In Search of Shared Humanity

Our journey to Palestine began with the construction of a tissue of lies strong enough to get us across the border.

In the shared taxi from Amman, my colleague and I had exchanged pleasantries with a statuesque Palestinian woman dressed in a smart red and black jacket, a touch of Parisian style about her. She’d asked us: “What are you going to tell them when they ask you where you are going?” Practised travellers, we had both brought all the paperwork we thought might be needed to visit our colleagues at the university in Ramallah: proof of our status as academics and the comparative research programme that brought us to Palestine. But, she said, all this was not going to get us anywhere. If anything, we were stuck with evidence that might cause us to be turned away.

“So what are you going to tell them? What are you going to say?” she demanded. She threw back her head and roared with laughter when my colleague trotted out the kind of speech we might give. “No, no, that will never do. You’ll never make it if you say that.” She took a black plastic bag out from under her feet, and handed us both a tangerine. “Take this,” she said, “and now I’ll tell you what you must say.”

The best bet, she ventured, as the vehicle raced us along the dusty road towards the border, was to pose as pilgrims. We would be Christians, visiting the Holy Land. The idea stuck in my throat for a few minutes before I swallowed it. We’d heard the story of the British academic invited to Birzeit University to give a lecture, the one who had said that she would not lower herself to plying the border police with fanciful stories of pilgrimage. She would tell them the truth, she insisted: that she, a British academic, was going to visit her Palestinian academic colleagues. She had reached the border, told her truth and was interrogated for three and a half hours. And then she was sent back.

Our fellow traveller continued with her advice. “Don’t give them any information. Answer with as little as you can. Don’t tell that them you have any connection with anyone from Palestine. Don’t tell them anything about why you are visiting. If they keep on questioning you, keep on telling them nothing.” She paused, and gave us a reassuring smile. “You will be OK, you just need to keep smiling – and keep telling them as little as you possibly can.” We rehearsed fragments of our story, halting, paring back the narrative to keep it as minimal as possible. Admonished for my tendency to embellish, I resolved to follow my colleague’s lead.

As we reached the Jordanian border, our new friend and her daughter bade their farewells. “You get out here,” she said, “and that’s where you must go to get your stamp, then there’s a bus to take you across the bridge.”

“You’re not coming with us?” I asked.

“No, we have to cross in another place,” she said. Her daughter was quick to add: “Yes, they like to make us cross there so we can be abused and humiliated out of sight of the foreigners.”

In a flash, they were gone.

By the time we emerged from the Jordanian border post, night had fallen. We were enveloped in an eerie quiet. A smell of dust and a faint, beguiling trace of a desert flower lingered in the air. We waited, nerves rising. After a while, a huge bus appeared as if out of nowhere, reversing towards us and screeching to a halt outside the border post. We clambered aboard and waited a while to see if any other passengers might join us. As the empty bus rattled across the narrow strip of land between the countries, we sat in silence. Anticipating what we might encounter at the other end, I tried to remember the last time I’d felt nervous about presenting myself at a border. I have become used to going where I please; I travel out of my country, and leave my home, expecting to come back to it. Palestinians have no such security.

There is something about this that I find almost unimaginable.

The look in the eyes of the twenty-something year old soldier as she snatched my passport and began to fire a volley of questions at me was one that I remember seeing before. It was a dusty, distant memory, one that wasn’t prompted by any other sign of familiarity. I’d spent nine months in Israel before going to university, in a year when thousands of refugees were massacred and Lebanon was bombarded while the world looked on.

Nothing looked the same after my time in this country. Nothing could ever erase from my mind the injustices I’d witnessed so often they’d become part of the fabric of everyday life. The faces and voices of the Israeli children I’d worked with as a teacher and care worker came to haunt me. I’d see them harden as they began to talk about their Arab neighbours. My eyes would fill with useless tears; there was something visceral about the shock of seeing what bringing up children in an environment of fear and hate can do to their capacity to empathise, to think of themselves as sharing their humanity with others. I never quite learnt to switch myself off, to harden myself to these storms of emotion. I can still find myself in tears at the very thought of the generations of children who have grown up feeling these feelings, thinking these thoughts. Children whose minds are so set, whose hearts are so closed.

