When we arrived at Ben Gurion, we were immediately overcome by strange emotions that affected us in different ways. This was partly because we didn’t know what to expect, partly because we knew they were turning so many people away at the airport these days. Some tensed up and practiced their stories. Others seemed to be meditating and relaxing as they waited in line for the initial conversation, then for the secondary questions and unpacking of the bags, the analysis of chemical traces, and then for some of us even another round of questioning and so on. For me, the arrival occasioned a giddy sense of release.
I indulged myself in a comic performance and played it in a single key. I told the security officers that I was coming to Israel only to meet Jews. I said I would speak only with Jews, go only to Jewish places, eat only Jewish foods, patronize only Jewish-owned businesses in those cities whose Jewishness was unquestionable. To interrogators who spoke Russian to one another, I said that I’d come to Israel to see Jews and only Jews. I said this to the shy passport controllers from Addis Ababa. I said this to dark-eyed security officers whose grandparents used to pray in Baghdad and Fez. I thought I was laying it on too thick, but each interrogator seemed to like what I said and passed me to the next who liked it even more.
After the second round of security checks, we waited for Oz, who’d got stuck behind the group of Palestinians whose stuffed bags were torn apart in the first round of “customs.” When the Ashkenazi minders saw how long he was being forced to wait, they encouraged him to move to the line where an endless stream of Russians whisked through. Being who he was, he refused the offer on principle. Pointing to the dark-skinned men around him said, “It would be wrong to cut in front of these other people who have been waiting in line before me.” The rest of us didn’t have his scruples, so we insinuated ourselves into the Russian line and avoided the delays that attend brown people who are not Jews.
Sitting in the new terminal, smoking cigarettes we bummed from Moroccan cabdrivers, I remembered the long hall of the new airport, made of Jerusalem stone.
An hour earlier, as we walked through it, we had commented on everything we saw there. Someone described the vast dimensions of the interior space as Nuremburg scale, though the rest of us begged to differ. We finally all agreed: it was classic neo-Third Temple. There was no mistaking it, it took forever to walk from one place in the airport to the next and you felt lost in the mass of moving people, you felt like you were in the presence of high priests and holy sacrifices. We passed huge windows and half-hidden observation posts. We marveled at the small birds that had managed, despite the hermetic quality of the space, to infiltrate and fly freely throughout.
We almost missed the small bronze bust of the airport’s namesake. On the pedestal we read these words : “Conquering the sky is not just a matter of security. Spiritual, political and economic independence are not possible without command of the sky.”
Sitting and waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, I thought of the birds who swooped down to pick up the scraps left on the tables around the airport café. When I mentioned this to Oz, he blandly observed that unlike them, we’d allowed ourselves to be repeatedly searched, radiated, and interrogated for the privilege of being here.
We decided to walk around the old Arab city of Jaffa, which Rachel described as “a lanced boil on Tel Aviv’s thigh.” It was a hot July day, and we were happy to take a walk after our leisurely lunch on Sheinkin St. We asked to be seated as far away from the door as possible, and preferably behind one of the concrete pillars.
Though my companion told me that I had no reason to worry nowadays, I was incredibly nervous about the possibility of exploding people. I had the gazpacho and yam fritters, while my friend had the basmati rice with grilled vegetables. The lunch was perfect, even though the owners’ present of a free “iced tea,” made for some reason with cinnamon and lime, nearly made us gag. We asked the guard standing at the door of the restaurant where the beach was, and he pointed the way.
It didn’t take us long to reach the place, though with each step, the scene became more and more sordid, and also more familiar. It reminded me of Santa Monica, but Noah insisted it was more like Long Beach, with its penny arcades, $1 stores, and junkies lurking in the corners. The beach itself, however, dispelled these comparisons, with its crowds of sunbathers and its rustic-chic beach shack cafes. Above us, a long line of helicopters was heading south, “Toward Gaza,” Rachel explained when she saw me looking. As we started walking south along the boardwalk, we noticed the signs, in Hebrew, English and Russian, announcing the danger of jellyfish. “This is a problem every year,” Noah mentioned. I nodded. We walked and talked, we hadn’t seen each other in a year and there was so much to catch up on.
Noah’s organization, the Zurich Proposal, had folded since I last saw him. Some lefty Israelis had started it in the wake of the collapse of the Oslo Accords, hoping to restart negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis through private initiative. Noah shocked me when he said, with his typically American commonsensical tone, “A pox on both their houses. The Israelis for their occupations, the Palestinians for their idiotic Qassams. They really do deserve each other.” That was how he let me know that his experiment at aliya was coming to an end soon. As we walked, I looked to the east and took pictures of the bright postmodern buildings that had gone up since my last visit. The skyline was indelible, though it would take some time before it became landmark familiar like those of more permanent cities. We passed a set of clubs on the beach, whose signs appeared in Hebrew and Russian. In front of them was a small monument to the victims of a bombing that took place in them only few years ago. I recalled the event, but I couldn’t remember any of the details. I think the bomber had come from Tulkarm, but I’m not sure.
The path turned back to the water right before we arrived at the crumbling set of buildings called “Jaffa.” We followed a small bridge over a storm runoff ditch. The stench was sharp in our noses. When we crossed, we realized it was due to the municipal sewer construction going on behind a row of summer restaurants perched on the cliff over the beach. We walked around it and read the historical sign on the side of the building, “Police station from Ottoman period.” I remarked that I’d read somewhere that, after WWI, it became a British police station, and then following 1948, an Israeli police station. This information was not on the sign, neither in the Hebrew nor in the English. Unfortunately, someone had covered over the Arabic translation with black spray paint, so we couldn’t read that to compare.
