Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Two Weeks in Palestine

Two Weeks In Palestine: My First Visit [1]


Mick Taussig




Thursday June 17, 2013: I pretty well stopped eating in Palestine, not because I wasn’t offered food at every turn, but because the intensity ate me alive. It was like I was breathing different air on a different planet where the customary laws of gravity and physics no longer existed. Except it wasn’t just the harsh reality of physics—of land occupation and check-points and the permits required for any and everything—but the even harsher reality of things harder for me to pin down. Paranoia? Yes. Anxiety? Yes. But these terms are too obvious yet not quite right, anyway. Above all what threw me was the patience and calm in the midst of choppy seas that in an instant could become a gale inside and outside. Was it that things seemed calm, but shouldn’t?  Or was it that people spent a lot of time making calm, if you see what I mean, and that this was a sort of national pastime, a gargantuan cultural feat, “making calmness.” (Compare with the agitated frenzy I always hear about in Israel) Or is it that no matter how bad a situation, people adapt and life continues in its steady and unsteady rhythms, as it must for the 40 year old man I met in the subterranean market in Hebron selling spices at the same stall all his life and who has never seen the sea, holding my arm, eyes burning, when I tell him I am from Sydney. Although it is quite close, he has never seen the sea because he doesn’t have a permit to travel the necessary roads. But the spices need to be gathered from the dusty hillsides, the customers expect it, and he has to live, sea-less as it may be. Twenty meters away Jewish settlers are said to pour garbage and even urine down into the marketplace from their houses which not so long ago were the homes of Palestinians whom, by and large, Israelis insist on calling “arabs” as if the very word PALESTINE does not exist, is not allowed to exist, and yet for all of that non-existence very much exists—as a taboo word threatening thought itself and, indeed, the very writing of this diary. Never have I felt the use of names and words to be so precarious.


Friday: In Palestine I was forever struck by the gulf between violence and the manner by which it was related, as with the seller of spices in Hebron or a young man in Ramallah relating his arrest at the age of seventeen by Israeli soldiers at his home early one morning. No lights. No sirens. A stone thrown through the window shattering the glass two in the morning. Opening the door into that black night what seemed like hundreds of Israeli soldiers aiming red lazer beams on his chest through the scopes of their guns. A hooded informer pushed forth to identify him. Blindfolded, hands and ankles cuffed, beaten and tortured three days, trussed to a chair with a strong light in front of his face. When he nodded off, a surveillance camera caught him and he was once again woken up for questioning. Ten to a cell, one toilet which doubled up as a “shower,” and. thirteen hours a day studying. He learnt Hebrew by reading the newspaper his uncle sent him each day.   


You’ve seen it all in the movies, I’m sure. Many times.


But not this, not the way he told it, sitting cross legged in the soft grass of the Khalil Sakakini cultural center in Ramallah mid afternoon beneath a dark fig tree. As he spoke, picking up a blade of grass now and again, two kittens played as I peeled unripe figs on the ground. Free of pain or malice, his voice was like a slow moving river occasionally dislodging a stone on the river bed, the voice of the saints.


Living in the West Bank, I came to understand, is like living under that same sleep depriving light. The entire population inhabits this prison, being allowed a little exercise each day, so long as the prison guards allow it, and this is made worse, or at least extra frustrating, I am continuously assured, since the Oslo “peace” accords of 1993, because now the Palestinian Authority undertakes much of the Israeli policing in the name of the Palestinians themselves.


    But then I recall a different pattern of tension and calm, or apparent calm, in the insistent, brooding, face of Mohammed, shrouded in smoke and darkness, always out on the little terrace of the apartment, his lookout post, where he sat chain smoking and reading hour after hour. A donkey brayed—hee hah, hee hah, piercing the hot air like it was vomiting its heart out, ours included.  Hee hah, hee hah, reverberating in the sun-baked hills while in the distance on the ridge was a military outpost surrounded by settlers. The heat bore down. Time stopped. No matter how many questions I asked—because everything he explained begged more questions--he patiently answered in a carefully articulated manner which, for all its lawyer-like cadence and logic, endeared me to him, each link in the chain drawing out the next like a magician bringing colored ribbons without end from his mouth. His entire body was in that speech, taking me out of my own.


Could this articulation of bodies through stories that lead to other stories be evidence of the wearing away of spirit that people say is the basic strategy of Occupation? Hardly. For this is a nation of storytellers with no end in sight, well aware that “not even the dead shall be safe.”


But what then of me and my stories?


These are stories licensed by that disconcerting halo of innocence granted the guest, visitor to an unknown land with his stumbling gait of perception. And because of the newness, of it all, of his ignorance, of it all, and the other worldliness, of it all, like James Agee long ago in Alabama, such a person may now and again find him or herself, if the stars be right, in that zen position where blindness and insight converge, or at least, overlap.  Famously Agee referred to this as “the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”


How can I, the stranger, who teaches in the USA and does not live this situation, find that crooked path avoiding its exoticization while trying to crack the stupendous indifference to it? For it is exotic, this brazen and sadistic cruelty exercised routinely by the Occupiers, meaning in the first instance the settlers and the soldiers, just as people outside of Palestine seem indifferent to it. Surely cruelty on a massive, institutionalized, scale, has existed since the world began, but what happens in Palestine is mightily dependent on the manipulated indifference of the US taxpayers and on the nimbus of what is called “public opinion” according to which support of Palestine is treason or something close to it and support for Israel has become a patriotic if not holy obligation. Nobody who has said anything critical of Israel or supportive of the Palestinians is going to have an easy time getting appointed to a high US government or university post nowadays, or the NYC Board of Education, for that matter, all of which evokes memories of earlier moral crusades in the US, let alone the exclusion of Jews from universities and other worthy institutions such as golf clubs.


