|The amazing Frank makes me want to learn Hebrew so bad after hearing his musical swearing. Hebrew can actually be musical, it's all not kha's and kho's!|
Friday mornings saw the streets completely devoid of any human life. I took my time walking, enjoying the cool wind and sun, and repressed a shudder as I passed by the renovated Muqata'a compound, where a soldier was posing with his gun, probably ready for his shift to be over.
There were only two other guys sitting around the Manara Square drinking nescafe from plastic cups. I hesitantly approached them.
"Good morning, do you know if the Nabi Saleh cars took off already?" I was after all about 20 minutes late.
"Are you both going too?"
"Yep. Where are you from? Hayaki Allah."
I took my seat on the pavement next to them and began writing, their conversation washing over me in light waves.
"...for that the foreigners don't agree with it."
"Ya zalameh, my dad hit me, trying to stop me from going today."
"Your dad hit you? With all my respect, but your dad is a complete wackjob/متخلف"
"Why? He cares about his son, there's nothing wrong with that."
"How old are you, to be letting him hit you like that?"
"It doesn't matter, he's been hitting me since I was seven for the things he doesn't like to see me do. He cares. After I got out of [Israeli] prison, I spent a year there, and I stopped going to the demonstrations. The first day I started going again I got a bullet in my leg. His intuition is amazing."
I wondered what my family would say if they saw where I was sitting right now. I smile. All I need now is a cigarette in my mouth and a few girls to hit on.
The conversation turned to being around dead people. I was getting a little exasperated ("I think my dad was still alive when they put him in the morgue, the next day his head had moved") when two more guys joined us. They introduced themselves and offered me cherries from a black plastic bag. We hung out for a few more minutes, before a policeman walked up to us, eyeing me curiously. One of the guys broke away and explained to me in a hushed voice full of contempt.
"Every week one of them comes and asks the same damn questions again.Who are we, where are we going, why, who's giving us rides, and so on. Can you believe it, these are our very own defenders of the nation!"
The police car came and parked right next to where we were sitting. The guys began to talk about their experiences, taking my wide eyes for adoration.
"You do know about the shit truck of course. It's something unbelievable. And now they want to come out with diarrhea gas. Tear gas, ok we get it, but how the hell are we gonna combat diarrhea gas?"
Two more police cars began to circle the Manara. We got up and walked a little down the street, waiting for the ford/microbus. More guys showed up, we were probably ten in total. I asked about the low number.
"Don't worry, the others from here will join us later today."
I got the seat of honor next to the driver, as it would have been morally unacceptable to be squished in the backseats between male bodies. That's how far their chivalry extended, as the banter turned raucous and they began to tease one another about their manliness. Then they all broke out singing numbers that were popular during the first and second intifadas. I couldn't help but to smile at their off-key voices, drowning each other out. One of the shabab told the driver to take the long way around because he swore he heard a policeman talking in his walkie-talkie to stop any microbus heading to Nabi Saleh. The driver complied, swinging the vehicle around with gusto.
It's a 20 minute ride to Nabi Saleh. As expected, the gate to the village was closed by the IOF and so the microbus turned into the street below the village. We all jumped out, the settlement of Halamish looming up behind us like an imperial crown, and I saw the big rocky hill we had to climb in order to get inside the village itself. Some good morning exercise for you. I could see burnt patches here and there where the tear gas had spluttered into oblivion. Once we reached the village, one of the guys, who goes by the name of Abu Nasr, took me to the first house on the right, the home of Bilal and Manal Tamimi. I asked him why he was taking me there, and he replied so that I can wait for the other female demonstrators and how I'll be safe here. I bit my tongue; this was my first time and I didn't know how things usually went so I took his patriarchal sexist attitude as one of genuine brotherly concern.
Palestinian hospitality is astounding. I was greeted warmly by the family, and they took me downstairs to where they had foreign diplomats and consuls watching the footage Bilal Tamimi and others such as his brother's wife Nariman documented. Nariman's husband is Basim Tamimi, currently imprisoned for what the Israeli court calls "incitement"/"engaging in unlawful protests" and what every other human calls "standing up for your basic human rights." Most of the videos weren't new to me as I had already seen them on YouTube. Thanks to the social media, these videos get circulated widely, but apparently not enough for the mainstream media to raise its heavy sleeping head. Manal was commentating in English for the foreigners, who were all deeply engrossed. The family made sure I was sitting comfortably and could see perfectly, even in a crowded room. I asked Bilal if they do this every week, hosting foreigners and educating them a bit about how the demonstrations usually panned out. He told me that this was the first time, and that these diplomats/consuls from Holland, Malta, France, and the EU weren't supposed to even be here because of their work. I recognized Jonathan Pollack, the Israeli activist who is always in Nabi Saleh for the protests, and was surprised and a bit annoyed at myself that his Arabic was better than mine.