We turned onto the main square, with the clock tower. American college students and Israeli teens swarmed around a shop selling arguileh pipes. The customers bargained ferociously with the shopkeepers who responded with reasonable, partial reductions in price. It all seemed overly scripted. Noah suspected they were on their Birthright Tour. Later, when we saw them getting on their bus, we saw his guess had been correct. We walked over to Abu al-‘Afiyya, the famous Arab pastry maker in Jaffa, and I bought a sweet. I told them that friends in Jerusalem had insisted that I visit their shop and they smiled. The truth be told, however, the baklava was not very good compared to what you can find in any town on the West Bank. We wanted to visit the “souq,” now called a “flea market.” The vendors all seemed to be Russians and Oriental Jews. Most of what they sold, besides the old clothes, was third-rate porno, the kind with chiseled Aryan studs and moaning anorexics with overstuffed breasts. Noah and I laughed, and we wandered among the antique and junk stores.
We saw a rubber torso, with rubber breasts and rubber vaginal orifice, with a removable rubber stomach, beneath which was a rubber fetus and placenta. I took a picture, and later when I looked at it, I couldn’t get the word “stillborn” out of my mind.
We walked over to the more upscale part of old Jaffa. It was upscale for one reason only: no one lived there. It was filled with restaurants serving vaguely Mediterranean food, galleries selling “contemporary art,” slick bars and niche clubs, with suggestively oriental names like “Caliph,” “Hammam,” and “Mameluke.” We also found a large S&M club located in the basement of what used to be Jaffa’s city hall. It didn’t seem real.
We walked down to the old port, where a couple busloads of Palestinian kids were taking a tour. They played and ran and pointed at boats, they pointed at the breakwater, they pointed up the hill back at the old city hall. They screamed with delight at everything they saw, and skipped and ran from one sight to the next. We asked one of their teachers who told us they’d come on a day trip from Jerusalem and that most of the kids had never seen the sea before. We decided to walk back to Tel Aviv on the beach itself. I wanted to feel the water on my feet. On the Palestinian beach, families sat close together while a man with a horse sold rides to kids. More than once, horse and rider bolted by us along that stretch, followed by a barking dog. We noticed the horse shit on the sand, bits washing away with each wave. We also noticed that just past where sand met sea was a line of milky white bodies.
I looked north, and saw this line of dead jellyfish stretching out as far as I could see. It followed the contours of the beach, like a trail of placentas leading from one city to the next.
I looked at the shallows and saw that they were relatively free of the creatures. People were playing in the water and bodysurfing. Though Noah wouldn’t, I decided to take my chances and wade as we walked. The water was clear and warm.
We passed mothers and their naked children building sandcastles. We passed teenagers playing soccer in their bathing suits. We passed a bikini-clad woman striking yoga position on a sand bar out in the waves: warrior one, triangle, warrior two, down-dog. We passed a couple of cafes where patrons smoked arguileh and drank espressos. We passed the Russian discothèques. I guess we were so busy talking about Noah’s plans to return to the States, and I was so busy looking around me at all the bronze bodies, that I had long stopped paying attention to the water I was walking in.
It’s a miracle I wasn’t stung more seriously, considering how many there were of them around me. My foot and ankle swelled up like a balloon. A quick-thinking waiter rushed out from a cafe and poured cans of cold club soda over my foot as I sat cursing on the sand.
It was a strange but mutually beneficial arrangement. I needed to travel north through a number of checkpoints to visit a town that had borne the brunt of the occupation and I needed to get back to Ramallah at a decent hour so as to see friends before I left the next day. They had a service taxi for hire, but little business and few customers. I hired the taxi for a day, and the driver asked if his best friend and his best friend’s son could come along. I said, “The more the merrier.” As we left Ramallah, we passed by the PA’s headquarters, the place where Arafat had been confined for the last three years of his life. They showed me where the prison had been, where the television station was and so on. Much of it was still rubble, even though the Israeli attacks were now years old or more. We left al-Bira and the driver startled me by saying it was good to leave Ramallah. “It belongs to the Tunisians and the Americans who returned to build their villas and play.” He pointed north, offered me a cigarette and said, “Welcome to Palestine.”
This then was to be my “tour” of the occupied territories, and these three, my tour guides. I asked them question after question: What’s that? What’s the name of that village? Where does that dirt road lead to? What kind of trees are those? What kind of grain is that? What’s that building? What’s over there? Why is the asphalt so bad here, why is it better back on the road we were just on? I must have asked hundreds of questions, but my guides did not seem annoyed by them. They got a kick out of my linguistic struggles, I think. For me, it was my first time hearing the dialect of the villages, where, as everyone knows, the letter K disappears to be replaced by a CH sound. Though I came here to tour the landscape of the territories, I was now intrigued their idioms.
I began asking questions whose answers I hoped would contain this peculiar dialect trait. “How many villages are there in the Jenin district?” They might answer , “Chateer, chateer!” After they revealed their low opinion of the factions, I asked, “What do you think of Hamas and Jihad?” I was rewarded with the beautiful, “Chuss ukht Hamas! Chuss ukht Jihad! I’m a Muslim, but I don’t want my religion mixed into politics.” I’d never heard people the say the equivalent of “sister’s chunt” before, and it was oddly entertaining. I made notes on their speech patterns, especially since the sound “CH” does not exist in classical Arabic. Later, I would ask colleagues about the morphological transpositions of their local dialect. Perhaps a Semiticist would be able to tell me where such sounds originated and how they might be traced historically and geographically.
