Andru Okun is a zinester from New Orleans. His most recent work is No Place For a Vacation, an eighty-page zine about traveling for three months in the Middle East. The zine has been described here as "detailing the complex weirdness of Birthright, the reality of everyday life in Palestine's West Bank, and the absurdity of tourism in post-revolution Egypt ... sometimes funny, but always honest." Below is an excerpt.
At a plain and smoky coffee house - and nearly every coffee house I entered in Palestine fit this description - Jehad introduced me to his friend Sameer, a young and seemingly fearless Palestinian who dedicated himself to photographing demonstrations in the West Bank. He pulled out his computer and clicked through his huge portfolio of action shots - pictures of demonstrators getting shot at, protestors carrying the wounded, a French girl bleeding out of the back of her head after getting hit with a tear gas canister, all sorts of imagery related to the very common and often violent demonstrations that take place throughout the West Bank every week. People protest against the wall, illegal settlements, illegal raids, unjust deaths and imprisonments. They ask for better access to water, roads, and jobs, expressing the endless grievances that come along with military occupation and forced concessions of personal and collective freedom.
Palestine is real. I mean that in more ways than one. Firstly, it's real as in "shit is real." Like, serious. It can be a tremendously heavy place. Not all the time, but a great deal more often than many other places. But I also mean to say that Palestine is real as in it's really an actual place with real people who have real stories; removed from the news, the articles and essays, the films and photographs, the books and comics and zines depicting this region, people actually live in this place called Palestine that can seem to so many outside observers like more of a concept than a concrete place. Far-off lands and distant cultures tend to get abstracted. We can wax academic or engage in newspeak about lots of fucked up places. Sometimes distance, both physical and emotional, feels necessary to express what occurs at close range. That said, it seems important to occasionally remind ourselves that some of the things that are hard to believe or imagine are actually taking place. Sometimes information gets mechanically processed without due diligence and a certain level of impact is lost. Our ability to empathize can be suffocated by the near constant and overwhelming barrage of bad news. We could benefit from taking pause, allowing our beliefs to move past their own illusiveness, to really imagine the things we believe in. And if some things real appear unbelievable, that's not unreasonable. However, Palestine is real.
Early on, talking to Palestinians about living in Palestine made me feel totally convinced, if I wasn't already before, that their experiences are incomprehensible unless you see them with your own eyes. That would be one of the strengths of true horror - to be so horrible as to be intangible, something so extreme that we question it's authenticity, like a village covered in tear gas or a nation surrounded by a wall.
My impression of Palestine before visiting was informed mostly through books and news articles that focused on the Israel/Palestine conflict. In all honesty, I knew very little about the region before the possibility of traveling there became feasible. I was ignorant of the situation - one that always seemed conceptually daunting and too convoluted to know where to start. In some ways, Palestine looked from afar like it'd been left to the academics, diplomats, and Middle East correspondents. As an issue, the Israel/Palestine conflict can be hard to approach, its complexity and nuances intimidating and not exactly conducive to casual understandings of the sociopolitical situation or the history behind it. I read what I could. When I found the comics of Joe Sacco I decided that I had to see Palestine for myself. It looked scary. Because most of what we hear about Palestine is related to conflict, it's easy enough to form the notion that Palestine is in fact entirely made up of conflict. This impression makes sense, as any understanding of contemporary Palestine requires first-and-foremost some level of familiarity with its most pertinent issue. In some ways, it might be easier to imagine a place like Palestine to be only made up conflict and nothing else. It's easier to dismiss horror when the human element is removed. Despite the fact that the conflict dominates most discussions of Palestine, there is more to the place besides conflict. This sometimes gets lost when we talk about the country. We end up with partially formed pictures of Palestine and overlook unique sets of customs and traditions, a heritage antecedent of occupation. To recognize these facets of the place is to better understand what's at stake. Perhaps the severity of the Israeli occupation of Palestine can best be understood by an assessment of how much of Palestinian life and culture has been absorbed into and overshadowed by conflict.
