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.

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.

Continue reading

‘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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Shades of Hebron

“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.

Continue reading

Just a thought

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…”

Image

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.

Updates

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.

When in crisis, drink tea

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.

 

Talking about child trauma in Palestine

I’ve written an article about childhood under military occupation for the Israeli web magazine +972. After saying I’d write it, I hesitated. I sat down to write it every day and left the document blank every time. Two weeks went by before I finally got out what I wanted to say.

Continue reading

Art and apartheid: worlds apart

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).

Continue reading