Palestine’s people never say goodbye

Suheir Hammad (Photo: Nigel Parry)

25 July 2004 — “Palestine is a land of fare-the-wells”, says Attallah. This is true. Palestine’s people never say goodbye. How can they? One cannot say goodbye to friends, family and land, because these things are with us always. And when strangers come to her, with an open heart and an open mind, they become her family as well. So we gather to say “Travel safe. See you soon. The best days are ahead,” to our dear Rafael, who leaves for France on the 24th. We stay up all night. The muezzin’s call finds us awake. The first light of dawn, and we are still sitting. Yazen, Peter, Wael, Maysoon, Rafael and I. We are a motley crew. Between us - Christian, Muslim, Jew. Buddhist, Nature Lover, Goddess Devotee. French, Swedish, Polish, Palestinian. Town and country. Ramallah raised, Ramallah living, Ramallah passing through.

At some point, each of us passes out for a while, except Yazen. Here is a truth I have found. No matter how light hearted and cool Palestinian men are, underneath is a storm of emotion. The stories are so well hidden, so acutely masked, once a brother starts opening up, you can’t sleep. Over and over, whether through drinks or curfew, the stories are slowly shared. And they are always beyond imagination. The layers of frustration and oppression are so tightly packed, one would think them cloth instead of armor.

Once we are sure the stores are open, Yazen and I take a cab to buy fuul, humous and falafel. We bring the meal back to our friends. Drink tea and eat bread. Wael and Yazen head off to their parents’ home, in a town outside of Ramallah. Many of the men who live in Ramallah “go home” on Fridays to eat lunch with their families. The rest of us try to sleep. We get in two hours or so when Attallah, Moeen and Ayman call to say they are at the pool. Huh? I’ll drown sleeping. But they are waiting, and it is Rafael’s last day, and we always have fun once we leave the house. The pool is full of kids and it is late afternoon before we show up. We swim and chill. And get hungry.

We fold into Ayman’s pickup truck to get to the Plaza Restaurant, rightly famous for it’s grill. I am hungry and sun tired. The lemonade is bracing and the salads fresh. I eat more meat than I have in years, and everything is delicious. We all begin to look at Rafael every ten minutes and say, “Well, Rafael…we’ll miss you”. His eyes are brimming. Our hearts are full. Our appetites finally sated. And sleep is threatening a mutiny on my ship.

Both Rafael and Maysoon have to head to Jerusalem. It is late, and Qalandia checkpoint has been in drama all day long. It has been closed two or three times. There is formidable traffic. The army is thick. Moeen drops them off before the checkpoint. It’s not like you can just drive up. We are usually dropped off five minutes of walking away. Further away more often now. The traffic is crazy in every direction and people are rushing to make it through before the army shuts the station down. Children sleepy, parents exhausted. The old complain they are too old for this.

Maysoon notices an odd formation of soldiers. In a row. Guns drawn. Rafael is walking towards them. There are no street lights on. He thinks he’s walking towards an empty van. She pulls him closer to her, and shots are fired. Yes. The soldiers shot into the crowd. No warning fire. No megaphone. Live bullets into a crowd of hundreds. It is so dark, my friends see the sparks fly out of the guns. They keep walking, slowly. Surely. Maysoon figures they won’t shoot in the direction of other soldiers, and she is right. They breeze through the checkpoint. No questions asked by either side. Once through, an Israeli soldier asks her where she’s from, in English. “Can you believe he wanted to have a normal conversation with me?”

I am in Ramallah when she calls. Peter is sketching and I am painting. The first time she calls, she is in shock. We are all in shock. Rafael was inches away from dying. He wonders what he would have done if it had been Maysoon shot. We all thank God they left a few minutes sooner than later. The second time she calls, she is in front of Damascus Gate, bugging. I listen to her. Tell her I love her. I wish I could be there to hold her, instead I say, “Place your hands on the stones of the walled city. Give them all of this pain and fear. They have lived through much before this. Absorbed much more than this. Give this night up to them. Then lay your back against stones. Ask them to fortify you. To keep your head up and your back straight. They got you. I got you”

As sleepy as I’d been earlier, I am now awake. Peter and I discuss life, painting, music and of course, heart. We listen to Stevie Wonder, John Coltrane and Um Kolthom. When sleep comes, I am ready.

I wake up early, the sun shining into my face. I call Hamdi for a ride to Qalandia. I will be meeting Maysoon and Bassima at Damascus Gate so we can all ride to Dheisheh together. I will also see Rafael hours before he has to be at the airport. This is my first checkpoint crossing alone on this trip. There is still evidence of the previous night’s violence. Bullet ridden blockades, stones loosed from earth. Garbage. Weariness. The sun spares no mercy, and the actual checkpoint area is packed with people. It is nearly 2:00 PM. The army has divided the crowd into men and women. There are many more men, and so they get the larger section, with a tin roof for shade. Most of the women have their hair covered in hijab, and their hands full with children and bags. There is no order. There is no system. If you do not push your way to the soldier, you will be cut in line by entire villages.