Snatched back into the present, I found myself gazing into the unflinching glare of eyes that I couldn’t help but see as the result of the kind of training I’d seen these children experience: chanting Zionist slogans and songs, surrounded by talk of “the Arabs driving us into the sea”, the feeling that the world was out to get you and that what you needed to do was to repulse them by asserting your presence.

I sparkled a smile, trying to engage her. Her eyes pierced a hole in me. No smiles to exchange. She barked her question. I mumbled my script, feeling the bile rising as I lied. She raised her stamp. Was it to be this easy, this quick? I asked for the stamp to be put on a piece of paper, not wanting to have the evidence of passing through this border leave its mark on my passport. “I need a reason”, she demanded. Could I give her my reason? No. I smiled and lied again. I mumbled about my plans for a holiday in North Africa. Where? Morocco. The soldier beside her said, “but Morocco has no problem with us”. I began reeling off names, willing them to give me the stamp on a piece of paper. Her lips curled into a snarl. “So I am stamping your passport because you can’t give me a good reason.” “Algeria,” I said again, “I am going on holiday to Algeria. And in any case,” and I gestured to my colleague, who had secured her piece of paper, “your colleague has given my friend a piece of paper, so why can’t I have one too? We’re together.”

It wasn’t too long before we were joined by our Palestinian fellow travellers, but not before we had sat for a while watching people board a bus for Jericho, disconsolate and silent as they filed away from the border. The daughter was bubbling with indignation. “It’s four years since I’ve been here, so I’m not as frustrated as everyone else and it shows,” she said. “It was so easy for me. Not for everyone else.”

It turned out that she’d got through very quickly, exchanging friendly greetings with the border official and sailing through without any questions. Her mother was not so lucky. Shouted at by the border official and told to “get away,” it was only when her daughter came over to help her out that the official relented and let her through. What every Palestinian fears is being refused the right to return, being turned away from the country that is yours. The daughter laughed, “I said to her, ‘you remind me of a friend of mine, you look just like her’, and I smiled at her and there it was, she stopped being like that.” She went on, “I didn’t tell her that the one she looks like isn’t my friend, but my maid. She looks like my maid.”

We continued our journey together. The route from the border took us along winding roads, avoiding the checkpoints where we might be challenged as to the purpose of our visit. The gentle purr of the sleek black car carried us ever deeper into the night, into Palestine. In the back of the car, our host narrated a history of the present. Pieces of it are familiar; I’m struck by how much I remember from lessons more than thirty years ago. An image pops into my mind, of a white man with a moustache – a picture we’d had in our history book of Lord Balfour, Britain’s foreign secretary in the last year of the First World War. I’d been so struck by the treachery of his promises that his face was etched on my memory. My colleague’s history lesson is gentler, more nuanced, an account of shifting conjunctures. And yet the legacy of British duplicity still shines through as brightly as it did when my history class pieced together the tale of the making of Israel.

Flickering red lights over the hillsides as we enter the more populated areas of the West Bank are a constant reminder of Israel’s encroachment on Palestine’s land. There are now some 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Many of this number are relatively recent occupiers of settlements established in violation of international law. We hear of free tours offered to Jews in the US and Europe to entice them to join the influx of new settlers as “birthrighters”. Those illegal settlers who have come in the most recent wave of settlements have shown themselves, we’re told, to be the most brutal.

