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Overcoming Speechlessness

July 20th, 2009

Alice Walker


Alice Walker meets with Hamas Sister, Huda Niam, Mother of five,
Gaza, Palestine. (International Woman's Day 2009)

I have been, once again, struggling to speak about an atrocity: This time in Gaza, this time against the Palestinian people. Like most people on the planet I have been aware of the Palestinian –Israeli conflict almost my whole life. I was four years old in 1948 when, after being subjected to unspeakable cruelty by the Germans, after a “holocaust” so many future disasters would resemble; thousands of European Jews were resettled in Palestine. They settled in a land that belonged to people already living there, which did not seem to bother the British who, as in India, had occupied the land and then, on leaving it, decided they could simply put in place a partitioning of the land that would work fine for the people, strangers, Palestinians and European Jews, now forced to live together. When we witness the misery and brutality still a daily reality for millions of people in Pakistan and India, we are looking at the failure, and heartlessness, of this plan.

I got to Gaza the way I have gotten so many places in my life: a sister called me. My friend, the writer, Susan Griffin, with whom I was arrested protesting the start of the war against Iraq in 2003 sent an email. Would I be interested in going to Gaza? With CODEPINK, the women’s peace group that had gotten us into such soul strengthening trouble six years before. She would go, she said, if she could sell the book she was currently writing. This is how so many of us live; I remember this when I look about the world and want more witnesses to the scenes of horror, brutality, chaos. We all have to work to feed ourselves, look after our families, keep our heads above water. I understand this completely; and wasn’t sure I was free enough myself, to go. However, it happened that, in the same week that the Israeli military began its 22 day bombardment of Gaza, a refugee camp that became a city and is today a mere sliver of Palestine left to the Palestinians (a city and environs that Israel had laid siege to months before, keeping out food and medicine and building materials, among other necessities) my own sister had died after a long illness. Our relationship had been a good one for most of our lives, and then, toward the end of her life, it had become strained. So much so that when she died I had not expected to feel devastation. Surprise. As I was grieving her loss, I learned of the dropping of bombs on the people of Palestine. Houses, hospitals, factories, police stations, parliament buildings, ministries, apartment buildings, schools, went up in dust. The sight of one family in which five young daughters had been killed was seared into my consciousness. The mother, wounded and unconscious, was alive. Who would tell her? I waited to hear some word of regret, of grief, of compassion, from our leaders in Washington, who had sent the money, the earnings of American taxpayers, to buy the bombs destroying her world. What little concern I became aware of from our “leaders” was faint, arrived late, was delivered without much feeling, and was soon overshadowed by an indifference to the value of Palestinian life that has corrupted our children’s sense of right and wrong for generations. Later our government would offer money, a promise to help “rebuild.” As if money and rebuilding is the issue. If someone killed my children and offered me money for the privilege of having done so I would view them as monsters, not humanitarians.

I consulted my companion, who did not hesitate. We must go, he said. The sooner we reach the people of Gaza, the sooner they’ll know not all Americans are uncaring, deaf and blind, or fooled by the media. He went on to quote Abraham Lincoln’s famous line about fooling the people. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Americans, we know, are, for the most part, uninformed about the reality of this never-ending “conflict” that has puzzled us for decades and of which so many of us, if we are honest, are heartily sick. We began to pack.

