“Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine”, by bidisha
Author and broadcaster
“To get back into Palestine, we go through hell,” said Ashtar theatre’s artistic director Iman Aoun last Friday at a talk at the Globe theatre in London, following Ashtar’s staging of Shakespeare’s history play Richard II in Arabic.
In April 2011 I toured the West Bank for the first time, as a reporter, with the Palestine Festival of Literature.
My book Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine is a result of that trip. The impressions, conclusions and analyses took several months to crystallise in my mind – an indication of just how strong an effect this experience of travelling through an occupied territory was.
When I began making my notes on the first day of the festival I promised myself that I would simply record what I saw in front of me, memorising details and conversations, with no editorialisation, no polemics, no persuasion, no patronage, no weepy poeticism or literary activism on my part.
The episodes would speak for themselves, in stinging detail and prickling, damning clarity. I kept the book as short and slicing as I could: a first-hand tour through an occupation.
Beyond the Wall comes out next week, a year after my trip – but the Ashtar theatre event was the first time since the trip that I was able to speak in person to Palestinians about their lives, their work, the occupation and the observations and conclusions of my book.
Given their blessing, I hope the book becomes part of the increasing international understanding of the effects of the military occupation.
As for those effects, “We get used to them. We learn to live with them,” said one of the Palestinian actors. “But why should we have to?”
During my trip, I was struck by the perversity and sadism of the occupation, often expressed in the pettiest of ways by soldiers who were barely twenty years old. They did not talk to us, they screamed.
They did not look at us, they scowled. Amongst themselves, they slunk about and laughed and flirted sloppily. The occupation has brutalised and unnaturally twisted everyone who is involved with it, survivors, victims and perpetrators alike.
Its violence is demonstrated in a baseness of behaviour whose effects are the most disturbing when observed in the very young. I spoke to an international activist who told me about the delaying, by soldiers at checkpoints, of tiny children of five and six trying to get to school in the mornings.
The children rise at 6am to get through a checkpoint and be in class by 8am. Many do not make it in time and instead have to sit on the ground, open their schoolbooks and have their lessons there and then, in the sand-coloured dust.
As I spoke to and about ever younger people I saw how cycles of abuse, frustration, anger, hatred, ignorance and despair are perpetrated, interconnected and perpetuated.
I was haunted for months afterwards by the sense of powerlessness, of hostile randomness, of being hemmed in and then having one’s heart ripped out.
I do not mean this emotionally but literally: the settlements draw ever closer and in some places like Hebron are in the middle of the city, house demolitions and occupations happen at any time.
The billion-dollar wall (paid for in part by international donations) is nearing completion and bites into ever more land, separating families from olive groves they have owned and worked for generations (or simply uprooting the olive trees).
Checkpoints, bypass roads, diversions and closures mean that hours of time open up between cities that in any other country would simply be considered conurbations of each other.
Towards the end of the book, considering the complex perversity of the occupation, marvelling at its depth and subtlety in instilling psychological terror, I write the following:
“How do you subjugate a people? By nihilism, chaos and anarchy in the name of control. You do it by sabotaging their certainty, by toying capriciously with their presumptions, by continually tilting the playing field, moving the goalposts, reversing decisions, twisting definitions, warping parameters.
“You control where people can and can’t go, then change the rules arbitrarily so that they cannot make plans or have any stable expectations. You give a permit to one person but deny one to another person who’s in exactly the same circumstances, so that people cannot deduce, conjecture or extrapolate based on an individual’s experience.
“You make them feel that their house is not their home and can be violated, occupied, demolished or taken at any time, so they cannot fully relax even in their own beds. You isolate them and put a wall where their view used to be.
“You instigate a faux ‘system’ of permits, which is deliberately obscure and can be changed at any time. You shout at them in a language that is not their own and which they do not understand.
“You monitor them. When they travel you put your hands all over their possessions. You arrest and question anyone for any reason at any time, or threaten to, so they are always in fear of it. You are armed. You intimidate their children.
“You change the appearance of their cities and ensure that the new, alien elements—the walls, roads, settlements, sides of walkways, gates, tanks, surveillance towers, concrete blocks—are much bigger than them or on higher ground so that they feel diminished and watched.
“You make everything ugly so that seeing is painful. Their [Palestinians’] consolation is that if they die, they euphemism ‘martyr’ will conceal the ignominy.”
I had gone into Palestine with real wariness. I am not a Muslim or an Arab, was not an activist on ‘the issue’ of Israel and Palestine and had witnessed too many debates in print and in person in Britain descending into racism and Islamophobia on one side and anti-Semitism on the other side – indeed I report an anti-Semitic comment made at Nazareth in my book.
I am critical of the colonial-flavoured patronage and bleeding-heart condescension I have witnessed among some Western international activist-writers who visit foreign countries and different cultures to ‘help out’ or ‘shine a light’, their interpretations shot through with simplification, stereotypes, smugness, ego, assumptions or ignorance.
I was wary of the glamour of war zones, the knowledge that being a war reporter is the latest hot job – when the homegrown Palestinian peace activist movements is already extremely motivated, vocal, organised and passionate, yet attracts relatively little international coverage. I didn’t want to cover physical or theoretical turf that is not my own.
What I’ve produced, instead, is a short, razor-edged portrait of military occupation, covering as many cities as I could.
We were scheduled to visit Jenin but in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of the Jenin Freedom Theatre’s founder, Israeli-Arab director Juliano Mer-Khamis, it was too raw a situation.
The assassination was a tragedy but not a shock: just another day in the West Bank in the Palestinian Occupied Territories.
Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine is published on 15th May 2012 by Seagull/Chicago University Press.