Tales from the compass

Clocks: a universal sundial, with a compass. Engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Clocks: a universal sundial, with a compass. Engraving.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

North was not always the “default” or “top” cardinal direction on the compass. At various times, south and east were, too, depending on who was doing the orientating. (And there’s another clue in the word “orient” – when you orientate yourself, the implication is that you are setting yourself according to the east, or via the rising sun. When you disorientate, you lose the east, as Salman Rushdie wrote in “The Ground Beneath Her Feet.”)

In Arabic, the word “shmaal” means left, but it also means north – which if you are facing east, makes sense. Similarly, the country Yemen takes its name from “yameen,” which is Arabic for “right”. Yemen is in the southern part of the Arabian peninsula – which of course, when facing east, is on the right.

Linguistically, the words “east” and “west” are conceptually linked to the pattern of days – not only in Indo-European languages, but also Semitic languages. “East” comes from an Indo-European root that gave us the Latin “aurora” (dawn). “West” comes from an Indo-European root that gave us the Latin “vesper” (evening). Similarly, “orient” comes from the Latin for “to rise,” while “occident” (an archaic term for the West) comes from the Latin “to cut down,” which describes the movement of the setting sun.

The same is true in Arabic and Hebrew. The word “east” in Arabic is “sharq,” coming from a root word that means “to rise”; in Hebrew, it is “mizrach,” which also comes from a root word that gives us the verb “to rise” (it also gives us the Hebrew word for sunset, which is “zricha.”) West, in Arabic, is “gharb,” which comes from a root that the verb “to leave” or “go down” also comes from. And, indeed, the sun does leave us at the end of the day. This is where we get the word “Maghreb” from, too – for north Africa of course lies to the west of the Arabian peninsula. (The same root has also produced the word “ghurba,” which means “exile” – thus inextricably linking the concept with the West. Disorientation, indeed.)

In Hebrew, “west” is “ma’arav,” whose root has also given us “erev” – evening – and, yes, a verb related to the setting of the sun/time of day (accounts vary as to whether it is the verb “to mix,” which would refer to the mixing of day and night, or “to enter,” based on early man’s idea that the sun entered a tent to “sleep” every night).

So next time you are giving directions, especially on the east-west axis, remember that you are not only referring to a physical place, but also a place in time, and the movement of the sun. And remember, too, that each reference to east and west is also a subtle reminder of the passage of time.

Theatre of the Oppressed

IMG_0825In the end, no matter how it starts, the same pattern plays out over and over at demonstrations in Israel-Palestine; the same drama, unfolding in the same acts. It’s a call-and-response – a kind of perverse tango – that begins with a demand for basic human rights, and ends with (or is temporarily derailed by) a violent putting-down, by either state or individual actors, or sometimes both. In part one, the freedoms requested may differ – for homes not to be destroyed, for land not to be stolen, for lives not to be taken – but the expressions are the same: walk, chant, shout, hold signs, hold hands, hold on. In part two, whichever side of the Green Line you are on, the order of play is again the same, even if the props are different.

I have watched in Nabi Saleh as Israeli army snipers shot live ammunition at Palestinian teenagers and as Border Police fired tear gas canisters directly at unarmed demonstrators; as a group of Palestinians asking Israeli security forces for their land back received a response in the form of stun grenades hurled at them; as a teenaged girl sobbed while watching her (unarmed, peaceful) father being hauled away by members of the Border Police, his hand reaching back towards her in desperation. I have watched in Beitunia as snipers shot live bullets at more Palestinian teenagers who were protesting on the anniversary of Nakba Day, two of whom were later shot to death. (And yes, the violence at Nakba Day demonstrations is worse, because only one people is allowed to grieve over a defining national tragedy here, and it isn’t the Palestinians.) I have watched in central Tel Aviv as extreme right-wing nationalists came to break up protests against the slaughter in Gaza, wading into a crowd of demonstrators and hitting, shoving, throwing eggs and other objects, with minimal interference from the police. And today, I watched in East Jerusalem – during a demonstration against the Judaisation of Palestinian parts of the city – as the police and Border Police assaulted unarmed protesters for having the audacity to carry signs calling for an end to the Occupation; as elderly women were manhandled by big men with big guns and bigger frowns; as the façade of democracy that many still insist exists here was violently exposed for the fraud that it is.

