Writing by Dimi Reider with photography and interviews by Tanya Habjouqa
The story of the Holy Land is told and retold daily. Reciting the bare facts seems almost superfluous: home to about 10 million people, all under one or another form of Israeli control – military siege in Gaza, military occupation in the West Bank, ethnically discriminatory democracy with the same rights nominally but a gradation of privileges practically in what remains. The story of religion in this territory is even better known, and has been told in the same fashion for much longer: three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, coexist uneasily and unequally. Each has held sway at some point over the past two millennia; each has been employed to pursue earthly, material goals by the elites and underdogs of each faith, across generations of fervor, disenchantment and schism. Countless gallons of ink have been spilled describing the contestation between the three faiths and the way it shapes politics.
The purpose of our project was to side-step the trichotomy and to describe the people and places where Islam, Christianity and Judaism meet and overlap; and to side-step the dichotomy of secular and religious, sacred and profane – showing how closely the two blend in almost every iteration.
This was what gave the project its original title: The Un/Holy Land. It seemed like a simple enough mission statement, as we set out: capture the spaces where the sacred is profaned, and where the profane is elevated onto holy. Find the spaces where what is holy to some and what is holy to others blend and overlap: syncretic shrines, recycled and appropriated worship places, desecrated mosques and empty spaces arbitrarily consecrated for service; cemeteries keeping long-exiled communities alive. Find the edge people: those who feel that the constraints of any organized religion are too narrow, so they make themselves a place in the crevices between one faith and another. Find the people who form the crevices: those who stay planted stubbornly within their faith, but push it apart, forcing it to be porous enough to include them.
In the end, we found all of those, and none. Some rejected us outright – a glance at the title of the project was all it took for one ultra-Orthodox winemaker to eject one of the team members from the door. Others embraced us, bringing us into their homes straight off the street, sharing with us more intimately and vulnerably than they would with friends and family. Others still wished us well enough to try and talk us down a peg. When hearing that we were three young secular professionals – a Palestinian, a Texan-Jordanian-Circassian and a not-not-Jewish Russian-Israeli pursuing a project on the very seams that make up religiosity and religion, a settler rabbi – who offers virtual reality tours under Temple Mount and posed for us as a highway desert Jesus – chided us: you are like three men writing a book on feminism.
Another Rabbi, one of the first women to be ordained into the title in the Orthodox tradition, asked why, if we were rejecting the binaries, we were still using the same rigid terms: holy, unholy, sacred, profane. They won’t let you see what you’re trying to see, she forewarned, before going on to explain how she had recently broken the Sabbath – not in the sense of abrupt violation, but in the sense of breaking ti into pieces, committing herself to slivers of holiness every morning of the week but driving her children on Shabbat to see their friends. And even as a dark cloud of abstract dogma laden with that most earthly materialism – land, land, land – towered around his city, our country, the region, an imam in a sufi mosque that revolves around a single hair of the prophet Muhammad ushered two of us into an inner sanctum and let us hold the glass vial with the hair, a tangible experience of the intangible.
Nearly a year into the project we have abandoned our original idea and the binaries that come with it; the land is neither holy or unholy, and it is both, and so much more; strangeness reflected in weirdness, realpolitik in surrealism, loneliness in multitudes and the shifting moods of crowds in a single stationary figure, a gate, a hill, a home, a gaping hole where a home once stood or is yet to be built; a true Sacred Space Oddity – or maybe Odyssey – depending which notion you subscribe to, of observation or of exploration, an erratic flow of events, or a twenty-years detour on a way to a place you could once call home.
It’s not that the land is a hall of mirrors – it’s rather one huge, broken mirror, where each shard reflects something entirely different and where the edges are too jagged and brittle to be glued together. It’s not so much an old church icon or a crusader’s map; it’s one of those garish optical illusion posters from a 1980’s undergrad’s bedroom, seemingly depicting only noise, but if you look at it from a very particular angle, it’s “really” a car or a boat. Only here it’s working in reverse: you think you’re looking at a house, but all you really see is white noise. The only thing that emerges from the noise are the people: the self-made characters who bring together scraps of landscapes, timescapes and stories, like hermit crabs solitarily constructing their out of what infinitely larger, impersonal forces have carried their way. The photographs in this selection – first pickings from an infinitely larger, ever-expanding project – reflect their gaze on the land and on us as much as they reflect our gazes on the characters and on ourselves; they are co-authors of the project and they reflect the land in themselves as much as they see themselves reflected in the land. There is no way to tell a single, comprehensive story: focus too hard on a single detail and all else dies and fossilizes, open your eyes too wide and the land and everything in it fades away.
Sacred Space Odyssey: (The Un/Holy Land) was written by Dimi Reider as part of a collaboration with photographer Tanya Habjouqa and consultant and artistic contributor Muhammad Jabali with support from the Magnum Foundation’s “On Religion” project.
Tanya Habjouqa (Jordan, 1975) is a documentary photographer with a primary interest in gender, social, and human rights issues in the Middle East. Represented by NOOR, she approaches her subjects with sensitivity but also with an eye for the absurd. She is the author of Occupied Pleasures, heralded by TIME magazine and the Smithsonian as one of the best photo books of 2015 (winning her a World Press Photo award in 2014). She mentors young grantees from across the Arab region for Magnum Foundation’s “Emerging Arab Photographer Documentary Fund” together with the Prince Claus Foundation and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. Tanya is a founding member of Rawiya, the first all female photo collective of the Middle East and she is currently based in East Jerusalem. She lectures in ‘Narrative and National Identity in Photography’ at Al Quds Bard University.
Dimi Reider is an Israeli journalist and facilitator based in London. His work has appeared with The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Haaretz, The Nation, Politico, and the London Review of Books, and he has appeared as commentator with the BBC, Al Jazeera English and MSNBC. He is an Associate Policy Fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).