Neither Israeli, nor Palestinian, nor Druze: Just an Artist Trying to Create

Photographer Ronen Zien turns his lens on Khan al-Ahmar, a village that has become a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle

Untitled, from the exhibition “Khan al-Akhdar” by Ronen Zien.  Mixing several points of view.
Ronen Zien

When he began his studies in the photography department of Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Ronen Zien, from the city of Shfaram in northern Israel, sometimes felt a longing for nature and wanted to get away from the feeling of alienation he experienced in Jerusalem, which was new to him. So he got into his car and searched for different vistas. On one of his forays, he passed the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar, off Highway 1 near the urban settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim, east of Jerusalem. It’s home to about 200 Bedouin from the Jahalin tribe. The meager conditions – living quarters in tents and tin shacks, no running water and no electric power – and the villagers’ way of life as shepherds caught his eye.

“I was very intrigued,” Zien relates. “I was charmed from the first instant by the connection of the members of the tribe to nature, to the soil, to the animals.” He found himself returning across four years, documenting with his camera the inhabitants’ way of life, and forging ties of friendship with the villagers, who have become an international symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle over Area C of the West Bank.

Zien, now 29 and freshly graduated from Bezalel, recently had his first exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Rosenfeld Gallery. It was based on his graduation project, which centered on Khan al-Ahmar. The tribe, whose origins lie in the Negev, was expelled by Israel in 1948, in common with many other Bedouin tribes, and moved to the West Bank. Within the framework of the post-1967 occupation, Israel reduced the size of the area in which the tribe was allowed to roam and blocked its access to water sources and pasturage by declaring large tracts of land “closed military zones.”

Since 2009, the Jahalin community has been waging a legal battle against a plan to uproot and transfer them to a site next to a garbage dump, and against the demolition of their shacks, tents and school – the latter is made of tires and was constructed with European support. The European Union is opposed to the evacuation and has declared that it conflicts with international law because it would constitute coercive relocation. In May 2018, the High Court of Justice gave a green light to the state’s request to demolish the village and to expel the inhabitants whenever it wishes. But in November 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the evacuation to be put on hold.

“For years the people of the village have lived in a situation of total uncertainty,” Zien notes. “The subject has been played up in the media during the past year, and the villagers have been badly shaken and are in despair.”

Untitled, 2016.
Ronen Zien

Zien's photographic exhibition consisted of three works. His camera, situated on a hill close to Khan al-Ahmar, was aimed in a different direction each time. In a night shot the lights of the permanent homes in the settlements of Kfar Adumim, Alon and Nofei Prat glitter. Another photograph showed a donkey with its owner, as the animal nibbles on weeds against the backdrop of a green screen of the kind used to create background in movies. There was also an installation, in which a screenshot of a desert landscape without any human trace provided viewers with a singular experience: They were reflected in the screen and became part of the landscape of Khan al-Ahmar. “I wanted to get the viewer involved,” Zien explains. “I wanted him to see himself in a different setting, not to view the work passively; and so he would realize that he is part of the issue and would take a stand.”

“It was a successful capsule exhibition that was appropriate for the dimensions of the room in the Rosenfeld Gallery,” says Miki Kratsman, a photographer and a teacher at Bezalel and at Basis Art School in Herzliya. “The temporary green screen is symbolic, because the residents of Khan al-Ahmar don’t have a place and are constantly being moved and having their land changed. Zien’s work refers to a liminal situation and an interim situation. In addition, in one small space he successfully intermixed several points of view. We see the Bedouin inhabitant looking at Ma’aleh Adumim and we look at the screen and find ourselves in another place, which is not the gallery space. Zien also fomented a discussion about the medium of photography, investigating it and examining its boundaries.”

Father and sons

Zien, who is Druze, is the youngest of five siblings. His father came to Israel from Syria as an infant in the 1950s and his mother is a Druze of Lebanese extraction. His father served in the IDF, was wounded in the 1982 Lebanon War, and was classified a disabled veteran. He earned a degree in accountancy and continued to serve as a civilian employee of the army. Ronen’s oldest brother also did army service. But when Ronen's friends were drafted and told him about their experiences, he opted to defer his draft date and pursue his studies. “My father and my brother couldn’t understand it,” he relates.