Yes, we all know our lines here. Everyone is used to the ironic, inverted cycle of violence that is the hallmark of repressive regimes, in which non-violent calls to end violence are met with further violence. We seem doomed to repeat the same punishments, as if we were characters in Dante’s Inferno. And yet, there is a defiance to these protests which uses the logic of the Occupation against its enforcers. As one will often hear from ex-soldiers with Breaking the Silence, much of the mandate of Israeli security forces is aimed at ‘making our presence felt’ (this is particularly pronounced in Hebron, from where many of Breaking the Silence’s testimonies come): the raids, arrests, war games, intimidation and restrictions are there to remind Palestinians that they are a subjugated, captive population, always surrounded, always being watched. But in turn, so are the protests a demonstration of presence – the presence of those who are subjected to the Occupation, and those who are not but nonetheless oppose it. They are a reminder that in spite of the crushing brutality and scale of oppression here, those trapped within the apparatus of structural violence will not fade quietly into the night. When faced with a vast, state-administered machinery aimed precisely at attacking a society’s very presence in its own land, reasserting that presence becomes an extraordinary show of resilience.

The violence, however, is undeniably increasing. As the Occupation entrenches itself more and more; as the legacy of the Nakba grows ever longer with no acknowledgement of responsibility and therefore no possibility for its victims to truly grieve and thus heal; and as the infringements on human rights continue to mount up, so do the demonstrations multiply, along with the aggressive culling of the sentiments expressed within them. We are reciting the same lines, only louder and faster, and even as our voices get hoarse it seems we will never be allowed to run out of words. There are so many here crying out for the curtain to fall on this insane drama, even as those in power are determined that the show go on.


As I was walking to Jaffa from south Tel Aviv this evening, having travelled back from Jerusalem after the protest, I saw a solitary bird’s wing lying on the pavement. As a post-script to the day’s demonstration, itself representative of the endless battle here, that torn-off, discarded wing symbolised it all: a shadow of violence and freedom lost, with the remains a glimpse of what once was, and of all that could have been.

Crying to be heard – Nabi Saleh 13th Feb 2015

The demonstration in Nabi Saleh today went ahead in spite of the freezing wind whipping around the valley. The usual knee-jerk volley of tear gas arrived at the start, followed by a few rubber bullets, and then more rounds of tear gas. Two groups of Border Police were positioned on opposite sides of the road, firing from both directions.

People sang, the wind howled, guns cracked and demonstrators ran and watched and ran. An American journalist covering the protest for a Chinese news channel stood next to me delivering her piece to camera, and I had the odd experience of hearing news being reported as it was going on around me.

After the demonstration, as we all sat in one of the Tamimis’ homes for the customary post-march coffee and conversation, I heard the same American journalist telling an 8-year old Palestinian girl who is living under occupation not to give up on her dream of going to Harvard.

For once, it wasn’t the gas that left me with tears in my eyes.

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The story unteller of Jerusalem

In early September a couple of years ago, I spent the night in Jerusalem with a friend who was visiting Israel for the first time. It was the same night on which I experienced the haunting, liminal ceremony of sleeping on a roof in the Old City and being woken at 4.30am by the Fajr adhan from the al-Aqsa mosque. It was also the night that my friend and I met Fayek, upon whom we stumbled as he was curating the one open shop amid the Old City’s shuttered facades. Appearing at first as a lone, featureless figure sitting on a low stool, Fayek’s voice drifted out to greet us in the gloom. We approached, and then followed him down into the ‘Holy Cave’, as he had named his store, neither of us aware of the tales he was carrying inside his chest. After brief introductions the three of us sat down and Fayek began to talk; as the night wore on, his stories became more and more fantastical, unfeasible, desperate, crossing continents, decades, eras. From his monochrome introduction as a shadow backlit by the solitary light of his shop, Fayek – surrounded by a lifetime’s-worth of collected ephemera – transformed into a vivid mouthpiece of magical realism, unable to stop the tales tripping out of him, like an organ grinder who has lost control of the music they are playing. Many hours later, as my friend and I walked back to our hostel through streets submerged in the navel of the night, I asked her if she thought that any of the stories were true. “No, of course not,” she replied. “But that’s not the point…”

Neither of us knew at the time that we had been in the company of a dying man. A year later, almost to the day, I was on a bus from San Francisco to Los Angeles when my friend messaged me to tell me that Fayek had died. The sense of disorientation was acute: I was in the process of escaping westwards when invisible reins suddenly yanked me back to the East. I began to see Fayek’s storytelling in a different light, then – not as pure performance, but rather as necessarily overflowing with vitality and imagination in order to keep the illusion of life going, to keep death at bay. I thought of Scheherazade, extending her life stitch by stitch with every story that she wove. A distant echo of Israel and Palestine and their truths – that I was searching for and running away from – sounded in my mind, then drifted away again. As time passed following the news of his death, Fayek became a memory and a regret; a chapter that closed as abruptly as it had begun.

