In 1996 I found myself living in an old farmhouse on a hillside, outside Ballyshannon in County Donegal, in the Irish Republic. The hill is named Sheegus, gaelic for ‘wind of the fairies’, and was made famous by local poet William Allingham (1824 - 1889) in his poem ‘The Faeries’. The townland faces onto the Atlantic Ocean and affords a wonderful view both out to sea, and down the west coast towards Sligo and Galway. It is the rain, the unrelenting everyday rain; the swathes of Irish mist that continually shapes and softens the view ahead and drives you to shelter. The constant wash is what keeps this land so fertile, and the view of green so lush.
I was there at a time of change for the country and the culture, in the years leading up to the historic peace agreement of the Good Friday Agreement on 1998 bringing a new level of calm between the Republicans and the Unionists in the North. This filtered out across the Irish Republic, and immediate benefits were felt in peace dividends.
It felt like new roads were suddenly being built or finally completed, and as someone working in the arts, it suddenly became easier to access community funding for projects. In fact, Tony Blair, in the months before he won the election, paid a private visit to Ballyshannon to visit the graves of his grandparents, who had lived in the town and he had spent time there in his youth. As quite a naive young Brit, I felt nothing but goodwill and a hundred thousand welcomes during my 5 year stay in the Republic.
Forward 9 years to 2005, and I find myself based in Jerusalem, Israel, and the view out of my front door is very different. The light in the Middle East is astounding.
It is the clarity of the light that stays with me now, not the memory of heat, or the occasional sand storms that blitzed the entire country. The light that is the constant glare over this land: it burns the earth, sears into human souls and peels off layers of soil and skin alike. Despite some agriculture, and attempts to green the desert, the light makes human life run very differently.
The psychological perspective of this culture is also very different – Israel and its Palestinian neigbours, in the West Bank and in Gaza, as well as with it’s northerly neighbours in Lebanon, are in a state of uneasy peace, or perhaps stasis is more accurate, after another brutal war.
My journey to Sheegus had begun with a woman. Indeed I found myself living in both Ireland and Israel because of partners. In Ireland a short holiday for us turned into an extended stay for me, with a heartbreaking effort at reconciliation high up on Sheegus hill. But my stay there turned into creating a life, finding bits of work and an identity for myself in this rural place. The journey to Sheegus had meandered from further south, to County Cavan (time at a Buddhist retreat), but I knew I needed to stop and be grounded for a while. After 5 years I was suffering from seriously itchy feet and the realisation that despite being fit and quite resourceful, my hilltop time was done.
Another relationship some years further down the line took me to Israel, and specifically, Jerusalem.
For some, the holy of holies, for some an odd anomaly of a truly disjointed place. If I had 10 shekels for each time someone said the air of Jerusalem was the sweetest in the world, I might be able to afford a tiny slice of Jerusalem real estate, or more realistically, the most incredible tasting humus and falafel you can imagine.
One of the saddest experiences of this very physical as well as genuinely spiritual City is that every year a few hundreds pilgrims here, who may already be quite unbalanced, suffer from ‘Jerusalem syndrome’, which is embodying the expectation of sanctity and holiness that so many place upon what is an earthly, physical place.
For me, almost every day I did wake up with a sense of fascination bordering on awe that I was living in this ancient and intriguing place, and that we lived on the connecting road between the Old City and both Bethlehem and to Hebron. My perception of the heat and passion of the Middle East is the great chasm of understanding of, and interest in, the other, the neighbour, someone (anyone) outside.
The State of Israel’s defiant building up of it’s national identity buoyed by mass inward immigration of Jews from the US and the UK making ‘aliyah’ is on the one hand an extraordinary achievement – state building and nationhood, and on the other a defiance and a closing in. I was always made welcome as an outsider wherever I went, and this appealed to my inquisitive nature. And this is a land crawling with foreign journalists after all, all keen to ferret out a story, a feeling, a mis-understanding, or an injustice hurriedly covered over.
Over this ten year period I met many hundreds of people, from all walks of life.
Working in the arts in Ireland I spent a good bit of time with kids in schools and youth groups, writers, men working on a FAS scheme (a Government employment scheme) building a cliff top path (where we spent most of the 6 week scheme in a portable tin hut sheltering from the rain and swapping stories), spiritual seekers, churchmen and the godless too.
One encounter that will always stay with me is while staying in a community on the Aran Isles, waiting for the postman at the end of the path, sitting on a stone wall, admiring the view across the fields to the sea and over to the mainland. The postie trundled up, eyed me suspiciously, and perhaps he knew of another Brit on the island or could hear it in my “morning”, said: “did you vote for Thatcher, then?.”
