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.


A year in the making

There’s a sense, in Tel Aviv, that one has ended up in the world’s lost property department.  All is jumbled, chaotic, heaped up – and yet with the sense that nothing and no one here ever belonged anywhere else.  Things turn up (and turn) unexpectedly while others vanish without warning.  And stranger still, that which you did not know was waiting to be found is also chanced upon.  Yes, before I came here I expected to find answers, questions, revelations, confusions, beauty, truth, visions and illusions.  I found all of those, thrown around and piled on top of each other.  I expected to find meaning, and I did, abundantly – for in Israel, a country which uses its past to distract itself from its present, meaning is like brambles; you keep getting snagged, unexpectedly.  Sometimes it tears your clothes, sometimes your skin.  It emerges between encounters with the sacred and the mundane.  (And by virtue of its exoticism, the mundane also becomes sacred.)  All these things I found, yet my biggest discovery is the one I never imagined looking for; namely, my voice.  It is easy, in hindsight, to position this within the ground zero matrix of the immigrant; for when you emigrate you are distilled, and gradually drip back into yourself.   But it is not apparent until the words spill into your mouth and your mind from elsewhere that you realise your voice is the firmament in which these findings embed themselves.  It charts the stars as you seep, returning to the root of the root of yourself, gazing at the constellations of self-discovery.

As such, Tel Aviv has not only re-threaded my ties to myself (as I have written about much in the last year), but also my ties to literature and words.  My final solo trip to Israel coincided with my discovery of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and it has improbably, ineluctably framed my experience of the place since, as well as re-tinting my memories of it.  Or perhaps it isn’t improbable, and it is simply the kind of tortured paean that can be related to by all those who are at the mercy of a city which has electrified their mind and saturated their soul.  A new year’s day cup of coffee at a Dizengoff cafe recast my understanding of my surroundings through the conduit of 1950s New York, as the furious, psychotically urbane, relentless thrust of the poem bled into and snapped away again from my circulating impressions of Tel Aviv.  The infinite rush of inside-out days and nights; glowing, pulsating rooms full of sultry glances behind blackout curtains; curious tastes in ancient new installations and familiar faces in strange places – all skipped across the surface of my imagination and splashed in, followed by another pebble of recollection, and another.  Into these wailing winds (experienced quietly at that cafe) sauntered Ginsberg and his beats, and his Beats; whirling dervishes bearing the gifts of syntax and vocabulary finally sufficient to approach the kinesis and rhythm I had struggled to verbalise.  So it is that each time I pass that cafe, a door bangs in my head somewhere, whipped open and closed by leftover sighs.  It is since I came to Israel that I have been trailed by the idea of books working as a camera lens; adjusting our field of vision and focus on the world around us; picking different bits out for us as we read, and even more so as we ponder what we have read.  It seems that we always manage to begin reading the right book at the right time, without meaning to, and without really knowing why.  And as I have existed in and experienced Israel over the last year, the opening line of Howl has visited me more than any other quotation: “I saw the best minds of my generation…”

Other times, other places…  “My voice was born in Beirut”, the Algerian writer Ahlem Mosteghanemi wrote in a recent love letter to the city.  Her words infused with the bewitching fragrance of this region’s writing, she describes the impact Lebanon’s capital has had on her voice, from its offer of “emotional asylum” to its “coexistence of contradictions”, and with a final flourish, that “[s]he experiences her delights like an endangered pleasure, so accustomed is she to snatching joy from the jaws of death.”  (Beirut is referred to in the feminine, as all cities of seduction should be.)  And that is my experience of Tel Aviv; a city which left me reeling, spinning, tumbling, spiralling, finally crash-landing in an endless hall of a new reality, and a new language in which to render it.  It is a ball of wool from which countless threads unravel and are remade.  It goes on spinning stories to keep the outside world at bay, to delay the release from its endless reverie.  It has a thousand voices and one voice.

Scheherazade, what would you have happen tonight?  And will you permit me the words to re-tell it?