 And if that’s not enough, we must not be so naïve as to think that the visitor, like myself, however shocked and filled with rage, is not also fascinated, even thrilled, by the horror and, to that extent, complicit with it. This alone makes such storytelling and re-telling a treacherous activity. Joseph Conrad called it “the fascination of the abomination,” an accurate if  ponderous rendering of the stock in trade of war journalists and war photographers, especially the latter, wildmen and wildwomen to the core, too much in love with their work. But that is as nothing compared with the conceit of the reader of their work, secure at one remove from the action, yet no less likely to be buoyed up by the tempestuous currents of attraction and repulsion inflaming it before succumbing to indifference and turning the page or clicking the mouse.


    Strategically short on explanation as one day follows the next in blind submission not to narrative but to time’s roll of the dice, it is my hope that the flexibility and “multi-tasking” to be found in the fieldworker’s diary can reconfigure this otherwise paralyzing “fascination of the abomination.” Like the magical shield of Perseus, a diary allows of witness without being turned to stone. Like Walter Benjamin’s Denkbilden or “thought-images,” the diary form facilitates grasping those images that flare up at a moment of danger when the potential for innervating the body is at its highest.


        I fear I am not expressing this well enough. In Palestine I was flooded with stories, each one precipitating the next in an endless flow, each one shocking, yet everyday. It was not that people made light of their circumstance or resisted horror with humor. No. More to the point was that people were capable—precisely because of their circumstance—of combining the unthinkable with the sayable—that was the miracle--and hence pass the baton of witnessing along to me, to pass on to you in the hope, vain as it may be, that witnessing becomes something more than consumption. Like travel and anthropology, reading has not only its passions but responsibilities, too.   



Saturday: Driving back to Ramallah early evening Sameer mentioned that the song used for a man asking for the hand of a woman is also sung collectively by people greeting the corpse of a person killed by Israeli soldiers. It stopped me in my tracks. He was pretty well chain smoking as he drove with a beer in the other hand, guiding the car through whiplash curves up and down the stony hillsides most of which have Israeli settlements on the ridge as part of the now “natural” landscape guarding the expansion each day deeper into what is left of Palestine.


            He was referring to what is called Zaghareet, that spine-chilling sound we call ululation, pitching reality into a wholly different register of being that Georges Bataille, for one, would have no hesitation calling “sacred.” Later a friend explains that mothers are encouraged to sing when they find out their son or daughter has been killed by the Israeli soldiers. It is a way of expressing in almost religious terms that he has not died in vain. Many women do it (especially the mothers) for the catharsis of mourning, releasing shock and pain. Unlike weddings with their songs relaying happy occasions and love, the women are sobbing—“a contradiction so excessive so tremendous and so hard to watch, a prime example of the paradoxes and the crazy making you describe in your writing.” 


            After we dropped his mother off in Ramallah, and after she had given me a bouquet of the sweetest smelling jasmine to put under my pillow, a fragrance that drove us wild in the confines of the car, Sameer drove to the end of the street. Before us pitch black was a valley with a solitary light weaving its way slowly through it. That was Palestinian land, he said. Now it’s militarized and that, pointing to a nub of darkness down below in the blackness, is a prison with about 700 political prisoners, forty of whom are on hunger strike. On top of the dark valley lights blazed. Look! That’s Jerusalem, where I cannot go. Only look!


            We sat for what seemed an eternity looking at Jerusalem winking at us in the hot night as he lit another cigarette.


        Right now, he said, there are some 1400 political prisoners in the West Bank (which seemed to me a small number—and I was told it was unusually small), but as I listened to Palestinians I felt prison was the least important part of the Israeli choke hold because the whole of the West Bank is a prison and I guess Gaza more so.[2]


    It is a bewildering thing to be a prisoner in your own land. Imagine  nobody resident in Brooklyn is allowed to go to Times Square unless they have a special permit, something very few people can ever get. Imagine  you cannot use La Guardia, Kennedy, or Newark airports, but have to somehow finagle your way with a myriad of permits and IDs to Canada (by which I mean the airport in Amman, Jordan, crossing the Allenby Bridge—note the name) in order to board a plane. And of course many cannot even do that.


    Imagine a straight line access between the cities of this tiny land. Then imagine a tortuous snake-like twisting labyrinth of narrow and sometimes dangerous roads criss-crossing these immaculate straight roads reserved for settlers racing from their hill top redoubts to work or pick up their welfare checks in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem half an hour away while you wait at check-points sometimes for hours, hoping it isn’t closed that day and that fate will be kind to you and let you through. If traveling by bus you disembark, then walk through narrow chutes behind the person in front—like cattle—pause for an arbitrary length of time before the turnstile clicks open thanks to an invisible or barely visible soldier in a sentry box gazing through a slit or at a computer screen. You show your papers then shuffle into another chute, and maybe a third one. And of course some people never make it through. Imagine you are an adult living in Ramallah only a few miles from Jerusalem or the Mediterranean but have never once been able to visit Jerusalem or seen the sea (fig. 1).


    Finally, if you are still able to imagine anything, imagine that all the names of areas, towns, and hamlets are changed into the language of the occupier and this is done not by choosing some wildly different name but one that is close, in pronunciation, to the occupier’s language which is then transcribed back into the written language of the occupied in a dizzying process of appropriation, expropriation, and extermination.


An example I find in a book discusses a sign by the roadway for the Jordan Valley. The Hebrew name of the valley is on top in Hebrew. The name “Jordan Valley” in English is in the middle. And the name Wadi Yardin is on the bottom, in Arabic. But the Arabic name for the valley is actually Wadi al-Urdon.  What the sign does is to transliterate the Hebrew name, Yardin, in Arabic letters.[3]


A correction. Is it extermination?  Is it the obliteration of the named landscape of memory essential to community and tradition? Or is it rather that in choosing a word that is close in pronunciation but not the same, what results is the humiliating reminder of domination and submission? If someone forces me to change one letter in the pronunciation and writing of my name so that, for instance I become Mike instead of Mick, am I and my friends and family not constantly reminded of the once was and of the change forced every time the tongue sets to work altering what is, in effect, a universe of meaning?


