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.
If you’re unfamiliar with the politics of water in Palestine, the Thirsting for Justice campaign has good information. This chronic water shortage is one of the aspects of life under occupation that I find the hardest. Today I have been thinking about why. It’s not just the practical difficulties – they’re no fun, but I can cope with them. It’s the humiliation that accompanies them.
Tomorrow I go to my Hebrew class. Most of the students are new immigrants to Israel, olim chadashim, living in Jerusalem. When I go to class after a few days without water, I’m always conscious of the other students’ clean hair and freshly laundered clothes, so different from mine. I tie my hair up in a scarf and if necessary I fill a bucket with bottled water and wash my clothes by hand, but it doesn’t feel like enough. Not being able to wash yourself thoroughly or clean the house can be humiliating. It’s a strong word, but that is how it feels. I didn’t know that before I came here. For people who live in certain areas south of Hebron it’s even worse. They manage on less than fifteen litres of water per day – the equivalent of two toilet flushes – and in addition to the feeling of discomfort and shame, there is jealousy: does the family next door have more water than I have? Being without this most basic of necessities can bring out a lot of bitterness in a community.
Tonight, coming home from Jerusalem, I took Egged bus 72 as far as Tantur and then walked the remainder of the way to Bethlehem. The destination of that bus is the settlement of Gilo. On the way I found myself looking at the faces of my fellow passengers and wondering who among them lived there. Gilo residents don’t wake up and decide to hang on with crossed legs until they reach work before they use the toilet (supposing their workplace has running water). If you are a Jewish Israeli, you are extremely unlikely ever to have to do that. I wondered how many of the other passengers knew about the water problem. I thought about the times I’ve heard people distastefully referring to ‘dirty Arabs’ and their poor hygiene. I thought about an occasion in 2011 when I visited friends in Tel Aviv, at a time when my neighbourhood was without water. Getting under the shower felt like both a tremendous privilege and a second humiliation at the same time. I was ashamed to have this luxury that my host family and neighbours in Bethlehem could never share. I had to mentally shake myself: since when was being clean a luxury? On the bus, I asked myself how the settlers can live as they do and not be ashamed every single time they turn on the tap. They are so close to us. Don’t they feel it? And that brought me back to my first question: do they not know? Or do they just not care? Are they really that selfish? Do they not know? Or both?
Making my way to church in the evening – thankfully much cooler now – I wondered if anyone has ever asked similar questions about a community that I belong to. About me.
Because everyone has blind spots. It’s easy to pass by other people’s need without registering it, either because you are determined not to see or you simply can’t read the signs. When I was an undergraduate student, one of my closest friends developed a severe mental illness. I hadn’t even realised that she was unhappy until she told me that she had made a suicide attempt and was being sent home. Looking back, all the indicators had been there, but I hadn’t pieced them together. I had been too preoccupied with my own concerns. And then, the homeless people on the street in my hometown in England – I have often heard people remarking that there is no real need to be homeless in the UK in the twenty-first century, they could be in a hostel if they chose, there are enough shelters, and if you give them money they’ll only spend it on drugs. When you see someone sleeping rough under a bridge it is tempting to believe that. It absolves you from needing to do anything. But it isn’t true.
Tomorrow I will sit in a classroom with several people who immigrated to this country with strong ideological conviction and very little knowledge about how life is for Palestinians (if any). I will sit there with my unwashed hair under a hat and during the break, when we chat about how our weekends went, I won’t go into detail on the difficulties of getting menstrual blood out of the bed linen when you can’t use the washing machine. I can’t make people see. If I told them about it before they’re ready to hear they would only have some excuse not to listen – it’s the Palestinian leadership’s fault for not doing this or that, lots of people in the world have inadequate water, it’s surely worse in Syria. I can’t make people see, but hopefully I can do something about my own sight, and use this time without water as a way to deepen my awareness of other people’s needs and the fact that sometimes I look away. With God’s help, I can at least change that.
(With the youth group trip to Taizé approaching fast, I’ve been teaching them some of the Taizé songs. This one is apt.)