Gaza: ‘The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard’

Gaza: ‘The place where we are right is hard and trampled like a yard’

Gaza-child

Gaza August 2014: ‘less pity on school children’

How does one avoid despair at the news these days?

The lunatics are in my hall
The paper holds their folded faces to the floor
And every day the paper boy brings more

It’s been a terrible few weeks: death and destruction in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and Libya, all overshadowed by the appalling events in Gaza. This morning’s Guardian adds to the gloom with news that 40,000 Kurds from a minority sect of Zoroastrians are surrounded by jihadist forces of Isis on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq, known in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark. Alongside that is a report by from Israel by Giles Fraser (one-time Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, who resigned during the Occupy encampment there).  In it, he paints a picture of an Israel in which there is almost total support for the war in Gaza, newspapers and TV channels are ‘simply cheerleaders for the government line, offering a constant diet of fear and fallen heroes, with little evidence of any of the atrocities going on in Gaza’, and peace activists are fearful of making a public stand.

One of the people to whom Fraser spoke was the writer Amos Oz, ‘Israel’s great literary conscience’. Fraser senses a shift even in Oz’s outlook:

He says something that feels to me like a real shift in his position. Previously he has described the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a Sophoclean tragedy over land in which both sides have a claim to right on their side; as a battle, as he put it of ‘right versus right’. But now, he says, this is a battle of ‘wrong versus wrong’.

Actually, to me, ‘wrong versus wrong’ seems a more clear-sighted assessment of both the present situation and the historical background than ‘right versus right’.  Certainly Oz has always issued side-swipes at well-meaning European liberals who, in his view, fail to understand the complexities of the conflict.  The ‘right versus right’ concept comes from a speech Oz made in Germany in 2000, later issued in a little book, How to Cure a Fanatic. This is how Oz began:

Who are the good guys? That’s what every well-meaning European, left-wing European, intellectual European, liberal European always wants to know, first and foremost. Who are the good guys in the film and who are the bad guys. In this respect Vietnam was easy: The Vietnamese people were the victims, and the Americans were the bad guys. The same with apartheid: You could easily see that apartheid was a crime and that the struggle for civil rights, for liberation and equality, and for human dignity was right. The struggle between colonialism and imperialism, on the one hand, and the victims of colonialism and imperialism, on the other, seems relatively simple–you can tell the good guys from the bad. When it comes to the foundations of the Israeli-Arab conflict, in particular the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, things are not so straightforward. And I am afraid I am not going to make things any easier for you by saying simply: These are the angels, these are the devils; you just have to support the angels, and good will prevail over evil. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a Wild West movie. It is not a struggle between good and evil, rather it is a tragedy in the ancient and most precise sense of the word: a clash between right and right, a clash between one very powerful, deep, and convincing claim, and another very different but no less convincing, no less powerful, no less humane claim.

The Palestinians are in Palestine because Palestine is the homeland, and the only homeland, of the Palestinian people. In the same way in which Holland is the homeland of the Dutch, or Sweden the homeland of the Swedes. The Israeli Jews are in Israel because there is no other country in the world that the Jews, as a people, as a nation, could ever call home. As individuals, yes, but not as a people, not as a nation. The Palestinians have tried, unwillingly, to live in other Arab countries. They were rejected, sometimes even humiliated and persecuted by the so-called Arab family. They were made aware in the most painful way of their “Palestinianness”; they were not wanted by Lebanese or Syrians, by Egyptians or Iraqis. They had to learn the hard way that they are Palestinians, and that’s the only country that they can hold on to. In a strange way the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have had a somewhat parallel historical experience. The Jews were kicked out of Europe; my parents were kicked out of Europe some seventy years ago. Just like the Palestinians were first kicked out of Palestine and then out of the Arab countries, or almost. When my father was a little boy in Poland, the streets of Europe were covered with graffiti, “Jews, go back to Palestine,” or sometimes worse: “Dirty Yids, piss off to Palestine.” When my father revisited Europe fifty years later, the walls were covered with new graffiti, “Jews, get out of Palestine.”

People in Europe keep sending me wonderful invitations to spend a rosy weekend in a delightful resort with Palestinian partners, Palestinian colleagues, Palestinian counterparts, so that we can learn to know one another, to like one another, to drink a cup of coffee together, so that we realize that no one has horns and tails–and the trouble will go away. This is based on the widespread sentimental European idea that every conflict is essentially no more than a misunderstanding. A little group therapy, a touch of family counselling, and everyone will live happily ever after. Well, first, I have bad news for you: Some conflicts are very real; they are much worse than a mere misunderstanding. And then I have some sensational news for you: There is no essential misunderstanding between Palestinian Arab and Israeli Jew. The Palestinians want the land they call Palestine. They have very strong reasons to want it. The Israeli Jews want exactly the same land for exactly the same reasons, which provides for a perfect understanding between the parties, and for a terrible tragedy. Rivers of coffee drunk together cannot extinguish the tragedy of two peoples claiming, and I think rightly claiming, the same small country as their one and only national homeland in the whole world. So, drinking coffee together is wonderful and I’m all for it, especially if it is Arabic coffee, which is infinitely better than Israeli coffee. But drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble.

