Eyewitness in the Holy Land - I

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 - I
“I don’t care if I have to rot in here for a 100 years, I would never stand up for that judge. They occupy us and then they dare to judge us.”

(From the play 603 by Imad Farajim)

“…I dream of my unborn children and they do not know my language….the wind has told me secrets: we will soon be the new Jews-wandering, hated, nostalgic nomads with anger and sadness in our prayers.”

(From the play Tennis in Nablus by Ismail Khalidi)

“Especially on television, where most Americans get their news, there has been little detailed reportage on conditions in the Israeli-occupied territories (indeed of the very fact that there is an Israeli occupation, maintained by violence)…”

(From The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2015), by Rashid Khalidi)

“The shadows on Palestinian stages remain most silent when they take voices apart to retell not only what is unbearable but what is possible—acts of justice.”

(From Natalie Handal’s Introduction to Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora, 2015, ed. by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi)

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
(Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

The occupation of Palestine by Israel maintained by ever-increasing violence, the attempt by Palestinians to snatch a bit of dignity in the midst of imprisonment by refusing to stand for judges who are themselves the perpetrators of injustice, other small acts of cultural and political resistance that help keep hope alive for some measure of justice to come in the supposed kingdom of God on earth: these thoughts, echoed in the quotes above, took on such an enduring visceral shape during my brief recent journey through occupied Ramallah, Jenin and East Jerusalem,  that I am having a hard time sitting down to pen this article I promised to write expeditiously for the Friday Times in Pakistan.

Driving along Israel's 'security barrier'

So I’ll begin by giving you a soft target of our shared cosmopolitanism: a nice, non-threatening symbol of globe-trotting coffee consumerism, the ubiquitous Starbucks, just outside Amman airport as we exited, and where I was dying to grab a coffee.But I couldn’t, as my Palestinian friend (with whom I was traveling to her parents’ home in Ramallah from Amman), was already beginning to exhibit “the anger and the sadness” of the “nostalgic nomad” that Ismail Khalidi’s character Yusef, fears will become the Palestinian zeitgeist of the future in his play Tennis in Nablus, as he awaits execution in the jail cell where the British have imprisoned him at the tail end of the failed Arab revolt in 1939. How quickly one crosses from Starbucks to Starvation—the latter condition both real and symbolic of the fate of the Palestinian people. And here I go, entering the last colonial settler state in the world where a Palestinian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike is entering its 36th day.

“We have to hurry, Fawzia”…pronouncing my name the Arab way-- which I quite like—my friend hustles me to a taxicab, impatiently reminding me (which she would repeat many times during the course of this journey)—that we could be detained for hours by the Israeli authorities on the other side of the Allenby Bridge (perhaps even refused entry). As the American blogger Salah writes—and she could have been speaking for me as I approached the Allenby Bridge crossing:

For myself, the Allenby Bridge crossing from Palestine to Jordan is a cultural experience, but for my Palestinian friends it is the sole entrance and exit from the West Bank to the rest of the world.  The crossing begins in Jericho, where one passes from the Palestinian to the Israeli border, and from the Israeli border to the Jordanian border.  This process can take anywhere from a few hours to all day long.

(Source- http://www.anothervoice.info/blog/2016/9/22/an-american-at-allenby-bridge-crossing )

Of course this “cultural experience” for those who are tourists, is actually a memorialization-another kind of nostalgia if you will-for the remnants of colonial power since the British general Edmund Allenby rebuilt the bridge in 1918 after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed along with the bridge the Ottomans had built, in 1885.  Post-colonial subjects of the British Empire such as myself, are of course, never quite as “post” as we’d like to imagine ourselves.
When I saw my friend being hustled out, and I was left in the grip of the Israelis, it took all of my acting skills to pretend to be calm

The border-crossing experience – which began calmly enough on the Jordanian side as we’d decided to pay $150 each to use the “VIP” service that my friend had been told would help us avoid the long and humiliating wait reserved for the poorer majority of Palestinian border crossers – turned scary in Jericho, where one passes from the Jordanian to the Israeli  border security in order to enter the Palestinian West Bank (yeah, that is what Occupation means: Palestinians can’t get into their own lands except by permission from Israeli authorities still steeped in the original settler myth popularized by Golda Meir: that Palestine was a land without people, ripe for the taking by a people—European Jews- who were a people without a land). My Palestinian friend was tense throughout the crossing, not knowing if and when and after how much humiliation and questioning she’d get to go home to her parents and siblings; and she kept warning me not to make eye contact with her, not to admit to the border guards that I knew her, to simply say I was traveling to Israel to give a lecture at a university there where I had gotten a progressive Israeli colleague of mine to write a letter of invitation claiming the same. Well, ironically,she got through fairly easily, but I was stopped. Our plan was that if one of us was detained, the other would wait for just a short while before departing via taxi for her parents’ home in Bir Zeit, and wait there for the other to follow whenever the latter got through. Of course, when I saw her being hustled out, and me left in the grips of the Israelis, it took all of my acting skills to pretend calm, and to refuse steadfastly to admit under questioning, that I knew her—I stubbornly insisted I had simply met her on the bus to Jericho. I’m sure they didn’t believe me--why would we have been on a bus given that we both had paid for a VIP “crossing” via taxi?

