Trump’s attack on UNRWA is a reminder that the rules of the game need to change

unrwa foodIt is a sickening sight when a billionaire businessman-turned president is able to withhold millions of dollars from the educational, health and social services provided to millions of refugees. It is a sickening sight too when the same country that sells weapons to Israel claims that punishing Palestinian refugees to push the government into the so-called ‘peace’ talks is what is needed to broker peace. Surely, UNRWA – a UN humanitarian Agency, let us remember, not a political body responsible for negotiations, nor a terrorist breeding organisation (as some opportunistic Zionists like to claim) – should not be being held responsible for the acts of Palestinian leaders.

It is another reminder of the power that funding organisations and donor countries wield over humanitarian, and other, organisations. Indeed, in 2014, it was noted in US Congress that: “UNRWA—given the tight financial leash it has been on for most of its existence—has tended to follow [donors’] dictates, even if sometimes slowly”[1].

UNRWA therefore finds itself in a situation where it is providing food, health services, job creation opportunities and psychosocial support (and more) in situations halted from improvement by the continuation of the conflict, without being able to address the root causes of the suffering of Palestine refugees. There is only so much psychosocial support you can provide in Gaza when the population suffers psychologically from the constant unrwa still refugeesfear of shelling and the trauma of countless wars. There is only so much food that UNRWA can provide to a growing population of refugees for 70 years; only so many jobs it can create in an economy crippled by Israel’s control in Palestine and the deprived camps of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. While it at least has some room for advocacy these days, it takes care to neutralise any call for peace as the need for a “political” or “just solution”[2],  or with the reminder that Palestinians are “still refugees”, without mention of how a solution might look.

And UNRWA is not the only organisation working in Palestine at the mercy of political agendas. For decades, the Palestinian feminist movement – once a strong grassroots movement – has been forced into apolitical NGOs that focus on achieving gender equality and reducing domestic violence within set political boundaries. While they may lobby to amend laws, they are unable to fight the greatest oppression that Palestinian women face, and which creates a culture of violence that they are ultimately subjected to – that of the Occupation.

Significantly, such depoliticisation also disregards Palestinian refugees as humans with political rights. It refocuses the source of their oppression away from the injustices reaped by the occupation and Israeli violence and onto the struggle for basic needs. Palestinian refugees are displayed as disempowered victims stranded in camps. It is forgotten that UNRWA should not still be in existence, that Palestinians’ right to return should have been granted. It is forgotten that Palestinian refugees live around the world, many with comfortable lives, but still lacking their political rights.

Yet, despite all this, UNRWA is not being treated as a humanitarian organisation but being further abused by political agendas of a right wing government. Since UNRWA and those it serves are therefore not winning by playing the rules of the game, perhaps it is time that they changed the rules. Rather than acting simply as a municipality in Palestinian camps, the time has come for UNRWA to better represent all Palestinian refugees. Rather than simply calling for humanitarian assistance and some hazy solution, and displaying the vulnerability of Palestinian refugees, it should stand for all those who seek recognition of the crimes committed against them and their families and of their right to return to their grandparents’ land. This includes the Palestinian Syrians living in caravans in a former public park in Jordan without proper sanitation, those dodging planes on the beaches of Gaza, and those being sprayed with tear gas in camps in the West bank, but it also includes the artist in New York, the waiter in London, and the Arabic teacher in Norway. And not only should it point out that they still exist but play a role in ensuring that they are represented politically in negotiations that are too often taken over by the political agendas of elites on both sides of the table. Such a move may, in turn, remind governments that humanitarian aid cannot be given in place of political support, and that oppression and human rights violations cannot be treated solely as humanitarian crises.


[1] H.R. 5647. 2014. ‘UNRWA Anti-Terrorism Act’ 113th Congress (2013-2014) 18/9/2014


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Wartime in Winter

December 2008, Rafah Camp

War usually leaves a notion of warmth. Violent, cruel warmth, as buildings burn and hot blood spills but warmth nevertheless. Yet when Mohanned stepped out into the shelling, he braced as the winter air clawed at his skin.

It wasn’t frosty – Rafah was not able to reach such temperatures – but, used to the summer humidity, he still felt it. He momentarily resented his role as the retriever of food, until his body adjusted and he continued on his way. At least there was no longer the fear of running into a soldier, but with ever more planes controlling his life below from above, neither was there any longer a place to hide. Still, he kept into the side. There was little to be gained from provoking an attack by walking in the middle of the street. What concerned him most, however, was where he might find bread. The demand now so exceeded supply that even the family shop had not been able to get hold of any to sell, while queues signalled the location of bakeries from afar. Such was wartime in winter.

Predictably, the small bakery at the end of their street was closed. He saw his neighbour, a well-respected man, ahead, and called out to him.

‘Abu Salim. Kef halak ya hajj?’ The man had reached an age at which his steady shuffling enabled Mohanned to quickly catch him up. Mohanned knew he would stand little chance if the shelling began but he was one of those men who was always to be found out in the camp, as though making sure everything was in order, and war seemed not to have provided him the impetus to change his routine.

He smiled on seeing Mohanned’s approach. ‘Ah, Mohanned. Kef halak?’

Alhamdulilah, Abu Salim. How are you?’

‘Alhamdulilah. How’s your family? How’s your father?’

Nothing in life rid time of the need to enquire about another’s well-being. He asked him if he knew of anywhere selling bread in the camp.

‘You should have come in the morning. There’s not a crumb to be found on the ground at this time. Even the cats have left and moved to the town for the afternoon.’

He gave a hearty chuckle that turned into a cough. ‘I hear Fairouz bakery is still open for most of the day though. Rumour has it there’s a steady supply of flour coming their way through the tunnels.’

Allah yusa’dak, ya hajj. The air is bitter these months. You need to keep yourself warm.’

