I decided almost on a whim to travel to Israel and Palestine via Italy last year. I’d been researching the story of Wael mostly through my family, speaking to Janet and my mum. Collecting interview material and chasing archives from across the world.
I got to a point where I felt I needed to retrace some Wael and Janet’s steps. There was material Janet had left in Italy before she returned to Sydney a few years ago. I especially wanted to photograph Wael’s copy of 1001 Nights, which he was carrying when he was killed, plus sort through all the newspaper clippings Janet had collected over the years.
I spent a week wandering around Rome and Massa, a small town north of Florence, where there is an association named after Wael. In the archives I uncovered Wael’s old books that still had their pages turned down as well as drafts of an article he was writing about Palestine and Israel when he was killed. After reading and hearing so much about Wael, finally being able to read something in his words was an important point for me in my research.
A lot of what Wael wrote has been lost. He also wrote poetry, but shortly before he died he came to Janet’s place and tore all of his poems all up. He said that they didn’t mean anything, that they didn’t carry any weight anymore. So today there is very little that was actually penned by Wael, a letter here or there or an article.
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It was quite funny (and a bit nerve racking) arriving and departing Israel. I was a bit nervous about my reason for travelling, to meet some people to talk about a Palestinian guy who was assassinated by Mossad. There was nothing dodgy about this, but in a country where there is constant scrutiny – bag checks at malls, security guards questioning you the second you step off the plane and onto the tarmac – it did seem like my the wheels of my trip could fall off if I had to admit that I was somehow connected to Wael. Everyone I’d spoken to had said to avoid hassle just say you are on a holiday and that you don’t know anyone in Israel or Palestine. Why prompt more questions rights? I ended up passing through customs without any hassle.
Once inside the country it was easy for met to get around. As a white guy travelling, apart from the odd faux pas about where to try and hail a taxi (an Israeli one or a Palestinian one), it was much easier than I had built it up to be in my mind. There are checkpoints, but as a white foreigner, these don’t really impact you beyond a bit of a traffic jam.
I had a conflicted time travelling. I was treated like family when I stayed with Wael’s brother and sister in Nablus, and similarly was warmly welcomed by Aaron, the Israeli journalist I was interviewing. It’s confronting to see the separation barrier and hear stories about what it’s like to live under occupation. And its also confronting to have your bag searched by armed security guards out the front of a Nike shop. It’s hard not to feel a sense that this is a place of constant simmering tensions.
But it’s hard to make broad statements as a foreigner. I was in the Middle East for 10 days and I’ve been researching this story for a couple of years. That is such a small insignificant amount of time in the scheme of things.
The trip made me very aware of the tightrope I was walking with this project. This is a story that tells a much bigger story, a window into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it’s also a love story. I want this show to be a reminder that even the biggest stories are made up of lots of small ones, and that hearing those stories on a micro level can be a way to access the seemingly impossible ones. It was somewhat reassuring that pretty much everywhere I went I saw one of Janet’s paintings on the wall. A reminder that this story, this project, started because two people met and fell in love at an art fair.
I hope that the work reflects this and that audiences can ultimately make up their mind about who Wael Zuaiter was. I hope that this project can start a discussion about how we approach these broad issues and how creating a space for personal narrative is really important if we are to attempt to enter often fraught political discussions.