Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Yes Folk


On a warm grey morning in Glasgow, the city of decisive contradictions and figurative language involving tiresome Braveheart renditions of "Freedom!" and kilts and haggis, I clambered into a taxi just off of George Square. My previous experiences reporting live from the belly of the beast in attractive war zones taught me that it never gets old to equate an entire country with one city and jumble them all up with repeated stereotypes and imagery. I was eager to begin my intensive, award-winning analytical journalistic probing of the most loquacious specimen of any given native in a foreign country: the driver.

As a white van nearly corralled us off the road by veering into our lane without so much of a blinking indicator, the driver-- as testament to the universality of all other cab drivers in the world-- swerved to one side and swore.

"What the fuck are you doing you stupid wanker!"

My alien but otherwise cultured self savored the swear words as my senses tingled with the colloquial litany. I briefly imagined myself at a dinner party relaying to a captive audience the unique experience of being in a car with a foul-mouthed taxi driver. I smiled inwardly. Everyone will be so jealous of my awesome adventures, I thought.

We pass by Queen Street, and I seize the opportunity to get the conversation flowing.

"I bet that name will have to be changed once independence comes," I remark offhandedly.
The driver chortles.
"Pity the queen loves Scotland," I press.
"Aye, it's true. She has an estate called Balmoral she always comes to. Look, I don't mind the queen as a person, I just hate what she stands for, you know, the entire establishment."
"So are you voting yes?"
"Of course sister. And I'll give you two reasons why. Bloody traffic!" he suddenly yelled.
"Traffic is rather unusual at this hour," I offer.
"I don't fucking get why though. It's never like this."
"The vote..."
"I'm getting to that. First of all, I want my vote to count. Whoever I vote for has to represent me and my community and not be in fucking Westminster all the way in London. The second reason is that I don't want my country to be involved in foreign bloody wars. Blair, Gordon, Cameron- what's the difference? They're all pricks."
"Fair enough."
"So where are youse from?"

My insides deflate. "Palestine," I grumbled.
"Oh I'd love to go there! Um..so you've got family there?"
"Yes," I reply stoically.
"Are they ok? Do you know any charities I could donate to? I'd love to help-"
"The armed resistance? That's a good idea."
The driver laughed nervously. Then he shouted, "Fuck! Stupid GPS just turned off! I have to pull in this road, this will only take a couple of minutes, sorry."

Conversation ends.


That night, at a packed dinner party that served vegetarian haggis and bolognese, J. walked in the room with a dog called Ruben that had a Palestine flag tied around its neck.

"Some guys on my way here didn't like that," he said as I stroked the dog's head. "They were all like, is this Scottish independence or Palestine independence?" he rolled his eyes. "I told them I'm for the autonomy of all countries. They looked confused, like 'autonomy' was too big a word for them to understand."

We talked more, about how we were hopeful and nervous and optimistic and cautious for the following day's vote.

"All our lives we've been told, no you can't do this. No you can't live here. No you can't have this job. Yes is...it's different." He closed his eyes and lifted his face upwards. "When people hear yes, yes, yes, yes..it's what we need." He suddenly opened his eyes. "And fuck the socialists, the ones who have a mortgage to pay and are proper middle or upper middle class. How long are you here for?"

"A few days."

"I lived in London once. I actually liked living there. They were easily hiring anyone to build Canary Wharf, and they'd pay me a few hundred quid a week, banknotes straight in my hand. But the English are such arseholes. Once I asked someone for directions and he shouted-" here he imitated the inevitable Cockney accent-"I don't have any change! Get lost guvnor!"

Before I left, J. gave me one last pearl of wisdom.

"When we hug, we do it on the left side so that our hearts can touch. The British introduced the handshake, a formal way of greeting to show the other person that you weren't carrying a gun. We're having none of that though."


I don't understand first world countries. They get offered independence like it's a fruit platter and they reject it politely with a "No Thanks." What kind of official anti-independence slogan is that in the first place?

Want some tea?
No thanks!
Want independence?
No thanks!

The best reaction I saw was in Edinburgh. A guy, obviously still recovering from the crushing disappointment and drunken nights was walking with his two young children wearing a blue t-shirt with the words "55% of bed-wetters" emblazoned on it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Conversations from Gaza

Down in the underground vaults, he walled in Fortunato after chaining his hands to the stone. The amontillado was forgotten. And at the end before his final plea of "For the love of God, Montresor!" Fortunato laughed and laughed.

This was a dark story of malice and revenge, and there's no comparison to the snippets of conversation relayed below. (This title is so generic by the way.) The only similarity in both is the laughter that seems so out of place. Our previous conversations never dwelt on the gravity of the situation, the horrors that she witnessed and still cannot speak of not even to herself, or the anger and depression and frustration that has been coursing through our bodies, tormenting us and depriving us from sleep for the duration of a month and a half. Instead, we breathlessly speak of the resistance, the journalists we don't trust, the foreign journalists we both worked with separately, and sometimes about our families. We talked about the future once or twice. We both declared there was no place to be in times of shelling, heavy bombardment and flat out ground invasion other than Gaza. We understood why. We understood each other. We viciously and deservedly tore apart the West Bank, the "solidarity" and the lack of anger that has failed to materialize in the streets, and mockingly praised them on their own self-congratulatory initiative of finally boycotting Israeli products, somewhat. We think of the larger picture, and the rest of the country. The cause that simultaneously became so clear and yet so far removed from reality. We imagine what we'll do once we see each other again. Tear this motherfucking place upside down (wherever that will be) is one suggestion we're quite fond of.