‘Pah, don’t you worry about me,’ he said, waving a bony hand to the side as though to demonstrate that he was still stronger than the surrounding air. ‘There’s still a hell a lot of life left in me yet. You just be careful on the way into town, mind. And make sure you give my love to your mother and father.’

Mohanned carried on up the road that led to Rafah city whilst Abu Salim continued to shuffle through the camp, greeting those known to him, which was, without exception, everyone he met.

The streets were eerily quiet and heightened Mohanned’s sense that he should not be there. He quickened his pace. Sure enough, as he neared the bakery he could see the queue stretching away from him and the speed at which it was moving suggested that the fresh batch was still being baked. He was glad though that he at least wouldn’t be forced to return empty-handed. He stood in silence, trying not to allow his thoughts to stray to the sky. Others chatted amongst themselves, exchanging tales of the latest attacks, speculating on where the next may be, trepidation increasingly evident in their tones as their feet shuffled to trick their minds into thinking they were moving.

Then the line shook, imitating the structures around them as a roll of thunder tore through the city. In the distance, buildings keeled over, sending smoke signals to the sky. Panic rippled through them.

There was a moment in which they remained in line, reluctant even in this atmosphere to relinquish the progress they had made. But it was only for a moment, and then instinct kicked in. Shrieks replaced idle chatter and they scattered.


Mohanned ran home. Ran towards the sight of the shelling. His broad physique had always rendered him clumsy in any gait faster than a walk but he covered the ground with increasing speed, ignoring the cold claw that now clutched at his throat. Once in the camp, he finally allowed himself to rest, exhaustion and fear both grinding him to a halt. Though his lungs sought oxygen, they found only billows of dust. Ahead of him, the mosque that had once stood tall lay spread amongst the ground.

“You, shab, help us!”

He realised he was being called to.

Yalla. Sa’edna!”

He hesitated. Images of the Intifada rose to his mind, reminding him that the smell of the dead would make him want to wretch, that, so fresh from life, their blood would still be warm until their bodies turned cold.

He shuddered and ran forth into hell.


The hours passed slowly; time itself weighed down by the weight of the stones he was instructed to shift. Though his strength had increased considerably over the years, he still struggled under those corpses that had not been blown apart and he pitied his younger self who had dealt with twice as strenuous a task. It was only late into the night that they decided they had cleared the mosque as best they could and agreed to return in the morning. His ears had long numbed to the wails of grief that replaced the space once filled by the mosque’s call. He was confident that none of his family would have been in the mosque at the time, since they frequented one on the other side of the camp, but he still faced every fresh body with a sick fear that the red crust upon them would be composed of familial blood.


As he opened the door, he practically fell into his mother’s arms.

Ya ibny, where have you been all this time?’ she crowed. ‘Alhamdulilah ala es salama.’

She squeezed his broad shoulders so tightly that he had to prise himself away.

‘I had to help move bodies from the wreckage of the mosque.’

‘Which mosque? Were many people killed? We heard the explosion but were too afraid to go out.’

‘Masjid Al Hedaya. They bombed it just after the Adhan. As many bodies as bricks. Hands, heads, hard to tell how many people. We need to go back in the morning to try to salvage the rest. Barely anyone survived. Sorry, I didn’t bring back any bread. I was in the queue at the bakery when it happened…’

The words tumbled out, tripping over one another.

Ya umry, forget about the bread. All I care is that you’re safe. Laith and your father called from the shop hours ago but I had no idea what had happened to you. Sit, habebe. Let me bring you tea and something to eat.’

He collapsed on the firash, pulling blankets in towards him. The blood pounded in his ears and he realised how his body ached. As he allowed his head to meet with the floor, the eyes of the dead rose behind his eyelids.

‘Mohanned, wake up! You’re not to sleep before you’ve eaten.’

He sat up and stared at the dry pieces of bread – remnants left from others’ meals. He had not felt less hungry.

Ya immy, why does Mohanned get to eat? We’re hungry too!’

His younger brothers and sisters gathered round him and, despite having already eaten, his mother soon gave in to their pleas and brought more cheese. Mohanned was happy for his siblings to eat his share. He picked at a piece, crumbling it between his fingers before closing his eyes again.

‘Mohanned,’ pestered the youngest, Aliya, ‘why didn’t you bring us more bread?’

‘Aliya,’ snapped Reema, ‘can’t you see your brother’s tired? Shall I send you out beneath the bombs tomorrow to do the shopping instead?’

She gave her mother a reproachful look and said no more, while Mohanned lay back down.


When he woke, the food was gone and only his older brother, Laith, lay with him, his resting body breathing deeply. It couldn’t long have passed six o’clock and he tried to sleep again, his body weak, but it was no use. After washing, he returned outside.

Men were already at work, the debris now at a lower level than the night before, and he joined them in shifting the stone, always alert for an arm reaching out from the rubble. Occasionally, one of the others called for help in retrieving someone they had found but Mohanned worked all morning without coming across a single corpse. Then, before descending to take coffee from the women who had come carrying freshly brewed flasks, he reached out for one last stone and recoiled. Another’s hand had reached it before him, now as cold as the stone, slimy to his touch.

Ya shabab!’ he yelled down at the breaking group. ‘Come help me.’

They clambered up as he grasped at more rocks, desperate to uncover more of the picture but, at the same time, afraid of what lay beneath. With the others’ help, progress was quickly made. A bony burnt torso still lay claim to two broken legs but only one wrinkled arm remained and then a head somehow still hanging on, twisted to one side. One of the men tenderly moved it to face them, so as to better identify the man. Mohanned stepped back and stumbled.