The stealth of the Israeli state’s appropriation of Palestinian land is as shocking as the most overt land grab. They operate through a series of steps of dispossession. First it is no to farming certain crops, no to doing certain things with the land. One more step and the state annexes land that has been in Palestinian families for generations. And in the next step the state grants it to the settlers. “The settlements begin at the top of the hill, and they build out from there. And before you know it, you have a settlement on your doorstep”, a Palestinian we met the next day told us. And she talked of how she wakes up every morning, looks out of her window, and watches, in impotent wrath, as the ring of settlements around Ramallah inch closer and closer. There’s a feeling of being hemmed in, that they will steal so close that the next thing you know, they’ll have taken your house, your land, and there will be nowhere that is home any more.

Those employed in the burgeoning construction industry generated by the illegal settlements are more likely than not to be Palestinians desperate for jobs in a depressed economy. We were told of activist attempts to bring home the ironies of Palestinian involvement in the construction of settlements to these workers, leafleting Palestinian workers in the settlements. The sad truth, she said, is that with so few opportunities for livelihood in occupied Palestine, it is difficult for construction workers to let their consciences decide whom to work for. They need the money. And the illegal settlers make a good living from produce that comes to supermarkets simply marked “West Bank”.

When the wall looms out of the darkness as we speed towards Ramallah, it comes as a shock. Not that I didn’t know it was there. Nor that I hadn’t seen pictures. But the scene is something I wasn’t quite expecting. A row of faceless concrete watchtowers comes into view. In the middle, we are told, is the door through which people squeeze their bodies into Israel – a door constructed to be so narrow that those with a few extra pounds have to edge their way through. No opportunity for humiliation seems to be lost on the Israeli occupiers. The wall stretches ahead, in fragments at first, and then as a continuous barrier around which people continue to have to live their lives. “It’s got easier for us in some ways since they put that up,” comments the daughter. “Now they don’t bother with us.” Except, of course, when they send in the army. Later, passing the roundabout in the centre of Ramallah, we see the bullet holes that are evidence of Israeli forays into the heart of the city to quash Palestinian protest.

The road takes us up and away from the wall, into the heart of Palestine, and to the seat of the Palestinian authority. Ramallah, the place sustained by the foreign money that has serviced the post-Oslo economy. The city that many regard as the most vibrant, the most viable, in a land scarred by the impact of occupation. Other cities to the north are shadows of what they were, their youth without jobs or hope, their elders clinging onto the last vestiges of a life that has been cruelly grabbed from them. “There’s nothing – nothing to live for, nothing to hope for, nothing but despair,” a young woman from Jenin told me, narrating the story of how the Israelis had murdered most of her relatives, and how her ageing parents refused to leave, to give up their land, and their hope.

Suddenly we’ve arrived. We are greeted at the door with a shower of hugs and kisses, and quickly ushered inside. Within minutes, our host has covered the table with little bowls of olives from her garden – she insists on taking us to admire its abundance there and then – aubergine stuffed with walnuts from the tree outside her door, thyme and roasted sesame to dip our bread into, a bowl of fragrant olive oil, soft cheese. We eat and tell stories. She springs up from time to time, pouring olives into a jar for us to take with us, opening the fridge to pull out other delicacies for us to try, running to the garden to get lemon leaves to pack the chilli that we must take home with us. Her generosity of spirit leaves us feeling restored after the chill of that look on the border guard’s face, the flashing red lights of settlements, the wall.

It’s there that I begin to feel the extraordinary power of the people we meet over the next few days: a power that comes from resistance to the kind of oppression that it is barely even possible for me to imagine. I struggle with the thought that someone who is a citizen of a country can find, if they leave their country even if only for a little while, that they may not be ever allowed back, their homes and their claims to home removed by a predatory state. And that land that has been in a family for generations can simply be annexed and given to foreigners. It doesn’t seem right that an unjust state with the might to impose their sense of entitlement can do this with such impunity while the world looks on. Yet they do.