I worked with youth in Donegal on litter issues, and also on the legacy of the famine, getting them to go deep into their family histories and to think through what happened and the impact of the politically-caused poverty and mass emigration on today’s generation. For a summer project, we built a replica famine ship and paraded it into town, half the group being the ships men offering hope of a new start overseas, and the others weighing up the options of a life staying in blight and poverty stricken 18th Century Ireland. The decaying workhouse outside this and many other towns stands as a reminder of this devastating time: a holocaust of the psyche for the tough Irish spirit.
These kids talked of their parents telling them about recent tough years, and recent violence and bombings (and Lord Mountbatten had been blown up on his fishing boat just a few miles from this town), and yet for all of them there were outlets for their talents and interests: music, theatre, local summer jobs, festivals, university, family in the UK or America to visit, and a bit further down the line, a sparkling new leisure centre for the town.
I also had the chance to work with vulnerable street kids in downtown Jerusalem, some of whom had been sent by their parents from the US to explore their Jewish heritage and to make a life for themselves, but this sometimes resulted in a spiral of drugs, alcoholism and homelessness and not fitting in to any of the many worlds open to them in this new, hot, manic, politically and religiously charged environment. Of all the groups I spent time with, these kids are those who I would fear for most. The teenage craziness they were experiencing was magnified in this intense religious political atmosphere, and I talked with several who had seen and heard bus bombings on the streets of Jerusalem – a very visceral experience of terrorism. I fear that they are caught up in the cycle of unwillingness to listen or understand the other living close by.
Then also in Israel, there were the settlers, the bourgeoisie, the hippy rabbis, the sun-seeking hedonists, the Nobel prize-winning scientists and the corner shop owners, who sold me single cigarettes and chewed the cud in a snatch of various languages about the issue of the day, be it heat, terrorism, the price of fish, or how to cook a chicken.
I had encounters with Al Gore (and the most extreme security detail I’ve ever witnessed), and playwright Tom Stoppard as they received huge prizes from a private Institution. And I hope ‘Dame’ Shirley Porter understood the venom of my look as I sat next to her at an event in the research facility she has sunk her stolen millions from the British taxpayer into, at Tel Aviv University. Some of my treasured memories are of working for odd days with olive farmers in the West Bank, and a US-born journalist turned olive farmer outside Jerusalem, and trying to create and help thrive a community allotment in a Jerusalem neighbourhood (not much thrived in that dusty sand).
It’s almost impossible to move in Israel without being engaged in a conversation (unless you hide in the desert or the caves of Qumran). There is always talking. But often it’s shouting, orders being given or argued against, opinions tossed out. Not much listening, by many. There are visionaries, revolutionaries, mystics and ordinary kind gentle souls, reaching out, standing firm and often standing together.
But my heart was with, and will remain with, the Bedouin of the Negev Desert. Caught between a rock and a harder place, these remnants of ancient tribes are almost stateless: they are citizens of the State of Israel, but are not granted the same resources as everyone else. The Bedouin are proud peoples, and want to remain in their tribal place, and older generations want to hold to traditions. Some of those traditions seem anachronistic to western values: patriarchy and the role of women, sheiks dispelling justice, but by living within the state, all of this is being rapidly eroded.
Just last week, Israeli media reported on a new Government plan to evict the Bedouin tribes on the outskirts of Jerusalem and the South Hebron hills and resettle them on a specific patch of land elsewhere, away from their knowledge, their place. The Bedouin en mass live a life of ‘clinging’ to a place, holding on to roots; a once nomadic peoples used to seasonal wanderings now facing evictions and resettlements at the whim of a Government that remains alien and unhearing to their names. There are activists and leaders emerging from this community. To name just 2, Nuri El Ukbi has been a tireless non-violent campaigner for the right of his tribe to stay on the piece of land that he has documentation from pre-Mandate and Ottoman days to show connection to, if not ‘ownership’ of. Nuri regularly faces eviction from his temporary tent, and has been jailed several times for his belief in tribal belonging. Amal El Sana has created several NGO’s (and gained a PHD from a Canadian University) to promote empowerment through education and employment for Bedouin women of all tribes in the Negev. She is a shining example of someone embracing opportunities and channelling them to the most marginalised sector.
There are others too, including 1 solitary Bedouin member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament), but there is a dis-unity amongst the various Bedouin tribes and rivalries that don’t unify them in a vision to preserve a way of life moving forward within the situation they find themselves in. I know that this is a common trait amongst Indigenous groups, and I also know that initiatives led by Bedouin academics and Israeli activists are enabling Bedouin to reach out Internationally to connect with other marginalised Indigenous communities.
