Eyewitness in the (un)Holy Land

“I don’t care if I have to rot in here for a 100 years, I would never stand up for that judge. They occupy us and then they dare to judge us.”

From the play 603 by Imad Farajim

“…I dream of my unborn children and they do not know my language….the wind has told me secrets: we will soon be the new Jews-wandering, hated, nostalgic nomads with anger and sadness in our prayers.”

From the play, Tennis in Nablus by Ismail Khalidi.

“Especially on television, where most Americans get their news, there has been little detailed reportage on conditions in the Israeli-occupied territories (indeed of the very fact that there is an Israeli occupation, maintained by violence)…”

From The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (2015), by Rashid Khalidi

“The shadows on Palestinian stages remain most silent when they take voices apart to retell not only what is unbearable but what is possible—acts of justice.”

From Natalie Handal’s Introduction to Inside/Outside: Six Plays from Palestine and the Diaspora(2015), ed. by Naomi Wallace and Ismail Khalidi

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

–Archbishop Desmond Tutu

The occupation of Palestine by Israel maintained by ever-increasing violence, the attempt by Palestinians to snatch a bit of dignity in the midst of imprisonment by refusing to stand for judges who are themselves the perpetrators of injustice, other small acts of cultural and political resistance that help keep hope alive for some measure of justice to come in the supposed kingdom of God on earth….these thoughts, echoed in the quotes above, took on such an enduring visceral shape during my brief recent journey through occupied Ramallah, Jenin and East Jerusalem,  that I am having a hard time sitting down to pen this article I promised to write expeditiously for the Friday Times of Pakistan.

So I’ll begin by giving you a soft target of our shared cosmopolitanism: a nice, non-threatening symbol of globe-trotting coffee consumerism, the ubiquitous Starbucks, just outside Amman airport as we exited, and where I was dying to grab a coffee. But I couldn’t, as my Palestinian friend (with whom I was traveling to her parents’ home in Ramallah from Amman), was already beginning to exhibit “the anger and the sadness” of the “nostalgic nomad” that Ismail Khalidi’s character Yusef, fears will become the Palestinian zeitgeist of the future in his play Tennis in Nablus, as he awaits execution in the jail cell where the British have imprisoned him at the tail end of the failed Arab revolt in 1939. How quickly one crosses from Starbucks to Starvation—the latter condition both real and symbolic of the fate of the Palestinian people. And here I go, entering the last colonial settler state in the world where a Palestinian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike is entering its 36th day.

“We have to hurry, Fawzia”…pronouncing my name the Arab way– which I quite like—my friend hustles me to a taxicab, impatiently reminding me (which she would repeat many times during the course of this journey)—that we could be detained for hours by the Israeli authorities on the other side of the Allenby Bridge (perhaps even refused entry). As the American blogger Salah writes—and she could have been speaking for me as I approached the Allenby Bridge crossing:

For myself, the Allenby Bridge crossing from Palestine to Jordan is a cultural experience, but for my Palestinian friends it is the sole entrance and exit from the West Bank to the rest of the world.  The crossing begins in Jericho, where one passes from the Palestinian to the Israeli border, and from the Israeli border to the Jordanian border.  This process can take anywhere from a few hours to all day long.

Of course this “cultural experience” for those who are tourists, is actually a memorialization-another kind of nostalgia if you will-for the remnants of colonial power since the British general Edmund Allenby rebuilt the bridge in 1918 after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed along with the bridge the Ottomans had built, in 1885.  Post-colonial subjects of the British Empire such as myself, are of course, never quite as “post” as we’d like to imagine ourselves.

The border-crossing experience, which began calmly enough on the Jordanian side as we’d decided to pay 150$ each to use the “VIP” service that my friend had been told would help us avoid the long and humiliating wait reserved for the poorer majority of Palestinian border crossers—turned scary in Jericho, where one passes from the Jordanian to the Israeli  border security in order to enter the Palestinian West Bank (yeah, that is what Occupation means: Palestinians can’t get into their own lands except by permission from Israeli authorities still steeped in the original settler myth popularized by Golda Meir: that Palestine was a land without people, ripe for the taking by a people—European Jews- who were a people without a land). My Palestinian friend was tense throughout the crossing, not knowing if and when and after how much humiliation and questioning she’d get to go home to her parents and siblings; and she kept warning me not to make eye contact with her, not to admit to the border guards that I knew her, to simply say I was traveling to Israel to give a lecture at a university there where I had gotten a progressive Israeli colleague of mine to write a letter of invitation claiming the same. Well, ironically, she got through fairly easily, but I was stopped. Our plan was that if one of us was detained, the other would wait for just a short while before departing via taxi for her parents’ home in Bir Zeit, and wait there for the other to follow whenever the latter got through. Ofcourse, when I saw her being hustled out, and me left in the grips of the Israelis, it took all of my acting skills to pretend calm, and to refuse steadfastly to admit under questioning, that I knew her—I stubbornly insisted I had simply met her on the bus to Jericho. I’m sure they didn’t believe me–why would we have been on a bus given that we both had paid for a VIP “crossing” via taxi?