After watching the videos, we all trooped outside and into the opposite house, Abu Hussam's. A lavish breakfast smothered every inch of the dining table. The drinks-juice, tea, coffee- were all served in glass cups, and when I went to the kitchen to ask if they needed any help, the two women there shooed me out, looking like they definitely did not mind acting as dishwashers. If it were my house, everything would have been served in throwaway plastic cups. I need to get in touch with the hospitable side of me.
Nabi Saleh is a small village. As one of the locals put it, we number 500 counting our chickens. It's basically one main road with houses on either side. In 2009, after Israel expropriated more of the village land in order to expand the settlement of Halamish which was "established" in 1977, they took over the village's spring, Ain al-Kus. Manal Tamimi recounted what the settler women said about the spring, how it was a biblical site and very holy and how it washes away the sins of the settler women who bathe in it. Apparently, holy water is exclusionary. The protests have taken place every Friday. Along with Jonathon Pollack, Joseph Dana has been another key voice in writing about the events as a firsthand eye-witness.
Activists kept dropping in, saying hello, grabbing a quick bite to eat before making their way to the village center, the congregation point. They were treated like family, everyone knew each other's names, there was a real sense of camaraderie. Finally, the calls for noon prayers sounded. The consuls went up on the roof to witness the protest, and I walked with Abu Hussam to the village center. He kept pointing out each house to me.
"This one, right here, and the other two around it got sprayed by the skunk. It was inside the house, God forbid should you ever have to live in that smell. It stays for weeks. And this one, the one with the broken windows, the army threw teargas at it and it started a fire. A whole sofa set was burned."
"'Amo, is that the skunk smell? It's horrible."
"Yes, I told you, it stays for weeks, even on the streets. Now this house here..."
We reached the center. He dropped me off under a large tree where a crowd were milling about, and went to the adjacent mosque to pray. I sat down next to one of the guys I was with at the Manara square.
"So, how's it going so far? Are you scared?"
"No," I answered truthfully. "Why would I be? These people have been doing this for two years now, every single week." Plus the fact that I honestly can't get past my condescension for the IOF.
He didn't believe me. "It's ok, nothing to worry about. You'll get your first taste of tear gas, see if you like it or not, that's all there is to it." He pointed to a group. "These are the Israeli activists. I don't trust them. The other shabab, look how they're fawning over them." Just then one of the Israeli activists came up to him and they embraced tightly.
He sat back down again, ignoring my smirk. "You know, I don't even trust some of the guys that we came with. I don't think their intention is at all noble." He glanced at me sideways. "Just to make it clear, I am talking to you like a brother and nothing else."
I rolled my eyes. I wasn't aware of any sparks between us. "Would you let your sister come demonstrate?"
"You are a perpetrator of the patriarchal system! How can you be so hypocritical?"
"I told you, some of these guys...they come here just to see and talk to the girls."
Bullshit. And even if they did, are they gonna make out every time the soldiers pause to reload?
Prayers were over. Everyone stopped fooling around and went back to business. My lovely female comrades drilled my head with What to Do and What Not to Do.
Do NOT rub your face when the tear gas hits you. You'll only make it worse.
DO hold your breath and move as fast as you can away from the gas.
DO cover your face, Do NOT even think about rubbing your eyes.
DO put your mask on. Make sure to get some gauze drenched in alcohol.
Do NOT stand or remain in the street when the soldiers intensify their shooting of the tear gas.
DO run inside any house, they're all open and will welcome you.
We regrouped and began chanting again. Louder and louder, more vociferous than before, stamping our feet on the ground, yelling out "5,6,7,8 Israel is a fascist state!" and the more creative chants in Arabic. The tall blond German next to me moved a couple of steps down to my left, when I turned my head again seconds later all I saw was blood streaming down his face and the flurry of people as they began to run again. The screams, the yells, the high pitched whistling of the sound bomb canisters before they exploded in momentary deafening. More tear gas was followed, tears streaming down my face. I followed blindly around the back of some house before getting inside. The blood on the German's face turned out to be pepper spray, which was squirted right into his face. I heard that this was his first time in Palestine, his second day only. As he was getting treated into another house cum makeshift hospital, he just couldn't understand why him. "I wasn't even doing anything!" Abu Hussam laughed. "Tell him it's exactly those who don't do anything that get targeted." One girl grimaced. "A hundred tear gas canisters over getting sprayed by filfil any day," she remarked. "The poor man...God help him."