In contrast to my time with the Bedouin, a project that gave me a deep insight into Israeli culture, and a lot of personal satisfaction as well, was working with the NGO Atzum on a project interviewing the so-called ‘Righteous Gentiles’ who live in Israel. These are non-Jews who went out of their way to save Jews from holocaust atrocities in the various places the Nazi’s operated. These are peoples whose kind and often very brave acts were later documented and verified, and whom the State has taken upon itself the desire to offer them a pension and the offer of a life in Israel.
During my year traversing the length and breadth of the country meeting them, working with a translator (in many languages – English, French, Russian, Polish and others), teasing out their stories on camera, and all the negotiations beforehand to arrange the visits (and sometimes 2 or 3 visits, and a follow-up), I visited almost every town, City or kibbutz. At this time there were 53 righteous gentiles, and I know that there are less than half of that number remaining alive now. I heard some astonishing stories, and I was taken back on every visit to some dark times in human history.
Most of all, I learnt about lives lived way back and how they were being lived now, sometimes in both the country of origin and with 6 months or so a year in Israel.
Often the individuals were able to collect pensions in both places, and many had 2 lives, although everyone seemed a grounded, down to earth person. Without exception all of them said that the act they had done to save or shelter lives had presented itself as necessary in the moment. Later on they had gained recognition for their acts, and my documenting their story in later life added to this, and saved the story as a piece of digital media for now, but everyone was humble, and had come to terms with the unusual consequences of their actions.
I reflect that having made the decision at some point in their subsequent years to commit to a life or half a life in Israel, often at the invitation of those they had saved or rescued, was a kind of liminal living. They didn’t wish to be made great heroes, and for the most part had lived quiet and average lives, with this act that kept them – as a concept rather than individuals – in an unusual space.
But the comparison with the Bedouin community ends there, as the Bedouin are a very solid physical presence, living together in large units, inhabiting a space to show their roots extend through the soil and way back and beyond.
I wrote fiction while in Ireland: something grasped me and I listened to the stories and responded in fiction. A novel I connected with and which resonates still as a story that traverses the highs and lows of life in politics, land, and love, is Dermot Healy’s ‘A Goats Song’ – set across all the 32 Counties, it rambles into the hearts of a man and woman finding and losing each other in the Cities and in the country. It lives against the backdrop of misunderstandings, bitterness, murder, and something heartful and hopeful shines through. Dermot died recently – an extraordinary and irascible fella living against the waves of County Sligo. I honour his gift for story here.
In the not often very holy land, the intensity of life presented as reality, often painful and always very complex, so I wrote life as I saw it, and picked up a film camera to capture it too. The place is awash with books, films, interpretations and understandings. Some of the many I’ll point to for angles and glimpses into it are Louisa Waugh’s ‘Meet Me In Gaza’, written during a year spent in the Strip – this most unknown but most focussed on tiny tiny place of contested sorrow on the planet, and the works of Amos Oz, the prolific Israeli author and peace activist, and the lesser known Israeli writer S. Yizhar, who writes movingly of land and these fragile human creatures who crawl over it. The Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali will conjure the words from the hills, and walking writer Raja Shehadeh will physically take the reader over them.
These are only reflections, based on close observation, interaction with and enjoyment of being with every one I met during this time of my life. I bring the two experiences together, in what will certainly be an ongoing reflection upon and interaction with the two cultures, to highlight the journey that nations and peoples must understand they are on before acknowledging where they may go. I pay tribute to those who are active in Israel and the Palestinian Territories: the activists who are keeping contact, who shine a light on abuse and hatred and violence, and who maintain their own hope and projects in the light of despair. The parents of the slain who reach out to the other side to understand why and to take steps forward together; the soldiers who are bravely revealing the culture within the occupying army, and the lone man from Nazareth who maintains a holocaust museum to show his fellow Arabs what the Jews have suffered.
I’m under no illusion that the powers that be will be reading my words, but it is the leaders that must arise out of this fear, self-interest, and belief in machismo power over all. Ireland has emerged from a shadow time, and Israel could do the same. This can only be done by a new belief in it’s people, in it’s community of visions and the plethora of stories we human live through in physical reality and our emotional imaginations, and the willingness to talk meaningfully.
Just as the cells in the human body die and new ones replace and replenish them, so will it be within a country, a state, a culture. If new movements, new parties and new issues led by new blood don’t grow within a country, a cancer, a cultural amnesia or a kind of dementia will set in. Irish history shows that hatred can be inculcated for centuries.
I’ve my share of resolutions and conflicts too, as with these lands, these cultures, the lovers who I shared them with. Inner and outer demons. What, you may ask, of the lovers that swept me up into these places? Conflicts and resolutions indeed.