Moments ongoing

I am sitting in Ramallah reading this article about the controversy surrounding the deaths of two Palestinian teenagers, shot by Israeli bullets (one through the back) last week at a protest commemorating the Nakba. CCTV footage of the incident has been circulated over the past week; meanwhile the media quotes Israeli army sources claiming the footage was faked, and also, in some cases, that a Palestinian gunman is responsible for the boys’ deaths.

Their names were Mohamed and Nadim, 16 and 17 years old.

I recall the death of a different Mohamed; Mohamed Reda, shot by Egyptian security forces on the campus of Cairo University last November. His death unleashed a wave of anger by students and faculty. The public prosecutor’s office later claimed that he was killed by gunfire on the students’ side.

Two killings, each holding up a mirror image of the other, an image surrounded by violence and obfuscation.

We had been in the north, “fil dakhel” (meaning “inside 1948,” “inside Israel”) that day. We drove back from Akka and Haifa to Ramallah to find shops and restaurants shuttered, either out of respect for the lives taken, or out of fear of angry mobs of youth. The solemn atmosphere hung over the hilly city for the next few days.

Since Mohamed Reda’s death in Cairo, students have continued to die throughout the Egypt’s campuses. Claims and counter-claims, of whether the brotherhood was present, whether the students were armed, create an ugly noise often louder than the basic facts each time. Too often no one is interested in listening, anyway.

Even in writing this I feel like I am using their teenage lives, their deaths in order to understand the violence that seems inescapable. Is that selfish? Is it insulting to those who loved them? Is it disrespectful to a memory of their lives before they became part of this ongoing, sick story?

“The Nakba is ongoing” is a popular slogan here. That moment in history which changed everything for so many who were still unborn, is stretched out and iterated over and over again: when youth are killed or arrested, when houses are demolished, when land is eaten up, renamed, re-landscaped, by a highly mechanized occupying machine. A catastrophic history – both crystallized in a moment and brought to life repeatedly, generations later and decades later.

Can we see the same canvas in Egypt? When we raise flags with the faces of the fallen from our own catastrophes, from the bullets and the torture and Maspero and Port Said, when new faces are spray-painted onto walls to join this cemetery made of stencils, when we insist that their deaths are not in vain and that the revolution continues, even as the chants grow fainter. Is this all a way to stretch out a moment of change that occurred in 2011, to unfurl it beyond our memory so that it can cover our ongoing crises, our ongoing disasters?

In a piece about Mohamed and Nadim, the Guardian provides a quote from a public opinion analyst in Tel Aviv, commenting on the response: “Public figures are well aware that the postmodern mindset makes it hard to pin down facts.” The implications are sinister, especially in a region where accountability for crimes committed against the poor, the occupied, or, in Egypt, the whole general citizenry, is completely absent.

Tomorrow Egyptians go to vote in the second presidential election in as many years. Under the care of the General slated to win with no contest, the Egyptian state has charged or imprisoned 41,000 people for political dissent in less than a year, according to WikiThawra. The facts, the past, pin us down whether we leave them in their moment or draw them into life.




Notes from a bridge

All this sickness has to go somewhere, and it seems it has gone directly to my stomach. In my belly is a rock of congealing violence; of fractured time and place; of the anxiety of powerlessness.

I am at the border crossing from Jordan into Israel, in order to reach the West Bank. We’ve already gone through the Jordanian side, where the process always feels vaguely confused, although mercifully quick. We are ushered into a waiting room which has an air of cheap, threadbare formality. A large circle of chairs in terrible brown upholstery are arranged facing towards each other; there is Quran playing in the background. A man comes by with a thermos of coffee; there are portraits of King Hussein hanging in the fluorescent light – he is shown young, smiling, handsome in that particular way that Arab men with strong but fine, even features and thick hair can be. This border crossing is named after him, and also after General Edmund Allenby, who held various posts in the British empire’s military and colonial administration in Jordan when the word referred only to a valley and a river, as well as in Palestine, Egypt, and Sudan.

We leave the Jordanian side and cross the “bridge” in a car. The Israeli side looks much more militarized; the first people we see are soldiers with machine guns. It is Saturday, the Sabbath, which means the crossing closes earlier than usual. The lines at the first processing point are long.

We had somewhat embarrassedly paid extra money for a “VIP” service which means there are employees who explain things to us quite patiently, and physically accompany us through every step of the process. It means we circumvent the queues and in doing so, sidestep the center of the brutal power dynamic; we brush past it rather than stand at its target in lines made up mostly of Arabs, crowded together between metal barricades. 

The first man to process me speaks my father’s name, Mohamed, back at me with a shift towards recognition and mild surprise in his eyes. His hand hovers for a second as he hesitates before circling a number to indicate how potentially suspicious I am based on this brief, initial profiling. It’s the same number I’ve gotten in the past so I am relieved. I notice there is an awkwardness in the way I am clutching my passport, the only reason I am able to consider this journey.