We passed towards Silwad and I began to notice that I didn’t need to keep asking certain questions. For instance, each hilltop in the region was covered with a sprawling development that reminded me of the Whites-only gated communities I’d known growing up in Los Angeles.
I’d point and ask, “What’s that?” And the answer would invariably be the same:
“It’s a settlement. It’s called Atarot.”
“It’s a settlement. It’s called Eli.”
“It’s a settlement. It’s called Kfar Tapu’ah.”
“It’s a settlement. It’s called Imanu’el.”
“It’s a settlement. It’s called Givrot Shomron.”
“It’s a settlement. It’s called Ma’ale Shomron.”
And so on. I noticed that, though we were deep in the territories, the roads were often covered with Israeli flags and often with billboards. Orange flags, symbolizing settler protest, were everywhere. Jewish men and women with guns hitchhiked at the major junctions. I took pictures of everything I saw and tried to remember the names my guides told me.
The road signs were written in Hebrew, Latin and Arabic letters. My companions explained that they only refer to the Hebrew names the settlers had bestowed on the places we passed. The Arabic names did not appear, they pointed out, unless they’d been transliterated twice: first into Hebrew, and then back again into Arabic.
For instance, we saw the Palestinian village of “Libban,” and they showed me how the settlement that had been built above it had to have a pure Hebrew name. They used a cognate instead, “Lavon.” Then they showed me the Arabic translation of the road sign that referred to the place, not as “Libban,” but “Lavun.” They emphasized the word’s foreignness, since the Arabic language has no letter “V.”
Soon, we had stopped looking at the landscape as it rushed by and were looking instead for all the words we could find. Each time we found a road sign, we read it out loud, mangling the pronunciation in laughter. They commented, “They took these lands by force, then they take them again by letters. What do they imagine? That we’ll forget our own names too?” They laughed again, “Chuss ukht the settlements!”
Considering the fact that our literature workshop at Birzeit almost didn’t take place at all, it was a real success. We’d applied for a grant to teach a workshop to Palestinian university students through a fund administered by the US Department of Education and the State Department’s Public Diplomacy program. Despite the contacts that the consul in East Jerusalem had set up with our colleagues at Birzeit, we had a difficult time making arrangements. The department chair was away for the summer and didn’t respond to our emails as we tried to confirm our plan. Fortunately, David knew some people in other departments who connected us to Ahlam, a junior member of the English faculty. It turned out to be a perfect match—she was enthusiastic to have us come and meet with her students. She’d studied English modernism in America on a Fulbright. If she hadn’t drummed up support for us, I doubt it would have happened.
We finally figured out a time that would work for all of us, though when it came, it turned out to be the same day that an American diplomat was visiting Ramallah and the whole place was shut down for a general strike in protest. We told our driver that we wanted to go anyway.
When we arrived, we found two military jeeps parked at the entrance to the university. Students were throwing rocks at the vehicles while soldiers fired rubber bullets back at them. We waited with other cars as the scene unfolded. Then, for no reason, the army sped off with sirens flashing.
We followed others onto the campus and found it more or less empty of students, faculty and staff. When we got to the English Department, the door to the classroom was closed and there was no one in the building to tell us whether our event had been cancelled. We fretted about, took a walk around the campus, and then came back to wait some more.
Right as we were about to leave, Ahlam showed up and greeted us. She opened the door and then, in two large groups, the students came in. One by one they told us how they gone as a class to the demonstration outside the Muqataa. When I asked what that was, they explained it was the piles of concrete rubble we’d driven by in Ramallah. Later, someone told me that they still housed the remnants of the Palestine Authority’s government.
On our way to Birzeit, we’d seen the demonstration and even asked our driver to stop so we could watch from afar a bit of what was happening.
As soon as we saw the presidential guard descending with rocks and sticks and guns on the thousand or so young people who’d come to demonstrate, we got in the car and sped off. It seemed dangerous, and besides, we weren’t there to get into trouble.
The students had all been there and were anxious to talk about the event as we settled into our places in the classroom. The protest, they told us, was directed against the Americans.. The protest, they also told us, was also directed against President Mahmoud Abbas. One student claimed Abbas was the last American friend left in the Palestinian political arena. Another student said that Abbas needed these kinds of visits from the Americans, otherwise his irrelevance and weakness would be all to clear. We’d been briefed by the consul that we would hear such things.
The awkwardness began to evaporate as soon as we started the workshop, as soon as we began to dive into the text. The facilitator from USAID had told us to expect the students to be liberal and westernized. Still, a couple of us thought it was pushing the envelope to choose Allen Ginsburg’s poem “Howl” in view of its explicit references of sex, drug use, and poverty. But the students didn’t bat an eyelash at the material—on the contrary, they immediately wanted to talk about it.
They didn’t know us from Adam, nor us them. But in the course of the discussion that started, we got to know each other. Soon we were breaking through cultural walls. Most had grown up in Ramallah, Jerusalem and the villages around, but some had grown up abroad—in Russia, in Mexico, in Algeria, in the US. We found out later that the two women who wore the hijab both grew up in Brooklyn.