The soldier yells in her guttural Arabic, “Go back! Move back, girls! Girls, move!” Most of the women are old enough to be her mother, and more than a few, her grandmother. She is using a hand held metal detector to go through bags of grape leaves, olives, children’s clothes, wallets. I open my back pack and she waves her dammed wand over it. Then she slides it over my stomach. I’m so surprised, so violated, my mouth drops open. There was no need for it at all. Maysoon says, “Couldn’t she see how flat your stomach is?” It was power. Simple and plain. Yes, folks have strapped explosives on under shirts. But that’s wasn’t what she was looking for. She was looking to break me. To break us. I place my right hand over my womb and say a prayer for my body and her soul.

I make my way to the vans that drive to Jerusalem. I get into one with a family of father, mother, grandmother, two children and an infant. Two teenage girls get in after me, and finally, an older man. Our driver is a handsome young man, with a bright smile and rosy cheeks. We pay our three and a half shekels each. We are not far from Bit Henena when we get to a group of soldiers. They wave some vans and buses through, they point ours to the side. A young soldier opens up the door. “Permits!” he yells into the car. We all have our IDs ready. He blindly scans the passengers and then his eyes fall on my passport. “Give it,” he says. He calls a partner over, and they tell the driver to park the car to the side. They close the door and take my passport with them.

Ten minutes later they return. How can I know it’s ten minutes? Time does not exist in this madness. Another soldier brings back my passport, and then asks for the permits of the men in the car. The driver has to hand his in as well, along with the paperwork for his car. “They’re gonna write down who is going where. They were going to let us through until they saw your passport.” He is not mean, nor is he angry. I apologize profusely. “This is just the way they are,” he sighs. Still, I sit with my fellow passengers for twenty minutes (this I counted) in the van. If the baby had started crying, if the grandmother had cursed the second I’d gotten into the car, if the girls had started hissing at me, if the driver had been in a bad mood….I think of all the ways Grace blessed the situation. It could have truly been hell on wheels. As it was, it was bad enough. Powerlessness.

I believe the permits taken from the men, and my own passport, were recorded into some kind of database so the IDF can track where folks travel to and from. I believe now more than ever they do not want Americans and other nationals witnessing what is happening here. We are supposed to be afraid to move from one town to another. We are supposed to be blind to the continuing and accelerated construction of The Wall. And we absolutely must not see Palestinians as human beings. Never that.

When we finally make it to the new drop off point, further away from the Damascus Gate, I apologize to the driver once again. He graciously smiles and waves my sorry away. “This is our life.”

I had called Maysoon half way through the ordeal, and she had in turn called the Consulate. I’d spoken to her again once the permits had been given back. We are relieved to see each other. I haven’t seen Bassima since her cousin’s sudden and tragic death, and we embrace outside of the Gate. Even with all of the ritual and communal grieving that is nearly an industry in Palestinian society, it still hasn’t hit her. And Rafael… we have a collective hug and share one last silent promise.

A cab ride to the Bethlehem checkpoint. We look for our friend, he who vultures the trash dump for his food. We do not see him. Maysoon and Bassima walk through one way, I go the slightly longer route. They are granted access by the soldiers and I am waved over. Maysoon sits not too far away, waiting. I’m often held up, picked on, flirted with, challenged, harassed, basically fucked with, when I go through these checkpoints. It has been odd, no rhyme or reason, and this time, finally, Maysoon is a witness.

There are four soldiers sitting in a small makeshift office. They are all men, and by the look of them, none of them are of European descent. One of them, red eyed and chubby, says something in Hebrew, pointing to my hair. My hair is not pulled back this time, which is rare. It is wild and thick, curly and frizzy. Not a look I’d want on the cover of Vogue, but hey, it’s me. He repeats himself and looks me in the eye. Maybe he thinks I’m a Moroccan Jew, which many Palestinians in Jerusalem do (God, do they). Maybe he thinks we’re related. He is not happy I’m not responding to his gorilla-like subtlety.

The soldier holding my passport asks me if I speak Arabic. In Arabic. He does not have a hint of Hebrew on his tongue when he speaks in my father’s. I play dumb. “I speak English. I’m from America.” “But your name, Suheir (said perfectly, beautifully even), you must speak Arabic.” I say nothing. The air becomes thick between us. A third soldier starts to chime in, in Hebrew. I ask over and over, “Is there a problem? Is there a problem with my visa? What is the problem?” They’re bored and I’m entertainment. Finally, a senior soldier tells them to stop playing around and let me go. I am handed the passport without a word. Or a glance. I meet Maysoon a few feet away.

On the other side of the checkpoint we see the three boys we see each time we pass. They sell gum and chocolate. Last time we’d gone through, we promised to buy from them the next time. They remembered. Thank God I had change, cause they would have truly cursed us out this time. I buy some gum, give each some change. They descend on Bassima, whom they’ve never seen before. Then Maysoon says, “Suheir, it’s our boy.” And there he is, our beautiful Jesus of the trash. We shake hands. These boys are his relatives and neighbor. Rami is his name. I’d carried with me a track suit given to my by my aunt the morning I left Amman. She’d wanted to make sure it got into the hands of someone who really needed it. I place it in Rami’s hands. He is a growing boy, and it will not last him a season, but for now, it is new and it fits. He blushes.

