A Note on Palestine: A Note for the Foreign Eye
By Mary Geday
I have been asking myself for some time now, that if I were to write down my sincerest thoughts and feelings about Palestine, would I let anyone see the words that express them, especially the people for whom these words are intended. I want to begin with a topic that is difficult to broach, particularly the way I want to express it. There are many topics in mind, but I will begin with this.
I wonder, often, as I carry myself from one juncture in my day to another, from one Palestinian ghetto to another, what resident foreigners, members of the international community, must think to themselves as they themselves pass through Palestinian towns and cities from one ditch to another. I often wonder what they think of the dirt. I have wondered about this dirt of ours myself too many times, especially since I’ve noticed how I have come to memorize each object that infests and rots and rusts around those street corners, tree stumps, electric poles, and cement blocks that are the landscape of my everyday life. I wonder if we are a dirty people, inherently dirty, messy, filthy • yes, filthy. Young and old throw food wrappers, beverage bottles and cans, plastic cups and bags out the window or onto the pavement. I have noticed in horror, out of the corner of my eye, my students throwing a wrapper or plastic cup out the lecture hall window.
I couldn’t understand the reason for people’s nonchalant habit for a long time. I thought I did. I was convinced it had to do with our culture, and even with our geography. I hypothesized that it might be an anthropological fact. I was quite Calvinistic, thinking Palestinians were doomed to function in this way. I instinctively intellectualized this habit of dirt and disposability. I thought all this dirt might be deciphered by Marx’s notions of class: maybe the merging and swapping of rural and urban societies have left people unaware of their surroundings and how to exist within new physical and social boundaries.
Not long ago, my neighbours and I, on our usual morning route, down the hill and up again, faced a familiar site, with another, not as familiar, not so far behind it. Everyone was on his and her way to school or work. More than a hundred of us were heading toward the checkpoint. I waited for the usual 20 minutes and then 20 more. It seemed the waiting would never end only because it was the rainiest and coldest day of February. I passed and only for a split second thought that there would be no more waiting to come. The second was over and I found myself on the other side of the checkpoint with about four hundred to five hundred people, mostly school children of all ages, waiting for any bus or Ford Transit to pick us up on the other side. I later found out that the municipality police did not allow the usual green buses to head out of Jerusalem towards Beit Hanina and Ram that morning. Soon we became more people and more people, maybe six hundred. Three green mini-buses came by in the 45 minutes I stood waiting. Six white Ford Transits came by during this time. The white Fords picked up little children heading to Shu’fat as their final destination. And as for the green mini-buses, hoards of runners met their doors, windows and wheels with beating hands and screams to wait and permit whoever can get through the door a standing spot. Children were running, hidden by the bus-wheels, invisible under the mob. As for me, by the time the second green mini-bus came and left I had decided to run for the kill as well. So when I glimpsed the next vision of white and green stripes motoring in a fright towards the mob, I, running, finally positioned myself aiming for the last metre when the brakes would squeal and I, one of about twenty or thirty with their faces against each other and the metal frame, managed to get through the frightened door, and I got on.
I sat in the bus feeling completely demeaned and demeaning. I could just see myself as I must have seemed to anyone watching, anyone who wasn’t running and fighting to get on a tiny little bus amongst hundreds of other faces red with sweat and rain. More than anything, I saw myself. I was a university professor running to catch any mode of transportation as if I were running for my life. I had a 2565-page Anthology of English Literature in my book bag, as well as a stack of NGO and international agencies grant applications for student scholarships, equipment, books, videos, etc., and an Ansel Adams photography book that I had carried with me just to show the students what the American Southwest looked like so they would have to imagine how orange the sky is in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novels. I was wet, angry and desperate and willing to run up and down the hill after any sign of a moving vehicle if it would open its door and let me in.
It occurred to me that morning why Palestinians are dirty, messy and chaotic. It occurred to me that morning why people never stand in line at the post office, the bank, the electric company, or any other place for that matter. It occurred to me why people of all ages throw wrappers in the street or even outside their front door. It occurred to me why men tip their cigarette ashes on their office floor or on the floors of the lecture halls. It also occurred to me why my students have an impossible time imagining anything other than what they see. It also occurred to me why my husband’s art students can’t conceive of painting or designing in colours other than their favourite ones, and why the only things they draw are domes, roses, and weapons, and the only colours they use are green, red, and black.