The good cop/bad cop routine that ensued thereafter was quite amusing—after the fact, ofcourse. The short, slight “good cop” female guard (they were all women, actually, and all save the “good” cop, unsmiling specimens of hostility)—who took me in to wait in the VIP lounge, kept asking me what I’d like to have, “khaffee? Bakklava? Cooookies? We bakh them fresh for you madam….” And so on. Me, I was texting—then erasing my texts in case they asked to look at my phone– my Israeli friend, to tell him to expect a call from the Israeli authorities to verify that letter of invitation I’d handed them from him. I’d already taken the precaution of removing my FB app with all of my political posts many of them critical of Israel and pro-BDS–just in case they remanded my phone, which thankfully, they didn’t. After an hour and a half and much downing of bitter coffee that made me more jittery than I already was, a stern skinny woman in army fatigues pops in to the room and barking out my name, tells me to follow her. I’m taken into a small, windowless office at the back of the building, where she and another woman similarly attired talk to each other in Hebrew each time I answer a question. “Why are you here” “Who are you going to see” “Where exactly are you going” “Where will you be staying” “With whom?” “How long for?” “how many people will attend this lecture” “are you being paid” And then, pointing to the letter of invitation from the Israeli professor, the main officer sitting at the computer where she had been inputting my answers, proclaims triumphantly, “but this letter does not state the date and time of the lecture, so…” Before she can say another word I volunteer hastily that its an informal gathering of students in my friend’s class and therefore it will happen on one of the days that suits him once I get there, with no public audience (no need to fear!)– and that for sure, I am not getting paid, as it’s a pro bono talk I’m giving on the innocuous topic of…performance.  I don’t add, “and this performance of power you’re enacting will be part of that lecture!”.

The guard seems to have run out of objections but then as a last hurrah, demands to know why I go to Pakistan so often. “I’m born there” I answer, to which she replies condescendingly, “Yes. I know that.” Why is she asking me then, I wonder? I smile with as much obsequiousness as I can muster, “My mother is getting old and stays unwell, so I must do my daughterly duty…I’m sure you can understand.” My naked appeal to filial duty is met with a cold “you can leave now, you’ll get your entry permit”—and she waves me out before I can complete my request for her not to stamp my passport—“I know” she spits out quite angrily. Yes, they all do know that their country is a moral blot upon the collective conscience of the world—maybe that is the source of their hostility and dis-ease?  No visitor wants a stamp from them that will prevent them from entering other countries in the world, most of which, despite doing business with Israel, do not want to be seen publicly as accepting of its ongoing illegitimate occupation and torture of Palestinian lands and people. I wouldn’t be too happy either letting in tourists who need to pretend they’ve never been to my country, who, whether they know or want to or even acknowledge it, will witness the horror, the horror….

The taxicab ride takes me past small olive trees and the Al Ghaur valley area with limestone hills and sparse vegetation dotting the brown hillsides, through the towns and hamlets of Jericho, Silwad, Yabroud (this latter a Muslim village with a simple minaret of a mosque rising gracefully from a center point), down to the Dead Sea, then up and down hill terraces planted with crops- so, I breathe in, this is Palestine. It really is beautiful, as my friend had claimed. We pass by a guy in red pantaloons and waistcoast jacket wearing a fez with a hookah-type tube wrapped around him, and was told by my cabbie that the man was selling kharoub, a popular summer drink made from a sweet black plant also known as carob. Definitely made me thirsty—even though, especially as we climbed up to Bir Zeit, the temperature became quite lovely with a cool breeze blowing down from the surrounding hills. Just as I was beginning to relax and enjoy the natural beauty, I was reminded of the abnormality of the place I was in; a car carrying four young men came careening past, their faces hardened into what could only be described as a mixture of ennui and anger. Shades of L’etranger….

My friend’s parents’ home was a lovely ramshackle two storey stone house, every inch of the living room walls filled with photo frames of children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and  built of the same kind of yellow limestone as many of the houses in Lebanon—indeed, much about the Palestinian countryside reminded me of the beauty of that Levantine country. They were all relieved to see me—my friend and her brother in law had been frantically calling and texting me throughout my journey, trying to ensure I was safe and guiding the driver who spoke little English as to where to bring me exactly. He had not looked pleased when I informed him I was going to Bir Zeit instead of Tel Aviv; in fact, I’d been rather frightened he would call up and report me to the border authorities as having lied about my intended whereabouts, and that they would then get him to turn around and bring me back to be ejected unceremoniously out of the land that wasn’t theirs!

Spending that afternoon and evening with my friend’s family—her parents, her 5 sisters, all of them accomplished career women in different fields–bonding over a delicious meal of grape leaves and roast chicken (her mother had rolled and stuffed over a 100 grape leaves and baby zuchinis in anticipation of her daughter’s return, standing for hours on her legs shot through with varicose veins, preparing her daughter’s favorite meal)—singing songs, me in Punjabi, her mother and sisters singing some Umm Kulsoum (at my request) and their own favorite Palestinian songs—followed by a squealing grabfest of clothes and shoes that my friend had brought back for her family in her two overstuffed suitcases—all of it was just a wonderful induction into the famed Palestinian hospitality and love; I was in the presence of something great—a healthy self-love in the face of systematic and enduring oppression. Grace under pressure it certainly was—given a new meaning when my friend took me up to the roof and pointed out, on the one hand, her mother’s blossoming vegetable and herb garden, and on the other, Israeli settlements dotting all the hilltops that surround Bir Zeit township. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up at night at 2 am with an Israeli holding a gun to your forehead?” she asked me at one point, her voice quiet. “That’s the reality we live with everyday and every night as the settlers come and confiscate our lands, steal our homes, eject us from our beds.” While I struggled with how to respond, she shrugged, and pointed out the beauty of the setting sun….”come, let’s take you to your hotel in Ramallah, and on the way, I must point out the beautiful Palestine History museum that’s recently been completed near the university. See….” pointing in the distance behind some trees….”there it is” and turning to me she asks, “Didn’t I tell you my country was so beautiful?  Don’t you agree?” and smiling and hugging, we descend the stairs, to see her mother modeling gleefully yet another of the elegant skirts and blouses the successful computer science professor daughter has brought home for her.


