Artistic Interventions Under Occupation in Palestine

I was asked by Joshua Woolford, an artist in London, asked me to collect sound for his exhibition and this is my reflection on that work.


While an artist requesting sounds of soap making may seem like a simple request, especially considering I am only a 45 minute drive to Nablus, the city at the heart of the historic olive oil soap making industry, the truth is that NOTHING is simple under Israeli occupation. Since Oct 7, the Occupied West Bank has shape-shifted with the ever developing architecture of colonization, so called facts on the ground. A brand new by-pass freeway was installed so Israeli settlers no longer pass through occupied Palestinian villages and towns that they would prefer to forget they have violently colonized. From the second I climbed into the shared taxi, before we ever pulled out of the station, the driver was on his phone seeking constant updates about which roads were open, which checkpoints were manned, which routes were possible. The normally 45 min drive took nearly double the time. 

I was shocked when we pulled off the main highway that runs through Huwara and detoured into a country road through olive orchards. The woman next to me kindly informed me that since Oct. 7 Huwara had been closed by Israeli military order and the rows and rows of normally busy shops were also ordered to remain closed. The occupying military effectively crushed a town and changed the historic path from Jerusalem to Nablus with a piece of paper, a military order. 

The main checkpoint looked completely different than last time I'd seen it months before. The woman next to me had been on the phone with her mom much of the trip and when we approached the check point called her one last time, stayed on with her as we passed through and then said "I’m through mama." I could hear the relief in her mother's voice on the other end. Her daughter in med school who makes this trip 3 days a week. Her beloved daughter who will become a doctor. Her daughter who passed through an infamous checkpoint where a young Palestinian boy was shot dead the day before. I always think if something is going to happen to me, it'll be at a checkpoint–a site of Israeli brutality and oppression for every Palestinian body.

The once bustling commercial center of Nablus was a ghost town and the ancient Old City where one had to push shoulder to shoulder to shop was totally empty. I found neither of the soap factories making soap that day and decided to turn back on a 3 hour return trip to Ramallah, forced onto dirt roads I think were meant for tractors and donkeys.

The creative economy in Palestine is ancient and industries like olive wood, leather, castile soap and olive oil are based in Old City centers. The Israelis have created an architecture that is not limited to bypass roads and closures but includes massive metal gates on the main roads of every village and town, checkpoints and terminals–an entire system that allows them to control Palestinian movement or crush it in a split second. Of course this has incredible consequences for the flow of people, and goods. And creatives both create and sell. So when soap cannot be moved to another city, when the Israelis forbid access to local markets, production slows or ceases. And while a larger workshop may be able to overcome temporary closures, small creatives making traditional soap and other crafts cannot sustain themselves in such circumstances. 

Next day I decided to regroup and visit a friend, a true falahiya, who continues to make her family's soap at home in the village of Beit Doqo, around 30 minutes from my home in Ramallah. In true Palestinian style, we broke bread first and then I filmed the process, as old as time itself. Dalal's mother before her and grandmother before her made soap by combining the olive oil with caustic soda for a reaction, then pouring the mix into molds to sit for 30 days of curing. After soap making we sat and chatted over sweet mint tea. 

The half hour return trip home is beautiful until you pass through a series of cement tunnels constructed and installed by the Israelis so that Palestinians stay out of sight in their own native land while illegal Israeli settlers drive above and have easy access with "sanitized" views of the land they have renamed Judea, paying homage to the Biblical name and trying to justify their theft on ancient arguments. 

The next day, I went to Beit Sahour, in Bethlehem, to visit a family who makes soap from their home as a side income. The journey is always emotionally exhausting as we are forced to divert from Israeli settler roads (built on top of Palestinian historic roads) onto side roads with high concrete walls meant to deny Palestinians' from seeing, much less accessing, the holy city of Jerusalem. I used google maps to check the location of my destination, around 7 or 8 minutes away, and was rerouted on a 1.5 hour drive through settler roads. Google knows best. Its knowledge is based on the assumption that Palestinian roads don't exist or aren't safe to use. The assumption being a settler uses google maps, not a savage native.

I was eventually welcomed to this family's home where they invited me to coffee and Easter cookies, called káek mamoul. The husband and wife team use oil from the wife's village in the north and work with their children playing nearby. There is something powerful and sacred about the process of combining two ingredients to craft such a pure and perfect soap.

The drive from Beit Sahour home can take 45 minutes when there's no traffic. There's an ominous checkpoint called Container with stray dogs lying in the roads and soldiers lazily standing against cement barricades with fingers on triggers. It stands on the top of a very steep mountain with roads going jetting down on either side. It divides the center of the West Bank from the South. It is the only route Palestinians are permitted to use. If the Israelis close the Container for even 15 minutes, it creates hours of backed up traffic. Last time I sat there for 6 hours. Such realities give a mother of young children like myself a lot of anxiety as I try to go home in time to pick up kids from school.

The sound collected for this art installation was not easily accessed, though the traditional craft of soap making is all around us. To move between any two places in occupied Palestine can be the most impossible feat on any given day but even at best it is never pleasant because we are ultimately and constantly reminded that this is apartheid in a settler colonial state where we have to be grateful to pass through any checkpoint. 

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