art of resistance, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

Under The Gun: A Palestinian Journey.

Fourteen years ago, Ahdaf Soueif, famous Egyptian novelist (In The Eye of The Sun, The Map of Love), visited Israel and Palestine for the first time. Under The Gun: a Palestinian Journey (published by Guardian) is an essay she wrote about the journey.

ahdaf soueifAhdaf Soueif /photo via Russell Tribunal on Palestine/

The following paragraphs are the excerpts from it.

I have never, to my knowledge, seen an Israeli except on television. I have never spoken to one. I cannot say I have wanted to. My life, like the life of every Egyptian of my generation, has been overcast by the shadow of Israel. I have longed to go to Palestine, but have not wished to go to Israel. And now I am going there.

I have not felt such anticipation or such fear since I was a child. For the past two months I have been following the news of the intifada. I have compared the images on the BBC and CNN with those on al-Jazira and other Arab channels. I have unspun stories, fumed at the American newspapers and been grateful for some of the reporting in some of the British press. I have started and ended my days reading appeals for help on the internet. And over and again I have asked myself: ‘What is it that I can do?’ Now at last I can do something; I can go see for myself, and write. But going means going there.

We are sitting in a smallish, brightly lit room with vividly blue armchairs. Serious attempts at decor have been made: a cactus growing out of a half coconut shell tilts on an Arab-style carved wooden table, rubber plants and plastic flowers droop from dusty glass shelves, an empty drinks dispenser glows coldly in the corner. On the walls are three reproductions: two are Kandinsky-like, but the third is a large close-up of the two forefingers of God and Adam just failing to meet.

A polite young Israeli comes in and asks me in broken Arabic to fill out some forms. Then he comes back to escort us to the passport window. I say: ‘I don’t want my passport stamped.’ He says: ‘I know.’

I head out of the hotel and start walking. Every car I pass I imagine exploding into flames. How far away does one have to be not to be killed by an exploding car? But the sun is shining as I head down Salah el-Din Street – and I am at home. The street is lined with bakeries, haberdasheries, shoeshops, small grocers, hairdressers. Girls in school uniform and headscarves walk in groups, chatting, laughing. Boys loiter and watch them. The names on the shops and the doctors’ signs are the familiar mix of Muslim and Christian Arab, French and Armenian. The French cultural centre has wide-open doors and an inviting garden; there is a smell of roasting coffee. It’s like a smaller, cleaner, uncrowded Cairo. But two buildings look different from the others: they are modern, precise, their angles are sharp, they fly the Israeli flag, and they are the only ones with closed gates that are made of steel bars.

She talks of tear gas pumped into houses, of rubber bullets which the Palestinian children peel to extract the steel marble within, which they then aim back at the soldiers with their slingshots. She talks of the threat to her mosque, of an ambulance bringing a 78-year-old neighbour back from hospital, how soldiers searched it and stripped it down to the cooling unit: ‘they’ve grown afraid of the air itself.’ I feel dizzy with the detail piling up in my head and leave before I can be made to stay and eat.

The city is beautiful. Like old Jerusalem it is made of pink stone. The narrow streets wind up and down like the streets of an Etruscan town. The houses lean against each other, one house’s roof forming the other’s patio. Ornate stone balconies look out on to the empty street. The sun shines, the air is clean and fresh, the light is so perfect we could be on a film set. A dark green patrol car passes and does not stop us. The microphone blares out in accented Arabic: ‘O people of al-Khalil. Beware breaking the curfew.’ Round the next bend a yellow taxi is at a stop in the middle of the road, leaning to one side. A group of children has gathered round it watching, hushed and still. We pull in by a wall and park. A woman leans against the taxi with a baby in her arms. ‘I know it’s a curfew,’ the driver says, ‘but she has just come out of hospital, and she had the baby, so I drove her. Look what they’ve done.’ A soldier had taken out a knife and slashed the two tyres on the driver’s side. Naturally he only has one spare tyre. With the curfew how is he going to get another one? Two boys are helping him change one wheel. The other children look on in silence. The woman starts walking off slowly.

Maybe there are cafes in West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv where intellectuals, artists, people, sit around and debate the condition of the country and the ‘Palestinian problem’. Maybe they debate the ethics of an army of occupation holding a population hostage, or the civil rights of an Arab population in a zionist state, but these places – the places that are lit up at night – how do I find them? In the entertainment guide I look at the listings: films, recitals, cabarets. I consider taking a taxi and simply buying a ticket. But even the thought makes me uneasy.

Sedition! Snorts Mrs Jibril. ‘We were trying to help the mothers give their children a ‘normal’ childhood. You know what the children sing? They sing: Papa bought me a trifle/ A machine gun and a rifle. We were struggling to to get them to sing normal children’s songs. But normal children’s songs have nothing to do with the reality of their lives.’

‘You know what’s the worst of it’, they say, ‘is that they keep you guessing. You never know if a road is going to be open or closed. When they are going to shut off your water or turn off your electricity. Whether they are going to permit a burial. Whether they are going to give you a permit to travel. You can never ever plan. They create conditions to keep you spinning…’

I have seen women pushing their sons behind them, shoving them to run away, screaming at the soldiers: ‘Get out of our faces. Stop baiting the kids.’

I have heard a man say: ‘I have four sons and no work. I cannot feed them. Let them go out and die if it will help our country; if it will end this state of things.’

I have seen children calmly watch yet another shooting, another funeral. And when I have wept they’ve said: ‘She’s new to this.’“

For more – see the original essay on Guardian and read Soueif’s collection of essays Mezzaterra : Fragments from the Common Ground.

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