Lara is called by her pet name Lulu. She’s two and a half years old and her hair is twirled into pigtails. She doesn’t talk and stares either at the ground or past your shoulder. Last year her mother threw her out of the window from the second floor of the house. The Israelis were firing tear gas inside the house and everyone inside was suffocating. Lulu and everyone else who managed to escape outside had to flatten themselves on the ground as the tear gas whistled and exploded over their heads. The incident certainly left its psychological scars; for a while Lulu hated her mother, thinking that she threw her out of the window on purpose.
Jana spent a few months in the US, so she understands and speaks some English. Ask her where she lived in America, she replies, “West Palm-en Beach.” Ask her what goes on every Friday, she replies, “We go out to the maseera [protest].” Ask her to elaborate, she says, “The soldiers fire tear gas and live ammunition, and the shabab [youths] throw rocks. I’m not scared of the soldiers.” Is it not criminal, I wonder, for “live ammunition” to be part of a five-year-old’s vocabulary?
Samer, my special little Spiderman, climbs on my knees, makes himself comfortable and starts talking. He can’t pronounce the “r” sound and substitutes it with a “y.” “The army comes every Friday. When they leave I throw rocks on their jeeps. I’m not scared of them then.”
Izz is 11 years old but acts like he’s 40. He dodges my hand. “What do you want to draw on my face for? Do I look like a baby?” He puts his hand on his chest before tapping his head once, using the old man gesture for “thanks-but-no-thanks.” I watch his skinny figure walk away, his shoulders squared, his voice deepening whenever he raises it.
Salam is the youngest child of Bassem Tamimi and his wife and Nariman. He has a Justin Bieber-like fringe — straight, naturally highlighted hair almost covering his eyes. He is initially very reluctant to share in the fun, latching onto his mother like a barnacle, burying his face in her leg. Later I see him running, holding onto a string of balloons, with a sun and a moon painted on each cheek.
Ranin is ten years old. She doesn’t take part in the protests but watches them from her rooftop. “When the soldiers get angry, they start shooting tear gas inside the houses. We’re worried about my sister Roa, she’s only nine months old.” I ask her about whether she thinks the protests actually mean anything. “Even if you all didn’t come, the army will still be here. Today at least, you made us have fun.”
Freedom in colors
This Friday in Nabi Saleh is planned as a day of color and fun. Balloons, clowns, face-painting, kite-flying, the works. The slogan for the day is “freedom in colors.” It is a day centered on the children, for them to live one day as normal carefree kids, a day to temporarily make them forget about the reality of soldiers, jeeps and tear gas. The idea is for the children to take their kites, made from plastic bags and newspapers, and fly them at the spot where the Israeli jeeps park, before the children then advance over the neighboring hill. Because the soldiers won’t fire at children, right?
We paint faces, mostly flowers and hearts and the flag of Palestine. I display my artistic prowess on one face as I draw tiger stripes with aplomb. Nearby, Manal Tamimi is getting interviewed about her predictions for today: “No, I don’t think the army will be better to us this time, or any less dangerous.” The hours leading up to noon prayers are filled with kids playing with hula hoops, little girls comparing their body art, the older boys engaged in a game of football. Prayers aren’t even over yet when the Israeli occupation forces pull in with their jeeps and get out to line up in front of the smattering of children who are at the end of the street.
There’s a distinct acridness in the air. The villagers are immune to it but I can feel it tingling on my upper lip and just inside my nostrils, making me sneeze some fifty times.
This time, the border police, more sadistic than the army, are the ones who face us menacingly. More children come down, a couple holding their kites. Last week, the Israelis allowed us at least ten minutes of chanting before unleashing the tear gas. This week, without the presence of diplomatic consuls, their true colors don’t hesitate to come out. The older people barely have time to congregate when the sound bombs begin. I am inside Manal and Bilal Tamimi’s house, and the women hurriedly close all the windows because the tear gas has already filled the air. Chancing a look outside, I see two border police officers pushing and shoving Maath Musleh, the guy behind the Nabi Saleh online live streaming, who is decked out in his usual “Press” vest.
Things calm down briefly, and everyone goes outside. Hamada, Spiderman’s older brother, has a kite in his hand but seems unwilling to go out. Hamada was once hit by a tear gas canister in his side, which caused internal bleeding and damage to his liver and kidney. The injury was quite serious and his family had feared the worst. Thankfully, he is all healed now. I pick up the tail of the kite and we step outside together, his mother encouraging him all the way. There is barely any wind. I have to throw the kite up in the air. If we are to make it fly, Hamada would have to tug at the string while simultaneously running backwards. But he can’t run more than five steps because the border police, with the army behind them, are standing right there. After a few more tries, we finally succeed in keeping the kite aloft for a few seconds.
