Reaching

I have spent time in Palestine over the last five years as an organizer of the annual Palestine Festival of Literature, which just took place this May.

Raja Shehadeh reads to Palfest artists during a walk in the Ramallah Hills on May 18, 2017 in Ramallah. Rob Stothard for Palfest - Courtesy: Rob Stothard for Palfest

***

Houses in Jerusalem’s old city are small and built on top of one another, sharing courtyards and terraces. What begins as a simple entryway on the street opens upwards and outwards. Stairs take you around one home, and to the door of another. A tunnel-like passageway leads to a circular landing that offers doors to four different homes.

A security camera watches me as I stand and try to imagine living here, either as one of the Palestinians behind three of the doors, or one of the settlers behind the fourth. The security camera belongs to the settlers, and the meaning of “trespass” is turned on its head.

I walk higher up; I pass through the small shaded area in front of a house, with laundry lines bare except for a dozen or so nylon stockings. They are the sock-length kind, meant for wearing underneath trousers or long skirts. Only women with a certain kind of propriety still bother with them.

Back in the sun, I step onto a roof. An aluminum container houses the settlers’ private security forces. Two young men emerge and walk past me. They return eating ice cream bars, and, as they walk past the nylon stockings, one of them puts his free hand up to touch the beige translucent material.

They stand to the side and watch me as they eat their ice cream, the chocolate coating breaking between their teeth and slipping off the cold cream. They stare. I try not to catch their eyes. No one says a word.

***

I cried the first time I walked through Qalandia checkpoint to cross from Ramallah into Jerusalem. The enormity of the thing, a vessel through the hideous separation wall; the passageways enclosed with metal on both sides, shoulder-wide, forcing people to walk in single file, as if in a prison.

Now I move through it with impatience for the long lines and the slow and careless Israeli soldiers who only come to life to occasionally give instructions in bored, adolescent voices that boom through a crackly loudspeaker in Hebrew or, worse, in an Arabic nobody understands. I exchange glances with the women who are turned back because they do not have a permit to enter Jerusalem and my feelings are of sympathy, without anger. I wait at the turnstile, wait until they buzz it open — three people at a time, huddled close so as not to miss a turn out of the metal cage. I put my stuff through the x-ray machine and hope not to have to speak.

Outrage quickly becomes normalized here, even for a visitor.

***

But with each visit to Palestine there is a scene or a conversation that cuts through the banality that has settled over the unfathomable. This time it was walking through the neighborhood of Wadi al-Saleeb in Haifa. The homes here were emptied of Palestinians in 1948, and then used to house Jews freshly arrived to the new Israeli state. They stayed until they rioted against over-crowdedness and poverty in 1959.

Photograph: Yasmin El-Rifae

Since then, the homes, cleansed of their original owners and then their temporary settlers, have stood shut. They were forced empty, forced to remain empty.

In 2011, in response to protests by Israelis upset by economic conditions, Israel passed a law allowing state-owned land to be auctioned off for sale. Three years later, the houses in Wadi al-Saleeb — made of the pale beige stone of old Haifa, nestled into the trees of the mountainside — were sold in a public auction.

“So Palestinians could have bought these?” someone asks.

“Yes, technically. But everyone knows how these things work,” the historian who is walking with us says.

Twelve Israeli companies bought the lands of Wadi al-Saleeb. On them, they are demolishing the old homes and building a new housing development called Sally Valley, among other things.

We walk up a gentle slope of hill that would have been the garden of a home, and just as Rachel Holmes says, “This is just like Sun City in South Africa,” we find that we have turned to the right and stepped onto a construction site. Beyond the piles of construction material are some of the completed projects: large, sharp-angled, windowless buildings. Farther away, closest to the sea, a skyscraper that resembles the Dubai burj. It stands there like a familiar future. It could be anywhere.

At first I thought that the sharp edge of this scene, the cut that gave it a feeling of tragedy, was its inevitability. It is a collision of the forces of unstoppable gentrification and the fate of lands cleansed of their people long ago. Palestinians stay locked out, their land gets sold. What once was natural to the city is replaced by a cheaper version of the aesthetic spearheaded by the oil-rich capitals of the Gulf. Money wins, power wins, concrete wins, guns win, and so Zionism wins.

If you look up South Africa’s Sun City, you will find articles about the controversy in Rolling Stone magazine from the 1980s. Bantustan land sold to a hotel magnate, who built a sprawling, tacky luxury casino and resort on it, and started inviting musical acts from around the world.

I ain’t gonna play Sun City.

They still built the casinos, still sold black people’s land. Sinatra, the Beach Boys, Cher all joined the playbill.

But it didn’t simply come to pass. The fight against Sun City was global, part of a condemnation and a rising demand that, together with resistance by South Africans, ultimately ended the country’s apartheid.

I realize that what breaks me about that construction site in Haifa and the silence around it is not that it was inevitable, but that it was not.

***

When I arrived in Ramallah this spring, the city was shut down in a one-day general strike in solidarity with prisoners who had started refusing food on April 17. Only pharmacies and bakeries were allowed to remain open.

Ramallah returned to life the next day to show a city-village more frenzied with construction and advertising, banks and fancy cars than before. Capitalism does not need a state.

