Where's Reagan when you need him?

Pamela Olson
19 July 2004

Here are a few Arabic words that will probably slip into my emails now and then.

    Habibi m., Habibti f. -- My beloved, darlin'
    Khalas -- Enough, finished, that's it
    Yalla -- Let's go
    Ya'Allah -- Oh my God
    Al-Humdulillah -- Praise God / Thank God
    Insha'Allah -- God willing.
    Hijab -- Woman's head scarf
    Kaffiyeh -- Man's head scarf, usually white or Arafat-style

My roommate and I caught the last of the Ramallah Film Festival this week, mostly Palestinian films. One was about Hebron, the West Bank city where about 500 Israeli settlers terrorize 120,000 Palestinian residents with the help of 1,200 heavily-armed Israeli soldiers.

One of the interviews was with a woman who, during the nine months of her first pregnancy, did not visit the doctor once because she was afraid to cross the Israeli checkpoints between her and the clinic. On the night she went into labor, she and her husband had to cross the checkpoint, and they were waved throgh and then shot at. Her husband was shot in the neck and shoulder and killed.

She was taken out of the car, still in labor, and the soldiers pulled up her shirt and asked her, "What are you hiding under there?" They made her strip naked and left her on the road without a blanket. The baby girl survived somehow, but she could barely look at her for the first year. She was a young, pretty widow, a psychologically destroyed nervous wreck, and she said she just wanted to secure her daughter and then die.

We were in an open-air venue, and during one of the movies a burst of gunfire erupted on film, and then, as if in answer, real gunfire sounded on the other side of the hill. Three ambulances streaked past. People craned their necks but otherwise kept enjoying the films.

Another movie was about the Palestinian Red Crescent volunteers. In the past four years, 311 PRCS ambulances have been attacked causing extensive damage to 127 vehicles. 201 Emergency medical personnel have been injured and at least three killed, causing emotional and physical trauma to the men and women already risking their lives to help injured people.

One guy told the story of his ambulance that was rocket-bombed. A respected medical doctor was burned alive inside, and the rest of the team, as they were crawling out of the burning ambulance, were shot at. The guy who was interviewed had lost his ear from the burn injuries.

After seeing these films, countless stories like these, my roommate and I went to Sangria's to chill out. I said with disgust and indignation, "Why don't they show these films at the UN?"

My roommate enjoyed the longest, clearest, most genuine laugh I'd ever heard from her. "I hate to say this," she said when she finally composed herself, "because it is so insulting, but... don't be so naive. They know all of this shit. Everything."

In February there was a mafia-style armed bank robbery in Ramallah in which Israeli Occupation Forces stole about $8 million from various NGOs, organizations, and individuals. They claimed the money was being used to help the families of suicide bombers or was funded by Hezbullah or something. In a mendacious gesture, they promised the loot would be used to improve conditions at checkpoints and other 'humanitarian' projects for the Palestinians. How grateful I would be if someone stole my savings and used it to oppress me better.

A comic came out in Palestinian papers that had an Israeli soldier at the bank pointing his gun at a teller, saying, "If you don't like it you can go to the Hague."

(This is a reference to the recent International Court of Justice ruling that Israel's Apartheid Wall [Separation Barrier, Security Fence, whatever] in Palestine is illegal under international law as codified in the Geneva Conventions. The US and Israel blithely rejected the ruling of the highest court in the world. So much for international law.)

I said, again indignantly, "Wasn't there any outrage about this outright theft?"

She said, "Don't you read the papers? France 'condemned this illegal action'. They are always helping us out. Don't be so cynical." I could have cut the sarcasm with a knife.

As for the Israelis, Former Justice Minister Yossi Beilin told Israel's Channel One television he doubted the government could prove the money it seized was earmarked for militant groups.

Yuval Steinitz, a lawmaker from the ruling Likud Party of Israel, said that did not matter. "We are in a war against the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority, it is not about proof," he said. Facts, proof, laws... who needs them?

    "Good? Bad? I'm the guy with the gun."
      ~ The hero of the B movie 'Army of Darkness'

The next night some of the directors of the films were there to take questions, and they asked if the audience preferred them to speak in Arabic or English. Most in the audience could understand English perfectly well, but someone said something in Arabic and everyone laughed. My roommate translated: "Speak Arabic! This is Ramallah, not Riyadh."

Another film that night was Hable con Ella, Talk to Her, and one of the scenes was of a silent film in which a woman's lover takes a potion and shrinks until he is tiny. The tiny man cavorts around his lover's naked body like it's a mogul slope. There were old men in kaffiyehs in the audience! I held stock-still in order not to giggle like an embarassed schoolgirl.

On the closing night a film was shown about hope in the midst of despair, and one boy in the film says he dreams of playing soccer in the World Cup. Another boy says, "Don't be stupid. Your dreams hold a Palestinian ID card. They can't pass!" The audience laughed.

