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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The Diplomatic Way to Achieve Nothing

The usual response to mention of the ‘peace process’ in Palestine is raised eyebrows or a smirk. People are sick of the international façade that takes place at their expense and when you look at the number of talks that occur without result and the number of agreements that get signed but whose conditions are never met, it’s no surprise.

The more experience I get of working in organisations where bureaucracy often takes centre stage, the more I observe the tricks that are used by the stubborn, the unknowledgeable, or the simply self-righteous to avoid compromise. Worryingly, even at a high level, it would seem that you can get far provided that you know how to avoid answering questions.

Which made me wonder if the ‘peace talks’ tend to go something like this:

Bill Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas sit sizing each other up from across a large mahogany table…

Bill Clinton: So, gentlemen, we’re here today to reach an agreement on a way forward to a two-state solution. We’ve all heard both sides’ conditions many-a-time but compromises will have to be made if peace is to be achieved.

Mahmoud Abbas: Well, how can any compromises be made whilst the building of that wall encroaches on our land, completely violating previous agreements?

Benjamin Netanyahu: Wall, wall, wall… What exactly do you mean by ‘wall’, Abbas? You see, one giant’s stool is another dwarf’s table.

MA: Well, the separation wall you are constructing, of course!

BN: Ah, but would you say that separation is a synonym of violation?

MA: Clearly not but…

BN: Aha! So there you go! You just said it yourself that the wall of separation is not a wall of violation.

MA: How… I certainly did not! And what about the settlements you’re supposed to have stopped building? They’re expanding faster than ever!

BN: Listen, Hamoode. If people want to build an extension on their house – have a nice conservatory to sit in on those dark wintry nights, or perhaps want a shed in which to store their bikes, who am I to stop them? You’re suggesting they leave their bikes outside in the rain? Why, how very crass of you.

MA: No, of course you can’t leave bikes outside to go rusty but… anyway, this is not about bikes!

BN: What you need to worry about is recognising Israel as a Jewish state.

MA: Perhaps if you would care to define ‘Jewish state’ for me, Ben, because, to be quite frank, I’m very confused by what it even means to be Jewish.

BN: What?! Are you hearing this bigotry, Billy?

BC: I… well… he does have a bit of a point about the Jewish state.

BN: Humph, and I have quite the point when it comes to the need for Palestinian demilitarisation.

MA: Oh, and I’m all for that too! Provided Israel also demilitarise.

BN: Are you insane!? How will we defend ourselves?

MA: From what will you be defending ourselves should we demilitarise? And, talking of which, I would appreciate, Bill, if you were to stop supplying Ben with billions of dollars’ worth of weaponry. He keeps killing our citizens with them and the hypocrisy is just a tad overbearing.

BC: Oh, I know, it’s awful isn’t it? In fact, I was saying the very same thing to Barack just last week.

BN: Well, one thing that has to be agreed upon is forgetting this ‘right to return’ malarkey.

MA: Because we all know forgetting rights to be your speciality…

BC: But Hamoode, habebe, there must be some leeway on this, surely?

MA: Will we still have the right to buy holiday homes?

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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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An Interview with God

I was very confused as to why the discussion had suddenly turned to the whereabouts of the woman’s father. One moment we’d been discussing ideas for projects in Gaza and the next everyone was questioning where ‘Baba’ was.

“Oh, I just don’t know,” declared my boss, as I tried to look sympathetic at the news of the lost relative. Then, fortunately before I’d made any embarrassing attempts at offering my condolences, I remembered that ‘Baba’ was simply another way of referring to God and that I also didn’t have the faintest clue as to his whereabouts.

I usually try to keep out of religion though. As an atheist in a religious society, I’ve learnt that it’s best just to keep quiet. As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to religion people can believe what they want, provided that these beliefs stay private and don’t negatively affect their actions. Often the problems arise when religion gets mixed with ‘traditions’ and used to excuse discrimination, inequality and oppression.

Most people here don’t bother to raise the topic and respect my differing opinions, and on the few occasions that I’m questioned about my beliefs the conversation usually ends fairly quickly and goes something like this…

“But how can you believe in nothing? Where will you go when you die?”
“The ground”
“What about your spirit?”
“Probably nowhere. Maybe I’ll become a dog or a monkey”
“Hmm… but who created you!?”
“My Mum”
“But who created your mum?”
“My grandma”
“But who created your grandma?”
Now a little exasperated at lack of acknowledgment of poor joke…
“Yes, I know you want me to say God but who created God!?”
“We’re not allowed to ask that question”
“Then we probably can’t have a very deep theological discussion”

I do often think about the place of God in the conflict however.
I reject the notion that the conflict is a religious one. It’s easy to see it as a historical war between Muslims and Jews but this fails to do justice to the complexity of the situation – ignoring its global context and forgetting that it’s actually quite a recent issue involving two populations of mixed religions. There are those from either side who bring religion into the discussion but I find this more a case of religion being used to excuse irreligious motives and actions.

What I’m more interested in is whether people’s belief in God is beneficial in such a situation. Marx referred to religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world and the soulless conditions”, suggesting that it can impede social change since people’s focus on an alternative world distracts them from reality and encourages them to accept their suffering in the hope of a better life after death.

I see this happening here. There are those who sigh and say that a war between Muslims and Jews was predicted, referring to an interpretation of one of the hadiths that the culmination of the war will eventually lead to Jews’ defeat, and that they therefore just need to be patient. Yet if such a belief really governed people’s actions then there wouldn’t be so much activism. You don’t get two Intifadas from simply hoping that everything will sort itself out, and that the vast majority of people seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict goes against any notion that such an interpretation is either believed or relied upon.

I also generally find Israeli claims of anti-Semitism among Palestinians to be false, with many insisting that it is not with Jews that they have a problem but with those living in Israel. And then many go on to assert that they are not even against all Israelis but only those who support the occupation – namely settlers, the government and the army.

For a long time, however, I still doubted the benefit of believing in God. That is, until a bus journey back to the West Bank from Jerusalem, in which an old woman from the city came and sat by me. After the necessary introductions and greetings she started telling me about life there. They were all stories that I’d heard before but I was affected more than usual for two reasons. Firstly, I hate Jerusalem. Nowhere can you feel the occupation as heavily as where the two states meet, colliding with one another to produce invisible ruptures. Palestinian Jerusalemites have to live among their oppressors, literally being pushed to the side as they see their former capital being transformed, and therefore feel the realities of the occupation particularly heavily. Secondly, nothing gets to me more than an old woman’s sighs. Having watched for decades as promises are broken, talks fail, and the situation simply worsens, they emit a particularly desperate air.
It was in this atmosphere that, having finished her story, she concluded that there was no hope, the Israelis were above the law and nothing would stop them in their destruction of Palestinians. She simply hoped that they would pay their price in Hell when it came to God’s time to judge.

And so I decided that, in such a horrifically unjust and stagnant situation, the belief that some justice may eventually be done may not be such a bad thing after all.

But I thought I should let the man speak for himself and so, despite our previous trouble at locating him, I managed to track him down to a small café just north of Jupiter, questioning a casualty of the recent Ice Bucket Challenge…
“You see,” he was saying, “my problem is that I’m torn between throwing you into Hell, with Steve Irwin, for stupidity or into Heaven, with Florence Nightingale, for trying to help the needy…”

I approached him nervously (after all, this was God himself) and apologised for taking up his time but he waved his hand and told me: “The thing with being eternal, young lady, is that time ceases to have much meaning”
He was certainly presenting himself as quite the philosopher but I didn’t let his warmth distract me from the reason for our meeting and so began the interview…

Just Me – So let me get straight to the point, God. I’m not sure if you’re aware but you’ve been getting quite the bad rep down on Earth recently for your lack of intervention in the many genocides, natural disasters and wars that have taken place over the centuries. Is there any particular reason you choose not to interfere, despite your ability to save lives and reduce the suffering of so many?

