For ten days at the end of April I was based in Huntly, Scotland as Deveron Projects‘ ‘Thinker in Residence’. My visit coincided with the seventh annual Slow Marathon, which this year focused on a distance exchange between walkers in Huntly and Gaza. It was the culmination of Walking Without Walls, a year-long collaboration between Rachel Ashton, a local Huntly resident and May Murad, an artist living in Gaza.
In this way, my first weekend in Huntly was walked in relation to Palestine:
At the Pathmaker’s Gathering that preceded the event, I heard Mick Napier, a member of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, tell stories of his trips to Palestine; I listened to Ashton discuss developing a friendship at a distance; and watched a pre-recorded video chat with Murad from Gaza, playing from speakers slightly too quiet for the hall. My own contribution was to speak about walking, art and politics, a discussion in which I stressed the importance of context (walking in New York City and walking in Kabul are not the same thing).
The next day seventy of us set off in the morning to walk twenty-six miles from Dufftown to Huntly; in Gaza, two hours earlier, forty walker had begun to chart a different twenty-six mile course. As the drone buzzed over head to document our walk through the countryside, I wondered about the different resonance of that sound in Palestine. The challenges of our ‘right to roam’ seemed small in comparison, but there were challenges none the less: private road and no-entry signs in locations where access is enshrined into the law, locks on gates that require a climb and unpleased landowners who growled rebukes when some of my fellow participants missed a turn.
Following the Slow Marathon, I continued to think on my feet as part of my weekly exploration of the walks from Ways to Wander. This week’s remapping walk asked participants to map a place they consider home and walk it somewhere unfamiliar (or at least different to the place they mapped). Originally created by Misha Myers as part of Way From Home (2002-2008), the walk was designed ‘for refugee and asylum seeker participants across the UK to take a walk with someone’ (2018, p. 2). Over one-hundred and fifty refugees throughout the UK walked, mapped and shared their experiences as part of the project.
Had I been more prepared as a practitioner, I might have tried to arrange a walk with some of the Syrian refugees who have re-settled in the area surrounding Huntly. Deveron Projects has been working with some of these residents through a variety of socially-engaged art practices, including a community food initiative run in part by Hayat Shahoud and Abeer Alhalabe. As we returned from our long Slow Marathon, we were privileged to a delicious spread of dishes from the café. My personal highlight was the heaps of yalanchi, which I remember from Christmas parties at my highschool girlfriend’s house (her family was of Armenian descent, their presence in the Central Valley the result of another cycle of displacement with its own complicated relationship to Syrian land). Unfortunately my pleasure in the food came at the end of a 26 miles walk and, while I thanked the chef, I didn’t have the ability to make much conversation.
Instead I walked Myers’ work with members of the Deveron Projects team, all of whom originally came to Huntly from elsewhere. We were brought together by our desire to explore socially-engaged art practices and shared our common choice to be in Huntly. Our relocation was one of privilege rather than distress. Zeiske quickly pointed this out during our walk together. She suggested it might be daft to walk a walk designed for those who had experienced genuine displacement. We asked similar questions during our simultaneous walk with the slow marathoners in Gaza. How can we compare the inconvenience of walking 3km on a stretch of tarmac because a farmer doesn’t really want us to exercise our room to roam as a large group, to the hurdles involved in finding a 26 mile stretch of land to walk in Gaza? But perhaps these incongruities are part of the point. They stretch us to think through the global implications of our local experiences. In Huntly we walked personal maps of France, England, Holland, New York City and a variety of towns in Scotland. We discussed mourning, war and reconciliation, nostalgia, suicide, pragmatism, fondness and wonder, as we walked through places I had never been–both in Huntly and in the towns and cities through which we imagined ourselves walking. It gave me time to walk with everyone who is currently making the work at Deveron Projects happen and helped me to forge friendships that will hopefully continue to develop in the future.
It was not in my capacity to arrange walks with refugees, nor would that have necessarily been appropriate. Those relationships require care and attention, something for which this project doesn’t allow. There is a reason Murad and Ashton had to work together for a year before they could invite a mass group of marathoners to join them: trust and friendship take time. Like many artists, I want to expand my engagement with people outside of artistic circles, and walk with more people from different backgrounds. I am aware, however, that this can’t be done cavalierly, in a way that expects participation; rather it must be predicated on thoughtful invitation. This is a foresight I am still learning to develop, but no one said solidarity is easy.