By Kara Newhouse – The West Bank, Palestine
‘For 122 days I heard the voices of tortured people, the shouting of tortured people, the crying of tortured people. The first days in that time, I could not sleep. I could not do anything, because I could not stop hearing the voices of tortured people. But after maybe 100 days, I got used to that situation, so I could sleep very well, and I started thinking there is nothing that can bother me. I started laughing a lot with my mate in my horrible cell and my family when they came to visit me.’
I heard these words from Mahmoud, who has been locked up by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority eight times over the last nine years. He is a former student government leader and politically-minded artist, and I met him only days after I completed an article on the rehabilitation of Palestinian torture victims. While drafting the article, I contemplated the meaning of the phrase, “re-establishing a normal life,” unsure whether many features of Palestinian qualify as normal.
For Mahmoud, life inside a 1.5 meter by 4 meter cell has at times felt more normal than anything else he knew. Speaking of his release from the four-month period in a P.A. jail described above, he told me, “I had nightmares. When they arrested me again I could sleep very well, because outside the jail I was scared that they would arrest me again. So the feeling of fear from the arrest disappeared because I’m already in the jail, so I get back my normal life again.”
These psychological effects of torture and confinement left a deeper mark on Mahmoud than the physical abuse, though he still suffers troubles in his knees, back, and left foot. “The worst thing for me,” he said, “was I felt I lost a part of my humanity, because it’s not a normal situation; it’s a very horrible situation, but I was used to it, and I thought I can live or have normal or happy times in that period.”
Twenty of percent of Palestinians and forty percent of the male population in the occupied territories have been illegally detained by Israel since 1967. Moreover, the Hamas-Fatah divide has prompted waves of arbitrary detention within both the West Bank and Gaza. If life in prison isn’t normal, it’s at least far from unusual, and the fear of arrest Mahmoud experienced is widespread. Inside prison or out, Palestinians pursue their lives under Israeli military occupation and factional repression, which is not a “normal situation” by any justice-based standards.
Education provides a good example of this point. Mahmoud, who’s 26, is still pursuing his bachelor’s degree. His first significant educational delay came at age 17 when Israeli authorities rounded up and arrested him and 15 of his male neighbors just two months before the planned start of tawjihi exams. Although he took the tests—which determine completion of high school and entry into university—in prison that year, the Ministry of Education never recorded his scores. Thus, he had to repeat his final year of high school. Meanwhile, Mahmoud’s purported opposites, his “free” classmates, did not obtain their education with ease either. Tawjihi exams are supposed to take a few weeks to complete, but in 2002 they took three months in Mahmoud’s home city of Nablus. An Israeli siege on the city confined residents to their homes for 80 percent of the time between April and December that year, disabling schools and universities, among other institutions.
Now that Mahmoud has been out of prison for six consecutive months, he describes his life as normal and happy again. Nevertheless, he sometimes gets calls to visit the P.A. offices for questioning, and he said he dreams of leaving Palestine, “to be away a bit from this stressful situation. Maybe to get back my normal life…I know I’m in a normal life, but I still feel sick of this situation.”
Distinguishing between normal and abnormal is thus something akin to tiptoeing across a spindly mountain ridge. It’s all the more tempting to deploy the distinction to the contrasts between life in Palestine and seemingly-safe life abroad. Most times when Palestinians tell me they want to go to the U.S., I smile and nod, swallowing my beliefs that our shiny shopping malls and commercial banks are a false portrayal of security and comfort. My absence from the U.S. is a privilege and my own form of escape, so who am I to dash others’ dreams about a land without checkpoints and guard towers? Yet when I heard Mahmoud’s hopes of travel, my heart fell not because of any specific destination he named, but from my grim perception of the loftiness of his dream.
Mahmoud pins his hopes of being able to travel on the fact that he has built a new life by volunteering at an NGO with an international presence. While interning at a different international NGO this spring, I participated in a dialogue project with three young Palestinians and two other Americans. The project coordinator announced in March that the Palestinian participants had been invited to represent our group at a conference in Miami. Cheers erupted from everyone in the room, except one. Saed had spent a year in Israeli prison during the second intifada. “I won’t be allowed,” he said. The project director, who hails from the U.S., encouraged him to be positive and trust the NGO’s American status to make it happen.
To apply for a U.S. visa, Palestinians must visit the embassy in Jerusalem, a city for which the Israeli authorities require entry permits. When the date of the visa appointment rolled around they had only issued two entry permits: our other group members went to Jerusalem without Saed. In the end U.S. officials only issued a visa to one of them, but Saed’s enthusiasm for our project dropped noticeably after the permit denial. I asked him how he felt and how it affected his participation. Usually relaxed and willing to share, he stayed standing while he answered that he hadn’t really thought he could go to America, but that the coordinators had convinced him for a brief second that it was possible. If an American NGO couldn’t make it happen, he asked, who could?
It was this weighty feeling of trapped-ness that I returned to me as Mahmoud told me his goal to attend graduate school outside the West Bank. Perhaps the reputation of the NGO he volunteers with will be more useful to him than the one with which Saed and I worked. The situation, though, calls into question the normalcy of any of our lives. That those of us who ride in the EZ-pass lane across national borders think our “freedom” can be used to obtain only the partial freedom of others—escape, not transformation—indicates that there are many truths about our own countries that shouldn’t be treated as normal.
– Kara Newhouse is a youth educator and journalist in the West Bank. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit her blog at: rogueanthropologist.wordpress.com.