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.
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?”
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?
In England I used to work with young people who had often suffered terrible abuse – physical, psychological, and sexual. When I mentioned that work to new acquaintances, the reaction was usually one of uneasy sympathy. “That’s so awful. I don’t know how anybody can treat children like that, I really don’t.”
Talking about Palestinian children who have been abused in custody, with the abuse even including outright torture, I encounter another response. “So what were the kids doing? The army wouldn’t arrest them with no reason.”
I’ve had it up to here with the excuse-making and the equivocations and the rationalisations for inflicting deliberate harm on those who are most vulnerable in any society. I am sick of people’s sheer pig-headed selfish insistence on prioritising the protection of a country’s reputation over the protection of these children. And when I say sick, I mean sick – nauseous, down, and above all just plain tired.
So I have come to a decision. From now on I will have nothing to say to the apologists. Not online, and not in real life. (Not in a box. Not with a fox. Not in a house. Not with a mouse…) I used to believe that there was something to be gained from debating the issue with them. Now I have come to realise that it’s pointless. To begin with, it’s not an ‘issue’. Children beaten up in jail and threatened with rape are not ‘issues’. Children torn from their beds in the middle of the night and taken away without charge, without a parent, without even a lawyer are not ‘issues’. They’re not up for debate in the same way that logical positivism is. A person who grasps this does not need convincing that what happens to kids in military custody is very wrong. A person who does not grasp it will never be convinced. To them the kids only exist in the abstract. They’re not real. They don’t matter. And if you point this out to the apologists, they’re quite shocked, because OF COURSE they oppose child abuse – REAL child abuse. But this isn’t real, not really, and if it is, it’s an isolated incident. Not enough to matter. Of course, in deploying these arguments – common to abuse apologists in all contexts – they become complicit in the abuse itself, as one of its most hurtful consequences (in many cases even its purpose) is to teach victims that they do not matter. I remember one young disabled woman from New Zealand, a victim of serious physical and psychological violence, telling me, “Sometimes I hold myself and keep telling myself, ‘I am real, I am real’.” Speaking at a conference I attended, an Irish woman who was repeatedly raped and exploited through prostitution said that as she sat on the pavement she used to wonder if any of the people passing by really saw her. Abuse apologists do not see. They’re the same all over the world.
I have a choice: to argue ad infinitum with these people, becoming increasingly tired and sad in the process and achieving nothing, or to turn instead to the kids and their families. The time I spend giving my fiftieth detailed explanation of how military law affects children could be better spent in writing a comforting bedtime story for a child who doesn’t sleep well any more. Instead of spending hours enumerating the reasons why he can’t sleep for the sake of people who just brush them off like so much dandruff, I could write a book for people who actually want to know, or I could learn more up-to-date practical techniques for the management of sleep disturbances in trauma, or I could just make the poor kid a hot chocolate and sit with him through the night. All of this would be a far more worthwhile use of time. It might not bring about an end to army child abuse, but it would at least demonstrate to these children that they matter.
I’m in England at the moment. Yesterday I had a beautiful day in Coventry with my friend Sam. I never thought I would write ‘beautiful’ and ‘Coventry’ in the same sentence, but that was before I saw the cathedral, where Sam is volunteering.
Coventry is known as Britain’s Dresden. The cathedral was all but destroyed by bombing during the Second World War (despite the best efforts of the provost, who valiantly stood on the rooftop one night and tried to toss stray bombs onto the street with a pitchfork before they could explode). Only the outer walls and the spire remain. Peering into the cathedral on the morning after the bombs hit, one of the staff noticed that a pair of scorched beams had fallen in the shape of a cross.
When the war ended, it was decided that the ruins should remain as they were. Wandering through them, I was surprised by their peace. Normally in a place that bears obvious scars of violence I feel more grief than anything, but this place was marked with something more than that. I think it is because of all the love and care that people from Coventry (and much further afield) have put into making it a place for reconciliation. A statue was sent from Dresden, and it now stands near the entrance to the ruin, named simply ‘Survivors’. It is a quiet reminder that the prayer inscribed behind the charred cross – Jesus’ words as he died, ‘Father, forgive’ – was not just for the bomber pilots who discharged their cargo on Coventry but also for pilots who flew in the opposite direction. Nearby is a plaque in honour of people who died on the Home Front, confronting bombs with pitchforks, and one final statue – a couple embracing.
