Sunday, 28 June 2009

I missed a riot

I'm not a very good journalist. I missed a riot. And it wasn't a very easy riot to miss, considering it happened thirty seconds from my hotel. And it happens every Saturday at around the same time.

Normally, I wouldn't be so flippant about covering a riot. I'm not an adrenaline-junkie who likes seeing people hurt and moans that there wasn't enough blood. If people are getting seriously hurt, I'm not happy. But this was a different riot. It's being called the Sabbath Wars, and is based on the fact that God said to Jerusalem's Ultra-Orthodox Jews not to open a car park on Saturday. But he did say that in response to that car par opening you could riot and burn tires and assault police.

Then, not happy just attacking police (and getting themselves hurt in the process), they attacked journalists, forcing a Channel 2 news presenter to cut short a live broadcast. That's just a step too far. I mean, attack the police all you want, but for God's sake (no pun intended) spare the journalists.

I'm starting to think the most dangerous thing about covering this conflict is not the armed violence, it's the threat of being attacked by Orthodox rioters.

Now I'm still in Jerusalem waiting for news on my press credentials. The press officer made it very clear that they don't like freelance journalists. They probably don't like Palestinian/British freelance journalists much either, but he didn't say that. He did say that my commission from the London Bureau of Reuters wasn't good enough, I had to have it commissioned through the Jerusalem office. So I called the Jerusalem office and said "you don't know me, but..." and head of the bureau said "okay, tell the London bureau to contact me and tell me who you are". He was very nice about it, actually.

So I called the London bureau, but of course my editor is away on holiday, so I had to speak to the deputy editor and say "you don't know me, but..." You get the idea. She was also very nice about it, and said yes. At least the official paperwork will be taken care of. Now it just remains for the "other stuff" to be passed. This, from what I understand, is an intense background check the GPO does before issuing press cards. This is what the foreign press liaison said he was doing at the GPO office last time I called him.

We can only wait and see...

In the meantime, I've been finding other stories in Jerusalem. Here's another series of images that was promoted to the front page of Demotix (Ultra-Orthodox won't like this one much either, I'm afraid...)

Now, another coffee...

Friday, 26 June 2009

On a hill in Hebron

"Have you been to Hebron before?" Yoav asks, sitting beside me in a large transit taxi, driving out of Jerusalem.
"You're in for a treat," he chuckles.

Everyone has heard about Hebron - the anomaly in the Palestinian/Israeli landscape. Around 600 settlers live in the centre of a city of 170,000 Palestinians. The handful of hard-core settlers are guarded in turn by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, and the centre of town - off-limits to Palestinians - is a dead zone. All the shops on the main market street are closed, shutters pulled down over doors and covered in graffiti. We drive through a series of checkpoints, but no one stops us in our taxi with yellow license plates. The roads are completely empty. We drive through H2 (the zone of Israeli settlements) to H1: the zone theoretically under Palestinian control, but still peppered with settlers in Arab houses. It's a short walk up-hill to Issa's house, but under this sun and my heavy backpack - full of my cameras and microphones - I'm struggling. I'm also out of shape, that doesn't help my endurance much.

Issa's house is being used as the headquarters of a media project supporting the use of video in monitoring human rights abuses. So far, hundreds of cameras have been handed out across the West Bank, and these hundreds of Palestinian volunteers have provided invaluable footage to international news broadcasters, as well as filmed crucial evidence for legal appeals.

Now I've been brought here to raise the skill level a little and encourage the participants to start thinking about directing their own short documentaries, representing their own lives and revealing the human details of existence to an international audience that often has little understand of the ordinary, banal, daily life of a Palestinian.

The participants here know exactly how the international news media portrays them, and what's missing in the picture.
"People don't understand us, they don't see us as human beings."
So we talk about simple stories. Your family. Your neighbours. What it's like getting water from the well every morning. What it's like farming next to a settlement every day. Very simple stories, the sort of thing many of the participants would just overlook, but exactly the kind of stories that people outside Palestine need to see to understand the humanity of the situation.

It's not a easy project, and this isn't an easy idea to sell to everyone. Fadi leans forward, resting his elbows on his legs, and scowls at the group. He's a big guy, tall and wide. Even with a baby face, and his round bald head, he can still look intimidating. Fadi volunteered for the project, and he's enthusiastic about filming, but he's also angry.
"Why should we film? What's the point? Am I going to open a case against the Israeli courts? Then what happens? Nothing. If my son is being beaten, what am I going to do, just sit back and film it?"

Good question, of course. I'm not here to convince anyone that this project is going to save their lives and end the occupation, and I tell them that. I'm not here to tell them to stop everything and just film from now on, and I'm definitely not asking them to put themselves in danger to get evidence. But, amidst the politics and violence here, in the middle of all the pressures and strains, there is suddenly a very small possibility for Palestinians to take ownership over their own representation for once, to tell their own stories rather than having them told for them.

It's a tiny gesture: pick up a camera and film. But it can have massive consequences. I talk about how the footage is broadcast around the world. I talk about how much support the project has in the UK. I talk about the capacity of the participants to tell a story that no one would otherwise ever hear.

I realise quickly that I don't need to tell them all this, because there are others in the group already convinced of the project's potential. They tell Fadi their own stories. They describe what they filmed and what it feels like to finally hold a crucial piece of evidence when, for so long, the Israeli police and courts have asked - in answer to any complaints - "where's the evidence."