My friend AS, a professor at Bir Zeit university, responded immediately to my email informing him I was going to be in his town. I had hoped to see him that first evening when my friend and her sisters took me to the Swiss Family Robinson-style outdoors Snow Bar—an old and popular haunt apparently–where we all got to know each other over Palestinian beer and sheesha as the night thickened with smoke and laughter of fashionable Ramallah-ites old and young, including the foreign-aid workers who are plentiful in the region that their countries’ aid helps to keep destabilized in the name of “development.”

AS couldn’t make it there, but the next morning, a bright and sunny one, he comes by to pick me up from my hotel in downtown Ramallah, a town that is officially under the jurisdiction of the PA (Palestinian Authority)—but which everyone knows is under the boot of the Israelis who often conduct post-midnight raids on local homes and shops to pick up anyone they find “undesirable.” The incongruity of walking through the colorful fruit and vegetable market and buying fresh-pressed juice at a local vendor’s on one side of a busy street, while across it in a makeshift tent, at that early hour, an old woman sits with a leathery face, wearing a dark-colored skirt and a peasant scarf around her head wrapped like a bandana, shakes me:  she is holding aloft, her lined face expressionless save for her watery eyes, a placard with a young man’s photo, who is sitting on a wheelchair with his legs cut off. “That is where the relatives of the prisoners who are on strike sit everyday” AS tells me matter of factly. That afternoon, when two other colleagues make it in from my university to join us in Ramallah and my other Palestinian friend also joins us, we five perambulate the streets again and see the tent now filled up with people. We go to sit with them, in solidarity and silence surrounded by posters of the Al Aqsa martyrs and of Ahmed Saadat (also known as Abu Ghussan)—a Marxist who has been in prison since 2004 when he was picked up by Israelis from a Palestinian prison—so much for the “independence” of the PA! Secretary General of the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), he is in prison for a sentence of 30 years.

But it is the old woman who is now surrounded by other women who draws us in, signaling us to come to their group, and a young woman who speaks English welcomes us “Ahlan Wa Sehlun” –when she learns we are visitors from abroad. She explains that the man in the old woman’s placard is her son who has been in jail for the past decade, and that because the Israeli wardens are negligent in the care they give their Palestinian prisoners, they did not treat him for his diabetes and consequently, he developed gangrene—hence, no more legs. “And why is that man sitting here?” asks our writing instructor colleague hesitantly, still absorbing the sadness and cruelty of the previous story, as she points to a middle aged man sitting near the women, gazing listlessly into space through his shades. The young woman’s reply, “his son just passed his one year anniversary in the prison; he turned 13, and that man there,” pointing to another, “well, his son was only 9 when he was thrown into prison by the Israelis” –shakes us all.

And why are the prisoners on hunger strike? Here are some facts from the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association:

An estimated 1500 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centers have declared the beginning of an open hunger strike on 17 April 2017. The call for hunger strike came amidst resentment of Israeli’s cruel policies towards political prisoners and detainees. The hunger striking prisoners’ demands include: family visits, proper medical care, an end to Israel’s practice of detaining Palestinians without charge or trial in so-called administrative detention and stopping the use of isolation

Despite the hot sun, as we get up and walk out of the tent, I feel a cold shiver as I think how not just these prisoners, but their families—and almost every Palestinian family has someone in jail—live in a vast, open air prison, their jailers the ones who should be in jail for committing crimes against humanity. This hunger strike we’ve walked in on is only the latest in a series of similar strikes that Palestinian prisoners and detainees have been resorting to since 1968—the only way left to them to reclaim a bodily integrity and resistance against an implacable foe. The writing instructor sums up our feelings perfectly when she says, shaking her head, “the imprisonment of nine year boys held  in adult prisons is appalling and shocking! I had not realized that the human rights abuses extended to children. We just don’t get to know the extent of human rights abuses by the Israeli state outside do we? ” I can feel a a vein throbbing on the left side of my forehead and hope it won’t develop into a full blown headache . The world is truly upside down here in ways impossible to ignore.

We see the Apartheid Wall that snakes through Palestinian lands carving up one village after another in disconnected, impassable parcels of land, dispossessing the families who’ve owned the land and farmed it for centuries. We are en route to what’s left of AS’s ancestral lands and he points out the checkpoints and nice settler roads that are made for Israelis to bypass these… he takes us to see the Al Jeeb road block preventing Palestinians getting to their villages that are near the greater Jerusalem area such as his own village. Sometimes he and others from the OT take their chances riding in cars with Israeli license plates on these settler roads trying to bypass the checkpoints; if they get caught, they get fined or detention or both…and if they ignore the warnings, and are caught repeatedly, then it could be prison for many months. AS is jumpy and angry as is our other native Palestinian friend; their rapid-fire commentary pointing to the endless examples of settler-occupation is symptomatic of those we are told who suffer from PTSD. AS drives fast—in a very nice beamer he laughingly reveals is an acquisition enabled by easy high interest loans that have recently become available to the residents of Ramallah; he isn’t joking when he tells us he will be paying off the loan over the next 30 years.

The entry to his village-Beit Sourik- is charming…narrow lanes climbing uphill then down, and as we approach his family compound—where several of his brothers live in adjoining houses, surrounded by open land with olive trees they plant each year to replace the thousands that have been/continue to be cut down by Israelis as they build the dreaded Wall. We drive past a wedding party led by adorable little girls in white net dresses and patent leather shoes and bows in their hair, walking to a house from where we hear sounds of music punctuated by the shouts of men performing the dabke.

