By Mats Svensson
She told me she longed to get away. Just for a few days. She had been invited to visit friends in Amman, only a few miles away. She only needed to drive down the mountain, down to the Jordan River.
If it can be called a river. Once upon a time it had been a river, now it has almost entirely dried out. Getting the “desert to bloom” has paid a high price. The Jaffa oranges were thirsty. The river dried out and the Dead Sea sunk. The Dead Sea already died, but what will it be called when also the salty water has disappeared? One day, someone will explain in the tourist brochures that “there was once a salt water lake here, but the oranges were thirsty, man never got enough and the water ran out”.
Beyond the ‘river’, she would walk to the other side, up the mountain. There she would find Amman, where her friends would be waiting. Laughter, memories and a few hours to feel really good. She hesitated. Although she wanted to see her friends, did she want to travel the short journey? The short journey could take so many hours.
The memories rush over her. The transfers. She had lately visited Gaza many times. It was fantastic to be there and feel like she could contribute, but the transfer area, Eretz… To see everyone queuing, to witness those in line to visit their daughter in the Israeli prison or to get hospital treatment. To watch them, reflect on all those who wait to get through, and herself pass through relatively easy. Pass through, but still be put through the same humiliation. The questions, the useless repetitions. Always the same questions, the same game. Everyone plays their part, participate in the same circus. A circus without laughter. The clowns aren’t missing. Nobody is laughing.
Wrong Number and You’re Stuck
She thinks about the airport Ben Gurion. This is probably where the effects of the apartheid system are most clear. The selection. Everyone receives a number. If you get a six, you are stuck, stuck for a long time. Free, forced massage. Someone searches your hair, massages hard, unpleasant. It feels like you are the only one to get this treatment. The ones with a lower number get away. Last time this was you, you got a five. If the selection gives you a really low number, you may even be able to avoid the questions, you don’t need to lie. With the right pass, you are free.
We lie. We learn to lie. To lie becomes a part of being, to participate in the theatre of lies. You leave out. You don’t tell the whole story. The lie becomes a part of the system, apartheid builds on this, creates the lie. Nobody is free.
Vasu and Senzo are leaving. They are going back to South Africa. The boys from the representatives office are helping Senzo. These boys don’t like to lie. As a diplomat, you are meant to tell the truth. Even in the epicentre of lies, only the truth should be told.
The boys respond on behalf of Senzo:
“Where have you been?”
She answers, “In Ramallah.”
“Where else have you been?”
”In Jerusalem, Hebron and Gaza.”
Within a few seconds, they are carried away. Placed in two rooms. Senzo, who is only leaving the country to go home to Durban, is exposed to an outright hearing. The questioning continues for almost two hours. They become stressed. Are close to missing their flight. It is important to answer correctly. Both of them start to feel like criminals. Previously, Senzo had thought about coming back. He had already planned for it. After this, the apartheid regime has likely succeeded in getting rid of him. During his short visit, he has reacted to evident forms of apartheid, which have continued to wash over him. To travel with him has taught me a lot. I had previously never been close to the structures of apartheid.
Don’t Think You Want to Know
It went quicker for Vasu and I. We passed through quicker. We didn’t lie, we just didn’t tell the truth. We came two stand-up comedians. We were the only ones laughing.
The questioner was really young. He was insecure. A young woman stood behind him, seemed to be there just to control him, or maybe to support him. Maybe he had just started his job, perhaps we were his first “guest”.
“How do you know him?”, the young man asks and points at Vasu.
“Vasu is a very close friend”, I answer.
”How did you get to know each other?”
“I don’t think you want to know that.”
”What is that supposed to mean?”
”I don’t think you want to know.”
”What do you mean?”
”Ok, we met at a bar.”
“How long has he been here?”
“Where have you been?”
“I don’t think you want to know.”
“Answer my question, this is not a joke.” He starts to become stressed.
Vasu starts to understand. He puts his hand on my shoulder.
”Ok, at a hotel room.”
“Have you met any Palestinians?”
“No, he didn’t want to go out.” I point at Vasu. “I am kind of sick of him now. Sick of him, sick of the hotel room. He’s come all the way from South Africa, but has only seen me and a hotel room.”
