all I have is a bottle of ink
on my shoulder
or pulled a trigger.
All I have
is a lute’s melody,
A brush to paint my dreams,
A bottle of ink.
All I have
Is unshakeable faith
And an infinite love
for my people in pain.
EAST JERUSALEM, WEST JERUSALEM
In West Jerusalem I got a haircut and art supplies, in East Jerusalem, cabbage salads and Greek salads and hummous, fabric for costumes for the kids at Aida Refugee camp, and rest. Samia is the Palestinian-American abstract artist who invited us all here, this international group of Artists Against the Occupation, and her company is a gift. Samia identifies as a Marxist and she knows so much history I feel I am only grasping the teeniest pieces when she speaks. Next week when we return to the city she will take me to the outside of her grandparents’ former home (to which she still carries the deed), where she lived until Al Nakba in 1948 when she was 11 and her family fled to Lebanon.
The names of massacres appear on maps and fall quickly from people’s tongues. Deir Yassin, Gaza, Jenin, Tulkarm; I acknowledge that they are not just the names of massacres, they are places where people live and cook and giggle and argue and write poetry.
Here in East Jerusalem the markets and restaurants are empty and waiters have PhD’s. Everybody speaks Arabic but the ketchup and the soda, the laundry detergent and the boxes of oranges, all of that’s written on in Hebrew, apparently since Oslo. People say these places will be busier next week when Ramadan begins and Muslims from all over come to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, internationals like me are passing through on our way to the territories, as olive harvest has just begun. There’s this hopelessness in the air—I don’t acknowledge that because it’s what I expected, I acknowledge it because I can taste it—and that hopelessness is so strongly contradictory to the meticulous stone architecture and overflowing landscape, desert trees heavy with olives and dates and pomegranates.
Tomorrow Freda and I will head to Beit Jala and from there to Aida camp, where we’re gonna make costumes and put on a skit with a bunch of kiddos in an after school theater project. I have no idea what a refugee camp looks like; no idea what to expect.
MY WEAPON IS MY BODY
Ten days in the West Bank & the images alive in my head tonight are the mounds of dust from destroyed homes that have become quiet streets in destroyed Jenin, and the old old man outside Aida Refugee Camp who laid down in front of an olive tree more ancient than the reign of the Ottoman Empire and said to the soldiers and settlers and their guns and bulldozers, “No more! If you take this tree, you take me with it.”
I see that the West Bank has been separated into open-air prisons, so that while Ramallah may be less than an hour from Bethlehem, it is unreachable. The reality of what is happening here is horrifying. There are the incursions and the massacres that make the papers and summon the internationals, but overall the occupation happens in increments, so that first a roadblock becomes normal, and then it is a checkpoint, and then a checkpoint becomes normal, and then it is the Wall.
I struggle with how to articulate the awful, reminding myself that it is important not victimize people. It’d be inaccurate, anyway. True, it’s virtually impossible for most Palestinians to go to Jerusalem for art supplies or books or a cup of coffee. But 23 youth from Aida Camp last summer toured 20 cities in France with their play We are the Children of the Camp; my new performer friend Khalid just returned from the Arabic Int’l Festival for Children in Jordan; many youth I meet are studying English or French, film editing or karate or painting. A social worker from the YMCA in Jenin said to me yesterday, “We are a capable people, helping us with charities and with money, this is not really what we need. We need rights. People say they want peace, but there cannot be peace without rights.”
There can be no peace between occupier and occupied.
There are the truths that I knew before I arrived here, of the wall and the bulldozers, the identity cards and the guns, and they are what led me here to Palestine after a childhood filled with visits to Israel. I think of the myths of making the desert bloom and a land without people for a people without land; I think of how initially painful it was when I began a few years ago to look beyond the histories I’d been taught. But being here, with the lives of Samia and Ibrahim, Fatten, Salem, Abed, and Iklas as real and as 3-dimensional as those of Eli and Ray and Erika back home, I am forced to peel back another whole layer of myth, and that is extremely painful. That I spoke about this struggle only as the occupation that began in ‘67, that now seems so shallow and uninformed. Should Israel return to ‘67 borders, that’d still leave all the residents of Aida Camp, Dheisheh Camp, Balata Camp, Jenin Camp—and so many others that I haven’t yet seen—as refugees, and without human rights.
What is most bizarre in the midst of all of this is how joyful I feel. Nighttime comes early here and the beautiful waxing Ramadan moon is the brightest thing in the sky and I feel so happy to be just where I am. Two days ago at the International Arts Center in Bethlehem, there was a roundtable discussion for artists and everyone introduced themselves: Ali and Rowan and Vera, Palestinian youth studying painting at the center; Mazuko, a sculptor who remembered the impact of Artists Against Apartheid and began Artists Against Occupation with a one-woman exhibit & a call to artists; Makiko, who’s translated Edward Said’s work into Japanese; Jun, whose huge video projections—21st-century graffiti— appear all over buildings in downtown Tokyo, shouting “End the Israeli Occupation of Palestine”; Gustavo, Alberto, and Eresto, Mexican mural artists who’ve come here from Chiapas and Oaxaca and Mexico City to paint the wall; Freda, a Jewish installation artist from Montreal who, like me, has used Passover as a metaphor to talk with Jews about the occupation.
The other night Khalid and I talked about his work in the theater and he said to me, “As an actor, I cannot have a weapon in my hand. My weapon is my oral expression, my body, my emotion. This is how I fight the occupation.”
SUNDAY EVENING AT THE CHECKPOINTS
Went this morning to Ramallah to see an opening of an art show at Birzeit University by a Palestinian-French artist, and then visited the beautiful Sakakini Art Center where Mahmoud Darwish (my poet dream-boat) has his office and a lot of art shows, classes, films are held.
