The Trail, The Convoy
From the time that Rachel the Poetess’ frail legs trodden “But a path… across Fields” (To My Land, 1926) and the notion of the “Trail” was conceived as “A way or a path, a narrow road for walkers and animals” (Ibn Shushan Dictionary), a 1030 km long route grew and stretched, crossing the entire length of the State of Israel, from Dan in the North all the way to the Southern Eilat. The Hebrew language did not respond to this vast change in scale, and attached the “trail” in its innocent and pure sense to the national geography. The Israel National Trail is the “pièce de résistance” of Israel’s hiking trails map: a route corresponding and maximizing the territory of the State of Israel; a sovereign marker that allows the traveler and hiker to exercise their civil freedom. Like the cyclamen and the anemone that received the patronage of the Society for the Protection of Nature, the naïve “trail” has changed from the lane of a “solitary traveler,” who wanders along the path (Reveries of a Solitary Walker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau) to the king’s highway – wide, universally recognized, and marked. We should do well, then, to set off not only with a backpack and canteen, but also with the knowledge that the phrase "The Israel Trail" holds an intrinsic paradox, since it endeavors to maintain something of the romantic intimacy of the humble and nameless trail, in the authoritative bosom of the new, upright national identity.
Ayelet Carmi and Meirav Heiman’s video The Israel Trail: The Procession – a lyrical and ambitious work created over four years – offers a surreal conflation of an Exodus and a refugee convoy, of travelers and acrobats, and of hiking in nature and torture escapades. The filmmakers were guided by two avoidance principles: refraining from indicating the time or specific site in the Israeli landscape and avoidance of allowing feet to touch the ground. On the backdrop of a desert, eucalyptus groves, or blue sea the procession of women, men, and children marches along a long and winding path at a slow, steady pace, their feet elevated and do not tread on the ground. Carmi and Heiman designed an assortment of devices and contraptions: mini crutches, carts, wheelbarrows, and elevated soles, in order to prevent all contact between the walkers’ feet and the soil of the trail. This avoidance of touching the ground does not stem from an acrobatic propulsion, although the thought of a traveling circus is immediately conjured by the complex acrobatic walking and levitating exercises with which the two artists challenged the participants. The issue of treading and avoiding the ground touches on the core of the Zionist imperative that concerns the connection to the soil. Metaphorically, in the pioneering ethos, the feet became the primary organ that validated "feeling the earth under one’s feet," in the words of Yosef Weitz, one of the first settlers in Um Juni (Degania). And this is the primordial sensation that Carmi and Heiman's work wishes to undermine and destabilize.
In his book, Land and Desire in Early Zionism, historian Boaz Neumann turned the spotlight on the prominence of the soil as an object of desire amongst the pioneers of the first Aliyot, noting that the “contact with the soil […] is the basis of the pioneer experience of being-in-the-Land-of-Israel.” Beyond the vision of returning to nature and to working the land, which was a significant part of the Zionist ethos and the idea of reviving the Jewish people, Neumann identifies a dimension of eroticization in the relation to the land, an A. D. Gordon-like process of mental and spiritual salvation, nourished and supported by physical contact: "The halutzim [pioneers] ‘grip’ the land with their fingernails and ‘plant’ their feet in it.” Stepping on the soil with bare feet was a stimulating experience, as emerges from the descriptions of Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi, attesting that “every touch of her bare foot on the soil delighted her, and awakened latent chords in her body and soul. She maintained that all new immigrants should walk the land’s length and breadth in order to soak in its essence and spirit, to give themselves over to the sun and wind and cling to the soil.” Neumann mentions the pioneers’ habit of going out to work and manning their guard posts barefoot, not only to flaunt the ethos of poverty and asceticism characteristic of the era’s Tolstoyan socialism, but also to deepen the sense of connection with the ground.
The romanticisation of the contact with the soil of the Land of Israel and the desire for its landscape and expanses sprouted an extensive culture of walking and hiking its trails, which went hand in hand with an ongoing process of learning, discovering, and gathering knowledge. The Israeli hikes and excursions are steeped in national and Zionist challenges: “We learned to love the land with our feet, with the pain of walking,” wrote Matti (Matityahu) Megged, a Sabra and one of the outstanding authors of the 1948 generation. What began as a romantic and casual stroll in unknown paths became a challenging journey of initiation, a march tested "in the blisters of the feet and fingertips. In the thirst. In the weight carried.” “The march,” remarks sociologist and scholar of Israeli culture Oz Almog, “was not only an expression of the covenant or marriage between the Sabra and his homeland but also a test of loyalty. Overcoming physical difficulty was a mark of the fighting pioneer spirit.” […] “And above all,” he concludes with a political undertone, “the trail conquered for the first time by the feet of the walkers, is an expression of the conquest of the land.”
