A Moment in Ramallah
Certain trees – particularly the mulberries and medlars – still tell the story of how long ago, in another life, before the nakba, Ramallah was, for the well-off, a town of leisure and ease, a place to retreat to from nearby Jerusalem during the hot summers, a resort. The nakba refers to the ‘catastrophe’ of 1948 when ten thousand Palestinians were killed and 700,000 were forced to leave their country.
Long ago, newly married couples planted roses in Ramallah gardens as an augury for their future life together. The alluvial soil suited the roses.
Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when they were alive, and now reprinted as small posters. These are the martyrs of the Second Intifada which began in September 2000. They include all those killed by the Israeli Army and settlers, and those who decided to sacrifice themselves in suicidal counter-attacks. Their faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. The wallet has a pocket for the magnetic ID card issued by the Israeli security services, without which no Palestinian can travel even a few kilometres, and another pocket for eternity. Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks.
There is an old woman, who might be the grandmother, in several wallets. There are boys in their early teens, there are many fathers. Listening to the stories of how they met their death, I am reminded of what poverty is about. Poverty forces the hardest choices which lead to almost nothing. Poverty is living with that ‘almost’.
Most of the boys whose faces are on the walls were born in refugee camps, as poor as shanty towns. They left school early to earn money for the family or help the father with his job, if he had one. A few dreamed of becoming wizard soccer players. A fair number of them made catapults of carved wood, twined rope and twisted leather for hurling stones at the occupying army. Any comparison between the weapons involved in these confrontations returns us to what poverty is about. On one hand, Apache and Cobra helicopters, F-16s, tanks, Humvee jeeps, electronic surveillance systems, tear gas; on the other hand, catapults, slingshots, mobile telephones, badly used Kalashnikovs and, mostly, handmade explosives. The enormity of the contrast reveals something which I can feel between these grief-stricken walls but which I cannot put a name to. If I were an Israeli soldier, however well armed I was, I might finally be frightened of this something. Perhaps it’s what the poet Mourid Barghouti noticed: ‘Living people grow old but martyrs grow younger.’
Three stories from the walls.
Husni al-Nayjar, 14 years old. He worked helping his father who was a welder. While flinging stones, he was shot dead with a bullet to the head. In his photo he gazes calmly and unwaveringly into the middle distance.
Abdelhamid Kharti, 34 years old. Painter and writer. When young, he had trained as a nurse. He volunteered to join a medical emergency unit for rescuing and taking care of the wounded. His corpse was found near a checkpoint, after a night when there had been no confrontations. His fingers had been cut off. A thumb was hanging loose. An arm, a hand and his jaw were broken. There were twenty bullets in his body.
Muhammad al-Durra, 12 years old, lived in the Breij Camp. He was returning home with his father across the Netzarin checkpoint in Gaza and they were ordered to get out of their vehicle. Soldiers were already shooting. The two of them took immediate cover behind a cement wall. The father waved to show they were there and was shot in the hand. A little later Muhammad was shot in the foot. The father now shielded his son with his own body. More bullets hit both, and the boy was killed. Doctors removed eight bullets from the father’s body, but he has been paralysed as a consequence of the wounds and is unable to work. Because the incident happened to be filmed, the story is told and retold across the world.
I want to do a drawing for Abdelhamid Kharti. Very early in the morning I go to the village of Ain Kinya. Beyond it there’s a Bedouin encampment, near a wadi. The sun is not yet hot. The goats and sheep are grazing more or less between the tents. I’ve chosen to draw the hills looking eastwards. I sit on a rock near a small blackish tent. I have only a notebook and this pen. There’s a discarded plastic mug on the earth and it gives me the idea of fetching some water from the trickle of the spring to mix, when necessary, with my ink.
After I’ve been drawing for a while, a young man (every invisible person in the camp has of course noticed me) approaches, undoes the entrance to the tent behind me, enters and comes out holding up a decrepit white plastic stool which, he indicates, might be more comfortable than the rock. I guess that before he found it, it must have been thrown out into the street by some pastry shop or ice-cream parlour. I thank him.
Sitting on this customer’s stool in the Bedouin camp, as the sun gets hotter and the frogs in the almost dry riverbed begin to croak, I go on drawing. On a hilltop, a few kilometres to the left, is an Israeli settlement. It looks military, as if it were part of a weapon, designed for quick handling. Yet it’s small and far away. The near limestone hill facing me has the form of a gigantic sleeping animal’s head, the rocks scattered on it like burrs in its matted hair. Suddenly frustrated by my lack of pigment, I pour water from the mug on to the dust at my feet, dip my finger into the mud and smear colour across the drawing of the animal’s head. The sun is hot now. A mule brays. I turn the page of the notebook to begin another and another. Nothing looks finished. When the young man eventually returns, he wants to see my drawings.
