Simone Weil wrote that attention is the rarest kind of generosity.
Before it was called Israel it was named the Palestine Mandate, and before the Israeli army, there was an armed Jewish group called the Haganah. As my friend Jorge reminds me, armies have always been filled with young men like this. Look at his perfect chest and broad shoulders. He’s a specimen, his step a saunter, his spine straight and strong after all that training. Sure he’s holding a gun, but he’s completely relaxed, this isn’t his first operation, he’s already seen the terrible things men can do to each other’s bodies.
The Haganah’s target was the Palestinian majority. They bombed bridges and rail lines, and helped smuggle Jews into the territory. But not this little boy. The only thing he was defending was a soccer pitch, working on his headers, his pass angles and ball bends. Now here he is with his hat tilted the wrong way, his face set into a permanent scowl, performing a duty for the new state that fills him with so much fear his finger never leaves the trigger. It doesn’t help that his skin is dark, that he’s an Arab, the most unwanted of all the Jews. His nervous trigger finger reminds me of Simone Weil who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, only she was so near-sighted they wouldn’t let her carry a gun, worried she would shoot her own comrades.
Here’s another child soldier. Those smooth wide cheeks, unmarked, show us that the war hasn’t touched him yet, hasn’t turned his face into another battlefield. It’s a face that says yes to duty, although he’s standing in the back, surrounded by his armed comrades, unthreatened. He didn’t join the charge into unarmed Palestinian town and cities shooting everyone in sight. He’s doing a job, that’s all, part of a volunteer army that doesn’t volunteer. He’s a white teenager from Europe in the new homeland, fresh with new promises.
The grandfather is also walking upright, though his knees are weak, it hurts him to take this unexpected journey. In place of a rifle he carries a walking stick, which is stout and straight, like the old man himself. He’s worn his best suit jacket and his favourite hat to mark the occasion. They’ve taken his home but not his dignity.
It couldn’t have been easy to live with a single-minded stubborn like this, who always had the first word and the last. His deep need for attention and control is disguised by his culture, which makes it appear normal, even as his unwillingness to face his own blindness delivers to his sons a cruel inheritance.
His oldest son is bent to the task. He’s wearing overalls, unafraid to get his hands dirty, mechanic and handyman. There’s no money for the shiny brand new so he’s forever busy splicing parts, haggling at the market, coaxing old machines back to life. He’s been saving up for a place of his own, but in the meantime lives at home, like all of his friends. The old man used to have the strength of ten, but now there are mornings when he can hardly raise a spoon to his mouth. There are parts of his body that he hasn’t felt for years, so the hurt stays outside.
Here is the most mysterious figure in the photograph. Only his face is visible. He’s the smallest of the three brothers, and here he is nearly horizontal, wishing he was still asleep, ready to wake up in someone else’s dream. War is the art of breaking bodies. Who am I without these hands, these legs, these eyes? What if the only thing that were left of me was my face? He looks like his grandfather, which he has been told since birth is a good omen. But in his young life, the only good seems to come from horoscopes and promises. The schools have closed, his friends vanished, everything that was once solid and reliable has turned into dust.
One last face awaits us. He’s dark like his mother, like his grandfather, like his young son pushing the cart. While the rest of the family looks like it is carrying out a duty—the cost of this walk, the effort it takes not to turn against these soldiers who won a war without having to fight it—he can feel all of that grinding him down.
He’s always the first in the family to cry, always expressing the unwanted feelings, the hard subjects. After his mother’s death, he became the woman in the family, in other words: the face of resistance. He wraps his arms around his brother, he massages his father’s aching feet. He tries to kiss away the nightmares of his young boy. Right now he’s just trying to stay inside his body because there’s a whole country inside him ready to jump out and raise the newly forbidden flag.
We are in the port city of Haifa. Napoleon once called it home, along with the Persians, the Crusaders, the Egyptians, the Ottomans and the British. Each empire seemed to last forever. Today is May 12, 1949, a year after the new state of Israel was established, and the massacres that made it possible. While most of Haifa’s citizens were Muslims, Jewish immigration has targeted this key city and they need places to live. It’s clear the Palestinians will have to leave.
This family has just lost their home at gunpoint. They were given a few minutes to load their cart, and are now headed to a camp in Syria that they will never leave. Even as they take the long walk out of their neighbourhood a new legend emerges, that Israel was a land without people, for a people without land. Everyone in the photo is dead now, but their ancestors live on, in stolen dwellings or forgotten slums, as if the picture can’t be erased, can’t stop itself from repeating.