In a series of guest posts, writer and Walker tour guide Christine McVay shares her experiences traveling to Tel Aviv for the SupraSpace conference on June 3 and 4, 2012.
The first thing that confused me about the West Bank is that it lies east of Israel. It’s also hard to explain where or what it is without referencing an unfinished and ongoing history, and without using loaded terms. I’ll venture that the West Bank I visited is the territory occupied by Israel after the 1967 (Six-Day) War and separated from it by the Green (or 1949 Armistice Agreement) Line. Its name refers to its location on the Jordan River, not to its direction relative to Israel. While there, I had trouble knowing where I really was.
Since 1993 it has been divided into three parts: there are areas controlled by Israel, others by the Palestinian Authority, and a third mixed type that I never understood. The first two are mutually exclusive: Fred, my Israeli tour guide, told me he wasn’t allowed in Area A, nor was his car with its yellow license plates on certain highways. The Palestinian guides were barred from Area C, nor were their green-plated vehicles allowed on many roads and bypass tunnels.
On the road I saw checkpoints, sometimes apparently unattended; concrete blocks between Areas, and confounding bypass roads that segregated Palestinian and Israeli traffic into separate but presumably equal flows.
“Internationals” like me could, I think, go anywhere, although my Lonely Planet warned about certain notorious checkpoints, car rental issues and so on. To go with local guides whose movements were restricted called for a logistics of pickups and drop offs, meeting points and waits at local tea shops. Normally I use travel maps to show where I’ve been and where I’m going. But in the West Bank, travel maps failed me. They never showed where C ended and A (or even B) began.
Instead, they smoothed the West Bank out into one undifferentiated region, unmarked by Israeli areas, Palestinian areas, or by the barriers and agricultural gates that control traffic. Their keys described the number of lanes each road held and how it was surfaced, but left out who was allowed to use it or whether you could get there from here in the vehicle you were in.
Except for one page in Lonely Planet that showed the largest, my travel maps also left uncoded contentious places where people live, like the refugee camps that have existed in the West Bank for more than sixty years. What my paper map called “El Balata” could have been another ancient Arab village, instead of a community of 30,000 Palestinians under United Nations administration. My downloaded map called the “Ayda Camp Gate” to the refugee camp in Bethlehem a “tourist attraction”–making my images of the children living there another global voyeur’s souvenir–which, of course, they are.
Mostly, the refugee camps just didn’t show up on maps. On the ground, though, they were very materially there–concrete and treeless. In the Balata Refugee Camp outside Nablus, the tour guide Majdi told me the original tents had been simply replicated in concrete. Three generations have grown up there, he said, and few have the money to get out; the kids are traumatized by the violence they’ve known; the Women’s Center is trying to build a playground so mothers can use its services. To me it seemed like a lot of issues in a well-populated place that barely registers in the visual culture.
The many Israeli settlements also appeared on my maps simply as towns or suburbs. When I saw them on the hilltops the settlements looked like a cross between upscale real estate developments and medieval stone fortresses.
Outside Bethlehem in Beit Sahour, I stayed with the family of a Palestinian tour guide, Samer Kokaly. From the home’s marble balcony I could look across a valley to the Har Homa Settlement on the hill opposite. My host said the mountaintops are shaved off before settlement houses are built. His own house, he said, had been shelled from the direction of Har Homa.
I didn’t expect my maps to flesh out geography with such personal stories or to label what tour guides both left and right differentiated as economic or ideological settlements. But the same kind of infographic tools I usually trust to find my way around made a strange fiction of West Bank realities.
In 1969 the artist Alighiero Boetti made a work, Occupied Territories, from a tracing of the Sinai, Gaza, and the West Bank severed from their newspaper context, abstracting cultural places into empty natural forms. In contrast, my contemporary maps were filled with data, but they often erased power’s traces in the landscape. If a place is not on the map, does it really exist? Where does information end and art begin? Whose reality does any map represent?