It’s a long way to Gaza. Flying between San Francisco and Frankfort, then from Frankfort into Egypt, I kept my mind focused by meditating as much as possible, reading Aung San Suu Kyi and Alan Clement’s book THE VOICE OF HOPE, thinking about Desmond Tutu and his courageous statement earlier in the month about the immorality of the walls Israel has built around Palestinian villages as well as the immorality of the siege itself. President Jimmy Carter’s book PEACE NOT APARTHEID, I had read before leaving home. I also ate a good bit of chocolate. And slept. Arriving in Cairo at three-thirty in the morning, my first task, assigned by the beautiful, indomitable and well loved co-founder of CODEPINK, Medea Benjamin, was to meet with her and the U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Ambassador Scobey, at ten-thirty a.m. to ask for assistance in crossing the border into Gaza from Egypt. After a few hours rest, I appeared early for the meeting (concerned that Medea had not arrived yet) which, though cordial, would yield no help. Even so, I was able to have an interesting talk with the Ambassador about the use of non-violence. She, a white woman with a southern accent, mentioned the success of “our” Civil Rights Movement and why couldn’t the Palestinians be more like us. It was a remarkable comment from a perspective of unimaginable safety and privilege; I was moved to tell her of the effort it took, even for someone so inherently non-violent as me, to contain myself during seven years in Mississippi when it often appeared there were only a handful of white Mississippians who could talk to a person of color without delivering injury or insult. That if we had not been able to change our situation through non-violent suffering, we would most certainly, like the ANC, like the PLO, like Hamas, turned to violence. I told her how dishonest it seems to me that people claim not to understand the desperate, last ditch, resistance involved in suicide bombings; blaming the oppressed for using their bodies where the Israeli army uses armored tanks. I remembered aloud, us being Southerners, my own anger at the humiliations, bombings, assassinations that made weeping an endless activity for black people, for centuries, and how when we finally got to a court room which was supposed to offer justice, the judge was likely to blame us for the crime done against us and to call us chimpanzees for making a fuss. Medea arrived at this point, having been kept circling the building in a taxi that never landed, and pressed our case for entry into Gaza. While appearing sympathetic to our petition, our ambassador emphasized it was dangerous for us to go into Gaza and that her office would be powerless to help us if we arrived there and were injured or stranded. We were handed some papers telling us all the reasons we should not go.

Next we were at a strange ministry whose name never registered, to fill out forms whose intent escaped me. Several CODEPINK women were already there, waiting their turn for the bit of paper we needed to move a step closer to the Egyptian border crossing at Rafah, the only one available (maybe) for us. There I met a CODEPINKER who instantly made me happy to be with CODEPINK again. She’d been waiting for hours, felt she was growing into her chair, and we laughed at the absurdity of bureaucracy everywhere, which keeps you waiting interminably for some bit of paper that you feel sure is thrown into the trash or into a creaking file drawer as soon as you leave the room, never again to see the light of day. I also reconnected with Gael Murphy, who reminded me we had shared a paddy wagon after being arrested in front of the White House a few days before George Bush started his ill-fated war on the people and animals, rivers and dwellings, mosques and libraries of Iraq. She handed me an illustrated postcard that showed plainly what the situation between Israel and Palestine came down to: in 1946 the Palestinians owned Palestine, with a few scattered Jewish villages (picture one); some years later, under a United Nations plan for partitioning, Palestine and Israel would each own roughly half of the land (picture two); from 1949-1967 the Israel “half” grew by about a third; after the 1967 war, Israel doubled its land mass by virtue of the land it took from Palestine at that time. The last picture shows the situation in 2008: Palestinian refugees (in their own country) live in camps in the West Bank and Gaza, and the whole land is now called Israel. On the back of this card are words from former Israeli president Ariel Sharon, known as the butcher of Sabra and Shatila (refugee camps in Lebanon where he led a massacre of the people) where he talks about making a pastrami sandwich of the Palestinian people, riddling their lands with Jewish settlements until no one will be able to imagine a whole Palestine. Or know Palestine ever existed.

No one can imagine a whole Turtle Island, either; now known as the United States of America, but formerly the land of Indigenous peoples. The land of some of my Native ancestors, the Cherokee, whose homes and villages were obliterated from the landscape where they’d existed for millenia, and the Cherokee forced – those who remained – to resettle, walking “the trail of tears,” a thousand miles away. This is familiar territory. As is the treatment of the Palestinian people. On the bus ride through the Egyptian desert, toward the Rafah gate, which leads into Palestine, I think about this particular cycle of violence humans have made for themselves. Hitler learned from the Americans how to “cleanse” Germany of the Jews. Even to the use of Jewish hair to stuff mattresses. Indian hair had been mattress stuffing long before. Indian skin made into various objects. Indian children and families, massacred. Not because they were “savages” – one glance at their art told anyone who they were, but because the European settlers who came to America wanted their land. Just as the Israelis have wanted, and have taken by force, Palestinian land. Like Americans they have attempted to hide their avarice and cruelty behind a mountain of myths: that no one lived in Palestine, that the Palestinians are savages, that there’s no such thing as a Palestinian (Golda Meir’s offering), that the Israelis are David and the Palestinians Goliath. Which is ridiculous, if you haven’t been indoctrinated against the Palestinians for centuries from reading the Bible where, as the Philistines, they are forever causing trouble for God’s children, the Hebrews. And then, there’s Hollywood, which has a lot to answer for in its routine disregard for Arabs, generally, but which, where Palestine and Israel are concerned, projects Israel as always in the right, no matter what it does, as American politicians, for the most part, have learned to do. This is not good for Israel, or the United States, just as always praising the regrettable behavior of one’s child, or of anyone, can only lead to disaster. A disaster, where Israel is concerned, that is happening before our eyes, even if the media in America refuses to let Americans fully see it.