His older brother, his sister who has recently recovered from throat cancer despite the huge challenges AS recounts of getting medical treatment for her at an Israeli hospital, as well as his college-going niece in hijab and several nephews of varying ages, are waiting to greet us at his eldest brother’s house. They give us water and pick fresh apricots from the trees in the yard for us to taste and then we all embark on a meandering walk down the hillside, as AS points out Jerusalem in the distance; it looks like a fortress on the hilltop, surrounded by dusty lands and homes in various states of disrepair, the settler road that serves as the barrier between inside/outside snaking through in the near distance. As we settle in for a family picnic on a cemented clearing overlooking the valley which used to stretch far beyond the wall that now blocks it, AS and his brother recount the tragedy of the Nakba on whose 69th anniversary we have arrived in this beautiful, troubled land. AS tells us how his nephews must be very careful how far they stray in their play…if they get anywhere close to the road/wall—they risk getting shot. As we walk among terraced patches where his brother has planted olive trees in hard earth, kept alive by water from a family well where they collect rainwater since other sources of water are continuously cut off by the Israelis—we cannot escape knowing that the tank-like vehicle parked across us on the snake-road, is watching us. As AS’ brother tells us in Arabic, which AS translates for us, the huge loss of land their family and the rest of the Beit Sourik villagers have suffered since the creation of the state of Israel, worsened dramatically since the building of the Wall following the shameful Oslo agreement— which most Palestinians I met still blame Arafat for capitulating to. Searching the net for some facts about my friend’s village, I realized that the General Assembly of the UN had decided on Dec 8 2003 to request an Advisory Opinion of the Intl Ct of Justice at The Hague, regarding legal and moral consequences of the construction of Israel’s variously termed “Separation Wall” or “Barrier Wall” Or “Fence” especially regarding its effects and it legitimacy in regards to Beit Sourik whose residents had brought a case against the state of Israel for its encroachment of their lands via the building of this so-called “security fence.” AS brother tells us as we return the settlers’ gaze with our own appreciative gaze at the beauty of the land, that 19000 dunams of land has gone down to 4,000 over just the past few years, thanks to settlements whose protection and expansion is the real goal of the Wall (The Dunam, according to Wikipedia, is an  Ottoman unit of land equivalent to the Greek stremma or English acre that varies considerably in size from place to place). Indeed, according to authors of International Law Reports (vol. 129), an “expansive factual basis was laid before the court” in the case of Beit Sourik, regarding both the scope of the impingement of the residents’ rights due to the construction of the fence on their lands, and Israel’s so-called “security-military needs.” They tell us

The Court examined both positions and “on the basis of the totality of the evidence before it, the scope of the impingement of local residents’ rights was established.”

As these authors of the report further inform us, “this impingement was by no means a light one.” Here are the unambiguous words of the International Court of Justice cited in the report:

The length of the part of the separation fence to which the orders before us apply is approximately forty kilometers. It impinges upon the lives of 35,000 local residents. Four thousand dunams of their lands are taken up by the fence route itself, and thousands of olive trees growing along the route itself are uprooted. The fence cuts off the villages in which the local inhabitants live from more than 30,000 dunams of their lands. The great majority of these lands are cultivated, and they include tens of thousands of olive trees, fruit trees, and other agricultural crops. The licensing regime the military commander wishes to establish cannot prevent or substantially decrease the extent of the severe injury to local farmers. Access to the lands depends upon the possibility of crossing the gates, which are very distant from each other and not always open….

International Law Reports vol 129, eds. Elihu Lauterpacht, C.J.Greenwood, Andrew Oppenheimer and Karen Lee. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 292-298

And never mind the endless humiliating security checks to which residents are constantly subjected trying to traverse even very short distances within their own villages and towns. In rebuttal of the Israeli High Court’s insistence to find legal justification for continuing to build the wall that has so adversely affected tens of thousands of these Palestinian villagers’ lives, American scholar Norman Finkelstein also points out in his book Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History (U of CA Press, 2008) that the ICJ arrived at its conclusion

after reaching the absolute qualitative finding that the wall couldn’t be justified on [Israeli] grounds of military necessity and violated fundamental provisions of international law.

(Finkelstein 268)

Burdened with the now visceral knowledge of what we could see with our own eyes, and despite the watchful gaze of the illegitimate Israeli state from the other side of the snaking wall of ever-increasing Occupation, we manage to enjoy a wonderful meal of Palestinian tabbouleh, humus, manousheh, zatar, pickled vegetables, labane and smoked eggplant. “Sorry it’s such a simple affair,” AS apologizes, while we gobble the delicious repast unapologetically—“you see that we are in the midst of the hunger strike, and must pay homage to the strikers by at least not cooking lavish meals!” he grins ruefully; then turns to make tea for us with sage leaves plucked from the sage bushes growing nearby, boiling well-water he has drawn up on an open fire that we all hover around as the sun descends in a spectacular blaze; the coziness of the fire that suddenly flares up as the boys throw more sticks on it, is welcome on a rapidly-cooling evening in the hills, once the sun stops teasing us with its warm rays. Night shadows lengthen as we gather up the remains of the day, us oldies walking carefully back uphill to the house to drive back to Ramallah, the young boys riding up as only the young can do, insouciantly splayed out on the hood and in the open boot of the beat-up black Toyota driven uphill by the older brother.


 AS has arranged for one of my colleagues, a well-known postcolonial studies scholar, and myself, to speak to faculty and students at Bir Zeit university the following afternoon, after taking us in the morning to visit Jenin Refugee Camp at my insistence. Being a theatre scholar and performer, having worked with various theatre groups in Pakistan and having written a book about political theatre including theatre of the oppressed in my native country, I was very keen to meet the founders/director of the Jenin Freedom Theater company. I’d been following their work, and supporting them in NY, and knew they had recently visited Karachi for a theatre festival held at NAPA (The National Academy of Performing Arts). AS picked us up at 8 am from our hotel where the three of us colleagues were staying (except for our fourth friend the Palestinian computer scientist who was obviously, staying with her parents); we quickly downed some coffee and a hasty—but quite satisfying-breakfast of cereal, toast and foul before embarking on yet another road trip with my friend. This time we went north and east, passing by the Jalazon refugee camp surrounded by barbed wire, duly noting the nefarious role of US aid in providing security and surveillance to Israeli checkpoints dotting the main road we drive through again at great speed; it seems as if the speed is a way to avoid being stopped…to somehow escape, like the wind, from the clutches of all that security apparatus.