But then, I wonder if Palestinians actually do use these new names, anyway? In which case, of what use are they? They seem more like flags of the state of Israel stuck awkwardly in Palestinian soil or like the equally awkward settlements always located on hilltops, like fortresses, even though they can also pass for some sort of dream kitsch American suburb, while the homes of the Palestinian peasants hug the contours of the valleys below.



Sunday: In a camp in Bethlehem I sat drinking coffee with a young photographer, Mohammad Al-Azza, who directs the media unit of a nearby youth center. A huge black key lies above a keyhole shaped gateway to the camp, the key being the great symbol of Return, the key to the house and home from which we were forced by the occupiers who now live in our home—our country-- as if it were theirs. On a nearby wall was a portrait of a smiling Leila Khaled, the great hijacker of commercial aircraft in the 1970s.


        Earlier I was shown some of his photographs that chronicle the life of the camp founded in the wake of the 1948 war. We sat in the shade of the patio of his extended family’s three story stone and concrete home from where I was acutely conscious of the infamous wall that separates Israel from the Occupied Territory and Palestinian communities from each other. Barely 200 meters away, there was a sniper’s tower built into and rising above the wall, visible if you tilted your head to one side of an old palm tree peeling great husks of brown bark into the patio.


        Six years ago, he told me, with the aid of a translator, his thirteen year old cousin was shot through the abdomen by a sniper from that tower while playing on the balcony of the third story.[4] Why? Why indeed. And now his brother is facing the possibility of five years in prison. Mohammad was himself shot badly on April 8 this year, a bare two months back, by the IDF trying, I am told, to stop his photography and teaching.[5] He spent weeks in hospital and needs more surgery on his face. I was unaware of this until three days later for he sat quiet and relaxed, at ease with the world. Or maybe the attack on him was mentioned but in such a casual way and in such a melee of conversations that it passed over me or, more likely and as with so many stories in Palestine, it spent itself in the white heat of its intensity.


        Next to the palm tree in the patio there was an old olive tree showering us in the delicate shade of its silver greenery. Can a symbol be so exquisitely symbolic that is more than a symbol? Along the road into Bethlehem from Ramallah I saw rows of black stumps about thirty centimeters high, the wounded remains of Palestinian olive groves cut down by the Israeli state so as to prevent attacks on the road. At least that was what I was told. But then what cover does an olive grove provide since the trees are generally bare two meters up from the ground and offer no hiding place?


        Those blackened stumps, like so many amputated limbs, are more than wounded remains. They seem like gravestones aligned in neat rows and diagonals as the settlers rewrite history beginning with the cultivated landscape itself. In this make-over of history, the olive tree is profoundly implicated, the arche symbol of Palestinian ownership of the land, “ownership” in the organic sense of what Marx, following Aristotle, called “use value.”


        Later I saw olive trees by the side of the road that had been torched by settlers. Given the oil in the trees, it must be quite a sight for the settlers to see an olive grove ablaze, something biblical, you could say, biblical and prophetic, suggesting the wrath of God smiting the infidel, wreaking destruction on all sides.


        Three things told me:


                    Very few settlers plant or cultivate the olive.  They do,  however, steal Palestinian olive trees.


                    “Destroying olive trees means the land is not cultivated, which makes it state owned according to military laws in the  occupied territories.”


                    Since 2007 the olive tree is the national tree of Israel.


        What are we to make of this?



Olive Tree = Nature= Palestinian Old = (what will become) Israeli Old


Olive Tree = Archaic Symbol (Jung) = Dialectical Image (Benjamin)


        The Israeli state adores trees, does it not? The Israeli state is Green, is it not, “making the desert bloom” and all that, as if what the Zionists encountered was, as they say, “a land without people for a people without land,” an uncultivated  “desert.” Hence the zeal with which the Jewish National Fund has been planting trees since 1948, continuing the work of the British Empire planting fast growing pines—not native to the region—especially on borders between Israeli settlements and Palestinian farmland  so as to conceal the prior existence of Palestinian villages and extend Israeli settlement, so I am told by the peasants of Battir village near Bethlehem which boasts a wonderfully efficient irrigation system dating to before Roman times. Today eight clans share the water, one clan a day, making an eight day week. How anyone could have thought of this land as a desert is beyond me. Despite the predations of settlers I see intricate terracing of the hillsides in many places, meticulous and beautiful, existing thousands of years before Zionism. [6]





        My guide tells me people tried to get these Battir terraces and farmland UNESCO heritage status but the Palestinian Authority blocked that effort saying that in light of the John Kerry visit “it would be an offense to Israel.”

Bottom of Form


        On the internet site for the Jewish National Fund:


                        Children's Forest Certificate

                  The Children's Forest certificate features a patchwork quilt of children planting trees in Israel. Send this certificate to someone special for a birth or Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebration. $18 a tree


        Soon the terraced and irrigated hillside of Battir will be separated from the hillside opposite by the infamous wall twisting its way along the valley floor. Already planted in pines, the hill opposite will become all the more securely Israeli with a new name and identity, “The John F. Kennedy National Park,” under the protection of the Israeli environmental protection agency (the KKL).


