A few days ago I was shanghaied by a desperate hospital administrator into working in a ward for elderly people with neurodegenerative disorders and acute mental health needs. My feeble protests that I’ve never cared for elderly people before and I know hardly anything about dementia were waved aside, and at seven o’clock in the morning I found myself standing in the bedroom of a lady who was more than a little displeased to find me there, trying to work out how to put the brakes on her commode. The last time I worked in an unfamiliar psychiatric ward everyone kept mistaking me for the on-call doctor and thrusting their foot infections in my face, but today it was clear that I wasn’t going to be taken for anyone so competent. After despairing of my inability to make her commode safe for her to sit on, my first patient of the day started yelling, “Nurse! Nurse! Get this bloody woman out of my room!” and, when the nurse came running, she enquired in long-suffering tones, “Nurse, is this girl dead? I can’t do anything with her!” As the morning progressed she became more tolerant of my deficiencies. Having delivering a stinging critique of the way I pulled up her trousers after the toilet, she sighed and said, “Well, one of us is pitiful, and I don’t know which.” By breakfast time we were quite pally, and we were sitting holding hands in the living room, looking at the fish in the aquarium.
O Little Town of Bethlehem is one of my favourite carols. This version is sung by Shaun McDonald, set to a beautifully crafted video that shows the ‘little town’ as it is today.
Enjoy. And merry Christmas.
A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference on political violence, justice, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, led by members of the Corrymeela Community. One of them read out a poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘The Facts of Life’, taken from his little volume Sorry for Your Troubles. This poem (and the woman’s reading of it – it was obvious that this was a text that meant a lot to her) caught my attention. I ordered my own copy of the book and yesterday it came. I spent the afternoon absorbing each poem, some of which are bleak and some of which are terrifying and all of which are beautiful. There is one in there that stands out to me.
It is a long-standing grievance of mine that I have been to more funerals than weddings in my life. Over the past few years several of my childhood and university friends in England have got married (it seems to be the fashion) and I haven’t been able to attend a single one of the weddings, even though there are fewer things I like better than the opportunity to wear one of those formal hats that teeter on the brink between the stupendous and the stupid.
A few days ago I received another invitation, this one electronic. It looks like this:
Because no borders can stand against the will of friendship, we would like to invite you to share with us the happy moments of our wedding day.
Date: 3 September 2013.
Place: Gaza Port, Gaza, Palestine.
Your presence, real or virtual, is going to bring us so much happiness.
Ayman and Sameeha
Regular readers of my blog will know Sameeha. Our friendship began over Twitter in the small hours of the morning, when I was up with period pain and she was up with fighter planes. I didn’t know if or when I would see her in real life, but then she was awarded one of a handful of Master’s scholarships issued each year by the Durham-Palestine Educational Trust. She made her first journey outside of Gaza at the age of twenty-three, and I saw her for the first time in the crisp Durham autumn. We’ve been close ever since.
I started looking for ways to get to Gaza as soon as I knew that she was engaged. It didn’t work out. To stand a good chance of getting across the Egyptian border, I would need a press pass or credentials from a Gaza-based aid organisation that I do not have. Getting that stamp in my passport would also jeopardise my chances of being permitted to return to Bethlehem. I couldn’t take that chance. I resigned myself to being one of the virtual guests at her wedding day.
And then, last week, she wrote to me. She told me that there was to be a conference in Ramallah at the end of August, relevant to her work with the women’s rights unit at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. She had applied for a permit to go.
“I’m not getting my hopes up.”
“Same here. I’ll wait until we hear whether you’ve got a permit or not.”
“I don’t want to get too excited in case I don’t get it.”
“This should be a week prior to my wedding. You’d better throw me a henna party. And you’d better take me clubbing.”
I snorted. Sameeha’s attempts to get me into a nightclub have failed every time. “You want me of all clumsy articles applying your henna?”
“I want you to throw me a henna party, you and Wala’.”
“We will do it. I can give you your wedding present personally then, and on time.”
“Ah, habibti Vicky, I can’t not get too excited. I miss you and Wala’ like hell.”
