'Having an Israeli Girlfriend Lets Me Be Both an Insider and an Outsider Here'

Arrivals / Departures: A Dutch war photographer talks about skipping between identities while traveling in Israel and Palestine; a couple of Israeli friends talk about skipping about the world building houses.

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Geert van Kesteren.
Geert van Kesteren.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Geert van Kesteren, 50, lives in Amsterdam and arriving from there

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing here?

I’ve been visiting Israel since 1994 as a photographer who works across the Middle East: Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Iran, the Palestinian territories. I come here a lot, I have a good connection with the country and the people.

Have you ever lived here?

I’ve never lived here, always visited, but now Noa, my partner, lives in Jaffa, and I’ve been coming here even more since I’ve been with her. The moment you become part of something here, things change. To be in a relationship with an Israeli woman gives me the opportunity to be an outsider and an insider simultaneously.

Is it fun here?

I like the family life, the friendships and the weather. I spent months here in flip-flops. I also like the desert and the sea, and the fact that I can go between Israel and Palestine with my passport. Zigzagging between identities is interesting. One moment I’m shooting an art school in Bethlehem, the next day I’m critiquing students’ work in Jerusalem.

What do you take pictures of?

I used to be mainly a photojournalist, but these days I do more projects.

What kinds of projects?

I find an interesting subject and try to understand it. My point of departure is: Don’t think you know something – be with it. And that takes time. I look for the layers, the complexity; it takes years before you can touch the deep layers. I’m also not a journalist who believes in being against an issue or people, nothing is black and white for me, I’m gray. For example, not long ago I was photographing in Bethlehem. The Palestinians were throwing stones, the Israelis were shooting, and then suddenly they all stopped, because two nuns crossed the road. Nothing is simple. That’s been my experience in my travels around the world.

Were you always a photographer?

No. I joined the Dutch army and then I worked in a bank for three years, at the end of which I gave myself a loan to buy cameras and resigned. As a boy, I dreamed of exploring the world, and having a camera in my hand changed something. Maybe it sounds simple, but something meaningful happens as soon as you have an audience. I’ve also published two books.

What are the books?

The first is called “Why Mister, Why?” – a book of photographs about the culture clash after the American invasion of Iraq. I spent 10 months there as a photographer.

What was it like in Iraq?

Very interesting. I was in the midst of a historic event that defined much of what’s going on in the world today. The refugees, for example, and ISIS. It was exciting as a journalist to be there at the right moment. The German magazine Stern got me access to Iraqis, and Newsweek to Americans.

Was it dangerous?

Yes, sometimes. Turns out that you’re always in danger when you least expect it; when you’re afraid, it’s usually for no reason and nothing happens. I was in the festival at Karbala [in 2004] when bombs went off.

Sounds scary.

Yes. And people saw me and saw that I was a foreigner, and they thought that a foreigner had done it, so they surrounded me and hit me. Then a big guy shows up and grabs me in an arm lock as though he’s arresting me, and whispers to me, “I am your friend.” He got me out of there. Then he went off to the right and I went to the left and I never saw him again.

Good story. What’s the other book about?

The second book, which I published in 2008, is also about the war in Iraq. The title is “Baghdad Calling.” I couldn’t get into Iraq anymore, so I interviewed refugees in Syria, Turkey and Jordan, and at a certain moment I grew frustrated with my photography, because I couldn’t shoot the real story. Until I interviewed a physician from Fallujah who had a friend who was killed. He showed me the pictures his friend had sent him on his cell phone, and I felt that it captured the story. I asked the other refugees if they had pictures – they all had cell-phone images from friends. I worked with great graphic designers and we were able to adapt the photos and design a book that emphasizes the story. But I didn’t say a thing about the flight.

What happened on the flight?

The plane wobbled; it was horrible.

After all you’ve been through, you’re afraid of a shaky plane?

For sure.

Amitay Shimron (left) and Tom Piha.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Amitay Shimron, 25, lives in Kibbutz Sasa; and Tom Piha, 25, lives in Kiryat Tivon; flying to Zurich

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Switzerland?

Tom: We’re going there to work. There’s an Israeli company that armors windows. They advertised for workers, so we said, Yallah, we’ll go for it.

Aren’t there Swiss people who can do that?

Tom: We’re a lot cheaper than Swiss people.

What do you do when you’re not fortifying windows?

Amitay: We worked in all kinds of nonsense before this. I actually just got back from spending a year abroad, in construction of private homes in Norway. The whole house is made of wood. It’s simpler and also faster to build, and the lumber there is cheap compared to Israel.

Do you need a visa to work in Norway?

Amitay: I was categorized as a nonprofessional worker – that way the law allows them to pay me less. Norwegians themselves who want to be professionals in the same field study it at university.

Where did you guys learn it?

Amitay: We did something in the army that’s connected with construction.

Since the army, have you worked in other places?

Amitay: We worked on a big sports hall in New Zealand with an international group: Scots, English and Americans. We did the skeleton.

Do they build with wood in New Zealand?

Amitay: Yes. The skeleton of the hall is made of steel, but the offices and the storerooms are made from wood, because they have earthquakes in New Zealand and they want things to be flexible. The truth is, New Zealand is a good story.

Tell me about it.

Amitay: I landed in the northern island two months after Tom. I hurried to the southern island, and he told me, “I’ll pick you up in Auckland, at the airport, and we’ll go to Wellington.” That’s a 550-kilometer road trip, like from Metula to Eilat. Very ambitious.

What happened?

Tom: Before I went, a friend told me to watch out for the police there. I didn’t want to get into trouble – I can barely drive on the left side – so I told myself that if it says 100 I’ll do 80.

Amitay: I kept telling him, “Go faster. We have to get to Wellington.” He told me no, because he was uptight. And then a police car gets on our tail, siren wailing and light flashing.

Tom: I said to him, “What do they want? I’m doing 75.” The police car is chasing me for a quarter of an hour, then a helicopter shows up. Finally the policeman stops me and says, “Fifteen drivers called to report about someone who’s slowing down the traffic.”

Amitay: The slowest driver in the history of the northern island!

Tom: The policeman said, “I see that you’re tourists – $150, and see you around.” Since then I’ve driven 5 KPH over the limit.

Looks like you’re a good match when it comes to telling stories, too.

Tom: We’ve done a lot of things together. We traveled in India, we worked in New Zealand. We also understand each other well.

Amitay: Even if there happens to be a period when we don’t see each other much, it just comes back to us easily. The hours we’ve accumulated together allow Tom to understand me without much talking. And anyway, neither of us likes to talk much. Unless we’re being interviewed.

But you like to build?

Amitay: You have to take advantage of opportunities like that, before committing yourself to something real. Tom is about to leave again.

Where to?

Tom: Canada. To build log cabins in British Columbia.

They’re flying you to Canada? You must be really good at this.

Tom: I’m not really good at it. It’s not necessarily the quality but the motivation to work. Besides, we’re quick studies.

Is this what you want to do in life?

Amitay: At the moment I don’t see it as a lifelong profession. But even if I don’t become a building contractor or a construction engineer, I hope to build my house by myself. That’s totally a dream.

Will you build it out of wood?

Amitay: I don’t think so, that’s not my thing. On kibbutz they don’t ask you, you have to ask the planning committee.

Do people build wood houses in Israel?

Amitay: I once worked with a very talented Israeli carpenter who builds wood houses. I was very surprised to discover that you can find work in the field here. It’s hard work, that’s for sure. 

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