Almighty God – Listen, when you interfere in each others’ affairs, you get criticised and when I don’t interfere, I get criticised also. There really is no making the people happy these days. If I turned their water into wine they would simply complain that it wasn’t French wine.

JM – I think people are thinking of something more along the lines of Ghandi than Bush. I’m presuming that, as God, you have the ability to prevent people from acting inhumanely without simply adding more bombs to the scene.

At this he gave a hearty chuckle.
AG- More bombs? These are only ever used in the attainment of power, dear girl, and since I am already almighty and Heaven runs off bioenergy…
Oh yes, I have my ways but, as you say, they are acting rather inhumanely and should therefore learn the meaning of humanity for themselves.

JM – It’s all well and good saying that from up here but how many children have to die, people be raped, homes be destroyed in order for this few to ‘learn their lesson’? As far as I can see, people never learn and what we are witnessing is simply a continuation of violence as the scars of previous battles fuel the wounds of the next. And so, people turn to you for help but receive no response.

I then felt his previously jolly disposition take on a serious tone as he moved in closer to me and his voice deepened…
AG – Listen now. You are young and therefore new to this world. You speak with naivety and innocence. Yet I’m sure that, even by this age, you have noticed how many humans give up in their endeavours to bring justice to your world and alleviate the suffering of others. And yet the human lifespan is not a long one. All that is required of them is 60, maybe 70, years of commitment. But they lose hope as quickly as the autumnal tree loses its leaves. Do you realise just how many battles I have sat through? Just how many prayers asking for the most meaningless of gifts I have had to hear? I used to weep and wonder how I could change the acts of those who I had created, then I simply began to despair, and now, well now I just see silver turning into red and figures disappearing while new ones appear, and I am oh so tired of it all. Are you really telling me that not all of these great tragedies of which you talk could have been resolved if only people learnt to cooperate, and discarded their greed in return for compassion?

I found myself suddenly lost for words. Having expected to shame him into action through accusations of laziness and selfishness, I now felt pity for the old creature.

Then abruptly, as if waking up from a dream, he rose.
I really must get going though, he excused himself. I heard Gabriel is trying to have my favourite barber deferred to Hell for stabbing Sylvia Plath. Why he thinks one needs to be punished for murdering someone who is already dead, I really do not know, but the boy always was far too idealistic.

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How to cope under occupation

“Even the world is sad today!” the Mum dramatically declared as she took note of the clouds in the sky. I personally felt relieved to see the extra cloud cover, providing us with a bit of shelter from the glare of the sun, but I understood the sentiment.

Everyone has gradually been showing increasing signs of exhaustion as the month trudges on. Physically exhausted from fasting and emotionally exhausted from the ongoing war. The news is on 24/7, as the figure of daily deaths goes up by the hour. At 6pm it’s ‘125 deaths today’ but you know it will be more. When you hear someone break the sombre silence with a number in the hundreds, now coming into the thousands, you needn’t ask what it’s for. There’s little more response than to swallow hard and look at the ground.

The mum’s not alone in crying every day. I tell her not to watch the news that constantly streams images of the newly dead, the remains of houses, and desperate cries of those around, but it’s hard to pull yourself away. People feel disloyal to change the channel – to watch the Eid soaps or listen to music. The first night of Eid it was reported that children had been bombed whilst playing on the swings. I still don’t know whether the sight of their crisp corpses or the manic screams of their parents was most horrific. The mum burst into tears. I felt sick in disgust.

The Israeli army phone or text families a minute before they’re going to bomb their houses, telling them to get out. They know that they’re bombing homes occupying families but yet they still pretend that making such families homeless it part of an operation to ‘protect themselves’. Protect themselves from an old woman who had just sat down to break her fast and didn’t get out in time?
And where can the homeless in Gaza go? They’re in a cage being killed off one by one.

I’m close to a family of whom half live in Gaza. On asking my friend how they were, this was his response: “We’re very well, thank God… they bombed the mosque next to us but they warned inhabitants so we went down to the basements and no-one was hurt. The real problem is that nowhere is safe in Gaza, even hospitals, schools and houses. Hopefully the war will stop soon.”

