Below is a blog post from one of our 2023 Human Rights Summer Research Grant awardees, Hareth Yousef, who spent the summer in Palestine documenting the altered topography of the villages encircling Ramallah, with a particular focus on his hometown of Kobar.
To learn more about the Human Rights Summer Research Grant, click here.
When my family reminisces about the days of old in Jerusalem before the installation of checkpoints, a prevailing sense of sadness fills the air. Seeking a change in my mood, I venture out to the mountains. Yet, my tranquility is disrupted by the sounds of construction coming from the nearby settlement, steadily encroaching upon our precious lands. On Saturdays, the joyful voices of settler children at play further accentuate the stark reality of the occupation that looms over us, erasing the cherished landscape of my childhood and replacing it with settler outposts.
My artistic endeavor serves as a testament to my family's enduring struggle in Palestine, a struggle that spans generations fueled by an unjust apartheid system and unlawful incursions. Recent times have brought the threat of losing access to the places I hold dear perilously close to home—less than a mile from Kobar, my village in Ramallah, where I reside. The expansion of illegal Israeli settlements surrounding my village has been relentless, devouring our lands. In 2019, I embarked on a series of daily hikes and photography excursions, capturing the landscapes I hold dear. These experiences have provided the foundation for my MFA EDA thesis project at Duke University, culminating in a documentary that delves into the altered topography of the villages encircling Ramallah, with a particular focus on my hometown, Kobar.
Structured in a dialogue between two segments, the documentary unveils a profound narrative:
Firstly, my grandmother, one of the last representatives of a generation reliant on farming as a primary source of livelihood, clings steadfastly to our family's old agricultural traditions. Nourishing herself with produce cultivated and harvested by her own hands, she remains deeply rooted in our past. Amidst the olive harvest season, while most have shifted to modern machinery for olive extraction, she persists in the traditional practice of hand-picking and manually pressing the olives. Our olive oil, akin to gold, is a poignant reminder of our heritage. As she bakes fresh bread to accompany the oil, her nostalgic tales transport us to a long-gone er, where the lands were reminiscent of paradise.
Secondly, I embark on sensory documentation of the very landscape my grandmother describes—a landscape that has undergone profound transformations. Much of what she vividly recollects is now obscured from sight; once lush mountains adorned with olive trees, vineyards, and figs have seen a stark decline. The disappearance of fig and grape trees can be attributed to various factors, including the destructive presence of wild boars, acting as agents of devastation. In one of the interviews, my grandmother recounts how settlers attempted to undermine the village's agriculture by introducing a substantial gazelles population, ravaging the crops and trees. Yet, their efforts were spoilt as the lands could be protected or the gazelles hunted for sustenance. When this strategy faltered, settlers introduced non-native wild boars, a formidable challenge to guard against due to their destructive capability and nocturnal habits. Furthermore, hunting them was not an option due to religious prohibitions against consuming pork. The documentation of wild boars has been challenging, given their nocturnal nature and elusive behavior during daylight hours. However, I am determined to complete the documentary's filming phase before my summer break's conclusion.
In essence, my documentary bears witness to the intricate interplay between the indomitable spirit of my grandmother, her connection to the imperiled land, and the profound alterations wrought upon it. Through visual storytelling, I strive to convey the multifaceted layers of a struggle that transcends time and generations, ultimately shedding light on the evolving landscapes of Palestinian villages and the unwavering resilience of those who call them home.