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.
I’ve been told a secret
and I’m told I cannot break it
or I will only make it worse.
and God only
what happens then
It’ll be my fault
and I’ll be to the blame
I’ll be the origin of this family’s shame.
I’ve been taught a language
I’ve been taught the things to say
and the things that make a bomb diffuse
these complex rules of conflict:
You step over here and don’t mention death
step under there, and take a left
at the place called truth and feeling.
And I’ve been needing
but I fear it’s far away.
There are secrets hanging hidden from the ceiling
but the scene is closed and curtained up
the scene is not for speaking or for grieving.
But I’ve been breaking secrets
I’ve been telling tales
I shouldn’t tell.
I’ve been staring hell straight in the face
and I am making noises in a place
that’s meant for silence.
I’ve been wrestling peace in a place of quiet conflict
because I was bearing weights
too heavy for my shoulders.
And I was young, I was not very old,
so, I’ve been telling secrets that I shouldn’t have been told.
As I read that, the margins became crowded with my own commentary, my memories of certain people and events in Bethlehem coming together to form an interpretative midrash (or maybe even their own poem). The nine-year-old girl in Aida camp whose mother was shot in front of her when occupation soldiers fired through a front door that the mother had been a fraction too slow to open. By the time they let the ambulance through, nearly three hours later, this girl and her siblings didn’t have a mum any more. And her little brother shouted at her because she cried when a journalist came to ask questions, because the journalist was Israeli, and everyone knows you don’t cry in front of them. Just think of the shame, letting them see you being weak! Only make things worse.
And the way my colleagues told their four-year-old daughter that St George, Bethlehem’s beloved saint, was crashing about the skies on his horse. This is the way thunder is explained to Bethlehem kids who are a bit nervous of it. We’ll play inside today, habibti. There were many thunderstorms in those days. I don’t know who was more shaken, adults or kids, when Yara said one day, calm and matter-of-fact, “That’s not St George. It’s the tank.” And I was young, I was not very old…
My colleague’s mother, who lost her baby when the army fired tear gas into her stationary car. Then years with the bitterness and the anger wedged like a swollen lemon in her throat, getting in the way of speech. It was years before she finally said anything, and then it was to an Israeli Jewish couple on an escalator in a Jerusalem shopping mall. They had a baby in a pram. He wasn’t strapped in safely, so she put out a hand to steady him. Then she flung herself onto his mother and began to cry. You step over here and don’t mention death.
Her daughter, my colleague, looking at me anxiously from the other side of the desk. “If people hear that Israelis have been here, if they say that we as an organisation collaborate…! But I’d like to see them when they come, your friends,” she said slowly. “Bring them when the office is empty.” I brought them, two slightly apprehensive Israelis who had never set foot in the West Bank before. “Don’t tell anyone,” she added. “Don’t post the pictures on Facebook,” one of them said. The scene is closed and curtained up.
My colleague’s mother, who came home that day and said what was unthinkable for many people in this neighbourhood, which is still haunted by memories of people who aren’t coming home. “I’m forgiving them.” No closed curtains for her. A few years further on she said it to a video camera. I’ve been wrestling peace in a place of quiet conflict, because…
The Palestinian university student whose place of conflict was anything but quiet when she confronted an international guest who had decided to give an impromptu sermon on stone-throwing. “You should go and have orgasms over non-violence with the fucking IDF instead of preaching to us!”All the right phrases were used – non-violence, peace, acceptance, dialogue, not-helpful-to-your-cause – because I’ve been taught a language / I’ve been taught things to say, and she stood there with the same blazing eyes that watched the army kill a guy her age and that filled with tears when her family had to split up because the Civil Administration took away her dad’s residency, and she kicked those empty words aside like empty shell-casings.
Talking. What does it accomplish? I am making noises / in a place that’s made for silence. Where does it fail? When I was doing my training in counselling, I remember being surprised by all the work we had to do on the therapeutic use of silence. Now I see its value; talking doesn’t solve everything. Spilling your guts out for the world to see how red and confirm how human they are is often unhelpful, if not wrong – putting pain on exhibition to try and persuade others that you life matters. Trauma isn’t always overcome in a cathartic burst when a person finds just the right words. So what to do with all the secrets? The tentative hidden friendships, the grief and the fury, the uncomfortable knowledge that young children hold the power to shatter their parents’ belief in fairytales?
A conversation in a cheerful cluttered kitchen, one of several such conversations, in which a new friend says, “I didn’t want to tell you this at first because I thought you were anti-Israel.” Someone she knew had done something in the army. She told me the story and at the end I was still waiting for her to reach the thing she hadn’t wanted to tell. But that was it. Someone she knew had done something in the army. Why did you not want to say this? Because I don’t want you to write about it. And God only / knows / what happens then. I won’t, I promise, but I still don’t get it. Ex-soldiers’ testimonies are full of things just like it, and Palestinians would see it as just another everyday item on a mundane shopping list. What kind of place are we in where their shopping list is her secret?
This place is full of secrets. I only realised that I had started to keep them myself when my friend from Gaza managed to get into the rest of Palestine for the first time in her life, and we were driving to Ramallah. It was dusk. I was resting my head on the glass, looking at the hills turning pink, when she said quietly, “You’re dating Nadav, aren’t you?” It wasn’t a question. Was it an accusation? It feels strange to hear her mention Hebrew names, as she doesn’t know many to mention. All of a sudden I became aware of the things that I don’t tell, and to whom.
Watching a trio of teenage girls whispering and giggling together in the youth centre, I began to wonder when all these secrets would stop being secret. When three people share a secret? Four? When the class is in on it? When a best friend turns out to have known all along?
Or just when half the street is carrying the same one?