I don’t think I was fully prepared for what was going to happen that day. I’d gone there thinking we’d introduce the students to a piece of literature they might find interesting and I’d teach them something, if not about American literature itself, at least about how American critics talk about literature. What happened was slightly different.
We’d told them about how fundamentalists in Egypt had lobbied to ban a translation of Ginsburg’s poetry as being contrary to the norms of Islamic culture. We told them about the professor who’d taught the poem, and had been attacked—and censured by her university—for doing so. As we talked, most students stood up to defend the poem, saying that it was good literature—it expressed the experience of the author in an original and moving manner.
One student, Amal, very politely disagreed, asking the others by what standards they were defending the value of the book as literature. We asked her to elaborate, and she did: “I am sorry, but I am new to the English Department. Until now, I have never read an American poem. I have read lots of books of literature, history and poetry. But American poetry, no. Even so, I can say that I do not think that this poem is very special. The language is not especially beautiful in English, I think. There are no interesting metaphors, only scattered images of things. I cannot see the order of the arrangement. There is no story either, no plot. The subject matter is not moral. It ignores tradition. By what standards do you call this poem literature?”
I’d never heard the sentiment stated so directly in a classroom before. The discussion turned sharp and voices were raised as the others wanted to voice their disagreement. Amal was the lone dissenter, but the more we talked, the more I realized that her objections were serious and that none of us were effective in persuading her otherwise. During the break, we heard the others as the continued to argue with her. She wasn’t budging.
One student, Nadia, said something else I’d never heard before in a literature class. She said, “We can make literature whatever we want it to be. Literature is what we choose it to be, not what people tell us it is. Literature is something we make, not something we receive.” Though her statement was a bit romantic, it stuck in my mind no less than what Amal had said. In the end, the argument was left unresolved. Like I do in any seminar, I tried to synthesize all the opinions that were voiced, saying that literature was all these things—it was about honoring a tradition and breaking with it, it could be judged by objective standards or according to the subjective experience of the author or reader, and so on. In the end, I’m afraid I disappointed the students who’d expected me to take some sort of position in the debate that had briefly erupted.
Later, I went to dinner in Jerusalem with Steve and Nickie, old friends from grad school who were now working for the World Bank. They told a story about the history of Birzeit University: Throughout the occupation, the Israelis had targeted the university as a hotbed of nationalist activism. Menahim Milson, the famous scholar of Arabic literature from Hebrew University, was in charge of overseeing civil administration throughout the occupied territories. During the 1980s, Milson had used the army to attack Birzeit numerous times, closing the campus, shelling the campus, arresting students and professors for long periods of time. Milson, they explained, wanted to make it impossible for Palestinian professors to teach, for Palestinian students to learn. The strategy, they explained, was this: the best way to prevent the formation of an articulate political leadership among West Bank Palestinians was to deny Palestinians an education.
It was alarming to hear that a humanist could become so enmeshed in a repressive system. I spoke up, “How could a literary critic play such an active role in a military occupation?”
My friends shrugged and asked, “You tell us.”
The pause that followed was awkward for all.
We chose the hamlet of Beit Jeez in from the hundreds of Palestinian villages that were cleansed in 1948. Maryam was scouting locations for her film, and she was looking for a ’48 village where one scene in particular needed to be shot. It was the scene where the protagonist and his girlfriend go after robbing the bank, the place they hole up while they decide whether to continue going on with their crime spree, or to leave for good. It was important that it take place in the ruins of a ’48 village.
Her travels had taken her all around, from the areas around Umm al-Fahim in the triangle, to old villages in the plain between Acre and Haifa, to even the upper Galilee, to old hilltop villages overlooking the south of Lebanon. Once, in the village of Bir‘im where a Maronite church still stood partly intact, she’d found a group of women sitting, looking off into the distance. When she spoke to them, she realized from their accent that they were Lebanese. Talking with them, she found out they’d come with their families in 2000 when the Israeli occupation came to an end and could probably never go back. Now, they said, they lived in a nearby Palestinian Israeli village where no women would speak to them and where their husbands could find no work, not even with the IDF. The rest of their families lived in Jewish cities like Nahariya and Safad where they felt even more miserable and isolated. Many had already returned, though who knows what would be in store for those who did.
They often hitched a ride to the place on Fridays where they sat picnicking until sunset. They offered Maryam apples and sweet tea the day she was there. While she sat with them, they pointed out Mt. Meron, Mt. Hermon, the Golan, and even the faintest traces of the Shuf Mountains far to the North. Unfortunately, as compelling as these locations were, they didn’t feel right for the film. Maryam had so far had already seen more than 50 locations, she’d know the right one when it came along.
When she offered to give us a ride back from Tel Aviv, we were happy to tag along, since we’d always wanted to go along with her on one of her scouting expeditions. She got the name of the village from Walid Khalidi’s book, All That Remains. The entry on this village had a couple pictures, some history, and some indications of what remained. Of the villages in the region, Beit Jeez looked the most promising as a potential set. It was located in the plain around Latrun where serious fighting had taken place during the war. We read about the history of the fighting—Latrun was one of the places where residents had put up the most resistance, which is why it wasn’t captured during that war. Those nearby villages that put up resistance were punished severely when they were conquered. Beit Jeez was one such place, we read. The residents there had been given a day to take their possessions and leave. Then the Haganah demolished their houses, shops and mosque with carefully laid explosives. The book told us to expect to find only the old school and the remains of two adjoining houses.
