Thursday, February 1, 2007

The People


Mohammed comes over at ten. He knocks firm and quiet on the grey steel door. That is how I know it is Mohammed and not some errant kid up past his bedtime on a mission to bother the foreigners. They are like boys who turn over a rotten log, discover some mysterious creature, a salamander, a toad, a centipede, then poke it with a stick to see what it does. Poke, poke. If the salamander does not move, they poke it again to see if it will move this time; if it moves, they poke it again to continue the entertainment. We are salamanders to them, mysterious with our bleached skin and our English and our strange habits. They tug at my clothes, open my backpack, stand smiling, hands extended, saying “Hello, how are you?” in a pantomime of adulthood.

“Money, money!” they say, “Give me money!”

Sometimes nice younger boys will want to hold my hand. Sometimes they will yell, throw rocks, hit me with hands and plastic pipes. It can be maddening, to be mobbed by 10 or 15 boys aged 6 to 12, grabbed, hit, screamed at. One afternoon I lay alone in the apartment I share with several other international activists, listening to the sound of children’s voices whirling like cyclone winds in the street outside. This vocal cacophony was occasionally punctuated by staccato gunfire from Israeli soldiers in the guard towers on the perimeter of Rafah. The streets and empty lots serve as playgrounds, often lifeless urban terrain with plastic trash instead of rotten logs, a far cry from my own backwoods American childhood.

Shebab means loosely ‘youth’ and this term is applied to adolescent boys and young men. Like many boys in this age group anywhere, many of the shebab are looking for trouble. Many of them are also wonderful human beings. Technically Mohammed is a shebab, although his manner is exceptionally calm. He is 20, but seems older.

Perhaps the fact that 10 of his close friends were killed in the past two years makes him wise rather than simply intelligent. Perhaps he would be wise even if he was born into suburban New Hampshire; some people are at 20 regardless of the circumstances in which they live. In any case, Mohammed arrives at 10 with a quiet Arabic-speaking friend. The three of us sit in the apartment and talk until midnight.

* * *

Today was the first day of a 3-day Islamic holiday which commemorates the Koranic story in which Ibrahim is asked by Allah to sacrifice his son. As Mohammed tells the story, Ibrahim trusts Allah and agrees to willingly sacrifice his beloved son because he understands that human souls dwell temporarily in physical bodies. We come from Allah and after death we return to Allah; therefore if god asks for our bodies, it is right to give them. God, not humanity, creates bodies.

This celebration centers around slaughtering animals and sharing meat. Last night cows were tied in the street; this morning they were killed and the meat was distributed to families. Much of this meat goes to poor families who cannot afford to buy meat. People eat and visit their extended families. It is a holiday, similar in ways to Thanksgiving in the U.S.

Nonetheless, I was slightly shocked to look out the window this morning and see five men and boys hacking energetically at the skinned carcass of a steer with knives and cleavers. All those red muscles sprawled on the paving stones, right there under the open sky in the shadow of monolithic grey apartment blocks. . . and then to step through rivulets of crimson en route to wash my clothes. Some vegetarian internationals were repulsed by this spectacle, but I was intrigued and impressed. I like eating meat, and believe that it is good to know and understand the consequences of your actions. The consequence of eating meat is that animals must be killed—is it better to do this openly, while remembering an educational myth, or to hide the killing in factories, fatten the animals in cramped feedlots, pump them full of hormones and antibiotics, then slaughter them secretly with machines?

Eat the sickly flesh of prepackaged frozen hamburger patties and remain docile and ignorant of chickens whose beaks are burned off and who live out jailed lives in tiny cages stacked like urban apartments then are killed by underpaid factory workers on an assembly line of mechanical knives? I prefer to see carcasses hanging flayed in a meat market and blood in the street. Mohammed explains that there are Islamic laws which dictate the proper way to kill animals—quickly, respectfully, while acknowledging the divine gifts of life, bodies, and food.

* * *

Arabic is rich with references to Allah. They hang in conversation like the calligraphic Koran texts which decorate homes and offices here. God is audible and ubiquitous: Insha’allah (god willing) is often included in any statement of future plans. The insha’allah factor allows for the possibility of unpredictable events, not the least of which are the effects of occupation. It implies an understanding that we are not the absolute masters of our own destiny. Ya’allah means ‘oh my god.’ Ham’dula’allah means ‘thanks be to god.’ This is often said after eating a meal, and when someone asks “How are you?” “Thanks to god, I am good, I am happy.” Or simply “Thanks to god.”

