Conflict in the Middle East: Symbols of life and death

In themselves, they are worth nothing. But everyday objects take on a new meaning when something terrible happens to their owner, as a poignant exhibition in Tel Aviv shows. By Donald Macintyre
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The Independent Online

Whenever Nadette de Visser travels with her exhibition Objects in Conflict - and it has been shown in Amsterdam and Jerusalem already - she takes as much of it as possible in her hand baggage for a simple, if paradoxical, reason.

On the one hand, these pieces are monetarily valueless, and therefore uninsurable: a pair of spectacles; a cardboard, heart-shaped chocolate box; a woollen kippa; a rusty old key; a bottle of home-made wine; some half-decayed bars from a soap-factory; an embroidered cushion; and a metal dog-tag of the sort worn by every Israeli soldier.

Yet to their owners they are precious beyond price. What would his East Jerusalem Palestinian family say if Ms de Visser lost the running shoes owned by George Khoury, who was shot dead while out jogging by militants who thought he was an Israeli Jew? Or the Israeli reporter Erik Schecter, who was badly wounded in a suicide bombing while working for the Jerusalem Post, if the ripped leather jacket he keeps as a symbol of his survival, because he believes it saved his life, disappeared? Or the Palestinian lawyer Amram Bakr if he could never look again at the junior delegate's security pass which he wore at the 1991 Madrid peace conference and describes as his "most precious non-familiar object" because it "encompasses my hopes and my people's dreams".

So Ms de Visser, a Dutch journalist and art historian who visited each of the owners to hear their stories, is even more careful with the objects that make up the exhibition, which opened yesterday at the Masa Aher-Geo Photo College in Tel Aviv, than if they were expensive paintings or sculptures. "I found that after people had let me have the objects for the exhibition, they kept phoning and e-mailing me to check they were all right," she says. "But then when they saw the exhibition they felt OK and stopped contacting me."

By using the human and the particular to focus on the pain and the complexities of the conflict, the exhibition is an unashamed attempt to make those on each side empathise with the other. And it seems to work. "I thought both people on the Palestinian and Israeli sides would say you have shown too much of the other side," Ms de Visser says. "But that didn't happen."

Each of the 16 objects carries its own story, a moving testimony by the owner. In several cases, they encompass the desire to reach across the divide, such as the metal paratroops insignia belonging to the Israeli ex-special forces soldier Elik Elhanan, who after his younger sister, Smadar, was killed in a 1993 suicide bombing became "hungry for revenge" until he followed his father into the Parents' Circle, which brings together bereaved Palestinian and Israeli families. Mr Elhanan speaks out uneqivocally against the "ideology" of violence on the opposite side, makes clear he cannot "empathise" with the man who killed his sister, but also saysthat "Israeli violence against the Palestinians, in which I took part, indirectly killed my sister".

Or the photograph of, and last letter from, Al Abu Awwad's brother, who was killed by Israeli forces at a checkpoint in 2000. Mr Awwad, another member of the Circle and a former local Fatah leader, says that, like Mr Elhanan, he cannot forgive the perpetrator for his brother's death, but adds: "I do not want other Palestinians to use my pain to justify the use of violence. My brother's death cannot be righted by a thousand dead Israelis."

In others, however, the objects have little or no "message", emblems only of the pain, and occasionally hope, they represent. "Ordinary daily life" objects, says Ms de Visser, which marked a "before and after" in the experience of those they belong to. "When these objects became important, the lives of their owners changed drastically," she says.

When the exhibition opened in Amsterdam, it confronted a foreign audience with the human reality behind the mind-numbing, seemingly never changing television pictures of the conflict. "People said, 'That could have been me; I have objects at home like that'," Ms de Visser says.

