7 New Paintings from 2016 up. More coming shortly, including new written pieces:
In my return to the Holy City I feel like a lost desert prophet, returned to the world of men, altered, perhaps inextricably in parallel, still in some remote waste. It is disorienting and intangibly uncomfortable. Oh tragic Jerusalem! So near the center, always at the intersection; of insubstantial spirit and manifest political necessity, of just peace and the defilement of war, of Israel and Palestine.
The divides are mirrored in the landscape, where the ancient walls and cobbles of the old city quickly and inexplicably dissolve into the blinding modernity of West Jerusalem. The global commonalities of communal culture and minor poverty, found in variants marked by their character, not their utility, from Beijing to Cairo. Hanging meat, finger food, toilet paper bins, undrinkable water, sleeping mats, and the same small plastic chairs. The same sterile glass and metal stretching into empty heavens, the same dreams of safety and fear, the same efficiency, and the same isolation.
The history of this city is written with clarity on its walls. The empires, revolts, conquests, and genocidal massacres. The Ottaman-era walls are a patchwork marked by ever constant razing and rebuilding; the city has been destroyed to its foundations twice. Cananite, Egyptian, Hebrew, Babalonian, Macedonian, Seleucian, Hasmonean, Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Umayyad, Turkish, Fatimid, crusader, Ayyubid, Tartar, Ayyubid, Ottoman, English, Israeli, Jordanian, Isreali; confronted by such roiling successions, it is difficult to believe in the solidity of the current victors.
Stasis is an alluring concept in places with a more linear history. Here the lies of national narratives are made clear. Even as they struggle to find new life, expulsion and conquest mar the clean stories of the growth of a people, and the indulgences of common culture are in constant threat as culture expands, merges, and fades, leaving us to sift for some dim shred of meaning in the bloodshed and ash that accompanied their heraldic arrival. There is little to be found. Instead, the stories we tell, of struggles and victory, mask a darker truth; the violence we inflict is, in its final moment, naked and devoid of greater meaning. The battle-lines of chimpanzees, forgotten in the chaos. They will be buried and forgotten, like bones in the desert wastes, leaving only the momentary imprint of their suffering.
It is disorienting and inexplicably uncomfortable to be back in Israel. The feeling is not unlike what I experience entering the tourist districts of Bangkok after the mud highways and remote villages in the highlands of Lao. The sudden shift of amenity from the worldwide commonalities of the global have-nots, full of decay and improvisation built from the leftovers of the affluent, to the fresh leavings of European and American youth. The culture shock is intensified by this surface of modernity, but it is also entrance to a country that is no less strange, only shrouded in a guise of delicate facsimile. I find myself slipping, referring to Palestine when I should say the West Bank, forgetting which aspects of my identity must be concealed among strangers. Here I can unguardedly be Jewish, here I cannot be…
I wander lost through the fields outside of Jericho. I have unwisely decided to stay at a much decayed “Eco-village.” 17 Kilometers outside of the city of Jericho, there is a small meandering track through fields and lush, verdant, yards that leads from the crumbling and windswept compound to a small roadside restaurant, surrounded by several small supermarkets, and at least 5 stores that seem to specialize in the same multicolored plastic chairs. The scenery pleasantly conjurers memories of remote villages in Lao and Thailand. I considering the common cultural elements of both the decomposing, trash strew, brightness of the poor east, and the remote sterile cities of affluent European descent. Cheap building techniques, decay, and the vibrancy of chaos.
On the way back I stop to talk with the owner of one of the supermarkets, who seems anxious to aggressively complain in a manner that is recognizable in the chronically angry the world over. In a surprising change of pace he declares “America bad”, mirroring the otherwise ubiquitous “America good.” Despite frequent denunciations of the occupation, he is surprisingly open and welcoming to his Israeli customers, seemingly no less comfortable with them than their Palestinian counterparts.