I had not been on a bus with so many Jews since traveling to the 1963 March On Washington by Greyhound when Martin Luther King, John Lewis and others spoke so passionately of Black Americans’ determination to be free. I went with a half-Jewish young man named, not so ironically when I later thought of it, David. He was not considered really Jewish because his mother was Irish, and you can only be a real Jew if your mother is Jewish. I didn’t know that then, though. I thought his behavior, coming to the side of the oppressed, very Jewish. It was fairly Irish, too, but at the time the Irish in Boston, except for the Kennedys, seemed far from their tradition in this area. They were regularly stoning and /or shouting obscenities at black children who tried to attend “their” schools. It was moving to hear the stories of why the Jews on our Gaza bound bus were going to Palestine. Many of them simply said they couldn’t bear the injustice, or the hypocrisy. Having spoken out against racism, terrorism, apartheid elsewhere, how could they be silent about Palestine and Israel? Someone said her friends claimed everyone who spoke out against Israeli treatment of Palestinians was a. a self-hating Jew (if Jewish) or anti-Semitic (though Palestinians are Semites, too). She said it never seemed to dawn on the persons making the anti-Semitic charge that it is Israel’s behavior people are objecting to and not it’s religion. As for being self-hating? Well, she said, I actually love myself too much as a Jew to pretend to be ignorant about something so obvious. Ignorance is not held in high regard in Jewish culture.

One story that particularly moved me was this: A woman in her late Fifties or early Sixties stood at the front of the bus, as we passed donkey carts and Mercedes Benzes, and spoke of traveling to Palestine without her husband, a Jewish man who was born in Palestine. Several times they had come back to Palestine, renamed Israel, to see family. To attend graduations, weddings, and funerals. Each time they were held for hours at the airport as her husband was stripped, searched, interrogated, and threatened when he spoke up for himself. In short, because his passport was stamped with the place of his birth, Palestine, he was treated like a Palestinian. This Jewish husband sent his best wishes, but he could no longer endure travel in so painful a part of the world. By now most of us are aware of the dehumanizing treatment anyone not Jewish receives on crossing a border into Israel. Especially brutal for Palestinians. I thought: even our new President, Barack Hussein Obama, were he just anybody, and not the president of the United States, would have a humiliating time getting into Israel. The poet, and rebel, in me instantly wanted him to try it. To don the clothing of an average person, as truth seeking people do in Wisdom tales, and travel into Israel. To learn what is real and true, not by traveling through the air, but by walking on the ground.

***

Riding on the bus, listening to the stories of people drawn to the side of the Palestinian people, I leaned into the landscape. Mile after mile of barren desert went by, with scatterings of villages and towns. The farther into the Sinai we went the more poverty we saw. One sight in particular has stayed with me: the Bedouin, formerly the Nomads of the desert, attempting to live alongside the road or on the barren hills, without their camels, without mobility. Sometimes in dwellings made of sticks and straw. Occasionally lone women in flowing black robes walked along a ridge in the heat, going someplace not visible to the eye. Hundreds of tiny white brick houses, most unfinished, studded the hills. I asked my friend: What do you think those small white buildings are? He said: bunkers. Mausoleums? But no, seeing them appear in all manner and stage of construction, over hundreds of miles, I saw they were poor peoples’ attempts at building housing for themselves. They looked like bunkers and mausoleums because no one was around them, and because they were so small: some of them barely large enough to lie down in, and often with no windows, only a door. I realized people who worked far away and were able to return to build only sporadically were building them. This is true in many places in the world, and I was moved by the tenacity of people trying to have a home, no matter how uprooted or displaced they have been. Creating and having a home is a primary instinct in all of nature as well as in humankind; seeing these tiny dwellings, with no water sources, no electricity, no anything but white mud bricks, made me remember my own childhood feelings of insecurity around housing, and the preciousness of having a home, as we were forced to move, year after year.

