Thursday, August 25, 2011

Palestine's Rollercoasters

They're big, they're loud, and they're orange. They travel at the speed of light and are known to be suicide friendly vehicles. They strike fear in the hearts of first time drivers and are at the receiving end of a barrage of heavy verbal abuse.

They are...fords.

No Palestinian experience is complete without a life-threatening ride in one of those babies. The semantic history of the designated name is unknown, since they definitely do not bear semblance to any Ford model. Nevertheless, they are the great white sharks on the street, and if you thought that was a bad enough analogy get this: If Hitler was a car he'd be some clunky pick-up truck on a farm next to these venomous Bugattis.

Unless you're bequeathed your own personal car and laugh in the face of the perilous winding roads to Birzeit University, the fords are the only means of transportation. Since I live on the main street, I don't have to go to downtown Ramallah to the ford depot. Rather, I stick my finger out and wait for one to stop. On windy days, as my scarf flutters and my whiteness is laid out for all the world to see, I have no problem in flagging down a ford. For three years I have feared for my life twice a day going to and coming back from the university. They know no other language other than speed. The drivers have no qualms in driving on the wrong side of the road in a bid to reach their destination in the quickest time possible. They especially relish the challenge of facing off with a car coming up on its rightful side of the road, usually winning the challenge by making the other car veer off the road at the last second.

Last time that happened my friend screamed at the driver, "You have ten other people in the backseats whose lives you're responsible for- SLOW DOWN!!"

The reply was offhand and cool: "Don't worry, I have fifteen years of experience."

Some drivers act as if you're not there. Others steal covert looks at you in the mirror before inquiring about personal life, whether you're married or engaged or looking to settle down. Still others tell you their whole life story. One driver kept up a pleasant conversation with me and gave me a stack of business cards to pass out for his niece's new salon. Another driver began to tell me about his village and offered me a bunch of miskawi apricots. I was touched by his kindess, so I accepted politely. He then gave me half the bag to eat. When I went home that day, I relayed to my mother the driver's generosity.
"Inshallah you accepted the apricots?"
"Of course."
"Did...did you eat them?"
"Yes Ma, isn't that the next step to take after being offered food?"
"You ATE them?! Did I raise a fool? Are you out of your mind? Does your smartness only show itself in your studying? What if the apricots were sprayed with something? What if they weren't apricots at all? What if they were laced with drugs? That's it, I'm calling your father."

The drivers come in all shapes and sizes. Kids barely out of their teens, men with wizened faces, most of them smoking addicts. Some are oblivious to their passengers, viewing them simply as money generators, while others give you a sympathetic look as the floozy in front of you shuts the window on a sweltering day so that the breeze won't mess up her hair.

One time the ford I was in stopped to pick up an old man. He looked like a Bedouin, with his abaya and heavy accent. The old man lit up a cigarette and the ashes flew back right at me, getting in my clothes and bag. I sighed waspishly, and the driver caught my eye. He turned to the old man next to him.
"Uncle, you have to put put your cigarette. I'm sorry but that's the law."
"What law is this? I'm going to keep smoking."
"It's a new law, Uncle. We get fined if the police catch anyone smoking in the fords."
"Screw the laws. We don't even have a country and we're putting laws. Who the hell do we think we are?"
"All the same, please put out your cigarette.'
"No. You have your own opinions, I have mine. Who do you think you are telling me to throw my cigarette away? I just put it in my mouth, I'm not throwing it."
"You seem like a wise man, and I'm treating you like a father. Why won't you listen?"
"Stop the ford. I'm getting out here. At least no one will stop me on the street to tell me not to smoke."
"Good riddance," I piped.

The drivers will run over a bunch of people in order to be the first to reach a potential passenger. Another friend of mine climbed into one ford a few weeks ago. The driver in the ford in front of them got out and began arguing with the driver that my friend should have went into his ford. They bickered for a few more minutes, before the driver of the ford my friend went into turned the key in the ignition and started to drive off. The other driver held on to the window, refusing to let go, still arguing passionately, his feet dragging on the asphalt for a good two hundred meters before he finally gave up and let go. Fords cost around two hundred thousand shekels, it makes sense that customers must be rounded up by whatever means.

