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.


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.



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

A ballroom in the Middle East

During my last few weeks in the UK before moving to Israel, a little under two and a half years ago, a vivid scene repeatedly played over in my head. I saw a ballroom, filled with waltzing couples, young, dressed in regular clothes but wearing masquerade masks. The ballroom looked as you would expect: wooden floors, plush furnishings, elaborate lampshades on the walls – except that two perpendicular walls and the ceiling were missing, and all that lay beyond were black space and stars. Still, the couples kept up their waltz, seemingly oblivious to – or ignoring – the fact that they were dancing at the edge of the world.

This vision presented itself frequently until I arrived in Israel, at which point it stopped. To this day I haven’t been able to fathom where it came from, but I thought then – as I still do – that it was a rather fantastical metaphor for life in Israel/Palestine, and its society (or societies) that remain perched on the edge, its inhabitants either ignoring or resisting the abyss around their feet and above their heads. Now, as rockets spill and words detonate, as shootings and beatings mount, as fissures gape open in Jerusalem and Gaza is stripped to its bones in a futile mission whose only certainty is that there will be blood, I find myself returning to that scene from two and a half years ago. In the black hole that opened following the murders of three Israeli teenagers and the torturing to death of one Palestinian teenager, boundaries and limits apparently disappeared, sucked in by rage and the desire for revenge. Incitement, mob attacks, civil unrest – all have burst far and wide in the past month, and now we have a grim, one-sided war unfolding before us, crushing the fragile introspection that had begun in the wake of the violent racism unleashed by the kidnappings and murders. The Gaza conflict provides the latest distraction to keep everyone occupied, either mentally or physically; Israel, at once exploding and boxed in, is exercising its power and avoiding exorcising its demons. In turn, the walls and ceilings around us are crumbling, not only figuratively but literally – and with devastating frequency since the start of the Gaza operation. Once again the tense, impossible arithmetic of this land, of 48 plus 67, has been overrun by blood and the tears that follow. We are on the edge, with the ground beneath our feet but a void above and around us. It is time we look into it and start to work out where the boundaries are to be re-established, before we get swallowed up completely.


A few days ago, following an evening of dull thuds and booms that rattled my office building, the midnight walk home from work was quiet – under my sky, at least, not that other sky in the south, still crowded and wailing. Ahead of me, a few young people were ambling along in good spirits; pausing before crossing a road, they turned their heads to check for oncoming traffic and for the first time I saw their faces – or rather I didn’t, for they were wearing masquerade masks. The blackness and the stars hung above us, watching, waiting, as we all are during these days. In my head, I remembered young people, masked, carrying on as normal amid an oblivion. In a waltz, as others flee.

A State of Mind

“You took the wrong pill…you should have taken the blue one…”

So I was informed by a taxi driver in Tel Aviv, after the conversation inevitably settled on my decision to emigrate to Israel. The suggestion (referring to the film The Matrix, where the central character is given the choice between taking the blue pill, which will keep him safely in his current comfortable, illusory world; and taking the red pill, which will permanently remove him from the fantasy and cast him out into the real world) is appropriately cut to fit the unique contours of making aliyah. For the idea that is sold to the expectant arrival is that of the promised land, and that by coming here, we are coming home. In fairness, depending on the attitude of the immigrant, that assertion is not entirely unmerited – provided their idea of home is a bustling, complicated Mediterranean country, and not the ‘Jewish Disneyland’ of various youth programmes and holiday tours. But as soon as the concept of an absolute promised land gains traction and takes root, the problems start.

Certainly at first, living in Tel Aviv can give the impression that one has reached the promised land, that the dream became a reality, that we did it. That there is a Jewish state, and that it is filled with intelligent, cultured, witty people, who care about the country but at the same time wish for and believe in two states for two peoples. And this political persuasion seems so effortlessly convincing that it is not to be questioned. Only if it is to be thus, the argument goes, will we ensure that the dream continues and that we retain our morality and maintain our dream of a homeland. And it is supported by a uniquely powerful concept – that of the aforementioned promised land. It is a projection which strikes the heart and mind with surgical accuracy, and all those afflicted by a belief in and devotion to it suffer its exit wound on their Imaginary. Intangible and yet infused into some kind of collective memory, the ideal of Israel as the promised land is like the Northern Lights – a stunning, shapeshifting, amorphous display which fires the imaginations and desires of countless dreamers, seeming to hint at an ethereal paradise and yet remaining devastatingly out of reach. And like all dreams, it is evanescent, receding further and further the more we try to grasp it.

As a disclaimer, I have fallen captive to this myself in the past, and in moments of profundity am prone to it still; recently, while sleeping on a rooftop in Jerusalem’s Old City, I was awoken at 4.30am by the call to prayer emanating from al-Aqsa Mosque. There followed an ephemeral, atavistic experience, in which I was enveloped by the historical panorama of a chant that has echoed through the ages and a velvet blackness tattooed by the lights of the ancient buildings all around; at the same time, I was subsumed by a brief instant of insight where I understood why men have been driven to madness and death in pursuit of the dream of Jerusalem. But then the veil of inherited nostalgia that had descended lifted once more, the millennial yearning evaporated, and present-day Israel re-materialised.

And the reality is that the reverie is unsustainable, for it assumes certain post-partition elements that are simply not there. The central conceit behind having two states is that Israel will remain Jewish and democratic. Yet in truth many of those who wish to (and have the mandate to) safeguard the Jewishness of the state are not interested in protecting it as a democracy, and those who wish to see it retain some kind of democratic character are terminally disinterested in being Jewish. The cultural heritage is so frequently brushed aside, the religious dimension distrusted and sneered at, the history at best wincingly endured. It is difficult to see how the bottom would not fall out of any society facing such competing antipathies and apathies.

Yet it is not only what may be that points to this dead end, but also what has been. Shattered by streams of bombs and rockets, pockmarked by endless bullets, crippled by bad faith and hopelessly and helplessly deformed by 65 years of gradually altering physical facts on the ground, the two-state solution has been lynched and left for dead. These are outcomes that no amount of self-delusion and well-meaning protest marches can reverse, and whatever it is that one may wish for and envision, the cold and pragmatic assessment can draw only one conclusion. It is an agonising, wrenching position to accept, and one which signals the end of an era both in Israel’s self-perception and the expectations of the rest of the world. One calls to mind the words of Baha ad-Din ibn Shaddad, a close friend of Saladin, upon hearing of the sultan’s death:

“Then these years and their players passed away
As though they all had been merely dreams.”

So it is in these times of modern-day Crusades. This country is not a dream factory, and it has become something of a moral sweatshop. It is struggling vainly towards a peace proposal that has been crushed by its past and denied its future by the disunity of the present. Yet we must not squander Israel’s extraordinary potential; I am not proposing solutions or giving instructions, but I am suggesting a first step, which is to snap out of it. It’s time to take the red pill, despite what astute taxi drivers from Tel Aviv may tell you.