I hold up the open notebook. He smiles. I turn a page. He points. ‘Ours,’ he says, ‘our dust!’ He’s pointing at my finger, not the drawing.
Then we both look at the hill.
I am among not the conquered but the defeated, whom the victors fear. The time of the victors is always short and that of the defeated unaccountably long. Their space is different, too. Everything in this limited land is a question of space, and the victors have understood as much. The stranglehold they maintain is first and foremost spatial. It is applied, illegally and in defiance of international law, through the checkpoints, through the destruction of ancient roads, through the new bypasses strictly reserved for Israeli settlers, through the fortress hilltop settlements, which are really surveillance and control points for the surrounding plateaux, through the curfew which obliges people to stay indoors night and day until it is lifted. During the invasion of Ramallah last year, the curfew lasted six weeks, with a ‘lifting’ of a couple of hours on certain days for shopping. There was not even enough time to bury those who died in their beds.
The dissenting Israeli architect Eyal Weizman has pointed out in a courageous study that this total terrestrial domination begins in the drawings of district planners and architects (see www.opendemocracy.net). On such drawings not a speck of ‘our dust’ is to be seen. The violence begins long before the arrival of the tanks and jeeps. He talks of a ‘politics of verticality’, whereby the defeated even when ‘at home’ are being overseen and undermined. The effect of this on daily life is relentless. As soon as somebody one morning says to himself, ‘I’ll go and see . . .’ he has to stop short and check how many barrier-crossings the ‘outing’ is likely to involve. The simplest everyday decision is hobbled, its foreleg tethered to its hind leg.
In addition, because the barriers change unpredictably from day to day, the experience of time is hobbled. Nobody knows how long it will take to get to work this morning, to go and see their mother, to attend a class, to consult a doctor; or, having done these things, how long it will take to get back home. The trip, in either direction, may take thirty minutes or four hours, or the route may be categorically shut off by soldiers with their loaded submachine guns.
The Israeli Government claims that it is obliged to take these measures to combat terrorism. The claim is a feint. The true aim of the stranglehold is to destroy the indigenous population’s sense of temporal and spatial continuity so that they either leave or become indentured servants. And it’s here that the dead help the living to resist. It’s here that men and women make their decision to become martyrs. The stranglehold inspires the terrorism it purports to be fighting.
A small road of stones, negotiating boulders, descending into a valley south of Ramallah. Sometimes it winds between groves of old olive trees, a number perhaps dating from Roman times. This rocky track (very hard on any car) is the only means of access for Palestinians to their nearby village. The original asphalt road, forbidden to them now, is reserved for Israelis in the settlements. I walk ahead because all my life I have found it more tiring to walk slowly. I spot a red flower among the shrubs and stop to pick it. Later I learn it is called Adonis aestivalis. Its red is very intense and its life, the botanical book says, brief.
Baha shouts to warn me not to head towards the high hill on my left. If they spot someone approaching, he shouts, they shoot. I try to calculate the distance: less than a kilometre. A couple of hundred metres away in the unrecommended direction I spot a tethered mule and horse. I take them as a guarantee and I walk there. Where I arrive, two boys – aged about eleven and eight – are working alone in a field. The younger one is filling watering-cans from a barrel buried in the earth. The care with which he does so, not spilling a drop, shows how precious the water is. The elder boy takes the full can and carefully climbs down to a ploughed plot where he is watering plants. Both of them are barefoot.
The one watering beckons to me and proudly shows me the rows of several hundred plants on the plot. Some I recognise: tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers. They must have been planted during the last week. They’re still small, searching for water. One plant I don’t recognise and he realises this. ‘Big light,’ he says. ‘Melon?’ ‘Shumaam!’ We laugh. We are both – God knows why – living at the same moment. He takes me down the rows to show me how much he has watered. At one moment we pause, look around and glance at the settlement with its defensive walls and red roofs. As he points with his chin in its direction there is a kind of derision in his gesture, a derision which he wants to share with me, like his pride in watering. A derision which gives way to a grin – as if we had both agreed to piss at the same moment at the same spot.