Israel’s supporters deploy talk of ‘balance’ to shrug off the horrors of the occupation; their staunch defence of Israel’s actions belies any sense of a humanity that might be extended to those whose land and livelihoods have been so cruelly appropriated. There’s something chilling about all that looking away, the reluctance to even countenance the scale of suffering – even when the waves of destruction come crashing down on Gaza, in the full glare of the world, murdering children, crushing hospitals and schools, with ruthless precision and wilful error. I wonder: what would it take to remind those who choose silence over indignation that the humanity we share is all the hope we have in this world?

The next morning, I’m waiting in the foyer of the hotel. I chat with the concierge, passing time, about that most British of subjects: the weather. The rain is falling outside, and I comment about having left rain behind in London. He replies, with a doleful look, “even when it rains, the Israelis take our water.” I don’t know what to say. So I smile. Then I avert my eyes, staring at that rain. I remember something someone had told me, that the Israelis ban the Palestinians from sinking wells of more than a certain depth, so they can drain the ground water for themselves.

Soon enough, our host arrives. Full of warmth and energy, she whisks us off for the day. On arrival, we take our seats by the heater in the kitchen of the institute where she works. Sipping cups of tea with sage, remedy for the colds that circulate at this time of year, we talk about what it means to carry out research in a context like this. Our conversations are unrelentingly political; it is almost impossible to imagine a conversation about anything in this setting that is not tinged with the politics of everyday life, the all-pervading presence of the occupation. A national survey was delayed because the Israelis had intensified their roadblocks, making coverage of the terrain of the West Bank more difficult. The team from Ramallah had refused to work in Gaza. The open wound of the split between Gaza and the West Bank made leaving Gaza out unthinkable, and so other researchers had to be found, other possibilities pursued. Another survey, a questionnaire with more than a hundred questions about everyday life, had ground to a halt when those being surveyed simply refused to fill it in. It seemed it wasn’t just about time. It was also about energy; perhaps even about the cost of too much introspection at a time when there was too much else to be thinking about. Even the researcher who designed the survey had found herself wondering whether it was worth asking questions like these when it was so evident what was really needed: Justice.

They are curious to hear about our experiences at the border, our impressions of what we are seeing. I narrate the tale of the border official, and how haunted I felt by what I saw in her eyes. “They love to leave traces on your psyche,” says one. “I have this hatred in me that I don’t want,” says another. We talk of the costs of regarding the Israelis as inhuman, despite the inhumanity of what they are doing to the Palestinians, corralling them behind the wall and gradually encroaching on them as if to erase them completely. “I can’t deny them their humanity, as it would mean denying mine,” one of the women observes, and a silence comes over us all.

Our conversations over lunch reveal more about the everyday effects of the occupation. But they are punctuated by laughter, and by the pleasures of barbequed chicken with a thyme, garlic and lemon marinade, and rice fragrant with cinnamon. Our discussions hum, the excited chatter full of lively energy. And yet every track, every trace, takes us back to the occupation. To call it pervasive is not strong enough: it is the context here, and it’s so much part of the lived reality of the people we’re talking, laughing, joking with that it touches every single dimension of their lives. Sudden squalls of emotion overcome us. It is at times too much to bear, too raw. For our hosts, living this, it is so much part of their world it is inevitably part of every scene they paint, every step they take. For us the harshness of this reality comes as a raucous jolt. It’s not that we didn’t know. But we really didn’t know. And we can’t ever really know what it feels like. All we can do is open ourselves up to whatever we can absorb.

As darkness descends, we drive into town and wander around the market in the damp evening cold. Lingering in a grocery shop, we’re pressed to sample a succession of succulent dried fruits. We become more rapturous with each burst of flavour. Olives from a stall at the roadside – the very best, our host urges us, we must buy them – oranges from a barrow, herbs, spices and more and more spices until we’re weighed down with so much food we laugh and contemplate buying another suitcase, just so that we can bring even more of the taste, texture and smell of the place back with us. I think again of the occupation, of what it means to live in a place where your movements are so constrained, where those winking red lights on the hilltop edge ever closer, bringing with them the claustrophobia of containment. But I also think of the twinkle in the shopkeeper’s eye when he spots my expression after sampling one of his dates, of the dust of spices yellowing the pate of the man in the shop where we’d stocked up earlier, of the pleasures anticipated each time we stopped to purchase another treat. Even in the gloomy cold of a winter’s night, there’s so much to warm the spirit.