Wala’ was another DPET scholarship student, a good friend of us both, who lives just down the road from me in Hebron. The last time she visited, we sat together in a little cafe and gossiped over cake and occasionally caught ourselves glancing at the vacant third chair at our table. “Let’s call her,” Wala’ said at last.
During Operation Pillar of Defense, Sameeha and I talked deep into the uneasy night, for as long as she had electricity. “I don’t want to die until I’ve lit a candle in Bethlehem and been to the beach in Jaffa.” Her voice, thin and frightened for much of that horrible conversation, had some of its normal strength back. “It will happen,” I assured her.
“Do you really think so?”
Don’t get your hopes up, I’ve been telling myself over this past week, even though said hopes were flying higher than your average Israeli leftist on some New Age shanti kibbutz. Hardly anyone in Gaza gets permission to come out. You know that. The days passed. Yesterday, realising that the conference in Ramallah began in twenty-four hours, I accepted that she wasn’t coming. Then I logged into Facebook and saw that I had a message.
It’s nearly five a.m. here. Soon she will be at the crossing, entering the rest of her own country for the first time in her life. I’m too excited to sleep. When I saw that message – “I got the permit today” – I began to laugh and, inexplicably, to cry a little. I’ve missed her. When we hugged goodbye for the last time in England I didn’t know when I would be seeing her again or having to brave the results of her efforts in the kitchen or being bullied into wearing toenail varnish or receiving her forthright opinions on my personal life. Her final piece advice to me, delivered with an emphatic kiss at Manchester Piccadilly train station, was not to fall in love with idiots. Then, catching sight of the Gregg’s bakery outlet that was just behind my shoulder, she started fretting that once in Gaza she would no longer be able to get hold of a decent cheese and onion pasty.
I doubt she’ll get one in Bethlehem either, but hey, you can’t have everything in life.
I’m going to try and get some sleep. She might be here by the time I wake up.
Yesterday evening, as the heat was finally receding and the sun dusting the sky with pink, I met my friend Deema. She is a children’s social worker in East Jerusalem, and one of the most creative and insightful specialists in children’s mental health whom I’ve ever met. “I love the way they think, children,” she has told me more than once. “They can take a simple incident, like seeing an ant walking by, and make it into a big story.” As we hadn’t seen each other in far too long, she invited me to join her family for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, and to spend the night with them in their house in Jerusalem’s Old City.
At Damascus Gate she descended on me with the velocity of an avalanche. Being hugged by Deema is enough to get you sent to the spinal injuries unit. “I’m so excited to see you! You look good, habibti! Where have you been? What have you been doing? I’ve missed you!” – and I struggled to draw enough oxygen into my lungs to wheeze out, “Tamam, alhamdullilah,” before she pulled me into the intricate maze of little alleyways and courtyards that surrounds her home.
She lives in a rooftop apartment, the front door of which opens onto a steep staircase that totters unevenly down to street level. As she rummaged for her keys, I noticed that something was different about that door. Half of it was missing. The frosted glass had been replaced by strips of cardboard and matting. “It was the army,” Deema said wearily when she saw where I was looking. She pushed open the dilapidated door and guided me into the courtyard. “Some boys in our neighbourhood were throwing stones, you know how it is. So they came looking for them.”
“It was one o’clock in the night when they came. They wanted to climb on our roof, because we are the highest. We were sleeping. We woke from the crash of the glass when they broke the door. Then they came in with their guns, and we were all here in our pyjamas.” Deema’s ten-year-old sister nodded. “I was in bed,” she added, before losing interest and poking open a tin of crayons. And did they get you out of bed themselves, Zeynab, or did they let your mother do it? I almost asked, but I didn’t. It would have done her no good to tell. It would do me no good to know.
I remembered an incident when a young border policeman had stopped Deema in the street, asking for her ID. She had given him an ominous stare, like the one a python might bestow on a particularly wholesome-looking rabbit, before swelling up with characteristic indignation. “You want my ID! You want my ID!” His commanding officer had hastened over to rescue him, only for Deema to turn the full of force of her attentions onto him. “‘Give me your ID!’ he says to me. ‘Give me your ID!’ He will fall over if I blow one breath on him, and he says, ‘Give me your ID!’ Why do you send this child to say ‘Give me your ID’?! He is like a – “
But what else he was like neither the magavnik nor his officer waited to find out. I imagined the army having to confront Deema in her pyjamas and for once I found some sympathy being diverted to the army. “What did you say to them?”
