LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Music, resistance, and the turning tide
7 September 2005
This Saturday I visited the village of Badhan north of
Nablus. (The 'dh' is pronounced like the 'th' in
'this'.) It's built next to a large mountain dotted
with rocky outcroppings and pine trees and a steep
ravine, and it's bursting with springs. One of the
springs has been tapped by a mountainside restaurant
and channeled into about fifteen waterfalls and pools.
I sat on the fourth floor between two waterfalls and
enjoyed lunch and black tea with sage and lemongrass,
my view framed by the ravine, the green treetops
spread below me, and the grapevines overhead.
Later I hiked down into the ravine, bushwhacking a bit
until I stumbled on another little restaurant that had
its tables and chairs set up in the river so that you
could sit with your feet (and your nargila) in the
water while you enjoyed your meal and coffee. Fig and
orange and olive trees surrounded us, grapevines
trailed overhead, and the proprietor and I chatted for
an hour or so before I went on my way. He refused to
charge me for the drinks and nargila.
Another guy showed me down deeper into the ravine,
where we startled some slender white cranes and
sampled cold, clear water from another spring. Later
as I walked back up toward village level, I caught the
view of the river's valley winding its way toward the
Jordan River far in the distance, lined all the way
with crops, groves, and homes spreading like velvet
A couple of friends and I were watching footage of
Hurricane Katrina's devastation the other night, and a
Palestinian guy who's a paramedic said, "We [Palestine
Medical Relief] should go to them. Really, I think
they need help."
You know you're in a bad situation when a Palestinian
feels bad both for what has happened to you and
because no one is helping so many of the victims.
Of course, many of the National Guardsmen who could
have helped the situation were in Iraq, much of the
Guardsmen's emergency equipment (including non-armored
amphibious vehicles) was in Iraq, and the money that
should have fixed the levee this summer was cut from
the Army Corps of Engineers budget -- and sent to
Iraq. And FEMA is being run by a Bush crony who's
previous job experience was running a horse club, a
job he did so incompetently and corruptly he was
forced to resign.
Storms and other disasters like this are going to keep
coming as the world keeps warming up. This is likely
just a preview of what's to come if we keep slashing
and drilling and burning and handing everything to the
government's pet developers like there's no tomorrow.
Especially if we keep showing such contempt for our
poor, our humanitarian government agencies, and our
civilian infrastructure. And if we keep acting like
international jerks and making the whole world mad at
us. Duct tape just won't hold all that together.
Maybe it's a kind of wake-up call to show Americans
exactly how heartless, nepotistic, and corrupt their
government is and how bankrupt and dangerous the
current model of world development is, especially on
the extreme right. 'Extreme' isn't even the word for
it. They're like a comedy routine, a satire on
extremism. It would be hilarious if it weren't true.
From an article about the national debate about what
the government is FOR that must take place in the
aftermath of the conservative agenda being fully
exposed in all its horrifying callousness:
"The progressive-liberal values are America's
values, and we need to go back to them. The heart of
progressive-liberal values is simple: empathy (caring
about and for people) and responsibility (acting
responsibly on that empathy). These values translate
into a simple principle: Use the common wealth for
the common good to better all our lives. In short,
promoting the common good is the central role of
"The right-wing conservatives now in power have the
opposite values and principles. Their main value is
Rely on individual discipline and initiative. The
central principle: Government has no useful role.
The only common good is the sum of individual goods.
It's the difference between 'We're all in this
together' and 'You're on your own, buddy.' It's the
difference between 'Every citizen is entitled to
protection' and 'You're only entitled to what you can
afford.' It's the difference between connection and
separation. It is this difference in moral and
political philosophy that lies behind the tragedy of
See the comic on my homepage for an illustration of
Bush's ideological vision of disaster relief.
If and when the Mad Max days come for us, and we can't
get all the rich white folks into the Titanic's
inadequate supply of life boats, the poor will
outnumber us and will be better at surviving on
little, better adapted to extreme situations, and
probably better-armed than we are. Personally, I
think we should be nicer to them.
On August 21, the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, led by
superstar Argentino-Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim
and co-founded by the late Palestinian luminary Dr.
Edward Said, played at Ramallah's Cultural Palace.
