It was many years ago that I first experienced Palestine. In 1973, when I was 23, I was living in a town called Brighton in southern England, my first overseas life, with a dream to become a photographer. Two months after I started living in Brighton, a word “oil shock” circled around the world. It was caused because the oil producing countries in the Arab world limited export of oil. In Japan, a rumor spread out that “toilet paper would disappear from the market”. When I vaguely heard this news in the UK, I wanted to see the people’s life in the oil producing country from curiosity. I just wanted to see the life in the countries where they earn the richness by selling oil. The first semester of the English language school that I was going to was about to end in late December. I just made friends at the school, but they were going back to their home countries. Most of them seemed not to come back anymore. I felt lonely to be separated from my first foreign friends. I had no plan to go back to Japan, and I was thinking of staying somehow in the UK. To me, the life in the UK was completely new, and I thought it was the only time left for me to find my potentiality and to see where my curiosity is directed to. So, I asked some young people from Kuwait whom I became acquainted at the school. One of them, an 18 year old boy, was staying in the same house I was staying in. “I want to visit your country. Would you let me stay in your house?” All of them nodded. As a result, I was to travel to the Middle East for the first time with a camera, relying on their kindness. I was surprised myself that I had such an aggressiveness. As all of my Japanese friends have already found jobs long time ago, probably my desire to use the free time left for me as much as possible made me so aggressive.
It was late December that I arrived at Kuwait airport. When I stepped out of the airplane, I felt the air very similar to that of Japan in summer. I remembered the summer in Japan only a few months ago, especially the Bon dancing and the crowd at Ikegami Honmonji (a famous Buddhist temple with long history). After a few days in Kuwait, I went to a university in Kuwait. I was impressed with the fact that lecture was being given in English language. If someone wanted to work in the international society, it was natural to study in English. Inside the university campus, I found a very charming girl student, and I said hello and took her photo. She slightly inclined her head, and smiled directly looking into the lens. Her somewhat sad looking was impressive to me. During my short conversation with her, I learned that she was from Palestine. “I cannot go back to my home country.” Although I could not speak English well, I thought that was what she said. What is giving such a sadness to her? Since then, every time I heard the word “Palestine”, I remembered her dark eyes with melancholy. Two months since I left Japan, an incident which took place in other part of the world weighed heavily on me, which I never felt when I was in Japan.
Forty years since then, in October of 2013, I was given an opportunity to travel to Palestine by KnK, which was an “NPO: Children without Borders”. In the past year or two, I had opportunities to take photos of the activities by KnK in Tohoku area. But I never imagined about visiting Palestine. I felt the benefit of being a freelance photographer, and I remembered the girl from Palestine that I met in Kuwait in 1973.
I was alone both ways, to and from Kuwait. Korean Air from Narita, via Korea, arrived at Tel Aviv airport in midnight after more than ten hours of flight. Next morning, I got on the bus with Sato-san, a Japanese staff from KnK who met me at the airport, and drove to a town where KnK office existed. After driving for 40 minutes or so through a road with white rock-like undulation on both sides, we arrived at a small town called Al-Eizariya. It may not be appropriate to compare to the cities in Japan where the sceneries change quickly as if racing with the progress of era, but the buildings on both sides of the shop street looked shabby, and it looked like downtown Kuwait 40 years ago. Near the center of the town, there was a wall separating Palestine and Israel. Probably because of the fight in the town, part of the wall was burnt black and windows of a nearby vacant home were broken. KnK had their office inside a new 4 storied building in one corner of the town. At KnK, children in the neighborhood, their parents and brothers/sisters, and friends came to study computer, English, play and music.
For the local children, meeting with various people and educations must be extremely precious.
Construction of the separation wall started in 2008, and now the wall is approximately 788 km long. I also had a chance to take photos of the wall in Berlin which was destructed in 1989. That wall was 3M tall, if I remember correctly. On the other hand, this separation wall is 8M tall. When looking from an elevated location, the separation wall looked like the Great Wall in China, and some sections were not straight but very complicated surrounding one house. I went to a nice looking restaurant. This restaurant had large glass windows. Before the wall was built, this restaurant must have had excellent view from the windows. But now the wall stands right in front of the windows leaving no view for the restaurant. Furthermore, a new house nearby, which is a combination of a souvenir shop and a residence, is surrounded by a wall on three sides. As a result, people in the house can only see the wall through the window of a new room.
And this great wall has approximately 400 security checkpoints, and whenever we cross that point, we have to be checked by Israeli soldiers having automatic weapons. Traffic by the Palestinians were extremely restricted. I thought that wall was the strangest construction ever built by the human beings. In addition to the wall, Israel has built a civil residential area called “settlements” inside Palestinian territory. “Those houses with red roof on top of that hill. They are the houses for the Israeli recently constructed. That is another similar residential area.” explained the Palestinian people pointing at another settlement. Those settlements were increasing inside the Palestinian territory like a cancer.
