Che Guevara Burning

Pamela Olson
12 July 2004

Good news for the week: Vanessa Redgrave recently paid a visit to the West Bank and Gaza, met with Dr. Barghouthi, and pledged support for the Palestinian National Initiative. With a British actress on our side, how can we fail? Also I got my first cell phone, which is old and borrowed but all new to me. My roommate taught me how to use it.

The First Ramallah International Film Festival kicked off this week in the Ramallah Cultural Palace. The Palace was financed by the Japanese Government and built in association with the United Nations Development Programme, and its street was christened Toyko St. The creme de la creme of Ramallah and many internationals were invited to the opening night premiere of Motorcycle Diaries, the story of the travels that changed Che Guevara from an upper-class medical student to a budding revolutionary.

I wasn't invited, of course, but a friend of my roommate's was and didn't want to go, so my roommate got a ticket, and after she went in she passed me her ticket through the gate. To get past the second ticket checkpoint I wandered in amid a crowd of Europeans who looked confused. I saw that their tickets weren't being checked and tried to look as confused and European as possible, and I passed without incident.

After we had infiltrated the compound, we found some good seats and sat through half an hour of speeches in Arabic and English and a special videotaped message from Omar Sharif to Ramallah and the Palestinian people. Following that was an announcement that a scriptwriting contest held among Palestinian high schools, judged by leading Palestinian intellectuals, had resulted in eight winners, seven girls and one boy. More than one person has told me that women are rapidly passing men in education level in Palestine, an already well-educated society.

It had been a depressing week, hearing constant reports of killing, violence, demolitions, dubious 'official statements', and the new Prince of Iraq giving intelligence to America about how to bomb Iraqi people in Fallujah. (Wait a minute, didn't we say Saddam was evil for calling his own people rebels and killing them in massive numbers? Whether I'm gassed or bombed, I'm still dead.)

Too many of my funny, smart, French-, English-, and Arabic-speaking Communist roommate's stories began, "After my home was demolished...", and too many casual conversations involved the weather, work, and how many people were killed in Gaza last night, and I was feeling choked and despondent. My roommate accused me of being too sensitive, but I think I would feel worse if I felt better... if that makes sense.

To compound matters, after the speeches were finished, two men played a beautiful, haunting lute duet while the names of all the Palestinian children killed in the past four years shimmered across the movie screen, and the list seemed endless. More than 500 children have been killed in the past four years (more than 3000 Palestinians all together, as well as 676 Israeli civilians including about 100 children), and whatever else is true, that is an unweighable, uncountable tragedy.

And then the dabka started, traditional Palestinian dance, and the children in colorful costumes dancing and leaping, whole and alive, seemed almost too good to be true. Like if a house were demolished in an earthquake, and one great china cabinet was left standing, untouched, as a nucleus around which a new house could be built, rich in memory of and tribute to the old one, which was destroyed in its previous incarnation but can never be entirely destroyed. I started to remember that despondency never helped anyone, and I was humbled again by the spirit possible in people and displayed here so often.

After the first dance, the applause was thunderous, and it felt to me anyway like it was not only for the dabka but for life itself. At the end of their third and last dance, two of the boys ran out with Palestinian flags, and the energy rose to a warm and excited pitch, for a people very much alive and a nation yet to be born. The last tableau included the two boys holding their flags over a girl giving a peace sign.

Then the feature film, the Motorcycle Diaries, began, and it was an absolutely lovely film, beautiful in scenery and spirit and humanity, filmed in Spanish and subtitled in English. (I guess it was assumed everyone there knew one or the other.) Shortly after the intermission, just as it was getting very interesting, the film stalled and then bubbled and melted before our eyes.

We looked hopefully up at the projector room, and it was announced that there had been technical problems because the proper projector, sent in from Europe, had not been allowed past the Israeli checkpoint (it might have been a terrorist projector after all), and they had had to procure another one hastily, and it wasn't quite the right size for the film. They had expected problems but hoped for the best. The film couldn't be fixed that night, but it would be shown again the next night.

The next night it was shown with no problems, and we learned more about Ernesto's worldview-shattering ascent into awareness and his final fate: being killed in Cuba by the CIA.

There are too many great movies on offer to be able to fit them all in in six days, but I expect to see at least 12. One is a documentary about Aileen Wuornos, the serial killer in Monster, others include Monsoon Wedding, City of God, In This World, Hable con Ella, Buongiorno Notte, Memoir of a Plunder, Bloody Sunday, several Palestinian films, etc. First-class cinema.