Carmi and Heiman’s cinematic convoy resonates with contradictory layers of Jewish-Zionist-Israeli history, so much so that it is difficult to discern whether this is the past or the present, or perhaps the future; Is it a convoy of pioneers arriving in Israel or a caravan of refugees leaving it? The film is structured as a loop and refrains from defining an exact location or disclosing a hint of a mosque turret, the edge of a chimney, or a city sign. The locations reveal only the quintessential elements of the Israeli landscape: desert – sea – grove, and nothing more. Despite mentioning the "Israel Trail" in the title of the work, it does not provide a temporal point of reference and thwarts the formation of spatial orientation. Is the procession heading north? South? Where is the starting point? Where is the finish line?
The term "procession," attached to the title of the video, as well as the ritualistic pace of the marching convoy’s and the turning wheel contraptions, bring to mind Hieronymus Bosch-eque hellish scenes that compete with the Paradise views that unfold along the path. Alongside these, the procession is also infused with the visual traditions of agricultural festivals in kibbutzim, the echoes of military parades, and the sounds of moral plays intended for the entire community.
Whether these are the trials of a Zionist journey of initiation, a Kibbutz festival parade, or a procession of pilgrims, the movement constraints imposed on the participants take the physical challenge to grotesque extremes; Some of the participants experienced knee pain or blisters and struggled to overcome the physical effort. However, the stipulation for participation was clear: a willingness to "walk" under complex and difficult conditions – on one’s hands, rolling a wheel using one’s body weight, walking on a pair of balls, pushing carts, and so on. Crutches and wheelchairs suggest a sense of infirmity and weakness, weariness of body and matter. An experience of continuous exertion.
The heterogeneity of the participants in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, and family status emphasizes the all-Israeli nature of the trip/journey fantasy that unravels before us. However, it is not clear whether this is a cohesive group or individuals who gathered randomly in order to overcome the journey and survive. The worship of youth and beauty convention in Western culture are undermined here through diverse and varied physical models, including older women, men of advanced age, and body proportions that stray from Hollywood aesthetics. Although the human composition includes both men and women, the dress principle imposed on the participants muddles gender differences, overrides the body's silhouette, and creates a physical appearance characterized by a deliberately distorted sexual identity. As it advances, Carmi and Heiman's convoy amasses a rebellious and deviant energy that unfolds a spectrum of questions and alternating identities.
The language of the accessories and clothing articles of the 49 participants in the journey was drawn from the history of Zionist ethos, and corresponds with the pioneering and military aesthetics of Israeli culture: pants in the style of the First Aliyah, shirts inspired by the Second Aliyah, military belts, water canteens and jerrycans, IDF winter coats and army vests, rucksacks, stretchers and flags. The sources of inspiration were culled from private collections, the Old Yishuv Court Museum, military warehouses and various archives, and also includes tools (garden fork, shovel, hoe, rake), agricultural equipment (drip wheels, wheels for carrying irrigation pipes, trailer carts), construction gear (wheelbarrows, buckets, timber, measuring devices) and more. All these were embedded and assimilated in a collection of clothes and objects designed especially for the film. The slow journey moves to the sounds of a distant lament sang by three women adorned with flowers, as though taken straight out of Carmi’s botanical paintings. The soundtrack mixes the voice of Mizrahi mourners with clusters of abstract sounds emanating from shofars/tubes. Are they lamenting the absence of contact with the land? The expulsion from it? Is the worship of the soil in itself the origin of the curse?
The sabil – the Arabic word for road or way – is also featured in the book Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape by Palestinian author Raja Shehadeh. In one of the walks, Shehadeh describes his fellow hiker as someone who “never kept the trail when one could be found. He clomped down over the terraces, causing stones to tumble and creating his own new paths.” In Carmi and Heiman’s film, The Israel Trail: The Procession, there are no side roads and everyone – Arab and Jews, men and women, young and old – are doomed to keep on moving together towards the unknown.