On the other hand, most of the people I met on the street showed a friendly smile. When I went into a store and bought water and bread, their welcoming attitude further escalated. Their friendliness was the same everywhere in the town. Once a conversation started, people invited me to eat together and shared bread, chicken or vegetable with me. I could probably live for a week or so without having any money. They were that friendly, and I felt as if my heart was washed clean. If someone was struggling in Japan having difficulty to be fit in the society, all his/her headaches could be solved by simply living here for a week or so. I realized that smiles exchanged between people to be the most important thing as the first step of association, and that how much a smile could bring comfort to people. As a matter of fact, I was the one who was helped the most. As I have been used to the Japanese cities where strangers do not exchange expressive facial signals to each other, I became an antisocial person unknowingly. The people of Palestine triggered me to recover mentally. What I should not forget is the contribution by Sato-san who is a KnK local staff and who accompanied me every day to my photo shooting. He is very popular in towns where KnK is present. When he walks in the town, many people would call him “Hi! Ken!” Even in other towns, he would approach strangers, and a conversation starts. Thanks to his friendly attitude, I was able to fit to the air of this country smoothly and quickly.
One evening, Sato-san and I were talking to an owner of a grocery store and a next door butcher where they sell mutton. The glass window of the butchers shop had a three centimeter sized hole and radial cracks made around the hole. They told me that the hole and the cracks were made by exchange of stone-throwing and tear gas grenade. “I was so scared that I was hiding inside the big refrigerator.” They all said “Palestinians and Israeli are brothers. Why should we kill each other? Politics is the problem.” Their smiles disappeared and they lamented the destiny of their nations which they cannot do anything.
And a female staff of KnK said, “I want the kids to live their lives without a feel of fear. I want to teach them that they can be happy when they are grown up and to live with hope in their heart. The world says Palestinians are terrorist. But we are not. Nobody wants to kill people. All we want is a peaceful life as a Palestinian.
My style of photography continues to be a so to speak “snap portrait”. While talking to a person, when I find an instance where the person shows his/her natural look, I release the shutter. People of Palestine have a very deep and beautiful eye. Boys and girls, in particular, have eyes with magic power which could vacuum all my heart. And what impressed me the most was that their eyes were not clouded in spite of the fact that they have been experiencing the fear that their country may eventually disappear for years and years. When I see such eyes, I started to think that I should photograph their pride as Palestinians. I started to aim my camera to people with such a thought. When I focus to their eyes in my finder, however, they express certain emotion, which is a kind of sorrow in their gentleness. Those eyes overlap with the eyes of a Palestinian girl which I saw in the university in Kuwait in 1973. What is she doing now? She must be around 60 now. Is she happy now?
On the last day of my 10 days stay in Palestine, a family who often visits KnK prepared a chicken and rice dish, which is the most popular specialty in this country, for me. “I know that family is in economical difficulty. Therefore, I am sure they prepared the dish for you by saving their food cost for 2 to 3 days” said Sato-san.
I was to take my flight home departing shortly after 23:00, and therefore, I had to head for the airport in late afternoon. Because I had to be prepared for the severe luggage check at security checkpoints and the airport. One hour before heading for the airport, I went to the separation wall, which was 10 minute walk away, together with the kids and teachers coming to KnK, and kids in the neighborhood whom I became acquainted with. Because I wanted to take a photo with all of them lined up along the wall. This will be my last photo in Palestine. We had to climb up the steep slope to reach the wall. I raced with the kids to the wall, but I was soon out of breath. Some girls in the mid teens frolicked, laughed and passed me running in spite of the steep up hill. One of the girls said to me as she was passing me “I love you!” in halting English bashfully and soon showed me her back. She was the one who was always the first to run to my camera whenever she found me. The afternoon sun which was about to sink brightly illuminated her waving black hair. When I reached the wall at the top of the slope, the sun was just hanging at the edge of the tall wall. The sun was illuminating the boys and the girls lined up beautifully. Now it was time for me to say goodbye to this country. I quietly released the last shutter in a mixed emotion of sadness of leaving and happiness of becoming friends with them.
One of the incidents of the world was stored in my two cameras and my heart. At night of one early November day, I left Ben Gurion airport of Tel Aviv to be on the flight route toward Japan.
Would they be able to have happy lives in the future? What can we, Japanese, do as human beings for them.
I strongly felt that I should never forget the white land and transparent sky of Palestine, smile and temperature of the hands of young boys and girls that I shook hands with, and their beautiful dark eyes.