Though his face was disfigured almost to the point it was unrecognisable, there was no mistaking the neighbour who had been so alive only the previous day as he shuffled through the camp. Mohanned covered his face with his hand but nothing would rid him of the sight of Abu Salim’s one remaining blackened hand lain above his head, as though still waving aside the air that was to take him from this Earth.

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We are all… : local responses in Manchester and Palestine

The response to the Manchester terror attack reminded me a lot of the response of West Bank Palestinians to the 2014 War on Gaza.

gaza picIn the West Bank, people watched for a month as bombs rained down on their families. Children’s burnt bodies carried on the shoulders of grieving parents were repeatedly shown on TV, citizens keeled over in grief, screaming by the rubble. Understandably, there was an air of depression and despair about the place. In response, there was a campaign ‘Kolna Gaza’ – ‘All of us are Gaza’. In the administrative capital, Ramallah, this flashed up on a billboard and people bought t-shirts with the slogan, the money going to help those in Gaza.

mcr picIn Manchester, though the incident was on a far smaller scale, what added to the shock was that people had presumed themselves to be safe. We expect these things to happen in the Middle East and in Africa. Even in London, you get on the tube aware of the potential risk. But Manchester was not prepared. That children were purposefully targeted also angered people. It was not long until ‘We love Manchester’ posters appeared in shop windows, and t-shirts bearing the slogan could be bought, as in Gaza, this time with the money going to the families of those affected.

They are responses that I find at once inspiring and depressing and am trying to fully understand.

On the one hand, that two communities 3000 miles apart react in such a similar fashion says something of our similarities, of the way we all struggle to deal with atrocities and wish to show solidarity with those who suffer. Like others, I was warmed to hear of people spitting on free editions of the Sun that sought to spread racist rhetoric, brought to tears when people clapped as Muslims walked through the city one afternoon with banners decrying terrorism. For the first time, I felt proud to belong to this city. How many people who have never set eyes on one another now bear the same symbol of togetherness? And so, while there are surely others whose racist views were strengthened, it seems that a sense of community was actually created by an attack that sought to achieve the opposite. The sudden reminder of our vulnerability acted as a reminder that, regardless of our social status, we are all made of the same flesh and blood.

In the West Bank, a strong sense of community already exists due to decades of struggle against oppression. It is a place where you feel looked out for, even as a foreigner, in a way you don’t as a local in the UK. There, what I found inspiring rather was that so many years into war and occupation, people still found the strength to cry out and to declare that ‘all of us are Gaza’.

However, I also find such reactions to be a tragic comment on the helplessness we feel in such situations.

That Palestinians responsible for two uprisings this time displayed their anger by wearing t-shirts suggests too that the spirit of some is flagging. And it’s not surprising. West Bank Palestinians also took to the streets to protest the escalation of the war on Gaza but, there, protests are quickly met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and gain little global coverage. There were rumours that a third Intifada was coming but such rumours were met with fear by many, aware of the physical, emotional and economic suffering that this would bring. Israel has only strengthened over the years, with technology and global support rendering it an even tougher opponent.

In Manchester, and other parts of Europe, people feel too like there is nothing they can do when such atrocities occur. One person commented how with other risks there are usually steps that can be taken to avoid them. You can stop to look before you cross the road, for instance, but with terror attacks there is little to be done. I think such a sense of helplessness is partly attributable to the fact that many do not consider terror attacks as a repercussion of war and social segregation, but see them as isolated attacks carried out by evil fundamentalists. People thus feel there is nowhere to direct their anger.

Who then, is such a response really for? Is it really for those in Gaza, for those families who lost people in the Manchester attack? While the financial gesture is done in good faith, West Bank Palestinians are not the ones who should be paying to rebuild Gaza, and the families in Manchester surely just want their friends and relatives back. Rather then, is it for ourselves, so that we can feel like we have not completely lost our grip on the world around us? Certainly, there is nothing wrong with this, if it is the case. In both Gaza and Manchester such acts of solidarity have warmed those towards whom they were directed, and that people wish to respond in any way is a positive thing. It is when people stop even trying to make these small gestures that we will have become truly apathetic and disempowered.

But if only there was a way to make people feel empowered beyond wearing t-shirts and getting bee tattoos. If only as many as gathered to pray for the dead in Albert Square, gathered to fight for the living.

Perhaps the key is in recognising that these two incidents are not as disconnected as they appear. Our emotions do not speak different languages. Across the world, anger is bred by fear and injustice. And, as a headache is the body’s way of telling us that we are ill, terrorism can be an indication that society is unwell. It is in unequal societies that people most easily become disillusioned, in a world where one country bombs another that people become angry and fearful, where once innocent children become adults with an eye to murder.

In Manchester, however, we are still fortunate to have the ability to protest, to stand up against injustice without fearing for our lives. I just hope that now that we’ve had a taste of such threat and disruption, we are able to positively harness such energy. For if such a sense of community can extend beyond a city’s walls, beyond a country’s borders, in the long run, we all might have less to fear.

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Crazy in love

July 2009, Jenin

With her hand placed down on the fabric to the left of the needle, Salwa pressed the pedal and moved the fabric gently forward. It was boredom rather than intrigue that had led her to ask her mother to teach her how to sew. Life in Jenin moved along so unbearably slowly that she was grateful for anything with which to utilise her time.

‘That’s it. Just gently now,’ encouraged her mother. ‘You certainly have the feel for it.’

Salwa was not sure that she did. She simply tried to keep it in a straight line and was relieved each time to not catch her finger on the needle. There was something almost unsettling in the insistency with which it hammered down on the cloth. Her mother, however, clearly enjoyed teaching her and, reminded of those first days spent together in the kitchen as she learnt to cook, Salwa also took pleasure in the process.

‘I think I’m ready to move onto clothes now,’ she said, holding up the piece of scrap cloth she had been practising on, now laden with stitches.

‘Ok but be careful. We can’t afford to waste any.’