Why are you laughing?
What else is there left for me to do?

Once she started with a premonition.

"I think I'm going to die soon."
"That's a very likely probability."
"I had a dream I was getting married and was wearing a white dress."
"Yep, no escaping from that dream. Death is upon you my friend."
"I was wearing the dress, and I had a fight with the groom, and I ran away before the wedding started."
"Wait a minute, that means you ESCAPED death! Oh my God! We can call you the living martyr now! You rascal, you escaped from the jaws of death!"

We laugh and laugh. Peals of laughter cause us to briefly disappear from the screens before reemerging again, out of breath and mouths open. In the middle of it I'm suddenly gripped with an urge to cry and say, stop it, this isn't normal, we're talking and laughing about death. Instead, I fight the panic rising in me and laugh some more.

Once we've calmed down again, we talk again about the first time we did this or the first time we tried that. Soon, we're laughing again. 

She tells me there are things she saw that she cannot speak of. She doesn't know if she ever will. She's not ready to verbalize the horrors branded in her mind with white hot fire. But sometimes, words tumble out. 

"They told me not to go in, but I did. I just had to see. I saw their bodies, six bodies on the bathroom floor. The blood. I shrunk back into the wall, and my eyes and nose were leaking. Hyperventilating and crying nonstop."

We talk about relationships and people. Why don't our friends understand we want to be left alone, we'd rather mope and sulk and heal alone, go through the rounds of gripping depression alone, shut ourselves up in a dark shell all alone?

"It gets harder as we get older…this whole interacting with people thing. Human relationships."
"Selfish bastards. Why don't they get it?"
"I always said humankind needs to be wiped out."
"I pray for us to be nuked. The entire country. The people."
"The resistance is on it. They're targeting Dimona next, just wait and see. Start fresh. New people. New country."

She tells me what she plans on doing. Getting her driver's license and learning how to swim. I'm flabbergasted at the last one.

"I can't believe it. I don't know you any more."
"What, now I'm not a proper Palestinian because I don't know how to swim?"
"Oh, it's not like you've lived your entire life next to the sea!"
"I know..but it's not really a sea we have!"
"I used to go early in the morning. You can wear a bikini and tempt the little fishies."
"I want a beach where I can swim in the daytime, properly. So if you were thrown in the middle of the sea, would you survive?"
"Probably not… I taught myself how to swim so I'm not the strongest. I'd panic and swallow a lot of water and drown."

The reason for swimming is that she wants to jump off the wall in Akka. I tell her that's probably one reason I'd go back to the country, to jump off the wall as well.

"Akka is beautiful. Once I asked the kids jumping off when they started doing it and if their parents know. One replied, duh! My dad taught me!"
"Wow…so wonderful. I don't want to jump and drown, you know?"
"Jump in wearing a tire around your waist..or floaties."
"Har har."
"Ok, another thing we're doing. We're jumping off that wall in Akka."

She cries as she tells me what she did for work today. I try not to, but cry as well.
"The mother told me stories of her three dead children…detailed stories. We were all crying. My taxi driver later told me from now on he'll wait for me in the car because he doesn't need to listen to this kind of shit."
"It's so fucked up."
"The F-16 missile hit the bedroom the children were playing in. There were no bodies, just bits of them blown to pieces."

On the night the air strikes were particularly heavy in her neighborhood, we spoke for hours. Talking animately, she suddenly froze as a loud boom resonated outside, loud enough for my room in London to hear and make my heart stop.

"Thunder," I offer.
She rolls her eyes. "Yes, thunder."

She continues.

"Nothing, absolutely nothing will get me to leave my home. Even if God came down and told me to leave I wouldn't. You don't see it…the living situation in the schools is absolutely terrible. Each classroom has a hundred people sleeping in it..the trash is all over because no one comes to collect it..infections are everywhere..harassment is everywhere…it's the dirtiest, overcrowded, most desperate place to be in. No thank you, I'd rather die in my home than evacuate to a fucking UNRWA school."

Another boom. Louder this time.

"Oooh, heavy thunder." I try to smile and end up grimacing.
"I need psychological rehab. Thinking of going to Sinai for a few days once this is all over."
"I'm glad you said that. If you said something like 'I won't heal unless it's in Gaza' I would have shot you."

There was a reason we talked like this. There was a reason we deliberately ignored cursing Egypt like we usually do, at least twelve times a day. We believed that after this prolonged terror campaign and massacre, after so much suffering and people killed and homes demolished, after so many sacrifices, there will never ever again be a return to the status quo. It was the point of no return. It's a bit funny; as a population we are obsessed with return. But this time, no. The siege will be lifted our way.

After the ceasefire, which has already been violated by Israel more than once, we talk again.

"Everything is worse. Nothing is getting better. I don't want anything from this world, just my sanity and my happiness."

We're waiting for change. She can afford to wait unlike others, but not for long. No one can.

We didn't laugh this time.