Mohammed once said, “For the good and for the bad, Ham dula’allah.” He is wise.

It is as easy to love a language in which hello and goodbye both contain wishes for peace as it is to admire the grace and passion of shebab who call each other habibi al haj. Habibi means someone you love, a term of endearment; haj is someone who has made a pilgrimage to Mecca; habibi al haj is something like sanctified friendship. The shebab gesture with an open hand to their hearts when greeting and sometimes carry Kalashnikov rifles. . . and far too often end up staring out from within the red, white and green borders of sha’hiid posters.

Sha’hiid means martyr, anyone, man, woman, child, fighter or ambulance driver or grandmother, who dies because of occupation. Sha’hiid posters show a photo of the deceased person. Often they are made by one of the Palestinian political factions, either because the dead belonged to that faction or because his or her family had no money to pay print costs or because the political parties use the dead to gain popularity or all of the above. These posters are pasted on walls all over town. They show men and boys of all ages. Although women become sha’hiida, few get posters.

Insha’allah there will be no new sha’hiid in Rafah tonight.


No word is more mistranslated, misused, misunderstood, and twisted out of context than jihad. American newspapers, magazines, radio and television programs translate jihad as ‘holy war’, as the Islamic equivalent of crusade. Using the term in this context perpetuates the popular fallacy that Islam is a religion or war, as Mohammed puts it “a religion spread by the sword.” Of course every religion has as many faces as it has believers, and Islam can present a Kalashnikov and human bomb face, just as Judaism can show an Uzi, armored home-demolishing bulldozer and invading tank face, and Christianity can grimace and growl nuclear missiles, apache helicopters, and F-16s. Nonetheless, the actual sacred text of these religions, all three of which are rooted in the land called Palestine and Israel, value peace over war.

A more accurate translation of jihad is ‘community service,’ not ‘holy war.’ Mohammed tells me it comes from a root word meaning ‘effort’ or ‘action.’ He explains, “If you find a stone blocking the road, and move it out of the way so people can pass, that is jihad. . . or if you help an old person to cross the street.” Jihad is action in service of Allah and the community. This action can take many forms, one of which is to defend or protect the community by fighting.


Later in Jenin I see more blood in the street. This time it is from a young man named Seshan, not a cow. Human blood and cow’s blood look exactly the same when flowing over pavement. Seshan was a high school senior, a football star, and a good student. Ironically, or appropriately, the name of his high school is Salaam school—the school of peace. He was not a fighter. I went to the traditional house of mourning held by his family: Arabic coffee, strong and black and cardamom scented, warmed in brass pots nestled in a charcoal brazier. People crying with quiet pride and sorrow. The family gave me a color photograph of his sha’hiid poster. “Our son is not a terrorist,” Seshan’s father said. His face in the photo is gentle, a student’s face. He wears a sweater with the letter A across the front. Fighters pose with guns, dressed up in paramilitary hero drag. They are proud to fight, and, in death, do not have to hide this.

Fighter sha’hiid are undoubtedly given the terrible gift of a warrior’s death. When you are prevented from visiting your grandmother by armed foreign soldiers although she lives only 5 miles from your doorstep, when your kid brother is crippled for life by machine gun fire from a tank parked on Main Street, when your family is evicted and your house demolished to make way for a wall of concrete and barbed wire guarded by snipers in armored towers, there is no doubt what you are fighting against.

Environment shapes human lives, and certain conditions support the armed resistance. All armed resistance is not the same. There are human bombers who go outside the Green Line into Israel and detonate in public places such as shopping malls, cafes, and on buses. Always these kill civilians. There are bombers who attack military installations. Others target settlements. There are fighters who operate within the West Bank and Gaza, shooting at tanks, planting mines, etc. No soldier of an occupying army on duty within an occupied land is a civilian. And the settlers who occupy houses on land so recently stolen from Palestinian villages and farmers, who are often heavily armed, what are they?

