Saturday, April 23, 2005

Thursday afternoon I was sitting at the Shuk (the market) with my friend L. We went to a workers' cafe called Azura. It was four o'clock, and they were almost out of food. "hummus and Gulash, that's what left". We went for hummus with foul (broad beans). L is studying fine art at Jerusalem. She was telling me about a project she did in Paris, at the book shop 'Shakespeare and Co'. She asked the customers and the workers there to pose for her on the sofa, and she took pictures. 'Did they all agree?' 'All but one. Actually they really wanted me to take their picture, they were totally excited to do it. One guy refused to get up from the sofa. Another demanded to take my picture on the sofa."
Funny, I said, I think of all the theoretical writing on photography I've read: how it's usually described as a product of an objectifying gaze, creating and maintaining a power balance, where the photographer captures the subject, in more than one sense. But hearing you I realize that we forget how the subjects are not passive, how they play their part and sometimes demand to be photographed; this power dynamics is not simple and unchanging.
'I think that it helps a lot that I'm a woman. I think people are more happy to be photographed by a woman' says L. 'But you know, I wasn't happy with those pictures when they came out. And my tutor said to me something I liked: don't take pictures, make pictures.
Suddenly there was a commotion from the cafe on the other side of the alley. A man who was sitting and eating rice and salad got up and grabbed a chair, all angry and shouting. He ran up to a guy that was standing with a fancy digital camera. "Don't take my picture! Why do you take pictures here?" he still held the chair in his hands, threatening to throw it at the photographer. A girl standing next to the photographer was looking pale and shaken.
'It's so strange, we were just talking about this.' I said to L. 'I wonder why he was so angry. But maybe it's not so difficult to guess: nobody likes to feel like an animal in the zoo'.
'And some people don't want to be photographed while they're eating'.

Thinking back, I realize there's more than that. Differences of class and ethnic origin play behind the scenes. The man that got angry seemed not-very-well-off; the photographer had a flashy camera, he was dressed as a cool student. The man looked Sepharadie, from middle-eastern origin; the photographer looked Ashkanzie, European in origin. Ashkenazie Jews in Israel are usually better off, more educated, and usually enjoy better social position (for example all Israeli Prime Ministers were ashkeanzie). But the shuk is not an Ashkenazie place.
One reason I like the shuk is that these tensions are always felt there - nothing is kept under the carpet. All the sellers are right wing. There's Lots of religious nutters. The workers are mostly Palestinians from East Jerusalem. Many of the workers are kids as young as 12 year old. I don't want to portray the shuk as a heaven where all differences are forgotten because of the wonderful vegetables and fruits and food; it's not like this at all. Differences are felt there in a raw, and sometimes unpleasant way. But at least it's all on the surface.

* * *

That very evening I talked with M. on the phone - he just came back from three days in London. He told me of two violent incident he witnessed: a stabbing in Camden market and a brawl in a Pub. "These two men, both of them very nicely dressed, one minute they were talking and drinking their beers and next, out of the blue, one of them hit the other in the face and he started bleeding from his cheek.' M said he was shocked by the abruptness of it all.
I thought about the man at the Shuk who threatened to throw the chair at the photographer. There was something so pathetic about the whole gesture: the chair was a plastic one, you can't really kick someone's brains with a green plastic chair. And he didn't even throw it. He stood over him and shouted and a couple of times motioned as if he will throw the chair, but he didn't. He just went back to his lunch muttering.
Bravado is very typical for Israeli men. There's a lot of shouting and scary facial expressions, but street fights are actually very rare. This rooster-style machismo saves the need to fight; so much energy is wasted on aggressive language and hand gestures that when it comes down to it nobody can be bothered actually hitting eachother. I think it's a Mediterranean thing.

* * *

For the next week no wheat-related products can be bought in most of the shops. No bread, no beer. It's Passover, and the Passover meal is tonight, a big family dinner in which we read a religious text, the Hagadah. I can't say I'm looking forward to it, but it's never as bad as I expect it to be.
I found myself thinking about sentences from the Hagadah in the last few weeks: the text is very much about Jewish memory. This triggers many questions for me, about Israeli-Palestinian history, and about how we remember the past. I might write about it here in the next few days. Anyway, happy Passover everybody.


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