Almost two years ago, a new all important law was finally passed. Drivers and passengers alike had to wear their seatbelts. Naturally, this law at the beginning was largely ignored, but after hefty fines were imposed it was taken more seriously. The ford drivers only wear their seatbelts whenever a police car is on the road. As soon as they pass by the police, the drivers fling back their seatbelts as if they were straight-jackets. In some remote villages, little kids are taken for rides in the fords. There, without the protection of seatbelts and with the abundance of rocky unpaved roads, the kids have the time of their lives hitting their heads on the roof of the ford, getting thrown to one side, raising their arms screaming with delight as the ford whizzes down a hill. Who needs Six Flag's Superman when we have our very own fords?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Recurring Let Down of Ramallah Protests

I still haven’t learned how to stay away from a Ramallah protest, despite the detrimental irritating feeling disappointment that never fails to swell inside of me every time I attend one.

Ramadan started, and Bashar Al-Assad showed no sign of mercy as his murdering of Syrians did not let up. Combined with the two previous days, the numbers rose to over one hundred. A protest was needed here in Ramallah, if only to express our anger and horror at the Syrian dictator and solidarity with those suffering under the brutal killing machine regime.

As an oppressed people, we shouldn’t ignore the oppression of others. Other people seem to contend this point, believing that we as Palestinians already have a lot on our plate and don’t need to be involved in whatever shape or form in the affairs of other countries. That sounds exactly like the Palestinian Authority rhetoric, especially highlighted during Egypt’s January 25th revolution. In the most unlikely of all places given the humanitarian crisis gripping it, Gaza has dispelled this view as it actively involved in a campaign to raise money and aid for the starving refugees of Somalia.

Protests in Ramallah follow a certain agenda. They only happen with the full blessing of the PA, which inevitably means that the protests will get hijacked by Fateh thugs, the loudspeakers usurped with Fateh factional songs, and the yellow flags and memorabilia of Fateh will be waved in the air with furious gusto. Sometimes, it’s not that conspicuous. The protest, independently organized, will continue but if there are less than favorable chanting going on (read: calls for resistance) the police—plainclothes or otherwise—will move in to break it up. For the record, the plainclothes police aren’t the brightest light bulbs out there. You can always tell who they are because they stand at the peripheral edges of the crowd, and stare at you in a frank and unsettling manner.

A Facebook page materialized, announcing the Syrian solidarity march to be on Sunday the 14th. It was organized by something called the National Committee in Solidarity with the Arab Revolts, something I’ve never heard of. Searches proved to be fruitless, so I couldn’t tell whether this was independent from the PA or not. Nevertheless, I took my sister and we walked after iftar, deliberately ignoring all the other previous wasted protests we attended.

As we headed toward the Manara Square, Ramallah’s obtrusive schizophrenia tugged at all of my senses. Families, mostly women, were walking in a bid to healthily digest the iftar feast they must have consumed so readily. Young men were walking in couples, making me skirt their outstretched hands lest they “accidentally” brush against mine. Yellow-licensed (Israeli) cars revved their big engines, while the white-licensed cars (Palestinian) blasted their English and Arabic pop music in an attempt to drown out the engines. Lights were strewn all over stores, and a vendor seller shoved three plastic hairbrushes in our faces, before moving on to his next target. Weaving between the cars and the people on the disregarded sidewalks were men selling Barcelona/Real Madrid flags, keeping up a running commentary of only two words: “Barsha, Real, Barsha, Real, Barsha, Real.” It was the first leg of the Supercopa big between the two teams.

The Syrian solidarity protest was moving away from the square and down Rukab Street. I learned a long time ago not to spare a thought for how many were attending, since it was always going to be disappointing. The protesters were mainly from the villages. The ones leading the chants were from Nabi Saleh. We probably numbered around three hundred, a painfully low figure. My sister and I threaded our way to the middle of the chanting group and joined in. Chants against Bashar al-Assad and his cowardice, and his need to fix his lisp grew stronger. Only Palestinian and Syrian flags were waved. During that hour and a half, no one tried to take over the protest with their own factional party nonsense. I was aware of the other people, those who stood on the pavement and watched us pass, like we were a Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on show. Did it occur to them to join in, to protest the killings of thousands of innocent lives? Or were we part of an unscheduled Ramadan festivity?