They were supposed to show the film La Mala Educacion (Bad Education), but the giant reels weren't allowed past the checkpoint and into the West Bank. I recommend watching it; it if was banned, it probably has something to say.

A film by a French Jewish woman, about the Israeli Apartheid Wall that is cutting communities off from each other in Palestine and stealing and destroying land, debuted on Thursday night. It was projected onto the 24-foot concrete wall itself at Abu Dis near Jerusalem. I looked down the wall and saw a mosque almost flush against it. They probably lost half their congregation. The wall cuts the neighborhood in two.

The first time I saw the Wall was in Jayyous last fall. It cuts a gash in the hillside more than 50 yards wide. The mayor alone lost about 700 of his 800 ancient olive trees, many planted before or during the Renaissance, to the construction of the fence. They were either bulldozed and destroyed or uprooted and sold in Israel. Sometimes the wall is a giant concrete barrier, but in Jayyous it's a 20-foot chainlink fence with electronic sensors, vast bales of razor wire 20 yards from the fence on either side, and a paved army access road running next to it on the blasted and leveled hillside. If you get near the fence between the piles of razorwire, your life is pretty much forfeited. Calling all that a 'fence' requires impressive mendacity.

13 square kilometers of the villagers' land lies on the wrong side of the 'fence', caught between the Green Line and the illegal barrier. I could see the border several kilometers away in the distance, and the fence was practically under my window. Olives were rotting on the trees the villagers couldn't get to. All of their seven water wells were annexed or destroyed.

Not just an ugly gash in the earth, it is also a blatant, officially-sanctioned, America-sponsored act of theft and collective punishment. Standing next to 12-year-old Azhar in Jayyous looking at the thing, I wanted to cover her eyes. It was as if someone had posted pornography in the town square, and everyone in the world just left it there to let the kids know in no uncertain terms how depraved their elders were.

I try not to lose this sense of shock and horror. Every kid at some point learns about the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the genocides of the Native Americans, Vietnam, the Spanish Inquisitions. When I saw everyone else blithely accepting them as some kind of inevitable and natural part of history, I tried to do the same. Tried to make sense of it, give it a name and a reason, and accept it as part and parcel of the human experience, horrifying aberrations that were squarely in the past.

At some point I stopped doing that. I realized I was also expected to accept as natural and inevitable atrocities taking place right now. I felt like I was being brainwashed, and khalas, if I'm not supposed to let my neighbor kill his wife, why am I supposed to let my government kill neighborhoods and wedding parties and young American men? Every life is as precious as any other.

When I look at history, at the Spanish Inquisitions or the slave trade, I admire the people at the time who said, "This is insane and cruel. We can and should work towards doing better than this," much more than those who said, "This is insane and cruel. And here's why it's the best we can do and it's impossible to do anything better." The first is the voice of an active agent of history. The second is just storytelling, apologizing.

One of the interviewees in the Wall film was an Israeli kibbutznik whose family moved there in 1940. He said his was the first settlement that pushed so far into Palestinian territory. He said the worst thing about the wall was that it was obsessive compulsive madness, but it was also consensual, and thus all of the Jews had apparently collectively lost their minds. (Most other Israelis interviewed in the film thought the barrier was a waste of money and a senseless obstacle to peace and coexistence, but a lot of people must support it, or at least allow it, or it wouldn't be there.)

He said the story of the Jews and the land of Israel was a love story, but it was a mad love, a possessive love. He recited a poem by Rachel the poet in which she says she wants to kill herself so she doesn't have to feel dread when she hears the footsteps of her beloved. She says her only consolation will be that she brought it on herself. He said, "This is beyond irony--it's cynicism! That's what the Jews will say, after we commit suicide on this land and drag the Palestinians down with us. In the history books we'll say, 'We brought this on ourselves.'" He shook his head.

The interviewer asked him if he despaired. He said, "I wouldn't be here if I despaired. I wouldn't be talking."

A top Israeli defense minister was interviewed, and he said the fence was there, number one to stop terrorist infiltration capabilities, and number two to stop car theft. I kid you not.

He maintained that they were taking every precaution to minimize damage to the land on both sides of the fence (most of which is wholly within Palestinian territory), but how can you talk about minimizing damage when you cut a 50-yard gash for hundreds of miles in land that is not yours? He said, "Of course we take care of both sides. We consider both sides ours. We're the rulers here."

The wall is questionable not only because it is cruel and racist and indiscriminate and illegal but also because, if the Likud party were really interested in saving lives, the $2 billion they are spending on the wall could be used for health care for the poor in Israel or America and be guaranteed to save more lives. Israel loses more lives in car accidents than suicide bombings (which is not at all to downplay the devastating effects of suicide bombings--any life lost is too many). Using that $2 billion to improve road conditions or make a more honest try for fair negotiations and peace would also probably save more lives. Not to mention that dozens of Palestinians have been killed trying to protest the wall. It's apparently not human lives as such they are worried about. What, then?