        Seated on the narrow path leading alongside the stone terracing, an old peasant man tells our guide, Hassan, as the shadows lengthen, that lately there have been attacks by rampaging gazelles and wild boar emerging from that John F Kennedy National Park, destroying their crops. Gazelles! I cannot believe my ears. Such beauty, grace, and speed, straight from fairy tales and childrens’ books, rampaging with those rougneck red-eyed boars, spectral beings fast of hoof with the determination of tanks flashing tusks and razor backed bristle necks, pre-history on the run.


        What is more—much more—according to the old peasant it seems that the gazelles and the boars are trained somehow to respond to Israeli commands. The peasants hear strange whistles and other sounds emanating from the pines at the times of attack. Has to be in their imagination, right?, magical realism on the frontier harnessing the forces of nature in the form of mythic animals, newly made pine forests, all framed by the magic of that mythic name; “The John F. Kennedy National Park.” The Battir peasants cannot attack the animals which, they tell me, are protected by Israeli law, this being designated as an “Area C” (meaning completely under Israeli control, as is some 80% of the territory of the West Bank), and Palestinians cannot have guns, anyway.


        Later in the home of a seventy year old peasant by name of Abu Nidal, several miles away on a different hillside, I heard of Israeli soldiers uprooting his oldest olive trees which are he thinks over 1,000 years old. Yes! over 1,000 years old. And this spoken with utter casualness and matter of factness as I heard on several other occasions when face to face with the gnarled and twisted, deeply creased and crevassed, trunks of such trees, a meter and half thick, or more. On account of their age he calls them Rumi, meaning Roman.[7] Some Israelis, he explained, sell such trees on the black market for thousands of dollars to Israelis anxious to have such a Rumi in front of their home (a “home” which may well have been what the Israelis call an “arab” home taken during the war of 1948). It must be quite a feat, I thought to myself, to uproot a tree that size and that age with such care that it can be replanted.



        What is the idea here? That with your newly purchased olive tree you, too, belong to history, like a tree? But of course it has to be more than that. After all the tree is a transplant and after all the tree is not only stolen but taken by force and set into a completely different context—the front yard of a house, maybe—becoming more like a war trophy. So what sort of fantasy are you rooting yourself into with your rumi olive tree? Is this not a form of Occupation too, not of the West Bank but of your Self?


         Shortly before taking his own life in 1940, Walter Benjamin, infamous for blending the Kabbalah with Marx and Proust, wrote that not even the dead are safe from the struggle over the images that have the capacity to open memory in novel ways so that the present might change. These dialectical images, as he called them, come and go with electrifying speed and have to be grasped before they disappear once again. Such is the olive tree, its actual reality and the reality of its disappearance. The tree bears the aura of the very old (read rumi) as spiritual nimbus yet combines that with the harsh reality of today’s secular-material world. It is both pre-historical and historical.


        Benjamin took his own life but never took up his friend Scholem’s repeated invitation to emigrate to British occupied Palestine in the thirties. Nevertheless his last writing, penned in 1940, on the catastrophe that is history, can now be read as if written for Palestine and Palestinians both then and now.



Monday: Re the olive tree and attempts against all manner of Israeli obstruction to export “Fair Trade” bottles of organic, Palestinian olive oil (known as Canaan) to Europe and the USA, someone told me, “You know, the bottle of olive oil is a great activist.”


        Centered in Jenin, this export business, is the brainchild of an indefatigable Palestinian businessman, Nasser Abufarha, who has a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin which is where he wrote his PhD thesis in Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin. Later it became a book published by Duke University Press in 2009 entitled The Making of A Human Bomb.


        Water is a problem for the Palestinian farmers in the Jenin area and elsewhere because the Israeli state prohibits their tapping into sub-surface water. Only Israeli farmers and settlers can do that. That is why Palestinian farmers make canals of plastic material running between greenhouses to catch rain water off the roofs which is then channeled into ponds. How long before the Israeli state makes it necessary to have a permit to use the rain?


        After all, is there any nature anymore even in—especially in—Palestine, where unstinting military occupation surely aims to control all of nature? Why not claim the rain as state property? The greenhouses, too, they are a novelty, an artificial means for intensifying production in an increasingly capital and chemical based agriculture such that nature qua nature disappears, or exists in complicated fusions with technology. A young man in a rented greenhouse shows me with the precision of a watchmaker how he has become a human bee. Deftly he transfers pollen from male to female plants by hand, a delicate and sensuous sexual act that leaves me slightly disturbed. Never did I think I would see mimesis on this intimate scale. “No bees anymore,” this human bee tells me, and he blames their absence on Israeli farmers spraying cotton with insecticides.


        Not to worry, however, not too much, because now you for a mere hundred dollars you can buy from an Israeli kibbutz a small cardboard box with in-portals and exit-portals containing a few bumblebees. These little tykes dwarf your ordinary bee and can battle their ways through strong headwinds if you’ve had enough of manual pollination.



Tuesday: In a café in Ramallah I ask a young performance artist whether she has worked with Israeli artists? Is there much collaboration? She winces, then tells me she was recently asked to contribute an essay to a book being put together by Israeli artists and she responded she might, but would prefer to write instead on why she was being asked. Her offer was rejected. Or was it that she never heard back?  Another writer, a poet, writes “that I am very uncomfortable framing the situation as two people who just need to get along and who just don’t understand each other. I have found that, unfortunately, the reality of a military occupation becomes clouded when the message of 'bridging gaps of understanding between two people who just don’t get along' is perpetuated.  It is like having to sit down with my rapist and understand his pain while he is still penetrating me.”


Wednesday: It seemed we were never quite sure if we were legal when driving in the West Bank. Through some vagrant desire for freedom or genuine bewilderment or simple derring do, she would push the car onto a settler road and hope for the best. Israelis drive cars with yellow plates, Palestinians white ones, so its pretty obvious if you are in the wrong place. Once at night we hit a traffic jam which looked like there might be a police or army check point up front and she immediately turned the car around and sought out the safe road, meaning the Palestinian road, meaning a longer, curvy, and perhaps dangerous road due to poor upkeep, especially at night.