Almost everyone who questions me asks if I speak Arabic and, with a continually growing sense of shame, I say that I prefer to speak in English. On the one hand this is a part of my deflection; my attempt to present myself as less Arab, more American, as less knowing, more blithe. On the other I feel repelled from conversing with the soldiers in an Arabic they have mastered purely in order to better occupy, to more firmly control.

After questioning I am sent to a waiting room. The TV is showing a crew’s adventures in fishing for Blue Fin tuna on National Geographic.

There is a woman wearing niqab sitting just outside the room and yelling in a thick London accent that “they don’t have a right to do this.” I think she eventually passed through with her husband, because now when I look outside the door all I can see are a woman’s feet in sandals. Her pedicure is almost the same color as mine.

At passport control, the employee takes our passports directly to the window. A few minutes later the woman at the front of the line, clutching an American passport like mine, calls out my name so I can come step in front of her.

A while later we finally collect our visas and our luggage and step out into the sun. We head to Jerusalem and to our work in Palestine. I think about how much importance and effort is poured into keeping people out of this place. It feels like it is being hidden away, in the real sense of the words.



Egypt to Palestine

I am visiting Palestine for the first time. Coming here is something I’ve wanted to do since reading about the conflict and having Palestinian friends snapped me into some form of political consciousness as a teenager.

I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and had thought that I wouldn’t dare to write about something so politically and personally meaningful as the occupation after such a short time. What I didn’t know was that every aspect of life, every significant conversation, work of art, transaction or observation that is lived and felt is somehow tied to occupation. From the fruit you buy to the roads you drive on to where you can meet people.  I’d read this, people had told me, but I hadn’t fully absorbed it until I was able to be here.

Palestinians I meet express surprise that I am Egyptian. Very few Egyptians come here – they are not able to since there is no way to enter the West Bank without crossing the Israeli border, and Arabs are generally not allowed into Israel (by the Israeli government and their own).  Arabs are a noticeably absent demographic at large touristic and religious sites. The only reason I was able to cross the border is because I was accidentally born in the US, and became the only member of my family to acquire that blue passport. I played the role of a blithe, gum-chewing American tourist at the border to help balance my Arab features, and name.

Many people here say that they, or someone they know, have tried to travel to Egypt in the past year or two and were unable to enter. So Egyptians can’t come to Palestine, and Palestinians can’t go to Egypt.

Almost everyone I talk to asks about the situation in Egypt with genuine concern: كيف الأوضاع فى مصر؟    Is the country lost now that the Ikhwan are in power? Is there hope for the struggle against them? Are the Ikhwan able to go out and force their ways on people’s lifestyles?

On one of our first few nights here, a man in a bar asked if we thought that Palestine would be at the heart of the second, real, Arab revolution. This triggered more questions: Do Egyptians think about Palestine, do they connect the occupation of this land with their own struggle against cultural, political, and economic oppression? Isn’t our freedom inherently connected, as people in this region which is dealt with by governments and international brokers as a string of military investments, oil contracts, and power balances?

outside a bar in Ramallah

outside a bar in Ramallah: “we are hungry for freedom”

I’ve spoken to Palestinians who are still dedicated to liberation and whose activism, sometimes at the cost of their health, careers, and passports, cannot be dismissed. But there is a sense of resignation here; people say that nothing is happening, that nobody wants to fight. A shopkeeper in Ramallah (apparently the most depoliticized city in the West Bank) asked me how people in Egypt have the energy to go out and fight all the time, to protest, to deal with instability?

This all makes me aware of the advantages we have in our struggle, in Egypt. We have our mobility. Our security forces are often at odds with the ruling government. We have a population that is large, and that is still angry. Perhaps it’s also simply an issue of timing – the fight in Egypt is young, it is not one we have inherited from our parents or our grandparents. We can still dictate the narratives.  We have a plethora of frontlines, of causes, and while the problems might all share the same roots there is perhaps more traction to be gained from fighting a single cause in Egypt than here, where all roads lead to the dead-end of occupation. Of course this is not to say that there is no value for that kind of activism in Palestine, just that it might be easier in Egypt for issue-based action to have a broader impact or overlap with other initiatives.

So my friend and I speak positively of Egypt here, when we are asked. We tell people that the fight is ongoing, that the Ikhwan won’t last, that things can change and that people have a sense of this. We tell them that the Ikhwan cannot control Egypt the way Hamas tries to control Gaza; we are simply too many.  I thank people when they inevitably tell me they love Egypt. I tell them that we love Palestine, that I feel lucky to be here. And I think that rather than Palestine being at the center of the next widespread Arab struggle, as the man in the bar said, perhaps it is now Egypt’s turn.