The good cop/bad cop routine that ensued thereafter was quite amusing—after the fact, ofcourse. The short, slight “good cop” female guard (they were all women, actually, and all save the “good” cop, unsmiling specimens of hostility)—who took me in to wait in the VIP lounge, kept asking me what I’d like to have, “khaffee? Bakklava? Cooookies? We bakh them fresh for you madam….” And so on. Me, I was texting—then erasing my texts in case they asked to look at my phone-- my Israeli friend, to tell him to expect a call from the Israeli authorities to verify that letter of invitation I’d handed them from him. I’d already taken the precaution of removing my FB app with all of my political posts many of them critical of Israel and pro-BDS--just in case they remanded my phone, which thankfully, they didn’t. After an hour and a half and much downing of bitter coffee that made me more jittery than I already was, a stern skinny woman in army fatigues pops in to the room and barking out my name, tells me to follow her. I’m taken into a small, windowless office at the back of the building, where she and another woman similarly attired talk to each other in Hebrew each time I answer a question. “Why are you here” “Who are you going to see” “Where exactly are you going” “Where will you be staying” “With whom?” “How long for?” “How many people will attend this lecture” “are you being paid” And then, pointing to the letter of invitation from the Israeli professor, the main officer sitting at the computer where she had been inputting my answers, proclaims triumphantly, “but this letter does not state the date and time of the lecture, so…” Before she can say another word I volunteer hastily that it’s an informal gathering of students in my friend’s class and therefore it will happen on one of the days that suits him once I get there, with no public audience (no need to fear!)-- and that for sure, I am not getting paid, as it’s a pro bono talk I’m giving on the innocuous topic of…performance.  I don’t add, “And this performance of power you’re enacting will be part of that lecture!”

The author (left) with Palestinian activists

The guard seems to have run out of objections but then as a last hurrah, demands to know why I go to Pakistan so often. “I’m born there!” I answer, to which she replies condescendingly, “Yes. I know that.” Why is she asking me then, I wonder? I smile with as much obsequiousness as I can muster, “My mother is getting old and stays unwell, so I must do my daughterly duty…I’m sure you can understand.” My naked appeal to filial duty is met with a cold “you can leave now, you’ll get your entry permit”—and she waves me out before I can complete my request for her not to stamp my passport---“I know” she spits out quite angrily. Yes, they all do know that their country is a moral blot upon the collective conscience of the world—maybe that is the source of their hostility and unease?  No visitor wants a stamp from them that will prevent them from entering other countries in the world, most of which, despite doing business with Israel, do not want to be seen publicly as accepting of its ongoing illegitimate occupation and torture of Palestinian lands and people. I wouldn’t be too happy either letting in tourists who need to pretend they’ve never been to my country, who, whether they know or want to or even acknowledge it, will witness the horror, the horror…

The taxicab ride takes me past small olive trees and the Al Ghaur valley area with limestone hills and sparse vegetation dotting the brown hillsides, through the towns and hamlets of Jericho, Silwad, Yabroud (this latter a Muslim village with a simple minaret of a mosque rising gracefully from a center point), down to the Dead Sea, then up and down hill terraces planted with crops- so, I breathe in, this is Palestine. It really is beautiful, as my friend had claimed. We pass by a guy in red pantaloons and waistcoast jacket wearing a fez with a hookah-type tube wrapped around him, and was told by my cabbie that the man was selling kharoub, a popular summer drink made from a sweet black plant also known as carob. Definitely made me thirsty—even though, especially as we climbed up to Bir Zeit, the temperature became quite lovely with a cool breeze blowing down from the surrounding hills. Just as I was beginning to relax and enjoy the natural beauty, I was reminded of the abnormality of the place I was in; a car carrying four young men came careening past, their faces hardened into what could only be described as a mixture of ennui and anger. Shades of L’etranger

A Palestinian lunch

My friend’s parents’ home was a lovely ramshackle two storey stone house, every inch of the living room walls filled with photo frames of children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and  built of the same kind of yellow limestone as many of the houses in Lebanon—indeed, much about the Palestinian countryside reminded me of the beauty of that Levantine country. They were all relieved to see me—my friend and her brother in law had been frantically calling and texting me throughout my journey, trying to ensure I was safe and guiding the driver who spoke little English as to where to bring me exactly. He had not looked pleased when I informed him I was going to Bir Zeit instead of Tel Aviv; in fact, I’d been rather frightened he would call up and report me to the border authorities as having lied about my intended whereabouts, and that they would then get him to turn around and bring me back to be ejected unceremoniously out of the land that wasn’t theirs!

Spending that afternoon and evening with my friend’s family—her parents, her 5 sisters, all of them accomplished career women in different fields--bonding over a delicious meal of grape leaves and roast chicken (her mother had rolled and stuffed over a 100 grape leaves and baby zucchinis in anticipation of her daughter’s return, standing for hours on her legs shot through with varicose veins, preparing her daughter’s favorite meal)—singing songs, me in Punjabi, her mother and sisters singing some Umm Kulsoum (at my request) and their own favorite Palestinian songs—followed by a squealing grabfest of clothes and shoes that my friend had brought back for her family in her two overstuffed suitcases—all of it was just a wonderful induction into the famed Palestinian hospitality and love; I was in the presence of something great—a healthy self-love in the face of systematic and enduring oppression. Grace under pressure it certainly was—given a new meaning when my friend took me up to the roof and pointed out, on the one hand, her mother’s blossoming vegetable and herb garden, and on the other, Israeli settlements dotting all the hilltops that surround Bir Zeit township. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up at night at 2 am with an Israeli holding a gun to your forehead?” she asked me at one point, her voice quiet. “That’s the reality we live with everyday and every night as the settlers come and confiscate our lands, steal our homes, eject us from our beds.” While I struggled with how to respond, she shrugged, and pointed out the beauty of the setting sun…”come, let’s take you to your hotel in Ramallah, and on the way, I must point out the beautiful Palestine History museum that’s recently been completed near the university. See…” pointing in the distance behind some trees…”there it is” and turning to me she asks, “Didn’t I tell you my country was so beautiful?  Don’t you agree?” and smiling and hugging, we descend the stairs, to see her mother modeling gleefully yet another of the elegant skirts and blouses the successful computer science professor daughter has brought home for her.