But I also know my limitations. "You know better than me what your lives are like. I can only tell you how to use this camera, where your footage goes, and what impact it can have. The rest is up to you."

"But we know the media is controlled by Zionists" they complain. It's an oversimplification I hear over and over again in Palestine, and I'm sick of hearing it. Not only because it isn't strictly true (the media is controlled by capitalists...) but because it's a phrase often used over and over again just to absolve us of our responsibilities.

"Whoever controls the media," I answer, "Maybe this is your chance to take back some of that control..."

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

First day of training

I spent Tuesday in a town near Nablus, running a preliminary training workshop with a media NGO here (I'll give the details once I leave..) Hundreds of cameras were distributed around the West Bank as part of a programme to document human rights abuses and so far it's been a huge success, footage broadcast around the world on international news channels. Now I've been hired to run a few workshops and training sessions - a review for some and an introduction to those who have just picked up their cameras for the first time. We're aiming to bring the skill level up a notch, to facilitate them eventually making their own short films.

There are several brave families in the room. Husbands and wives, some young children, all of them volunteered for the programme because they could both see the value of it, and wanted the feeling of having a role in documenting their own lives. Tired of seeing the news and finding so may holes in the representation of Palestinian lives. Tired of taking their cases to court only to be told "where's the evidence?" Now they have evidence. Things won't change overnight, but at the least the possibility for a video camera to empower these families is promising.

Bassam, on the right in the photograph, never used a camera before. He came to the workshops because a friend told him about it, and he liked the idea of documenting what he was going through in his village of 'Aqraba. 144,000 Dunums of farm land, it's on the border with the Jordan Valley, and as the whole of the Jordan Valley is under military law (far more strict than that in the West Bank) the authorities keep creeping into 'Aqraba. They restrict the movement of 'Aqraba farmers, they take a little more land, they take a little more water, they suddenly designate an area as a closed military zone. Things are getting worse, Bassam explains.

Maybe the cameras can help...

Monday, 22 June 2009

Back in Jersualem

This is the fastest I've ever made it through Israeli security. Face freshly-shaven. Shirt, tucked in. Papers all in order. I sat for only ten minutes, they called me into the security office next to the immigration window. They welcomed me back, said they knew I'd been there many times before as a journalist, and said they wanted to get me through as fast as possible. They and asked a few simple questions.
What are you here for?
Reporting on the reconstruction in Gaza.
With who?
Who's your contact in Gaza?

That was it. Gave them some phone numbers, and walked out - even finding my luggage still by the carousel - to meet Dori in the cafe with green chairs (we always meet in the cafe with green chairs. Although this time I went to the wrong cafe. Apparently all the cafes here have green chairs.)

I haven't seen Dori in a few years. What's new? He finally finished renovating his house. He's a grandfather - his daughter has a one year old she called Ariel, after the Little Mermaid (not Sharon). He's started driving medical school exams between the students and professors for money, apparently it pays quite well. They trust him not to look at the questions. He asks where I'm going and I tell him West Bank for a week, then Gaza.

"Oh, Gaza. Make sure you wear PRESS on your back all the time, one of our snipers might see you and know you're not from Gaza and shoot you."

I'm exhausted, having had too much coffee trying to stay awake. It's not working. So I'll give in and go to sleep...

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Demonstration at Iranian embassy, London

Following the alleged electoral fraud in Iran, protesters gathered in front of the Iranian embassy in London to demonstrate. My photos of the event made the front page of the Demotix website.

(Not sure how long it'll stay up catch it while you can. If you miss it on the front page, my personal page is here.

In other news, I'm working on a lesson plan for a series of workshops I'll be holding in the West Bank and Gaza for media workers, to develop the use of video in online citizen journalism and human rights monitoring. More details to come...

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Egyptian bloggers: kidnapped and tortured

You may have read earlier about the time I spent waiting in Cairo for Laila El Haddad so we could both cross into Gaza together to work on a media training project. That never happened.

But while I was in Cairo, I managed to trace four Egyptian bloggers recently allegedly kidnapped and tortured by state security officials. They have all since been released, but their stories - and the revelation that government officials are virtually immune from prosecution - make for some very disturbing news.

I originally made the film for Al-Jazeera English's Focus on Gaza programme, but while in the middle of the final cut, the programme was suddenly cancelled, so the film is now looking for a new home (most probably in a slightly different form).

If you've read this far, and you're still interested, you deserve a sneak peak. This is a link to a rough preview, and you'll need the password "bloggers".

Let me know if you have any ideas...

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Hard Time Killing Floor

A few months ago, I (very much by surprise, and sort of by accident) became a playwright when my script Hard Time Killing Floor - about a Turkish/British man returning to London after awaiting execution in a Turkish prison for 12 years - was selected for the Angle Theatre's New Writer's season at the Hackney Empire.

I'd like to extend and invitation to everyone to the first public reading of my play on June 7th:

"Hard Time Killing Floor"
Hackney Empire Studio
291 Mare Street, London E8 1EJ
Sunday, June 7, 4:30 pm
Tickets are free but you should book through the season producer Amelia Nicholson.
Her email is

For details of the venue, click here

A man returns to London after serving twelve years in a Turkish prison awaiting execution. We don't see the crime and we don't see the violence - only the consequences of both. The question is not one of guilt or innocence, but of the process of putting your life back together after being released and allowed to return home. Things are no longer in perspective. The man can't see his friends and family - let alone himself - in the same way, and there are some questions that he can't answer.

Hope to see you there, and please feel free to let anyone else know who you think might be interested...