Eyewitness in the Holy Land - V

Fawzia Afzal-Khan travelled to occupied Palestine, seeing first-hand the beauty and tragedy of the people and their land

Eyewitness in the Holy Land - V
At Bir Zeit University, I conclude my intervention by performing a poem I’d written (and set to a music track by Talvin Singh) called “Billy Bush Sam-ton” which I’d published years ago in an anthology entitled Poets Against the War (after the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had first broken out post 9/11) — and which, especially in light of the morning trip to Jenin and the fact that I had finally made it to Ramallah, seemed apt to recite in this location, in its song title, “O-Sam-A”:

Billy Bush Sam-ton or “O-Sam-A”

Sam A
Uncle Sam 

he said Lie
through your tongue
baby its okay

you’re defending the
integrity of your
-ly Nation hood
hoodwinking but 

upholding the
Truth (of)

That’s why
its okay
to nukefry
those damn boys
in Af-ghan-is-tan
and Su-dan
and I-ran 

barbarian chauvinists
not like us oh no

Mein Kaun Hoon, mujhe jaan ley
Mujhe Jaan ley, pehchaan ley

[trans: who am I, get to know me, recognize me!]

Barbarian…flight IC 402
The flight to Jenin
The flight to Ramallah
Is ready for waterboarding
Please proceed to Gate 911

(By Fawzia Afzal-Khan, first published in Poets Against the War, ed. Sam Hamill, Nation Books, 2003).

The Q and A afterwards is lively and we all discuss the need to see connections and build progressive coalitions between our dispersed locations in the global south. Some enthusiastic students provide me with a list of new and upcoming musical artists and bands which I can now research to my heart’s content — and introduce in the next iteration of my course on Pop Culture of the Muslim World!

The Via Dolorosa, along which Christ was supposedly led to the site of his crucifixion

We bid au revoir to my friend AS as our other Palestinian friend takes over tour guide duties, ushering us into the university art museum, which she’d managed to get to stay open past its closing hours for us. There, we see a very moving exhibit of historical paintings by Samia Halaby on the Kafr Qasem massacre of 1956. And from there we make our way to meet yet another fabulous artist, the Palestinian-American dance choreographer Samar King, who lives and produces dance pieces of great beauty and intensity in Ramallah. After that meeting at a charming restaurant where we enjoy some cold beer and delicious zaatar-sprinkled fries, my colleagues return for a rest to our hotel before dinner, while I, on some crazy burst of energy, wandered into the adjoining cultural center where Mahmoud Darwish had kept an office (we’d gotten to see the lovely museum in his honour and the Arafat museum too, the day before). And it is there, that evening, that I stumble with great good fortune onto a jazz trio – a pianist, an oudh player and a drummer – who were giving a concert. What a sublime hour I spend, eyes closed, ears open, in a darkened room with flickering tea-lights on the floor lighting up the band members on a tiled surface, the percussionist making gorgeous rhythms on a variety of drums, keeping time with his left leg jangling to the tune of the ghungroos tied around his ankle. Music really is an oasis…
I felt so sad to learn that he was $100,000 in debt: due to the economic choking mechanisms practiced on Palestinians by the Israeli government


The next morning dawns quite hot and sultry, and as we speed off in a taxicab accompanied by our computer scientist Palestinian colleague, heading to our final destination of East Jerusalem, I can sense her uneasiness mounting right away as she keeps repeating how we need to avoid taking any photos as we approach checkpoints, even the perfunctory one on the settlers-only road that we were using to avoid having to wait for hours at the official Qalandia crossing. As we approached the entry point into Jerusalem, she told our writing instructor friend and myself to put on our dark glasses, saying, “We have to look like Western-style tourists to avoid suspicion.” We do as we were told, and thankfully, are waved past by the Israeli security guard. As we drive into the environs of East Jerusalem, our Palestinian friend starts pointing out the houses on the left that she referred to as “1948”, meaning those that were confiscated by Israel at the founding of the state; and those to the right which were what she designated as “1967” homes, taken from Palestinians after the crushing defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 war by the IDF. Compounding matters was evidence of the latest settlement road plan that was going into effect in Occupied East Jerusalem even as we were driving right through it.

Baba Farid reportedly stayed here in Jerusalem, when he visited from India around 1200 AD, soon after the Crusaders were driven out

According to an Al Jazeera report:

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with the Haifa-based Adalah legal centre, said that the map for the planned project indicates that the road will serve only Israelis and Israeli settlements.

