My bedside table is currently piled high with books about Israel. I am someone who pretty much has a book for every place I go to. The table by my bed usually holds the key to my latest travel plans. When a friend remarked that perhaps there was no need to travel at all after all that reading, I wondered if there was any strength to that observation. In this particular case I had felt the need to do an especially large amount of reading to understand Israel’s sights, sounds, and complexities. Yet, once I started, I felt like Alice plummeting down a rabbit hole of information. I emerged on the other side, my head swollen with facts, figures, and opinions, even more confused about the place and its context. This was before I went. When I returned and started to recount my travels, none of the words I had read about history, politics, or wars came back to me. Instead, what came to mind unbidden were a few incredibly powerful images.
In Israel, a strange thing had happened. All my reading crystallized into a few clear impressions. Half-understood concepts and theories became whole as I walked around various cities. Images of ordinary, everyday things became intimate revelations. The region’s history and conflict began to be laid bare for me to understand, consume, and process. In Jerusalem’s Old City, visiting the most sacred site for Judaism atop the Temple Mount, I was drawn to a singular image of a devout Jew. Among the hundreds who had come to the Western or Wailing Wall, this man stood out. He had pressed his entire body onto the uneven stones of the wall, seemingly trying to close all the distance between him and the ancient site. Another day, driving through the harsh desert of the Negev, I noticed my guide’s map. She had marked off large chunks—the West Bank and Gaza Strip—with a black marker. Just then, there appeared on the landscape a wall. The vast swathe of dusty mountains and dry riverbeds was suddenly bifurcated by a 20-foot-high embankment that seemed to stretch forever. Beyond the wall, stretching into the horizon were the towns and settlements of Palestine, with towers and mosques glinting in the merciless sun. This was a panorama like no other. It was not a particularly picture-worthy sight, but one that was harsh, unrelenting, and tangible. It brought home the reality of a riven region, divided in more ways than one.
I recall a time when as a young college student in Kolkata I knew I would have to move from the only home I’d ever known. Thirty-four years of communist rule had led to the state’s progressive economic decline. Factories shut, small businesses collapsed, and big industries closed Kolkata offices. The resulting lack of jobs meant that young people increasingly looked elsewhere to build a life and career. A short while before I left, I took a boat ride on the Hooghly River around sunset. My boatman steered his rickety vessel expertly over the currents. I saw that oft-photographed image of the Howrah Bridge silhouetted against the orange sky. When I looked away from the bridge on either bank, I also saw the ghostly facades of once flourishing jute and paper factories. A lone commercial craft floated languorously on what was once a bustling waterway. This bittersweet picture of the city was a poignant one for me, capturing all that I felt. It has flashed through my mind many times since, during my life elsewhere. And it has conveyed greater depth than all the op-eds and academic critiques on the politics of West Bengal I have read.
These snapshots of places that I have in my mind have little to do with the actual photographs I took. Each time I encounter such a moment, I stop to take in the sight. By the time I remember to turn on my camera, the moment has passed. Unrecorded in any form, these unexpected images become markers of history, politics, religion, society, people, and my personal encounters with them. Ironically, it is these images that give me my own words to write. And I realize that I travel to places in search of just such vignettes and all the books in the world cannot be a substitute for that.
Appeared in the June 2016 issue as “Pictures Speak a Thousand Words”.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.