Steve Sabella: Excerpts from “The Parachute Paradox”

15 June, 2022
Steve Sabel­la, “In Exile 1,” col­lec­tor’s edi­tion, 136 : 125 cm, Lamb­da print mount­ed on alu­mini­um + 5 cm alu­mini­um edge, 2008 (cour­tesy of Steve Sabel­la).


For Steve Sabel­la, the occu­pa­tion attach­es each Pales­tin­ian to an Israeli, as if in a tan­dem jump. The Israeli is always in con­trol, plac­ing the Pales­tin­ian under threat in a nev­er-end­ing hostage sit­u­a­tion. Sabel­la has two options: either to sur­ren­der or take a leap of faith. Sabella’s mem­oir, The Para­chute Para­dox, tells the life sto­ry of the artist born in Jerusalem’s Old City and raised under Israeli Occu­pa­tion. After liv­ing through both intifadas, being kid­napped in Gaza, and learn­ing to nav­i­gate dif­fer­ent cul­tures, he feels in exile at home. Blur­ring fact and fic­tion, love and loss, the mem­oir traces one man’s ardu­ous search for lib­er­a­tion from with­in, through a con­fronta­tion with the col­o­nized imag­i­na­tion. The sto­ries here from The Para­chute Para­dox have been select­ed by the editor.


Steve Sabella


When I got home, I raced against time to pack and get to Ben  Guri­on Air­port in Tel Aviv. I was exhaust­ed, and dread­ed the usu­al three hours of ques­tion­ing and inter­ro­ga­tion by Israeli air­port security.

Shalom, meh eyfo ata?
Hel­lo, where are you from?

The Para­chute Para­dox: On Love, Lib­er­a­tion and Imag­i­na­tion. A Mem­oir From Palestine.

In a Hebrew accent, while gar­gling the R in Yerusha­lay­im, I said:

Ani meh Yerushalayim. 
I come from Jerusalem. 

She con­tin­ued,
Where exact­ly do you come from?

If I answered with “East Jerusalem,” it would be assumed I was an Arab. And if I answered with “West Jerusalem,” they would sus­pect I was Jew­ish. I replied,

Anto­nia Street, the Old City.  

She checked my pass­port, but my place of ori­gin was still not clear to her. She asked me for my father’s name,

Your mother’s?

Your grandfather’s?

What is the ori­gin of the name Sabella?

Do you cel­e­brate Hanukkah?
Why not. 

Do you cel­e­brate Christmas?

She was hes­i­tant to ask if I was an Arab or Pales­tin­ian Arab. To speed things up, I told her I came from Jerusalem. The Arab one. All I want­ed was to board the plane and close my eyes.

What is your occupation?

I also work as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er for the UN.

I showed her my press card.

Where were you before you arrived at the airport?

I couldn’t tell her I had just been kid­napped in Gaza. She would con­sid­er it a secu­ri­ty threat and def­i­nite­ly not allow me to board the plane.

In Jerusalem.            

And why are you going to Switzerland?
To have a hol­i­day with my wife and daughter. 
My wife is Swiss.

Why are you trav­el­ing alone? 
Why do you work for the UN? 
Have you trav­eled to Gaza with the UN? 
Why do you live in Jerusalem? 
Why don’t you live in Switzerland? 
When did your fam­i­ly set­tle in Jerusalem? 
Why is your name Steve?

The ques­tions were end­less, and the first secu­ri­ty guard was replaced  by a sec­ond, and the sec­ond by a third, until the chief of secu­ri­ty was called. I kept repeat­ing the same nar­ra­tive. Again and again. I had to be con­sis­tent and not make any mistakes.

Lis­ten to me. This is my sto­ry. No mat­ter how long you inter­ro­gate me, it will not change. Either you let me go home to Jerusalem, or you let me board the flight to Switzer­land.  Lets get this over with. 

They gave in, allowed me to board after a con­spic­u­ous bag check and a full body search, escort­ed me to the plane like a VIP, and final­ly left me. I found my seat, sat down, and leaned back to close my eyes for the first time in two days. But every time I heard the click of a seat­belt, I woke up star­tled — it sound­ed like the cock­ing of the kid­nap­pers’ guns.