Later on, in one of the many restaurants in town, we drink mint tea and local Palestinian wine, and talk politics again. About the boycott. About the current political situation. About resistance, and how it can create so much energy, good energy. About solidarity, about what it takes to work together in a context so fractious and so polarised. About the one state solution, the two state solution. About Obama and Blair, our disappointments.

The next day we prepare to travel back to Amman. Transport is arranged. Calls are made to find out whether the Israelis are giving those leaving via the Allenby Bridge as much trouble as those leaving via Tel Aviv airport. Tales are told of people being searched and questioned on their way out. Thinking about our luggage full of jars of home-made olives, chilli and stuffed aubergine, bags of thyme and sumac, our host laughs: “if they search you, they would know where you’ve been. This is such typical Palestinian food.” And then she grows serious. “They will know you’ve been in a Palestinian’s home. Then they will start trying to get names and addresses from you. It is better that you go via the bridge than via the airport. They will search through everything and ask a lot of questions at the airport.”

Before we leave, we are urged us to visit the ethnographic museum on campus. The exhibition is redolent with the historical injury done to the Palestinian people. Part of the space is dedicated to an exhibit of photos and artefacts from the home of a nineteenth century Palestinian middle class family living in Jerusalem. The official documents of the patriarch, dating from the Ottoman era and the time of the British Mandate, underscore the antiquity of Palestinian home in this disputed city. The opulence of the Jerusalem residence sits in stark contrast to the lives depicted in the other two exhibits. One is a series of photographs – street scenes, shot through the narrow gaps between haphazard breeze-block and concrete structures – from one of the many refugee camps in which Palestinians had been housed when they were expelled from their land in 1948: structures that remain, never quite gaining permanence, but attracting some of its trappings over the years. The narrative accompanying the photos tells of families allocated plots of 2 by 3 metres, of the cramped conditions, of what it feels like to grow up in a place that was never supposed to be a permanent home.

Next to the photos is a video installation with a loop showing a container parked at a petrol station. We’re invited into a scene of the mundanities of everyday life as viewed through a camera trained on the outside of the container and the two young Palestinian men who live there. Nothing much happens. There’s something as brutal about these scenes of non-action as I watch it as the other scenes that run through my imagination of these kinds of men, these kinds of streets, scenes of Palestine as a battle zone familiar from the TV screen.

With these images in our minds, we begin our return to Amman. In the end, our journey was so uneventful that we were almost pinching ourselves in disbelief when we stood on the other side of the Israeli border a couple of hours later. Israel is the only country I’ve ever visited that charges foreigners to leave rather than to enter. But, as a Palestinian colleague remarks, it’s different for the Palestinians. What Israel really wants, she tells us, is for them all to leave, for there to be none of them left any more. And there’s a sense that slowly, slowly, by stealth as much as by overt brutality, the Israelis are getting their way.

Visits by people like us not only bear witness, but also affirm Palestine’s continued existence. It’s journeys like these that can help reassert our shared humanity in the face of such brutal disregard, smuggling out images that contest the rhetoric of rockets and insist on placing people back into the picture: people like us, people like them, people like the Israelis whose humanity my Palestinian colleagues were so swift to affirm lest theirs too disappears.

As we speed away from the border my heart is full, heavy with an unbearable sadness. But what’s left in me is something that no-one can search for and take away: the glowing trace of the extraordinary courage of the Palestinian people, sweet as those fat, juicy dates, and as uplifting as the delicate scent of orange blossom in the gardens and groves that have not yet been stolen from them. We owe it to our shared humanity not to look away, and to do all we can to hold the Israeli state to account for its crimes against that humanity.




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