That in itself would be noteworthy, but what made it
historic was that about half the musicians in the
orchestra were Israeli. The rest came from Egypt,
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Andalusia, and
they played Beethoven's Fifth Symphony like I've never
The concert was broadcast live all over the world on
Arte. The crowd was beyond-overflow, and Arte enjoyed
its highest ratings ever during the broadcast. The
music was breathtaking, and the concert was played
under the banner "Freedom for Palestine."
Intermission speeches were given by Dr. Barghouthi and
a senior guy from the Palestinian Authority.
Barenboim also toured and denounced the illegal
Apartheid Wall with Dr. Barghouthi earlier in the day.
I quote from a review in This Week in Palestine:
"Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, horn,
clarinet and bassoon and Beethoven's Symphony No. 5
were played to a packed concert hall with an audience
that couldn't have been more representative of the
Palestinian people. There were at least four
ministers from the Palestinian National Authority,
security offices in uniform, men and women casually
dressed, others in proper attire, ladies with
jewellery and gowns ready for a soiree dansante and
others with the traditional headdress. There were
children, foreigners, disabled persons, nuns -- you
name it! Palestine was there that night."
The Israeli press practically ignored the whole thing,
and very few Israelis heard that a Jewish conductor
leading a largely Israeli orchestra was invited to
Ramallah last month, and they all had the time of
The Israeli musicians' reactions documented in this article are
beautifully typical. At first they said, No way, I
can't go to the West Bank, they'll kill me. And later
they laughed and said they'd never have forgiven
themselves if they hadn't come and seen this lovely
place for themselves.
"This is the realization of a dream. I feel as if
I am becoming more and more leftist," says [Israeli
musician] Yishai Lantner, "because now I understand
that there is life here. They never show that on
Truth is a one-way valve. At least we have that going
The weekend of August 11 was kicked off with a hip-hop
concert, the last stop on a tour called Son of a
Refugee, at the Ramallah Cultural Palace. The
state-of-the-art Japanese-government-sponsored theater
only holds about 700, and whenever there's a major
event (which is rarer than it should be due to the
imprisoning and isolating effects of the Walls and
checkpoints), it's usually sold out within
approximately 42 nanoseconds. People here are
starving for culture.
The only way I got in was because a group of friends
and I ran into the band at Sangria's back garden
earlier in the week, and one of the girls flirted with
the promoter and scored us free tickets.
The crowd at the show was largely high school kids,
most of them from the wealthier strata of Ramallah
society, plus some artists from the community, more
than a few old ladies, normal working people, and a
sprinkling of foreigners.
A trio of Israeli Arabs (indigenous Palestinians left
over inside Israel after the ethnic cleansing of 1948)
from Al-Lyd (or Lod) southeast of Tel Aviv started the
night off. They took the usual hip-hop lyrics about
discrimination and living in ghettoes (Lod is an
infamously neglected community in Israel) and added
the singularly Palestinian culture influenced by the
crushing Israeli occupation. They sang about women's
rights and murdered children, checkpoints and Walls,
invasions and curfews, all devastatingly immediate and
Their lyrics came straight out of the updates and
press releases I write, about real people trapped,
humiliated, murdered so regularly, almost
ritualistically, it's almost become banal. But every
human tragedy is singular and devastating, and every
crime against decency directly affects dozens and
diminishes all of us. Tears came to my eyes more than
Then they transitioned to music about pride,
resistance, art as a way to stand up and express your
humanity, about the unbreakable spirit of the
Palestinian people who have survived and even thrived
against all odds. An affirmation of existence, an
undeniable message that we are not terrorists, we are
not aggressors, we cannot and will not be treated this
way. We're mothers, we're artists, we're kids --
we're human beings. If you don't respect us, you
don't respect yourself. You can say we don't exist,
but here we are, beeotch.
The crowd went wild.
The next morning I headed with a Canadian journalist
friend to a village called Bil'in, west of Ramallah,
for a protest demonstration. The villagers, along
with several internationals and Israelis, have been
protesting the Wall that's being built on Bil'in land
and will steal most of the village's land to build a
new Jewish settlement on. The demonstrations have
been going on almost daily since February.
We shared a service taxi with a clean-cut
baseball-cap-wearing Palestinian from Tulkarem who's
going to university in Jenin. We took him for a
preppy American at first. He would have looked
natural hanging with frat guys at an American
university. But he turned out to be a soft-spoken,
articulate Palestinian anarchist. We met up with
several international and Israeli activist types at
the ISM house in Bil'in.
