By Dr. Samah Jabr
In a psychotic state, a 16 year old young woman patient from the West Bank went beyond the confines of her own boundaries: “I saw the sky turned red in color and I perceived a calling… I looked into people’s eyes to see that they too were excited and understood the call of the sky.”
She grasped that Jerusalem had been liberated and that she was being called to walk in its direction. Her wish for freedom, her deep desire to merge with a liberated Jerusalem surfaced to falsify the political reality. This beautiful psychotic vision resulted in border police attacking and capturing her. Although dozens of other Palestinian youngsters have been killed at checkpoints, she survived to tell her story.
Unlike the weakened psychic boundaries of my patient, the geopolitical boundaries and borders erected by the Israeli occupation are rigidly evident. The checkpoints not only rob us of land and natural resources, classifying and fragmenting our Palestinian identity as Jerusalemites, West Bankers, Gazans, Palestinians of 1948, refugees and exiled individuals, but also continue to forge new identities that affirm the privilege of the occupiers and deny us our rights and integrity. Checkpoints define walls of exclusion and control, and crossroads of colorful humiliation and black death for anyone who risks to “invade” the borders of her/his narrow community prison. These concrete structures have created finite parameters for our emotions, relationships, hopes, dreams and ambitions. Damned are those who defy their borders and dare to expand their love, relatedness, study or work outside their cages.
Once, after giving a talk in Brussels, I was stopped by a very young Palestinian youth from Gaza. His wants were pragmatic: to help him obtain papers testifying that he is a Palestinian. This young man had become intolerant of life in Gaza and had escaped through the tunnels, enduring terrifying journeys through Egypt and several European countries before reaching Brussels. He had sacrificed all of his money, and paid whatever can be paid to smugglers and dealers. When the boat carrying him arrived on the shores of Italy, it sank and several of his companions died. He lost all his belongings in the sea, including his identity papers and birth certificate.
In Gaza, borders have become a noose strangling the life out of its people. The siege constricts human potential by obstructing electricity, work, and studies, and denying medical care. Recently, the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip revealed that half of the Palestinians in Gaza report that they are considering emigrating. Those who refuse to accept the slow suffocation in the besieged enclave risk their lives on an illegal boat to Europe; sadly, many of them drown. The keys locking borders are used to promote dependency on the abuser. Who may cross is determined by blackmail and exploitation; there are multiple reports from patients from Gaza who were asked to be informers for the Israeli intelligence agencies in exchange for permission to cross the border to seek healthcare.
As a Palestinian Jerusalemite, lacking both passport and citizenship, I am very familiar with the paradoxical feelings involved in crossing borders, locally and internationally: the disgrace of being investigated as a permanent suspect; the frustration of hours and days robbed in mortifying delays; and the anxiety of not being able to cross back. And yet there is a desire to connect beyond borders, the yearning to exchange knowledge and experience with the other, and the aspiration to transcend the confines of the colonially-imposed borders of Sykes-Picot, the UN Partition Plan, the Green (1949 Armistice) Line, Areas A, B and C, etc. I have learned many languages and the field of psychiatry as my visa and passport to symbolic border crossings into other worlds.
Working in the West Bank, I cross borders every day. I experience moments of perplexity; degrading waiting and multiplicity and wealth of experience at the same time. I observe young men climbing and jumping dangerously over the 8 meter-high wall in the hope of finding work in Israeli-held areas. A few have died or been killed and many have been injured or arrested during this adventure. I observe how borders exist as concrete on the land and as thoughts in the mind. Not only are driving habits very different on the two sides of the walls, but borders also make people behave and feel differently in countless ways. Between Jerusalem and the West Bank, there is a gap in per capita GDP, education, health and human rights.
However, these borders do not have to be a physical wall or a checkpoint. I think of Frantz Fanon’s “zones of being” and “zones of non-being” drawn along the virtual line that separates people according to their relative power and domination over one another.
In my land, borders are drawn with blood on the ground. They are neither natural nor neutral. They are fabricated by the Israeli occupation to maintain the power relationship between the occupiers and the natives of Palestine. Yet the fate of Palestinians should not be determined by a power relationship. Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone lawfully within the territory of a State shall, within that territory, have the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his residence. And everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own.”
While thinking of the “call” beckoning my adolescent patient to cross into Jerusalem, I look at the blue sky and I see a flock of migrant birds passing over the horizon and remember the blue sea that has swallowed many refugees and their belongings.
If there came to be justice or equality on both sides of the borders; if there came to be respect for ethical standards or human rights within these borders and walls, then the divide between “us” and “them” would dissolve. A common pluralistic humanity would emerge around shared values and permit new middle ground and a new zone for human engagement.
– Samah Jabr MD is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist; the Head of the Mental Health Unit, Palestine Ministry of Health; and Assistant Clinical Professor, George Washington University, Washington DC, USA. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (This article was first published in Middle East Monitor)