AS points out mixed Muslim and Christian towns en route to Jenin and tells us we are traveling on the Old Nablus road which is one of the few roads used by settlers as well as Palestinians. And we see the normalization of the settler community as we pass by Ariel, which is now a proper town with its own university. As we approach the Zaatara road block, AS describes to us how it messes with Palestinian travelers as no soldiers can be seen there most of the time, but suddenly shots can ring out at you from a distance, and indeed, last year 10 people were killed here. He points out the settler town of Yizar, some of whose heavily armed residents

On the evening of the 10th September, broke into the Al Zawiya Secondary School nearby, forced open the door and set the school on fire. Bedouins living close to the school saw the fire and alerted the fire brigade. By the time it was put out, the principal’s office and teachers’ rooms were completely burned. “We lost six computers, four printers, all the teachers’ books and materials, but most of all, the administrative documents and files of the students and about the school situation over the past years. The whole damage is around 140,000 shekels,” the principle Adnan Hussein told ISM. The school was closed for three days after the arson attack.

This act of arson was justified by some machine-gun toting settlers who complained that a student of the school wearing a dreaded red T shirt threw stones at their car!

Still trying to absorb the barrage of distressing information AS kept unleashing on us, we arrived in approximately 2 hours at a large girls school on the outskirts of Jenin, where Palestinian municipal elections were being held, though boycotted by Hamas. The internal dissensions amongst various Palestinian political parties and factions within those, has had its own demoralizing effect on the people, never mind the fact that the ruling Fatah faction—also known as the Palestinian Authority—is seen as in cahoots with the Israelis over security issues and hence as a sell-out, with allegations of corruption against Mahmoud Abbas and his sons sealing the anger against the man who is now in his 12th year of a 4-year Presidential term! Here is what Bernard Avishai of the New Yorker in a story published on May 23rd 2017, has to say about the sorry state of affairs Abbas and his Fatah faction are held responsible for by most Palestinians:

Some P.A. officials have managed the flow of aid to monopolistic enterprises that provide perks and inflated salaries to friends and family— reportedly including Abbas’s son. According to the Times of London, European Union auditors can’t account for nearly two billion pounds in aid distributed between 2008 and 2012. But the World Bank reports that about thirty per cent of Palestinians are categorized as unemployed, and youth unemployment in Gaza is nearly sixty per cent. Abbas has also appeared powerless to prevent new Israeli settlements, military aggression, and the siege on Gaza.

But as we entered the school premises to meet up with the man-Zacharia-who was to take us into the camp proper and to meet with the leaders of the JFT, we all noticed a most interesting sight: two tall evergreen trees filled with white birds sitting on every branch outside the school gate—harbingers of peace??? Clearly we all wanted to feel the presence of some hope for peace and a way forward.

Zacharia Zubeidi of the burnt face and bullet-riddled arm, is one of the Freedom Theatre’s founders who was also one of Arna’s children, seen as a kid in the film of the same name that Arna’s son Juliano Mer Khamis, made in 2004.  Arna Mer Khamis, who grew up in a Jewish Israeli Zionist family, ended up rejecting the Zionist ideology and marrying Saliba Khamis, a Palestinian from Nazareth. During the first Intifada, she moved to Jenin refugee camp where “she established an alternative education system for Palestinian children, after their schools were closed by the Israeli occupation.” Arjan Al Fessed in a review of the film further informs us how

Through her dedication to the children, Arna Mer Khamis play[ed] an important role in the Jenin community. The theatre group that she started engaged children from Jenin refugee camp, helping them to express their everyday frustrations, anger, bitterness and fear.

Zacharia himself was one of those children in her school and theatre group, the only one of four boys seen in the film who is still alive, who became a leader of the Al Aqsa Martyr’s brigade that fought against the Israelis during the Second Intifada. He is a veteran of Israeli jails, imprisoned for four years because of his role as a leader of Jenin camp’s 2002 battle against the invading Israelis, his mother shot and killed by an Israeli sniper’s gunfire, his brother and two best friends killed in the same battle. After his best friend Sabbagh was killed by an Israeli gunship in Nov 2002, Zacharia replaced him as the head of the Al-Aqsa Brigades, and soon became known in Israel as the Black Rat for his skill in dodging the army’s attempts to kill him. As we walk around the camp-now a regular town of concrete houses-Zacharia points out an iron horse in the middle of a street, built with scrap metal of destroyed vehicles including the Red Cross ambulance that had been carrying Dr Khalil Suleiman, a Palestinian doctor in Jenin in the West Bank to service the wounded.  Head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society Emergency Medical Service (effectively the ambulance service) in Jenin, Dr Suleiman was killed and two other medical personnel seriously injured when the ambulance he was riding in was hit by a rifle-mounted grenade fired by the Israeli Defence Forces. The sculpture, Zacharia tells us, commemorates the spirit of Jenin’s resistance and its martyrs. It was pretty mind-blowing to be shown around Jenin by one of its living heroes (who is however, now on the payroll of the detested PA), and who was also a close friend of Juliano Mer Khamis, son of Arna, with whom he co-founded the Jenin Freedom Theatre.  Juliano, who often referred to himself as “100% Palestinian, and 100% Jewish” and was seen by many on the Left as “a symbol of the binational dream, a walking advertisement for solidarity and coexistence”, was killed by an assailant in 2011 in Jenin, the identity and motive of his killer still both unsolved mysteries though many theories abound, some seeing the hands of Israel, others a disaffected Palestinian who may have represented  those in Jenin who felt suspicious of Juliano’s work and motives.

