Part-time Occupation

August 27, 2010
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A few months back the editors of Antenna asked me if I’d write up a post relating to my year doing field research on American and European funding of media in the West Bank, Palestinian territories.  The request seemed simple enough. Surely a year of my life is worth a few hundred words and catchy title.  I’ve certainly had to do more with less at times during my career.  Nonetheless, I found the assignment completely paralyzing.  Every scholar faces a challenge when explaining his or her work to a wider audience.  When you know a lot, it’s often easy to forget what an average level of knowledge of the subject looks like and sometimes hard to remember that not everyone lives and breathes this stuff.  But if your work has anything to do with Israel, Palestine and the perpetual storm of controversy that surrounds Jerusalem, there’s that and much, much more.

The levels of passion and scrutiny that scholarship on this area of the world attract is probably unequaled, a fact that can either foster or stifle the production of knowledge, depending on the context of the discussion and the dispositions of the interlocutors.  There are platoons of people inside and outside of the academy ready to label every article, book review and blog post as either “pro” or “anti” their side. A single word can set off a firestorm and seemingly insignificant statements can become snowballs imposing enough to crush, or at least nicely dent, reputations.  Often these responses are the result of authentic reactions to injustice, but that fact provides no reassurance that they are fair. It’s a challenging, important area to study but it’s not something I’m tempted to go on record about without some serious foresight.

But I will share a bit of my experience.  It’s impossible to say what it’s like to study media in the Palestinian territories because it is a place where who you are defines where you can be.  For example, I’m an American so I’m allowed to travel between Israel and “Area A” spaces that are controlled by the Palestinian Authority yet still under the military occupation of the Israeli government.  I’ve been working in the West Bank for awhile now so I’m comfortable using the buses and taxis there, none of which are dangerous but many of which can fluctuate in price heavily based on your perceived nationality.  My Arabic is fair, which helps, but most everyone speaks enough English, particularly my friends, many of whom work for the very media organizations that I research.  The roads are awful, the people aren’t punctual and if you can’t at least hold a cigarette and stomach a half dozen strong coffees a day, you won’t fit in.  But it’s manageable.  I spent approximately six hours a week waiting at checkpoints to go from Bethlehem or Ramallah in Israeli-controlled Jerusalem, which is enormously annoying but more than anything serves to underscore the freedom of movement that most of the people I write about don’t have.  Without special permission, the majority of them cannot enter Jerusalem, a city that serves as the center of Palestinian national aspirations.

But even though that experience is not one that can be simulated, there are moments where you get just a little, tiny taste. One morning I had a meeting scheduled for eight a.m. at Post Office Square in the town of Arram.  This is a very specific place, not terribly big, located a little bit south of Ramallah, the administrative capitol of the Palestinian territories.  I was supposed to meet with someone from the Norwegian Representative Office to the Palestinian People, the equivalent of an embassy but for a place not yet a country.  The NRO had funded a film version of an anti-domestic violence play that I’d been researching for months and after a few dozen emails I was invited for a visit. I thought I’d go in, work the early conversation around to most of my small Norwegian vocabulary, then let the inevitably tall, blonde women in charge of the NRO’s side of the project give me some facts and figures.  I’d be back in Jerusalem by dinner.

Buses from the Israeli side of the concrete barrier that fences in most of the Palestinian West Bank are virtually never checked.  All security is on the way out.  So I took the bus in, called up a friend and asked him to give me a ride to the address of the NRO.  We drove to Arram, looking for the “World Bank Building” in Post Office Square.  Soon enough, signs for the building appeared, pointing us this way and that, around corners and over hills.  We stopped to ask some people where the World Bank Building was.  There was nothing but blank stares.  But yet, the signs persisted.  Three or four arrows later, we discovered the problem.  The last sign said “World Bank” and pointed directly at a 25-foot concrete wall with barbed wire across the top and three languages worth of notice that getting too close would be very bad for my health.  After a moment we realized what had happened.  In building the separation wall Israel had placed the barrier right down the center of Post Office Square, leaving half the town on the side contiguous with Israel and the other half, well, not.  Longish story short, I was in the wrong Arram.  My tall blonde Norwegian film funder was only yards away, but it would take me hours of traffic and security checks to get there.  She waited and found my broken Norwegian vaguely charming.  I got my information but didn’t quite make it back for dinner.  It may take time, but at least I can go wherever I want.

If this sounds like a challenge for the study of media, you can perhaps begin to imagine how it impacts productions.  Keeping shooting schedules is hard enough under perfect conditions.  For producers in the West Bank things are never perfect.  For a scholar, for better and for worse, that’s part of the story.


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One Response to “ Part-time Occupation ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on August 29, 2010 at 9:11 AM

    Thanks for this, Matt. Broad question, but how does such a context change what’s possible and what isn’t in terms of programming?