        Space in the West Bank is divided in three. There is the A area (Palestinian Authority administration and security), the B area (PA admin but IDF security), and the C area (IDF admin and security), by far the largest. But it seemed there was another area as well, the “grey area” and that’s the one most Palestinians are caught in because the colonial “system” created by the Israeli state keeps evolving overlapping and contradictory rules ensuring uncertainty and arbitrariness as the tools of Occupation for like all systems it has its holes, opacities, and contradictions, what I elsewhere call “the Nervous System” adrift on an asymptotic curve ever closer to self-destruction.


        In this regard Abu Nidal struck me as one of those almost natural phenomena (another human bee?) that bureaucracy and bullying can neither cope with nor comprehend. I say “natural” because he not only had a story to tell but he was the story—as Benjamin describes in his essay on the storyteller being the embodiment of the tale, like Primo Levi with his tale of survival in Auschwitz, which is where many of my relatives perished. The original title in Italian is something like If This Is a Man, suggesting, to me at least, that all of us are included and none of us innocent or know how we will behave when the chips are down.


            Now as the wall approaches, he and his daughter are being forced off this, their second farm, to which, via a refugee camp, they relocated after the village in which they previously lived, on the hillside opposite, was demolished by the Israeli state to make way for a national park of pine trees. Could the pine trees have come from a bumper crop of Children’s Forest Certificates which feature “a patchwork quilt of children planting trees in Israel”?


            Reduced to roughly a quarter its size, the Israeli state has surrounded their current farm on three sides by an electrified fence, the remaining side being the wall to come. God knows why the Israelis built this fence. Does there have to be a reason?


        Because one of his grandparents was Muslim and the other Christian, they could not be buried in the same cemetery. Therefore they were buried together on this farm next to the walnuts, apricots, purple plums, yellow plums, oak trees, and fennel, the only problem being that the grave exists on the other side of the wall being built by the Israelis.[8]


        For the moment a solution—if that’s the word—has been found. The state of Israel built a concrete lined tunnel under the path of the wall so he and his family can visit and tend the grave, provided of course they have a permit and tolerate a surveillance camera by the grave.


        His red cap had a conspicuous white rectangle where he had removed the Coca Cola logo. He described himself as a communist, then corrected himself, saying with a laugh that he was “an organic communist,” explaining that perestroika was a terrible idea. Uncomfortable serving tea upstairs in the formal lounge room, he took us downstairs where, surrounded by construction equipment, he liked to talk and set the world in motion. Down there he makes his own cigarettes which look factory made with little gold crowns on the shaft, and down there he feeds his newborn birds, the size of a thumb nail. He had recently broken his arm but instead of going to hospital set it himself.


        The situation cannot last long, he says. No colonial power has ever lasted, and when the people in all those ridiculous Arab states around us really rise up and overthrow the corrupt systems dominating them, then all will change here too. No state based on religion can last because it is inherently racist.


        What a surprise to hear that his family includes people of Russian, Italian, and Japanese descent. Images of “ethnicity” and purity crumble. And here he was, the “organic communist,” more worthy as a role model and Nobel Peace Prize than any politician with a National Park named in their honor.


        His “park” is a little smaller. Surrounded by an electrified fence and with a tunnel under the wall to the grave of his ancestors resting in the peace of an Israeli surveillance camera, should it not receive recognition, too?  I can imagine Israeli kids and Palestinian kids camping there in the summers within the safe confines of the fence gathering walnuts in the Abu Nidal Organic Communist Park. 



Thursday: In Palestine more than anywhere else I’ve been, dates are critical bench marks in time that sculpt present reality: the 1948 war, the 1967 war, the first intifada, 1987-1993, the Oslo accords of 1993, the second intifada 2000-2005along with the demise of marriages and communism. A friend tells of how as a kid she experienced the first intifada in Ramallah with its roilling enthusiasm and excitement, the way people in the West today recall 1968. The front and back doors of the houses were kept unlocked so people could run through and escape the soldiers in the street. These doors were open in all households, or else. Childhood memories of being awoken by strangers running through the corridor. Total boycott of Israeli goods in all stores, or else. School held in people’s homes. The university closed, classes in the street. Continuous presence of Israel soldiers. But the second intifada? A farce, she says. A feeble copy of the first because Oslo, meaning the Palestinian Authority, compromised everything. It was not a “popular intifada” but part of a larger political game that had to do with Arafat’s machinations with Israel. The world plummeted: the USSR collapsed (1991), The Gulf War took place (1991), Oslo (1993), parents leave the communist party, parents divorce, and failure of the first intifada.   


Friday: “ Shall I continue?  Shall I go on?” It was a moment in which everything changes into the timelessness of “this can’t be real.” We were on a ridge outside of Bethlehem. A white sedan was diagonally stationed in front of us across the narrow road with tall trees either side. Just beyond  were two humvee-like vehicles with soldiers clambering out, opening the back, seizing trumpet shaped rifles. Then they stood still paying no attention to us. “Border soldiers,” she said. “The worst.” Silence. “Shall I go on?” The car in front nosed its way between the two military vehicles and we followed it. There was a loud ka-thump, the sound of tear gas guns firing one hundred yards behind us and a canister came awfully close. “Roll up the window!” Not even enough time for fear. Around the corner peered a group of kids like in a cartoon, only it wasn’t, girls leading the boys, some with stones in their hands. They were from eight to twelve years of age. We sped on.


