Stephen Shore’s book, From Galilee to the Negev, captures life in the West Bank

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In his latest publication, American photographer Stephen Shore presents an intimate portrait of Israel and the West Bank, exploring the landscapes, complexities and contradictions of this multi-faceted part of the world.

From Galilee to the Negev, published this week by Phaidon, features some 273 images taken across six trips to the region over a two-year period, Shore explains. His interest lies in capturing the day-to-day lives of the people who live in Israel and the West Bank – the human stories that are often obscured by media coverage that focuses on conflict in the region.

The book also features a selection of texts by a diverse range of writers who each choose and respond to a photograph.

Israeli-born chef Yotam Ottolenghi contributes an essay, ‘Un-brave Old World’, in which he shares his thoughts on what life is like for Israelis and Palestinians. He references an image of a house in the Arab-Israeli town Abu Ghosh, situated to the west of Jerusalem.

Here we reproduce, by kind permission of Phaidon, Ottolenghi’s essay in full.


‘Un-brave Old World’ by Yotam Ottolenghi, from Stephen Shore’s From Galilee to the Negev, published by Phaidon

“You can never tell how something began, how anything began, really. How did this house begin? Probably the bit on the left of the large window, where the stone is fairly rough and aged, is the beginning of the Arab house.

“It is an Arab house, or at least it used to be. Such local stones as the ones used on the original part are probably too old to have been used in a house built by Jews. There is a black water tank, which any local would tell you is where Palestinians keep a small water reserve in case the Israelis stop the water supply. Has this happened here in the past? I am not sure. But it doesn’t matter. This is part of the Palestinian/Israeli reality.

“Other elements are also inextricable parts of this reality. Or, more accurately, they are both makers and marks of it: washing hanging out to dry, messy power cables, solar panels and various generations of TV antennas, satellite dishes for watching Arab stations not available in Israeli channel bundles, thorny wild and cultivated plants, a combination of rubbish and useful-junk- gradually-turning-into-rubbish, a hotchpotch of building materials and building styles, objects without a designated place. No one person has ever stepped back to look at what this building is, what it looks like, and what it means.

“But this is not an accusation – it is a reality. Most Israelis and Palestinians are too concerned with survival to worry about style, about beautifying the outdoors; this is a luxury, something you can worry about once everything else is taken care of.

“This doesn’t mean the occupants of this house aren’t happy, that they don’t eat a delicious dinner together – local green olives, a plate of tahini with parsley, stuffed courgettes cooked in tomato sauce – and then spend the evening in front of the television, gradually falling asleep and then retiring to their rooms. In most respects they could be ‘normal’, like anyone else. But the apparent neglect of the outdoors, the disinclination to stop and take stock of the property and its basic aesthetic – that has definitely got to do with the busy minds of the current occupiers, with the eternal distractions and mild anxiety always hovering in the air, always threatening to draw the ground from under one’s feet, as the Hebrew proverb goes. ‘For God’s sake,’ the owner may say, ‘who’s got time to take down the old antennas and tidy up the garden! Am I foolish enough to throw away good building materials? They don’t bother anyone piled up by the adjoining wall.’

“The telltale signs alluding to an imperilled reality, or an imperilled psyche, are of the present, directly linked to the lives of the present occupants. But this house is also an archaeological site; it is a live testament to events that have taken place here over the past two centuries. An old Arab house, maybe one hundred and fifty or two hundred years old, stands in its centre. It is made of Jerusalem stone. Local law dictates that all houses in the city are made of this stone. But the actual location could be in another part of the country, say Galilee. It is definitely not in a Palestinian village in the West Bank because the licence plate on the car is Israeli. So we are either in an Arab village or town in Israel, or in Arab East Jerusalem, occupied in 1967 and annexed by Israel in 1980.

“The large window to the right is part of an addition; with an aluminium window frame a recent update. Further to the right is the latest ‘proper’ addition, with plastic window frames and shutters of the kind used for no more than twenty years. The orange roof-tiled skirt, creating a kind of veranda on the ground floor, is foreign to the region, or at least used to be. Arab houses have always been flat-roofed. This shows a Jewish influence and evokes a sense of European civility, a Swiss chalet in the middle of the Middle East.

“The various additions on the roof and in front, made of cheap cinder blocks, are either toilets or for storage. Old houses don’t have bathrooms. Like anywhere else in the world, a corrugated- iron roof is the ultimate sign of provisional existence, a temporary stage preceding a forever-yearned-for permanent dwelling. This is one of the things this house has in common with many other structures the world over housing poor or almost-poor families. A slum is a slum.

“Here, though, there is an extra aspect, a special ‘condition’. We are in the land where absolutely everything is transient, nothing is certain or permanent. Everybody knows how many rulers and occupiers this land has seen arriving, with much pomp and ceremony, and then banished never to return. Amorites, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, Brits – this land has seen them all. And that’s a lot to see. Only, here, unlike other well- trodden lands, it isn’t only the land that has seen this flux. It is part and parcel of the collective unconscious of the people. This unconscious, though, isn’t unconscious at all. It is alive and well and reinforced daily.

“The inhabitants of this land – whether Muslims, Jews or Christians – all know very well the list of empires and peoples this place has seen. The vast majority of them are themselves recent newcomers, recently exiled, recently occupied, recent occupiers. It is all terribly fresh and real and concrete.

“So this patchwork of a house isn’t at all unusual in this local context. Just like the grand wall surrounding the Old City of Jerusalem, each layer, every level, is a testimony to an era that has come and gone. The deepest stones of the wall, from King David’s time, form the base on which further stones were piled up one on top of another for millennia, creating an infinite wall that nudges a constant reminder of who the forebears were and what happened to them. ‘So why worry about what my house looks like,’ the owner may think, ‘if it is destined to disappear and form the basis for someone else’s home.’

“Finally, if a metaphor is needed, I will take you to the photo on page 151. Our house could be in the village at the top of this ridge. The houses, the village, are a mere pimple on the landscape. Look at the stone making up the landscape, the Jerusalem stone, in its untamed form, as a dry prehistoric sea, full of uncontrollable currents. These are more vast than anything a man can make, or makes. There are no agricultural terraces, no attempt at taming nature. It is pure beauty, the opposite of a brave new world where courageous men dare take on the terrain, shape it, mould it. This is a world where the Jerusalem stone – you just know, everybody knows – is guaranteed to run its course and bury you under its infinite layers, just as it did to the Greeks and the Romans.”

From Galilee to the Negev by Stephen Shore is published by Phaidon, priced at £75.

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