But, drinking coffee cannot do away with the trouble. What we need is not just coffee and a better understanding. What we need is a painful compromise. The word compromise has a terrible reputation in Europe. Especially among young idealists, who always regard compromise as opportunism, as something dishonest, as something sneaky and shady, as a mark of a lack of integrity. Not in my vocabulary. For me the word compromise means life. And the opposite of compromise is not idealism, not devotion; the opposite of compromise is fanaticism and death. We need a compromise. Compromise, not capitulation. A compromise means that the Palestinian people should never go down on its knees, neither should the Israeli Jewish people.

Amos Oz

Amos Oz

In his Guardian piece, Giles Fraser writes of his attempt to ‘come at things sideways’ with Oz by talking about Israeli poetry. Fraser tells him he has always loved a poem by Yehuda Amichai, considered by many to be Israel’s greatest poet, who died in 2000 aged 76. The poem is ‘The Place Where We Are Right’:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai

When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, Amichai was invited to read from his poems at the ceremony in Oslo. ‘God has pity on kindergarten children’ was one of the poems he read that day. Less than a year later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated at a peace rally in Tel Aviv by a right-wing Orthodox Jew who opposed the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. In the weeks just gone there has been no mercy in Gaza even for kindergarten children.

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less pity on school children.
And on grown-ups he has no pity at all,
he leaves them alone,
and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first-aid station
covered with blood.

But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
and have mercy on them and shelter them
like a tree over the old man
sleeping on a public bench.

Perhaps we too will give them
the last rare coins of compassion
that Mother handed down to us,
so that their happiness will protect us
now and in other days.

The events of this summer have echoed with chilling synchronicity those of one hundred summers past. As the forces of Isis have swept all before them this summer, determined to eradicate the borders established by the colonial powers in the Middle East at the end of the First World War, we have been made painfully aware of the loose ends left by that war in eastern Europe and the Middle East.  In a blog post the other day, Mary Beard wrote about attending the commemorative event at the St Symphorien cemetery near Mons on Monday. Everyone there was given a booklet by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission explaining how many graves the commission looks after and where they are. Flipping through it, Mary Beard discovered with a shock that there are over 3000 graves in Gaza from the Great War.  They hold the remains of British soldiers who fought to take Gaza city in 1917. It is a reminder, Beard wrote, ‘of a complicated story of conflict in that region which reaches down a century’.

Deir al-Balah cemetery damaged headstone

Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza: headstone damaged by Israeli shelling in 2009 (photo by Eva Bartlett)

Coincidentally, on Monday’s Channel 4 News, Paul Mason visited the Deir al-Balah cemetery which had been hit by a couple of Israeli shells. The cemetery, which is in the centre of Gaza, has been maintained by the same Palestinian family for three generations, and was badly damaged by shelling in 2009.

Where can we seek consolation amidst all the ruination?  I have no idea.  The only hope seems to be to hold onto the vision, offered in another of Yehuda Amichai’s poems, of a weary and tarnished ‘wildpeace
’:

Not the peace of a cease-fire,
not even the vision of the wolf and the lamb,
but rather
as in the heart when the excitement is over
and you can talk only about a great weariness.
I know that I know how to kill,
that makes me an adult.
And my son plays with a toy gun that knows
how to open and close its eyes and say Mama.
A peace
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
A little rest for the wounds—
who speaks of healing?
(And the howl of the orphans is passed from one generation
to the next, as in a relay race:
the baton never falls.)

Let it come
like wildflowers,
suddenly, because the field
must have it: wildpeace.

Deir al-Balah cemetery

Deir al-Balah cemetery in Gaza (photo by Eva Bartlett)

Senseless in Gaza

A wounded Palestinian is carried near a UN school in Jabalya, Gaza Strip

Powerful article in today’s Guardian, written by Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford.  In it he argues that:

Establishing the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state. On 2 June 1948, Sir John Troutbeck wrote to the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, that the Americans were responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”…

Gaza is a classic case of colonial exploitation in the post-colonial era. Jewish settlements in occupied territories are immoral, illegal and an insurmountable obstacle to peace. They are at once the instrument of exploitation and the symbol of the hated occupation. In Gaza, the Jewish settlers numbered only 8,000 in 2005 compared with 1.4 million local residents. Yet the settlers controlled 25% of the territory, 40% of the arable land and the lion’s share of the scarce water resources. Cheek by jowl with these foreign intruders, the majority of the local population lived in abject poverty and unimaginable misery. Eighty per cent of them still subsist on less than $2 a day. The living conditions in the strip remain an affront to civilised values, a powerful precipitant to resistance and a fertile breeding ground for political extremism…