It's been another strange week with killing going on all around Ramallah, but Ramallah itself has been relatively untouched. I figured out at least one reason this may be so. Ramallah is where the centers of power are located. It is the New York or Moscow of Palestine, and accused of being the most shallow city in the Territories. If business is good in Ramallah, there are fewer incentives for the people of this bustling city to rock the boat. Luckily there are many people in this town who visit other regions and have personal ties in more dangerous towns, and many are doing what they can to improve or ease the situation. But I don't feel quite the urgency I felt in Nablus or Jayyous, where death, theft, and internment are almost daily occurrences.

The people of those places are doing what they can locally, hoping the power structure can somehow come through for them. But again and again the Palestinian Authority, the Arab world, and the world at large have failed them, and a kind of hopeful hopelessness has seized some who feel they have nothing to lose, while others try to organize and fight, non-violently and otherwise (it is and has always been a violent occupation [how can occupation be otherwise? when Israel speaks of its 'enlightened occupation', I take them as seriously if they'd said 'enlightened rape'], so while I often abhor the methods and results of violent resistance, I don't know how I can judge them), and others try to live as normally as possible and hope it is not their child or husband or wife who is killed next, and others leave. There aren't nearly enough jobs for all the people with upper-level degrees, another incentive to leave besides all the violence. Another strategy to drain the Territories of their human capital.

Yesterday I saw Bloody Sunday, about the British massacre of 13 unarmed civilians who were protesting against their lack of civil rights under occupation in Northern Ireland, and specifically against internment, called in Israel 'administrative detention'--arrest and imprisonment without charge or trial.

It was all hauntingly familiar, from the peaceful march to the racist and dismissive words and tones used by the heavily-armed British guards to the crushing feeling of repression when the march was diverted from its course as a show of power to the disaffected youth who had been preached to all their lives about democracy, justice, and respect, only to find very little of any of them in the adult world they were suddenly expected to enter. The best and the brightest, who had any spirit and insight left, were outraged when they began to learn that the 'situation on the ground' in the world had almost nothing to do with the ideals they were brought up with. Guevara seemed to feel the same way.

When they saw the British trampling on their rights, denying them justice and respect and self-determination, and as a final insult not allowing them even to march or have a voice, they took up stones against the soldiers armed with heavy artillery and automatic weapons. The progression from 'enlightened occupation' to brutality and armed resistance is depressingly predictable. People get tired of their rights being denied. They organize in civil disobedience, or simply exercise their democratic right to peaceful assembly and self-determination. Once the organization reaches critical mass, and the occupier feels morally threatened, and their occupation faces an existential threat, they use excessive force to quell the movement, wrongly assuming the violence will scare the [insert racist term here]s back into their old homes and roles.

Instead, where there was merely resolve before, now there is uncontainable outrage. The peaceful civil movement is all but destroyed, and the youth take up guns, or bombs, and people who choose non-violence in the face of deadly violence don't know what they can say to people who have seen their friends and family murdered and see no end in sight. Oppression and violence from the occupiers only intensify, and the situation escalates out of control. Any non-violent movement that managed to thrive under such conditions would be laudable to say the least.

The First Intifada was a relatively non-violent civil protest against oppression and occupation in 1987, in which 11 Israelis and about 300 Palestinians were killed in one year. Reforms and talks were finally promised, and for 13 years they waited for conditions to change on the ground. But during these 13 years and all the peace talks, settlements expanded, more checkpoints were built, and oppression never lessened. It seemed like Israel was shoring up for a bigger conflict instead of preparing for a durable and just solution.

And then in September 2000, Ariel Sharon, a known war-criminal and current Prime Minister of Israel, entered the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, one of the holiest sites in Islam, with an armed garrison, an act guaranteed to threaten and insult the Palestinians. Palestinians protested peacefully except for the ones who took up stones, and in the two weeks that followed, 70 Palestinians were killed and more than a thousand injured. That was the beginning of the Second Intifada which is still going on and has claimed more than 4,000 lives.

When the British guards saw that they could get away with using excessive force against this mob that threatened them, more morally than physically, with their outrage and their stones, they shot 27 civilians, killing 13 of them, lied about the reasons, invented ex post facto justifications, held an official inquiry in which no soldiers dissented. No soldiers were disciplined for the murders, the British army congratulated itself for its transparency and professionalism, and the officers in charge were later decorated by the Queen.

This kind of thing happens weekly here. It's barely even news if 13 civilians get killed in a week. Two deaths that especially affected me recently were of a computer science professor who received his PhD from Berkeley and taught at An-Najah University in Nablus and his son. According to the Associated Press, they tried to exit their apartment complex, which was being shelled, after the Israeli army called the residents to come out. Their door had been damaged and would not open, and when the father went to the window and called out to the soldiers in English, telling them they were trapped, he was shot in the neck. His son tried to reach his father and was shot in the mouth. Both were killed.

An IDF spokeswoman claimed that they were killed by shrapnel from the helicopter rockets, but at the hospital it was confirmed that each was killed by a single gunshot wound.

This is just personal speculation, but I have heard more than once that if you are threatened by someone in a way worthy of firing on them, you should always go for a chest shot because it has a much bigger area to hit that is guaranteed to incapacitate. Head shots are only for a sure thing or for target practice. Two clean shots to the head, one after the other, leaves me feeling very chilled.

One day I came home from work and my housemate was wearing all black and had puffy eyes, and she said a good friend of hers in Ramallah just had his best friend and brother killed in Gaza. Their mothers and wives and friends back in Gaza were destroyed by the news, but her friend in Ramallah was still working in his restaurant, and she was on her way there to help him. The two men killed were wanted men. It is easy to be a wanted man. Any resistance to the hated occupation is considered grounds, and to be a healthy man between 16 and 40 is enough to be considered suspect.

Another film I saw was called 20 Impossibles, about a surprise checkpoint that interrupts and threatens a group of filmmakers from America, Israel, and Palestine, and it was so well-done no one could tell if it was real or staged until the very end. One soldier asks the American where she is from, and she says New York, and he says in a friendly, almost flirty way, "Really? I was born in Florida..." and then in an official kind of voice, "Uh, listen, you know you are not allowed to film here."

It is not unusual for occupation soldiers to treat you on one level like a human being, and on another level like a charge, an object, an animal. I once stood at a checkpoint during Ramadan for nearly three hours, and we were all fasting. As I was going through the checkpoint I was chatting with the soldier, and when I said, "Look, we're all fasting for Ramadan and we're very hungry," his face clouded over suddenly and he said with distaste, "What, are you a Muslim? Are your parents Muslim?" like an accusation. I'm not Muslim but I didn't feel like denying it in the face of his attitude. I didn't know what to say.

One of the guards of the gates of Qalqiliya, the town completely encircled by a wall the size of the Berlin Wall, whose single gate is controlled by the Israelis, was a very nice girl who was curious what I was doing there as a foreigner. I told her I was teaching English to some Palestinian high school students. She said, "Really? What are they like?"

I said, "You know, they're very nice, like any people."

She thought a minute. "I'm sure that's true..." Then she waved her hand dismissively and said, "But they kill our people."

I bit my lip in order not to say, "It's a two-way street, honey."

My roommate and I decided to go on a body-cleansing diet of buckwheat, raisins, and green tea for a week. I've barely been hungry since I left the States and am on a very limited budget, so it seemed like a good time to do it. But we couldn't find buckwheat, only whole wheat, which is not half as pleasant, and the diet lasted barely a day. We'd put the Nutella in the freezer to make it too hard to eat, and when I saw it thawing on the cabinet, out of retirement, I knew we were back in Foodland. My housemate said she would have to call an Israeli friend whose dad had been cured of inoperable cancer by some kind of raw vegetarian diet and who knew all about that stuff. Binshoof (we'll see).

Last night I saw five movies, way too many in one day, two of which were in languages I didn't understand with subtitles I also didn't understand. My housemate was there too and seems to know everyone in town. One guy waved to her, and she smiled at him and muttered to me, "I hate that guy."


"He works with the Americans-- Oh, sorry! I forget sometimes you are American. Anyway, he turned in twenty Palestinian men to the Israelis."

"Why? Just for the money?"

"Listen, every country has its assholes. They are our assholes."

I'm still working away at Al Mubadara's new website, and insha'Allah and insha'Claudio-the-Italian-web-designer, it will be up within the week, and then I can do more writing and editing for the Initiative.

I just now went to lunch and bought a chicken sandwich and walked out without paying for it. Embarassed, I walked back to the Nazareth Restaurant and said, "I'm so sorry, I forgot to pay."

The guy smiled and said, "That is OK, you are our customer. Next time."

"No, really..."

"No, it is OK. Maybe next time it will be a very big order." He smiled mock-suggestively, and I laughed.




"Is not that government both unjust and ungrateful, that is so prodigal of its favours to those that are called gentlemen, or goldsmiths, or such others who are idle, or live either by flattery, or by contriving the arts of vain pleasure; and on the other hand, takes no care of those of a meaner sort, such as ploughmen, colliers, and smiths, without whom it could not subsist? But after the public has reaped all the advantage of their service, and they come to be oppressed with age, sickness, and want, all their labours and the good they have done is forgotten; and all the recompense given them is that they are left to die in great misery...

Therefore I must say that, as I hope for mercy, I have no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know, than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who on pretence of managing the public only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out; first, that they may, without danger, preserve all that they have so ill acquired, and then that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please. And if they can but prevail to get these contrivance established by the show of public authority, which is considered as the representative of the whole people, then they are accounted laws."

    ~Thomas More, Utopia, 1516, 488 years ago

      (before NAFTA and GATT)

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