If I remember my American history correctly, Ronald Reagan single-handedly killed Communism using the awesome power of Levis, Coca Cola, and the Death Star, and then he tore down the Berlin Wall with his bare fists and his trusty six-shooter. Now that another dangerously ideological government is lying to and stealing from its people and building an even bigger wall, where's the Gipper? Where's the "Mr. Sharon, tear down this [Separation Security Apartheid Concrete Razorwire Watchtower Obstacle Barrier Fence] Wall"? Where's the "Es gibt nur ein West Bank and Gaza"? The Berlin Wall came down under Bush I. Does he realize his son is financing an even bigger wall? Is he worried this will tarnish his family's wall-felling reputation?

After the film was over I caught an expensive ride home with some Germans and Palestinians. The Qalandia checkpoint was closed, but there was another way to Ramallah, wide open, just longer and more inconvenient and expensive. Apparently the Israeli government doesn't want to stop suicide bombers with their checkpoints, they just want to make them wake up earlier and pay more for their taxi.

(An Israeli friend of mine said that once in his large Israeli town on Kefar Sava, every single one of the main roads to town was blocked off and turned into a checkpoint looking for a suicide bombers, causing a massive traffic jam all across the middle of Israel. The minor roads were not blocked at all, though. My friend turned off and got through easily, as anyone who knew anything about the town could have. Israel's variation on Orange Alert, terrorizing their own people into submission to even the craziest schemes.)

On the way to Ramallah I talked to a German guy named Thomas who last year built a horse sculpture out of destroyed cars and houses and ambulances. The horse is a symbol for freedom and movement in the Arab world, and Thomas dragged the horse through the West Bank and Gaza, whose checkpoints he could pass much more easily than the Palestinians, and finally set it up in Jenin, one of the most devastated cities in the West Bank.

I asked him why he was interested in Palestine, and he said it was very much tied up with German history, and in a way the Palestinians were receiving punishment the Germans, if anyone, should be receiving. The Palestinians had nothing to do with it, and they have been the ones to suffer for 56 years. The Wall is something Germans are familiar with, too. I said, "Hey, why don't you bring all the Germans who tore down the Berlin Wall here?" They could at least have the Abu Dis wall down in a couple of days. He laughed, but I was kinda serious.

Our driver was pretty swervy, and I asked at one point if we were in Bir Zeit. A Palestinian guy said, "I think Bir Zeit was the place where we almost ran off the road."

Someone else said, "No, Bir Zeit was where we almost hit the ambulance."

The first one laughed and said, "Name the place we almost had an accident and I'll tell you the geographical location."

I called Ammar, my friend in Jenin, this weekend, and it was pretty hard to communicate. I haven't spoken Russian in a year, and since then I've been stuffing Arabic words and phrases into my head like a bewildered chipmunk on an infinite pile of hazelnuts. I just watched several films in French, Spanish, and Italian, and sometimes my roommate tries to speak French to me, which does not help.

I was tired, too, so talking to him, there was no telling which language would pop up in which atrocious or misplaced accent. But I think he and I are evidence that the most important things don't necessarily need to be verbalized, filled out by the foam insulation of speech, and it's nice to leave some spaces clear and open to interpretation.

He'll be in Jayyous this weekend, and I might try to make it up there and then travel with him to Jenin. He's going to Amman the same time I am, so we can cross into Jordan together, too. I asked my roommate if it would be hard to get to the village from here, and she said, "For you, no."

She and at least one of my officemates are virtual prisoners in Ramallah. They don't have documents to pass any of the checkpoints surrounding the town. To pass them, my officemate would have to go through an all-day ordeal that by no means would be guaranteed to work.

My roommate said she and her friends at university used to drive to Nablus in the middle of the night for kunafa, the same way I and my high school friends used to drive to Muskogee for Denny's or Ft. Smith for a movie on a midnight whim. Now, of course, that is impossible. She said, "Now it's all crap."

I went out for a walk to watch the sunset yesterday, and I sat on a wall with a good view, keeping an eye out for people in front of me who might get on their roofs or balconies and look at me strangely for loafing around on what was probably private property. After the sun had sunk, I turned around to go and saw a whole family under the wall looking up at me.

They spoke only Arabic, excellent motivation for me to study harder. The mother pointed to her hijab (scarf) and trailed her hand along it, and I thought she was gently chastising me for not wearing one. But when they invited me down and showed me their salon, I realized her sign language had meant she was a hair dresser. A hair dresser in a hijab? Isn't that like a tee-totalling liquor salesman? That's Ramallah for you.

