Sacred Space Oddity: The Un/Holy Land


Yossef is a follower of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, a lighter, more mystical version of Judaism that appears stringent to secular Israelis but is borderline psychedelic for the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim, where he was born and raised. He buys a chicken for the yearly “kaparot” ritual – the passing of one’s sins onto a chicken that is ritually killed and is given to the poor for a holiday meal. Yossef loves animals; he always brings home strays, despite orthodox Judaism’s ambivalent approach to pets, and normally he donates money to charity directly, but this year he wanted to acquaint his son with the sacrifice. He talks to the chicken, feeds it a children’s snack and solemnly wipes its bottom when it defecates on his spotless kitchen floor. He works in real estate and is about to move to a settlement; he’s not into politics but says that the atmosphere there is so much more liberal than in the largely anti-Zionist, ultra-conservative Mea Shearim. The chicken flutters onto his shoulder. He grabs it by the feet, gently spinning the chicken over his son’s head while reading the relevant invocation; and walks it off to slaughter. (Photograph and caption by Tanya Habjouqa)


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. 

“Crusader” reenactment: “What does the Holy Land mean to me? This is my home. My children’s home. It was once the home of my forefathers. When I chose to focus on this period for historical recreation I didn’t see the parallels. I just like the narrative and its connection to the landscape. But I do now, and I’m not the only one. There are parallels between the crusader kingdom and the modern State of Israel… We [Russian-speaking Israelis] also feel like a part of a reenactment in a larger sense: We also came to Israel on a crusade of sorts.” Gennady Nizhnik, tour guide and re-enactor of the Battle of Hattin, aka Raynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch (1125-1187). They stand in the freezing rain twelve kilometers and 830 years away from their West Jerusalem apartment, in what was once the courtyard of the Crusader castle of Belmont and later the main square of the Palestinian village of Suba. The village was used as an outpost by an Egyptian militia in 1948, and depopulated by the advancing Israeli forces during the war. The Palestinian refugees and their descendants are scattered around East Jerusalem, less than 20km and almost 70 years away. (Photograph and caption by Tanya Habjouqa)

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. 

A short drive and a world away from the disappeared village of Suba and its crusader is Hussein, 8, who wants to be an astronaut. Mohammad and Mariam Hussein at their home in Jalazoon refugee camp outside Ramallah. Both were born at the camp, but see their true origin as the Bayt Naballa, a disappeared village supplanted by the communal village of Beit Nehemia. The Holy Land, Mohammad says, is only the area around Jerusalem and Bethlehem, really. Religion, says Mariam, shouldn’t be used by political movements to achieve concrete goals. Their grandparents were told to leave the village in the War of 1948, when the invading Arab armies were advancing on Jewish positions in the area. The army was pushed back, and the village fell to the Israeli militias. When the villagers tried to come back they were shot at, often killed. Over the next few years, the village was repopulated with Jewish immigrants from Iran. Few of the hundreds of thousands zooming by on Israel’s main highway knew it was ever there. Mohammad and Mariam can’t ever go back. Their son is in the background, agitated and constrained in his favorite astronaut soon. He roams around the living room, insisting: I AM GOING TO THE MOON.


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). 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *