My dear Jules and Helen:
Finally! I write to you, hoping that I still have a place in your hearts and minds. I’ve been thinking about you all the time, have always been guided by you, although I’m not communicating. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for a lot of things that I have been avoiding or missing in my life. I’m sorry for not being what I’m hoping to be!
I miss my normal life, a life by which I can enjoy a sunny day, hide away from drops of water on a rainy day, and expect good news as my horoscope would anticipate every morning. Instead, I get the hate waves of sun and soldiers’ breath burning my face, waiting at checkpoints, the mud dirtying all of me when trying to go the back roads to and from work, and my horoscope has been lying to me for so long that I stopped reading it. It never brought any good news, and I still haven’t met any special people while trying to go through the Israeli checkpoints over and over. The same soldiers, just different faces.
As it is everyday, soldiers entered the city of Ramallah, wanting to capture humans — they insult humanity on the way. Soldiers got in, trapping my sister in a little Internet café, unable to get out. I’m trapped in the office, unable to leave it.
Oh my dear Jules, I have also stopped writing for awhile. I just couldn’t. The more I have to remember, it felt like the more I needed to face reality. The more I knew about this world, the more I tried to get away from it.
The smell of death is all around me, and there is no way to escape a destiny written so long ago. The burning of homes, killing of children, a ninety year old woman trying to pass the ugly checkpoints between streets now, and inside every rain drop, there is a gas bomb exploding in the wrong faces at the very wrong times, taking victims — helpless, unable to scream children.
Road blocks are getting higher than sky scrapers meant to dilute vision of short-sighted humans. Trees are uprooted, families evicted, and people herded towards the unknown in their homes and homeland.
And people don’t seem to understand what we all are going through — not even Palestinians.
I’m losing faith in myself. I was so unafraid to walk past soldiers on streets that once represented Palestinian dreams and life. Now, as all streets are gradually becoming more and more occupied by a vicious force called Israeli soldiers, not only am I afraid, but I also try to avoid them. This isn’t true. This isn’t me anymore.
Walking down the streets of Ramallah, one day before the Eid, made me smile, involuntarily. Kids on streets, buying Eid stuff. I can hardly believe my own eyes.
It’s rainy, and has been rainy for sometime now. It’s better, rain hides gas bombs, takes away the effect of shock grenades and gradually calms everyone down.
I have changed, totally, and I’m trying to avoid life and all its components. I’m so distracted in everything I do. And I can’t let memories slip away, or hide in my subconscious. I can’t let myself enjoy life, or anything else I do. And the stories that I hear, witness, see or experience are breaking me day after day. I’m not even half of what I used to be. The power to go on has vanished. Life doesn’t matter anymore, and I’m so ashamed of such feelings and don’t want to confess them to my very self.
Moving to Ramallah was a hard decision, knowing that we are at an undeclared war, didn’t want to leave parents, neighbors, friends and streets of childhood behind. Knowing that the Arabic proverb — “Who ever leaves the house is lost, who ever gets back is reborn again” — is applicable more than ever now made me feel even more guilty about the fact that I’m leaving. But I have to at the same time. I feel like my whole life has stopped, and is revolving around the same memories and sadness, same scenes that don’t want to depart my brain.
Talking about the stories is a skill that I am loosing as well, just because it hurts more and more every time I have to go through it again. Becoming a vegetarian had not stopped the memory of Palestinian children’s meat scattered along the streets of all of Palestine. Watching the news has become a duty and an awful thing that I have to force myself to do.
When a ninety year old woman is killed at a checkpoint, and I’m being stopped at a road block, a child asks about the truth and another hopes to grow up to go to the States to work and get money in order to come back home and open the road block in front of his house. The road block is as old as the intifada is — the child is one year older — this is what he grows up to see, and I can’t go on pretending it’s fine to know and hear all of this.
Despite the horrendous facts created here, the new roads open for settlers on Palestinian grape yards, new settlements on what once seemed a green mountain full of olive trees, the demolished houses of tens and hundreds of Palestinians, we keep on living.
A painter friend of mine came to visit me in the office the other day, pale and skinny now, a smile is so fragile that will crack his mouth ends and harm him, said that all was fine with him. I asked how come you look this way then? He said it’s a long story. It’s not a story, it’s a tragedy.
