how the wall, crowned with armed watchtowers, is a physical barrier, carving through heavily populated Palestinian towns, villages, farms, and even homes. Bleak photographs show arid, stony ground that was once fertile agricultural land. Other images of metal gates, barriers, checkpoints and endless coils of barbed wire show how ties to the outside world have been severed except for a few menacingly controlled exits, for which permits are necessary.
The photographs in ‘Faces of Life’ show how the Palestinians are coping with the resultant poverty, frustration and stress of living in the wall’s shadow—4.3 million of them are under house arrest. Today they inhabit only 12 percent of pre-1948 Palestine. Yet one photograph shows a boy determinedly doing his homework on a piece of cloth on the sand; several others are of mothers with children and shopping bags walking stoically past soldiers bristling with weapons, and looking them over; a young woman vigorously shouts her protest.
The third section, ‘Faces of Support,’ consists of images of solidarity from international artists who, along with local Palestinians, have covered sections of the wall with murals and graffiti, which are both inspirational and moving as well being great popular art. Messages come across loud and clear, such as: “The whole world is watching,” “History is on our side,” “A just peace means peace and security for Israel too,” “Stay human,” and “Love is the Liberator.”
The last section of the book is ‘Faces of Hope,’ whose initial statistics seem buoyant. Among them we are told that 80,000 olive trees have been planted in place of the 500,000 destroyed by the wall; that 95 percent of the Palestinian population is literate; that 29 births in ambulances were delayed at checkpoints (though compared to 40 deaths). The images in ‘Faces of Hope’ include a teacher grinning at her class, two women and a child enjoying seesawing on a plank in the midst of a sea of rubble, and an old lady laughing with her chubby grandson.
A charming tale of perseverance and hope came to light just as Love Wins was close to publication. A couple was engaged to be married in 1994, but the groom was imprisoned by the Israelis days before the wedding. As the years passed, the bride resolutely refused to meet other suitors or to give up on her love, saying that she knew he would be released one day. Eighteen years went by and he was released. They married a few days later.
Love Wins is a unique human story needing to be told—the humanity of a resilient nation. It is a stirring homage to their persistence and optimism in the spirit of a traditional Palestinian concept known as “sumud” (steadfastness). Graffiti on the wall says it all: “The Palestinian spirit is stronger than any wall.”