It's easy to read about the protests in Nabi Saleh, Bilin, and Nilin. Sometimes it's hard to stomach the violent videos, but as long as you're watching them and not actually experiencing them, then it's easy to think in a calm and collected manner about the whole situation. Being on the front lines really makes you think about your survival only. In Bil'in Jawaher Abu Rahmeh died after getting hit by a tear gas canister fired at a high velocity at her head. Her brother Basem died the same way only it was aimed at his chest. This wasn't about finding a bit of glory and fame, I don't think that idea exists in the protesters' minds anyway, it's about something much more simpler. There is a well that belongs to the village. They depend on it. That well got stolen from them. They are banned from coming anywhere near it. They want it back. They want the land that Halamish was built upon back. Rocket science, oh imperial powers? Israeli children have a right to security but Palestinian children do not? The three boys and one girl of Nariman and Basem Tamimi, are they also not entitled to security and a safe environment, instead of witnessing their father being dragged away on ludicrous charges, their mother every week with her camcorder, trying to do her bit for B'tselem but inevitably getting caught up in the demonstrations? Nabi Saleh is a tiny speck on earth. It is a seriously aggravated tiny speck on earth. Human rights mean nothing at all here compared to the tiny settlement outposts?
"How do you like it? Is it to your taste? No seriously, be more careful next time. Here, stand there, just breathe."
Be more careful next time. There's no telling what those maniacs will do. They fire straight at a person, or on the ground to purposely let it bounce up and down before ricocheting uncontrollably.
The German man who had earlier gotten pepper sprayed was speaking in awe to his companions. "I've never seen anything like this. The amount of...of inhumanity in a person. I've never seen anything like this. I'm..I'm shocked!"
After a brief lull, more chanting. This time the IOF used sound bombs, firing at close range. There were only meters between us. One sound bomb hit my ankle, causing it to throb for a good few hours. I barely got out the way and become temporarily deaf as it exploded. The more sound bombs they threw, the more aggressive the tone of our voices. Eventually, the protesters made their way across the rocky hill because they couldn't get down the street. They have never succeeded in getting near the spring. I stayed behind because I didn't know what they were doing, or saw no point in it. As expected, the tear gas once again hailed down on them like swirling grey cotton candy. One guy wearing a paramedic vest became unconscious. Because of the distance, we thought it was only a vest on the ground. Then one of the soldiers came and started kicking the vest, which turned out to be on a body, just to further demonstrate the humanity in him.The guy was carried, after a lot of yelling not to shoot. The Israeli border police, decked out in riot gear were the ones to play with us on the hill, instead of the army.
After that we all crossed over to the hill. It sort of fizzled by then. Plenty of time to reflect on the tactics used so far. On one side of the hill was where the road extended, where the spring was, and where the settlement was. The settlers had come out to celebrate their trophy, taunting us up on the hill. The police were forced to calm them down and disperse them, a minor victory on our part. I was wondering whether chanting every week was going to change the status quo. Maybe it's my impatient nature, but there should be more creative angles to deal with this problem. Chanting works when there are masses, huge rolling crowds of them. That is definitely not to deter from the sheer amount of effort and work the activists and protesters do, both during the tear gas confrontations and after, but the new youth movement in Ramallah needs to shake its shackles a bit more (to be discussed in a later post.)
We finally make it back to the village. The sun is lowering itself steadily. Protesters are in a good mood, some saying that this is the first time they felt something like optimism. I'm gathering it was a quiet day compared to the weeks before. Obviously, the presence of consuls watching from the rooftops made the IOF behave itself marginally better. I talked more with Manal and Bilal, and found out that this was the first time the jeeps didn't advance into the street itself. Usually, around 4 pm when the foreign activists leave, the army moves in and within seconds the whole village looks like a war zone. This time, it was after 6, and the jeeps were still parked. Children were playing football with the sound bombs used earlier.
I stared at the couple in front of me. "How do you find it in yourself to do this every single week? Your faith is enviable."
Bilal laughed. "You said it yourself, it's faith itself. When you have something to believe in, you fight for it no matter what."
Manal looked at me with twinkling eyes. "We're originally Hebronites," she tapped her head. We laughed. Hebronites are known for their notorious stubbornness.
Three of the jeeps began to move up the street, obviously not to start anything, and the little four year old children began chucking stones at the armored flanks. Little Jana screamed with delight and jumped up and down waving her arms in the air, victorious as her tiny stone hit the back of the jeep.
It was getting dark, the microbus was here. I swooped up a four year old Spiderman in my arms, the youngest son of Manal and Bilal and took a juicy bite out of his cheek.
"Do you want me to come back next week?" I asked.
He nodded shyly. I kissed his cheek again, said goodbye to Manal, and left Nabi Saleh, my head swirling.