Protests are all about catharsis. Unless they generate a huge amount of people, it is naïve to think that demonstrating will actually influence the decision making of those in authority. We were helpless, watching the Syrians getting murdered on the streets, wishing we could aid them in any way. For me at least, protesting does not in any way make me feel like I had accomplished something, nor does it content me. It loosens the tightened knot in my heart a bit, mostly at the relief that officially Ramallah is in solidarity with Syria and that the protest was allowed to happen without any hindrances, but in no way is my state of mind placated.

Thursday came around and brought with it news of a three-pronged attack on Eilat, where the casualties were mostly IDF soldiers. Despite having no factual evidence that the assailants came from Gaza, and despite Hamas and the Popular Resistance Committee denying any involvement, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barack announced that the source of this terror attack came from Gaza and that they would retaliate accordingly. How can a retaliation be carried out if the source of the original provocation is not yet specified? That didn’t stop Israel from killing five Palestinians in Rafah, among them a two year old boy. As the attacks started to intensify after midnight, I stayed up, checking on my family there from time to time. North Gaza and Rafah in the south were bombarded, as well as Ansar compound and a training ground for resistance fighters in the area of Khuza’a in Khan Younis. There was no chance for my family going to sleep, and the children were once again huddled in one room next to each other, the older ones muttering prayers mixed with curses. By the end of the night, the total number of thos killed were seven, two of them children. How ironic that Israel did not foresee the attack on Eilat, but immediately had confidential precise information where the assailants had come from. How ironic indeed, and what a way to end the laughable apolitical social justice revolution in Israel.

A protest in solidarity with Gaza was quickly organized on Friday. I hoped that the people planning to attend weren’t coming just because of the seven martyrs killed on Thursday. Our memories must extend further than that. On Wednesday a seventeen year old boy was executed, his chest and riddle riddled with bullet holes. His name was Sa’d Al-Majdalawi. This year alone, one hundred and forty three martyrs have been killed by Israel. I was glad something was being done, because it’s been something of a norm for Ramallah, being the bubble it is, to ignore any news that has to do with Gaza. We don’t need another hundred people to be dead until we start thinking about calling for a protest.

The last time a protest for Gaza was held in Ramallah was in January 2009, during Israel’s savage and ruthless invasion of the Strip. On that Friday, I lay in my bed curled up in a ball, wide awake in a state of numbing fear for my family in Gaza. My mother and older brother went. They came back a few hours later, stunned and ashen-faced, reeking of tear gas, and beaten up. The PA has bussed in brainwashed fools from the northern West Bank in addition to its own security forces to deliberately instigate and then attack the crowds who had gathered for Gaza. They held up framed pictures of Mahmoud Abbas and Hosni Mubarak, highlighting the collusion between the two figureheads in contributing to the siege on Gaza, and sang Fateh songs before descending down on the women, men, and young children where they proceeded to assault them viciously.

At the Manara, around fifty people had shown up. In the middle, a group of people were singing nationalistic songs like they were performing onstage. Chanting started sporadically, but people were more eager to sing. Meanwhile, my friend received a text that two more were killed in the Bureij camp. In Ramallah the singing continued. I was recoiling on the inside. It was completely disrespectful. I looked behind me and desperately wanted to laugh at the identical postures of my mother and sister, with their arms crossed and deep scowls etched into their faces. That this protest was organized on such a short notice is no excuse (another protest is set for this Sunday the 22nd). The names of the martyrs should have been up somewhere. A silent candlelit vigil would have been more deferential to the memories of the seven killed in Gaza, not this cringe-worthy festive atmosphere. The men in the middle were now jumping up and down, still singing. As the song died out, one of them yelled, “We want a state in September!” The senseless sheep around him repeated what he said. My friend, sister and I all responded at the same time more than once, “We do NOT want a state in September!” The sheep didn’t know who to repeat after. I was close to throwing up my innards. One of the singing men grabbed the flag from my hand which was handed to me by someone and said, “Ok, we’re done now.”

The sheep dispersed, and my mother shrilly said that it was shameful for us to even say we were at a solidarity protest for Gaza. She and my sister decided to meet my aunt somewhere, so I walked home alone, my feet pounding the pavement, seething the whole time.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Elmaz Abinader Interview

Published by the IMEU .

I had glimpsed Elmaz Abinader a couple of times during my visit to the building in Birzeit that the Palestine Writing Workshop and Palfest jointly share. Her dark curly hair moved enthusiastically as she spoke to her students around the makeshift table in the next room, fitting the lively astute character that one gets an impression from her blog posts on the Red Room online community website. Although Elmaz was born into a Lebanese family, she lived in the US her whole life. Most of her work (Children of the Roojme, a Family’s Journey from Lebanon, In the Country of my Dreams) centers on Arabs or Arab-Americans coping and dealing with antagonistic measures present in their daily lives. It was interesting to see where this particular theme fit within her experience of teaching for the first time in the occupied West Bank, and her perspective on the role of creative writing in Palestine.

You’re involved with VONA (Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation). Explain a bit about how the event pans out.
It happens every year, on the campus of Berkeley, and always the last week of June/first week of July. I was actually one of the founders. People have to apply for it. The workshops run for about two weeks, and each week is different. We have very famous writers of color teaching, and about five hundred people apply every year. We accept around one hundred and twenty applicants. Some of them stay in residency where we have it, and they work on their writing for the entire week with a master teacher. We do a big reading at the end. Yeah it’s very special.

What are the tips or advice that you found most helpful?
What happens in the standard American society is that people of color become exoticized. Some people look at their themes, their topics and their stories and think “oh how unusual, how different.” So the actual work on their writing never gets done. This kind of perspective gets in the way. So at VONA we say “ok, we’re all writers of color and we all have these special types of stories, now let’s get to working.” So it gives them a better opportunity to get the development in their writing.

Have you ever travelled to a different country to teach a workshop?
I taught at Egypt for one year [as a Fulbright scholar]. I had a wonderful time there. I’ve mostly taken my performances out of the country. People get in touch with me that way and learn about me through their questions. I spend a lot of time talking to journalists, teachers, radio and television people.

Has there been a particular environment that you found difficult to teach in?
There are different ways that environments can be good and different ways that they can be difficult. For instance in Egypt, it was difficult because students were oriented to tests. So the idea of a classroom discussion, the idea of free thinking, was very hard for them to grasp. I would tell them a story about my life and they’d ask if that was going to be on the test. On the other hand, they were so enthusiastic and open. They were also very easy to teach. Everything has a particular kind of challenge and a particular kind of advantage.

Have you ever worked with disadvantaged youth or minorities?
I don’t really work with youth that much. I mostly work with university students, adults about creative writing and the theories of teaching creative writing. I teach people so that they can in turn teach or work. My university is located in a town called Oakland which is a very integrated place, and I have a project there. Many of the people of color there are not serviced well (the public school system is not that great), so my graduate students go out to the different populations in the city and offer them writing workshops.

Where did you hear about the Palestine Writing Wprkshop? Explain how your workshop- the Writer Cultivator training worked.
[Palestinian-American poet] Suheir Hammad connected me with [the founder], and it went from there. [For the training] we had three different parts to it. One part was I approached the students as writers. I did exercises and activities that showed different approaches to pulling their writing out of them, (even though they are all well-known published writers here in Palestine) yet there’s always another way to go about your writing. And then I approached them as teachers, and I asked them how they planned on going to a population of a particular age they’ve never met before and teach them how to do creative writing, and what they can find inside themselves that makes them good teachers. The final part the students went to teach at four different refugee camps – Jalazon, Qalandiya, Qaddoura, and the Am’ari. Then they would come back to report to me and we would analyze the way their classes went, how they can prepare for their next class, what the sequence of classes needs to be, etc. Their students (the refugee girls) are going to have a celebration at Sakakini Cultural Center, a big reading on July 30th. I’m not going to be here!

There’s a lot of talk about creative economy. How sustainable do you think that will be, particularly in its creative writing form here in Palestine?
I think the possibility is huge, but the steps are going to be small. First of all, you have a very strong literary community. There are key literary figures like Walid Abu-Bakr and venues like the Sakakini Center. The key figures are the strong pillars of the literary community here, and they recognize this need, along with the Palestine Writing Workshop’s philosophy and mission, to create this need. I think you’re going to get a lot of writers and you’re going to get a lot of classes, but the transition to getting publishers and editors is going to be the difficult part. You can send foreigners in here to teach, but you have to create your own publishing industry, it has to be interior money. The job will be to make it so spectacular that people can’t ignore it, like the music scene here, and then when people can’t ignore it they’d want a piece of it.

