For the many attendees of Picture Balata's opening reception last Wednesday, the event's strong pro-Palestinian view of the Israeli occupation was explicit. The moving testimonies of three children from the Balata Refugee Camp in the West Bank, coupled with their bleak photographs, vividly portrayed the hardships that these teenagers have had to face in a volatile refugee camp.
Despite any reasonable claims that the event was biased, the one-sided nature of the exhibit should actually be viewed as refreshing: Given the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian debate in America is usually so one-sided against Palestinians, the support within the Harvard community for Picture Balata was surprising. It is rare in this country, where criticizing Israeli policies is easily demonized as being "anti-Semitic," that a forum for an unequivocally pro-Palestinian viewpoint receives much attention. Hopefully, this turnout is not merely indicative of a chance to hear about the conflict first-hand, but rather of a new willingness to hear the "other side" in the Middle East conflict.
Picture Balata is a workshop based in the Balata Refugee Camp—the largest and most densely populated in the West Bank—whose goal is to teach teenagers about photography. The exhibit here at Harvard is part of a six-city tour of the United States, attempting to galvanize support and awareness for the program.
On the organization's website, the tour is advertised as the testimonies of four teenagers, but the fourth, Mohammed, was denied a visa by the United States Consulate. The organizer of the event, Maryam Monalisa Gharavi, explained simply, "They said it was because of his name."
The artists who were allowed by the U.S. government to participate—Hadil, Sabreen, and Taha—each explained through a translator why they chose to take the pictures they did. They were unflinching in their resolve to describe the terrible conditions they face each day in Palestine.
All of the artists chose to focus on different aspects of life in the refugee camp, and the subject matter was charged in all three cases. Sabreen explained that she wanted to focus her pictures on women in the camp because, as she explained, a woman "faces terror and occupation…[but] she stays strong and resistant. She knows a day will come when this occupier will leave."
Listening to their narratives, the audience could sense the courage that it must have taken them to leave home for the first time and come to a country considered to be the source—or at least the supporter—of their hardships.
Of course, these three teenagers are not alone in the organization. Tahreer, who is involved in Picture Balata but did participate in the tour, explains on Balata's website that, although her photographs' subjects—young men killed by the Israeli military—are considered terrorists by much of the world, "I photograph martyrs and their families in the camp, because they are our heroes, and people should know what they have sacrificed."
Harvard has taken an important and positive step in supporting this event. Israel has long been the darling of the U.S. media in this conflict, and the complimentary image it continues to hold will be barely scratched by these children's photographs. Supporters of the Israeli occupation may denounce what the presenters said as inflammatory, but, in the end, the pictures speak for themselves: Each one depicts a real life experience of these teenagers. The event wasn't about a scholarly or policy-based critique. It intended to offer a truthful, ground-level perspective of the issue—however desolate that may be—and the photographers' images and words undoubtedly did just that.
For any controversy to be resolved, people are going to have to be made to feel uncomfortable. Discomfort comes from humanizing the "other side" and acknowledging it has its own context for the way it thinks, regardless of whether you agree with it.
Hadil said that one day she will return to the land that her grandmother was forced to leave in 1948, and that "the Zionists will be chased out of our land." It is hard for me to accept the idea of chasing anyone off land that has been "theirs" for a long time, especially in this context in which such sentiments do little to advance the peace process. But to refuse to acknowledge that sensitive and intelligent people can voice these feelings as a result of their particular experiences is not only counterproductive but also dangerous. It makes opportunities to meet the "other side," such as Picture Balata provides, all the more valuable.
Rimal A. Kacem '10, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Grays Hall.