I opened my rest­less eyes and spot­ted a man watch­ing me.  He was Black, and I imag­ined for a moment that he was the man  the kid­nap­pers released that morn­ing. When he noticed that I spot­ted him, he unbuck­led his seat­belt, walked over,  and  sat  down on the aisle seat next to me. He spread open a news­pa­per and point­ed to a photograph,

Is this you?

It showed a woman and me with guns and masks all around us. The bold title read, “UN Work­ers Freed in Gaza.” I fell into my seat and said:

Some­times, the answer is right there in front of you! 

Up in the air, I trav­eled to the time I went sky­div­ing in Haifa. On  the tar­mac, the plane looked like it hadn’t flown since the 1967 War. After take­off, the engine roared as if it could fail any sec­ond, wild­ly shak­ing as it reached the sky. When the time had come, I unbuck­led my seat­belt and leaned out of the open door against the rush­ing wind. With lit­tle thought, I did it. I let go. I was fly­ing in  the air. I felt light, less bur­dened by what was hap­pen­ing below. I felt iden­ti­ty-less, free from all the labels and clas­si­fi­ca­tions, free from racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Free from the Israeli Occu­pa­tion I was born into.

But I didn’t open the para­chute. I was in a tan­dem jump, attached to an Israeli. Over the years, I have come to see this sit­u­a­tion in the air as a metaphor for what it means to be a Pales­tin­ian born under Israeli Occu­pa­tion. Life under Occu­pa­tion is like the real­i­ty of a Pales­tin­ian attached to an Israeli in a tan­dem jump. There is an Israeli on the back of every Pales­tin­ian, con­trol­ling all aspects of life — the Israeli is always in con­trol. This impos­si­ble real­i­ty places the Pales­tin­ian under con­stant threat, in a nev­er-end­ing hostage situation.

On the ground, I strug­gled with par­a­lyz­ing depres­sion that sank to new lows year after year. But I knew my jour­ney would have to be one of self-inter­ro­ga­tion and lib­er­a­tion. With the speed of the fall, I felt Francesca’s pres­ence. Over the years, we had built our own world, root­ed only in our imagination.

Steve Sabel­la, “In Exile 3,” col­lec­tor’s edi­tion, 136 / 125 cm, Lamb­da print mount­ed on alu­mini­um + 5 cm alu­mini­um edge, 2008 (cour­tesy Steve Sabella).

Let me take you back to 1996, when I sat alone in the back cor­ner  of Abu Shanab, a bustling hang­out in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was only twen­ty. The First Intifa­da had end­ed three years ear­li­er, but I was still tor­ment­ed by severe episodes of depres­sion, like after­shocks fol­low­ing an earth­quake. Sud­den­ly, my eyes caught sight of a face shin­ing ethe­re­al­ly under a table lamp. Her bright face, blue eyes, and del­i­cate lips, as though paint­ed by a mas­ter, were shad­owed by her long black hair. She was a sign from the uni­verse. And I knew that my mis­sion was to be with her.

Francesca was born in Switzer­land. Three days before she came to Jerusalem to live with me, I flew to Bern to sur­prise her on her last day of work. I set up my tri­pod at her bus stop with a red rose. She walked down the dark street, saw it, and sat down on the emp­ty bench on the oth­er side of the bus shel­ter from where I was hid­ing. After a few tense min­utes, the bus arrived, and just as she stepped in, I grabbed her hand from behind, pulling her close to me, and whispered,

Tonight you’re not going home alone!

Francesca didn’t stop laugh­ing. On the bus, I gave her a black-and-white pho­to­graph I had cre­at­ed a few years ear­li­er. Two hands and arms extend par­al­lel to each oth­er towards the sky, mir­ror­ing a plant stretch­ing towards the light.