“What have you done in the hotel room?”
”In a hotel room for five days? I don’t think you want to know!!”
He hesitates. Doesn’t understand. This guy has no script for the unexpected answers. He has no imagination. In the airport located outside of Tel Aviv, there is no sense of humour.” The woman behind him raises her arms. Nobody is whispering. We are playing the same game, but stay on our own half of the field. The young woman points behind here, and then moves to the next guest. We are allowed to begin the long wait. Waiting for the boys and Senzo. It was a long wait.
I would write a book about how the occupation of Palestine creates liars. The person who impose themselves a house is a thief. The person who lives in stolen property is an accomplice. The broker who sells stolen property is a (hälare). The thief, accomplice and (hälare) conceal their act. The truth is pushed aside. What remains is the lie. To assign themselves a village, to assign themselves a neighbourhood, to occupy, to select undermines the possibility to be truthful. All that anyone holds or lives in eventually becomes stolen goods and the lie is carried forward from one generation to the next. Most of those who live in the system, including the stranger or visitor, become a part of the system of lies. Fear of their own past becomes an everyday thing. Don’t speak, don’t tell, and don’t pass on to the children. A regular response to the tough question from the child or grandchild becomes the collective lie: “They left voluntarily.”
The Logic of Lies
We know all about the logic of lies from South Africa’s apartheid. Few could resist. It permeated everything – the political system, courts, schools, police. It became evident when even the church leader became the messenger of lies. Anyone who was affected by the system became the master of lies. For leaders, it was all about grabbing more. They could never get enough. The occupied used the lie to get away. It went so far that the system of apartheid eventually couldn’t handle the truth.
They would probably impose a death sentence. The “Rivonia Trial” in 1963-64 took place. The evidence was extensive. Ten persons were being charged. They had agreed on which strategy to use. Nelson Mandela spoke on behalf of them all. Mandela’s three hour long speech on April 20th, 1964 was to be the highlight of this drawn out trial. He concluded with:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
I would really want to know how Walter Sisulu felt when Mandela confessed, when he clearly said that he was willing to die for his actions. When Sizulu within himself understood that he possibly could be executed. That his wife and children soon would see him for the last time. History would take a turn. The truth put the masters of lies on the defensive. It was as though they had planned to impose the death sentence, and couldn’t stand to face the truth. Mandela explained what they had done and why.
The corrupt apartheid system required lies, not truth. Most Africaans went to church on Sundays. Many, but not all priests, had forgotten to tell Botha that the truth sets you free. Churches became a part of the oppressive system. But the ones who faced execution in 1964 continued to live on, refused surrender, break rocks. Rocks were piled onto rocks, year after year, decade after decade. Humiliated, but they refused to break down. Eventually, even the oppressor was terrified that the “terrorist” Nelson Mandela would die unfree.
A System of Humiliation and Oppression
She didn’t go to Amman. She had become a part of the system that shuts out and shuts in. She had become part of the system of humiliation. A system where all become prisoners. Where the question is continuously asked: How much should I humiliate, be humiliated? Should I lie or be truthful? Should I stay inside or try to break free?
In Israel, nobody is free. You vote for the one who upholds the apartheid system. You cast your vote to uphold the system of oppression. You vote and turn away. The West Bank is not here but over there, high up in the mountains. You will never go there. Gaza is someplace else. You assure yourself that you cannot know what it’s like there. You have never been there, and will never go there. You repeat to yourself, you have no responsibility.
You turn away. Hand over responsibility to someone else. Do not want to hear, to see, to feel, to know. You want to be free. You live in an old stone house. You did not build it. You have just bought it, renovated it. You don’t know and don’t want to know who built it. But deep inside you know. You hope that sometime in the near future, it will be forgotten. You hope that your children will never need to know, never have to reflect on it. Maybe you even hope to one day be forgiven.
You cast your vote.
You want to stay.
The house belongs to someone else.
You do not know what to tell your children.
The lie lives on through you and through your children.
– Mats Svensson is the author of Crimes, Victims and Witnesses: Apartheid in Palestine. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.