What shocked me the most was his blasé response to a bomb dropping right by his house after describing his family as being very well. I keep being told how strong Gazans are, how “they’re stronger than us [Palestinians in the West Bank]. They don’t just let the soldiers come in. They fight back.”

Yet I’m always amazed by the strength of all Palestinians. Just to think that all but the youngest have lived through at least one of the intifadas is hard to get your head around. That a whole nation has experienced such hardship but manage to carry on with life, find coping mechanisms and make the most out of what they have.

Which got me thinking about the remarkability of the human psyche. How we’re able to find releases and sources of freedom from the situations we find ourselves in. And so I started asking people what they do to ‘escape’…

Some told me that working gives them that sense of freedom, or that they feel free when people leave them alone and don’t interfere in their lives (a rare luxury here). My friend said she likes to walk in the fields.

The second day here I overheard my boss:
“People keep telling me to stop smoking but I tell them ‘I live in Palestine! Smoking is the only way I can feel free!’”

I saw a girl, maybe 5 years of age, in a refugee camp, wearing a t-shirt that had written on it:
Loving someone can feel like freedom
which had a rather melancholy ring to it in the land of forbidden love.

This time from a graphic designer: “I find freedom between the lines of drawings”

The one that left the biggest mark on me was from a friend who meditates:
“I imagine that I’m far away, in any place I want to be. My niece and nephew join in with me. I ask them ‘Can you hear the waves?’ They say ‘Yes, we can hear the waves’. I ask, ‘Can you see the shore?’ They say, ‘Yes, we can see the shore’. ‘Isn’t the sea beautiful?’ ‘Yes, the sea is beautiful’”


People are trying to find ways of coping in the midst of the ‘war’, as they call it (though the circumstances and death tolls are more indicative of a massacre or genocide being met with hopeful attempts at resistance).

Strikes and protests quickly sprung up in the towns, with anger growing as people feel unsupported by even their own government and police who try to suppress the demonstrations and have even used tear gas and live ammunition against protesters. The biggest so far was on Laylat el-Qadr, the Thursday before Eid, and the holiest night of Ramadan. 40’000 people took part in the protest that started from al-Amari camp near Ramallah and terminated at Qalandia checkpoint. A 19 year-old and a 27 year-old were killed on the night, as Israeli soldiers opened fire, with hundreds of injuries, and the death toll rose by the next day.

There is a movement ‘Kolna Ghaza’ – ‘All of us Gaza’, as a way for people to show their support to Gazans, and t-shirts have been made for people to wear, with the money going to Gaza.

I felt discomforted at first at the idea of the t-shirts, so asked my friend what she thought. She said that it’s fine until people start wearing them just because it’s fashionable. But I think it’s more than that. It’s the insanity of people in the West Bank giving what little they have to those even worse off than themselves whilst banknotes in the billions flow through wires between the big players of this world. And it’s the sad sight of seeing a people so at a loss of what to do that they feel that at least if they wear a t-shirt showing their support, showing that they have not forgotten their fellows in Gaza, they are doing something.

A youth in Gaza, almost delirious, perhaps asked the most pressing question this morning, when he began screaming at the camera: “WHERE IS THE WORLD?? WHERE IS THE WORLD??”

I think the world is trapped under governments – governments that hide behind eloquent speeches and diplomatic red tape before daring to make a true stand against the atrocities that continue to plague us.

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beyond the bars

They sit huddled in the corner
as if leaving open spaces will make them less entrapped

Playing games and making rules
as if creating boundaries will erase the ones already present

Crafting stones from the dust
as if the earth could shelter them from the sky

Shouting through the bars
as if the wind may carry their voices beyond the walls

Weeping for the dead
as if tears can carry their souls to safety

And, as for you, you sit there on the other side.
While their games exclude you and their rules crush you,
the dust gathers at your feet and your voice barely touches the bars.
Your tears tell the tales of two tragedies.

But I hear you

I’m here on the floor by your side
And if their stones and their shouts turn against you
I’ll rise up to protect you
Even though I may only be a disturbance in the shadow, a flicker of light from outside.

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