We are greeted by Nabeel Al Raee, the Artistic Director and his wife the Portugese-born Micaela Miranda, Theatre School Director of the Jenin Freedom Theatre, in front of the building that houses its theatre space as well as administrative offices and a seating room for visitors upstairs. As we are being shown around the premises, we are joined by Mustafa Sheta, General Secretary of the company, and in response to some of my questions, we learn that the theatre school has instituted small income generation schemes like fees for workshops for interested groups, and  now boasts a 3 year training professional theatre school in devise work as a form of cultural resistance.

Indeed, as Micaela, (who is married to Nabeel) tells us, “We want to try to understand what it means to do theatre as a form of cultural resistance, to ask of ourselves and encourage our students to ask, what is resistance, and by imparting tools of critical thinking to students- to have them challenge idea that cultural resistance is something separate from other kinds of resistance. The stage for us is a laboratory for Life!”

After a quick tour—we are on schedule to return by 2 pm to Bir Zeit for an afternoon with the faculty and students there who are coming to hear us share something about our work—Nabeel, Miranda and Mustafa (who I recall meeting last fall in Brooklyn at a fundraiser for the JFT when they were here on tour)—invite us to join them for orange juice or coffee at a nearby café. Over a refreshing cool OJ, Nabeel, smoking non-stop (most Palestinians we’ve met seem to smoke)—describes some of his early training in the Hakawati Arabic tradition of storytelling, then going to Tunisia for further training, then at the Al Kasbah theare academy at Ramallah before joining JFT. I’m impressed at the seriousness with which actor and theatre training is taken here in the Occupied Territories. Micaela also joins the conversation, as does Mustafa—and they describe how they like to start with coaxing personal stories out of their participants to shape a theatre piece, building the political from the personal, like all good feminists! Last year was their 10th year anniversary and as their Annual Report also states:

More than 10,000 children, youth and adults in Jenin refugee camp and across the occupied west Bank were involved in our workshops, trainings and performances in theatre, film, and creative writing, all aiming to generate critical perspectives, reimagine reality and challenge oppression.

Each of them nods when Nabeel tells me “We are now professional artists and fighters (gesturing toward Zacharia, who smiles), and political activists who are engaged in building a holistic culture of resistance.”

I then ask Nabeel about his experience in Karachi at the theatre festival there; his face lights up and I can sense his pleasure was genuine in being there and meeting the theatre activists of Pakistan. As he put it to me, “It was a great experience in all dimensions to be there to see the political and cultural scene and meet face to face with people in the art world; and our play, Return to Palestine enjoyed a wonderful reception!” Grinning, he gives a reciprocal thumbs up to NAPA artistic director Zein Ahmed’s production about the life of a married couple: “I felt every moment despite the language difference; it was a deep and dramatic story that applies to every couple in the whole world!”

After saying to each other that we would stay in touch and try to come up with some possibilities of doing joint work between Palestinian and Pakistani theatre activists, we parted company with the Jenin folk and AS drove us to Bir Zeit University, stopping only for a quick bite to eat at a small café he knew that made delicious falafel. Exhausted but exhilarated from our morning travels and meetings, we made it looking somewhat bedraggled I’m sure, to the crowd of 25-30 undergrads and professors seated around a large oval table in a classroom awaiting our arrival.

Re-energized by our expectant and interested audience, my colleague  and I make our respective interventions, my own beginning with a shout –out to Marwan Barghouti and the other hunger strikers, followed by a description of my career to date that has included varying levels of harassment/intimidation I’ve faced—as have countless other academics and activists in the USA—who dare to criticize the Zionist narrative and try to provide information on the brutal reality of the ongoing occupation of Palestine. I projected onscreen a letter a group of fellow student activists and I had published in the Tufts University student paper back in 1987 when I was starting my graduate studies there. An old Lebanese friend with whom I’d recently gotten back in touch had found it in his files.  I print it below:

But I also noted how things have changed for the better on United States campuses, from those days when I was a grad student freshly arrived from Pakistan, to now, when BDS is gaining strength and students who used to confuse Palestine with Pakistan have morphed into ardent defenders of the human rights of Palestinians in the face of Zionist aggression. Thankfully the canard that anti Zionism equates anti Semitism has been largely laid to rest, though ofcourse, we now have the rise of Jared Kushner to contend with. One step forward, two steps back, I guess.

I conclude my intervention by performing a poem I’d written (and set to a music track by Talvin Singh) called “Billy Bush Sam-ton” which id published years ago in an anthology entitled Poets Against the War (after the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had first broken out post 9/11)—and which, especially in light of the morning trip to Jenin and the fact that I had finally made it to Ramallah, seemed apt to recite in this location, in its song title, “O-Sam-A”::

Billy Bush Sam-ton or “O-Sam-A”
By Fawzia Afzal-Khan

(first published in Poets Against the War, ed Sam Hamill (Nation Books, 2003).

Sam A
Uncle Sam

will you
defend me
against that SOB
who fondled my breasts
and squeezed my ass

he said Lie
through your tongue
baby its okay

you’re defending the
integrity of your
-ly Nation hood
hoodwinking but

upholding the
Truth (of)

That’s why
its okay
to nukefry
those damn boys
in Af-ghan-is-tan
and Su-dan
and   I-ran

barbarian chauvinists
not like us oh no

don’t be disappointed
I’ve vindicated your
see by striking
those afroasian Breasts

so very different from
your soft White ones
I am a
Real Man now
are you Proud
of Me

Mein Kaun Hoon, mujhe jaan ley
Mujhe Jaan ley, pehchaan ley
(trans: who am I, get to know me, recognize me!) 

