“…it is a vehicle through which Palestinians themselves tell their own stories. While many people have an opinion about the Middle East, very few have actually listened to the people who have themselves suffered and struggled for more than 60 years…Palestinians have struggled…with profound dignity and humanity, while exhibiting inspirational sumoud (steadfastness).”
Wiles is a photographer and his writing is like printed photos; he is true to his words, he lets the Palestinians in these stories speak directly for themselves. Every story is a snap shot. Wiles never intrudes or puts himself in the reader´s face. Both his photos and his writing are sensitive vehicles for his friends in Aida Camp.
And it is rare for a foreigner to live so closely for so long as he has in an internal Palestinian refugee camp. He came to work in the Lajee Center for Refugee Youth and Children in Aida Camp, near Bethlehem in 2005 and now lives in the camp. He directs collaborative youth art projects there where continuing his photography – his photos illustrate this book and he has shown them in many international exhibitions.
The book begins with memories; refugee camps are living archives of the atrocities suffered by Palestinians since 1948. Old people recount their stories of destruction, forced exile and movement between refugee camps. Sad, but always hopeful, the old people remember and believe that one day their grandchildren will return to the home village. Fatima from Ajur says, “I want the youth to never forget our land and our history…If you told me today I could return, I would go now and sleep under the trees in my village.”
Another refugee, Abu Gaush from Imwas, will never see his village because it is buried under Canada Park, a lovely picnic site created by money raised in Canada by the Jewish National Fund which boasted of its pride in “reclaiming our homeland”.
Aida camp is now right up against the Apartheid Wall which now brutally separates the 5000 residents from their only green orchard and play area. But even that is not enough; Israeli troops invade the camp whenever they want. But the ugly wall and the watchtower that enables the Israeli to see and shoot into the camp has become the focus of resistance for the children of the camp. Many are shot; others detained. All the while, the camp residents are increasingly isolated and feel as though they live in a prison within a prison.
It is the spirit of resistance which permeates these stories, the irrepressible courage of Palestinians, particularly the children, which gives hope and joy to supporters of the Palestinian struggle. The children who collect the soil and spring water from their family´s village and phone their parents from the shells of their homes when Wiles takes them to the other side of the wall (because children don´t need ID cards).
One of my favourite stories is about the precocious 2 1/2 year old, Gangoon, who stands up when Israeli soldier enter a bus to check the ID papers of Palestinians. She points at a soldier and calls out, “Mama, this is the one who shot Miras [Gangoon´s cousin]!” In spite of adults´ efforts to hush her she continues and asks the soldier, “Why do you have a gun?” When he demands ID cards from adults she firmly said, “Give us your IDs! Give us your IDs!” Wiles writes, “She was telling the soldier that she knew who he was, that whether he spoke to her or not, she knew what he did and what he represented. She was also showing him that she was strong.”
Wiles´ community friends live hard lives of survival; many stories that Wiles recounts are painful and sad, “stories written by the occupation”, but there are stories of weddings, births, festivals, children´s creativity and play; precious moments during the struggles for bread and water, the symbols of their caged existence because as Wiles quotes, “they cannot stop our dreams.”
I have read many books about Palestine, most by Palestinians; Wiles is one foreigner who has absorbed the essence of life in Aida and Palestine generally. This is a perfect book for both the experienced activist and the newcomer to Palestinian reality. As the distinguished author and founder of the Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah, writes in the foreword of this book, “It is a poignant reminder that the history of Palestine is not just a litany of wars and peace plans; it is a country whose people are bursting with life, hope, laughter, and resistance even amid extraordinary suffering, loss, and ongoing oppression.”
The publisher Potomac Books offers a 25% discount on this book until May 31. Â See: http://www.potomacbooksinc.com/ and the discount code is Wall 11.