I came out of this reverie to hear the story of Cindy and Craig Corrie, the parents of Rachel Corrie. Rachel Corrie was murdered when she tried to stop an Israeli tank from demolishing a Palestinian house. I was struck by her parents’ beauty and dignity. Cindy’s face radiates resolve and kindness. Craig’s is a study in acceptance, humility, incredible strength, and perseverance. Rachel had been working in Palestine and witnessed the ruthlessness of the deliberate destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli army, most surrounded by gardens or small orchards of orange and olive trees, which the army consistently uprooted. No doubt believing the sight of a young Jewish woman in a brightly colored jumpsuit would stop the soldier in the tank she placed herself between the home of her Palestinian friends and the tank. It rolled over her, crushing her body and breaking her back. The Corries spoke of their continued friendship with the family who had lived in that house. Everywhere we went, after arriving in Gaza, locals greeted the Corries with compassion and tenderness. This was particularly moving to me because of a connection I was able to make with another such sacrifice decades ago in Mississippi, in 1967, and how black people became aware that there were some white people who actually cared about what was happening to them. The “three civil rights workers” as they became known, were James Cheney, a young African American Christian man, and Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both white Jewish men from the North. The Northerners had been called to the Civil Rights Movement in the South by their conscience, having watched the racist and sadistic treatment of black people there. The three young men were riding through the backwoods of Neshoba County, Mississippi when their car was firebombed. They were dragged from the car, bludgeoned and shot to death; their bodies were buried in a dam that was under construction in the area and would not be found for months. While America waited for the bodies to be found, black and white people working for black liberation in the South discovered new ground. Who could not love these young men, all three of them, for risking their lives to change ours? And so, in every church, every Sunday, prayers went out for James, yes, but also for Michael and Andrew. They became ours, just as the Corries have become family to the Palestinian people. This is one of the most beautiful passages for human beings. It is as if we enter a different door of our reality, when someone gives her or his life for us. Why this should be, is a mystery, but it is the mystery, I think, behind all the great myths in which there is human sacrifice – not on an altar but on the road, in the street – for the common good. At a meeting of the Veterans of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement held in Jackson, Mississippi last year, I saw the widow of Michael Schwerner. There she was, over forty years later. There she was, still belonging to her own people, and still, also, one of us.

***

We arrived in the Gaza strip in the afternoon, after being kept at the border crossing for about five hours. Long enough to become accustomed to the bombing someone informed us is a constant just inside the Palestinian border, reminding the Palestinians of the Israeli presence during the cease fire. I had never been so close to bombs being dropped before, and I took the opportunity to interrogate my life. Had I lived it the best way I could? And so forth. A young Palestinian man, Abdullah X, a student of video at a school in Egypt, had come on the bus with us. His story was that he had managed to leave Palestine on scholarship to go to school in Cairo three years ago. Because of the siege, and all borders being closed, he had not been able to see his family. He had not seen them for three years. Because of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza he feared for the lives of his family and was determined to see them. Abdullah might have stepped out of ancient Assyria. With his large dark eyes, olive complexion, and hair in curly dark ringlets, he is a striking young man. Between Cairo and the Gaza border, he had, without doing anything special, made many of us on the bus care about him. Sure enough, the Egyptian border patrol gave him a hard time. When I was told of this by a woman who had stood next to him until ordered away by a patrolman, we decided to stand some distance from him, while he seemed to be pleading to be allowed to visit his parents, and to send the mother force, the universal parent force, to speed his liberation. We stood together, closed our eyes, and sent every ounce of our combined energy to Abdullah’s back. When he was given his passport and allowed to join us, we cheered. We could only imagine what going back into Gaza meant for him. It was his home, and much of it had been obliterated. We could not know at the time that, coming out of Gaza, Abdullah would be kept at the border crossing, not permitted, as he had feared, back into Egypt with us. We would wait for him, but ultimately we would leave him there. He had realized his education, his future, were at risk. But the love of his family, his home, his land, was very strong. Later we would also have a glimpse of his father, and his relationship with his father. We were moved by the love and affection expressed between them . For what could it mean to know from day to day that you could easily lose each other to the madness of war? A war brought to your door by people who claimed everything you had, no matter how little was left, was theirs’?