Ramallah has become the capital of Palestine by default and is considered the most “like normal-life” of anywhere one can live these days in Palestine. Muhammad, the young sweetie who works at the hostel where I stay in East Jerusalem is from Ramallah, but barely returns. He said to me, “It was like New York City, you used to be able to get anything there... and so many coffee houses... but now there is nothing, no reason to go back.”
Population-wise, however, the city is exploding, as people from already walled-in Qalquilia and bulldozed Jenin pick up and move. This, of course, is a goal of the Israeli government, as those lands in the North have the long winter rains and most fertile soil, and this is—at least in part—a war about control of resources.. .
After we eat, my comrade 70-year old Freda and I are sleepy and we decide to leave the others and head back to Jerusalem, 18 kilometers away. We take a taxi to Qalandia, checkpoint # 1, and we are herded like cattle into a mass of people who have already been waiting for two hours. This is a mostly Muslim population and it’s 4pm and it’s Ramadan, so these folks have not eaten all day long. Apparently this is the soldiers’ favorite game during this time of year, round ‘em up and make ‘em wait so that they cannot eat dates and break the fast with their families. I know I cannot do it justice with my words, the claustrophobic feeling, the panic of no way out, how fucking humiliating it feels. The Minister of Health for Ramallah was walled up next to me for a while, “Every day its like this” he told me. “Sometimes we walk right through, sometimes we wait 5 hours, sometimes its closed for no reason. It is as if they think we have nothing else to do.”
On occasion the electronically controlled revolving door turns and one or two people are spewed out to have a one-on-one encounter with a soldier. Three hours pass, and its my turn.
The Israeli boys with their guns scare the hell out of me; just two days ago a rifle was pointed at the head of a friend working with the International Solidarity Movement as he went to pick olives in Nablus, and his companions were beaten up badly. But in the Israeli women I see my cousins, I see what my life could have been, I see myself. “Open your bag,” today’s sexy soldier says to me as I hand her my passport, and I know she’s the one with the gun, but I can’t help it, I say, “You can refuse, you know. Many people are refusing to serve.”
“I know what I am doing!” she yells at me. But she’s as young as my baby sister whose diapers I used to change and I am not intimidated by her. I think I am supposed to take this moment of confrontation very seriously, but her long black hair is so shiny and her dark eyes are so big and she has this crumb of chocolate cookie stuck in the corner of her mouth. The truth is I am picturing playing pool with her in the back of a bar, offering to buy her another glass of red wine. I look into her eyes and I say, “My father’s Israeli, and still I tell you, what you are doing is wrong.”
And then I walk away and I hold back tears because we still have two more taxis and another checkpoint to go before I can sit outside on the balcony of the hostel, look into the bright lights surrounding Damascus Gate, and cry.
THIS IS WHAT OCCUPATION LOOKS LIKE
The bike path ends & the sun sets where the dirty Green River meets the Mediterranean Sea. I sit on a bench in the northeast corner of Israel’s beating heart, Tel Aviv, and I have to acknowledge that this is an insanely beautiful city.
My first night in Tel Aviv I climb on the back of my cousin’s rockstar husband’s scooter and we fly southward all the way to Jaffa, where we walk through mazes of skinny stone streets until we emerge by the water. With the small boats lined up next to one another, the men quietly fishing in the moonlight, we joke that this could be the set of a movie about Jesus. The architecture is some of the most beautiful I’ve seen in my life. There are gardens and lovers on the rooftops above us, but mainly the streets are empty. At a restaurant owned by Uri’s friend the chic gay chef, we eat grape leaves stuffed with seafood, lamb marinated in coffee, alcohol made of figs. These are gourmet versions of the food I have been eating for weeks, only here we order in Hebrew and pay a small fortune.
In these days I think a lot about the fuzzy intersections between appropriation, gentrification, and occupation. When there are thousands of soldiers, dozens of checkpoints, and bullet holes in the water tanks, that’s occupation. When you economically force people from their homes and then turn those homes into restaurants and artists’ lofts, that’s gentrification. And when the expressions of those people you no longer see become part of your daily language and their food a part of your daily diet, that’s appropriation. Or is it all occupation? I think a lot about my own life; I think a lot about the homes I’ve had in West Philadelphia and on New York’s Lower East Side.
And meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, I flush paper down the toilet, I smoke joints and take long showers, I drink whiskey over ice in bars filled with queer women.
I could ride a bicycle without stopping from Tel Aviv to Ramallah, but no one I speak to has been there within the last twenty years. Palestinians are not mentioned at all in Tel Aviv except in the context of suicide bombings, “the only thing that keeps our life here from being perfect,” my sexy cool actress cousin tells me. It seems that there is a complete block on all that is Arab here but terrorism & cuisine, so that neither Palestinians nor their Arab neighbors are seen as artists or musicians, athletes or feminists.
After four days, I return to East Jerusalem, exhausted. At the hostel I crawl into the lap of a new friend who grew up in Guatemala in the 80’s. He’s as horrified by this occupation as I am, but the guns and the tanks and the soldiers with their shaky hands are not new to him as they are to me. I whisper how sad and tired I feel after a month of looking and searching for the beauty that’s gonna overpower this beast, after asking every Israeli and Palestinian activist I meet what makes them hopeful, after visiting artists and community centers, making comparisons with the Mexican muralists between the struggles of the Palestinians with those of the Zapatistas.
“You came looking for a revolution,” my friend says to me. “But what’s happening here is not a revolution, it’s a war.”
And there can be no peace between occupier and occupied.