The plan will wipe out all the roads that connect the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem together, turning the areas into islands that will be geographically and economically disconnected, making it difficult for Palestinians to access their schools and health centres, she told Al Jazeera.

Nabeel Basheer, another resident of Salaa, mentions in the same report how the ultimate Israeli goal of connecting its settlements also entails the demolition of Palestinian homes, which of course, the project plans do not mention.

Israel frequently uses home demolitions to control and punish Palestinians living under its occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Since 1967, when Israel occupied the Palestinian territories, at least 48,000 Palestinian homes and housing structures have been demolished.

The reasons that the Israeli state gives to the homeowners vary - from building without permits to punishment for an attack. 

(Source: Al Jazeera, “Palestinian homes to be demolished for settlments road”, 21 Feb. 2017)

A Palestinian man points to his home demolished by Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem

Already the bitter reality, as our friend underscores to us, is that after Oslo, only 25% of its total land has been left to the Palestinians, which this continued Israeli carving-up of cities like East Jerusalem is further removing from Palestinian ownership.

We pull up in front of a hidden gem called the Jerusalem Hotel run by an old friend of our friend, and we are charmed by its quaint, rustic feel, complete with an ornate wooden entrance door draped in green vines and a monastic interior that was delightfully cool after the heat outdoors. The garden cafe was very cool and shady and we sat and ordered some delicious fresh mint lemonade to cool off as we waited for the owner, Raed Saadeh, who turns out to be a gracious host and most charming and knowledgeable guide as he leads our little band by foot on what he calls an “alternative tour” of the old city. I felt so sad to learn that he was $100,000 in debt—a consequence of the economic choking mechanisms practiced on Palestinian Israelis with increasing efficiency and success by the Israeli government, in the hopes to get them to leave.

As we begin our walking tour on a day getting hotter by the second, he points out the famous Schmidt School across from his hotel where Hanan Ashrawi and other famous Palestinians went to school, and then as we cross over to the Suleiman Gate, he tells us a bit about the history of the city of Jerusalem which dates back to the 4th century BC and is thus one of the oldest cities in the world.
Baba Farid apparently spent his time here sweeping the floors around theAl Aqsa mosque

As we entered the old city through Herod’s gate, Raed looked at me and said, “See that building?” I smiled, noticing the plaque that read “Indian House” and then he proceeded to tell us that this had been a Zawwiya that came into being in memory of Baba Farid Ganjshakar of the Chishtia order of Sufis, who walked in to Jerusalem on a visit around the year 1200 all the way from India, shortly after Salah-ud-din (Saladin in the West) had forced the Crusader armies out of the city. Baba Farid apparently spent his time here sweeping the floors around the Al Aqsa mosque, from whence it is believed Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) made his ascent to Heaven on the winged steed, Al-Buraq. Strange to think of my ancestor Baba Farid here, all those centuries ago – I know my father’s side of the family claims we are his descendants.

And as we walked inside the old city lanes and byways, we noticed Israeli flags planted on buildings that, our friends explained, signal possession of homes of Palestinian residents by settlers who seize these properties if their residents leave even for a few days. Raed made sure to point out many other buildings and signs that announced the presence of Sufis in this city who flourished here during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras, when a more tolerant spirituality prevailed. We walked on the path known as the Via Dolorosa, along which are marked the stations of the Cross past which Jesus Christ is supposed to have hauled his wooden cross, all the way up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Rather irreverently, I kept expecting Mel Gibson to make an appearance and was thankful to finally reach the church where we entered with a throng of other tourists and worshippers to observe the spot where Jesus was believed to have been crucified; then descended to the spot where his battered body was supposedly laid to rest in a trough-like surface and where women old and young were now rubbing pieces of cloth and other objects as they bent their foreheads to the trough, kissing it, and looking much like Muslim worshippers performing the sajda.