“I laughed at them. And they said ‘Why are you laughing?’ and I told them, ‘Look at yourselves’.” She shrugged slightly as she pulled off her headscarf. Her usually animated face was suddenly tired. “Laugh. What else can we do?”
Yesterday morning, as I was standing under the shower with my hair a mass of shampoo suds, I felt the flow of water slackening and knew what was about to happen before it did.
I’ve been lucky. This is the first water cut to hit my area this summer. But standing in the middle of my bathroom, with my soapy hair crackling like a bowl of Rice Krispies whenever I turned my head and my body still slippery with shower gel, I didn’t feel particularly lucky. I had some work to do in Hebron. I needed to talk to a school principal about the social and educational effects of trauma on her students. When I do these interviews I try to look vaguely smart and clean, and having to rinse my hair with the leftover water in the kettle gets in the way of this aim. And typically, just now I have my period. To say I was displeased is an understatement. Politically the combination of these things is practically enough to make me want to sign up with Islamic Jihad. As the bus rattled towards Hebron, I stared out at the red-roofed settlements we passed on the way and decided that if the water hadn’t returned by today I would gather together all the smelly residents of this street, storm a friendly local settlement, and commandeer its bathtubs. (I know I sound unusually militant here, but when you’re dealing with 35-degree summer heat and have only two days’ worth of clean clothes left in your wardrobe, some militancy is called for.)
Almost forty-eight hours later, the water still isn’t back, despite my neighbour’s confident prediction that we would have it this evening. Majdi’s relentless optimism is sometimes charming (he is the one who suggested, in all seriousness, that I could smuggle an Israeli friend through the checkpoint without trouble by telling the soldiers that he was a Roman Catholic priest who had got lost on a hike) and sometimes exasperating. When nothing is coming out of the tap and ‘Will I be able to flush the toilet today?’ is your first thought on being woken up by your agonisingly full bladder, it’s both.
People who have been reading for a while will remember that about eighteen months ago I started to raise funds to take teenagers from one of the youth projects I work with to Rwanda. Organised by the Taizé community, an ecumenical community with quite a radical emphasis on justice and reconciliation that emerged during the Second World War, it would have enabled young people who live in very difficult situations to meet with survivors of the Rwandan genocide and explore issues surrounding the fight for justice – and the importance of trust. Unfortunately we could not raise the necessary money in time. So we decided to send them to Taizé itself, in summer, when the community is flooded with thousands of young people from all over the world. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) came forward with a grant that partially covered our costs, and last week it arrived. A few blog readers and friends also donated (which I am very grateful for, as none of the people I know are what you could call spectacularly rich). We have just enough for the teenagers to fly out. All that remains is to raise enough money to cover train and bus travel within France, and hostel costs in Amman. (Being from the West Bank, the teenagers have to fly from there – they aren’t allowed in the airport at Tel Aviv, which adds extra complications.) I’ve created a fundraising page to collect the remaining amount. It will expire in a week, as the trip is to happen in August. If you haven’t yet done so, please donate if you can, or share the page with people who might be able to. And pray for us.
Thank you once more to everyone who has helped. With the exception of the ACN grant, this whole thing really was cobbled together from ten-shekel donations, and it’s pretty amazing that we’ve managed it at last.
I’m too tired to write a detailed account of today’s thrilling journey to Jerusalem and back (and the content would be predictable anyway) so I am posting this song instead.
It’s an accurate summary.
Conscription of teenagers is a wicked thing.
If you pray at all, please pray for them.
And on that note, goodnight.
The other day I had to be in an unfamiliar place in Jerusalem for nine o’clock. To allow for my tendency to get lost even in my own neighbourhood, I was up at five and out of the door by six.