Her mother lifted pieces of white garment from a bag and laid them on the floor so that together they made what looked like a shirt or a coat.

‘See here,’ she said, pointing along the seams where the sleeves met the shoulders. ‘This is all that’s left of this one but it’s the hardest part. Get the angle wrong and the whole thing will be misshapen.’

Salwa moved so that her mother could sit at the machine and show her how to do the first one.

‘You need to curve it round in a slight arc, feeling the needle,’ she told her.

When she’d finished that side, she turned it over so that Salwa could attempt the other.

‘Softly,’ she said, placing her hands either side of Salwa’s in order to guide her, ‘but not so slowly that you over-do the stitches.’

It was far more rewarding sewing actual clothes.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘A doctor’s uniform, by the looks of it.’

Salwa held it up and tried to imagine who might wear it. The shoulders were too broad for a woman, she thought, but the man would have to be of slim build to fit. She pictured the face. Sharp eyes that could maintain their focus but not too stern – a doctor had to be kind. And Israeli. This was where the clothes were going, after all. Would he have a face like that of the soldier who had once stepped into her room? Or maybe he was Arab. Her father had been to see an Arab doctor there once.

‘Do you not feel strange knowing where these are going?’ she asked her mother.

‘I’d rather make clothes for Palestinians, work for a Palestinian company, but I suppose I don’t care where they go, not really. If they start sending me army uniforms, then I’ll have a problem.’

Salwa supposed she was right. Any doctor would be working to cure, not kill. She neatly folded the jacket and waited while her mother took out the next lot of fabric.

‘Soon we’ll be able to work side-by-side. Imagine, Salwa! It’ll be like having my own little factory back in here.’

She smiled at her mother’s enthusiasm. Her temperament had noticeably changed since Salwa had returned to living in the house permanently, rather than visiting only for weekends. But her insides twisted with guilt. She had not mentioned the idea of going to Gaza, had not told her mother that Mohanned also believed it to be the right thing to do.

‘Yes, maybe,’ she said, ‘though I’d like to do something related to my studies. Train to be a proper psychologist perhaps.’

She had already discussed this with Mohanned who told her there was always work for counsellors, with the NGOs or even some private clinics.

‘And what would this entail? More studying?’ Her mother sounded sceptical.

Salwa also knew where she wanted to study. A mental health organisation in Gaza City ran programmes for counsellors. If she could find the money somewhere, it would mean she was well-qualified.

‘It would require more training, yes. But then I’d be able to work, and in something worthwhile. And I’d earn more money than I would from sewing.’

Habebte, you could sell bread and make more money than I do from sewing.’

‘You know what I mean.’

Her mother looked at her thoughtfully, a fabric arm held by her side.

‘Perhaps once your father returns. If it would make you happier here.’

Salwa bit her lip, wondering if there would be a better time. ‘The thing is,’ she told her mother, ‘I was thinking I could do it in Gaza.’

The needle vibrated furiously as her mother absentmindedly pressed the pedal. Salwa expected her to shout but instead she sighed, which was more affecting.

‘Gaza? Wallah, seriously Salwa?’

‘Yes, when the borders are open.’

‘Did Mohanned talk you into this?’

‘No, it was my idea. But how else are we going to be together? What did you think would happen once I’d finished university?’

‘You’re crazy if you think I’m going to let another child leave me. And have you not thought of your father?

‘So, I should just sit here watching time pass by. For what?’

‘For what? To be with your family, to start a family. And to work, if you like.’

‘But I want to start a family with Mohanned. And what family I have left! A brother who torments me, a father who’s in prison…’ She hesitated. Her mother’s eyes had saddened and though the needle hung still, her hand quivered beside it.

‘Go on, habebte, finish. If the mother who gave birth to you, raised you and loves you more than anyone in this world – more than Mohanned – isn’t enough reason to stay, then maybe you should go. And good riddance.’

Salwa left her mother sat at the machine. She didn’t hear a sound from her as she left the flat. In need of air, she ran up the stairs of the building until, short of breath, she was forced to a walk. She made it to the top and pushed the door open onto the roof. Late afternoon, the sun still shone strongly on her face but the worst of the heat had dissipated, and she breathed deeply, glad to be alone.

Perhaps university had taught her too much independence and, unused to family life, she was acting selfishly. Jenin certainly appeared more favourably from this height. She looked towards Jenin camp, visible by the hill on which the houses clustered, and away beyond Jenin where the land rolled out towards the surrounding countryside. It was home, that was for sure, and always would hold a place in her heart, but there was no ignoring that, without Mohanned, it felt empty – a city built on sand.

A cough sounded from behind and she turned around, startled. She could not see anyone until she moved to the side and a figure, previously obscured by the large black water tanks, became visible.

‘Abu Hamoud?’

As she stepped towards him, he turned steadily to face her, still leaning on the wall for support.

‘Ah, Salwa! I didn’t hear you come up. Kefek ya umry?’

It was a few months since she had last seen him and he appeared to have aged rapidly.

‘I didn’t know you came up here.’

‘Well, I already have to climb most of the way to make it to my flat, so I may as well enjoy the view.’

She smiled. There were few people she felt as at ease with as she did with Abu Hamoud. To think that she had once been afraid of the old man.

‘How is your mother, Salwa? Is her health any better?’

‘She’s well. Her back is still sore but she pretends it’s no longer causing her pain.’

‘A stubborn woman, your mother! And your father? Is there any news from him?’

‘Not much but, if God wills, he’ll be back soon.’

‘Yes, inshallah. And you Salwa? Are you glad to be finished with your books and back in Jenin?’

She looked at him despondently.

‘Hmm, I thought not,’ he said. ‘Troubles, not joys, are usually what bring people to ponder alone on the roof.’ He paused reflectively for a moment. ‘But, of course,’ he continued, ‘talking can be equally beneficial. If there is anything you’d like to share, that is.’

She wasn’t sure that sharing was what she sought at this moment but it felt rude to say so.

‘It’s my mother,’ she told him. ‘I want to go to Gaza to be with Mohanned but she won’t allow it. I think she still thinks I’m 12 years old and unable to make my own decisions.’

‘Ah, yes,’ he sighed. ‘That age-old problem of forbidden love is still doing its rounds, I see.’

She was unsure how to reply. Sometimes she felt his mind take her words and wander with them to a different place, a place she could not see.

‘My parents were not so keen on my wife of choice, either. She was too poor, they told me, as if love could be determined by class. I tried to convince them and when there was no changing their minds, I ran away.’

She raised her eyebrows, trying to imagine him in his youth, able to run, let alone elope against his family’s wishes.

‘I should say, though,’ he added, ‘that it is not something I recommend. The importance of family is never to be undermined, no matter how fierce your disagreements.’

He looked out again, beyond Jenin and to his hidden place.

‘It’s not Mohanned that’s the problem though,’ she explained. ‘I think they’d be happy for us to marry if he lived here. It’s the idea of me leaving and going to Gaza that’s the problem.’

‘And understandably so. It does not have the best reputation as a place one would want their child to live.

‘But if it’s the only place I can be with Mohanned then I don’t care. Why does everybody think I’m crazy for that, Abu Hamoud? Is it crazy to want to be with your favourite person in the world?’

‘No, Salwa, it’s certainly not. But those who believe such sacrifices to be absurd have either forgotten or never known what it is to be in love.’

They stood side-by-side on the roof as the sky mellowed. Abu Hamoud could have been sleeping, had his eyes not been open, and the stiffness in his legs causing him to shift his weight occasionally. Salwa’s mind too wandered to its hidden place.

Her hand in Mohanned’s, they walk out of the camp and towards the sea. It sparkles in the light, splashes of gold among the turquoise.

‘Touch it, habebte,’ he whispers. ‘It’s warm, as though the Earth’s blood pumps beneath it.’

She lets go of his hand to reach out for the water and finds him to be telling the truth. Then she takes off her shoes and socks, rolls up the ends of her trousers and starts to walk into the ocean.

‘Follow me,’ she tells him, and he walks after her, laughing as the tails of waves ride up their legs.

Soon, the water is up to their waists and Salwa’s hand back in his. They keep walking until their toes barely touch the bottom.

‘Let go of the ground,’ he tells her, and she pushes up so that she is floating on the surface.

‘Now move your arms and legs.’

She does so as though she knew how to from birth, the sea stroking her skin playfully, welcoming her.

‘Do you know what’s beyond the ocean?’ he asks.

‘Tell me,’ she says.

‘Everything. We’re on the edge of the world.’

‘I think I’m going to go down now,’ Abu Hamoud announced. ‘I wish I could stay here with you ‘til the sun sets but my body needs to sit a while.’

‘Would you go back?’ she asked him.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You once told me that you were separated from your wife. If you had the chance to return to her, wherever she lived, would you?

He smiled, but so sadly that it was almost a frown.

‘Of course. I would take this stick and a loaf of bread, drag my old body through those ghastly checkpoints and walk until I saw her face again. If only I believed in the possibility, I would leave tonight.’

‘Thank you,’ she told him.

‘Whatever on Earth for, dear?’ he chuckled.

‘For making me feel a little less crazy.’

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What the case of Palestine can teach us about the ISIS name game

IS, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh… it is not surprising that confusion surrounds the identification of the militant group. All part of the diplomatic dance that is the politics of naming, it was not that long ago that politicians and the media sought to completely deny the group the status they desired by using the phrase ‘so-called Islamic State’. Since then, a wish to lessen their significance has led to the use of ‘ISIS’ (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ‘ISIL’ (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), with David Cameron requesting the BBC to stop using Islamic State, or IS, since the group is neither Islamic nor a state. Despite meaning the same as ISIL, the Arabic version ‘Daesh’ is also increasingly being used in Western media as a name disliked by the group both for its rougher sound and similarity to the word meaning ‘to trample down or crush’, which has sparked a number of puns by groups such as the Free Syrian Army.

Though language can be the most powerful of tools when used correctly, and the power of persuasion is certainly ISIS’s most dangerous weapon, is such a war of words really a display of power over ISIS, or rather of weakness as lost battles turn linguistic?

There is much to be learnt from a similar trend in the Israel-Palestine conflict that began with the Zionist movement’s declaration that Palestine was “A land without a people for a people without a land”. Now each side, through refusing to voice the other’s existence, seeks to deny an evolving truth. Mentioning the Palestinian Authority at Israeli airport security will guarantee a few hours of interrogation is added to your arrival despite the PA’s actualisation through the Oslo Accords. The West Bank is typically referred to with the Hebrew name of Judea and Samaria, and Palestinians are eradicated in Israeli tourism adverts. Meanwhile, many Palestinians try to avoid direct reference to Israel, instead using terms like ’48 (the year of the Nakba) and ad-dakhil (‘the inside’), in the belief that acknowledging Israel’s existence is to accept the 1967 boundaries.

Yet stubbornly ignoring the reality presents an obstacle to conducive change, for refusing to acknowledge the presence of the other will only result in a situation of stale-mate. If you close your eyes as our house is torn apart, you may be able to convince yourself that it still stands, but only will you be able to start rebuilding it once you open your eyes and accept that the damage has been done. There is thus something tragic in the sense of despair created when the reality is so offensive that you can only continue the struggle with one eye closed and your only remaining power is that wielded over the words that cross your lips.