The Palestinian Authority, with municipal elections just around the corner, was behind the general strike. Mobile phone companies ran ads on giant billboards and screens: support the hunger strike, support our prisoners. Political resistance and solidarity packaged by corporations, sold to non-citizens, never-citizens.

A 16-year-old girl named Fatema is shot dead by the Israeli army in the old city of Jerusalem in May. The world yawns. Another knife-wielding Palestinian. Western media is too disinterested to even call her a terrorist. If you shoot to kill all the time, and always have, it becomes normal.

On day 28 of the hunger strike, President Mahmoud Abbas is in India. People murmur. The PA is not popular. But there is a reluctance to condemn them publicly, for fear it would be seen as waving in the Israelis.

Abbas is back in time to meet with Donald Trump in Bethlehem, post-Gulf summit. The region shifts along the same decades-old axes: love oil, hate Iran, safety for Israel, Arab people need a boot on the neck to rule them. The only newness is proximity, the tightening of the circle. Riyadh is closer to Tel Aviv than ever before. A plan for normalization between Gulf States and Israel is reported in the Wall Street Journal. Palestine is not a part of this. The Arab media is silent in its intentional deafness.

“The Palestinians are ready to reach for peace,” Trump says in the West Bank. Reach for it, as if it’s been there all along, waiting for you. You just haven’t wanted to stand on your tiptoes and reach far enough. Everyone’s just waiting for you to reach.

***

It’s nighttime and we are driving into Jerusalem. We’ve spent the day in Al-Khalil, walking through the live ravaging of the center of a city after which markets are named throughout the Middle East. Now it’s the only city in the world with a military-protected settler occupation at the heart of it.

We did what we always do afterwards — we got on a bus and left. As the wall of Jerusalem’s old city rises to our right, postcard-elegant in yellow lights, Solmaz Sharif asks me what I think of the term “bearing witness.” I slow down from my administrative thoughts to try and meet her poet’s precision.

I say that I do not like how it makes the witness the center of the story, and how it seems to draw a border around the act: as if it is enough to come, to see. Witnessing on its own becomes the positive thing, when at best, it can be a step for a person to figure out what kind of solidarity is possible, or is required. That is where the work is — not in traveling, not in visiting, not in listening. It’s in what comes afterwards.

Without what comes after, witnessing stops being an opening, and starts being a limitation, because what horrified you the first time, soon becomes normal.

***

My first visit to Palestine was in the spring of 2013. The revolution in Cairo was flailing, but it was still the center of my understanding of the world’s politics and possibilities.

In contrast, Ramallah felt calm.

“How do you live there, with all these constant protests, this instability?” was a question I was asked, more than once.

I went back to Cairo in early June, thinking the road to Palestine’s freedom might still begin in Egypt, thinking Palestine wasn’t necessarily central to all of our lives and the ways in which they are controlled, thinking the shift that might begin to turn the whole region might have nothing to do with Jerusalem.

Now Egypt is in a vice. So is Palestine. Prisons in both places are filled with men and women taken for speaking, for protesting, or for nothing — just for being. Our future is seized by a language of domination, of securitization, of limitation, and of ugly construction. It is not the same – Palestine/Egypt/Black America/Syria. The struggles are not the same, not exactly. But they are part of a same.

Between Egypt and Palestine, there is more. The political map of the region tells us that there will be no freedom for either of us, without the other. Palestine is more than a just cause, it is part of our way out of whatever political reality this is.

The terms “oppression” and “dictatorship” fall as flat and overused as “bearing witness.”

***

We are driving from Haifa back south to Ramallah.

The iNakba app tells us Tantoura is just to the right and so we are getting off the highway, to see what it has become.

I try to summon a mental picture from Radwa Ashour’s Al Tantouria before we arrive. The one that comes to my mind is of the high sun fractured into a glittering blaze on the calm water, so bright the narrator would have had to squint to watch the young man to whom she would be betrothed coming out of the sea. She is a child, and the moment is wrapped up in attraction and curiosity that is not yet lust.

Photograph: Yasmin El-Rifae

Now the sun is low in the late afternoon and it is quiet, a stretch of public beach, a few fishing boats, some concrete huts that could be in Sinai. I put my feet in the water, and walk to the north. A group of Palestinian fishermen sit in front of a very old building of dark beige stone.

“It’s the only thing that’s left of the old village,” they say. “It was a restaurant for a while. The owners moved to Syria.”

I do not have a mental picture of the massacre at Tantoura in 1948.

The sea is warm around my feet.

Farther down, on the sand, a couple is taking wedding photographs, the groom in shorts and a white collared shirt, the bride in a long, simple white dress, the photographer directing them emphatically. I do not want to look closely, I do not want to walk by them and hear which language they speak. I do not want to know what lies behind their choice of this particular beach, if they had grown up on the kibbutz turned permanent settlement nearby, or if to them this is simply a random bit of water, without meaning or history. So I choose to imagine that they are Palestinians, that maybe one of them had family here, or that maybe they are readers.

Radwa never visited Palestine, never saw Tantoura. As we drive away, I wonder what made her choose this village, this story, for her novel that skips through time and sails back and forth across this sea to tell what it has to tell.

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Yasmin El-Rifae