Thursday, January 11, 2007

Tomatoes, Coffee, Gas, Horror and Silence

Every single object carries significance that goes far beyond those things we would normally associate with them. Here, in occupied Palestine, life is hard. Objects tell stories just like the people do: constant, beating stories. Like fierce monsoons, they pelt at you, daring you to challenge their significance. And yet like individual raindrops in a monsoon, each story is but one of millions. They ultimately roll off your back; you must shake them from your shoes when you enter the house. Like raindrops, each story takes a slightly different shape, but they all carry the same pollutants. Life here in occupied Palestine is hard.

Objects carry significance here that a visitor could not imagine. Each object carries with it millions of stories; they fill my heart and my head and make me feel at once like crying and screaming.

Take first tomatoes: the Israelis have started a sinister campaign of buying nearly all of the Palestinian farmers' tomatoes. They are then sold to Europe, for prices ten times what the destitute farmers receieved for their toil. This has had a double effect on the Palestinian economy: it has made local, Palestinian tomatoes so expensive that Palestinians cannot afford to buy them. Thus, they buy cheap, GMO and pesticide filled Israeli tomatoes, injecting millions of shekels into the Israeli economy and boosting the subsidy-fat Israeli agricultural industry. (Bear in mind that the land upon which 'Israeli' tomatoes are grown has all, all of it, been confiscated from the Palestinian fellahin.)

A similar game is played with gas. Most Palestinians rely on gas to survive. In the camps and villages, as in other parts of Palestine, there is no central heating or cooling in any of the homes. People use gas powered heaters on rollers. Everyone uses gas to cook. The Israelis play a dangerous game with people's lives; each month, there is no gas for at least one or two weeks. Why? The Israelis close off the Jordanian and Egyptian borders to gasoline only. Israel will not sell gas to the Palestinians. 'What do people do without?' I asked. 'They don't cook, and they stay in bed,' a friend said. No hot food, no hot showers, no warmth beyond the waves emanating off of loved ones, or the smile of a child. There is a slow, painful genocide happening here. I can't bear to think of the US, where the events of the day, of the year, of the decade, of the century, are boiled down ultimately to the inherent evil of 'the Arab mind', or 'terrorism', or, not least, 'Jewish suffering'.

Another example: coffee. I watched a film tonight, made by a Nablusi university student. The five minute short tells the agonizing story of a young man, twelve years old, from a village near Nablus. The best student in his class, his life changed drastically when his father became ill. Life in the villages is very difficult. Not only are the people almost universally impoverished (economically, of course), but they bear the brunt of the worst kind of Israeli racism. Settlements tower over them, or lie hostile on the hilltops next to them. Settlers frequently make a game out of terrorizing Palestinian villagers, beating children, harassing women, killing men. This all occurs under the protection of the Israeli occupying army.

After his father became ill, the young boy, the eldest of 15, became the breadwinner for his large family. With little options for work, he set out to sell coffee at the Huwarra checkpoint, south of Nablus. Each morning he rises with the sun, sets out on his bicycle, and makes for the checkpoint with his two thermoses of hot, sweet, Arabic coffee. He sells until his classes begin. After school, he returns immediately to the checkpoint to sell again. In the film, he tells of the trials of selling coffee. More than three times has he been beaten by soldiers, his thermoses cracked, the brown, gooey coffee spilling out on the dirty ground. His crime? Delaying Palestinians who were ordered to 'COME!' by the scared, angry teenagers who rule the checkpoints like evil little princes.

During the shooting of the film, the young boy's father died. The young boy tells of his life: 'After I started working at the checkpoint, my grades plummetted. I was making A's, and now I am making B's and C's in all of my classes. I cannot play with my brothers and sisters. I cannot watch TV with them. I have no time for myself.' Those meager free moments he cherishes he spends at the cemetary, visiting his late father's grave. There is little hope for this young man, though he manages to crack a smile through his tears as he stares wide-eyed into the camera.

Before you become bored by the monsoon, indulge in a few more stories. Allow yourself to feel a few more of the genocidal raindrops on your shoulders before you brush them off, as we all must in order to wake in the morning and smile with those we love.

Horror films. A friend of a friend came over to the flat tonight to help us do a few things on the computer I brought here, to leave here. His English was impeccable (a rarity in the camp), and he seemed excited to talk with me about American films and rap music. He is somewhat of a computer whiz, and opened up his server on our laptop, providing me with a plethora of American films to choose from for our (bootlegging) viewing pleasure. He spoke of a few, and then his eyes widened.

'Do you like horror films?' he asked. 'Sort of,' I said, 'depending on my mood.' He pointed to one of them and told me that it was positively terrifying, that if we were to download and watch it, we should keep the lights on. In half jest and half earnest, I mentioned in an aside that it seemed silly to watch horror films in a place plagued by so much true, everyday terror. At first he laughed and shrugged, saying, 'What is there to be afraid of here?' 'The army,' I replied, without hesitation. He immediately responded: 'No! The army isn't to be feared. They are cowards.'

'Maybe so,' I said, 'but they kill people without abandon. They are truly terrifying, more so than any American horror flick could even aspire to be.' This friend of a friend became suddenly quiet, and I saw tears budding in his chocolate brown eyes. 'I suppose you are right,' he said at last. 'It is something to watch your own brother take his last breaths and slip away from you, right in between your two hands.'

'I suppose you are right.'

Finally, I'll end with another story, one that says everything and nothing all at once.

A good friend and I were just talking, wading together through the ocean of tears, walking head on together into the monsoon of polluted water without anything but the cover of our friendship and his unbreakable spirit to keep us afloat.

We ended up, as we usually do, speaking of the tragedy of occupation and dispersion and death and violence and poverty and racism in more broad terms, taking in the shapes of the monsoons of yesterday and of those breaking through into the horizon that will be tomorrow. Without the flowers, what I mean to say is that we ended by discussing 'the conflict' as it is felt by Palestinians and Israelis both.

He told me, 'You know as well as I do that this will not stop just because we fight against it. It must stop because they too want to make peace with us, a real and lasting peace based on mutual respect, dignity, and most of all, trust.' Of course I agreed with him, and he continued.

'But it is not easy, and sometimes it is hard to shake my hopelessness. You know me,' he said. 'I am a good man, I want nothing but peace for my children, for the children of Palestine and for Israel's children as well. But how can we have peace if we cannot even stand to talk to one another?'

'I had a friend,' he said, 'who worked with an Israeli group called Breaking the Silence. This is a group of former Israeli occupying soldiers who have come out against the occupation, and who publicly repent for their sins by telling their own stories, telling of how they individually and of how their army collectively abuses the rights and dignities of each and every Palestinian each and every day. They speak in America, in Europe, in Israel. This friend of mine, she knew that I had been involved with the resistance. And she knew one of the soldiers who had come out and broken his and his nation's collective silence. She asked me if I would meet with him. I oblidged, excited to have the opportunity to speak with one of the men who occupied and terrorized a house of people I know, here, a few years ago. The soldier said that he wanted to personally apologize to the people who lived in that house. Anyway, we went to meet one another. Me, a Palestinian radical who spent time in an Israeli prison. Him, a colonial soldier who participated in human rights abuses against my people, my neighbors, and me. We met with a larger group of people, and we sat together in that group for four hours.'

'Do you know,' he said to me, 'that I could barely look at him? We came together because we wanted to talk, we wanted to hear one another and try to understand the other man, and by extension, his nation, his people, his sorrows and his joys.'

'So how did it go?' I asked.

'We did not say one word to one another for the entire time,' he said, mournfully but with purpose. 'I could not speak. I did not know where to begin.'

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