Are you aware of any writing communities here in Ramallah/West Bank?
Other than PWW and Palfest? No, I just met individual writers and they all seemed to know each other. On Wednesdays we have our classes at La Vie. Last week it was over at 4pm, and my students hung around, they didn’t leave. I left, but they went into the garden and started doing writing exercises with each other. It was so nice. They took advantage of the moment of being together –there were six of them here—and when I came back someone told me that the last student just left. People are hungry for that establishment of community. I have that back at home, where I have five people come over, and we sit and write, then break for lunch, then go back to working on our stuff.

Do you think that writing especially in oppressed societies is used as an outlet to escape one’s reality or as a platform to convey to others what they endure on a daily basis?
One of the things that literature can do is all of those things, but it is better, for me at least, if they do it through narrative and poetic forms. For instance, I know more about World War One from good stories I’ve read and films I’ve seen. When you see peoples’ lives inside a political situation and they tell a story, whether it be a love story or a story about their garden, everything has got to do with how often they’re going to see their lover or how much water their garden needs respectively. In this way literature actually corrects history by bringing it to the people level off of the government level. One problem with getting Palestinian literature outside of Palestine is that you need a range of voices, not just one person or a character that people come to rely on as representing the story of Palestine. We need a variety of voices, for them to be complex and complicated and not always about the political situation, but about everything such as whatever people are dreaming about. I learned the most about Palestinian literature by talking to Walid [Abubakr]. He gave me a really good perspective on who the uppercomers are, and the dearth of writers of the last generation.

What has been the most striking aspect of your current crop of students?
They’re very smart. One of the things I always say in my teaching world is as soon as I stop learning from teaching I will stop teaching. These writers are so creative and so smart and even though they needed some guidance on how to teach, as soon as the door was opened they just took off. They’re also so sweet, offering to take me places on my first day here. I feel like I’ve made friends even though I’m a hundred years older than everybody.

How important is the potential in creative writing in society under occupation?
I think it’s where the most potential is. In the mainstream societies they’ve written themselves into a corner. I feel like I’m reading the same crap over and over. One of the things I’ve fantasized about was creative writing teaching articles, and teachers and creative writers throughout the world would show for example how a story from Palestine and a story from Sri Lanka can have a dialogue in a classroom. Because we have online capabilities, we can go global. There’s a kind of democracy to it that the publishing industry never had, which also means that the crazies can get through [laughs].

Your upcoming memoir The Water Cycle deals with the shaky concept of identity and cultural relationships. Did you feel as a child/teenager that you had to compromise a part of you in order to fit in? Or was it mainly confusion?
My whole childhood. My family lived in a town where there were no other people of color. The pressure to be part of the society, to look like part of the society, act like part of the society, to hide things about our home life was enormous. It was that time in American history where people were ‘assimilationists’, and so my name was changed when I went to school to Alma-Ann, I was dyed blond for a wedding, there were all kinds of pressure. But of course the more you push something the more it pushes back. My Arab ties would be stronger if I spoke Arabic, but I believe that I feel as much part of the Arab diasporic literary community as I do in the American literary community.

What has been the best thing you’ve learned from your students so far?
The best thing I’ve learned from my students is that you can write under any conditions. One of my students was teaching at the Sakakini Center. Her family arrives, she picks up her baby, and she continues teaching. There’s a hunger to be heard.
Writers in the US including myself are always saying I don’t have time I don’t have the space I need to be spoiled but people here have to go through checkpoints, and wait for all kinds of crap before they get to sit down and do their writing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gaza Blackout

When I finally got home yesterday it was already around 1 am. After having iftaar at a great aunt's house, we then went to another aunt's house to welcome back her son from the ghurbeh-six years spent studying in Russia. I was dying for internet access. I've become somewhat of an addict, and for some reason the internet in my aunt's home wouldn't work on my laptop. The hours spent drinking tea and coffee and eating qatayif were a bit marred by the black looks I was shooting my mother. Yallah Ma are we planning on sleeping over?

