I had done some reading before I came to the West Bank. Not the latest UN or Amnesty report. I read Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (2000), which threw me into enjoyable melancholy, and Suad Amiry’s Sharon and my Mother-in-Law (2005), which made me laugh through my anger. Barghouti’s book was translated by Ahdaf Soueif, with a foreword by Edward Said. Three great writers, in 182 pages, bought in Luxor for forty five Egyptian pounds.
If Barghouti’s book is a work of exile, Amiry’s is an expression of restriction, impediment and containment. I can’t think of any better preparation I might have made for my journey. Barghouti is a poet who writes lyrically about his family living as refugees in Jordan and Egypt. He illuminates the mental and physical demands on Palestinian refugees who attempt to obtain permits to visit the old homes in the mountainous villages or towns of the West Bank. His journey home is a poem in itself: strong, moving, pulsing with its own beat even as it engages with other, external influences. Barghouti’s journey resurrects what’s gone, holds conversations with ghosts, and celebrates what remains in blood, memory or stone.
Suad Amiry is one sassy lady and it comes across in her writing. She is an architect, a 1967 refugee who returned to the West Bank to work in Birzeit University. Her book gives accounts of the day-to-day minutiae and the vicissitudes of life in the Occupied Territories. Hers is a different poem: full of dots and dashes, of images that appear and disappear – like a shadow breaking curfew on a moonless night. She also describes the longuers, of which there are many when one is under curfew, yet the narrative never drags.
The frustrations of occupation, curfew, siege and shelling are bundled up in an intense book shot through with domesticity and daily pre-occupations. When is the best time to do the shopping? Who is out of the house and where are they now that shelling has started again? How on earth do you reach a mother-in-law who lives close to Yasser Arafat, while the Israelis are bombarding his compound? What do you do when your dog ends up with a permit to enter Jerusalem and you haven’t been able to get one for years? The last question was resolved by Amiry deciding to put dog in the passenger seat and take a trip around Jerusalem. She showed the dog’s permit at a checkpoint and said she was the dog’s driver. The IDF soldier either had a sense of humour, or thought she was too mad to do any lasting damage to the population of the holy city.
I drank in these narratives like sweet Arab tea. Theirs were the emotion-infused perspectives I carried with me as we passed through yet another checkpoint on our way to Ramallah. We were on a Palestinian bus and couldn’t use the settlers’ roads, so it took longer than expected to get there. The first stop was Arafat’s mausoleum at Al Muqata’a. A double-height limestone and glass box reposes at the end of a wide, stone-flagged ramp. Three large Palestinian flags fly high on tall poles. We paused for the republicanistas among us to unfurl a large tricolour and have their photo taken in front of the building. Then, out of the sun and into a cool space. Through the glass at the back of the building I could see an ornamental pool. Two young men in uniform, wearing Palestinian colours as sashes, stood guard over the dead leader’s memorial stone. Two wreaths of bright flowers rested against the cream, black-inscribed tomb. The trousers legs of one of the soldiers were too long, his shoulders drooped slightly. More photos were taken. I wouldn’t have his job for the world.
The area of Ramallah that I saw seemed to have solidity to it. Whether that impression was reality-based or conferred upon the place by its being the seat of the Palestinian Authority is a matter of conjecture. Bethlehem is scarred, despite its gentle-sounding name. Beit Sahour clings to the edges of Bethlehem like a shy child to its mother. Hebron is the sheep outside the fold. The Dead Sea has been put beyond Arab reach. Jerusalem is divided, in name and in state; if not yet completely by religion. Ramallah, by its continuing existence, implies defiance and resurrection.
We didn’t see where Arafat’s compound had been, or where the Palestinian authority resides. We went instead to a calm street and into a beautifully restored old Arab house. A plaque stated that the work had been carried out by the architectural conservationists of Birzeit University. I thought of Suad Amiry. In a new annex at the back we met members of two NGOs. Gerard, an English lawyer with Defence for Children International gave us a sobering presentation on the fate of Palestinian children under Israeli law. The agency provides legal services and international advocacy, and works in an educational capacity.
Call me Mohammad. I am a Palestinian. I am sixteen years old. I have been arrested and treated like an adult. If I was Israeli I would be treated as a child and my case would have to come to trial within nine months. But I am Mohammad. I was arrested for throwing stones. Under article 378 of the penal code I could be sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. I may be detained for up to one hundred and eighty-eight days. I can’t have a lawyer with me while they interrogate me. In breach of Article 4 of the Geneva Convention, four of the five detention prisons are in Israel, which means that my Mum and Dad will find it really hard to get permits to come see me if I go to jail. But I’m allowed twenty-four visits a year. It’s always busy, busy. Confessions are the quickest way to keep things moving. Chances are I’ll confess. I will probably sign a confession that’s written in Hebrew. Not everyone I know speaks or understands Hebrew. If I was lucky like my friend Ahmed who is fifteen years and eight months old, I could plea-bargain to be dealt with under child status in the military courts. Then I’d get a lesser sentence. Six thousand of us have been arrested since the second Intifada began. Some of the Israeli women who stand at checkpoints and monitor the behaviour of the IDF come to the military courts and take notes. That’s a good thing and it’s really nice of them, but it probably won’t help me if I get twenty years for throwing stones and my Mum can’t get a permit to come see me across in Israel.
http://arablit.org/ Arab Literature in English (a great site)
http://www.dci-palestine.org/ Defence for Children International, Palestine Section