Barbarian…flight IC 402
The flight to Jenin
The flight to Ramallah
Is ready for waterboarding
Please proceed to Gate 911

Have a listen to it here.

The Q and A afterwards is lively and we all discuss the need to see connections and build progressive coalitions between our dispersed locations in the global south. Some enthusiastic students provide me with a list of new and upcoming musical artists and bands which I can now research to my heart’s content—and introduce in the next iteration of my course on Pop Culture of the Muslim World!

We bid au revoir to AS as our other Palestinian friend takes over tour guide duties, ushering us into the university art museum which she’d managed to get to stay open past its closing hours for us. There, we see a very moving exhibit of historical paintings by Samia Halaby on the Kafr Qasem massacre of 1956. And from there we make our way to meet yet another fabulous artist, the Palestinian-American dance choreographer Samar King, who lives and produces dance pieces of great beauty and intensity in Ramallah. After that meeting at a charming restaurant where we enjoy some cold beer and delicious zaatar-sprinkled fries, my colleagues return for a rest to our hotel before dinner, while I, on some crazy burst of energy, wandered into the adjoining cultural center where Mahmoud Darwish had kept an office (we’d gotten to see the lovely museum in his honor and the Arafat museum too the day before)–and where that evening, I stumble with great good fortune onto a jazz trio—a pianist, an oudh player and a drummer– who were giving a concert. What a sublime hour I spend, eyes closed, ears open, in a darkened room with flickering tea-lights on the floor lighting up the band members on a tiled surface, the percussionist making gorgeous rhythms on a variety of drums, keeping time with his left leg jangling to the tune of the ghungroos tied around his ankle. Music really is an oasis….


The next morning dawns quite hot and sultry, and as we speed off in a taxicab accompanied by our computer scientist Palestinian colleague, heading to our final destination of East Jerusalem, I can sense her dis-ease mounting right away as she keeps repeating how we need to avoid taking any photos as we approach checkpoints, even the perfunctory one on the settlers-only road we were using to avoid having to wait for hours at the official Qalandia crossing. As we approached the entry point into Jerusalem, she told our writing instructor friend and myself to put on our dark glasses, saying, “we have to look like western-style tourists to avoid suspicion.” We do as we were told, and thankfully, are waved past by the Israeli security guard. As we drive into the environs of E. Jerusalem, our Palestinian friend starts pointing out the houses on the left that she referred to as “1948”—meaning those that were confiscated by Israel at the founding of the state, and those to the right which were what she designated as “1967” homes—taken from Palestinians after the crushing defeat of the Arabs in the 1967 war by the IDF. Compounding matters was evidence of the latest settlement road plan that was going into effect in Occupied East Jerusalem even as we were driving right through it.

According to an Al Jazeera report:

Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with the Haifa-based Adalah legal centre, said that the map for the planned project indicates that the road will serve only Israelis and Israeli settlements.

The plan will wipe out all the roads that connect the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem together, turning the areas into islands that will be geographically and economically disconnected, making it difficult for Palestinians to access their schools and health centres, she told Al Jazeera.

Nabeel Basheer, another resident of Salaa, mentions in the same report how the ultimate Israeli goal of connecting its settlements also entails the demolition of Palestinian homes, which ofcourse, the project plans do not mention.

Israel frequently uses home demolitions to control and punish Palestinians living under its occupation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Since 1967, when Israel occupied the Palestinian territories, at least 48,000 Palestinian homes and housing structures have been demolished.

The reasons that the Israeli state gives to the homeowners vary – from building without permits to punishment for an attack.

Already the bitter reality, as our friend underscores to us, is that after Oslo, only 25% of its total land has been left to the Palestinians—which this continued Israeli carving up of cities like East Jerusalem, is further removing from Palestinian ownership.

We pull up in front of a hidden gem called the Jerusalem Hotel run by an old friend of our friend, and we are charmed by its quaint, rustic feel, complete with an ornate wooden entrance door draped in green vines, an a monastic interior that was delightfully cool after the heat outdoors. The garden café was very cool and shady and we sat and ordered some delicious fresh mint lemonade to cool off as we waited for the owner, Raed Saadeh, who turns out to be a gracious host and most charming and knowledgeable guide as he leads our little band by foot on what he calls an “alternative tour” of the old city. I felt so sad to learn that he was a 100,000$ in debt—a consequence of the economic choking mechanisms practiced on Palestinian Israelis with increasing efficiency and success by the Israeli government, in the hopes to get them to leave.

As we begin our walking tour on a day getting hotter by the second, he points out the famous Schmidt School across from his hotel where Hanan Ashrawi and other famous Palestinians went to school, and then as we cross over to the Suleiman Gate, he tells us a bit about the history of the city of Jerusalem which dates back to the 4th century BC and is thus one of the oldest cities in the world.

As we entered the old city through Herod’s gate, Raed looked at me and said, “See that building?” I smiled, noticing the plaque that read “Indian House” and then he proceeded to tell us that this had been a Zawwiya that came into being in memory of Baba Farid Ganjshakar of the Chishtia order of Sufis, who walked in to Jerusalem on a visit around the year 1200 all the way from India, shortly after Saladin (Salah-uddin) had sacked the Crusader armies and forced them out of the city. Baba Farid apparently spent his time here sweeping the floors around the Al Aqsa mosque, from whence Prophet Mohammed supposedly made his ascent to Heaven on the winged steed, Al-Buraq. Strange to think of my ancestor Baba Farid here, all those centuries ago…I know my father’s side of the family claims we are his descendants.