* * *

Doctor Khalil Suleyman, a respected and loved physician from Jenin who taught anatomy at a nearby university and worked with volunteers at the local Red Crescent Society (Arabic Red Cross), was incinerated in his ambulance in March 2002. The ambulance, clearly marked as such, with flashing red lights on top, siren and everything, rushed into an area of Jenin refugee camp occupied by Israeli soldiers during an invasion, attempting to rescue wounded people. An Israeli soldier fired a grenade from a launcher attached to an M-16 into the ambulance. The wrecked vehicle still sits in a field outside the Red Crescent building: a twisted, burnt, gutted, rusty mass of steel junk.

Seen from a nearby hilltop, Jenin refugee camp resembles a concrete doughnut. In the center of this densely populated ghetto is a field of bare dirt. Once it was packed thick with multi-story concrete block houses. . . then in April 2002 the Israeli army attacked with F-16s, Apache helicopters, tanks, armored bulldozers. Some fighters were in the ghetto. The army strategy was to destroy all the houses in the entire aree where the fighters were. The debris they left in their wake has since been cleared. Over 50 locals were killed in this attack, more wounded, over a thousand homeless. One bulldozer operator, who received an award for working 16 hours nonstop, commented in an interview: “They should thank me. Now they have a soccer field.”

Seshan was shot through the heart on the one year anniversary of Doctor Khalil’s death, when a tank and two jeeps rolled into Jenin. One of Seshan’s classmates said he spoke with Seshan 5 minutes before his death. Seshan was on his way to a private English lesson, carrying his books and his pen. He asked about an upcoming test.

*    *    *

Consider this apparent connection between sha’hiid and animal sacrifice: the death of cattle on Eid is celebrated because it feeds the people; the dead sha’hiid are honored with posters, ceremonies, and public funerals. Sha’hiid means martyr and martyr is someone who sacrifices his or her life for the Sacred—in this case manifested as Islam, community, Palestine. The majority in this society is deeply religious and Muslim. Thus Islam is a unifying force in the community. In desperate times, people naturally turn to the spiritual seeking reasons to live, because the mysteries of faith hold a hope that transcends physical suffering. This same faith can be attributed to an ideology, such as humanism, or socialism; in any case people commonly seek salvation in the belief that they are part of a larger whole, that their work in the world contributes to a continuous human story which expands beyond the narrow confines of individuality, birth, and death. Thus sha’hiid can be seen as people who sacrifice their lives for the sacred. This faith fulfills a human need vital as hunger; a meaningful death can feed the spirit of the people, showing them the courage to live and fight in the face of hopeless odds.

In Jenin camp, a young boy kissed a fighter sha’hiid poster. “What the hell kind of role model is this? Machismo posturing, posing with guns and ammo?” I thought, impressed and disturbed. Later I met some young men who are fighters. Their condition is simply tragic. For example, Ahkmed, who is in his early twenties. He is the nicest kid, always smiling, radiant in his knit hat and brown leather coat. Walking with Linus, a Swedish activist, I met him in the street. We shake hands and walk together to the internet cafe. Since he trusts us, he lifts his sweater to reveal a belt of shiny bullets. He jokes about how much the bullets could be sold for in Sweden. Linus says later, “He wants to die.” Chances are he will be dead or in jail within two years. It’s a damn shame, a waste of a young, healthy human being bursting with passion for life.

As an American, I am implicated in this bastard hybrid of war/police operation/colonization/genocide. The U.S. government supports and funds the Israeli military, and U.S. companies manufacture weapons used to enforce occupation. Without U.S. aid Israel could not maintain the occupation.

As an empathic human being, I understand what drives the fighters to fight and even the bombers to kill and die. But that same empathy makes it impossible to simplify reality into a good-guys-versus-bad-guys movie script. Membership in a certain ethnic, national, or religious group is no gauge of a human being’s inherent worth; the mistake of seeing people as categories rather than human lies at the root of racist practices such as the occupation of Palestine and slavery in the 19th century U.S. The condition of being Israeli or Jewish is no more reason for killing than is the condition of being American or Palestinian. Thus I seek to understand and to act, rather than to judge.