It is one thing to read about a place in a book, but something else to find and see it for yourself. It is also difficult getting to know a landscape by working from the page. For one thing, the maps in the book did not match our road maps. For another, all the original names had been erased and replaced with Hebrew ones. We had to keep both maps open at the same time and figure out what the new name was, then find that and hope, when we got there that we’d find some of the landmarks described in the book. There were also problems of gauging spatial relationships: the maps used different scales, and the distances didn’t always correspond with those of the road. And then, of course, none of the road signs pointed to what we were looking for.
Our book told us to go to Har’el Kibbutz, which was near the rubble of the old village. As we approached, we spotted forests of Scotch pine arranged so deliberately that their planters never intended them to be anything but covering.
I remembered Oz telling us once that the thick, knotty roots of pines were especially effective at tearing apart stone walls and the remains of old foundations. Occasionally, we passed patches of prickly pear cactus, the famous sabra imported from Mexico centuries ago, which were another sure sign that there had been a Palestinian village here not long ago.
We decided to start looking in the forest. We turned off on a road that led to a lookout point, right in the middle of the park. At the top of the hill, we quickly found the schoolhouse, cracked, but amazingly still intact. Around and above stood a series of plaques and displays commemorating the Jewish soldiers killed in the area during the ’48 battles around Latrun. We counted more than 100 plaques in the parking lot itself. On one, we read about the tragic story of one brigade of Holocaust survivors. They’d been taken from the transit camps and brought to Palestine in boats, and then shipped off more or less directly to Latrun, where the fighting was at its worst. When they were pushed into the Jordanian tank corps, which at that moment was determined to hold the line, they were killed. Of course, the Arab armies were roundly defeated soon after, but for Israelis, the fighting at Latrun was mythical for its ferocity, heroism, and heartbreak. Everywhere we turned, there were plaques commemorating the event, and a very large, three-dimensional map to show how it transpired. We located our spot on the map and looked around, comparing it to the landscape around, comparing it to the maps we’d brought with us.
We soon wandered into the pines, and called out every time we located another old patch of prickly pear. But, aside from some old foundations whose outlines were too oblique to make much out of them, we found nothing in the forest. We walked back to the car, and noticed the park’s tourist center, a Bedouin-style tent on the far side of the parking lot. Walking up, we saw that small group of customers were all smoking arguileh and speaking Arabic. They were playing something by Nancy Ajram. The kids working there welcomed us in Hebrew. We asked them in Arabic whether they knew where the old village was, and found out that they were from Bethlehem, where Maryam’s parents grew up. We laughed about the coincidence, and they tried to figure out if they knew anyone in common. They pointed over to the North, and told us that they thought there were old buildings inside the fence of the kibbutz. We got in the car and drove there on a rough dirt road that ran through vineyards. The car almost got stuck in ruts a number of times, and every time we passed a prickly pear, we got out of the car to look around. A couple times we stole clusters of juicy black grapes from the vines as well.
The kibbutz was not large. We read on a sign that it’d been founded in 1948, probably even before the dust of Beit Jeez had started to settle. We drove around the road, and it seemed almost like a run-down resort, except for the fact that towards the back, we encountered a series of long, low buildings that resembled hothouses. The pungent ammonia smell suggested it was a poultry factory farm, but that was only a guess. Back behind one of the buildings, we found an old cupola, three walls still intact.
We parked the car, and started walking through the weeds. It clearly had once been the shrine of a Muslim saint. It was now in ruins, covered in Hebrew graffiti. A group of Thai workers stepped out from one of the buildings and waved to us, we said, “Shalom,” and waved back. They went back inside.
We noticed two stone buildings on a slight rise, only a couple hundred meters away. They had been completely invisible from the road, but from the shrine, we could see them and even make out the distinctively arched windows and vaulted balconies of Arab architecture. We walked over, stepping through fragrant wild thyme, involuntarily squashing many wild cucumbers, and avoiding the Christ-thorn as best we could. Our pants were soon covered with burrs. More than once, we caught the sweet, caroby smell of wild buckwheat as well. The twilight air buzzed with the wings of insects.
As we got closer, Maryam became more and more excited—it was obvious to all of us that the place was perfect for her scene. As we walked into the courtyard, a lone donkey brayed announcing our arrival.
We were astonished to find that these were no ruins. They weren’t even abandoned. Outside, we saw a richly apportioned Bedouin-style tent, replete with small green flags flapping in the approaching evening breeze. Strings of dried peppers adorned the doorways, rustic brooms, axes and shovels leaned against the stone walls. An old iron pot hung on a trapeze over a well-used fire pit. Sprightly chickens chased each other around the courtyard, and goats jumped against each other in their sturdily built pen. Inside, straw mats and pillows covered the floors and walls of the rooms. We saw the remnants of a recently served banquet, still laid out on a low table.
We assumed that this was a tourist exhibit for the kibbutz, an Orientalist venue for holding parties and entertaining foreign visitors. But just then Maryam noticed the equipment, the stacks of booms and lights and the piles of spooled electric cable.
This was a film set. There was no doubting it. The second story balconies were fitted with banks of lights, and a couple of industrial tripods for overhead shots. The donkey continued to bray loudly. He wouldn’t stop.
