by Annie Campbell Higgins
in Jenin, Occupied Palestine
March 5, 2003
"I wish," Islah says with a smile. Her mother has just told me that I would have been attending the House of Mourning/Bayt Ajr for her "if not for the Army officer stopping the soldier mid-aim." "May you live," I say to Islah, and she smiles again. She is in the top of her high school class, loves poetry, and is uninvolved politically.
"Tahani, would you like to be a martyr?" asks Imm Nabil, bathed in morning light as she lies on her mattress under the window, recovering from an operation. She tells me how the present world pales in significance to the Hereafter, and being killed is no shame for a believer.
"Daddy, I want to have an operation," says a little boy to his father. "Why? You aren't sick." "No, I want to do an operation against the Army." ("Do" and "have" use the same verb in Arabic.) His father is surprised at this; he himself has never thought or spoken of such a thing to his five-year-old. The man explains to himself as much as to me, that the youngsters have never seen the more positive times with Israelis that their elders have. The children see the Israeli Army's destruction every day – destruction of human lives, destruction of material things, destruction of movement and destruction of hope.
The constant destruction has planted in me a great desire to find a peaceful place where I can learn to build. The neighbors have just finished building an addition onto the house, and the tiler is laying the new floor. I ask him to show me how he does it, and then, with no shame, I ask to try it myself. He guides me and praises my attempt, but takes up my tile. I try again with more coaching, but it needs another dollop of sand and cement. Even so, it is a little bit of a little dream fulfilled, and the constructiveness brings a breath of peace.
"All of this destruction, and developing technology in order to destroy; what good does it do?" asks the shopkeeper who has every color of thread and every shape of button imaginable. His shop is like a trip into history; he has resisted suggestions to modernize because he feels there is value in historical things, even the cabinets. He speaks of Egypt's Pharaohs, whose contribution of construction has lasted the ages, puzzling modern engineers. "They took time to think, and then acted. Their method is superior to our quick reactions."
"Why do foreigners have bigger imaginations than we do?" asks Yumna when I draw a long-legged stick-man's shadow. Her sister has asked for help in depicting shadows. Yumna's question is a good one. I tell her that maybe it is because we don't do so much memorization at school. Since we don't know the answers to questions, we have to use our imaginations to make them up. It makes me wonder how our American education system, which teaches us to ask questions, has produced a nation so willing to believe without question what they are told in illogical news broadcasts.
"In America, people believe that everything they hear in the news is true," laughs Muhammad. "Here, even an eight-year-old knows to question what he hears in the news!"
"Half of them are good, aren't they?" affirms eight-year-old Mustafa with a question. "Half of the soldiers are good," he tells me from the balcony overlooking the main entrance to Jenin Refugee Camp. He is home from school again because the tanks threatened the children at the Primary School. Again. He tells of instances of the soldiers' humanity, talking with the children in the Camp, and of the military guards giving him a banana after repeated body searches when he went to visit his brother in the notoriously harsh Naqab/Negev Prison.
It is the first time I have heard the proportion of good soldiers identified as a full half. But along with the accounts of killings and desecration, people of all ages and classes have expressed the idea that some of the soldiers are good and are at the mercy of their superiors.
"If I had an airplane, I wouldn't fly over Israel. I would attack the Arab countries first, for ignoring us in our plight," says a creative and upbeat university student.
"I long for the day that Saudi Arabia is occupied by Israel," says a journalist who has been wounded twice while wearing a vest and helmet clearly-marked 'PRESS.' "Let them experience what we have endured all these years while they ignore us."
Bored at what he calls a "laundry list" of Israel's attacks on civilians and infrastructure in Occupied Khalil/Hebron, the Middle East Editor of an American-based international newspaper derides the photographic evidence as "a convenient catalogue" for international journalists. He hopes the situation isn't as bad as it sounds, and concludes that things aren't so bad after a brief stroll in the street. (http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0210/p25s01-cogn.html)
I can imagine the intensity of the Khalil official he met. I have encountered it many times, along with the urgent desire -- sometimes a plea, sometimes a demand to "get our story to the world! Tell them what is happening!" With this particular newspaper's reputation for fairness that often ran counter to the crowd, the Khalil mayor probably felt this was his chance to get someone to take him seriously, and was intent on presenting all of his evidence. The crimes of the Occupation are overwhelming when you hear of them. Imagine living them.
The Mayor's presentation and Editor's response brought to my mind the image of a man struggling against an undertow and calling desperately to someone on shore, whereupon the potential rescuer responds casually, "Trouble with water? Some people can swim" and walks away.
This bland carelessness is alarming because we are dealing with human lives and with major international issues on the cusp of a worldwide crisis. The crowning glory of the Editor's Khalil/Hebron diary entry is that any solution here will have to keep the Israeli colonist (settler) safe, or within Israeli borders. No mention of keeping even one Palestinian safe. Or of Israel's refusal to define borders and stay within them.
This sheds light on why my repeated pleas to these editors to ask critical questions and to provide context have been ignored. Is ignore-ance the same as ignorance?
"Before we blame Israel, we have to clean up our own house, first, right?" says Majdi with a big smile, and no rancor. "We have to get rid of the spies amongst ourselves." That was weeks before a score of local spies, including some schoolgirls, were rounded up. There was talk of executions, but a life-preserving judgment prevailed. "What good would it do to execute him?" says one father regarding the spy who led the Israeli Air Force to exterminate his son. "These young people are just being used. It is the ringleaders who matter."
"They are Muslim on their identity card only," says the mother of the collaborators who led the Army to assassinate her son.
"The spies gave the Israelis the wrong information," laughs Islah's mother. They stormed the house where they thought they would find their wanted man, and instead found two men drinking coffee. But she is serious in her relief that the soldier did not shoot immediately when he saw Islah peering out at the commotion from behind the window blinds.
When the neighbor building the house addition mentions "Israeli Arabs," I question the term, as I do each time I hear it: "They are Palestinians; why do you say 'Israeli Arabs'?" He agrees that some identifications need to be specified correctly, but instead picks up on the term 'Israeli': "When I say the name, 'Israel,' I can only have respect. I should not use derogatory language. Israel is the name of God's people." He is enthused when I refer to Banu Isra'il/The Children of Israel in the Qur'an. "Yes, that is Israel!"
I greet some young men hanging out in the evening across from the destroyed Hawashin neighborhood, the bald hill of hard reddish dirt. To my question, "How are you?" they respond, as people do in every circumstance, "Praise God." But they speak of having no jobs – the UN won't hire them unless they have four children. I tell them to look for brides quickly! They have no place to go and cannot even visit relatives in neighboring villages. A few of my ideas for small sparks of self-expression are met with, "Who will listen?" They miss their shahid/martyr friends. "They are enjoying themselves. They are in heaven. We are still here on earth." "May you live," I say.
When I come home, the women are stuffing zamatat leaves, like grape leaves. "If there is a war, will Tahani go back to America?" one neighbor asks. "No, she will stay here and die with us," says my hostess, looking up from her work and smiling. "Yes," I say, smiling, and forgetting my usual, "May you live."
As we are settling onto our floor-level mattresses for the night, Raghda kisses me on the four diamond-points of my face, "That's how you kiss a shahid/martyr on the bier!" She has experience with a number of family members. She then requests her favorite, a Welsh lullaby whose refrain, in one version, says, "All, all is well."
Annie C. Higgins specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies, and is currently doing research in Jenin, Occupied Palestine.