This is true, too, of Israel, and is something Palestinians should find strength in, for their refusal to acknowledge the continuous presence of an increasing Palestinian population displays their anxiety that they are running out of options to deal with a threat they never imagined would prove so resilient. That attempts to redefine their oppressive regime, such as by reference to the separation wall as a ‘dividing fence’, even belie international law shows they are living in an illusion.

Of course, the situation with ISIS is by no means contextually comparable but the political name game that continues to be played exhibits a similar weakness. Politicians’ awkward changes to the group’s name as their regional power increases not only makes for uncomfortable viewing but betrays governments’ fear of a group that eludes geographical control.

Attempts at linguistic delegitimisation also risk downplaying the strength of ISIS and seeking out a name that denies their Islamic identity is counterproductive. Islamophobes certainly need to recognise that the form of Islam preached by ISIS is a radical once unaccepted by the majority of Muslims, but whilst we may disagree with their concept of Islam, it is nevertheless a concept integral to their being and that is something that cannot be addressed simply by renaming the group.

Though it may be true that ISIS detest the name Daesh so much that they have beheaded those who use it, such games are therefore still ultimately reminiscent of playground name-calling. This is not to suggest that sticks and stones – or cluster bombs and drones – are more effective than words, but that such futile attempts at control will also not help to address the causes of such a complex phenomenon.

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A Palestinian in Stockholm – thoughts on identity, power, resistance

A kufiyah hung betwkufiyeheen the two beds and a children’s book titled ‘I belong to Palestine’ lay on the side as we watched a documentary on the Nakba and ‘Letters from Yarmouk’ –
a documentary following the lives of residents under siege in the camp, which is now more a large town, through a local photographer’s images.

I had only met Mulham by chance. Having at first failed to find a couchsurfer to stay with in Stockholm, I had booked into a hostel, but a day before arriving I checked my email to find my booking to have been cancelled and a message from Mulham offering me a place to stay. Considering that I’d not long decided to research Palestinian identity among Palestinian refugees from Syria, focusing on camps in Jordan in the belief that it would be too hard to find the community in Europe, it felt like more than a stroke of luck. I was even more fortunate that Mulham turned out to be a particularly generous guy, eager to tell me about the Palestinian community in Syria, the conflict and how he felt moving to Europe impacted Palestinian identity and resistance.

The Swedish Theory of Love – a film about the state-driven independence of Swedes – claims that it takes an average of seven years for foreigners to become part of Swedish society but after eight months in the capital it was clear that Mulham had already begun to adapt. Earphones in, he waits for the pedestrian light to turn green with more patience than most Swedes, and an addiction to Swedish chocolate ensures a large yellow packet is to be found in his bag at all times. Though he’s modest about his level of Swedish, I was impressed that he’s already able to converse somewhat in the complex language and is progressing determinedly through a Swedish self-help book.

But even though carb-free crisp bread has replaced the traditional pitta, it still stands beside a large tub of za’atar and a bottle of olive oil – a typical component of a Palestinian breakfast. His loyalty to the Palestinian cause was evident too as we discussed the occupation and the role played by the US, Europe and Arab states in upholding the Israeli regime.

It was this that led to what, for me, was the most illuminating point Mulham made. I had assumed that in those places where conditions were worst for Palestinian refugees, such as the camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the sense of Palestinian identity and desire to return would be strongest. In contrast, those who had moved to Europe, thus technically giving up the ‘right to return’ and no longer being a member of such a dense and populated Palestinian community, would be more likely to become less active in the resistance as their sense of Palestinian identity weakened and they were no longer part of the struggle and suffering of camp life that is in itself a form of resistance.

However, Mulham suggested the opposite – that life for Palestinians in the Arab states often presents such economic challenges that the struggle to get by becomes the priority, whilst the political situation also hinders the ability of Palestinians to engage in direct acts of resistance. In Europe, on the other hand, he argued that the Palestinian community is both more able to divest energy to the Palestinian cause and in a better position to affect change in the US and Europe – two sights of power that cannot be ignored in the fight against the occupation.

It’s certainly an optimistic view but not one without reason. In Chile, where the fourth largest Palestinian population reside, a Palestinian football team exists and Palestinians have been able to educate Chileans on the realities of the Israeli occupation. An international Palestinian solidarity movement, comprised of Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, is testament to such a trend, as are the numerous Palestinians in exile famous for speaking out against the Israeli regime. From Edward Said to Emily Jacir, a greater space is available for the voice of Palestinians who have spent at least parts of their life abroad. I certainly like the idea of loci of power spread across the globe – gophers of resistance popping up in numbers too great for Israel to hit them down with its mallet of oppression.

Still, I fear that the more times a people find themselves displaced, the thinner their sense of belonging to their original homeland becomes. And so I was curious as to how Mulham now felt about returning to Syria, in relation to the simultaneous desire to one day return to Palestine. But he had reassuring words…

“Syria,” he told me, “is like the lover that I spent my youth with, who gave me a love and warmness and cared for me, so of course I miss being with my love… but Palestine is like the mother that I haven’t met but will fight all my life to be held by, to be between her arms.”

For however strong or weak one’s sense of Palestinian identity remains, whatever opportunities present themselves to resist, perhaps all will only be lost once the last kufiyah ceases to hang above the bed of one who dreams of Palestine.


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Return to Rafah

Finally, it seemed, the end had come. Or, rather, the dark crimson dye that had stained their lives had gradually run to leave a murky fuchsia in its wake. The crushed remains of once-believed-in hope lay remnant like the piles of stone that now littered streets, once parts of faithfully-built, if unstable, homes. Funerals were once again held for individuals but the grief left behind remained collective. A different leader and new factions, empty words and false promises signalled steps back for many but others philosophised that at least the rhythm of the dance had changed.

