The Palestinians

Posted on December 19, 2008 by Alexandra Avakian

35mm film image of a Palestinian girl holding a dove

Palestinian girl holding a dove on the roof of her home in the Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza.

My book Windows of the Soul is divided into six chapters/locations. I decided it was better to go into depth in a few places than to skip superficially through twenty countries. So, lets start the chapters:

The Palestinians

I'll tell you a few things that aren't in my book for space reasons, from my time working on the story of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I first arrived in Israel in early 1988. My stepfather, the director John Hancock, and my mother the actress and screenwriter Dorothy Tristan, were making an HBO movie with Mariel Hemingway in the starring role. They invited me along long before the first Palestinian Intifada had broken out. But when I arrived it was under way, and as I arrived at a hotel in East Jerusalem, I knew I would not be seeing my family often. Such is my passion for my job while I am working.

Near sunset on my first day in Jerusalem, I dropped my bags in my room, hailed a cab driven by a middle-aged Palestinian man and said "Take me to the Intifada please." He drove me to Shuafat, a nearby refugee camp, and sure enough there was a riot under way. I worked for Time magazine that first trip—for over three months, each day documenting the extraordinary violence in the West Bank and Gaza between Israeli forces and settlers, and the "shabab", the young men of the streets, who were at that time using stones against the army. The first Arabic I learned—and quickly—was "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) and "Weyn jesh? Weyn mustashfa?" (Where are the soldiers? Where is the hospital?)

My mother asked me if I would take her to see the Intifada. I said no. It was so dangerous—bullets being fired by the army and journalists threatened by demonstrators. I couldn't risk her being harmed and I couldn't work while watching her. My stepfather put me in his movie as an extra because he needed a focal point for a scene—he made me a Kurdish rebel woman who gets blown up by Iraqi government forces. I hardly saw my family.

I returned again and again to the West Bank and Gaza for seven years, even while based in Moscow covering Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union, working for Time Magazine (September 1990 - September 1992), and after working for them in Africa for nearly six months (October 1992 - May 1993). Over those seven years I also often photographed Yasser Arafat. It started as an assignment for the New York Times magazine in the fall of 1988. They sent me to Tunis, where he was still in exile, to get exclusive access for a cover story about him written by Marie Colvin, who already knew him well. He was formidably cranky at times--hard-bitten guerillas and senior advisors were sometimes terrified to even approach him. Other times he was gentle, making me drink tea or eat watermelon with him. In his high voice he called me "troublemaker" and "dictator," but always gave me great access.

I traveled on his plane to Libya, Algiers, Washington DC for the signing of the Oslo Accords and Oslo when he received the Nobel Peace Prize with Yitzahk Rabin and Shimon Peres. I got to know his wife Suha. After they came to Gaza from exile in Tunis, we would often have lunch or tea. She lived on the top floor of their relatively modest villa: that was her domain. Arafat lived simply and mostly downstairs, which was the place for security, secretaries and others. But when there was an earthquake one morning Arafat shot upstairs in his pajamas and grabbed their tiny baby, rushing into the sandy streets with her. I write some more about him in the book.

35mm film image of Palestinian police searching a Hamas home

Jabalyah Refugee Camp, Gaza, March 1996: Palestinian police search a Hamas home at night.

I lived in the Gaza Strip for two years (summer 1993 - winter 1995) in bare-bones Palestinian apartments near the Mediterranean Sea and a few blocks from Shati Refugee Camp, also known as Beach Camp. At first, Gaza was still under occupation by the Israeli Army and I lived under an 8 pm nightly curfew until the spring of 1994 when they withdrew, making way for the Palestinian guerillas who returned as Palestinian Police after the Oslo Accords were signed in Washington, D.C. and before Arafat's arrival from exile in July 1994. During this time the streets were ruled by the radical Islamic group Hamas, and I lived in Islamic dress when out in public, even while covering the conflict. After Arafat returned in July 1994, secular groups—particularly Fatah-ruled Gaza and I went without the scarf.

The Israelis let me pass the checkpoint that separates Gaza from Israel and they knew I lived there—they let me do this without a problem. The Palestinians made me feel at home. But tough things happened of course—being beaten by a group of Hamas rioters, being shot at by Israeli troops, and getting to know a young man who unbeknownst to me was a Hamas guerilla and cell leader, which I discovered along with the rest of the world when he was killed by Israeli troops when he kidnapped an Israeli soldier. After a Palestinian attack on an Israeli army patrol, I was also stuck in a house under 24-hour curfew with armed Palestinian guerillas as Israeli soldiers searched the street just outside the door. I write about all these things in the book, and more.