At 1:00, right on schedule, we marched to the
outskirts of town where the soldiers have put up a
razor-wire-bale barrier that arbitrarily separates the
part of Bil'in where we can go from the part of Bil'in
where we can't go. Their little razor bale declares
the part of Bil'in's land between the bale and the
Wall (and the land and settlements beyond) a "closed
military zone." All of a sudden it's "illegal" for
residents of Bil'in to cross that line, 300 yards from
the Wall being built on stolen private property that
is actually (no quotation marks) illegal under
An in-depth article about the protests, written by my
Canadian journalist friend.
So we walked to the line with a huge model of the Wall
carried among several activists. It had slogans
painted on it and a scarecrow-like figure being
strangled by it. A handsome young man named Rani
Burmath, who was shot with live ammunition and
paralyzed during a demonstration in Ramallah in 2000,
manned the front lines in his wheelchair. He's been
deliberately targeted with some of Israel's
experimental ammunition at previous Bil'in demos.
Bil'in residents believe they were being used as human
guinea pigs for new types of non-lethal ammunition
Israel was contemplating using against
anti-disengagement activists in Gaza.
The Arab media enthusiastically interviewed a
particularly eloquent young Israeli girl from
Anarchists Against the Wall. She explained to them
(in English with a heavy Israeli accent) why she was
there in solidarity with the Palestinians and why the
Israeli government does not represent her values and
is not building its illegal anti-peace Wall in her
She and other activists walked freely around the
traditional Muslim Palestinian town speaking Hebrew
and wearing shirts with Hebrew slogans. Shy little
Palestinian girls ventured a few friendly "Shaloms" in
My friend and I saw one Palestinian man greet a group
of old village men hanging out in front of the market
with a tongue-in-cheek "Shalom." The men smiled and
shook their heads, probably bemusedly wondering what
they had gotten themselves into.
"They steal our land and shoot our kids, and still we
invite them into our homes and villages and hope for
the best? What kind of schmucks are we?" I imagine
them thinking bemusedly. But though sad and cynical
because of all that's been done to them, they still
apparently have a sense of humor and humanity about
At the last protest I came to a few months ago,
several Israelis had taken over the same spot in the
shade by the market. At one point a Palestinian man
had walked up the road. When he saw the group of
Israelis speaking Hebrew, he suddenly lit up in one of
the warmest smiles I've ever seen.
"Salaam alaykum!" he said to them with an amazed kind
of gratitude. I had the feeling he was grateful just
because they were there, because they'd seen beyond
the propaganda and recognized the Palestinians'
humanity, something devastatingly few Israelis, even
on the left, are genuinely able to do. They answered,
"Wa alaykum as-salaam!" ("Peace be upon you." "And
also upon you.")
Back at the front lines, the Palestinians, many of
whom speak Hebrew, joined in with the Israelis'
anti-Wall Hebrew slogans, and the Israelis joined in
the English and Arabic ones when they understood.
After we were stopped at the line for a while,
chanting and singing, we split into two cordons, one
sweeping down toward another farm access road to the
right. The soldiers stopped us there, too, and some
folks decided to sit in the dirt road in front of
them. This somehow angered the soldiers, who started
busting heads and arresting people.
I had no interest in being arrested or roughed up, so
I was hanging out in the less-enthusiastic rear-guard
crowd just standing around observing. But pretty soon
the soldiers started hurling things at us, completely
I turned to run, and as I did so, a heavy projectile
hit me in the back of the right calf. It had been
thrown from a distance of about 30 yards, and it came
down at me from about 30 feet in the air. The impact
almost caused my leg to buckle, but I kept running,
not knowing what had hit me. It exploded behind me.
It had been a concussion grenade, aka sound bomb.
They don't throw deadly shrapnel or noxious gas --
mainly they just make a nasty loud noise and scare the
bejeezus out of people, especially if the person is
uncertain whether it is the real deal or not. And
they can cause burn injuries. We had to stamp out
several brush fires in the olive groves set by the
grenades, and a Palestinian woman who once got hit
full in the face at a checkpoint was burned badly.
It left a nasty deep, black, baseball-sized bruise on
my leg and a stinging abrasion that made walking
painful for days. But more than that it rattled my
nerves and crushed my mood. Nothing like a
military-grade projectile hitting your body to remind
you that this is not a game. People's rights really
are being denied, and that denial is being and can
only be backed up by overwhelming physical violence
against living human bodies.