Zien got a bachelor's degree in electronics at the Carmiel branch of the ORT vocational schools network. Afterward, at 23, he felt a strong desire to study photography. “From a young age I was the family photographer – my father gave me the job when I was a boy. Growing up, I always had a pocket camera. I liked telling a story with the camera. In my undergraduate studies, when I was culture coordinator, I bought a camera and became the photographer of the Students Union. I felt that I wanted to enrich knowledge of the field.”

Ronen Zien.
Meged Gozani

His father had other plans for him. “He was pleased that I’d completed my undergraduate degree and he started to plan my enlistment and how I would become an officer. When he heard that I wanted to forgo the draft in favor of art studies, his thinking short-circuited; he didn’t get it,” Zien says with a smile and adds in a softer tone, “He belongs to a different generation. Today I understand his worldview and he understands and accepts mine.”

At Bezalel, for his first exercise, titled “The Stranger,” Zien submitted dozens of vivid photographs of Khan al-Ahmar portraying the fabric of the villagers’ life. “At a certain stage I felt that I was taking photographs like a security camera, which only documents,” he says. “I started to ask questions about this style of photography and where I stood within it, and that was the start of an inner and outward investigation.” Zien gained the tribe’s confidence, accompanied them for four years and witnessed firsthand their struggle against the village’s depopulation.

At the end of his third year of studies, he exhibited a large photograph (3x6 meters) of a village resident and one of the leaders of the struggle, Iyad Jahalin (Abu Khamis) against the background of a double landscape: a screenshot of the sea with the village’s desert landscape in the background. “I felt that the huge photograph restored Abi Khamis to his true size, human size. My conversations with him revolved around the sea – he always asked me about the sea. That’s why I used a sea background: to illustrate that there are people who can’t go to the sea.”

His graduation exhibit at Bezalel was also devoted to the village. What stood out in the Rosenfeld show was the motif of transformation. In the title of the exhibition the name of the village was transformed from Khan al-Ahmar (“red”) to “Khan al-Akhdar” (“green”). In addition, viewers saw an installation of transformed landscape. “It was meant to concretize the transformation forced on the villagers,” Zien says. “When I started to work on the exhibition the subject of depopulation reached decisive and jolting stages, and many of the inhabitants started to reflect on who would replace them and live on their land, and where they would be moved to. It was in the air.”

When asked if he sees himself as a political artist, he says: “I consider the exhibition political art and I’m not afraid of that label, but I don’t yet see myself as a political artist. I encountered a situation, I passed by Khan al-Ahmar by chance and I became involved. I became an activist without choosing, simply from feelings and a connection to the people. I am doing what little I can for them in the sphere of photography in order to introduce the issue into the field of art.”

"sea ים بحر", by Ronen Zien, 2017.

Identity, if any

He’s currently working on a new installation – “It’s also political,” he smiles – that will be shown in June during Bezalel’s Design Week. In addition, he is studying the teaching of art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is working on an art-teaching project in East Jerusalem schools as part of an informal program of the municipality. “As a boy in Shfaram I wasn’t exposed to art at all,” he says. “We didn’t have art classes in school, I never visited galleries or museums. My real encounter with art didn’t come until I entered Bezalel. As someone who’s aware of deficiencies, I view it as a mission to teach youth who have never encountered art.”

His eyes light up when I ask about artists who have influenced him. “Asad Azi,” he replies and reflects on the acclaimed Shfaram-born artist. “For me, he hones the status of art and of the artist. I connect with his works and his ideas. I wanted my photographs to contain the depth of his painting.”

Zien takes a long pause before answering a question about his identity. “I can’t define myself as an Israeli,” he says finally. “I live here and I experience Israeliness, but I don’t feel an attachment to that identity. On the other hand, despite the identification, I don’t think I have the right to define myself as a Palestinian. And what is Druze identity? My Druze identity as a native of Shfaram is different from that of a Druze from the Golan Heights and completely different from the Druze in Syria. I have a big question mark about identities. I always ask why I have to define myself in that way at all. My identity is: a human being, Ronen, an artist who is trying to create.”