***

Rolling into Gaza I had a feeling of homecoming. There is a flavor to the ghetto. To the Bantustan. To the “rez”. To the “colored section.” In some ways it is surprisingly comforting. Because consciousness is comforting. Everyone you see has an awareness of struggle, of resistance, just as you do. The man driving the donkey cart. The woman selling vegetables. The young person arranging rugs on the sidewalk or flowers in a vase. When I lived in segregated Eatonton, Georgia I used to breathe normally only in my own neighborhood, only in the black section of town. Everywhere else was too dangerous. A friend was beaten and thrown in prison for helping a white girl, in broad daylight, fix her bicycle chain. But even this sliver of a neighborhood, so rightly named the Gaza strip, was not safe. It had been bombed for 22 days. I thought of how, in the U.S. the first and perhaps only bombing on U.S. soil, prior to 9/11, was the bombing of a black community in Oklahoma. The black people who created it were considered, by white racists, too prosperous and therefore “uppity.” Everything they created was destroyed. This was followed by the charge already rampant in white American culture, that black people never tried to “better” themselves. There is amble evidence in Gaza that the Palestinians never stop trying to “better” themselves. What started as a refugee camp with tents, has evolved into a city with buildings rivaling those in almost any other city in the “developing” world. There are houses, apartment buildings, schools, mosques, churches, libraries, hospitals. Driving along the streets, we could see right away that many of these were in ruins. I realized I had never understood the true meaning of “rubble.” Such and such was “reduced to rubble” is a phrase we hear. It is different seeing what demolished buildings actually look like. Buildings in which people were living. Buildings from which hundreds of broken bodies have been removed; so thorough a job have the Palestinians done in removing the dead from squashed dwellings that no scent of death remains. What this task must have been like, both physically and psychologically, staggers the mind. We pass police stations that were simply flattened, and all the young (most Palestinians are young) officers in them killed, hundreds of them. We pass ministries, bombed into fragments. We pass a hospital, bombed and gutted by fire. If one is not safe in a hospital, when one is already sick and afraid, where is one safe? If children are not safe playing in their schoolyards, where are they safe? Where are The World Parents of All Children? The World Caretakers of All the Sick?

***

My companion and I are assigned to the home of two sisters who share their space with friends and relatives who come and go. One morning I get up early to find an aunt sleeping on the floor in the living room. Another time, a cousin. In the middle of the night I hear one of the sisters consoling her aged father, who sounds disoriented, and helping him back to bed. There is such respect, such tenderness in her voice. This is the same place that, just weeks earlier, was surrounded by rocket fire, a missile landing every 27 seconds for 22 days. I can only imagine what the elderly residents must feel, as, even in their old age they are subjected to so much fear. Each morning we are sent off to learn what we can in our four days in Gaza, well fed on falafel, hummus, olives and dates, sometimes eggs, tomatoes, salad and cheese. All of it simple, all of it delicious. More delicious because we realize how difficult it is to find such food here; the blockade keeps out most of it. Delicious also because it is shared with such generosity and graciousness. Always the culinary student, I try to learn to make the especially tasty dish that consists mainly of tomatoes and eggs. I learn the tea I like so much is made out of sage! On International Women’s Day we leave for the celebration for which we have come, a gathering with the women of Gaza.