“My wife went to visit her parents, and she wanted to spend the night there, I’m glad she did that. It was 3 a.m. in the morning, I was painting in my room, when the door bell rang, I looked at my watch, it’s 3:00 in the morning, who would come to visit at this hour? So I asked who it was ringing the bell at this hour. It’s your neighbor, the voice replied. But he wasn’t my neighbor — this is a wreck of a human at the door, shaking and shivering from cold and fear. What’s wrong I inquired? Soldiers are outside, they want everyone to get out of the building, taking nothing with them — nothing. We all went down, we carried nothing with us, in the cold and rain. And what I saw was just unbelievable, how many soldiers are there? I can’t count them. The jeeps, the bulldozers, every single resident of the building is out there in the cold. But of course we were not as prepared as the soldiers are, so we kept on shivering. We just sat there until 8:00 a.m. We were not allowed to talk to each other until finally, one soldier started questioning all of us. The questions were the same every time he asked them, just in a different format. How long have you been living here? Did you pay any rent? For whom? Who are your neighbors? The same five or six questions. And of course, the soldier said that if I was lying, he’d know, so I said, then if you know, why ask me? Shut up, the soldier replied. And I just shut up, I didn’t have a choice. I can’t recall the time now, but bulldozers neared the building and they started shelling and bombing the apartments. A Canadian woman living in the building started screaming, shouting at soldiers. One soldier approached her and said, in perfect Arabic, that they won’t bomb her house. Her house was smashed into a million pieces. Nothing was left of the house, the building, and our spirits as well. For a time I couldn’t talk about this, for a longer time, I wasn’t good when I felt it, when I remembered it. But I go on now. And I live.
He lives? How can he? Where are his wedding pictures? Under the rubbles of a house? But what do I want him to do? Live on the rubble and never move on with life? But that’s what’s happening to me. I’m not alive. I’m not alive because the old city in Hebron is dead, and I’m not okay because all the injured are still suffering, and I’m not happy because the Palestinians are so sad, and I’m so afraid because no one’s safe, and I’m tired and weary and feel that the whole world is betraying us over and over. Leave us alone!
I look for a reason to cry, as if I haven’t enough already. I look for a reason to distract myself from daily life, as if I’m not distracted enough already. I look for a reason to live a day dream where people are just happy and not as bad as they seem to be now. I get lost, I get lost in everything that I try to find. The unfairness of the world has turned us all into humans that walk without a direction, live without an aim.
I look for a reason to live, a reason to have hope for, a wish that might come true in my next life, in somebody’s life. I can’t see war coming ahead of me, because it’s painful. I can’t see Israelis in army uniforms, that’s painful too.
Everything is painful. Watching anything other than news on TV is painful, reading a non-political book is painful, walking down the streets of Palestine is painful. It’s just a painful life. But I can’t apologize for being who I am, for being a Palestinian, for being what I was chosen to be. I can’t apologize for having been born on the wrong side of the line, or having been given a different identity or color, or for feeling what I feel.
Harmful grass is what Alex Fichman called the Palestinians holding Jerusalem IDs in his article that was published in the Arabic version of the Hebrew Yedeot Ahronot newspaper. If the Jerusalemites, who are not even full residents in the Zionist state of Israel are harmful grass, what are we? What does that make the settlers? A growing palm tree? Now I understand what it is between the Israelis and the trees that they keep uprooting everyday.
The road to Hebron has much that I don’t recognize anymore. I remember trees along side Al arroub refugee camp. Where have they gone? Uprooted by harmful grass haters! Where are the Palestinian streets going back and forth, taking people like my mother to visit her family. They are no longer allowed, so is my mother who hasn’t seen her mother for almost ten months now. Where are the donkeys carrying products from farms along the way, transporting them to nearby cities? Donkeys have been accused of transporting bombs and were bombed and prevented as well. Palestinian donkeys is what I’m talking about.
The back dirty hilly unpaved road to Hebron is time consuming. Exercising and reading are the best one can do on a road so undefined and so uninhabited. But then, people like me get so lost in the scenery of the place, the cruelty of the roads and the oppressive thought of wondering.
Does anybody know what it means to be questioned on the road home, asked a million times why I need to go home? Does anybody know what it feels like when soldiers say we can’t go home? Does anybody know the meaning of forced home-sickness? I do! I’m forced to know.
Are we all depressed? I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem so. We all get on with our lives, maybe differently, but we still do. We all have fun in our own ways, still take care of the houses that could be demolished any minute, and still walk the streets that may be turned into settlers’ roads any second. People still get married and have children, although those children are exposed to gas bombs, get killed under the rubble of houses, or get a bullet in the head.
I’ve been trying to master the art of talking to children, even strange little ones on streets. Strange little questions are confront me.
