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.

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The ruins after the rain

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.

The cross in the ruins.

The cross in the ruins.

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.

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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.


From Bethlehem to Rwanda

Just after Christmas I started to feel restless. I was dissatisfied with how things were going with the youth group. Late last year we lost our youth house in Bethlehem (one of three premises) because we couldn’t afford the rent and upkeep, and now the youth have to squash themselves into what was originally an office and practically sit on each other’s laps when they want to meet. I decided that they needed something to perk them up a bit. A field trip seemed in order.

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Non-violence in a nutshell

As I wrote in the aftermath of Mustafa al-Tamimi’s murder, many Palestinians have become jaded with the concept of pacifist resistance, as it is often conflated with passivity. Acquiescing to the State of Israel’s insistence on retaining all of Jerusalem is needed to demonstrate ‘openness'; abandoning the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign is a sign of being ‘reasonable'; renouncing the one-state solution and accepting Israel’s right to exist as an ethno-religious state reveals a willingness to be ‘tolerant’. Without these things, Palestinians are told, you cannot be truly non-violent; and non-violence is your duty. We demand it of you. You won’t deserve even a sliver of the cake until you are on your best behaviour.

The devouring lion: graffiti near Bethlehem checkpoint

The devouring lion: graffiti near Bethlehem checkpoint

These things are not true. An unwavering commitment to justice ought to lie at the heart of all pacifist resistance. In surrendering their most basic rights in order to try and buy that crumbling slice of cake, Palestinians would become accessories to the state-sponsored violence that is being waged against their communities – the carving up of the West Bank into impoverished cantonments, the water shortages, the ongoing isolation of Gaza, the home demolitions,  the destruction of hundreds of years of Palestinian culture in Jerusalem and beyond. This meek acceptance of the status quo is not non-violence; you can’t have true non-violence without self-respect.

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Through a child’s eyes

Some graffiti by Banksy in Bethlehem: A Palestinian girl frisks a soldier.

Some graffiti by Banksy in Bethlehem: A Palestinian girl frisks a soldier.

One evening late last summer, as I walked home from a day spent in Dheisheh refugee camp, I was stopped at a flying checkpoint. (These are blockades that pop up unexpectedly for a few days, or even a few hours, as opposed to the permanent checkpoints.) I took off my jacket so that they could search the pockets and waited patiently. This wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. What was unusual was the age and appearance of the ‘soldiers’. The eldest of them was nine. She is a little girl who lives just round the corner.

“Shoes!” she said imperiously, in a magnificent imitation of our local IDF, and I removed my shoes. She had a long wooden stick slung across her body in the manner of a gun. She made the motions of scanning my shoes, and then demanded, “ID!” To my horror, I didn’t have my ID on me. I stood and waited while they discussed what to do with me – would they just refuse to let me pass, or would I have to be interrogated first? Should I be arrested? In the end, needing the toilet rather badly, I bribed the occupation army by proffering a squashed packet of Oreos that I may or may not have sat on at some point. They accepted cheerfully. After I had dashed in to the bathroom, I came back out to them, and we spent a happy evening playing tag and hide-and-seek.

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