Despite being an American, the fact that I was born in Iran didn’t escape the attention of Israeli security at Ben Gurion Airport. I was interrogated for three-and-a-half hours. Later that night, I had a panic attack. I dreamt that Israeli Tom Cruise and the IDF pre-crime unit broke into our hotel room and arrested me. I may have felt a little uneasy about my identity in America, but this was something entirely different — I was not welcome in Israel. Still, since turning back wasn’t an option, we forged ahead.
Without much of an agenda, we walked around Jerusalem and talked to people: students, cab drivers, shopkeepers, tourists and pilgrims. While filming them, we got a sense of their daily lives. We visited the Wailing Wall and the Yad Vashem museum, where Todd looked up his great-grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. We even tried to visit the Al Aqsa mosque, but I wasn’t allowed inside because I didn’t seem Muslim to the burly, prickly man that guarded it. Despite some bumps, in Jerusalem the conflict seemed surmountable. Jews and Arabs for the most part got along or stayed out of each other’s way. While there was tension, society functioned. Peace seemed possible.
Then, a friend of my cousin who was volunteering in Palestine heard about our trip on Facebook and contacted us. After the interrogation, we were hesitant to go into the West Bank or Gaza. We figured we’d stay in Jerusalem, get enough footage for our little web video and leave. But now, with a guide unexpectedly springing up, it seemed as if destiny had other plans. This friend, it turned out, wasn’t volunteering in a tourist spot in Bethlehem or at some Israeli-secured settlement — he was in Nablus, the heart of the resistance movement in occupied Palestine.
The deeper we went into the West Bank, the more unlikely a resolution to the conflict became. Our old views faded into the drone-covered night. What we began to see was a systematic cycle of violence and hopelessness. It started with kids raised in meager refugee camps or wandering through garbage dumps looking for things to sell. It led to bitter, unemployed young people aimlessly trudging the enclosed cities and towns. It finally ended with the hundreds of faces on the martyr posters that blanketed the walls of the camps, the old city and the cemeteries. Never Forgive, the posters read. Never Forget.
This was not a problem on the verge of being fixed. This was an institutionalized dehumanization machine generations in the making. Everyone we met was desperately trying to make some sense of a senseless situation.
We spoke to Mahmoud, a volunteer ambulance driver. During the second intifada he forged into live skirmishes to provide medical aid to bleeding and maimed friends and neighbors, both innocent and gun-wielding. Surely traumatized by his experiences, Mahmoud refused to give up or grab a gun and instead joined Project Hope, an NGO that for a few hours a day provides children in refugee camps with education and a semblance of normal life.
We spoke to Israeli soldiers, many boys and girls younger than us. Some complained about how the army had taken their lives, while others held on to a sense of purpose: if they weren’t in the West Bank, they reasoned, the Israeli settlers and the Palestinians would tear each other apart.
We spoke to a recently discharged soldier who was unable to stay silent about what he was asked to do in his country’s name. He and some comrades put on a photo exhibition showing the moral price he felt all Israelis were paying in order to maintain the occupation.
By the end of it, I felt just as lost as them. I had gone to Israel and Palestine looking for peace. I had hoped that if I could tease out a hint of a solution to this world-defining conflict I could unify the disparate elements of my identity: my American idealism, my Iranian pride, my Israeli drive to forge ahead and my Palestinian resolve in difficult times. Instead, I realized I was fractured to my core. No trip, no film, no grand achievement could heal me with so much anger, fear, hurt and trauma covered up by ego, strength and ambition. I was broke under a mountain of footage and had no idea how to climb out.