LETTERS FROM PALESTINE
Where's Reagan when you need him?
19 July 2004
Here are a few Arabic words that will probably slip
into my emails now and then.
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
Israeli settlers terrorize 120,000 Palestinian
residents with the help of 1,200 heavily-armed Israeli
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
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
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
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
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
(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 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."
~ The hero of the B movie 'Army of Darkness'
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
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
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
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,
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
The interviewer asked him if he despaired. He said,
"I wouldn't be here if I despaired. I wouldn't be
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I'd be very glad to hear from you, comments,
questions, or just hi.
"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