He concludes:

This brief review of Israel’s record over the past four decades makes it difficult to resist the conclusion that it has become a rogue state with “an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders”. A rogue state habitually violates international law, possesses weapons of mass destruction and practises terrorism – the use of violence against civilians for political purposes. Israel fulfils all of these three criteria; the cap fits and it must wear it. Israel’s real aim is not peaceful coexistence with its Palestinian neighbours but military domination. It keeps compounding the mistakes of the past with new and more disastrous ones. Politicians, like everyone else, are of course free to repeat the lies and mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.

Patti Smith: Qana

There’s no one
In the village
Not a human
Nor a stone
There’s no one
In the village
Children are gone
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep
Let it come down
Let her weep

The dead lay in strange shapes

Some stay buried
Others crawl free
Baby didn’t make it
Screaming debris
And a mother rocks
Herself to sleep
Let it come down
Let her weep

The dead lay in strange shapes

Limp little dolls
Caked in mud
Small, small hands
Found in the road
Their talking about
War aims
What a phrase
Bombs that fall
American made
The new middle east
The rice woman squeaks

The dead lay in strange shapes

Little bodies
Little bodies
Tied head and feet
Wrapped in plastic
Laid out in the street
The new middle east
The rice woman squeaks

The dead lay in strange shapes

Water to wine
Wine to blood
Ahh qana
The miracle
Is love

Patti Smith’s Qana waswritten in response to the bombing of the UN compound in Qana, Lebanon, in 1996, when more than 100 lost their lives.

Under Seige: poems for Gaza by Mahmoud Darwish

“There is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza” – Israel Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni

Under Siege by Mahmoud Darwish

Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time
Close to the gardens of broken shadows,
We do what prisoners do,
And what the jobless do:
We cultivate hope.
***
A country preparing for dawn. We grow less intelligent
For we closely watch the hour of victory:
No night in our night lit up by the shelling
Our enemies are watchful and light the light for us
In the darkness of cellars.
***
Here there is no “I”.
Here Adam remembers the dust of his clay.
***
On the verge of death, he says:
I have no trace left to lose:
Free I am so close to my liberty. My future lies in my own hand.
Soon I shall penetrate my life,
I shall be born free and parentless,
And as my name I shall choose azure letters…
***
You who stand in the doorway, come in,
Drink Arabic coffee with us
And you will sense that you are men like us
You who stand in the doorways of houses
Come out of our morningtimes,
We shall feel reassured to be
Men like you!
***
When the planes disappear, the white, white doves
Fly off and wash the cheeks of heaven
With unbound wings taking radiance back again, taking possession
Of the ether and of play. Higher, higher still, the white, white doves
Fly off. Ah, if only the sky
Were real [a man passing between two bombs said to me].
***
Cypresses behind the soldiers, minarets protecting
The sky from collapse. Behind the hedge of steel
Soldiers piss-under the watchful eye of a tank-
And the autumnal day ends its golden wandering in
A street as wide as a church after Sunday mass…
***
[To a killer] If you had contemplated the victim’s face
And thought it through, you would have remembered your mother in the
Gas chamber, you would have been freed from the reason for the rifle
And you would have changed your mind: this is not the way
to find one’s identity again.
***
The siege is a waiting period
Waiting on the tilted ladder in the middle of the storm.
***
Alone, we are alone as far down as the sediment
Were it not for the visits of the rainbows.
***
We have brothers behind this expanse.
Excellent brothers. They love us. They watch us and weep.
Then, in secret, they tell each other:
“Ah! if this siege had been declared…” They do not finish their sentence:
“Don’t abandon us, don’t leave us.”
***
Our losses: between two and eight martyrs each day.
And ten wounded.
And twenty homes.
And fifty olive trees…
Added to this the structural flaw that
Will arrive at the poem, the play, and the unfinished canvas.
***
A woman told the cloud: cover my beloved
For my clothing is drenched with his blood.
***
If you are not rain, my love
Be tree
Sated with fertility, be tree
If you are not tree, my love
Be stone
Saturated with humidity, be stone
If you are not stone, my love
Be moon
In the dream of the beloved woman, be moon
[So spoke a woman
to her son at his funeral]
***
Oh watchmen! Are you not weary
Of lying in wait for the light in our salt
And of the incandescence of the rose in our wound
Are you not weary, oh watchmen?
***
A little of this absolute and blue infinity
Would be enough
To lighten the burden of these times
And to cleanse the mire of this place.
***
It is up to the soul to come down from its mount
And on its silken feet walk
By my side, hand in hand, like two longtime
Friends who share the ancient bread
And the antique glass of wine
May we walk this road together
And then our days will take different directions:
I, beyond nature, which in turn
Will choose to squat on a high-up rock.
***
On my rubble the shadow grows green,
And the wolf is dozing on the skin of my goat
He dreams as I do, as the angel does
That life is here…not over there.
***
In the state of siege, time becomes space
Transfixed in its eternity
In the state of siege, space becomes time
That has missed its yesterday and its tomorrow.
***
The martyr encircles me every time I live a new day
And questions me: Where were you? Take every word
You have given me back to the dictionaries
And relieve the sleepers from the echo’s buzz.
***
The martyr enlightens me: beyond the expanse
I did not look
For the virgins of immortality for I love life
On earth, amid fig trees and pines,
But I cannot reach it, and then, too, I took aim at it
With my last possession: the blood in the body of azure.
***
The martyr warned me: Do not believe their ululations
Believe my father when, weeping, he looks at my photograph
How did we trade roles, my son, how did you precede me.
I first, I the first one!
***
The martyr encircles me: my place and my crude furniture are all that I have changed.
I put a gazelle on my bed,
And a crescent of moon on my finger
To appease my sorrow.
***
The siege will last in order to convince us we must choose an enslavement that does no harm, in fullest liberty!
***
Resisting means assuring oneself of the heart’s health,
The health of the testicles and of your tenacious disease:
The disease of hope.
***
And in what remains of the dawn, I walk toward my exterior
And in what remains of the night, I hear the sound of footsteps inside me.
***
Greetings to the one who shares with me an attention to
The drunkenness of light, the light of the butterfly, in the
Blackness of this tunnel!
***
Greetings to the one who shares my glass with me
In the denseness of a night outflanking the two spaces:
Greetings to my apparition.
***
My friends are always preparing a farewell feast for me,
A soothing grave in the shade of oak trees
A marble epitaph of time
And always I anticipate them at the funeral:
Who then has died…who?
***
Writing is a puppy biting nothingness
Writing wounds without a trace of blood.
***
Our cups of coffee. Birds green trees
In the blue shade, the sun gambols from one wall
To another like a gazelle
The water in the clouds has the unlimited shape of what is left to us
Of the sky. And other things of suspended memories
Reveal that this morning is powerful and splendid,
And that we are the guests of eternity.

