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.
“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.
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.
It has been a while since I wrote regularly on my blog, thanks to a very heavy workload. Time for some brief updates.
1.) I’ve published a short piece on Gaza over on +972mag. Scribbled in the middle of the night, it’s the prelude to the post I wrote here yesterday. I’ve heard more from Sameeha since. She has been taking painkillers to help her get to sleep. I’m not sure this is the way to go, but I’m glad she was able to rest and is all in one piece still. Oh, and her thesis has been marked and she was awarded an MA with distinction (one of only three students on her course to receive one).
2.) I got my MA result yesterday. I also passed with distinction (less impressive in my case as I was writing in my own language) with a dissertation on Jewish theological responses to the Nakba. As there is so little written scholarship on this I had to rely on interviews, one of which was with Rabbi Brant Rosen who blogs at Shalom Rav. I contacted him because a couple of years ago he organised a congregational trip to Dheisheh refugee camp, which intrigued me. The information and insights he provided were central to my thesis. If you haven’t read his blog already, you’re missing out. Go and have a look (and it will give you something nice to read the next time I pull a disappearing act).
3.) Now that this is over and I have nothing much to focus on apart from the slight matter of the doctorate, I’m getting to work on my book. Stay tuned.
4.) The Bethlehem youth group should be at a conference on peace, justice, and reconciliation in Rwanda now. We weren’t successful in raising the amount needed to send them in time. We were offered a grant of four thousand euros to enable them to go, but it came too late. However, this isn’t the end of it. We’re going to use the money for a similar project, as it’s important to bring our (often isolated) teenagers into contact with other young people who have experienced violence in their lives and are working to make things different. Thank you to everyone who helped. If you’d like to donate, let me know.
5.) Earlier today there were four Israeli tanks sitting on top of the hill in Beit Jala, right next to Talitha Kumi school and the shop that always has a reliable stock of my favourite ice cream. I’m not sure if they’re still there or what on earth they’re doing (perhaps the soldiers have also heard about the ice cream and decided to bunk off a scheduled Gaza invasion in favour of getting some?) but the neighbourhood is unnerved. It doesn’t like tanks. Please keep it in your prayers.
I am very tired after a couple of nights without sleep. Precipitated by the assault on Gaza and helped along by the chain-drinking of tea (when in crisis, drink tea – it is the British way), this bout of insomnia isn’t exactly wild fun.
This autumn Sameeha’s course of study in England drew to its close. We travelled to the Lake District together (I didn’t think she should leave England without seeing it) for what would be our last visit together for neither of us knows how long. Her house in Gaza City is barely a three-hour drive from me in Bethlehem, but getting into Gaza is still so hard, even with the easing on Rafah, that the best way for us to see one another is to jump on a plane.
“I need to do something radical with you before I go back home,” was her greeting.
I felt nervous. The last time she decided we needed to do something radical she attacked me with her makeup bag and tried to drag me into a nightclub. My toenails bore traces of scarlet nail polish for months. (It looked exactly like blood.) Fortunately this time she was content to hire a boat and row it out on Windermere. Considering that she can’t swim and I have a disability that means my arms and legs sometimes like to act autonomously of my brain, you would have thought that bobbing about in the middle of one of Britain’s largest and deepest lakes would have been an alarming experience. After the makeover it was positively relaxing.
Once we were far enough from shore, I laid down my oars. We sat in silence (an unusual condition for Sameeha). The lake swelled and sighed beneath us, cradling the boat. There was no sound apart from the waves on the wood and the occasional creak as an oar shifted in a rowlock. It was hard to believe that we only met in person just over a year ago; before that our friendship was based around our blogs and our Twitter accounts and the late-night Facebook chats that took place when both of us were being prevented from sleep (by drone strikes in her case, caffeine in mine). Levinas and Derrida, radical versus liberal feminism, inconvenient crushes on political Zionists (“Clarify that was you, not me!” I can hear her saying indignantly), the size of our backsides – you name it, and we have probably discussed it in the middle of the night. She feels like one of those people I’ve known forever.
“I’m OK,” she wrote. “I’m with family, all staring at the TV to anticipate what’s next. Habibti, this has been a hell of a week. I can’t sleep.”
“Probably just as well. It would hardly be reasonable for your family to have to cope with your snoring on top of everything else.”
Then she lost either Internet or electricity or both, and I was left in my cold room in the middle of the night, staring at the screen and wondering what I could possibly do. Apart from boil the kettle for the sixth time in three hours.