Soon enough, a couple of men came out of the production truck parked behind the buildings and asked who we were and what we were doing. We replied in English, and then asked whether this was a film set. One of them told us it was. They were an Israeli crew working for an American production company that was making a series of Arabic-language episodes taken from the Bible. This was the set for the segment on Absalom’s rebellion against his father, King David. We asked more questions, and the guy said that if we’d come earlier, we could have met the actors, who were all Arabs. He told us it was no problem if we wanted to come back the next day and talk to the American producers about whatever—about their films, even about how they got permission to use the location. He also told us that it’d probably be easier to speak directly with people at the kibbutz, since they were the ones who owned the property.
When we walked back to the car, we passed by the Thai workers who were sitting nearby drinking tea. Though they invited us to join them, we declined. Maryam was in a hurry to get to the kibbutz office before it closed.
A group of us activists went to Qalqilya, a town so far west that it sits not in the dry hills, but on the humid coastal plane. Though the uprising had been effectively suppressed, we felt that our trip, in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, was important. After all, the violence and dispossession of the occupation had not ceased even though the resistance had been decimated.
Our solidarity group was warmly received by local activists who were quite used to seeing similar delegations from Europe and the US. They took us to the massive concrete wall, complete with guard towers every few hundred yards. We couldn’t believe it, though we’d read about it, and had seen dozens of pictures of it before we decided to come here.
We took pictures of ourselves and each other, and our guides, beside the wall which was covered by graffiti from earlier solidarity delegations before us. We even recognized one slogan that a friend of ours from back home must have painted. I took a picture of one of our friends beside it to send to him over the internet.
We visited the father of two youths who’d been killed in 2002 and 2003. He told us the story of how they’d been killed. The first in a firefight with an Israeli patrol, the second as he tried to bomb a checkpoint, though he was shot before he could get close enough to hurt Israeli soldiers. We recalled that our friends, who visited here a year ago, had told us the same story when they gave their teach-in back home. At one point, we became self-conscious of the fact that we were taking the exact same tour our friends had taken before us. We realized that the questions we directed at the martyrs’ father were questions he’d heard hundreds of times before. As we asked to pose with the man, I realized I’d seen an earlier version of this same picture, in the same courtyard under the same grape arbor.
They took us to another place and showed us a map that showed how the wall and the electrified fence surrounded the city on all sides. They pointed out the Jewish-only settlements on the map, then showed us how they appeared on the hills surrounding the city. They showed us the narrow tongue of land, only a couple hundred meters wide and bounded by electrified fences and concrete military posts, was what connected the city to the rest of the West Bank. We looked from the map to the landscape and back again and understood how the system of control worked. We could see with our own eyes that there was a plan behind the developments we could see taking place. We knew it from books before, but now we were experiencing it directly.
Someone commented how the wall made the city resemble the Warsaw Ghetto, we nodded, though we weren’t quite sure since we’d never seen it. Someone else commented that the occupation had turned the city into an inside-out medieval fortress. We imagined archers stationed on the outside looking down at us through narrow slits in the towers, and cauldrons of burning oil ready to pour down on the city inside. Before this, we may have imagined what a siege was, but now we knew.
Other Palestinians replaced our first guide and took us to one of the nurseries that the city used to be famous for. As we sat under the shade of a white mulberry tree, they pointed out how the electronic fence had separated them from many of the hothouses, nurseries and orchards that they owned. We looked closely and could see that many of the fruit trees were dying from neglect on the other side of the fence. Others appeared to have been tended by new Jewish owners. To see this taking place as we sat there drinking tea and watching the mulberries fall made us feel helpless and angry.
Since our guides had another group to meet, they dropped us off downtown. Waiting for the next bus, we walked through the main street, and past the first traffic light we’d seen in Palestine. The street signs were as often as not in Hebrew as they were in Arabic, and we were reminded how this used to be a border town where Israelis went to buy products for cheaper prices. We were taking pictures of the posters and slogans we saw on the walls of the town and realized that most of the stores were closed. We understood again how killing the commerce of a city might induce its inhabitants to leave for good, which was what was happening in the city. After seeing it with our own eyes, there was no doubt in our minds that it was a slow-motion form of ethnic cleansing. We could see how it worked by its irreversible effects, how it could take place without there being always copious amounts of bloodshed. Someone added, “But there is that, too.”
Somehow, we got separated from the rest of the group, and found ourselves invited into a shop for tea. We sat down and talked to the young men who wanted to know where we were from and what we were doing there. We told them about our solidarity and they made a phone call to someone. We continued sitting there as they asked us questions about why our government hated them so much, why our government hated Muslims so much and so on. We corrected them, and told them it was not just our government they had a problem with. We told them that our government was a democracy, that it represented the will of its people, and that it was naïve to distinguish the policies and actions of an elected government from the will of its people. “If our government is to blame, we are to blame,” we told them. They shrugged and said, “Perhaps.”
A young man arrived and immediately engaged us in debate. He wanted to know where we were from and what we were doing there. We told him about our solidarity. He then told us this:
There was a city on fire. People in the city were unable to put the fire out. Many were burned, and many died from their burns. This alarmed people in neighboring cities. And they came to see what was happening in the city on fire. These visitors took pictures and talked about how awful the fire was. They offered comfort to the victims of the fire. They rebuilt sections of the city that had been burnt. Others went closer to the flames, wanting to touch them to see what it felt like to burn. They came and went, taking pictures, telling stories. Despite all the delegations, the fire continued to burn.
The man then wished us good day and walked away without shaking our hands. We found the rest of the group and left Qalqiliya on the next bus. We promised among ourselves to stay in touch with the people we’d met and to tell our community everything that we had seen and heard.