Saturday: I receive an email from a young woman—the anthropologist Amahl Bishara—involved in the youth center in the camp in Bethlehem. “The sad news from here,” she writes, “is that Mohammad Al-Azza, the man who took you around and who was injured in the face, was just arrested in the middle of the night yesterday by the Israeli army. It was an especially violent raid, with dozens of soldiers in their house. Mohammad's parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins were all beatenthree went to the hospitaland he was beaten as well. It looks like the arrest is because of his photography work, though we won't hear official charges for a few days. No one can be in touch with him now (except that one meeting w/ the lawyer, which I think he was lucky to get). So that is rough.” [9]


            “So that is rough.” I rack my brains trying to think of what I can do, paralyzed by anger, dismay, and no options. Only yesterday, or was it the day before, I was sitting with this man drinking coffee with the sniper’s tower visible above his left shoulder as if we were on a stage set with the cameras ready to roll. Only it was no stage set. It was magical realism for sure, only the magic was very sinister. 


            A friend in the USA who works a lot with photographers responds to an email I write him, asking me what do I have in mind when I suggest some response. It is an unanswerable question. He says that the story “is all over the internet” and that it is well known that the IDF targets media people. I feel impotent. Being “all over the internet” seems in today’s world not only the best way of removing something from sight but instant death of the spirit and imagination as the images disappear into that vortex of plastic said to be the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean, which reminds me of the many emails I have received, ending with “Have a great time in Palestine.”


            Another friend suggests I check out Maan, a Palestinian news agency online that amongst other things documents the many depredations of the Occupation. I scroll down and down and down some more until the facts become lost in white noise. 


            I try to place myself in the shoes of people back home in the USA dealing with everyday issues, the heat, buying groceries, job anxieties, family rituals, whatever—like Marlow in Heart of Darkness vainly trying to get across to his listeners in England how impossible it is to convey the reality of the Congo. “You can’t understand,” he says. “How could you?—with solid pavement under your feet, surrounded by kind neighbours ready to cheer you on or to fall on you, stepping delicately between the butcher and the policeman  . . .”[10]


            And the radicals are the worst, if only because they have their boxes into which to slot shit. Even worse are the “missionaries,” pleading their cause.  


Sunday: In the hills above a Palestinian village near the university of Birzeit, thirty minutes from Ramallah by car, there is a huge Israeli settlement on the ridge lying opposite a huge Palestinian refugee camp spreading down the slope. All the contradictions are here piled on top of each other, a stone’s throw apart. Sameer’s friends’ parents live lower down the hillside in a two story modest home of concrete and stone painted a soft brown which they built a few years back, now surrounded by almond trees, fig trees, plum trees, flowering aubergine, tomatoes, onions, and other vegetables. It was late afternoon. The father was on his knees tending his plants and the publisher mom was lying in a tiny pool not much bigger than a bath tub watching him. Sameer explained that the father had been a militant years back but since then has dedicated himself to this precious garden. The mom published childrens’ books but gave up because the Israeli state made it too difficult to export books out of the West Bank, which has too small a market to sustain publishing. She tried to set up publication of her books in Beirut and Amman, but the costs were prohibitive and she eventually found a job with an NGO in Cairo. With that salary they were able to build this little house. Visiting from London was her daughter with her husband who works there in Human Rights and is in Palestine investigating the killing of a thirteen year old boy shot in the back by Israeli soldiers for breaking through the infamous wall. Soldiers are instructed to fire with real bullets if their lives are deemed at risk. Shooting a kid in the back suggests something else.


        As the sun set around 8:30 we walked up the hillside with a flashlight to inspect a newly found ancient grave, unearthed by bulldozers digging the foundation for a neighboring home.


        Three meters above the ground, suspended on stones, was a huge stone slab about five meters long and thirty centimeters thick. At ground level was a square opening barely large enough to allow a human body get through. Some adorable puppies were playing by it. Four gangling boys aged about fourteen appeared and in Arabic explained there was strange writing, not Arabic, on the wall inside. Without hesitation they wriggled into the aperture and Sameer followed with the flashlight.


When he emerged a few minutes later, two young men in their early twenties appeared out of nowhere and began talking with him. They came from the nearby camp, and were plenty scary. “Who’s the chick?” they demanded, pointing to our artist friend. “How much does she cost?” They had, they said, five friends hiding further up the hill.


Were they drunk, as Sameer thought, possibly on drugs? Sameer, who grew up in a camp himself, asked them their family names, the presumption being (as he later explained) that knowing their names at once established an connection and a caution, if not a counter-threat. The puppies kept playing with the gangling boys at the entrance to the grave as we retreated down the crumbling hillside, sliding through the thorny underbrush.


I realized how unusual till then had been my stay in Palestine when I walked the streets of Ramallah without a worry as to my personal safety any hour night or day. I got to thinking it must one of the safest cities in the world in terms of assault and theft, and Bethlehem likewise. Locals confirmed this impression which, after my many years in Latin America, seemed unbelievable. It was as if all the violence of which people are capable, generally speaking, was absorbed by the one vast violence of the Occupation (and, as someone was quick to point out, the corruption within the Palestine Authority).


     But I did hear of the existence of Israeli and Palestinian mafias from a British geographer working in Ramallah. The Israeli mafias sell the arms they acquire from Israeli soldiers to their Palestinian counterparts. A brilliant One State solution.


Monday:  Looking over my notes I am troubled by the absence of any mention of economic class. For many years I had naively if not unthinkingly assumed that all Palestinians were in some profoundly important sense a unity which obliterated distinctions by class. But of course nothing could be further from the truth. Simply look at the cars in the street or at the houses where the differences leap out at you. More to the point, this economic difference can have serious implications for political negotiations with Israel and the USA, it being to the benefit of rich Palestinian businessmen to strike a compromising deal so they can make money. That gets to the root of the rot so many people with whom I speak feel about the Palestinian Authority.


