There is no such place

Today I heard from my close friend Sameeha that her two young cousins, who live in the house next door, have been killed by an artillery shell that hit their bedroom. (My immediate, selfish mental reaction forcing its way through fear: “Oh, thank God it wasn’t you!”) Their names were Qasem and Imad. They were aged seven and four.

Sameeha’s parents have had to flee their house next door to the killing site, but they’re uninjured. Her younger sister Najla is pregnant and said, “I don’t want to have my baby now. I wouldn’t know where to hide her.” At this, an older mother helpfully volunteered, “I used to move my two little boys from room to room to try and find the safest place.”

In Gaza tonight there is no such place, as patients at Wafa Geriatric Hospital have also been reminded. Their hospital was under fire for days, with international activists trying to act as human shields for people who were too sick to survive away from hospital – people dependent on oxygen, people who are paralysed, people who were terrified as their walls trembled and who clung to the hands of their nurses hoping for reassurance that the nurses couldn’t give. I’ve done a bit of work on a dementia ward. Reading the updates from El-Wafa, which has now been destroyed in the bombing (the last patients were removed in time, although how much longer they can last like this is a question that I am having to leave with God), I think of the elderly people I worked with, one of whom even found being taken from her room to the toilet an anxiety-provoking experience. I wrote about Sarah here. How would I tell such a patient that I need to wheel her bed into the hospital corridor with dozens of other sick frightened people, as it’s the safest place to sleep? How would I tell her that she really needs to get out of here, but I don’t know where? That there isn’t anywhere?

As a healthcare worker, I think I can’t imagine anything worse than not being able to provide care to those under my responsibility. I think. Until I look at the photos from El-Wafa again and I realise that many of the patients were probably expelled from Majdal, Asqalan, and the surrounding areas during the Nakba. This has been their whole life. These old people have never, in all their existence, had a safe place to call home – something they have in common with Sameeha’s two little neighbours, who took only four and seven years respectively to make the same discovery.

A prayer in times of violence

Inside the Emmanuel Monastery chapel, my church in Bethlehem.

Inside Emmanuel Monastery, my church in Bethlehem.

There is dreadful news coming out of Gaza. I am beyond grateful that my friend Sameeha (now pregnant with her first child) is safely out, but I’m scared for all the friends who are stuck in there with no shelter and nowhere to run, and for the people who are coping without medicine or clean running water. According to the radio there is a ground invasion imminent.  Thumbing through my prayer books yesterday, I found this litany by Janet Morley, a Methodist author. It is titled simply ‘A prayer of confession’.

(The final line of each verse, in bold, is the response when praying in congregation.)

O Christ
in whose body was named
all the violence of the world,
and in whose memory is contained
our profoundest grief,
we lay open to you:
the violence done to us in time before memory;
the unremembered wounds that have misshaped our lives;
the injuries we cannot forget and have not forgiven.
The remembrance of them is grievous to us;
the burden of them is intolerable.

We lay open to you:
the violence done in our name in time before memory;
the unremembered wounds we have inflicted;
the injuries we cannot forget and for which we have not been forgiven.
The remembrance of them is grievous to us;
the burden of them is intolerable.

We lay open to you:
those who have pursued a violent knowledge
the world cannot forget;
those caught up in violence they have refused to name;
those who have enacted violence
which they have not repented.
The remembrance of them is grievous to us;
the burden of them is intolerable.

We lay open to you:
the victims of violence whose only memorial is our anger,
those whose suffering was sustained on our behalf,
those whose continuing oppression provides
the ground we stand on.
The remembrance of them is grievous to us;
the burden of them is intolerable.

Here what comfortable words our saviour Christ says
to all who truly turn to God:
come to me, all you who labour and are heavy-laden,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,
for I am gentle and lowly in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

I’m putting this litany here so that other people can also make use of it – not just for victims of war and oppression but for anyone caught up in violence, such as those trapped in abusive homes; and for our own forgiveness for all the times when we’ve hurt others. Even though it’s a Christian prayer, I think that the meaning in it will resonate with people who are not themselves Christians.

Occupation’s abacus

While mobs roamed up and down Jaffa Road (a major thoroughfare in Jerusalem, for people who don’t know the place) shouting ‘Death to Arabs’, a Palestinian teenager from Shuafat has been murdered and his body dumped in a woodland near Givat Shaul. The body was partly burnt and showed signs of torture.

“If the government doesn’t do it, we will,” an activist wearing a T-shirt from Lehava (an organisation that fights against ‘assimilation’, more specifically miscegenation) told a reporter on Jaffa Road yesterday. Staring at it, I thought to myself weakly, “Do what? Bombs that turn night into day over Gaza aren’t enough? Home demolitions aren’t enough? Five hundred arrests under military law?” Regarding the murder, the mayor of Jerusalem has stated, “This is not our way” and called for calm.

On average, one Palestinian child has been killed every three days for the past thirteen years. Their death toll is around 1500. Does it matter so much whether soldiers do it or vigilantes do it? What would ‘our way’ be? To leave it to the army, whose killing is clean and clinical and always excusable?

