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Swept Clean

The idea of Sharon with broom in hand is comical enough, but the suggestion that he sweep the rooms of the Islamic Center that his soldiers left in shambles made me laugh. My friend, who conducts Qur’anic study sessions, always manages to find humor in the midst of the bleakest conditions. Her laughter itself is a resistance against the gravity of oppression. The Center’s rooms have chairs, a cabinet with copies of the Qur’an, and floors full of dust. The Army appropriated the computers that had been donated for the advancement of the Refugee Camp community. Still the ladies come to learn, to consider new ideas, compare interpretations, and especially to address issues relating to martyrdom, remarriage of young widows, visiting graves, handling grief, ! and pondering heaven. I take my turn with an infant who is energetically doing calisthenics on my lap, and I comment on his strength. “That’s because he is from the Camp,” beams his mother, articulating the resiliency of Camp identity.

At home, the Qur’an teacher laughs as a sock attacks us when a coil of wire it is caught in springs out of reach. “Sharon doesn’t want us to go visiting on the holiday/eid; he just wants us to work at home.” Later, neighbors chide me for not visiting during the three-day holiday of Eid al-Fitr, but how could I abandon my friend whose house was raided as soldiers searched for a “wanted” family member? Instead of holiday baking, we face oil in the salt and sugar, and the pantry’s many treasures mixed with pots, pans, lamps and implements. The kitchen is picture-perfect compared with the bedrooms knee deep in clothes, clothespins, dismembered notebook pages, shoes, jewelry, framed pictures, manicure sets, and artificial flowers all swirled together in hea! ps. We concentrate on the kitchen, with her daughter Maryam expelling us to do the final clean sweep, swooshing plenty of water with a fan-shaped hand-held broom.

Sweeping is part of the rhythm of home life. After a meal you gather the fragments of bread, just as Jesus’ disciples did following the post-sermon meal on the hillside, and then you sweep up the crumbs. Dry sweeping, wet sweeping, inside sweeping, outside sweeping seem almost like reflexes, and assure a constant orderliness in the home and on the street. The Israeli soldiers are acquainted with the manners and methods of the people whose lands they occupy. The incredible messes they so frequently produce, for no security reason, seem to be a physical and spiritual attack on hearth and home.

But sometimes they too fall into the rhythm of local order and orderliness. A family in Jenin city tells that when soldiers left a building they had been occupying, they disposed of their garbage and then swept all of the apartments in the building. During that period, one of the homeowners had passed by an alley after the evening/maghrib call to prayer, and saw an Ethiopian soldier in uniform clearing the ground to pray. He confided to the local Jenin resident, “Shhh, I am Muslim. Don’t tell.”

One day on an ambulance mission, we yield as a house-toppling Caterpillar bulldozer passes through the Saha area near the Camp’s entrance. It is escorted by a tank in front, and an armored personnel carrier behind. The flat top of the last vehicle is littered with stones, with an empty cola bottle where you would expect a headlight. And there, tucked into a crevice on top, is a handle-less broom. To clean up after the destruction? This little reminder of home economics looks so foreign in the heaving parade of metallic hardware, and so innocent with its blue, yellow, and red fringes. It is quickly lost in the black smoke spewed out to mask the vehicle and cause confusion.

Another day brings more tanks on a street nearby. Amidst the detritus the tank has sucked into the street is a broom which has become part of the clutter it might clear away. I restore its mission, walking toward the tank and sweeping the street with ritual, rather than practical, motions. This has little effect on the rubble in the steet, but delights the children who cheer this gentle defiance of the tank’s bullying. I hope that the tank’s soldiers will not burst a bullet hole in my bubble of whimsy, but there is no guarantee of their sense of humor. Very soon the boys, who have been fearlessly lobbing stones and trash at the tanks, call me back with uncharacteristic urgency. They report excitedly that an international friend has been wounded. I think they are joking but they insist that some of the boys carried her to safety on a home-made! stretcher. She was getting a few small children off a street when a tank sniper shot her. A local journalist confirms the news, and we find her in the Emergency Room at the hospital. Minutes later, another foreigner is wheeled in, and we learn that UNRWA’s Jenin Refugee Camp director, Iain Hook, has been killed.

The escalation of violence calls for heightened security measures, so I go back into the street where tanks are facing off with children, and walk toward the lead tank. The hatch is open, and I call out to the soldier, “Don’t shoot! They are children!” Am I expecting him to read my lips? The noise of the tank is deafening, and behind it a mega-machine is idling with a bass roar. It is the first time I have encountered a monster-size tank. The soldier in the hatch waves me aside, but I remain like a fly on the windshield. The monsters lurch forward and I take a few steps back, still facing them, then pick up my pace, jogging backward. With both tanks coming toward me in high gear, I take refuge against the wall of a house. I realize it was a poor strategy to come close to the tanks and leave the children behind. The tanks brush by, churning up! more mud in a dirty sweep.

Clean sweeps and holiness are related in Semitic tongues. In Arabic, a church is called “kanisa/swept place,” just as a Jewish holy place is called in Hebrew, “bayt kaneset.” The same word is found, with modified transliteration, in the familiar name for theIsraeli Parliament, the Knesset.

The morning prayer on the Eid al-Fitr holiday closing the month of Ramadan was held on the barren ground of the former Hawashin neighborhood, alarmingly obliterated in the April invasion. When I heard of the prayer plans, I realized that the boys I had seen collecting stones were not resupplying their munitions, but making a clean-swept place for this holy day.

The image of Sharon sweeping an Islamic center in a Refugee Camp is still comical. But elections are coming up. Perhaps the Knesset could use sweeping.

ANNIE C. HIGGINS specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies, and is currently doing research in Jenin, Occupied Palestine.

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