The delay costs me the last light, and walking back from the turn off I am quickly disoriented by the winding paths and terminuses. Beneath an ancient sky where I do not recognize the foreign stars, and in this, the most ancient of cities, at the bottom of the world, where the pressurized air is heavy and hot, I find myself at last aware of how far I have wandered…
The “cooperative” eco-village seems like all things peace related, a decayed-relic of a more optimistic time. A result of the ambitious Friends of The Earth Middle East; in its mud building techniques and bright children’s play area, and incomplete geodesic dome, I recognize a common guiding-hand shared with other, more active, eco-villages. Despite bold claims about its cross-border team, it is as devoid of Israelis as it is a reminder of the prospect of peace in this war torn land.
As is the crack strewn tower I have run my fingers across today, which dates from an age so far distant as to be forever unrecognizable. The depth of the passage of time is barely comprehensible, and the walls I have walked were an ancient legend already when their story was first retold in the Book of Joshua. And yet, their is a familiarity, and each epoch of its 10 millennia journey is punctuated in marks of suffering and conquest.
The maze of corridors of the old city is comforting as it envelops you in a shocking onrush of exoticism that would not have felt entirely different to another wanderer, in another age. The chaotic market winds itself through narrow stone streets between recessed stone archways gather close I have been to many suqes and many old cities, and there is always something surprising that such places still exist, having not yet been wholly swallowed by the same onrush of modernity that has, like a great leviathan, devoured history in an iconoclastic whitewash of glass, steel, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The feeling is intensified in Bethlehem, as it is likewise in the Old City of Jerusalem, where there is a continuity with the past that is equally absent in the West and the Far East. Perhaps it is due to the fact that, despite the throngs of tourists, this is a city that is still alive, its people not yet divested of authenticity by the gold of the modern pilgrims of capitalism.
The same family home where I sleep, its rooms now coursing with harsh florescence, once housed crusaders and Sarcsians. I find much in common with the daughter of the motherly innkeeper, and we share common themes of travel, loss, generosity; a loss of a brother mirrors a loss of a mother, and I find the veil of otherness shifting away once again. Our conversations also however brings to mind a difference in our perceptions. A devout Christian, though she tries to restrain herself, she finds in my sympathetic ear an outlet for her faith. It is difficult to tell if we talk past each other due to the limits of our shared language, or due more to experience. For her god is distinct and external, and eternity must wait until death. Religion is not a delicate topic here, footsteps away from the birthplace of a god, and unconventional spirituality blossoms more here, a spring from which some new faith will again come, and again sweep out over the secular void.
Each local attraction I visit is closed for, in succession, the day, the week, and the month. In my heat-born ascents and and descents among the step hills of Amman however I find myself beginning to grow into the surroundings. In each trip up the twisting stairs that wind through the bright cream of decaying stone buildings, through narrow alleys, past the shuttered homes and smaller cloistered yards, and through the strewn trash of modernity; soft-drink bottles, scraps of cardboard, discarded children toys, I find the inhabitants becoming less strange.
As the veil of otherness slips, the conservatism of the culture begins to remind me of a not-so distant age in America’s past; the old, judgmental man on the bus begins to remind me of my own grandfather, slipping into the sea of time, assaulted by confusing values in changing world; speeding out of control towards a future past the imaginings of even of his descendants, the supposed authors of this new dawn, from which they too must learn to fear in time.
This impression is heightened by a trip to a local dance-club, where Amman’s youth drink and sweat with abandon among the foreign accents of distant countries, until they are carried out, quite literally on the backs of their fellows as the music bellows and swells to the same American songs that play in the same winding succession in identical rooms in Tel Aviv, London, and likely even still, in some recondite, cloistered alley among the ruins of Aleppo.