We’d been invited to the Franco-German cultural center to see a film by a leftist Israeli filmmaker. The advance notice had said that “this was perhaps the most important film on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ever made.” It was endorsed by a couple well-known intellectuals from abroad, and all its screenings at the Jerusalem Film Festival were sold out well in advance. I’d never seen his first film, which apparently was a autobiographical work that was “sort of interesting.” My friends said the director was a good guy, even if his films weren’t so great. “In any case, this was his first attempt at making a feature film. It’s based on a book of fiction he published.” Afterwards, there was going to be a discussion by a Balkan philosopher, said one of the ecstatic blurbers of the film. The two men had come to Israel for the festival and insisted on making a side trip to Ramallah as part of their trip.
The room was packed with people. Young directors, producers, actors all showed up. The city’s cultural elite were present, including the poet. We arrived so late we had to sit on the floor. It took a number of times for them to get the screening to work right. The first time, we watched the credits and opening scene in a VHS format, but there were only Russian subtitles. The center’s director put in the DVD format, which had Arabic subtitles, but no sound. It must have taken at least half an hour for them to fix the glitches.
Meanwhile, the director hurriedly explained why they were there, and how, paradoxically, their coming to Jerusalem actually honored the spirit of the boycott that Palestinian filmmakers had called for. It certainly was paradoxical. The director said that they had corresponded with the boycott committee in Ramallah and that together, they had come to an arrangement that would allow them to make “unofficial” presentations, thus participating in the film festival and honoring the boycott at one and the same time. As they announced at the beginning of the event, their insistence on twinning their appearance in Jerusalem with one in Ramallah was part of this arrangement. Coming to Ramallah, they said, was an act of solidarity with the many Palestinian filmmakers who were de facto excluded each year by the festival. The director looked into the crowd and nodded at the poet. He then declared that the story of the film was “inspired by the work Mahmoud Darwish. This is the Palestinian premiere of my film. I don’t expect all of you to like it. Its truth may make some of you feel uncomfortable. But it will make you think. I have no doubt about that.”
The lights went down and the film started. The story was about an American Jew named John who serves in the occupation army and accidentally shoots a Palestinian child. The trauma of committing murder induces a form of psychosis in John and he is sent to a mental hospital which just happens to be located on the ruins of Deir Yassin. The asylum is haunted, we find out, by the ghosts of the 1948 massacre—only the patients are able to see them and interact with them. At some point, John is healed by a Jewish doctor played by the Palestinian actor Makram Khouri, and then he returns to New York City where he strikes up a relationship with a beautiful Palestinian activist played by Makram Khouri’s real-life daughter, Clara. We couldn’t remember if her character was given a name, but it didn’t really matter either way. John and the Palestinian woman sleep together immediately. “The steamy sex scenes,” someone said, “will probably have an adverse effect on Clara Khouri’s career.” When Clara finds out that John has served in the occupation, she dumps him, and then the story gets completely incomprehensible after that. There are many other incidents, one involving a second Palestinian woman who works in a Tel Aviv rave disco and who may be a suicide bomber. Talking about it later, we realized there was also a father-son drama throughout much of the film, though we didn’t get it at the time. There was also a dog named after the philosopher, and there was a suicide, though what it all meant wasn’t so clear to us. “Why were no male Palestinian characters in the film?” Someone asked. It was a reasonable question.
In short, the film was a total disaster. It was embarrassing. The plot made no sense, except as a primer of Freudian sentimentalism. Its use of symbol was both muddled and heavy-handed. The film’s most coherent and troubling gesture was that John needed Palestinians. He needed Palestinians to help him “work through” the psychological trauma of being a liberal guy who happened to have killed Palestinians. Heneeded Palestinians to sleep with. And then he needed them again to absolve him of his sins. We wondered why the director thought the film would make Palestinians “think.” When the lights went on, nervous laughter and hushed comments prevailed. There was a short cigarette break after which, the director announced that now the philosopher would speak.
We decided to stay for the talk hoping that it would at least take the taste of the film out of our mouth. When we walked back in, we found the room now half empty. The poet and many others had left. The philosopher began by talking about how they had come in solidarity with the Palestinians and that he wasn’t going to patronize us with talk about how difficult the situation was. He wasn’t going to patronize Palestinians by telling them what to do, or what to think. He wasn’t going to patronize them by talking to them about their situation at all—since it belongs to Palestinians and they understand it better than anyone from outside. “What? Am I going to sit here and offer you my thoughts on the wall or military occupation? I won’t patronize you by talking about that. Moreover, it is patronizing to think that this is all you want me to come to speak about. I won’t do it. Instead, I want to talk about how we have to be willing to talk about other things altogether.”
He recalled an incident, back in the 1990s, when “a white upper-class English Marxist” had dared to tell him and other Yugoslavians about what to do, and that his speech had reflected more about his privilege than his understanding of Balkan history. He spoke at length about how the real problem was when people want to limit talking to talk only about “what to do.” People who insisted that we had to “do something” rather than “think something” did not help the crisis at all. He pointed out how those who want to insist on “doing something talk” usually started their sentences with phrases like, “While we’re talking here, outside there are people dying” or, “The situation outside this room is clear enough, there’s no reason for us to go on talking about it—it’s time to do something about it.” “The fact is, however, that these guys are talking when they say we need to stop talking and do something. So my point is this: we must come to understand the particular kind of discourse they engage in, the kind of speech that denounces thought and speech in favor of pure action. I reject this kind of speech, and I do not have to tell you people, who understand it better than I, how disingenuous it is.” It was the kind of thought that only a white upper-class English Marxist could think up.
