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.
O Little Town of Bethlehem is one of my favourite carols. This version is sung by Shaun McDonald, set to a beautifully crafted video that shows the ‘little town’ as it is today.
Enjoy. And merry Christmas.
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.
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?”
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.
I’m too tired to write a detailed account of today’s thrilling journey to Jerusalem and back (and the content would be predictable anyway) so I am posting this song instead.
It’s an accurate summary.
Conscription of teenagers is a wicked thing.
If you pray at all, please pray for them.
And on that note, goodnight.
Lyrics to ‘Anne Braden’
from the color of the faces in sunday’s songs
to the hatred they raised all the youngsters on
once upon a time in this country long ago
she knew there was something wrong
because the song said yellow, red, black, and white
everyone precious in the path of christ
but what about the daughter of the woman cleaning their house
wasn’t she a child they were singing about
and if Jesus loves us black or white skin
why didn’t her white mother invite them in?
when did it become a room for no blacks to step in?
how did she already know not to ask the question
left lasting impressions
adolescence’s comforts gone
she never thought things would ever change
but she always knew there was something wrong
she always knew there was something wrong
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 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.