They sat me down on the porch, and about ten kids, aged 2 to 10, crowded around, and three teenagers stood at the margins and a couple of adults sat on a low wall or the stairs. They were a good-looking family, especially the flirtiest four-year-old, Mustafa. We talked a little, and I was embarassed to realize that even though I know words like national, organization, director, busy, report, ministry, and crazy pigs, I didn't know the words for grandmother, uncle, or even family. I spent a couple of hours that night trying to fill in some of those gaps.

They invited me to dinner, and while I was eating, the oldest son, Mohamad, pulled his shirt up. It looked like someone years ago had run him partway through with a dull blade and sliced down from his heart to his bellybutton. The scar was immense. I thought maybe it was from surgery, but he made a gesture like aiming an M-16, and my heart fell. He showed me scars on the meaty part of his left calf, too, an entry and exit wound side-by-side, an inch and a half apart, more than half an inch wide, three inches tall, tapered at the top and bottom. He held up seven fingers. "Seven," he said.

"Seven bullets hit you?"



'When' in English sounds like 'where' in Arabic, and he pointed to his backyard. It must have happened years ago, since the scar tissue was old. He seemed otherwise sharp and healthy but was small for his age of 17. I could barely believe he was alive.

After dinner they walked me back to the road and said their house was my house and I should come back soon. I promised I would and went home to find my housemate preparing coffee and nargila for a friend of hers who was coming over, the business manager of one of the most prominent newspapers in Palestine. She said, "You might not like him. He is a Capitalist, very rich."

I did like him, though. He's worked very hard to turn his paper from loss to profit despite the extreme conditions he's working under, and he's brought jobs and capital to Palestine. He had great taste in nargila tobacco, too.

I cringed, though, when he said that advertising companies kept overlooking Palestine, and he sought to change that. I thought, (a) Palestine wouldn't be Palestine anymore if there was a McDonalds on every corner and Nestle billboards lining every avenue, and (b) any ad company that makes an advertising investment in Palestine wants a return. So even though the money from ads looks like capital flowing into Palestine, if they sell enough goods and make a return, that's more money flying out of Palestine. I guess he's looking out for the business interests of newspapers in particular, though. That's his job.

Sometimes they launched into a discussion in Arabic and I was left to my thoughts. I was wondering what mass of which of the bullets that hit Mohamad was mine. Which bit of wealth the American government had extracted from my labor was sent over here to shoot kids. Part of the burden of guilt was incontrovertibly mine. I could have learned about it much sooner, I could have refused to pay, I could have moved to another country, I could have protested more vehemently, with more thought, energy, and organization. Somehow, without my knowledge or consent, I'd let this happen.

My roommate asked me what I was thinking about, and I told her. She said, "Habibti, it's not just America, it's everywhere. Did you know France is one of the largest arms traders to Israel?" So I couldn't just blame America. America is the main instigator at the moment, with a strong colonial legacy from Europe and more power than any one nation has ever possessed before, but like Anne Frank said, we're all letting it happen.

On the Bridges-Not-Walls front, my Palestinian roommate's last roommate was a Jewish American working with the International Solidarity Movement whose sister is a very religious Jew living in Jerusalem. Another Jewish Israeli friend of hers is married to a Palestinian man, has two daughters, and lives in Ramallah. It is tough for her, because the soldiers know who she is. Any time she goes to a protest against the Wall or whatever she is singled out and treated roughly by Israeli soldiers, sometimes beaten.

Here in Ramallah, cheerful contradictions abound. There's a church and a mosque side-by-side, a Jehovah's Witness meeting place next door to me and my Communist roommate, Communists smoking nargili with Capitalists, racy foreign movies, scarf and no scarf, Jew, Israeli, and International, it's great to see how well it all fits together here.

As long as no one's hurting or oppressing anyone, in my experience, people tend to be very friendly. They tend to be as friendly as possible even in the face of oppression. The oppressors tend to be much nastier to the oppressed and to each other, which gives me hope that dominating other human beings is not a natural or desirable state for us to be in, and when we figure that out, this, too, shall pass. Insha'Allah.

Also, Al-Humdulillah, the Al Mubadara website is mostly finished and up on the web at www.almubadara.org.

I'd be very glad to hear from you, comments, questions, or just hi.

Love, Pam


"Certainly nature seems to exult in abounding radicality, extremism, anarchy. If we were to judge nature by its common sense or likelihood, we wouldn't believe the world existed... The whole creation is one lunatic fringe... No claims of any and all revelations could be so far-fetched as a single giraffe."

    ~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

"If racism can't be shown to be natural then it is the result of certain conditions, and we are impelled to eliminate those conditions."

    ~Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States

Next: Back to the village

Previous | Contents | Home