My first trip out­side Jerusalem was planned when I was twelve. I was going to live with an Amer­i­can host fam­i­ly from Con­necti­cut for six  months, or even longer. A break meant to be an escape. My par­ents felt  that the dis­tance would light­en the dark depres­sion I had fall­en into since the begin­ning of the First Intifa­da in 1987 that locked us in our  homes. It took me twen­ty years to find a close descrip­tion of what I felt back then. It hit me while watch­ing the film, The Div­ing Bell and the But­ter­fly, whose pro­tag­o­nist suf­fered from locked-in syn­drome. I, too, had been entrapped, iso­lat­ed, in end­less dia­logue with the voic­es of the self.

I was able to move my body, but it nev­er moved forward. 
I was able to move my eyes, but they only saw death. 
I was able to hear, but all I want­ed was not to hear the sound of bul­lets and tear gas every day. 
I felt the weath­er change, but my skin grew pal­lid from sit­ting in my own darkness. 
My home became my prison. 

As a twelve-year-old, I was aware that I belonged to a coun­try that was not a coun­try but a land occu­pied by Israel called Pales­tine.  For the first time, I could see the enor­mous effort required to break free from the mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion on the ground, and lat­er from the Israeli col­o­niza­tion of my imagination.

I was impa­tient. I want­ed the con­flict to end quick­ly. It par­a­lyzed me. Suf­fo­cat­ed me. I had made plans for my future before the First Intifa­da, but the Occu­pa­tion crip­pled life. The dream of promised peace that nev­er came exhaust­ed me. I under­stood then, as clear­ly as I do today, the impos­si­ble real­i­ty on the ground and its injus­tices jus­ti­fied by tox­ic amounts of ide­ol­o­gy. At times, the exer­tion I need­ed to lib­er­ate myself took over me. Once, it found me on the high­est ledge of our house in the Old City. While my eyes were drown­ing in the night sky, con­tem­plat­ing  jump­ing from the roof, I heard my moth­er shout­ing hys­ter­i­cal­ly from down below. I did not kill myself. Was it because I loved my moth­er, or was it because of a belief that some­one in the sky was watch­ing over me? Per­haps a bit of both.

When the First Intifa­da erupt­ed, and the upris­ings hit Jerusalem, Pales­tini­ans often threw resis­tance pam­phlets over the Old City’s his­toric wall, fly­ing into my school’s court­yard. They con­tained patri­ot­ic phras­es and a list of rules imposed on every­one liv­ing  in  occu­pied Pales­tine. They also ordered all schools in Arab Jerusalem to close at mid­day. To com­pen­sate for the lost hours, schools start­ed at 6:30 a.m., which was the worst in win­ter, when the house was freez­ing and the sky still dark. My class­mates from Ramal­lah, fif­teen kilo­me­ters from Jerusalem, had to wake up as ear­ly as five o’clock. Vic­tor, my best friend, often fell asleep dur­ing class. When we were lit­tle, we held hands dur­ing some of the breaks. One sum­mer, he opened the cov­er of the water tank on the roof of his build­ing. He took off his shoes and shirt and jumped through the nar­row open­ing into the water. All I could see was his short spiky hair. After a few sec­onds, he emerged with a cheeky smile. A few years ago, I heard that Vic­tor end­ed up in a men­tal institution.

One day, a six­teen-year-old boy I knew from my school was killed by the Israeli army, the first per­son to die in Jerusalem dur­ing the Intifa­da. His name was Nidal il Rabady, an Ara­bic name that means “strug­gle.” Nidal came from a Chris­t­ian fam­i­ly that lived between the Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim quar­ters. He was shot while rid­ing his bicy­cle back home. Like many of my class­mates, I attend­ed the funer­al at his house. This was my first encounter with death. I was thir­teen. The room was packed, and Nidal’s cof­fin stood in the cen­ter. There were two can­dles placed above his head. He lay in a black cof­fin, which seemed sus­pend­ed in air, sur­round­ed by wail­ing women wrapped in black. I couldn’t see his face. I took a step clos­er to his moth­er. My body still holds her grief and recalls her face swollen from count­less tears. She kept touch­ing his face. But Nidal was pale, frozen, wear­ing a suit that did not fit him. A mor­bid scene that unset­tled my bond with life. I stared at Nidal and said a few words, and I left.