Four stories from 'Objects in Conflict'

The heart-shaped chocolate box

The American-born Israeli lawyer Allegra Pacheco says in the exhibition catalogue that she first began to defend Abed al-Rahman Al Amar, a Palestinian human rights activist who later became deputy mayor of Bethlehem, when he was being tortured in jail. After his release they ran a law office together, fell in love and got married. Then in 2002, when she was already pregnant, Israeli forces arrested her husband once again. According to Ms Pacheco "they were looking for someone else and they couldn't find them so they said 'let's take Abed, he's been in prison before.'" He was detained for 20 months. She explained to Nadette de Visser that after their son, Quds, was born she sent her husband the box with chocolates while he was in jail. "When he had finished it he glued beads to the empty box, bead by bead. It was a gift for our son's first birthday. By that time he had still never laid his eyes on him. It took Abed three months, from January to April of 2004, to make the box into what it is now. The coloured beads are brought in for the prisoners by the Red Cross. But often the beads were confiscated by the wardens. If Abed ran out of beads he had to sneak them in from another part of the prison. The box represents Abed's love for his son, Quds, and me." Mr Al Amar has since been released and the couple have another child, Jalil.

The running shoes

George Khoury, a Hebrew University student from a Christian Palestinian family, only went jogging on 19 March 2004 in the north Jerusalem suburb of French Hill because it was a Friday evening and the local gym was closed. At around 7.30pm, a man stepped out of a car and fired four shots. Two bullets hit him, one in his head and one in his side. Attempts to resuscitate him were in vain. Shortly afterwards the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade announced on the internet that they had killed an Israeli. His father, Elias Khoury, told Nadette de Visser: "They described it as something heroic. When they realised it was an Arab they took it off the website... [Yasser] Arafat called us twice and sent a letter saying my son was a martyr etcetera. This will help nothing. George was an angel and not a martyr. He was just jogging and enjoying the clean winter and the beautiful area and wanted to go home and think about the future. He was not thinking about heaven at the time; for him life was sacred, not death." Mr Khoury said that "the greatness of Moses, when he brought the ten commandments to the Jews, was to create a "context and structure for his people... "that is an essential ingredient for any nation. If there are no rules that are respected in our community, even against our cruellest enemies, we have no chance to grow up and build a nation respected by the world."

The wine bottle

Ehud Amram, a lawyer, is a religious Jewish settler in the West Bank. A Palestinian from a nearby village built his house for him, and even though Mr Amram didn't have much money, Sharif, the builder was prepared to wait for his money. He said, "Pay me when you have it." The two became friends. "He is a very nice person, we enjoyed talking to him, laughing with him. I'm a lawyer and yet I never signed a contract with him". They're even planning a holiday in Europe together towards the end of 1999. Such relations between Palestinians even with neighbouring settlers was not exceptional then, before the second intifada started in 2000. What is exceptional is that they stayed friends after 2000. Some three years ago, Sharif called to say his cousin had been found with a knife and arrested as suspected terrorist. Asked by Sharif to represent him, Mr Amram met the detained man and quickly established that he was a psychiatric case. He went, wearing his kippa, as his advocate to the military court in Ramallah and to the amazement of everyone in the court, Palestinians and Israelis alike, pleaded the man's case-and won. Sharif's family slaughtered a sheep in Mr Amram's honour, and as Mr Amram testified: "Since then, every year at the end of the summer, Sharif's family invited me to come over and take grapes. And those grapes are made into wine by my father."

The pages from the Bible

It was when her friend Netta Yadid showed her these photocopied pages from the Book of Proverbs that Nadette de Visser first thought of collecting "Objects in Conflict". The "charred pages from the Bible, the kind every schoolchild walks around with", had been found by Ms Yadid's father in West Jerusalem's Gaza Street in January 2004 close to where, a few hours earlier, a Palestinian suicide bomber had killed 11 Israelis on a bus. Her father was at pains - eventually successfully - to find out to whom they belonged: one of the religious Yeshiva students who had been killed in the bombing. Hethen photocopied them once again. The originals, which he handed to the rescue organisation Zaka, were buried with the victim, because they might have had drops of blood on them and under Jewish religious law every part of the body needs to be buried together. Netta Yadid said that her father, "not a religious man but from a religious family", interpreted some of "the dark prophecies of catastrophe and death" in the text as "a promise of revenge". But his daughter saw it differently: in Judaism, she said "you have to take care of the stranger... and of everyone who is weaker than you." She added: "That is not at all what is being done here. The Jewish faith is being used by people who misuse it, in the same way that the Koran is being used by Muslim fanatics."