By Jim Miles
‘Do you know what amazes me more than all else? The impotence of force to organize anything. There are only two powers in the world: the spirit and the sword. In the long run, the sword will always be conquered by the spirit.’ — Napoleon Bonaparte
“The IOF may have the firepower to end lives, but it seems it cannot break the spirit.”
“If Theodor Herzl, Golda Meir, Ariel Sharon, or Ehud Olmert really ever believed the refugees could be forgotten or silenced, they were badly mistaken. If they ever thought memory would die or pass with time, they were wrong. If they hoped that future generations would lie down in submission and dutifully accept all the wrongs that have been perpetuated against them without struggling for their rights, they should have thought again.” — Rich Wiles from Behind the Wall.
Behind the Wall – Life, Love, and Struggle in Palestine. Rich Wiles. Potomac Books, Washington, D.C. 2010.
Rich Wiles’ Behind the Wall is an amazingly powerful read, relating the stories of the people of Palestine and their suffering and struggle against the occupiers of their territory. It relates the great pathos and the brief joys of life lived under dispossession and oppression. Above all, it is the story of the Palestinian sumoud – steadfastness – when confronted with ongoing everyday repression and hostility.
It is a story also seen mainly through the eyes of the children, second and third generations growing up in refugee camps. It is the children who have grasped and understood the dreams of return of their parents, reinforced daily by the confined and fearful existence they are forced to live under occupation. Children who have been imprisoned, tortured, murdered, denied their health, their education, denied the simple pleasures of seeing green fields lying under open blue sky.
It is the story of a people living ‘behind a wall’ of concrete that continues to encircle their land, their wells, their farms, separating husband and wife, mothers and children, creating a gulag of small Bantustan style cantons that imprison the people of Palestine. It is a story of ever-changing rules and regulations imposed by the whim and arbitrariness of military rule; of invasions and incursions into farmlands, villages, and the very private spaces of bedrooms and living rooms of people whose only crime is not being Israeli.
It is a story of land, of the Right of Return under international law. The elders pass the story on to their children, the value of the land, “I want the youths to never forget our land an our history. They must help us return, and they must return one day. Now I am old, But I still hope to return. Maybe I can’t return, but if my grandchildren can, then that is good.” And the children remember, “My aunt asked me to bring her zaatar and marimeyah, but I took her stones and soil instead….I felt the stones were still ours…Those stones I took will make me always remember that my homeland will return to me and my people one day.”
Between these generational thoughts Rich Wiles relates haunting stories of the tragedy of the nakba and the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, combined with the daily activities of the IOF that crudely abrogate all international laws relating to invasion, occupation, and the rights of civilians and prisoners. The stories are all tragedies, but within the tragedies and suffering rises a particular sense of humour, a defiance, a will against physical forces denied by the spirit – sumoud..
Wiles’ writing style is elegant and clear, using a simplicity of language that allows the people of Palestine to speak for themselves with all the honest emotion involved in their daily struggles. Of all the books I have read to date, this one more than any other, by using the voices of the children, of the parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, takes the reader straight to the brutal dark heart of Israeli militarism.
It reaches to the heart of anyone who considers family and children to be the cornerstone of a civil society as it addresses the torture and purposeful targeting of children and youth: the use of incendiary ‘candies’; rubber coated bullets; live sniper fire; imprisonment and torture under very abusive conditions. All the stories are disturbing vignettes of violence, mental and physical, used against dreams of freedom, homes, land, and family.
To reiterate, finally, “These are stories that are passed down through generations…The memories will not die.” Not the memories of a rich land denied, nor the memories of the occupation and its endless repression.
“This is life under occupation as the walls close in, with its stores of resilience and repugnance…some things are unstoppable…The Wall may prevent movement and physically imprison and separate people, but some things can fly. Some elements of humanity simply cannot be shackled.”
There are very few books – none that I recall immediately – that I read through in one sitting. This is one as it captivates the reader through the tragedies and horrors of the occupation combined with the spirit of the people resisting, forever resisting the atrocities against their land, their homes and their families. It is a book that should be read, stories that should be remembered.
– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle. Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.