Familial ties had been pulled and twisted, their resilience stretched to a point at which many, though unbroken, now sagged; and it was within such a loosely-fitting household that Salwa now sat, listening to plans to make the now-possible journey to visit the family in Gaza, with neither excitement nor anxiety but, at most, a mild curiosity. It would be interesting, after all, to see if Reema’s black curls now drooped as Shayma’s did, to see if hers and Ahmad’s bellies had shrunk along with the economy or if they in fact protruded further, casualties of diets reliant on supplies of flour and sugar. She would be keen to see if Mahmoud, their eldest, who shared his age with Omar, carried the absent look that her brother so often now did, to see if the family still built their days around jokes and laughter or rather dragged them through an endless anguish, and to see too if the brown door still hung steadily from its hinge or if it now stooped sadly, as did theirs. And, she supposed, she would also be interested to see Mohanned. She wondered if her cousin, now 18 years of age, embodied the beginnings of adulthood or still clung to the remnants of childhood, if his broad shoulders had continued to develop into a short but sturdy frame or if the rest of his body had caught up so that a lean figure now stood in his place. She wondered, too, if he would remember her, or if she had merely been a leaf on the orange tree of their childhood that had blown away with the coming of the storm.

Her father was proposing that they left the following weekend but the proposition was more of an announcement. In the past, he would have asked Shayma what she thought and normally would have been swayed by her opinion but he no longer bothered to ask and Salwa sensed that, having forgotten the old rhythms of life, he was now trying to play along as best he could. New notes had been added in the place of lost old ones, in the hope that no-one would notice. And even if her mother noticed, she would never have said so. Her joy at his return had so far meant that she was happy to allow him to take control, as those grandchildren whose visits are seldom are typically spoiled more than those who visit frequently. And behind everything, behind the pretence that life had returned to normal, lay Shayma’s self-constructed shame at having not fulfilled the most primary of her traditional maternal roles in Ahmad’s absence. It was not therefore that Ahmad did not value her opinions but that she no longer valued her own.

Omar’s self-resentment was less transparent. Hidden behind layers of blunted emotions, one could also have attributed his lack of self-expression to a simmering anger or a low discontentment, but Salwa, who believed herself to be more in tune than most with her brother’s feelings, sensed that a silent guilt continued to plague him.

It was in this atmosphere that they made the journey to Gaza. There was too much room in the car for the four of them and they felt it. The drive passed without event, as if even the soldiers had tired of them and their lives, and Salwa wished she still had Majed to pull in towards her, to place an arm around for protection; but their empty protection had not been enough.

The difference was immediately noticeable. Entering through the outskirts of Rafah, parts appeared as though an earthquake had hit. Some buildings with stronger structures remained as empty skeletons amidst the wreckage, whilst those that had been lucky enough to escape teetered on the edge, awkwardly standing by the fallen. It was like Jenin camp, only magnified. In fact, so unrecognisable to Salwa were the roads leading up to the house, that it was only once they were directly outside and at the metal door, with flakes of brown paint still determinedly hanging on, that she realised they had arrived.

The family had aged. Yet it was more than the physical ageing that could have been expected to have occurred within the five years since they had last met. Their expressions drooped and their bodies slouched, as though physically weighed down by grief; their faces bore the scars of fallen tears; but what shook her the most was Mohanned’s gaze, how it scanned her as though unrecognisable, how it told her that the Intifada lay etched upon them too. As his eyes lingered upon her, and as their gazes finally reconnected, she feared that she had become unknown to him; that it was not the passing of time that mattered but the horror of moments they had both seen but not shared that now stood between them. And were it not for his subsequent approach, the hand, surprisingly firm, that tightened around hers, as he leaned in to kiss her on each cheek, telling her that he was now hers, she would have dropped her defeated gaze and accepted, as simply as that, that things had changed. But before he backed away, she realised that events, in fact, did not stand between them but rather entwined them, forcing them together in spite of themselves. For before they had even had time to properly understand one another, they had held in their minds their own image of the other for whom they had longed and grieved for so long, that the reality now incarnated the imagined.

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Forgotten Memories

After things had settled, once the fresh emotions had turned stale though still embedded in the lives of those affected, the people in the town would always start the story with the journey of the ball. There was something macabre that engaged their listeners when they started the story with the ball. They would tell of how it had bounced down through a winding alley of the camp, gathering speed as it passed the shops as though it simply sought to escape the dreadful scene. They would tell how something strange had stirred in them that only after did they realise was the absence of children’s footsteps following behind. At this point they would know their listener was hooked, and would begin to linger in the details. They would focus on the way the boys’ backs had lay flat on the Earth as though their bodies had hoped to catch a final ray of sun. They would describe the way one of the boy’s blood and guts surrounded him, as though they sought to draw attention to the brutality of his demise, whilst the other boy’s ostensibly intact body appeared as a distasteful imitation of his friend. Then, how the primarily nauseated silence had erupted into moans, as elders wailed from witnessing the passing of those so junior in years before their own, the wrath of rage that erupted from those bearing the energy to mould such injustice into angry revolt, the high-pitched emittances of terror from the children who had stumbled into witnessing the scene.

What they would not tell, because they did not know, was how throughout all this, the mother of one of the dead sat laughing; laughing as she listened to the jokes of her favourite Egyptian comedian, freshly broadcast through the radio. They would also not tell how, throughout all this, the sister of one of the dead was humming; humming as daydreams led her merrily through the town. Nor how the brother of one of the dead had been joking; joking with his peers, as they sat, smoking, on a wall, waiting for the boy who was to appear hanging from the shoulders of others.

No-one would ever tell that part of the tale because these memories became forgotten; wiped out by the rapid torrent of events that followed.