***

Gael Murphy, Medea Benjamin, Susan Griffin and I, along with twenty or so other women had been arrested for protesting the war on Iraq on International Women’s Day, 2003. If the world had paid attention we could have saved a lot of money, countless sons’ and daughters’ lives, as well as prevented a lot of war-generated pollution that hastens globe-threatening climate change. How doofus humans are going to look -we thought as we marched, sang, accepted our handcuffs - still firing rockets into apartment buildings full of families, and dropping bombs on school children and their pets, when the ice melts completely in the Arctic and puts an end to our regressive, greed sourced rage forever. That had been a wonderful day; this International Women’s Day, of 2009, was also. It was the kind of day that makes life, already accepted as a gift, a prize. Early in the morning of March 8th, we were shuttled to a Women’s Center in the North of Gaza City, to meet women who, like their compatriots, had survived the recent bombardment and, so far, the siege.

This center for women was opened under the auspices of the United Nations, which has been administering to the Palestinian people since 1948, when thousands of Palestinians fleeing their homes under Israeli attack, became refugees. It is a modest building with a small library whose shelves hold few books. It isn’t clear whether most of the women read. The idea, as it is explained to us, is to offer the women a place to gather outside the home, since, in Palestinian culture the mobility of most women is limited by their work in the home as mothers and caretakers of their families. Many women rarely leave their compounds. However, today, International Women’s Day, is different. Many women are out and about, and women who frequent this particular center are on hand to welcome us. After arranging ourselves around a table in the library, we, about thirty of us, sit in Council. I learn something I’d heard but never experienced: Arabs introduce themselves by telling you they are the mother or father of one of their children, perhaps their eldest: then they tell you how many children they have. They do this with a pride and joy I have never seen before. Only one woman had one child. Everyone else had at least five. There is a feeling of festivity as the women, beautifully dressed and wearing elegant headscarves, laugh and joke among themselves. They are eager to talk. Only the woman with one child has trouble speaking. When I turn to her, I notice she is the only woman wearing black, and that her eyes are tearing. Unable to speak, she hands me instead a photograph that she has been holding in her lap. She is a brown-skinned woman, of African descent, as some Palestinians (to my surprise) are; the photograph is of her daughter, who looks European. The child looks about six years old. A student of ballet, she is dressed in a white tutu and is dancing. Her mother tries to speak, but still cannot, as I sit, holding her arm. It is another woman who explains: during the bombardment, the child was hit in the arm and the leg and the chest and bled to death in her mother’s arms. The mother and I embrace, and throughout our meeting I hold the photograph of the child, while the mother draws her chair closer to mine.

What do we talk about?

We talk about hatred.

But before we talk about hatred I want to know about headscarves. What’s the deal about wearing the scarf? Why do so many women wear it? I am told something I’d never considered: in desert countries most of one’s hydration is lost at the back of the neck, which can quickly lead to heat stroke, so a headscarf that wraps around the neck is essential to block this loss. The top of the head is covered because if a woman is living a traditional life and is outside a lot, the sun beats down on it. This causes headache, dizziness, nausea, stroke, and other health problems. In Gaza, one of the women pointed out, there were many women who did not wear scarves, primarily because they worked in offices. This was true of the women in whose home we were sheltered. They seemed to own a lot of scarves that they draped about themselves casually, just as my friends and I might do in the United States.

Because I had shaved my head a week or so before going to Gaza, I understood exactly the importance of the headscarf. Without a covering on my head I could not bear the sun for more than a few minutes. And, indeed, one of the first gifts I received from an anonymous Palestinian woman was a thick black and red embroidered scarf, which I wore everywhere, gratefully.

Our host told us a story about the uglier side of the headscarf business: On the first day of bombing she was working downstairs in the basement and wasn’t aware that her apartment building was next to one that was being shelled. When the policemen came to clear her building, and she stepped out of the elevator, one of them, a political and religious Conservative, was taken aback at the sight of her bare head. So much so that instead of instantly helping her to a shelter, he called a colleague to come and witness her attire. Or lack thereof. He was angry with her, for not wearing a headscarf, though Israeli rockets were tearing into buildings all around them. And what could we do but sigh along with her, as she related this experience with appropriate shrugs and grimaces of exasperation. Backwardness is backwardness, wherever it occurs, and explains lack of progressive movement in afflicted societies, whether under siege or not.

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

Source: http://www.alicewalkersblog.com/2009/07/overcoming-speechlessness-poet.html

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