Tuesday: It was dusk. She drew the car to a halt in the driveway of her long absent parents’ home in Ramallah. In the strange intimacy of that moment with the car but not the conversation coming to rest, we hesitated to get out and she continued, her voice halting. “I told them how I was not a virgin and that I was living with my boyfriend in another country. For a whole year they refused to talk to me. For a year! I would call but they would hang up. My sisters say, “Why tell them?” but I figure it is more respectful to tell them.” Gesturing vaguely between her legs she bit her lip saying “My vagina is everyone’s business.”


            After a pause she said, “Actually I live under six occupations.”


            The first is my family


            The second is my community


            The third is the Palestinian Authority


            The fourth is the Israeli Occupation


            The fifth occupation is the swarm of NGOs in the West Bank


            And the sixth is global capital.



Wednesday:  Caro insisted we visit Hebron because she had such searing memories of the place from a visit the year before. Ala nodded, as if he knew what she meant. “Micro-ethnic cleansing,” he said.


        Standing on the roof of a Palestinian office building in the Old City of Hebron, we could see the stony hills surrounding. On each there was an Israeli military base, three in all, and, in addition to the standard Israeli strategy carving up the West Bank into three areas A, B, and C, I was told there were additional sub-divisions operating within the city itself, H1 under Palestinian Authority control, 80% of the city, and H2, the remaining 20% under Israeli control, reflecting its divided and tense character as a religious center of staggering importance for Muslims and for Jews and thus a microcosm of the conflict as a whole.


 Why is this city of such sacred importance? In part because of its foundational role for both Muslims and Jews in the figure of Abraham, who is buried here. In part it is also sacred because of massacres. In 1929 sixty seven Jews were massacred and in 1994 a New York born Israeli-American settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, stormed the mosque during Ramadan killing twenty nine people at prayer with a machine gun and wounding some 150 others. The crowd killed him.[11]


Since 1967 the mosque housing Abraham’s grave has been divided into a mosque and a synagogue. The centerpiece is the replica of the tomb of Abraham. Covered with a green cloth with gold embroidery it is visible through iron grates on its mosque side and also from the synagogue side, although that view is partially obscured by a sheet of bulletproof glass.


Inside the mosque is dark, high ceilinged, and relaxed, with deep cool shadows. Kids play in it while in a corner some dozen women sit in a circle, taking instruction from a woman teacher. On what? Oh, marriage and men and women . . .


To get to the synagogue section of what before was all mosque, I have to walk past concrete barriers and soldiers. The synagogue is brightly lit and overflowing with books in Hebrew. A veritable library. Men in black suits and black hats sit isolated from one another reading as if their lives depend on it, as I guess it does, nervously rocking the upper body forwards and backwards while others seem to be praying as they read, the soft whispered voice giving bodily expression to the primacy of the printed word. There are few children. The women stand in the back and as a group rock back and forth while praying, each one with her own book.


I see a text on the wall which I take to be stunningly, if unintentionally, allegorical, purporting to document the stealthy transgression into the mosque by Israelis searching for the holy of holies, the cave deep in the earth containing the remains of Abraham and that sweet soft fragrance of the Garden of Eden itself. It reads like a dream, a most disturbing dream, surreal and cinematic.



                    Entering the cave of Machppela by Noam Arnon


        Following the return to Hebron, Jews desired to reach the actual caves of Machppela, buried deep beneath the huge Herodian structure.


        Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, an amateur archaeologist, tried to seek information concerning the underground caverns. Within the large hall, called the “Yitzhak Hall,” under a brown monument, there is a hole in the floor. This was rumored to be an entrance into the Caves of the Machppela themelves.  However, the diameter of the hole was extremely narrow—26 centimeters. No adult could possibly fit through this opening, but Dayan found a solution.  A twelve-year-old girl named Michal, young but courageous, agreed to be lowered into the underground room.


        One night in October, 1968, Dayan ordered the Muslim guards to leave the building. Michal was brought to the site. The opening was uncovered and Michal was lowered into the underground room . . . Dayan wrote out the findings and sketched the underground caves.


        Thirteen years later a further attempt was made. As the area was always occupied by “Arabs” preventing further access, “We began saying special prayers of repentance every evening at midnight. The Arab guards, employed by the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust, left and went to sleep. Seeing this we brought with us a big chisel to the midnight prayer service. In the middle of the service, we began to sing and dance. During the dancing, some of us made our way to the Arab prayer-rugs, lifted them, and revealed the stone.  It was held in place by metal bars . . . Suddenly we felt a breeze, the cave deep in the earth. We found bones and pottery—dated about 2,900 years old from the era of king Solomon and the Judea kings . . . by the entrance to the Garden of Eden where souls and prayers ascend.


        In the street outside a middle aged, paunchy, man with an old red backpack was shouting. The soldiers refused to let him pass to talk to our Palestinian guide’s father who had one of the few remaining stalls with tourist knick knacks including brightly colored fabrics hanging from the roof. The man trying to pass worked for an Israeli Human Rights Organization and his every move and that of the soldiers was being videoed by a colleague as with exquisite slowness he made his way forward inch by inch, as more soldiers with guns arrived. A settler in a white minivan drove slowly by, laughing, then turned around and passed once more.  Our guide’s father was shouting too, as if holding a public discussion with both the human rights worker and the soldiers. “You think you’re king!” he thundered at the soldiers. From the other side of the street, the human rights’ worker shouted his questions to the guide’s father as part of his interview. Half an hour later I saw him inside the stall with its brightly fluttering fabrics. Dwarfing this tableau stood the vast building containing Abraham’s tomb, penetrated by Moshe Dayan lowering the flower of Jewish girlhood deep into the earth of Palestine in a wildly transgressive assertion of primordial rights.


        To one side of the vast building that is Abraham’s tomb there are blocks of deserted “Arab” homes and shops that settlers had annexed, block after block. Nobody could be seen in the street other than a few soldiers. A ghost town. Another movie set.