Fanning the flames of conflict the world over are the righteous. The zealots who pull the trigger are matched by the outsiders, who gilt in their own armor of ignorance, bay for the blood they will not have to taste. I was asked today by a determined American how my Jewishness related to my views on Israel. It was an accusation posed as a question. While seemingly satisfied by my opposition to occupation, the conversation brought out ugly and ancient stereotypes with ease, and more importantly drew a line between us. It reminded me not at all with my conversations with my Arab friends, but quite a bit of conversations I have had with politically conservative Americans.
In my experience many liberal western outsiders are often equally as boldly sanguine as their hawkish conservative counterparts, equally ready to excuse and promote the atrocities they will never have to suffer. Will they still remember conflict and occupation in another decade I wonder? Or will they forget the role they played, forget the seeds of violence they encouraged, move onto to some new war or cause célèbre even as the blood continues soak into the sand, unchanged. The alternative to peace is not justice, and I doubt either will be birthed out of the womb of war.
Strange dreams come to me in the night like omens. Memories of a hidden vigor returning to forgotten veins, imbuing dim reserves with fresh light and leavings. An unknown lover dissolves at dusk as I cross a dangerous threshold, their place taken by a protective guide who leads me past strange piles of dismembered limbs demanding favors, where it is unclear whether acquiescence or denial is the damnable outcome. When I wake there is only the soft reality of the hard hostel bed.
There is a bad news today, the organization that we were scheduled to work with in Jordan has withdrawn from the collaboration, specifically citing fear of social ostracization by an anti-normalization group. While frustrating, the setback provides insight into both the depth of cultural opposition to anything, however tenuously, linked to Israel, and paradoxically, also its shallowness.
A conversation with a Taxi driver on the way back from a local ruin elucidates the situation via an anecdote about the normalization of the fruit trade. As one of the closest suppliers of fresh produce, Israeli fruit is ubiquitous in Jordan for reasons of both cost and freshness. The immense social pressure to boycott Israeli products however prevents vendors from selling the fruit openly. This conflict is resolved pragmatically by vendors who remove and laboriously replace Israel destination stickers with fraudulent ones from other neighboring counties such as Egypt or Lebanon. Such acts are common place and an open secret.
Israeli manifests like a specter, or perhaps a contagion, here. A touch is damnation, even when the fruit is not rotten. The intersections of identity, compassion, practicality, and suffering are a labyrinthine causeway over a perilous expanse.
Screaming from the peaceful abyss of the sky into the dim, hard realities of land scarcely more firm, my aluminum chariot touches down in Amman at 10:00 pm Jerusalem time. Delayed in Paris for three hours, when I arrive in Jordan it will be dead-eyed and swaying, sleepless for two days. The Parisian airport is graceful and old before its time, it sleek lines and bright colors aged with dignity, yet somehow also willfully obtuse. The flight passes uneventfully as we move over and past the calm, pleasant greens of southern France. Having dozed fitfully among the sky, when I awake it is in an altogether different world.
Border control and customs in Jordan is casual and perfunctory, and though I make my way out of the airport with haste I have already missed my planned encounter with May. Due to sleep loss I haggle badly with the taxi driver, who, obviously tired himself, half-hardheartedly tries the usual tout scams through the blare of wind and loud chant-like Arabic music that crescendos into the passing night.
Welcome to the Art Knows No Borders blog! We are a newly formed art organization focused on raising awareness of trans-boundary issues in the Levant through art and education. Our team includes, myself, Oregon based artist and adventurer Noah Alexander Stein, Chilean artist, dancer, and educator, May Garces, trans-boundary researcher and artist, Sofia Kosel. This blog is dedicated to chronicling and sharing our experiences understanding the roots of inter-cultural conflict in the Levant. There is a long road ahead of us and I hope you join us on our journey as we struggle to piece together the broken bridges of our shared humanity!
– Noah Alexander Stein
New painting and written piece:
“… We were made to run free beneath the stars, with unfettered passions in a world as alive as our hearts. As the city reaches its claws into the sky and strangles the distant shimmering harmonies of light and swallows with a dull half-glow a night bleached of darkness; even the blackness of true death is robbed from us…”