I had planned on cobbling another informal post about the second PalTweetUp meeting. Instead, news across Twitter quickly spread about a mass communications cut in the Gaza strip, entering its seventh hour. My heart dropped somewhere between my toes. The first thought I had was "Ground Invasion. Air Raids. Naval Attacks." In short, another Operation Cast Lead.

Less than three years ago, my family in Ramallah were gripped by frustration, helplessness, and total despair. My father's family in Gaza were witnessing firsthand Israel's murderous onslaught that lasted for twenty two days, and all I could offer them was a watery phone call imploring them, rather stupidly, to stay safe. I'd start off with false cheeriness before my voice would break, the tears gushing down my face. If half the Samouni family were wiped out, who's to say my family won't be next? My uncles and their wives over the phone would be doing what I was supposed to be doing to them, comforting me, trying to downplay the risks and their suffering: "We're fine, the explosions are only shaking the building. Of course the children are terrified, but that means that we're all sleeping together, good for staying warm. Chin up Linah."

Quickly, news came in that the mass cuts were caused by Israeli bulldozers that destroyed a fiber-optic cable near the border, thus severing land lines, the internet, and cell phone connectivity. That didn't stop me from calling my uncles though. I tried both their land lines and their cell phones, over and over again. I tried to stop myself from overreacting. Why else would there be a massive communication breakdown? It's not a mistake. Mistakes on this large scale don't last for eight hours now. I pushed images of ground troops stealthily infiltrating Gaza from my mind. It was a scary notion, a cruel fact that Gaza was completely isolated from the whole world.

The only other explanation was an oversimplified one, that it was just a technical problem. That still doesn't deter from the real issue at hand: Gaza is still being effectively occupied. Israel controls all border crossings, including the Rafah border, and has the power to turn on and off the electricity that 1.7 million people depend on. It supplies water, and also can cut that off whenever it feels like it. For Gaza to become a black hole for those hours was a terrifying concept to grasp because no one know what was going on. Yasmeen Elkhoudary, probably the only one tweeting -- albeit from a shaky connection -- from Gaza via her Blackberry, provided information that land lines were working, and that to the best of her knowledge, there were no air strikes or anything of that kind.

My finger was still pushing the redial button religiously. Sixty miles separate Ramallah from Gaza, but it seemed like sixty thousand miles. Around 2:40 am, my uncle Mohammad from Tal il Hawa district picked up. I screamed, "'Amo!"

"Ahlain, ya 'ami. How are you?"
He sounded groggy. It suddenly dawned on me that I might have woken him up.

"Don't worry about it," he yawned. "I have to get up for su7oor anyway."
"What's going on? Why are all the telephone lines down? What's happening?"
"The land lines work."
"No, I think they only work within Gaza itself. Because I called you and Amo Mahmoud and Amta Najat and all I get is a busy signal."
"Yeah well..we don't really know what's going on. No one knows the reason for the power cuts. We've heard something about Israeli bulldozers digging too far and hitting a few cable lines, but that's about it. I'm surprised you managed to get through to me. You're probably roaming on the Orange network."
"Are you safe? Do you hear any drones? Missiles? Any news of anyone killed?"
"We're fine. The sky is quiet tonight. Nothing's happening on the ground. People got bored because of no electricity and went to sleep early."
"Are you sure there's nothing?"
"Yes habibti. Go to sleep."
"What time do you go to work? I'll call you then."

I tried my other uncle's cell phone. It was turned off. Relief flooded through my body. Nothing is happening, yet. A couple of hours later I finally crashed.

I woke up at 9am and immediately called Mohammad. He picked up and said something before the line disconnected. I swore under my breath as I realized my phone's battery died. Half an hour later there were confirmed reports that the communication lines were working again. The night had passed smoothly, relatively speaking. I called my uncle again at 2:45pm. He had went home because there was no work in the bank without the internet. People are still bewildered. He told me Jawwal's service connection was back on fifteen minutes earlier, not at 9:30am as some initially reported. I suppose it depended on the different districts and areas. A fifteen hour blackout is no different from a twenty hour blackout. He hadn't heard anything, not even rumors. I called my other uncle a few hours later. I heard waves crashing in the background. He was standing on a hill in Khan Younis overlooking the sea. He seemed convinced that what happened was just a technical problem, but the cynic in me won't shake off the feeling that there must be an ulterior motive on Israel's part.