It was interesting to see this man gesticulate wildly, to see him sweat and speak through his accent. To see him go on about why critical thinking mattered so much in the circumstances here. He said that the more people claimed that it was time to simply “do something,” the more important critical thought became, because it was the only way we would get beyond reactive politics, towards something more strategic and creative. “And that’s the only way you, and I hesitate to say this because I have told you that I did not come here to patronize you by telling you what to do, will get out of your current crisis.”
He then told a story about how his young son had seen the wall and wondered why it had been built. While this was going on, however, we became conscious that something was going on in the room. Many people got up and left, those who stayed were becoming as fidgety as the speaker. The people behind were asking each other why he was insisting so much that he was not patronizing, “What did he mean by saying that, and saying it so often?”
When I tuned back into the philosopher’s talk, he was now talking about how different kinds of toilets reflect the national identity of their makers. He explained how one could not shit into a French toilet without having it smear all over the porcelain. German toilets were designed with a shelf, so that the shitter could inspect it carefully, smelling it, testing its consistency and so on. When one shitted in a British toilet, it simply disappeared down a hole, never to be seen again. This revealed much about different national styles of philosophical inquiry, “The French style is to take something and explode it inside out, not caring where the pieces land. The German style is empirical and methodical—poking and sniffing, leaving nothing unexplored, no matter how difficult or unsavory. The British style is elegant and economical, and never involves getting your hands dirty.” There was a pause, then he added, “Americans toilets are designed to catch the shit and make it float. What does that say about American philosophy?” For the first time, people in the audience laughed. I don’t recall what else he said that night, but he went on and on, and eventually we began to warm up to him. We were enthralled by this strange performance that, as promised, had nothing to do with this place or this situation. It was clear there was no script for his talk, and he stopped only when the director of the center interrupted him and announced that people were waiting for another film that was scheduled to be screened in the same room.
The event fizzled out just as it had started. Everyone was invited downstairs for wine and sweets, and, if people wished, they could set up chairs and the philosopher would continue his excursus. The wine was from the old monastery in Bethlehem—Cremisan. I helped myself instead to some of the sweets set out on crystal platters, and walked outside. The philosopher was already going again in the café area, surrounded by a growing number of people attracted by his wit and frenetic energy. Someone wryly asked him about how Montenegrins shat. I didn’t get to hear his answer but it made the room laugh hysterically. I rejoined our group who were now speaking to an older Palestinian man, a director of some fame.
Darwish directed a series of PLO-funded films from the early 1970s. He was a pioneer—his shorts that dealt with the armed struggle, first in Jordan, then in Lebanon, were critical documents for any student of the period. More than that, each film text experimented with a particular element of cinematography. They may have all focused on the armed resistance, but the first one was really “about” framing, the second montage, the third sound, and so on. These films had long been forgotten save by old comrades and an enthusiastic group of recent devotees. When I found out that he’d studied at the Moscow Institute, I asked him about Sonallah and Malas, and he told me how they’d all been there together. I asked if he’d worked with Godard in Jordan, “Yes! How’d you guess? I was his production assistant. He was there for only a few months, but while he was here, he worked. He never rested. I’ve never seen that sort of ethic. After what happened, he didn’t know what to do for a couple years with all that footage.” Only later did someone tell me I had been asking the wrong questions.
Mustafa had returned, like so many others, when Oslo opened the door. In 2000 he found out that that door had shut behind him at some point. If he left, there would be no coming back to Palestine during his lifetime. He was working on a film at the moment, the script was ready, the schedule was ready, the budget was ready, the actors were cast. “But, you know, European producers are terrified to work with us. Sundance won’t work with Palestinians unless there are also Israelis involved. It’s so much easier for everybody to work with these lefty Israelis instead. The funny thing is, I read about all these lefty Israeli directors, they’re everywhere. Tel Aviv is filled with them. Jerusalem is filled with them. New York and London are filled with them. Every international film festival is filled with them. My question is this: Where are the right-wing Israeli filmmakers? You’d think that with all this lefty filmmaking, there wouldn’t be an occupation anymore.”
At that point, one of our friends came up and told us that she’d contacted her friends on the boycott committee to verify what the director had said. She’d gotten suspicious when no one from the committee had turned up for tonight’s event. It turns out, she said, that he had in fact contacted them the month before. But they’d disagreed with his reasoning about the festival. Nor did they think much of his idea to come to Ramallah to compensate for breaking the boycott. As I listened to this news, I wondered what exactly we had just transpired right now. The whole experience of the evening—the film, the philosophical rants—melted back into nonsense. I bit into the sweets on my plate.
I didn’t notice what was happening until I heard the splitting crunch in my molars. I assumed that there was some pistachio shell in the baklava, and spit out the food onto a napkin. Only then did I realize that I’d been biting into glass, not nutshells. I ran inside to the bathroom, gagging, wondering how much glass I’d swallowed. I spit out bits of pastry and nuts and syrup and blood into the sink. Someone else walked in and joined me. One of the platters had broken, and glass had gotten into the food. The caterers began to throw it away only after a number of us had taken pieces to eat.
The cuts were not too deep, but they were painful and bled quite a bit. By the time I walked out of the bathroom, the crowd had gone home. The director and the philosopher and their entourage had gotten into their van and headed back to Jerusalem. My friends were waiting, wondering what had happened.