And as we walked inside the old city lanes and byways, we noticed Israeli flags planted on buildings that our friends explained, signal possession of homes of Palestinian residents by settlers who seize these properties if their residents leave even for a few days. Raed made sure to point out many other buildings and signs that announced the presence of Sufis in this city who flourished here during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras when a more tolerant spirituality prevailed. We walked on the path known as the Via Dolorosa, along which are marked the stations of the Cross past which Jesus Christ is supposed to have hauled his wooden cross, all the way up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Rather irreverently, I kept expecting Mel Gibson to make an appearance, and was thankful to finally reach the church where we entered with a throng of other tourists and worshippers to observe the spot where Jesus was believed to have been crucified; then descended to the spot where his battered body was supposedly laid to rest in a trough-like surface and where women old and young were now rubbing pieces of cloth and other objects as they bent their foreheads to the trough, kissing it, and looking much like Muslim worshippers performing the sijda.

From there, after catching our breath and gulping down bottles of ice-cold water Raed procured for us, we proceeded to walk through yet more maze-like alleyways to the region of the Al-Aqsa mosque, running into surly-looking Israeli soldiers to whom Raed explained we were Muslims wishing to enter the mosque. We finally made it to the mosque entrance, where Raed and our male colleague had to wait outside as this was a Muslims-only entrance. Us three women were grilled by the man guarding the entrance to recite some ayahs to prove we were indeed Muslims, then ordered to cover every stray hair on our heads and button up our clothing in such a way that not one millimeter of bare skin should be visible. I however, became quite visibly agitated by these commands but was told by our Palestinian friend to remember that the reason the man was behaving this way was a reaction to the instances when extremist Jews had made their way into the mosque and opened fire on worshippers. The sun beat down on us mercilessly as we huffed and puffed our way into the sanctuary of the ancient mosque, where it was all I could do to muster my will to pray to a God that seemed to have forsaken the Holy Land and its inhabitants a very long time ago.

The cab driver who Raed hires to drive us back to Ramallah after we’ve finished our walking tour of the city, and caught our breath in the welcome shade of his hotel’s garden patio, washing away the angry heat by downing cold beer and lemonade before getting in the cab– tells our colleague upon finding out he is from Britain: “It’s the British who are to blame for what you see around you here!” Our English friend smilingly accepts the verdict, upon which the cabbie throws him a bone: “well, your Galloway is great…” referring to the progressive politician George Galloway, he continues, “his shoes are better than all the Palestinian and Arab leaders put together!” Like other Palestinians we’d met throughout our visit, our cab driver drives home his disgust of the Palestinian Authority leadership, spitting out, “the PA is there to do Israel’s dirty job- they are only interested in taking money, they don’t care for their own people and indeed, they have been brought to power to kill the possibility of Palestinian independence/freedom.”

We are now approaching the Qalandia checkpoint, since all other roads are closed. The cabbie grins as we stay stuck in traffic for an awfully long time, observing the Palestinians without passes or access to Israeli number-plate cars (like us)—having to get down from their vehicles as they try to make the crossing from the other side into Jerusalem and walk across a barbed wire tunnel on the road, guarded by white teenage Israelis in soldier uniforms, holding guns too big for their bodies, swaggering and laughing and slapping each other in the male sport of militarist bravado.

Sensing our exhaustion and ennui, our cabbie announces, “Because of what Britain did a 100 years ago, you all are suffering now because a 15 minute journey is taking you an hour and a half!”

Qalandia camp is full of poverty and crime as no one provides its residents even basic services, and Israelis turn a blind eye (encourage?) the proliferation and easy access to drugs in these areas designated as “C” areas due to their proximity to Israeli border.  These areas are not under Palestinian jurisdiction either, therefore the PA does not provide any public services here either. It is basically like the Wild West we’re told—or maybe like the Black ghettoes of inner city America. The only encouraging sign in this desolate, depressing area is a sign we pass once the traffic starts to move, on a wall advertising classes in Parkour and Capoeira—a sign that some strategies of physical resistance are present here.  Practicing ways to jump over walls—Amen to that!

Our final evening in Ramallah after we get back from Jerusalem, rest for a bit, shower and change, is spent enjoying dinner consisting of an incredible dish prepared fresh for us at a local restaurant. It’s called Makhloubeh—an upside-down one-dish meal made with eggplant, rice, onions and meat. Mouth-wateringly divine it was, and the local white wine we ordered to wash it down was cool and delicious. It was good to be able to unwind over a wonderful meal with each other after an amazing but trying day.

Indeed, one could use the same words to describe the entire trip. It was so important and amazing to have been able to get to historic Palestine, the cradle of the three great monotheistic faiths, to have been able to witness Israeli settler occupation and its effects up close and personal, to have spent time with amazing residents of the Occupied Territories and to see and feel their pain as well as witness their resilience. But it was also an emotionally overwhelming experience.

The drive out to the Jericho border the next morning with my two colleagues, was nerve wracking because of long delays and traffic jams due to the Nakba Day strike. Then once we finally arrived at the Jericho, facing the Israelis border authorities was tension-provoking as anything could go wrong at any minute, and the Gestapo-headquarters feel of the border office was palpable to all three of us. After we made it out without incident, and reached a hotel on the Dead Sea in Jordan where we decided to stop for coffee and breakfast before getting to the Amman airport to catch our respective flights, we all let out a collective sigh of relief at having made it out safely.  The writing instructor captured our sentiments exactly; as she put it, “I’m glad I went; but I’m glad I’m out.”

We are the lucky ones. We can enter and exit Resident Evil.  How do we defeat it, you ask? By becoming anamnesiacs in solidarity.

Fawzia Afzal-Khan is University Distinguished Scholar at Montclair State University in NJ. Her latest book is Siren Song:Understanding Pakistan Though it’s Women Singers. She can be reached at:  fak0912@yahoo.com