Our tour guide (a volunteer from Germany, whom Sam had roped into the expedition on the grounds that she knows more about the cathedral’s history than he does) explained that the statue’s creator was inspired by a woman who refused to believe that her husband (reported missing, believed dead) really was dead. She set off round Europe on foot to look for him. I don’t know if she ever found him, but the sculptor tried to imagine what their reunion might have looked like and cast it bronze. Originally titled ‘Reunion’, it was renamed ‘Reconciliation’ when it was donated to the Peace Studies department at Bradford University. Fifty years after the war’s end, several casts were made of the statue. One came to Coventry. Another went to Northern Ireland. A third stands in a park in Hiroshima.
“How is it that they show up whenever you’re here?” I asked Nadav in considerable irritation.
I had opened the front door to find that a blue metal barrier and two occupation soldiers had sprung up like mushrooms overnight. (Sadly not the edible kind.) They were blocking the mouth of our street. The wall surrounds us and the only way to get into Bethlehem lay past them. And I was going to have to walk past them with an illegal Israeli, which is not the ideal accessory to have about your person when confronted with an unexpected military roadblock.
I’m not a London sort of person. Before I left for Palestine I lived in a remote Northumberland hamlet (population three people and a sheep) with a mile-long walk across the fields to reach the nearest bus stop. London has an awful lot of people and no sheep, and I have several grievances against it. It always seems so easy to navigate when you look at the Monopoly board, but when you actually get there nothing is arranged in orderly squares and you’re lost before you even know where you are.
Last year, one late December day, I alighted at Euston Station and caught the Tube into the East End. I was introduced to this part of the capital through Rachel Liechtenstein’s book Rodinsky’s Room, a semi-autobiographical work that tries to solve the mystery surrounding the disappearance of David Rodinsky, a reclusive man who lived above the old synagogue on Princelet Street. My present-day destination was a flat on the thirteenth floor of a tower block in a densely populated housing estate.
Earlier today this picture appeared on the Facebook page of the Israeli Embassy in Ireland. It is an image of the Sacred and Immaculate Heart, with the festive caption, “A thought for Christmas…If Jesus and mother Mary were alive today, they would, as Jews without security, probably end up being lynched in Bethlehem by hostile Palestinians. Just a thought…”
My initial reaction was, “Smooth move, directing this picture and caption at a country where the population is a.) predominantly Catholic and b.) generally sympathetic to Palestine. PR skillz, u no have any.” Then I thought of something else.
This image of the Holy Hearts is hanging on the wall of my host family’s house in Bethlehem (only ours is kitschier and better). When I saw the embassy’s Christmas message, I thought of the family’s experiences during the Intifada, when the house was constantly being requisitioned by Israeli troops. They used to corral everyone into one corner, and my landlady was never allowed to be the one to wake her children: the soldiers pulled them out of bed at gunpoint. When the soldiers got thirsty my landlady used to give them water. Occasionally some of them became distressed and she and her husband would try to comfort them. There were times when the curfew lasted so long that the family ran out of food. Soldiers would bring their own meals into the house (sometimes hot pizza, with its appetising smell) and the kids just had to sit there and try to bear the hunger until such time as curfew was lifted and they could go to the shop.
Last year I ended up bringing an Israeli friend who was then performing his own military service into the house. (He was off-duty at the time, obviously, and before you ask – it’s a long story. I may tell it some day.) I was worried about how the family would react to him. Sure enough, my landlady wasn’t best pleased – but not because he was an Israeli Jew and a soldier to boot, but because, “If the army find out he has been here they can hurt him. You need to look after your friends, Vicky, he is a good boy.” She sat in the living room and talked with him, underneath the Holy Hearts image and the equally kitschy representation of the Last Supper.
That picture on the wall of one Bethlehem family home has witnessed a lot of things, but never hate of the sort that was exhibited by the embassy this afternoon. Just a thought.