Later we walk back towards the rocky road. He picks some short mint and hands me a bunch. Its pungent freshness is like a draught of cold water, water colder than that in the watering-can. We are going towards the horse and mule. The horse, unsaddled, has a halter with reins but neither bridle nor bit. He wants to demonstrate to me something more impressive than an imaginary piss. He leaps onto the horse while his brother reassures the mule, and almost instantly he is galloping, bareback, down the road from which I came. The horse has six legs, four of its own and two belonging to its rider, and the boy’s hands control all six. He rides with the experience of several lifetimes. When he returns, he is grinning and, for the first time, looks shy.
I rejoin Baha and the others who are a kilometre away. They are talking to a man, who is the boy’s uncle, and who is likewise watering plants which have been recently bedded out. The sun is going down and the light is changing. The brownish yellow earth, which is darker where it has been watered, is now the primary colour of the whole landscape. He is using the last of the water in the bottom of a 500-litre dark blue plastic barrel. On the surface of the blue barrel 11 patches – like those used for mending punctures but larger – have been carefully stuck. The man explains that this is how he repaired the barrel after a gang from the settlement of Halamish, the settlement with red roofs, came one night, when they knew the water containers were full of spring rain, and slashed them with knives. Another barrel, lying on the terrace below, was irreparable. Further off on the same terrace stands the gnarled stump of an olive tree, which, to judge by its girth, must have been several hundred, perhaps a thousand, years old. A few nights ago, the uncle says, they cut it down with a chainsaw.
I quote again from Mourid Barghouti: ‘For the Palestinian, olive oil is the gift of the traveller, the comfort of the bride, the reward of autumn, the boast of the storeroom and the wealth of the family across centuries.’
Later, I find a poem by Zakaria Mohammed called ‘The Bit’. It talks about a black horse without a bridle which has blood dripping from its lips. With Zakaria’s horse, too, there is a boy, astonished by the blood.
What is the black horse chewing?
What does it chew?
The black horse
a bit forged from steel
a bit of memory
to be champed on
champed on until death.
If the boy who gave me the short mint were seven years older, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine why he might join Hamas, ready to sacrifice his life.
The weight of the smashed concrete slabs and fallen masonry of Arafat’s wrecked compound in the centre of Ramallah has taken on a symbolic quality. Not, however, in the way the Israeli commanders imagined. Smashing the Muqata with Arafat and his company in it was for them a public demonstration of his humiliation, just as in the private apartments which the Army systematically raided and searched, the tomato ketchup smeared onto clothes, furniture and walls was a private warning of worse to come.
Arafat still represents the Palestinians more faithfully perhaps than any other world leader represents his people. Not democratically but tragically. Hence the gravity of the broken slabs and fallen masonry. Owing to the PLO’s many mistakes under his leadership, and the equivocations of the surrounding Arab states, he has no room left for political manoeuvre. He has ceased to be a political leader. Yet he remains defiantly here. Nobody believes in him. And many would give their lives for him. How is this? No longer a politician, Arafat and the rubble of the Muqata become a landmark, a landmark of the homeland.
The light comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, making no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving.
And so I am here, unintentionally fulfilling a dream that some of my ancestors in Poland, Galicia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire must have nurtured and spoken about for at least two centuries. And here I find myself defending the justice of the Palestinian cause against people who may be cousins of mine, and anyway against the state of Israel. Those who have been chased out, and those whom there are plans to chase out, are inseparable from the land’s living pulse. Without them, this dust will have no soul. That’s not a figure of speech, it’s the gravest warning.
Riad, who is a teacher of carpentry, has gone to fetch his drawings. We are sitting in the garden of his father’s house. The father with his white horse is harrowing the field opposite. When Riad comes back he’s carrying the drawings like a file taken out of an old-fashioned metal filing cabinet. He walks slowly and the chickens move out of his way more slowly. He sits opposite me and hands me the drawings one by one. They are drawn with a hard-lead pencil, from memory and with great patience. Stroke on stroke, in the evenings after work until the blacks become as black as he wants, the greys remaining silvery. They are on quite large sheets of paper. A drawing of a water pitcher. A drawing of his mother. A drawing of a house which was destroyed, of windows that gave onto rooms which have gone.
When I at last put the drawings down, an older man with the face of a peasant addresses me. ‘It sounds as if you know about chickens,’ he says. ‘When a hen falls ill, she stops laying. Little to be done. One day, though, she wakes up and feels death approaching. One day she realises she’s going to die, and what happens? She begins laying again, and nothing but death can stop her. We are like that hen.’
