By Hatim Khatib
Oh, the sheer luxury and satisfaction of demonstrating for others. It’s nearly the same as caring for the sick when the caretaker is in the most excellent health. It’s a cleansing exercise, bounteous in its healing powers of the soul and conscience. It is especially recreative and morally empowering when the practitioner chooses cathartic causes with appeal and history, and more especially so when he or she, achieving absolution, retires to opulence and security far removed from the dangers and perils to which those for whom he had demonstrated are condemned. I wish I could, in my lifetime, have the chance to demonstrate without being the subject of the demonstration.
Two weeks ago I was at a vigil in Washington, DC for Palestine. After marching and chanting for a while, the marchers concentrated on a street corner and resumed chanting “Free Gaza,” “Let Gaza Live,” “Free Palestine,” “End the Occupation Now.” I’m always aware of the people standing and walking beside me, and how loud and emphatic their chanting is. I also find myself obligated, as a Palestinian, to chant as loudly as I can to compensate for those who don’t for reasons of their own—timidness or sheer embarrassment, among others. The vigilants were mostly Americans. Both good and bad. Good because Americans were largely absent at events like this only a short while ago, and bad because of the notable absence of Palestinians and other Arabs.
A woman near me leaned over and said, “We should say End Zionism Now instead of End the Occupation Now.’’ In our unique circumstance as Palestinians, ending Zionism may be tantamount to ending the occupation. I nodded my agreement and started chanting “End Zionism Now,” figuring that chanting against Zionism can never be a bad choice, any time, any place, particularly when it solidifies the enthusiasm of those who support us.
The lady said she was from Boston. Our little exchange must have caught the attention of those nearby, for soon I found myself at the center of a huddle of middle-aged Americans who braved a blustery, frigid evening to come to the vigil along with wives and grown children. A great assembly with much to say. Learning that I was born in Jerusalem, Palestine and sensing the tenacity in my intonation for it, they willingly deferred to me as the main interlocutor. They each hailed from different, strong professional and educational backgrounds. As the evening was winding down, I summed up to my fellow huddlers that Israel was insusceptible to compromise, diplomacy, coexistence, passive resistance, and certainly to full recognition of Palestinian rights. Sincerely in agreement with most of what I said, they were virtually unanimous, however, that what was needed most was patience. Patience!
On the second day of the so-called Six Day War I found myself, along with my family, cramped in the house of a family friend in Silwad, about 15 kilometers from Beitin (a small village near Ramallah), where my father was the school’s headmaster. We spent three very uncomfortable days there, subsisting on the little that our host could provide. My father finally resolved that if the Yahood (the Jews) were going to kill us, it didn’t matter where we were. Within minutes, we started gearing up for the trek home. I was assigned the task of carrying a makeshift white flag. With this sudden promotion, I gravely led the procession of my family and other villagers who joined in along the way.
Well into our walk, as I finally began to gain on the nape of the hill that would put us within sight of Ain Brood, Beitin’s sister village, an Israeli patrol jeep vaulted from the other side of the hill and, discovering us, steadied to a menacing slow roll. In it were three soldiers around what looked to me like an animated machine gun with a snicker screwed on its face, which its seated handler slowly trained at the center of my chest. The gun seemed awfully serene, so focused and ready. It looked very much like one of them, so vigilant and faithful to the pulsations of its company. That was the first time I saw Israel. I felt as if something grabbed my heart and slammed it against the grill of my chest. My legs leadened, my body warped, and my right shoulder rose and bent inward to wall off my chest. Incredibly, I held on to the raised white flag. My mind raced through what seemed the highlights of my young life, then quickly succumbed: Better me than my family. When I regained sight of the Israeli jeep, it had already picked up speed downhill and, at long last, hurled itself around a bend and disappeared. Our step towards Beitin quickened. I was only 15 then.
I was less than 2 when Arial Sharon attacked Qibya, a stone’s throw from Ni’lin (where my family lived), and killed 69 men, women, and children by demolishing their homes while they slept in them.
Patience, my co-vigilants urge.
Other than the torment and despair that a Palestinian so passionate about his motherland suffers, I have been entirely spared the incredible physical harm and tragedy that most fellow Palestinians have endured for so long. I am, nevertheless, a Palestinian exile, a claimant in absentia, in abeyance, and only in name to an ancestral home that no patience, however limitless it seems, could ever redeem.
My friends, surrounded by the radiance of 7th Street, which looks like a miniature Manhattan in Downtown Washington, now ready to head home to dinners, warmth and comfort, urge patience.
Gazans, a year ago, were drowned by a radiance of a different kind, an infernal radiance of unbridled, indiscriminate, racist, for-profit lethality which specializes in death and annihilation, one that forces other kinds of huddles: huddles of families bracing to die, not to chant or converse and then go home to dinners and comforts; of crazed stares, of soured breaths and torn hearts; of fathers who wish they had died a million years before, or never been born, rather than sit before their children and know there was nothing in the world they could do for them, not utter an empty word or even make a fake promise.
How does it feel for a Gazan father to squat in a corner of a cold, dark room, look at his young daughter and see a face filled at once with horror and with desperation to save, if only for a moment, her father’s manhood? She has nothing left except what love she spares for him before she dies. In her desolation and despair, she dutifully, in a reversal of roles, reaches out to him. He looks away in unbearable shame. He thinks of daughters like his in London, Paris, Vienna, Dubai, Washington, and Tel Aviv idling in girly bliss, hoping, dreaming, loving, promising and being promised long, happy lives. His misery is excruciating.
Daughters elsewhere living their lives in coveted comforts. Their only concerns are imagined interferences into their leisures and indolences, inconveniences of dentist appointments and gym visits, encroachments of plumpness on thighs and mid-sections, concerns with colors on lips and toenails, with unfair allowances, and with postponed vacations, weddings, and dates.
His daughter is condemned, along with her people, to suffering and misfortune designed especially for her by cultures and religions, and decisions made in war rooms and executive offices, in celestial towers and air-conditioned deserts by Sharons and Begins, Mubaraks and Baracks, in far away capitals by men and women who vie to ensure that the next show in the skies of Gaza will be more clustery, phosphorous, and spectacular. Men and women who don’t give a damn.
His younger, smaller children, who would soon be the recipients of Zionist gifts, fret about showing only the backs of their heads, their jerking hips and shoulders and curled toes squidging rabidly through a thin mattress, the only thing for the moment standing between them and internment. They writhe in silence, shying away from their father’s face, for in it is a greater horror than what’s outside their door. Kids of grown-up pains. No time to think of food or drink, all hearts and minds are clinging to thin hopes. Their past accounts of this are abysmal reminders. No time for hugs and kisses, for those may be hints that the end is finally knocking at their door.
By now, the end has knocked at many a Gazan door, and the bodies of children all over Gaza have just finished their death constitutionals: their toes have unfurled for their final repose into eternity. There is no lonelier and sadder place on earth.
– Hatim Khatib is a Palestinian living in the U.S. He is a graduate of the University of Maryland who writes poetry and freelance. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com