Blog–GFM 3 December 28
A Long Day at the U.N.
Our situation is ironically biblical—never have I understood the story of Exodus so well. The irony is that in the story, it’s the Israelites petitioning Pharoah to let them go, packing their bags each time he indicates ‘yes’, unpacking them when he changes his mind and says ‘no’, ten times until in the end they leave in such haste they have no time to let the bread rise. Now, it’s the Israelites, or at least, most likely, the Israelis applying political pressure to the Egyptians to refuse us entry into Gaza. Indeed, even leaving Cairo has become problematic. Small groups have made their way to el Arish, but most have been stopped, some pulled from taxis, others sent back in busses from checkpoints
We had busses scheduled to pick us up at 7 AM in the morning—but we received word the night before that their permits had been canceled. We decided to go down to the bus station anyway and invite the press, demonstrating clearly that we were ready to go.
I really hate a demonstration that starts at 7 AM after a night of little sleep. But Juniper, Lisa, Geneva and I dutifully roused ourselves and grabbed a taxi down to the bus station. After wandering around a bit in an area of massive concrete overhangs, fumes and garbage, and crossing a couple of lethal avenues without mishap, we arrived at the area where people were holding banners and trying to wake up enough to chant.
I just have to say this here—I really hate political chanting. Makes my throat hurt and my ears sore. Mostly it’s rhythmically boring and political singing is sometimes worse. Well, old civil rights songs are great and heartening but John Lennon never wrote a more whining dirge than “All we are saying is give peace a chance!: Also impossible to sing in tune. “Imagine” is just about as bad, and longer. Drumming is some help but I’ve done the marching and drumming thing and it hurts my back. I especially hate it at 7 AM. But I endured a couple of hours of it, punctuated by some quieter moments when I could talk to people. In one of them, I interviewed Lynn Gottlieb, one of the first eight women ordained as a rabbi, who now preaches what she calls the Torah of nonviolence.
In another, I met Alex, a red-haired activist I’d met years ago in Palestine with the ISM. Alex told me that Hisham, who used to run the Faisal Hostel in East Jerusalem where ISMers often stayed, was in town just for the morning in a hotel just down the street. He’d come to meet people. So as the demo wound down, Alex and I went up to see him.
I remember the first time I met Hisham, on the first trip I did with the ISM. I’d stayed a night in Tel Aviv with my Israeli friends and taken a bus to Jerusalem. I got a taxi from the bus station and couldn’t understand why the taxi driver didn’t seem to understand where the Faisal was or grasp what I meant by ‘Damascus gate’ of the Old City. Or why he got more and more nervous as we got closer, finally stopping at least a block away and nearly forcing me out of the cab Later I realized that, of course, he was an Israeli cabby, mortally terrified of driving into East Jerusalem and nearly as terrified of anyone in his cab who would ask him to. After I dragged my heavy bags over to the Faisal and up a flight or two of stairs, I was sweating and exhausted and when I saw the general level of shabbiness and grime, ready to turn around and go back. Then I saw Hisham, standing behind the counter, with a broad grin. “Welcome, welcome!” he said, with so much friendliness and warmth that I felt better immediately. I grew very fond of the Faisal, which had a wide screened veranda where we did trainings, and an every-ready pot of tea.
We took another slow, creaky elevator up to the sixth floor, walked into the restaurant, and Hisham stood up and gave me a warm hug. “Starhawk, welcome! Welcome!” he said After six years, he recognized me immediately. We sat with three young ISMers who had come from the West Bank the night before while they had breakfast and we shared news and political cynicism. There’s a certain dark, stoic humor that long term ISM volunteers tend to share, a grim cheer that comes after facing situations every day that seem like they can’t possibly get worse, and knowing they will get worse. I realized that I missed it. I miss my friend Neta and the two girls I helped her birth and her new baby that I’ve never seen. I miss the other incredible folks I knew there, dour Swedish Tobias who became so at home in Jenin; Ghassan Andoni, like the distinguished professor he is, teaching us the history of Palestinian nonviolence; tall, red-haired Irish Caoimhe who strode through refugee camps like a Celtic Goddess and was known to walk up to tanks and cover their muzzles with her bare hands. I had tears in my eyes, realizing that I’d never expected to see Hisham again, since the Israeli authorities now won’t let me back into Israel, which also controls all the entrances into the West Bank as well as Gaza.
I know that what I feel is just a little taste of exile, a homeopathic dose of the Palestinian experience. Knowing that just compounds the sadness, turns it into a bitter dose of depression and despair—because how can I even indulge in feeling something which is so dwarfed by the immensity of Palestinian suffering? I was born an American Jew six years after the holocaust—I grew up feeling that nothing that ever happened to me could possibly rank with the sufferings of my own people, the camps and the ovens and the mass graves. And I realize what I miss in that gallows humor mood is the relief that comes from stepping out of the morass of grief and guilt and guilt about feeling grief into what I call the zone of deadly calm, the place of pure action, where you just stop feeling and stop thinking and walk out and stick your hand over the muzzle of a tank.
Okay, this isn’t really about today’s action, how we took over the plaza at the UN building for most of the day, how I learned how to hypnotize an Egyptian policeman (get them to teach you how to count in Arabic—“Wehed, efnaim, taletha..”their hard eyes soften, “arbah, hamsah, seta” and suddenly they become smiling boys :saba, thaminiah, teysha, ashara!” ) how the French have held their embassy into the night, how people who tried to get to el Arish were pulled out of taxis and taken off busses, but I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway. Because it’s almost 2 AM and because I believe that we might learn something, if we understood what pain and loss and violence and guilt do to us. In the end, that pain, that grief, the weight of sorrow and the desperate relief from it can propel us to do a lot of different things: stand in front of a bulldozer, sit down in front of a tank, strap on a belt of explosives and blow ourselves and everyone around us up. Different acts, yes, very different choices. But how much do our choices come from who we are, and how much from what we encounter around us, when we seek for solace, what comes to hand?