        At the end of an enclosed passageway nearby, with stalls selling spices and food, the sky once again became visible, except for a ceiling of wire mesh. Why? Because now and again, so I am told, settlers occupying the houses throw garbage onto Palestinians passing below. The town wanted to roof over the space for protection, but were forbidden by the IDF, so I am told, as that would obstruct the soldiers’ view of the Palestinians below buying vegetables and spices.


        Days later I was told by a new friend that she had spent the day with villagers whose fields had been swamped by sewage from an Israeli settlement.


Thursday: Every night that I went to sleep in Bethlehem, knowing that a brilliant sun would wake me early, pouring through the blindless windows into my large white bedroom, I thought of the owners who must have slept in this very same bed before fleeing to the USA during the second intifada (2000-2005).[12] Nobody lived in this large house on a steep hill except for one of the daughters. The high-ceilinged rooms downstairs were dark with the shutters closed all the time, emitting a sad empty feeling of absence you could cut with a knife were it not for the grace of the daughter like a flame illuminating the shadows, the shadows of exile. Washing lay in piles on couches upstairs as if the final task of storing them in closets was just too much. Next to the closet in my room were two bullet holes from the intifada, the others having been covered over.


            “Thank you for connecting to the invisiblefor not sleeping in a room without honoring the spirit of those who lived in it, for not looking at my abandoned laundry as mere reflection of neglectyesit is a task too much to do... to put away everything in the closet, to declare in such an action that all is well, that everything is organized, that the people are coming home... I don't think anyone is coming home anytime soon... and that is perhaps the hardest reality to digest and why this wash is still laying here weeks after your departure.” 


    My guide had a preternaturally keen eye for birds flying high in the sky, dots disappearing into the blue. What do you call them in Arabic, I asked. Abusaad, she said, Father of Happiness.




the end









[1] I was accompanied by the Helsinki based artist Carolina Trigo the first week in Ramallah and Hebron, and later by Vivien Sansour who lives in the West Bank and writes on the lives of Palestinian farmers. I owe much to Lara Khaldi of the Sakakini Cultural Center, to Shuruq Harb, Sameer Khriesh, and especially to Rania Jawad and Ala Azeeh, all of Ramallah as well as to Ati Citron of Tel Aviv. Filmmaker Hadeel Assali set the wheels in motion. For their comments on an earlier version of this diary I am much indebted to Hadeel Assali, Lauren Berlant, Amahl Bishara, Christina Carter, Amy Franceschini, Thavolia Glymph, Nancy Goldring, Lisa Hajjar, Roger Heacock, Tom Mitchell, Eleni Myrivilli, Stephen Muecke, Vivien Sansour, Daphne Skillen, and Roelof Smilde.

[2] As of late July, 2013, the more exact figure is 5,059, including a five year old taken into custody by the IDF. The Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza is around four million. A friend comments: “Most or all of the prisoners are not held in the West Bank, but in Israel and prisoners are a really hot issue now, with talk of a release of the prisoners who were arrested before Oslo (1993). You mention below about political dates punctuating lives here. In my circles, the numbers about prisoners do too – my brother in law is one of the 104 prisoners who is supposed to be released during this new round of negotiations; we’ve been talking for days and days about the 26 prisoners who should be released in the first installment, and about how my brother in law was on a list published in an Israeli paper (and republished widely). But no one ever said that list was organized by when the prisoners would be released – it was organized in terms of date of arrest… But what else is there to think about, aside from these numbers? Other numbers: he has been in prison for 22 years, and my mother-in-law’s friend’s son has been in for 29 years, and the longest serving political prisoner of the group has been behind bars for 30 years. As we wait to hear about my brother-in-law, the family has installed new lighting in the house they built for him, repainted the walls in fashionable textured beige paint, put in granite countertops in the kitchen…” 

[3] Nasser Abufarha, The Making of a Human Bomb (Durham: Duke University Press), 2009: 114-15

[4] Most of the people I met spoke English which seems widespread in the West Bank. 

[5] See the article by Ahmal Bishara on his shooting in April: [url=][/url].

[6] On the internet I read that in September 2007 the olive was elected as the national tree of the State of Israel. Also that the national emblem is a shield which contains a Menorah in its center, two olive branches on both sides of the Menorah and at the bottom the label "Israel". The emblem was designed by the brothers Gabriel and Maxim Shamir, and was officially chosen on 10 February 1949 from among many other proposals submitted as part of a design competition held in 1948.

[7] I discover that the name Rumi was applied in medieval Asia Minor to the lands of what was the Eastern Roman empire. Cemal Kafadar, Between Two Worlds: The Construction of the Ottoman State ( Berkely, etc: University of California Press),  1995, pp. 1-2

[8] See Vivien Sansour, “Exhuming Hope From The Graves.” Published by The Institute For Middle East Understanding in 2012. [url=][/url]

[9] He was released after ten days imprisonment.

[10] Conrad, Heart of Darkness, (Penguin), 1983 [1902], p. 85

[11] In 1999 a monument to Baruch Goldstein in Kiryat Arba was destroyed by the Israeli army because it had become an extremist shrine.

[12] Intifdada?  The word is generally taken to mean uprising or awakening; more literally to shake off, as a bird shakes water off its feathers, or, as I was once told, to beat a carpet! Ignorant of Arabic, I am struck by its wealth of metaphor, polysemy, and verbal associations. I guess this sensation occurs when encountering any language for the first time, awakening that alertness to metaphor largely lost to a native speaker in the same way, as Nietzsche pointed out, that the emblems on a coin become dull through usage. Maybe so. But this awakening to image and metaphor in a foreign tongue lit my way and was a constant delight.

  • Figure 1