* * *
Much of the West Bank landscape is undulating hills, rocky with patches of green in the winter and early spring before it turns to dust in the heat of summer. The village roads are narrow and sketchy, the cities a patternless swarm of traffic, people versus cars versus carts; the interstitial roads between these cities and villages made tense with the ever-present threat of settlers and soldiers, barbed wire and concrete.
To drive through Palestine's West Bank is to traverse scenic roads covered in checkpoints. As Palestine is so economically depressed, the roads between cities are remarkably unmolested by the billboards that dominate my own experiences of travel throughout America or Western Europe. Instead, the landscape is broken up by settlers waiting at bus stops, military vehicles, and various displays of barbed wire, watch towers, and checkpoints. As a matter of fact, the ride between Ramallah and Nablus would be significantly shorter if not for the Israeli settlements like Shilo placed directly between the two cities, effectively forcing any trips between them to travel around rather than through.
At some point everyone was told to put on their seatbelts. Later, we waited on the side of the road, stopped. After five minutes or so, I began to wonder what we were waiting for. Then an additional passenger got in the service and we were driving again. I almost got off at the wrong town until some passengers asked, "Nablus?" I said yes and they told me to get back in.
Despite being a hub of tension during times of conflict, Nablus was markedly calm during the time that I was there. Regardless, the city's residents were in no short supply of distress or sorrow. Nearly any conversation carried out at length with a Palestinian could be reasonably expected to lead to a solemn diatribe or an airing of grievances regarding Israel and the stifling affects of life lived under occupation.
One of the greatest paradoxes of our time is to live in a world where information is so readily accessible yet remarkably easy to forget. It's alarmingly easy to forfeit awareness of that which fails to directly impact us. This is especially unsettling in relation to a place like Palestine where the application of tyranny could be defined as incremental. Periodically, shit spills over and hits the proverbial fan. One operation leads into another; Brother's Keeper turns into Protective Edge. The world directs its collective gaze to the worst of times filling up the news feeds. A quiet follows and our attention is diverted shortly thereafter.
The reason this phenomenon isn't an anomalous occurrence and is instead constantly recurring is because something like the bad news happening in the headlines is actually transpiring all the time in altering degrees. The caveat of bad news in a lesser form is that it often fails to provoke an appropriately serious reaction. This condition is acutely dangerous in that it creates a model wherein whatever is warranting our attention necessarily needs to be more severe than whatever came before in order to hold it. Our standards demand escalation, preferably at a rapid clip, leaving us with a desensitized world view where what was once formidable becomes normal, always making way for something worse.
Enough common sense can discern a dominant asymmetry in this world that makes for what is unimaginable for some to fall under the quotidian for others. I'm thinking now of when I was invited into the home of one of my friend Tom's students. Aladean was a Palestinian in his early twenties living in a refugee camp with his mother. Their home was a small apartment without any natural light on the first floor that served as both the living room and kitchen. The windows looked out to a nearby wall of cinderblocks from an adjacent building. Hanging on the center wall above the couch in the living room were two framed pictures - one of Aladean's deceased brother and another of his father. Both martyrs, killed.
Soldiers had recently come into the home to arrest Aladean's younger brother who had been accused of throwing rocks at soldiers. Aladean's mother pointed out the holes smashed in the kitchen cabinets from the butts of IDF guns during their last visit. She showed me an old photograph, sepia toned and fading. She was sixteen years old in the picture, a woman on her wedding day standing with her husband. They both appeared full of youth. On the most recent raid, an Israeli soldier had found the picture and ripped it in half right at the neck line of the young couple. She was an old, plump woman now with trouble walking. Her husband was dead, as was one of her sons.
Sad as this story is, this type of tragedy wasn't hard to find in Nablus. A skimming of the surface was enough to assess that there is a deep-rooted damage specific to the occupation and pervasive in the personal lives of most Palestinians. While the Palestinians share in the collective catastrophe of the fateful Nakba of 1948, they each have their own individual disasters. In Nablus, although things had certainly been worse, they could be so much better.