Ever-resourceful and knowing that she would not be able to reach my mobile in England, she has communicated her safety and unflagging spirits to me by texting one of my Israeli friends and cheerfully asking him to ask me if she might have my permission to kidnap him for ransom. Ever-obliging, he has done so. (You might think that getting his permission would be the more pertinent thing to do, but Sameeha and I are working on the establishment of the matriarchy.) “She says that she loves you, despite the unpleasant reminder of her snoring at a time like this, and she promises to treat me well and not feed me to any crocodiles.”
That wasn’t much, but it made me smile and will give me a slightly better sleep. I wish I knew that she had enjoyed the same. One of the last things I read from her before she lost Internet: “The sky is burning tonight. They’ve gone insane.”
I hope she has a kettle to hand. And some means of boiling it.
Dear Sir or Madam,
I am an MA student in Jewish Studies. A few weeks ago students taking Hebrew were encouraged to book tickets for Habima Theatre’s Hebrew-language performance of The Merchant of Venice as part of the ‘Globe to Globe’ Shakespeare festival.
During my undergraduate years (as a student of English literature) I practically lived at the Globe, developing incredible calf muscles as I stood through half of Shakespeare’s repertoire. The opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays presented in Hebrew by a theatre company intimately acquainted with Jewish history and heritage could have been a strong incentive to make a return trip (and maybe even invest in a seat this time).
It was only half-eight in the morning, but it was already too warm for comfort. I could feel the acrid salty heat rising from the tarmac as I headed up the hill. The chapel was going to feel like an oven. Once again I caught myself fantasising about air conditioning, which not many people have in Palestine. Just imagine walking into a building and being met by a beautiful blast of cold air, and getting some iced grapefruit juice, and…
The order was issued in an American accent and preceded by an earsplitting whistle. I didn’t stop for the whistle. I never do. If people want to talk to me, they can start by addressing me as though I’m a person too and not an errant sheepdog who needs to be brought to heel. At “Stop!” I reluctantly obeyed. I hadn’t eaten any breakfast yet, and you don’t pick fights with M16-wielding men without at least having had a cup of tea beforehand.
He was not a soldier, but a civilian employee from the company that has been contracted to manage this particular checkpoint. (Military occupation is big business.) The sun glinted on his dark glasses and the barrel of his rifle. Behind him was a female guard who was gazing up at him adoringly from beneath her baseball cap. I know that look, and it’s never pretty. The way some guys start parading around the checkpoint like peacocks in flak jackets if there happens to be a female colleague anywhere in the vicinity is like something out of a David Attenborough zoological documentary on mating rituals. And what better way to demonstrate power, manliness, and general desirability than by harassing the odd passer-by? Frankly I don’t know how the female soldiers and guards manage to keep their legs together.
“I don’t want to go through the machsom,” I called out wearily, resigning myself to the game. I tried to step forward so that I could talk to him in my normal voice, but he gave another shrill blast of the whistle (ow) and held up the palm of his hand.
“Where are you going?”
“To church.” I pointed at the road that sloped off to my right, skirting the separation wall. The guard turned away and said something to his colleague. I took this as permission to move. I was wrong. The resulting whistle was loud enough to make my heart jump skittishly. “Wait!”
Posted in honour of Land Day.
I was lucky enough to be able to attend the event at which this poem and song were presented. Arwa Abu Haikal insisted on reciting her mother’s poem before the choir sang the song, as she didn’t think she would be able to make it through the song without tears otherwise. Hearing the song, I understood why. I can’t be in Bethlehem this Land Day, but I’m sharing ‘Our Trees Beyond the Fence’ in the Land Day spirit.
The main entrance to the arts centre was bedecked with bands of white plastic tape, with ‘Peace Week’ printed on each strip in blue letters. It reminded me immediately of the tape used to cordon off crime scenes while police gather forensic evidence. The organisers of the week were playing on that image deliberately: Peace Week was established in response to violent street crime in inner city Manchester. Now it is in its tenth year.
The arts centre was hosting a film installation by Liz Crow, Resistance: Which Way the Future?. I don’t know if the centre deliberately arranged to feature this artwork during Peace Week. It may just have been a coincidence – but coincidental or not, the installation has something tough and dark and powerful to say about non-violence.
Entering the room, you sit down before the first of three screens. The film coughs into life with the sound of an engine. The first image: an exhaust trailing smoke, the underbelly of the bus. You watch for a long time. At first you are expectant. Then the wait starts to grate on you. What’s happening? What are you waiting for? With a sudden roar, the bus drives off, revealing a young nurse with a clipboard standing outside a creeper-covered country house. She makes a decisive mark on her clipboard, then walks briskly into the house.