In Shuafat, where today’s murdered teenager was from, police have moved in with tear gas and sound bombs. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once wrote that parts of East Jerusalem look like what was once District Six in Cape Town. The resemblance is never sharper than on days like today. The killers of Muhammad Abu Khdair won’t have their family homes demolished in punishment for his murder. In fact, they’re unlikely to be caught at all. The police and legal system don’t have a sterling track record for responding to anti-Palestinian violence, even when it’s directed against citizens; when seventeen-year-old Jamal Julani was nearly murdered in a widely publicised attack in Zion Square two summer ago, in what even the Israeli police described as a lynch, the only three members of the mob to be convicted received sentences of eight months, three months, and one month respectively. A kid in the West Bank who throws stones at a military jeep is likely to get more. Today’s dead boy will be lucky if he’s worth one arrest, let alone five hundred. The teenagers hurling bottles at police and army in Shuafat refugee camp understand that. The army has now taken over rooftops of houses in the camp and guns are pointing down almost every street and alleyway. “Are they raiding the settlements now, to find suspects?” one Shuafat resident asked bitterly. From vigilante attacks on Palestinians to state-ordered home demolitions, from the unjust government policies that make it possible to detain a Palestinian indefinitely without charge to Lehava’s enterprising grassroots hotline for reporting ‘mixed’ relationships – they click together like beads on an abacus, making clear the value of Palestinian life under apartheid.

Yesterday my friend Stefana, having finished her exams, went to the beach. “I heard that ‘death to Arabs’ on Jaffa Road with my own ears, but tried not to listen to it.” She has three Arab flatmates, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. They decided to stay in all day.

What we do with dead kids

This afternoon reports broke that the bodies of the three missing Israeli teenagers Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali have been found in the West Bank. They were uncovered near Halhul.

This follows a wave of army raids, arrests, and killings across the West Bank and Gaza, with over four hundred Palestinians detained (most without being accused of any crime or given access to a lawyer) and eight people dead. Hebron was sealed off entirely, with the city’s residents being prevented from entering or exiting.  “If this is what happened when those teenagers were missing,” one friend said worriedly, “God knows what they’ll do to us now they’re dead.” During the night raids, when we heard the honking of jeeps in Beit Jala and the army was going from house to house, she and I were both seized with an urge to tidy our belongings just in case soldiers should come bursting in and notice that we had not washed up our breakfast bowls. The next morning, looking at photos from the night raids – furniture smashed in, food pulled out of fridges and trampled underfoot – we concluded that perhaps our fear of judgmental houseproud soldiers arriving to conduct an episode of How Clean is Your House? had been a little misplaced, but at least it had given us something to do.

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Next year in Jerusalem?

On Palm Sunday I met my friend Stefana in Jerusalem (a Romanian student who is taking Hebrew courses here) and we trekked up the Mount of Olives to the village of Bethpage. As neither of us has exactly stellar navigational abilities and we always have to factor an extra ninety minutes into all our plans to cover the ‘getting hopelessly lost’ part of the programme, I was worried that we might miss the start of the Palm Sunday procession.

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Meeting the Velveteen Rabbi

I have been dipping into the Velveteen Rabbi blog for at least nine years, which Rachel Barenblat began writing when she was a rabbinical student (“When can I run and play with the real rabbis?”). She is a beautiful writer, covering all sorts of rich and varied topics, from poetry-writing to parenting her young son. I especially appreciate her weekly commentaries on the Torah portion, as many Christians tend to neglect these Old Testament books and we miss out on a lot. And even if her blog weren’t so interesting, I’d like it anyway because of the pun in the name.

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‘The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust’

I mustn’t be this sad. It’s just a Holocaust. My Holocaust. After all, there are many other things worth living for, such as love and the simple pleasure of existence. Not everyone has a Holocaust…And I got mine by birthright, never had to do a thing to earn it. So it would not be fair for me to mourn its loss. And it still hurts, losing my Holocaust. It hurts so very much.

 I am in bed with a chest infection and a wooze-inducing virus, feeling well enough to sit up at last but not well enough to do anything that involves being vertical or going much further than the toilet. Luckily I have a new book, Noam Chayut’s The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust, so wryly and slyly reminiscent of Shalom Auslander in its opening paragraph. It has alternately been making me laugh out loud and causing a lump in my throat (neither of which feel very good when you are coughing so violently that you fear a lung might plop out of your mouth onto the page, followed closely by your coccyx and everything else in between). But this book is worth the discomfort.

he Girl Who Stole My Holocaust

Noam Chayut was in the Israeli army for five years during the Second Intifada, which included both combat service in the occupied West Bank and fundraising PR trips to America. He’s now an activist with Breaking the Silence. Although my attention was caught by the quirky title as soon as I saw it in the East Jerusalem bookshop, I hesitated to buy it. The centrality of army service to Israeli life has spawned its own literary and cinematic genre, commonly known as ‘shoot and cry’, and I didn’t want to read yet another sob story from yet another former soldier who decries the occupation while simultaneously employing it as a plot device in his personal epic of catharsis and redemption. But tears are limited in Chayut’s book. The autobiographical element – thoughtful, often funny, cheerfully self-deprecating – is paralleled by an exploration of just how far the Holocaust shadow stretches, the fears it instills and the social environment it creates. Chayut does not treat it as a justification for occupation or ethnic cleansing, but is acutely aware that it functions as one in Israeli society, and in the short final chapter – which shifts sharply into a letter to the girl of the title – he is grateful to the unknown child for divesting him of the excuses that accompany this historical legacy. In his letter, he is also clear that the book is not just an individual tale (“This is not my – or your – personal story…”). The specific incidents that make up his book serve as windows onto something wider: the secret fable of the pine trees that Chayut creates as he hikes across the country, for example, is a not-so-oblique reference to the ethnic cleansing of 1948, couched in his own experiences. The personal is woven seamlessly into the political, with seemingly disparate events (large and small) coming together in a narrative that encompasses more than the autobiography of just one former soldier.

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In the shadows of memory

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.

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Telling secrets in Palestine

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 TroublesThis 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.

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