The checkpoints function as interior frontiers imposed on the Occupied Territories, yet they do not resemble any normal frontier-post. They are constructed and manned in such a way that everyone who passes is reduced to the status of an unwelcome refugee. Impossible to overestimate the importance for the stranglehold of decor, used as a constant reminder of who are the victors and who should recognise that they are the conquered. Palestinians have to undergo, often several times a day, the humiliation of playing the part of refugees in their own land. Everyone crossing has to walk on foot past the checkpoint, where soldiers, loaded guns at the ready, pick on whoever they wish to ‘check’. No vehicles can cross. The traditional road has been destroyed. The new obligatory ‘route’ has been strewn with boulders, stones and other minor obstacles. Consequently, all, even the fit, have to hobble across. The sick and elderly are pushed in wooden boxes on four wheels (boxes originally made for carting vegetables in the market) by young men, who earn a small living like this. They hand each passenger a cushion to soften the bumps. They listen to their stories. They always know the latest news (the barriers alter every day). They offer advice, they lament and they are proud of the little aid they offer. They are perhaps the nearest to a chorus in the tragedy. Some ‘commuters’ walk with the aid of a stick, some even on crutches. Everything which would normally be in the boot of a vehicle has to be hoiked across in bundles carried by hand or on the back. The distance of a crossing can change overnight from anything between 300 and 1500 metres.
Palestinian couples, except for certain more sophisticated young ones, generally observe in public the decorum of a certain distance. At the checkpoints couples of all ages hold hands as they cross, searching with each step for a foothold, and calculating exactly the right pace for hobbling past the pointing guns, neither too fast – hurrying can arouse suspicion – nor too slow: hesitation can lead to a ‘game’, which will relieve the chronic boredom of the guards.
The vindictiveness of some (not all) Israeli soldiers has little to do with the cruelty which Euripides described and lamented, for here the confrontation is not between equals, but between the all powerful and the apparently powerless. Yet this power of the powerful is accompanied by a furious frustration: the discovery that, despite all their weapons, their power has an inexplicable limit.
I want to change some euros for shekels – the Palestinians have no currency of their own. I walk down the main street passing many small shops, and, occasionally, a man sitting on a chair, where there would once, before the invasion of the tanks, have been a pavement. In their hands these men hold wads of bank-notes. I approach a young one and say I want to change 100 euros. (For that amount one could buy in one of the gold shops a small bracelet for a child.) He consults a child’s pocket calculator and hands me several hundred shekels.
I walk on. A boy who, age-wise, might be the brother of the girl with the imaginary golden bracelet, holds out chewing-gum for me to buy. He is from one of the two refugee camps in Ramallah. I buy. He’s also selling plastic covers for the magnetic ID cards in the wallet. His scowl suggests I buy all the chewing-gum. I do.
Half an hour passes and I’m in the vegetable market. A man is selling garlic the size of electric lightbulbs. There are many people close together. Somebody taps me on the shoulder. I turn round. It’s the moneychanger. I gave you, he says, fifty shekels too little; here they are. I take five notes of ten. You were easy to find, he adds. I thank him. The expression in his eyes as he looks at me reminds me of an old woman I have seen the day before. An expression of great attention to the moment. Calm and considered, as if it could conceivably be the last moment. The money-changer then turns and begins his long walk back to the chair.
I met the old woman in the village of Kobar. The house was concrete, unfinished and sparse. On the walls of the bare salon were framed photographs of her nephew, Marwan Barghouti. Marwan as a boy, an adolescent, a man of forty. Today he is in an Israeli prison. If he survives, he is one of the few political leaders of Fatah with whom it will be essential to consult concerning any solid peace agreement.
While we were drinking lemon juice and the aunt was making coffee, her grandchildren came out into the garden: two boys aged about seven and nine. The younger one is called Homeland and the older one Struggle. They ran around in every direction and would suddenly stop, looking intently at one another, as if they were hiding behind something and peering out to see whether the other one had spotted them. Then they would move again to another invisible hide-out. A game they had invented and played together many times.
The third child was four years old. On his face were red and white daubs as on a clown’s, and he stood apart like a clown, wistful, jokey, unsure when it would be over. He had chickenpox and knew he should not approach visitors.
When it came to saying goodbye, the aunt held my hand, and in her eyes there was this same special expression of attention to the moment. If two people are laying a tablecloth on a table, they glance at one another to check the placing of the cloth. Imagine the table is the world and the cloth the lives of those we have to save. Such was the expression.