A Child in Search of a Mother

On Three of Micha Bar-Am’s Photographs

“Mother, where are you?”, says the child, or he may be saying something else. His small mouth is open, his hand reaches forward, his finger pointing at someone who is outside the frame. An infant with an adult, almost old face, swaddled in two blankets; one, as white as a shroud, from which his pyjamas peek, and over it the nomad’s typical black covering. A human bundle laid on the rocky slope.

Fallow ground overgrown with weeds, on which jumbled up thatches and clods of earth have hardened into stones. In the distance, the outlines of bare hills are visible, and the silhouette of a forested area. A thick, black group of trees, packed like a wall in the fissure that gapes through the valley. A primeval landscape, and a child whose mother is absent. This Eretz-Israeli landscape pithily tells the story of our place, of this open wound of both Arabs and Jews, which has been bleeding for the past 150 years.   

An Arab infant, or a Jewish one, each in search of a mother and a home – that was the thought that came to my mind when looking at this image, without knowing when and where it was taken. It spoke for itself.

 Later I found out that Micha Bar-Am took it in 1973, somewhere in Judea and Samaria, near Nablus, in the area which after the 1967 War Israelis used to call/called “the liberated territories” and then became “the occupied territories.” The same places – different names. It all depends on the angle from which the throbbing wound is regarded.

The infant is Palestinian and his mother – so the inscription says – has left it to work in the neighboring fields. In an Arab village perhaps? Or is it a Jewish settlement? There is no way of knowing, since the land is the same land and  the conflict which tears us apart remains outside the frame. But Micha Bar-Am, a gifted photographer with a sharp eye, has made it the overall frame of the image of our life.

What is quite clear is that the mother has not abandoned her child, since it is not crying but awaiting her return with infinite patience.

Was the picture taken before or after the 1973 War? Wars are inscribed on the Israeli calendar like Indian scalps hanging from a frayed belt, while Peace is a notion which we have almost lost faith in, having taken it in vain too often.

One day this infant will grow up, arm himself with one of these hardened clods of earth and join the war of stones – the First Intifada, claiming this land as his birthright.

This rocky slope, the wall-like forest, the bare hills – they have all turned into a land of conflict overshadowing our lives, like the shadow of the camel supernaturally extended toward the sky in another of Bar-Am’s photographs.

The camel, cut off from a caravan of nomads, walks in the desert on its own, much like the Israelites who had wandered through the desert for forty years until they reached a place they called a “homeland,” or, as the Bible says: “I will give this land to thy seed after thee for an everlasting possession” (Genesis: 48:4).

The Israelite tribe did not arrive at an empty land. The tribe of Zionists which returned to it after 2000 years in the Diaspora, also found another people that had settled there in its turn, but did not acknowledge them. We are like a dysfunctional family, in which the parents fight over custody of their child. If we will not figure out how to achieve marital reconciliation, both the child and its parents will die.

Only the most optimistic among us still believe that the conflict will be fairly/justly resolved in our own lifetime. I am one of these few. “A land is not inherited through blood,” I wrote in my novel IsraIsland (Yedioth Ahronoth, 2006). After all, I too am the child of refugees who had lost their home, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who were brutally kicked out of their homeland and found refuge in Israel. My mother, may she live long, an Auschwitz survivor, refuses to this day to exercise her right of return to Europe, but from her painful biography I have learned respect for the Palestinians’ plea for their own right of return, if/but not for the violent rage they have chosen. Rage consumes you, you smolder with it until you can no longer see the Other, but the eyes of the Palestinian infant in the photograph are wide open. Perhaps it will be able to see another mother and other infants, who also long/yearn for a home.

“Mother, where are you?”, asks another child, in a photograph Bar-Am took in the 1950s, in an immigrant transit camp. His appearance attests that he is a newly arrived immigrant, perhaps an orphan who had lost his parents in the Holocaust. A golden-haired Israeli soldier, her face emanating purity, sits by his side, teaching him Hebrew. She is armed with a notebook instead of a rifle, and her mission is not a military but a civilian one – to help the immigrant acclimatize to his new home, to finally understand the meaning of “home”; for language, to my mind, is the real homeland.

Hebrew and Arabic are so similar to each other. Even the word “mother” sounds similar. In Hebrew, Ima; in Arabic, Um.

Like the infant lying on the slope, the immigrant’s hand too is extended forward, the fingers spread apart like a hand-held fan. When will the fingers of the Israeli child finally meet the open hand of the Palestinian child?

“Speedily and soon,” says the Kaddish prayer for the repose of the souls of the dead. “Speedily and soon,” I will go on saying, against all odds, forever sanctifying life.



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