Identity Card

Record !
I am an Arab
And my identity card is number fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the nineth is coming after a summer
Will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
Employed with fellow workers at a quarry
I have eight children
I get them bread
Garments and books
from the rocks…
I do not supplicate charity at your doors
Nor do I belittle myself
at the footsteps of your chamber
So will you be angry?

Record !
I am an Arab
I have a name without a title
Patient in a country
Where people are enraged
My roots
Were entrenched before the birth of time
And before the opening of the eras
Before the pines, and the olive trees
And before the grass grew.

My father..
descends from the family of the plow
Not from a privileged class
And my grandfather..was a farmer
Neither well-bred, nor well-born!
Teaches me the pride of the sun
Before teaching me how to read
And my house
is like a watchman’s hut
Made of branches and cane
Are you satisfied with my status?
I have a name without a title !

Record !
I am an Arab
You have stolen the orchards
of my ancestors
And the land
which I cultivated
Along with my children
And you left nothing for us
Except for these rocks..
So will the State take them
As it has been said?!

Therefore !
Record on the top of the first page:
I do not hate people
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Beware..
Beware..
Of my hunger
And my anger !

Mahmoud Darwish (13 March 1941 – 9 August 2008), Palestinian poet:

I will continue to humanise even the enemy… The first teacher who taught me Hebrew was a Jew. The first love affair in my life was with a Jewish girl. The first judge who sent me to prison was a Jewish woman. So from the beginning, I didn’t see Jews as devils or angels but as human beings.

Scenes from Notre Musique directed by Jean-Luc Godard. The film reflects on violence, morality, and the representation of violence in film, and touches especially on past colonialism and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this clip Mahmoud explains why he feels the need to be ‘the poet of Troy’.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s
hesitation, the aroma of bread
at dawn, a woman’s opinion of men, the works of
Aeschylus, the beginnings
of love, grass on a stone, mothers who live on a flute’s sigh and
the invader’s fear of memories

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: the
waning days of September, a woman
keeping her apricots ripe after forty, the hour of sunlight in
prison, a cloud reflecting a pack
of creatures, the applause of a people for those who face their end
with a smile, and a tyrant’s fear of songs.

We have on this earth what makes life worth living: on this
earth, the Lady of Earth,
the mother of all beginnings, the mothr of all endings. She was called
Palestine. She came to be called
Palestine. O Lady, because you are my Lady, I am worthy of life.