Half a year later I unexpectedly found myself back in Israel long-term, my own dislocation reversed (not knowing what roots feel like, they took me by surprise). As my soul seeped further into the soil here, while killings spiked, war loomed and incitement lit our tinderbox society, my mind turned again to stories, but stories of this land: those I told myself, those I heard and believed and over time dismissed. And I began to think of Israel, locked in the blackest night, spinning tales over and over again in order to distract from the destruction it uses to forge ahead and that follows in its wake. I thought about the opening lines of ‘there was no other way to found the country’, of ‘we did what had to be done’, of ‘all will be well once we leave the territories’. These tales are told against a backdrop of forests, parks, tunnels and new towns, whose cries of redemption mask the foundations atop and beneath them, and which have turned this country into a giant palimpsest.

And as Israel paves its own road with its own stories, it has stolen the stories of others. “[Colonialism is] a war that captures dreams and re-dreams them,” wrote Arundhati Roy, and so we have captured the dreams of Palestinians. In this context, dreams are potential portraits of the future, and in razing their past and imprisoning their present, Israel is withholding a future from the Palestinians. What dreams can one have, when the reality that they could be converted into is locked away, out of sight and out of reach? The dreams of Palestinians have been subordinated to our dreams; their story has made way for our story; our developing chronology has truncated theirs. With the altneu combination of settler-colonialism and nationalism – diseases of the old world and new world, respectively – Israel’s stories carry with them the weight of history and the drive of progress. Yet the longer these stories persist, the more they decompose before our eyes and the eyes of the world, like an ancient book that crumbles in your hands as you hold it, pieces of the pages weeping onto your chest as you read. For it is not only the Palestinian story that is being obliterated by the expansionist fairytales of the Israeli government and its right-wing supporters; pre-1948 Jewish history, too, is being distended and mutated. In the customary formula for the creation of nationalist myth and identity, the facts of Jewish history are being continually submitted to the abuse of a Procrustean bed. And yet the stories thrive, in the mistaken belief that they are banishing death from our door and strengthening our spirit.


I can no longer remember the particulars of Fayek’s stories. But I remember their tone, their reach and scope, their atmosphere, their flavour. I remember that time seemed to stop as he was speaking, and then slowly move backwards as the night crossed its halfway point, finally plunging me into a millennial trance at the sound of the dawn adhan that rolled around Jerusalem’s darkened valleys. I remember that compression of time lasting until I arrived back in Tel Aviv the following evening, at which point it sprung back out like an accordion, pulling my perceptions open with it. I’m not sure what it was in Fayek’s words that set off such a chain reaction in me, but more than two years later I am able to pinpoint that as one of the key moments when the stories of this land in which I had placed such faith and emotional trust started to unravel. It was an unexpected and (perhaps) unintentional gift, this exogenous introspection, which though it led to many agonising and disorientating months of self-examination, brought me far more strength and community than can be expressed in words.

Fayek, dear, I hope you are resting in peace. My debt to you is ongoing.


Jerusalem: Against the dying of the light


“Do not go gentle into that good night.”