* * *

Seshan’s funeral is brief and dramatic. His body, wrapped in a Palestinian flag and wearing a kofia, is carried through the street in a public procession. There is no

coffin; the body rests on a stretcher, face visible to onlookers. Fighters shoot in the air. Children carry the black and yellow banners of Islamic Jihad, the green and white banners of Hamas, and the black and white banners of Al Aqsa Brigades.

The funeral procession takes off at a fast walk. The air is charged with residual violence, grief, fear, and anger. We stop once at a mosque for one half hour so people can go inside to pray. At the cemetery, the mood changes somewhat—people stand quiet, or recite prayers. Seshan’s funeral is a mixture of politics, militance, religion, and grief. The separation between the public, depersonalized space of political conflict and the private space for grief is always an illusion; this becomes obvious when fighters carry rifles, grade school kids wave Hamas flags, old men go into a mosque to pray, and a bereaved father cries under an olive tree, all at the funeral of a civilian student shot by foreign soldiers in a tank parked on main street.

In the U.S., laws mandate that corpses be embalmed. This is a toxic process in which the body is saturated with chemical sludge. For open-casket funerals the face of the dead is often painted to give it life-like flesh tones. Of course the companies which make embalming fluid and coffins are big business. In contrast, Seshan was shot, mourned, and buried within eight hours. Walking back from the funeral, I see that small footprint-sized blood stains remain on the street where he died.

* * *

In the Jewish/Christian/Islamic story wherein Ibrahim/Abraham is asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac, Ibrahim and Isaac both agree to the sacrifice. Mohammed, the nursing student and scholar from Rafah, interprets this to mean that they understand the transitory, earthbound nature of physical bodies. This is a lesson we learn and relearn every time someone close to us dies. Whether or not you are religious, to see the dead body of someone you know prompts the questions, “Where did the life which animated that person go? Is there something vital and enduring beyond physical matter and individual perception?”

Perhaps the ongoing evolution of the human species demands blood sacrifice. Perhaps there are lessons which we still must learn from killing and being killed.

All I ask is that the blunt reality of occupation specifically and globalization generally be exposed. Strive to understand those who are different from you, then chose your attitude toward them freely. Either consider them enemies and use your deeper understanding of them as ammunition to fight them, or work toward peace and reconciliation. But do not delude yourself with the ancient lie that you are human and they are inhuman.

* * *

At Seshan’s funeral, I sit next to a small boy who wears a bullet around his neck on a chain. He sings prayers in a sweet, melodic voice. Palm fronds lie, bleached by sun, between gravestones carved from Palestinian marble. Mint and flowers grow around

the graves. Bullets are like seashells or driftwood here, now: ubiquitous, an aspect of the local environment.

Jaysh Israeli

At a checkpoint, an Israeli soldier approached Tobias, Linus, and I. He holds an Israeli newspaper. He is burning with the need to explain why he is here in an armored personnel carrier at a road used daily by grade school children and teachers. Behind him, one kilometer distant, Abba school stands surrounded by the blue-green spires of juniper trees. He opens the paper to display a color centerfold of carnage caused by a recent bus bombing in Haifa. Egged intercity transit buses are often targeted by human bombers. They are a major form of transportation for soldiers, but are also public buses which civilians ride. Of course civilians who ride buses are often poor and working class, and the line between soldier and civilian blurs in a nation where military service is mandated by law.

The soldier at Abba road checkpoint lives in a settlement. He says it is his duty to be here to protect Israel. He claims that the children in Abba school will grow up to be suicide bombers, that they are being taught terrorism and hate in class. Some of the kids will grow up to be suicide bombers. Others will become doctors and barbers and moms; right now they are all children. When I tell him about 6 year old Ali who was shot in Rafah while on his way home from school, this soldier replies, “As soon as the cameras come on, they push the children out into the gunfire.”

His attitude is clearly racist, yet he is human. “The soldiers come here because of these photos,” he says, pointing at pictures of dismembered bodies in the newspaper. He’s right. Ethnocentric, sensationalist journalism brings soldiers here willingly and justifies their presence.

Israeli newspapers show pictures of Israelis killed by bombings. Palestinian newspapers show pictures of Palestinians killed by Israeli army invasions.

The People

Everyone is a victim of circumstance and everyone wants peace.

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