Lara, who is called Lulu by everyone at home, says that there is a tank at the door in her own little way — very confused language — as she’s too small to talk. But that’s the sentence that she first learnt how to say. We all joke with her, ask her to say that sentence in her cute way, and one time, she said no, they are not at the door, they are out there, shelling people’s houses, killing children, will they ever come here? They did come. Very close to where she lives. Very close to what she thought was a strong fortress called her house. Now her sentence is the tanks are all over the neighborhood, don’t get out of the house. She’s afraid now, just like the rest of us. Just like the rest of the whole world.
How will I ever comprehend what’s going on? A friend is being treated at the Abu Rayya rehabilitation center. He saw a little girl from Nablus. She’s five or six, he can’t tell. She’s an orphan, he knows. And she also lost the two aunts raising her when Israeli soldiers entered the old city of Nablus. Both were killed under the rubble of their home. The girl was hit badly in the spine and can’t move her legs or arms, paralyzed from the neck down. Her three brothers are wanted by the Israelis, why she doesn’t know, no one knows, maybe the Israelis don’t know either, but they are wanted. One was injured in the invasion. Upon his return from treatment, he was arrested by soldiers. The girl now lives alone at the rehabilitation center. We all do live alone in Palestine. There is no one else living with us, or watching us, or hearing our cries.
Can I tell Jules what’s going on? Am I able to do that again? Able to tell him how crippled I am inside my heart and mind, how I am unable to make any decisions! I am so afraid when Nida leaves for university in the morning, and keep calling her a million times. I’m scared to death every time Fida has to cross the Israeli checkpoints, and feel like my hands stop moving. I am so scared every time Salah Eddin goes out to his school, and when Rami goes to his work. I am afraid every time my father wants to visit the old house, I don’t want him to visit anywhere. I want him safe here next to all of us. And when my mother has grocery shopping to do, it feels as if my breath stops until she comes back. But I go, and leave the house, and go past checkpoints, and still have fights with inhuman soldiers, and stutter when I come across a martyr’s mother or family member, cry when I talk with families of prisoners and get so helpless when I have to see families of injured who are not getting the proper medical treatment. Maybe that’s why I left the Red Crescent. I couldn’t take it anymore, I couldn’t handle all the miseries of the people, in addition to what I see everyday. I couldn’t just tolerate what’s happening to them. I stopped functioning, I stopped thinking, I heard the stories and just stored them in my memory, I felt so helpless and wanted to get away from all of that. It never stops, nor does my thought!
Ramallah’s version of life isn’t much different from Hebron life. Soldiers get in and out, it’s their backyard so it doesn’t matter what they do. My new work in Ramallah isn’t much different from my previous one. It seems that I always end up with the wrong kind of work, knowing I want to be close to people. Journalism has brought me nothing but more misery into my life. People are great. I have gained nothing from knowing them but more stories of people getting hurt by an occupation that is so unjustified they need tanks to consolidate it. Our offices overlook the vegetable market, which just like in Hebron, has been moved from one area to the other over the time. When soldiers get in, they like to go to the vegetables market and exercise their hobby of smashing vegetables and fruits to the ground. It’s not the tomato festival in Spain!
Last time I went to visit my old neighborhood in Hebron, I had a conversation with a soldier that lasted for half an hour. He told me that his mission in life was to cleanse the area of all of Palestinians including two year olds. These were his words. Two year olds. Why? I wanted to know. Because they are Palestinian terrorists. Can they be any worse than this? Can they be any more paranoid or crazy in their heads. I try to not think about it. If a soldier is in Abu Sneineh is there to kill everyone there, I wonder what kind of agreements were we talking about with the Israelis? And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. He’s just a soldier in the Israeli army, that’s what they were made to do. Kill others.
How can a rapist apologize to a girl he raped, or a killer to a family whose son he just took away? How can we come to terms with a killer, a rapist, a fascist, systematic racist order?
I’m afraid of the war, afraid of Sharon, of what might happen in case Iraq is invaded, afraid of any Israeli jeep inside the Palestinian areas and outside the Palestinian territories. I’ve been afraid all my life; I just want a moment of peace.
Will you ever forgive me for not writing? I’m also covered with the rubble of my own fear!
I sent a letter by mail paying my condolences for Helen, I’m so sorry I couldn’t email. I can’t understand death anymore. But I know that it hurts badly. Please forgive me, both of you!
Reema Abu Hamdieh is from Hebron and Ramallah. She formerly worked for the Palestinian Red Crescent and now works for Palestine Capital Studies.