I am sitting in an archway in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, taking a break from guiding a friend who is visiting from the UK. He is smoking a cigarette, and I am photographing the street sign across from us. We are on Misgav Ladakh Street, and as with all street signs in the Old City, the name is written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. On this sign, however, the Arabic has been completely covered by two identical stickers featuring a slogan in Hebrew, which translates roughly as “The lives of our soldiers come before the lives of enemies.” On a doorway across from the sign, next to us, the same stickers have been used to spell out – also in Hebrew – “The Lord is King.” The phrase about soldiers’ lives became popular during the summer, when the country shrouded itself in brute nationalism during Israel’s latest attempt to cripple the Gaza Strip. This message, and many others like it, appeared on posters, banners and bumper stickers throughout the country. What surfaced on social media was even less palatable. The stickers, and their obscuring of the Arabic lettering on the street sign, are a most violent revision by the simplest means. They are a perfect distillation of how oppression against Palestinians works in this country: cover, conceal, remove, rub out. Build a house, knock down a house, plant a tree, place a wall, place a sticker. Aside from the most recent cycle of ruination in Gaza, nowhere is this methodology currently more evident than in Jerusalem. The city – particularly the East – is under a series of slow-burning sieges that are gradually reaching the end of their fuse: official government settlement plans; unofficial settler takeovers of Palestinian property; the entire ethos of Elad, Ateret Cohanim, the Temple Mount movement and their ilk; street-level thuggery perpetrated by fascist groups such as Lehava; house demolitions; racist vandalism; night-time round-ups and arrests, including of children. Two attacks on or near the Jerusalem light rail, which left four dead, and the attempted assassination of Yehuda Glick – a leading figure in the Temple Mount movement – by, respectively, Abdel Rahman al-Shaloudi, Ibrahim al-Akri and (suspected) Muataz Hejazi resulted in the killing of all three men by Israeli security forces, sparking demonstrations in East Jerusalem. The city’s totemic position as the final resting place of Jewish history is cloaking it in an ever-thickening smog, under which the streets are seething: the soundscape of the city is now pockmarked with helicopters and gunfire; Israeli security forces are amassed at every corner; and a tautness hangs in the air, clinging to one as if walking through cobwebs. Jerusalem is gradually being blinded by its own unreachable significance, and it has the capacity to blind the rest of the country, too. ———————————————————–

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Jerusalem has grown on me like a second skin. There is something about the city that opens and closes me; I am not always consciously aware of it, but it is in the soles of my feet when I walk, in my mouth when I speak, and behind my eyes when I think. When something snags at this new layer to draw my attention to it once more, I find myself able to focus on little else. My heart is torn and mended each time I am there, and often when I am observing from afar. All the conflict and contradictions Jerusalem contains provide the epitome of an earlier musing I had about living in this land: that being here is like walking on broken glass in a cave of wonders. So it is on this afternoon under an archway in the Jewish Quarter that I gaze on a crude, obstructive slogan and feel a dark cloud settle over the extraordinary light of this city. As I am busy digesting this familiar crushing sensation, a small group of people appears next to the street sign. My friend and I hear the tour guide translate the Hebrew slogan into English, explain how racist it is, and then finish with the words: “As a Jew, I find this deeply offensive.” Then he peels off both stickers and the Arabic is visible again; a most profound reparation by the simplest means. A crack of light, and my heart hurts less. Later, my friend and I are making our way back down from the roofs of the Christian Quarter, after bathing in the cross-weave of multiple calls to prayer from the minarets that encircle us. The sun has set, but there is still enough light to be able to see a sticker on an electricity box that we walk past on St Mark’s Lane. It reads, in Hebrew and Arabic (addressed to a man): “Don’t even think about going with a Jewish woman!” It is a slogan of the above-mentioned fascist anti-miscegenation group Lehava, which actively works to prevent and disrupt intermarriage between Arabs and Jews – specifically Arab men and Jewish women. We have already seen this sticker countless times during our day in Jerusalem; on this occasion, however, someone has already tried to tear it off. I think about the tour guide from earlier, and take courage once again from how the smallest act of decency from an enlightened individual can pierce the fog. Jerusalem seems to be paralysed under endless black skies, but there may just be enough humanity and history in the city to make its heart beat again. The light here is ancient, and it will not go gently into the night. IMG_0073


Quotations taken from “Do not go gentle into that good night” by Dylan Thomas

The 76-year weekend (Palestine to Vienna)

In the early afternoon of 15th May 2014 I am in a car with two companions, driving through the West Bank, occupied Palestine. It is Nakba Day and we are on our way to Beituniya, a Palestinian town next to Ofer Prison, in order to attend one of several demonstrations being held in memory of the ethnic cleansing of 1948. As we drive through those hills and mounds that always remind me of piles of smashed terracotta, the occasional cloud of smoke can be seen rising up in the distance. Pink Floyd looms out of the car’s speakers. An army jeep drives past us; I turn round to watch it disappear, and I have a sense of driving through a tunnel that has no return route. I am acutely aware of my Israeli nationality, and I feel as if I’m trespassing.