The message they were trying to get across: You are
pathetic and helpless. We can crush you like an ant.
Resistance is futile. We're taking your land, backed
up by our guns and bombs, and you'd better learn to
like it. If you get any more feisty, we can take you
out for good, as we have already taken so many. And
there's not much you can do about that.
Getting a big whiff of the excruciating tear gas a bit
later had me heading back toward the village for good,
although none of this really phased the more veteran
demonstrators. Luckily the soldiers didn't use nerve
gas or live bullets this time. The foreign presence
protects the Palestinians from much worse at these
As I was heading back toward town, I saw several kids
heaving stones at the soldiers with slings. They were
answered with tear gas and sound bombs.
All in all I was told it was more sedate than usual.
The most recent demonstration was not even allowed to
happen. Before people started moving toward the
protest spot, Israeli soldiers raided the village
pre-emptively with tear gas, sound bombs, and deadly
rubber-coated steel bullets. I guess Bil'in has been
declared a "no chanting zone."
An American guy named Kyle told me how bad it was at
the FTAA protests in Miami and similar
anti-corporate-globalization things in Canada and
elsewhere, where the riot police actually disguised
themselves as reporters and cameramen to get close to
the crowd and then start busting heads. If you want
to see the jack-booted goons on the frontlines who
really keep things under control for the establishment
against the justice-seeking masses, these are the
places to go.
It's heartening anyway to know that against all these
odds, the justice instinct is still there in so many
Sooner or later this occupation will go the way of
slavery and Apartheid. One way or another. Either
we'll find the path to justice or we'll destroy
ourselves, and I think we're slowly starting to figure
"Kids don't have a little brother working in the
coal mine, they don't have a little sister coughing
her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of
the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke
the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have
child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts
from enlightened management. They were fought for,
they were bled for, they were died for by working
people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that."
This article is pretty shocking, partly due to its
content but mainly because it was actually published
in the Washington Post -- and such an article being
published so prominently means the anti-war sentiments
must be becoming more and more mainstream. Bush's
ratings, which were worse than Nixon's during
Watergate even before Katrina, seem to bear this out.
It's called Talking Wounded, about a young American
kid who lost several friends before he himself was
blown up by a roadside bomb in Iraq, and what he
thinks about it.
This article is what the rabid right-wing pundits
would have had to say about that notorious
anti-America freedom-hater -- Rosa Parks -- if they'd
been around back then.
These guys are as hilarious as they are effective at
obfuscating and destroying meaningful debate about
crucially important issues.
While I was writing this, I came upon a scathing
anti-war column by Frank Rich in the NYTimes that was
both frank and rich, and the most emailed article in
the NYTimes for the week it was in print. It's called
"Someone tell the President the war is over."
More on the IDF's killing and lies:
IDF soldiers admit to indiscriminate killing - (Guardian)
IDF kills five unarmed Palestinians and lies about it - (Haaretz)
Excerpt from Talking Wounded, by Peter Carlson,
...Occasionally the Americans would hear about a
house where somebody was rumored to be storing weapons
or building bombs. They'd wait until dark and raid
"It was very intense and very fast," he says.
"We'd try to be as quiet as we could until we got to
the front door, and then you just have the battering
ram and you open the front door and you run in yelling
and pulling your weapons and try to gain control of
the house as fast as you can."
Other patrols found illegal weapons on these raids,
but Rodgers's never did.
"We did hit the wrong house quite often," he says.
"We had these overhead maps, satellite maps, and when
you're on the street in the middle of the night, it's
hard to find the right house. In those instances,
we'd say, 'Sorry,' and give 'em a card with a phone
number to call the Army and we'd pay for the damages."
[I'm sure they are always compensated politely,
immediately, and entirely, just like when Palestinian
homes are wrongfully raided/damaged/destroyed by the
IDF. (To quote Homer Simpson: "Oh, by the way, I was
In April, Rodgers's company was transferred to a
tiny farming town about 20 miles away -- a place where
no Americans had been stationed.
"We started looking for a building that would be
suitable for a patrol base," he says. "And we took
this building over. There was a family living there
and we had to kick 'em out... They weren't too happy
about it, but there was nothing they could do..."