The psychological warfare inflicted was just another used tactic of Israel's. My family and Gaza were safe, for now.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Throwing Rocks

Published at Electronic Intifada.

I had denied it for too long now, but for a Palestinian, my rock throwing is shockingly abysmal.

On one of the Fridays I spent in Nabi Saleh, I had grumbled out loud at this particular incompetence of mine, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by eager teachers.

It was the Friday of the flotilla model. That day was mostly spent indoors as after the first couple of hours of the protest, the Israeli army aimed and fired tear gas at whoever so much poked their heads out the door.

During the late afternoon the jeeps made signs that they were leaving, and I jumped at the chance of being outside again. Along with two other girls, we casually sauntered forward until we reached the jeeps and stood next to Nariman Tamimi and her video camera, where other village children joined us. The other activists tried venturing out but because they were a larger number they were promptly shot at. From the rooftops, others started cursing the soldiers in a humorous way, and they also got fired at. One of the tear gas canisters rolled back toward the soldier who fired it and he had to scramble comically out of the way which made us all whoop and cheer, the younger children laughing openly. The soldier stomped menacingly to our group, his pride hurting, his eyes flashing angrily and threw a sound bomb at us. We scarpered.

The village was surrounded by soldiers. The hills were crawling with them, the orchards teeming. As we watched one troop making its way down from behind the olive trees, we didn’t bother to conceal the condescension on our faces. One soldier raised his hand in farewell. My throat constricted with a thousand incendiary words to say at this supposedly friendly gesture. The girl’s face next to me mirrored my own: dangerously narrowed eyes that almost made us look cross-eyed.

One by one, the jeeps took off. The hail of stones raining down on them began, with whistles and cheering whenever a rock made contact with the armored vehicles. The infectious excitement made me pick up a rock, throw it, and then swiftly I buried my head in the ground as the rock traveled heavily in the air for a couple of meters before dropping dully. Next to me, a kid half my size threw his rock and narrowly missed the end of the jeep, which was now about two hundred meters away.

There are two basic lessons: How to Hold a Rock, and How to Throw a Rock. The village was now empty of the occupying force, the street littered with sound bombs and canisters. My lesson took place across from a small empty lot with the sun dipping in the background.

“This is how you hold a rock,” said one of the shabab. “No, not like that, like this. Ok, you’re doing it wrong. No, look at my fingers! Imagine your thumb and forefinger as a pair of tweezers. Hold them up like this. The rock should fit comfortably.” He gave up on his theoretical talk, grabbed my fingers, and molded them into the correct shape.

One kid tapped my arm. “Let the rock rest against your middle finger. That’s it, you got it.”
“Now stretch your arm out, away from your body,” the same shab continued. “No, not like a stick figure. Bend your elbow slightly. Move your arm backwards a little. When you throw, don’t let your shoulder move. The rock travels longer based on the follow through movement of your arm. Ok, throw.”

I threw. The rock felt lighter as it whizzed through the air. I yelled out in joy. “Did you see that!”
My teachers nodded absentmindedly, and threw their rocks. The distance covered was still longer than mine.

“Ok good, but you need to refine your technique a bit more. Try again. Wait, remember to keep this finger like that, ok throw again – WAIT, what are you doing, aiming for the driver? Let the car pass before you start. Now watch out for the kids – HEY!” he yelled out good-naturedly, “Get out of the way!”

I threw again, a broad smile breaking out across my face. I knew better than to say I don’t throw like a girl anymore – one of the last classes I took at university was Women Studies which had a lasting effect on me. The kids showed just how good they are with rocks to a patently easily amused me, eager to offer me tips regarding size and target.

Earlier that day, as activists were cooped up in Bilal and Manal Tamimi’s house, one Israeli activist, a first-timer here, was standing in the middle of the room drawing attention to himself as he loudly asserted that throwing rocks automatically cancelled out a “non-violent protest.” Another activist was arguing with him, pointing out that the rocks were barely the source of bodily harm, but to me they were missing the point completely.

One of the Tamimi men was leaning against the wall on a mattress, staring at the Israeli with scornful displeasure. “As long as the soldiers are here, as long as our land is being encroached upon, as long as their jeeps take over our village, and as long as they continue to fire tear gas, our shabab won’t stop throwing rocks,” he declared.