From there, after catching our breath and gulping down bottles of ice-cold water that Raed procured for us, we proceeded to walk through yet more maze-like alleyways to the region of the Al-Aqsa mosque, running into surly-looking Israeli soldiers to whom Raed explained we were Muslims wishing to enter the mosque. We finally made it to the mosque entrance, where Raed and our male colleague had to wait outside as this was a Muslims-only entrance. We three women were grilled by the man guarding the entrance to recite some ayahs to prove we were indeed Muslims, then ordered to cover every stray hair on our heads and button up our clothing in such a way that not one millimeter of bare skin should be visible. I became quite visibly agitated by these commands but was told by our Palestinian friend to remember that the reason the man was behaving this way was a reaction to the instances when extremist Jews had made their way into the mosque and opened fire on worshippers. The sun beat down on us mercilessly as we huffed and puffed our way into the sanctuary of the ancient mosque, where it was all I could do to muster my will to pray to God. Could the divine have forsaken the Holy Land and its inhabitants a very long time ago? I wondered…

Israeli police detain a young Palestinian in East Jerusalem

The cab driver who Raed hires to drive us back to Ramallah after we’ve finished our walking tour of the city – and caught our breath in the welcome shade of his hotel’s garden patio, washing away the angry heat by downing cold drinks before getting in the cab – tells our colleague upon finding out he is from Britain: “It’s the British who are to blame for what you see around you here!” Our English friend smilingly accepts the verdict, upon which the cabbie throws him a bone: “Well, your Galloway is great…” referring to the progressive politician George Galloway, he continues, “His shoes are better than all the Palestinian and Arab leaders put together!” Like other Palestinians we’d met throughout our visit, our cab driver drives home his disgust of the Palestinian Authority leadership, spitting out, “The PA is there to do Israel’s dirty job – they are only interested in making money, they don’t care for their own people and indeed, they have been brought to power to kill the possibility of Palestinian independence/freedom.”

We are now approaching the Qalandia checkpoint, since all other roads are closed. The cabbie grins as we stay stuck in traffic for an awfully long time, observing the Palestinians without passes or access to Israeli number-plate cars (like us), having to get down from their vehicles as they try to make the crossing from the other side into Jerusalem and walk across a barbed wire tunnel on the road, guarded by white teenage Israelis in soldier uniforms, holding guns too big for their bodies, swaggering and laughing and slapping each other in the male sport of militarist bravado.

Sensing our exhaustion and ennui, our cabbie announces, “Because of what Britain did a 100 years ago, you all are suffering now because a 15 minute journey is taking you an hour and a half!”

Qalandia camp is full of poverty and crime as no one provides its residents even basic services, and Israelis turn a blind eye (encourage?) the proliferation and easy access to drugs in these areas designated as “C” areas due to their proximity to Israeli border. These areas are not under Palestinian jurisdiction either, therefore the PA does not provide any public services here either. It is basically like the Wild West we’re told—or maybe like the Black ghettoes of inner city America. The only encouraging sign in this desolate, depressing area is a sign we pass once the traffic starts to move, on a wall, advertising classes in Parkour and Capoeira—a sign that some strategies of physical resistance are present here.  Practicing ways to jump over walls: Amen to that!

Our final evening in Ramallah after we get back from Jerusalem, rest for a bit, shower and change, is spent enjoying dinner consisting of an incredible dish prepared fresh for us at a local restaurant. It’s called Makhloubeh—an upside-down one-dish meal made with eggplant, rice, onions and meat. Mouth-wateringly divine it was, and the local white wine we ordered to wash it down was cool and delicious. It was good to be able to unwind over a wonderful meal with each other after an amazing but trying day.

Indeed, one could use the same words to describe the entire trip. It was so important and amazing to have been able to get to historic Palestine, the cradle of the three great monotheistic faiths, to have been able to witness Israeli settler occupation and its effects up close and personal, to have spent time with amazing residents of the Occupied Territories and to see and feel their pain as well as witness their resilience. But it was also an emotionally overwhelming experience.

The drive out to the Jericho border the next morning with my two colleagues was nerve-wracking because of long delays and traffic jams due to the Nakba Day strike. Then once we finally arrived at the Jericho, facing the Israeli border authorities was tension-provoking as anything could go wrong at any minute, and the Gestapo-headquarters feel of the border office was palpable to all three of us. After we made it out without incident, and reached a hotel on the Dead Sea in Jordan where we decided to stop for coffee and breakfast before getting to the Amman airport to catch our respective flights, we all let out a collective sigh of relief at having made it out safely. The writing instructor captured our sentiments exactly; as she put it, “I’m glad I went; but I’m glad I’m out.”

We are the lucky ones. We can enter and exit Resident Evil. How do we defeat it, you ask? By becoming anamnesiacs in solidarity.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is Professor of English and Director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies Program at Montclair State University in NJ, USA