When I was running to beat the mob to the bus, I realised, while running, that the Israeli government and occupation had devised and carried out the most intangible yet most powerful weapon. Israel had devised to defeat a nation not by making it submit, but by making it inhuman and bestial. It had devised to create a new people, a dehumanized people, a bestial nation without any means of maintaining and expressing self-dignity and self-esteem. It had devised a symphony and infrastructure of ways to render a nation without a sense of beauty, of order, civility, colour, consideration and desire. It had devised to render a nation bestial rather than human in its own sub-conscious. It had devised to render a nation bestial rather than human in self-ownership, and most significantly, in self-preservation, and politically, in its presentation of self-preservation.
Some time before this incident, an acquaintance, a foreigner, who is here like many foreigners as part of an unfathomable mass of aid, development and diplomatic agencies, suggested to me that the major Palestinian political and, therefore, ultimate weakness is the Palestinian inability or incapability to mobilize a global public relations campaign and to thereby rally the support of the international community, namely, the West. At the moment he said this, I knew how I wanted to respond, but I couldn’t find the appropriate words to meet him with an answer other than that any campaign is hopeless in the face of the impending hands of power and history. But I wish I could answer him now. I would say to him that it is beyond my human comprehension why any individual, community, society or nation which has endured destruction, demolition, expulsion and dehumanization should have to plead their suffering and victimhood before anyone, why they should have to advertise their genocide by recruiting the highest bidders in the global market, why they should have to fight a willingly unthinking and blind public opinion to impress upon it the reasons why they deserve to be heard, and why they should have to market their pain like a superior brand name so that their calls for justice and freedom can be heard. What possible failure has sullied this age of Post-Enlightenment, Post-Colonialism, Multiculturalism, Global Communities, Green Parties, “the world is my village”, Global Conscience, Democracy is the global ethic, Women’s Months, Minority’s Month, and Equal Opportunity Employment, this culminate and apex of all human accomplishment as a species and a civilization on this Darwinian sodden earth that the Palestinians need urge this glorious epitome of human progress for justice to be done?
What my acquaintance was asking me, between unspoken lines, was why we as a nation couldn’t put together a better face on our fight for justice and on our ways of survival. What he was asking me, rhetorically, as if he had realised or decided that the make-over would never happen as long as Palestinians were bestial in their way of life and in their public persona of resistance, was why we have chosen to maintain a medieval presentation of survival and self-preservation rather than a 40ft web video broadcasting the achievements of Palestinian cultural life simultaneously at the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art. He was asking me why our Ministry of Culture wasn’t co-sponsoring the Football World Cup Championship with FIFA, why our Universities aren’t lab partners in the Human Genome Project, and why our music conservatories aren’t competing with the Israel Philharmonic for the grandest concert halls. What he was asking me was why my people have not decided to actively join the ranks of the developed industrial nations, if not in practice, than at least in emulating hope and intention, to produce the highest rates of pollution, consumption and waste, and to boast the highest rates of diseases caused by pollution, consumption and waste. What he was asking me was why my nation has not decided to discard old agricultural and land development traditions that conserve the integrity of the orange and cucumber and reap it in its season rather than beat the earth with chemical waste to feed a wasteful palate. What he was asking me was my people do not market their heritage, their stone and marble, their olive wood and figs, for pennies to the bottomless-pit market of the Western taste for the exotic and prove that we too have taste, that we too have skills, that we too have an eye for the money-making machine, that we too are hard-working capitalists worthy to enter the pearly gates of the democratic, conscientious modern ethic and economy.
Have you ever noticed, really noticed, the middle-aged Palestinian man who lines the gold and black and silver gates of the old Jerusalem mansions and houses, guarding and keeping time for the international campaign, simply sitting there staring at the street’s adventures, or playing backgammon with an old friend? I often wonder, as my Transit passes by, what he must think on occasion, and how he must see himself sitting there with a home behind him and street before him. These homes were once landmarks of what the Palestinians might re-inherit after British occupation. Now, the Palestinian guard looks behind him and sees the home of a primary school friend who left in 1967, and whose olive and lemon trees have since borne a foreign fruit. He guards someone else’s house, a house matching someone else’s newly minted keys, and reads the news outside the iron-gate. He has no campaign to run. He runs for the bus everyday; sometimes the buses are regular.
Mary Geday is an assistant professor of English Literature. She lives and works in Jerusalem.
Photo by: George Azar