“Fine, but you can’t call it a non-violent protest,” the Israeli countered. He looked warily around the room. “Look, I realize most of you don’t agree with me, but in my opinion a non-violent protest shouldn’t engage in any tactics of violence, and to me throwing stones is an act of violence.”
“An act of violence!” the other activist almost sneered. “In response to what, the tear gas fired? The live ammunition sometimes used? The storming of houses and the subsequent arrests and beatings? You can’t equate the tactics of the Israeli army to rock-”
“I’m not equating them! Definitely I’m not! But to me, a non-violent protest-”
“Listen,” I interjected. “This is the first mistake you’re making. Don’t say ‘non-violent’; the more correct term is ‘unarmed’. ”

The Israeli first-timer has obviously fallen victim to the western discourse that dictates what the appropriate way for Palestinians to resist is. It seems more apparent that for the west, the term ‘non-violent’ protest would mean that one should retreat meekly in the face of aggression once chanting, singing, and sticking flowers into the barrel ends of guns result in exacerbated aggression on the Israeli army’s part. There are all sorts of implications that come with that term, and it is important not to be ensnared by the western mindset. Definitions should come with context.

Last month Ibrahim Shikaki wrote an excellent and highly important article on Palestinian resistance, pointing out that media coverage shapes Palestinian resistance in the western narrative of non-violence, as well as refuting the western imposition of just how Palestinians should resist.
“The fact is, facing a brutal war machine with stones is but a symbolic gesture. It is a symbol of the vast discrepancy in power between the Palestinian people and Israel's war machine.
Stones aimed at Israeli tanks or other armed vehicles were a means for the unarmed indigenous people of Palestine to demonstrate their refusal of occupation and oppression. Youth, women, the elderly and all sectors of society participated in this form of resistance.”

So where does the history of rock throwing, the action that captured the hearts of millions around the world during its foray in the first intifada and inspired other people, like the new generation of Kashmiris, come from? Bassem Tamimi explained that rocks were traditionally thrown to warn or frighten off bears or snakes.
“When a soldier comes into our village and shoots tear gas we won’t just sit there like a victim. They are protected from live bullets so we’re clearly not trying to take a life. With stones we are simply saying, ‘We don’t accept you here as an occupier. We don’t welcome you as a conqueror.’”
It is for this reason that to even consider throwing rocks as a violent act is absurd. The message is very clear; rocks are thrown at the enemy as a way of expounding the Palestinians’ disapproval of a foreign occupying entity from intruding and expropriating their lands and homes. At the risk of insulting their intelligence and losing their respect at such a dim question, I asked a few Nabi Saleh children why they throw rocks. Simple: we don’t want the army here. This is our village. They are occupying us. The Israeli hasbara machine excelled in depicting the Israeli army, with their Merkava tanks, F-16 missiles, Uzi submachine guns, assault rifles, rubber coated metal bullets, etc as the true victims while painting the Palestinian youth, armed with rocks, as a disturbing image of bloodthirsty emotional Jew-hating Arabs who loathe the white man’s economic, social, and political accomplishments.

The David versus Goliath analogy is lost on those well-meaning "non-violent" folks. Truth to be told, the literal Arabic translation of "non-violent" isn't used widely. We use "muthahara silmiya/ مظاهرة سلمية" which means "peaceful protest". It is especially cringe-worthy to remember how I used to look down on those who threw rocks in Bil'in and Nil'in, something I now attribute to my ignorance and inexperience. I used to think, victim to the the propaganda western media outlets emitted, that throwing rocks was a thing of the past, and that we needed new ways to resist, not quite the Ghandi way but something along those lines. Thank God for Nabi Saleh.

Recently, someone told me the story of how Spiderman of that village, little four year old Samer, had succeeded in breaking off a rear-view mirror of one of the Israeli jeeps with his rock. Spiderman picked up his prized possession, and wouldn't let go of it. He probably slept with it next to him. This isn't a case of young children being taught to hate Jews and therefore grow up to be suicide bombers. It's a case of a young child who is forced to deal with the presence of his brutal occupier in his village.

I picked up another rock, positioning it in my right hand. My teachers looked on approvingly. "When you go home, line up everything you own on a shelf and start knocking them over with a rock," they told me, grinning. "Give it a week and you'll be a pro."