When we arrive in Beituniya, we – three Israelis – dislocate ourselves, shrugging off our nationality and slipping on another citizenship (real or imagined). We speak English, and let our outsiderness bring us inside. The scene is familiar: tear gas, smoke, flames, cracks and small explosions, running youths, running soldiers, kneeling soldiers, heard-but-not-seen soldiers, jeeps, cat-and-mouse, stones and bullets. Flags and helmets. Keffiyehs and guns. Palestine and Israel. And something less familiar, at least for me – a different-sounding crack, more of a pop. People scatter, and then gravitate back towards the soldiers. More popping, and scattering; demonstrators near the front of the protest beckon at something unseen, and an ambulance that has been idling behind me flies towards them. People continue walking back from the front line. The ambulance hurtles back past us, and people’s heads turn to follow it before looking again in the opposite direction. A young man, gas mask perched on the top of his head, and his t-shirt, hands and arms covered in blood, is walking in the middle of the road away from the soldiers. He is screaming and shouting, turning round every now and again and gesturing, before eventually collapsing against a wall in tears. A friend who was walking with him crouches alongside. People gather, paramedics run over. He is in shock; the blood is someone else’s. Out of the impenetrable wall of discussions in Arabic happening all around, I hear someone say in English that the Israeli army had shot live bullets, as a wound from a rubber bullet wouldn’t bleed so profusely. We drift back in the direction of the shooting, amid talk that the person who has been shot is young, and now in a very grave condition. Standing by, watching and listening, my blue ID card burning a hole in my bag, I suddenly understand Israel rather better than before: the extent of its hysterical paranoia, its red lines, its constant reliance on hatred for strength. This demonstration and the army’s response cry out that the fundamental founding reality of this country is one that Israelis are distantly aware of but cannot bear to face, like someone who has stepped on broken glass and dares not lift their foot to inspect the damage. We would rather kill than look.

But there is no time to reflect on this in Beituniya, because we are back in the car on the way to Jerusalem. We do not know at that time that by the end of the afternoon, two Palestinian teenagers will have been shot dead. Our identity carousel spins again as we drive away: Muslim prayer beads swing from the rear-view mirror and Arabic music plays on the stereo. Eventually, after a traffic jam caused by road closures in Ramallah, we approach the entry back into Israel. The checkpoint is the site of another demonstration. We drive through the flames of burning tires and our adopted identities melt away too; the music is switched off, the beads tucked into a compartment under the stereo. We are Israelis again, with an appropriate story prepared for the soldiers at the checkpoint – we were visiting friends in a settlement. If you can’t beat them, join them (temporarily). In the shared taxi on the way back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, I read on my phone that a Palestinian teenager shot during the demonstration in Beituniya has died. I cannot stop my brain from drawing a line between what I saw and what I have just read. For the rest of the day, I’m not sure what I am, and not because I shuffled the deck so many times.

Eighteen hours later I am in the air, flying to Vienna for a memorial honouring members of my family who were killed in the Holocaust. I feel Jewish again, in a way that I don’t (or can’t) when I’m in Israel. I think to myself that identity is merely sleight of hand, or perhaps drag. Two days after, surrounded by my family from around the world, and other people’s families from around the world, I listen to the daughter of my great-grandmother’s brother describe to us all the last time she saw her father, before he was taken to a concentration camp in 1938. A survivor herself, she pays tribute to all those who were lost during the Holocaust, and tells us: “I want to say that their lives weren’t taken in vain, but they were. And today, the atrocities continue in other countries.”

We walk through Vienna’s streets under a grey sky, going from one house to another in the old Jewish district of Leopoldstadt in order to memorialise former residents who were taken and killed by the Nazis. It is raining, and we are on the other side of the solar system from Beituniya and its burning roads. The volume on the Nakba Day reel in my head dials down, and the cracks and explosions and tear gas fade away. Then a woman, speaking about a member of her family being remembered that day, ends her speech with “Am Yisrael Chai” (the people of Israel live), and a young man with a blood-stained shirt and a tear-stained face escapes from my memory and slips into my mind’s eye. Banquo in Leopoldstadt.

The carousel revolves again. In this seventy-six year weekend, I am standing in the street where a teenager is shot dead for remembering, killed in my name, and standing in the street where my family were rounded up and eventually killed for their name. A strange wind blows from one memory to another, one people to another, one history to another. They are two tragedies that dare not speak each other’s name, and they will forever be our shadows.

Their lives were taken in vain.