My eyes burn
We then chant as usual, singing Fairouz’s song about kites, and sit down on the burning asphalt. The commander goes to his jeep and the loudspeaker on top crackles in urban Arabic, “This is a closed military zone. You have five minutes to disperse or we start shooting.” This is met with jeers and cat calls. A chant then starts up, “Show us the papers! Show us the papers!” referring to the legal documents that are supposed to state whether or not Nabi Saleh is a closed military zone.
There’s a difference between the army and the border police. Essentially, they’re part of the same wrapper, but while the army’s soldiers look passive and impervious to our actions and slogans, the border police positively drip with malevolence and hostility. Their eyes don’t stare blankly ahead, they rove from one face to another, and whisper to each other little First World jokes and sneer as our chants become more vociferous.
One minute passes. Their stances shift, grow more aggressive, so we stand up. “This is a closed military zone. This protest is illegal!” the loudspeaker blares again. How — and I’m struggling with words here — ironic? Paradoxical? Ridiculous? And so much more. Today is supposed to be all about the children — for them to live one Friday not plagued by tear gas or the frightening explosions of the sound bombs or being confined to their houses. The children are supposed to parade their painted faces and fly their kites. But the Israelis can’t differentiate between children and armed threatening forces.
“You have five minutes.”
I keep my eyes on the tear gas canister in one of their hands. But I don’t see it getting thrown and I am suddenly engulfed in white smoke with the flurry of people moving all around me. I squeeze my eyes shut and then open them again — big mistake. They immediately begin to burn, really burn, and once again I stumble blindly into one house, down the stairs, eyes glued together and streaming, trying to inhale deeply, a permanent saw against the back of my throat. You think you don’t panic when the tear gas hits you because you don’t throw your arms up in the air shrieking with fear and pain, but in all honestly I was thinking about not losing my cool too much to actually pay attention to what’s happening around me.
“Why do you shoot at children?”
Later, I am told the canister was right between my feet and guys were yelling at me to move to the side. Downstairs, I pace back and forth, counting down the minutes until everything in my body goes back to normal, my heart thudding dully. I am trying to figure out what happened, well that was a no-brainer really but did they just fire tear gas into a crowd filled with children? Where does the laudable work of Shakira, who recently greeted the Israeli president with a kiss on the cheek, for children fit in here? Oh, that’s right, it doesn’t.
The tear gas gets so bad we have to stay in the houses. The children are kept preoccupied with cartoons but after a couple of hours they grow restless. I go upstairs with Manal to help make tea for more than twenty people (“Please use plastic cups,” I implore her) and the kids follow shortly after, opening the veranda doors inside the kitchen and going outside.
The Nabi Saleh children begin singing nationalist songs. The oldest couldn’t be more than twelve years old. A bunch of them go around the back of the house and stand in front of the armored jeeps, peace signs at the ready. Spiderman follows them. Without warning, the Israelis shoot tear gas at them from a close range. The wiser ones skip away and run back to the house; poor little Spiderman stays where he is and gets the full blast. He is obviously terrified and in pain. Later, back in his mother Manal’s arms, he has finally stopped crying. Manal asks him how the gas has affected him. He answers, “The same, like always.”
That’s some profundity for you.
Some soldiers don’t want to be in a village firing at civilians. They are just there to do their “duty.” The border police want to be there, they don’t exactly garner sympathy in court cases when they get exposed for beating up unarmed Palestinians. We go back outside and ask one of the soldiers, “Why do you shoot at children?” The answer we get is mind-blowing and drenched in sadism: “Because I want to.” That statement illustrates itself as once again the tear gas starts. One canister hits ten-year-old Areej square in the back. She falls like a sack of bricks.
Every child has a right to a childhood. The Nabi Saleh children are denied this right. Jana and Rand are watching Cartoon Network when the sound bombs go off yet again. Jana barely raises her head, tiredly saying “Khalas. Stop it.” After a few minutes Rand gets bored and opens the door. She comes back to where Jana is curled up on the couch, taps her shoulder and says, “Yallah, let’s go see the army again.” It’s cute, it’s bitterly funny, it’s heart-breaking to see them act this way, as if that’s completely normal.
Linah Alsaafin is a student at Birzeit University in the West Bank. She was born in Cardiff, Wales, and was raised in England, the United States and Palestine. Her website is lifeonbirzeitcampus.blogspot.com.