Peo­ple die in wars, and in all wars, at one point, the ene­mies sit down and make peace pos­si­ble. There is some­thing dis­tinct about the way Israelis per­ceive peace. I under­stand this because I have lived with Israelis like an Israeli. Israelis pre­fer revenge, to see their ene­my defeat­ed first, dead, rather than find nov­el ways to live in peace. 

When a Pales­tin­ian was killed, peo­ple in Jerusalem and oth­er  Pales­tin­ian cities would mourn and strike for three whole days, clos­ing all shops, schools, and insti­tu­tions. Once, my school’s doors were shut for three con­sec­u­tive months to sat­is­fy the agreed-upon three days of mourn­ing per death.

Our house was in the heart of the Old City, where thir­ty five thou­sand Mus­lims, Chris­tians, Jews, and  many  oth­er  nation­al­i­ties live and, para­dox­i­cal­ly, over the cen­turies, have learned how not to live togeth­er. If you have ever vis­it­ed Jerusalem’s Old City, you know what I mean. The almost one-square-kilo­me­ter place is walled from side to side, chaot­ic, bustling, in nev­er-end­ing tur­moil with itself. Some peo­ple even claim that Jerusalem was built at the cen­ter of the uni­verse. They say only those born inside of its gates know when and where to find its mys­ti­cal moments. I found these moments when the city was emp­ty, deep into the night on the way to Jouret el Enab. From the val­ley below, the Old City wall looked like a fortress draped in shad­ows. Glow­ing city lights drew my eyes along the wall’s path from the val­ley to the top of Jerusalem. At moments like these, I thought — this is the most mag­nif­i­cent city in the world. Ancient, but not ceas­ing to renew the spir­it. Majes­tic, but nev­er con­trol­ling. A city at uni­ty with itself. At such moments we assume to know the truth. But all these moments, and the truths they reveal, might only exist in the mind.

But I could blend in — in all of the divid­ed Jerusalem and pass freely through Israeli check­points, part­ly because of my flu­ent Hebrew. I liked speak­ing Hebrew, and I per­fect­ed the R in Beseder by repeat­ing it while gar­gling water. Over time, the R echoed with the right ring.

Shalom. Hakol beseder? 
Shalom. Is every­thing all right?

As I grew old­er, I real­ized I was liv­ing in Pales­tin­ian cul­ture as an observ­er and expe­ri­enc­ing Israeli cul­ture as an out­sider. I had to go through an iden­ti­ty check and start­ed my explo­ration through my men­tal wilder­ness. One of my sta­tions was the Mus­rara School of Pho­tog­ra­phy, where I lived invis­i­bly among Israelis for three years. My invis­i­bil­i­ty put me into sit­u­a­tions where I saw Israelis take off their masks and have con­ver­sa­tions they oth­er­wise would only have behind closed doors. When they asked for my name, I said Steve Sabel­la. That was enough for them to assume I came from some­where else, any­where in the world, but def­i­nite­ly not from Jerusalem or Pales­tine. In their minds, I fit the cat­e­go­ry of a Jew who came from Italy or France, not their stereo­types of Arabs. Through the years, I would dare peo­ple who con­front­ed me with labels to describe what a Pales­tin­ian looked like.


artGazaimaginationIsraeli OccupationJerusalemliberationPalestinianphotographyThe Parachute Paradox

Steve Sabella was born in Jerusalem, Palestine in 1975. He is an award-winning artist, writer and public speaker based in Berlin. Sabella uses photography and photographic installation as his primary modes of expression. He holds an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster and an MA in art business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. Sabella received the Ellen Auerbach Award from the Akademie der Künste Berlin by nomination, leading to a published study covering twenty years of his art. His award-winning memoir, The Parachute Paradox, published by Kerber Verlag in 2016, received international recognition, winning two awards for best memoir. Sabella’s life and art have been subject to several documentaries, and his art has been exhibited internationally and is held in private and public collections, including those of the British Museum in London, the Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha. In 2014, The International Center for Photography Scavi Scaligeri in Verona held Sabella’s first major retrospective, "Archaeology of the Future."