35mm film image of a Palestinian farm set ablaze by Israeli settlers

Near Khan Yunus, Gaza, November 1993: Israeli settlers burned this Palestinian farm at dawn.

There were many dangerously close calls in Gaza that I didn't have room for in the book—like fending off a crazed young man who tried to force his way into my apartment and being picked out and warned by an Israeli sniper to move or be shot during a demo ( two days later an AP photographer was shot by a sniper at just that place.) I photographed Israelis undercover as Palestinians make arrests in Palestine Square and haul youths off in an army truck. Naively I once gave someone a ride and found he had hidden a pistol in my car. I photographed a suicide bomber's torched corpse still in his car--the bomb had detonated prematurely. And in the West Bank after leaving the Ariel settlement at night, the Israeli truck behind me was hit with a Molotov Cocktail. It gave me chills to know they had passed on hitting my car, especially when the Israeli soldiers at the next checkpoint explained how it was done. Under a street light, but hidden carefully, one person watched the vehicle and flicked his lighter when he had decided an Israeli was inside, and the next person, hidden by darkness, threw the petrol bomb. I had a Press sign on my car and I guess they had a doubt.

There were countless instances like these. Many of the best stories are in the book.

Some weekends I would spend in Jerusalem or Ramallah. While in Jerusalem I knew what it felt to be like an Israeli, shopping on Jaffa Street, or stuck in a traffic jam next to a bus--scary. Suicide bombings were common those days in Israel and I had to deal with that worry and fear like so m any Israelis did. In addition, I was often on the Palestinian side—I learned what it felt to be in a Palestinian mother's shoes one day while shopping for vegetables with friends and their children in the outdoor market in Ramallah. Israeli soldiers started shooting at demonstrators there and suddenly I wasn't a photographer, I was a protector of those children and I used all the skills I had learned covering the conflict to get them to safety instead of covering what was happening.

There were so many things I saw while covering the Israeli-Palestinian story that taught me about life there. I visited Hamas summer camps where videos of martyrs were shown to small children, spent time with gypsies who, for religious reasons, were forbidden to perform music or dance in public and did it solely for each other behind locked doors and shut windows; Israeli settlers living in American style suburban-type developments surrounded by barbed wire and protected by soldiers; spent time with the Palestinian elite in their villas, and I slept on the floor in a refugee camp home often. There was a crazed teen on the beach at Shati refugee camp, a boy of the Intifada generation, with wild and matted hair who used to shoot into the sea with an imaginary gun, then turn and imagine he was firing at me. One day I saw him while working for a German magazine, firing away at the sea: "Tokh! Tokh!" Bang! Bang! Little boys all dressed up and coming from a wedding on that stormy day asked him in Arabic "Where's the enemy buddy?" then they practiced throwing stones, into the sea. There were a lot of kids damaged by the conflict on both sides.

35mm film image of a man selling fish on the street in Gaza, while an Israeli solider jumps out of a truck behind him

Gaza City, Gaza, July 1993: A man sells fish while an Israeli soldier jumps out of his truck to chase Palestinians who had been throwing stones.

I would occasionally go home to my loft in SoHo, New York City. While at home in Manhattan, I was sometimes haunted by a different reality as I had already spent years living abroad, covering many conflicts. A car backfiring would put me on edge; a helicopter flying above made me tense and watchful. To wait on line at the bank or in a supermarket was intolerably boring. My adrenaline was primed for an edgier life out in the conflict and news gathering world, and being home made me antsy and impatient. It took years after I stopped covering news in 1996 before that feeling went away.

I still love my work and calling as a photographer, but since recently surviving breast cancer, I also appreciate every sharp wind, every sunrise, and the love in my son's eyes even more than ever. And another thing, after surviving all that I have in my life and seeing the things I have seen, I am more fearless than ever. I stopped covering news because I no longer wanted to spend so much time at funerals. It had gotten to be too much. And I felt lucky to be alive and in one piece. I wanted to celebrate joy and culture in my subjects. And I still do so.

For so many years I had felt driven to be a messenger of the news, to capture moments on film to share with the public at large. There was a sense of public service about it. I'm not sure that the public understands well enough that for most photojournalists it isn't about the money--it is a sense of mission that is both intensely personal, and about something beyond oneself.

Filed Under: BooksPalestiniansPhotographyTravel

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