_ Bab-el-Wad : Ronit Mirsky

(this is quite a long narrative. For images, please scroll down).

It was a hot, sunny day in early June. We were driving in a convoy, going up to Jerusalem on Highway no.1. I was driving in the leading car of the convoy; three more cars followed. I drove that road a million times before, going through the narrow gorge called Sha’ar Hagay in Hebrew, or Bab-el-Wad in its original Arabic name, meaning gateway to the valley. The scenery typically includes scattered wrecks of rusted, burnt, bullet-punctured old armoured vehicles laid by the side of the road. Those wrecks are actually relics of the battle for?the road to Jerusalem, one of the major battles of the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. Those are the remains of the convoys that made their way to the sieged Jerusalem, carrying supplies and auxiliary. After the war was over, the wrecks were moved to the sides of the road, not to avoid disturbing the traffic but to remain as silent evidence. The burnt, rusting wrecks became the quintessence of the heroic sacrifice of the drivers, mostly civilian volunteers. Shortly after the war, a song was written about Bab-el-Wad, emphasizing that the fallen should not be forgotten, comparing the wrecks to the silent fallen comrades:
Bab-el-Wad,
Do remember our names forever,
Convoys broke through, on the way to the city,
Our dead lay on the road edges,
The iron skeleton is silent like my comrade.
The song soon became one of the most popular songs of this period and over the years has obtained a mythical status. In the national lore the wrecks were thus rapidly transformed into relics, becoming both an object of pilgrimage and a striking landmark for travelers on their way to the capital. On Israel’s tenth Independence Day it was decided to transform those relics into an official memorial, the first memorial commissioned by the Israeli government. After a long process of debates, it was decided that the wrecks would be left as they were, with simple preservation works. The battle dates were engraved on nearby boulders, detracting as little as possible from the authenticity of the wrecks and enhancing evocative powers of the scenery by mobilizing natural objects and topographical features as additional primary witnesses.
The road, which became Highway No1, is linked with the relics. It injects the relics with evocative powers. It seems as if time has stood still since the time of the battle, even though the relics have been relocated several times over the years due to works being carried out on the road. Traffic regulations forbid stopping on this part of the road. The access to the relics is restricted, and can only be done with great difficulty.

As this is a main highway, the relics are seen regularly by passers-by to and from Jerusalem. Public interaction with it happens mostly in motion.
A few years ago, in 2009, it was decided to do some preservation work since the vehicles were decaying. They were painted with anti-rust paint, and at the same occasion were spread out a little so that they will be more accessible to the public. It was still difficult to reach them but theoretically possible. This caused a public debate to emerge and brought to the surface many old facts and discussions that led to the establishment of the memorial sixty years ago, when governmental committies were held away from the public’s eye. The question of the authenticity of the relics was raised. Apparently, sixty years ago, the area was restricted from view for a while so the replacement of the vehicles to the sides of the road was hidden from the passers-by. It was said that at the time, the original vehicles were removed and new ones were placed in their stead. There was proof that ten old ambulances were sold to the state. The theory presented was that the original vehicles did not look “right” so similar vehicles were bought, then made to look as if they were hit during the war. They were artificially decayed, burned and shot at. The whereabouts of the original vehicles remained unknown. The state of Israel denies those accusations but this discussion is still active in historical circles.
So, back to that hot June day. A while before, when I mentioned planning a pilgrimage to Bab-el-Wad, I was made aware that Highway no.1 is again undergoing construction, and that the Bab-el-Wad relics were moved while the work was being carried out. I asked some friends to pay attention to the whereabouts of the relics on their way to Jerusalem. One reported spotting them in the next junction toward Jerusalem. Another said they were moved to the other side of the road. I decided to go and look for them myself. On that day, I took a few friends with me, convincing them to come with their families to have a picnic with me at the memorial. In the Israeli culture, Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers is followed by Independence Day; there is a strong link between the two. Ceremonies for the fallen soldiers are held in military cemeteries in the morning, and in the evening of that day the independence celebrations begin. The most common way of celebrating is to have a picnic on the morning of Independence Day.
We were driving around, passing Sha’ar Hagay, passing the next junction ahead, but we did not see any relics. We decided to continue looking on the dirt roads going to the woods surrounding Jerusalem. Funnily enough, we spotted a sign to the “Jerusalem Siege Breakers Memorial”. We followed the sign and found ourselves in a very strange memorial/picnic site. There was a small memorial for the soldiers of the War of Independence, followed by a couple of flat rusted-looking metal sheets (actually made from a wooden board painted to look like rusted metal) in the shape of the Bab-el-Wad armored vehicles. On one side was a flat car, and on the other side benches were attached to that “car” – so it was an armored car-shaped picnic bench. Around were a couple of those odd looking benches, and some regular looking picnic tables. We parked the cars and started unloading. While my friends and their families were eating, I went to explore the space. I saw remnants of the Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers’ ceremonies that were held a month before – a wilted memorial wreath was placed at the site. I wanted to take the wreath with me. I wasn’t sure how ethical it would be, so I left it there in the meantime. As I planned on doing rubbings of the original relics, I brought my rubbing materials with me. I decided that doing rubbings of the dummy relics-picnic benches would also be a good idea, especially bearing in mind the whole question of the importance of authenticity in terms of the original memorial. I went ahead with the rubbings, and by the time I had finished, my friends were pushing me to pack and head back home. Just before we left, I stopped the car in front of the small memorial, and quietly put the wreath into the boot of the car. There were a few other families picnicking around in this strange site, and I did not want to arouse any questions at that point. I packed the wreath in my bag and brought it back with me to London.
I left the wreath to wilt for several months, not sure exactly what to do with it. Finally, I cast it in concrete, trying to create a memorial of my own, casting its absence, its trace. The outcome was not to my liking at first, but the authentic wreath was ruined during the casting. I had no choice, but to fake a new casting with a fresh new wreath I made on my own. I did so, finally having the memorial I first imagined. Whether it was authentic or original is another matter.

 

Bab el Wad#1, 45*60*65 cm, concrete

Bab el Wad#2, 25*60*60 cm, concrete

 

Pencil on paper, 350*240 cm

Bab el Wad#2 (Detail)