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The Arrest

Salwa was reminded strangely of Ramadan in the days of the curfew. Life was suspended so that the hours lost all regular meaning. The merging of the day into night and the reappearance of the day became an absurd background dance, out of tandem with the pace of life unfolding on centre stage. Yet the conflux of people in the town that emerged in the rush for items in the hours before the evening’s breaking of the fast, no longer came with that element of magic and excited anticipation. Rather, the few hours in which the town’s citizens were allowed out between the times of curfew were filled with mounting dread, an unusual sense of not knowing how to act in usual settings. People no longer had the luxury of choosing from a collection of seasonal temptations but took what they could from the increasingly dwindling supply of goods. Returning home before the call to prayer may have irritated your family and prolonged pangs of hunger but to return after the hours of curfew was to find yourself caught in a surreal game of cat and mouse.

And disrupted nights were not born from early morning feasts nor from the enjoyment of staying up through the night while your parents took some hours of sleep before the working day. Sleep was now rationed on a par with any other commodity, with hours grabbed in between ricochets of artillery fire, the sound of footsteps carrying foreign voices through the building, and distorted dreams that people awoke from only to find they were less fictional than hoped.

It was the vibrations, however, that this time awoke Salwa. The walls of the house had always been such that the slamming of a door at one end could be felt at the other, and her bedroom door now rattled hysterically. With the vibrations came her parents’ voices, relentless shouts, loud but muffled as if wrapped beneath layers, and increasingly forceful bangs. They were feebly imitated by the walls around her, but erratically, so that she was unable to brace herself for the next shock. Then, suddenly, the largest of them all caused Salwa to grasp her bed as though it was her only safety line amidst the commotion. A gust of sounds seemed to have entered the house with the bang that had concluded the round – a mixture of voices and objects smashing, crashing, with her mother’s scream finally trilling eerily above them. It snatched at Salwa’s breath and penetrated her from within – an invisible arrow pinning her still.

Until it was her turn.

The door fell forward as though the hinges and handle had been only for effect, and taking its place loomed a figure distinguishable solely by the small pocketed face peering out from the otherwise all-encompassing khaki. For a moment they just stared at each other – the only beings present in that small room. Having jerked upright at the intrusion, Salwa could feel the wall on her back and took comfort knowing that at least nothing could attack her from behind but she felt naked in her thin sleepwear. Carefully she pulled the blanket up to her chin, so that her face now peered out to imitate that of the soldier’s.

Then the cry of her name in that same high-pitched trill, though quickly muted, seemed to awaken the man.
“Qumy! Get up!” he ordered.
She was surprised to hear the man speak in Arabic but she remained rooted, unwilling to let go of her cotton armour.
“I said get up!”
The blanket weakly submitted to his grasp and she tensed as the man’s rough finger enclosed her arm, forcing her upwards and into the living room.

The room that greeted her however, was barely recognisable. Chairs turned into firewood, ornaments that had once sat neatly upon the cabinet, now scattering the floor. The family photo lay rudely broken and their faces stared up at Salwa like ghosts of the past.

And amongst the aftermath of the commotion knelt her mother. She was swaying slightly by the frowning boots of a female soldier, with her youngest son Majed beside her, expressionless. As Shayma looked up at her daughter, their eyes met, and she was ashamed by the look of vulnerability and utter fear that she knew filled her eyes and feared would haunt her daughter. But as Salwa once again moved to the pressure of the man’s touch that was forcing her down to join her mother, she knelt close enough to touch her side, giving a silent communication of support.

“Not that close. Move away!”
The cold baton poked between them to remove even that last solace of comfort.

Salwa was afraid to look up. She was afraid that if she observed the soldiers too carefully, perhaps catching the peculiar features of their faces or the novel ways in which they held themselves, she would begin to imagine their lives outside of this room, as she so often did with the people she passed in the street; and that would simply confuse the situation even more. It was easier to just think of them as robots, unthinkingly following instructions, than as people with the ability to act of their own accord. So she stared straight ahead, paying too much attention to the details of the cracks in the paint. Outside, she could hear her father and brother being questioned in the corridor. Thickly-accented remarks being hurled at them with the occasional physical encouragement. She tried to shut her ears, to ignore the tremble that accompanied her father’s voice and the anger all too evident in her brother’s responses, but they remained stubbornly open.

And then, as swiftly as vultures scattering from their carrion, the soldiers were gone. With them, seemingly unhappy with their fill, they took her father and brother, and left on the floor beside Salwa lay the family photo, the broken glass frame acting as the crudest of metaphors.

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Overheard in Palestine

My top 10 ‘overheards’ from my Palestinian summer:

1. I guess you have to start somewhere…
“I’ve quit smoking and I feel so much better for it.”
“That’s great. When did you last have a cigarette?”
“An hour ago”

2. A reminder that rules are made to be broken…
“I’m not fasting today. They called ‘Allah Akbar’ just as we were both coming.”

3. The need for improvements in sex education…
“Men should be more forgiving of girls who have lost their virginity. They might have been raped or have had a cycling accident.”

4. An IDF soldier missing the point…
“I don’t fight though, I just reload the tanks.”

5. Getting your money’s worth in the full taxi…
“It doesn’t matter if the kids get in with us, does it? They’re only little.”
Two boys, 14 and 15, and bigger than any of us, come lumbering up to squish in on top.

6. A little bit of road rage…
“The roads have become for the people and the pavements have become for the cars!”
(To be fair, this is literally the case)

7. My friend’s mother on discovering the cats had spent the night in her room…
“Have you been fucking the cats all night!?”

8. Travel concerns…
“I can’t afford to go to Jordan. There’s the cost of travel, the visa… and I’ll have to get my teeth done.”

9. Slightly misunderstanding the concept of vegetarianism…
“You don’t even eat meat at barbecues?!”

10. And, finally, it seems we all face problems teaching grandma how to use touchscreen…
“I spent all day showing her how to call someone, then someone phoned her and she didn’t know what to do!”

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