My careful plans didn’t work out. As I reached Bab Zqaq, a crowded bus swung across the junction and onto the road for Jerusalem. I had missed it by about two minutes. I gnashed a tooth or two. The timetable is erratic, especially in the early mornings, and I had no idea when the next bus would arrive or when it would depart, especially as the driver waits for it to fill before he goes anywhere. My only option now was to shlep over to the big checkpoint, cross it on foot, and catch one of the more regular buses from the other side. (Yes, it can take a great deal of time and precision-planning to get to a city that’s five miles down the road.)
To enter the checkpoint, you pass through these caged chutes, which are sometimes so tightly packed with people that it’s barely possible to move. I hate waiting in that crush. It’s hot, there is always the irritation of cigarette smoke, it’s noisy, it’s claustrophobic, and you have no idea when you’re going to get out, because it all depends on the mood of the guard. As a non-Palestinian, I have the option of bypassing the cages and walking straight into the terminal on the specially marked ‘Tourist/Humanitarian Lane’ (no bars on this one). It’s not an option I’m prepared to take. Privileging people on the basis of the colour of their skin (or their ID card, or their passport cover) is a tad outdated now, or it should be.
I entered the machsom with about twenty-five Palestinians. The guard at the first turnstile didn’t bother to check our documents. He looked half-asleep. As I headed towards the main checkpoint building, the tarmac already warm beneath my feet, I could hear shouts and screams floating out into the newly minted morning. Arabic? Hebrew? Over the loudspeakers it’s hard to tell what language they are using until you get close. The guards often manage to make both languages sound quite unlike the ones I hear spoken around me, and it’s not just the loudspeakers that achieve that affect. Stop, shoes off, shut up, wait, go, go back, stop old woman, stop boy. In a blog post about her decision to sail to Gaza, the author and Civil Rights activist Alice Walker described the memories that witnessing the Israeli border police in action brought back for her: “In the Southern United States when I was a child, they would have said: Boy, or Girl, I want to talk to you…”
In the search area there was a lot of yelling from men with guns and a lot of people hurrying to get through, and I put my head down and hurried with them, knowing that I had no reason to be jittery – these men can’t really do much to me. A Palestinian who relies on his work in Jerusalem to feed his family and who must arrive on time if he doesn’t want to be sacked has far more to worry about. And at the final documentation check, where the Palestinians have their hands scanned and their permits inspected and where I just flash my passport, a long queue. A guard in a booth was checking the papers; another one was superintending the line, his weapon tapping against the metal of the turnstile whenever he moved slightly. I put my headphones in and prepared to wait, irritated by the way that the woman behind me kept nudging my back. Now if there is one thing I hate, it’s being nudged when in queues. It’s a British thing. I turned round to give her the famous frosty stare, and she nodded towards the guard with the gun. I looked at him and he gestured to me to come to the front of the queue.
Privileging people on the basis of the colour of their skin (or their ID card, or their passport cover) is a tad outdated now, or it should be.
I went over. (After all, I reasoned, I’m running late. I have to be in Jerusalem for nine, if I make a fuss they’ll probably just take it out on the people queuing with me, what can I do about that, I will make a different choice a different time, but today I have to be on time…) The guards were friendly to me. They smiled. They tried to make pleasant chitchat: “Good morning. Where are you from?” Somehow I think I was the only person in that line to receive a good morning that day. I wanted to ask them why. Why do you yell at that man for not moving fast enough for you, but you smile at me? Why don’t you wave him to the front of the line when it’s obvious he’s old? You’re not soldiers, you’re civilians, so why did you even accept a job here? You chose it. Why? And the questions to myself: why didn’t you stay where you were? Why did you just do what they told you? You chose it. Why?
Lyrics to ‘Anne Braden’
from the color of the faces in sunday’s songs
to the hatred they raised all the youngsters on
once upon a time in this country long ago
she knew there was something wrong
because the song said yellow, red, black, and white
everyone precious in the path of christ
but what about the daughter of the woman cleaning their house
wasn’t she a child they were singing about
and if Jesus loves us black or white skin
why didn’t her white mother invite them in?
when did it become a room for no blacks to step in?
how did she already know not to ask the question
left lasting impressions
adolescence’s comforts gone
she never thought things would ever change
but she always knew there was something wrong
she always knew there was something wrong