We walk to the cabs. There are always some Palestinian drivers sitting under trees, smoking and drinking tea. We walk by these. We are told they collaborate with the Occupiers, and there is no reason to believe this to be a lie. The soldiers do not let others sit there. And these men are usually vulgar in look and language. Our chosen driver takes us to Dheisheh and we eat a home cooked meal of chicken and rice before our writing workshop with the same young men we worked with a few days earlier begins. The young men who carried their friend Kefah’s dying body out of the line of fire. They have brought with them two other boys. Maybe we are doing something right, Maysoon and I think. May Masri meets us at Ibdaa, to document the progress of the boys’ work.

Suheir Hammad is currently appearing on the fourth season of HBO’s Russell Simmons Def Jam Poetry, which had an Emmy-winning run on Broadway and has been touring the country.

The young men are anxious to start. They are all at varying degrees of literacy and confidence in imagination. We go over the assignments they’d done at home. To speak in the voice of an object in their homes. A tea cup. A tooth brush. A TV. A computer. A chair. The process is long and distracted. We eventually get to the whole purpose of the exercise. “As writers, as people, we can never truly speak in the voice of another. If we practice writing about what a lifeless object would tell us about it’s life, maybe we can attempt to speak in the voices of others. Your mothers know you and love you, but they don’t know your heart, your thoughts, right?”

The getting through is slow. One of the boys I haven’t worked with before says, “Of course I can write in my mother’s voice.” “What about the soldiers? The Israelis? You see them everyday. Your lives are completely related. Do you think he knows what you feel. Would he shoot at you if he could speak in your voice? Tell your story?” The going gets a little easier. “Do you think you know what that soldier who killed Kefah was thinking when he did it? How he has felt afterwards? I’m not telling you to be friends. I’m not telling you to justify it. I just want you to acknowledge you know as little about them as they know about you.” The going is gone. They get it.

We give them more writing to do. We offer them soda and juice. The juice, by the way, is always sugar water. Maybe forty percent juice. There is a lot of fresh juice available in the market areas, but in grocery stores and sandwich shops it is usually this syrup that passes for natural goodness. One of the boys, Moseb, has been frustrated because his Arabic grammar is allegedly worse than my own. They other boys make fun of his penmanship, and pretty much anything he writes. Out of the corner of my eye I see him throw a crushed up piece of paper out the window. I’m livid.

“What! You think your country is a garbage dump? You want the Israelis to treat you better and this is what you do to the little we’ve managed to hold onto?” He is surprised at how upset I am. A deer in headlights. “Maysoon, I’m sorry, but I gotta take him to go get that paper. Yallah, let’s go.” We make our way down four flights of stairs and out to the parking lot. We both look for the paper, but do not find it. It must be on top of one of the tall sheds used for storage. I don’t want him to break his neck looking for it, but my point has yet to be made.

Three me come out of the building dedicated to economic initiatives, which is parallel to Ibdaa. They begin to yell at Moseb for trying to climb the sheds. “What’s going on? What are you doing, boy?” I take a deep breath. I have no idea how they’re gonna take me disciplining one of their own. “He thinks Palestine is here for him to use as a waste basket. When the foreigners come here, they think we’re naturally dirty people. Then they’re taken to Tel Aviv, where everything is clean and new. He has to find the paper he threw out the window.” The oldest of the men extends his hand.

“All respect, sister. All respects. Wallah, I try to teach them, but they don’t believe me. They get used to living like this, and nothing I can say helps. You came all the way from America to help us teach him a lesson.” To his credit, Mosab is not resentful of all this authoritative pressure. I’d already caught him smoking a cigarette while he was entering the workshop. I took it from him, smoked the rest in front of him, and told him he better not bring another lit one into the building. And now this. The paper wasn’t on the roof of the first shack. He had to climb onto a higher one. Please God, steady him. He found it. The men playfully slap him on the back. We carry it all the way back upstairs and dump it ceremoniously into the trash can. Moseb’s homework assuagement is an essay entitled, “Palestine Is Not My Trash Dump”

The rides home are long. Maysoon hears from Raphael on her mobile. He was made to take his clothes off at the airport, and detained for two hours. Interrogated. It is surreal for him. Weeks between Tel Aviv and Ramallah, and shot at and stripped in twenty four hours. Tell the world about this, Raphael. Tell them. We hear from him again when he’s put on a bus, alone, and taken to his plane. We bid him well one last time. Until the next time.

We are driven to Bethlehem. Wait for fifteen minutes for a cab to drive us to Jerusalem. Ride. Wait another fifteen minutes for a van to take us to Qalandia. The driver has to stop and fill the van with gas. We get to Qalandia and Bassima gets off to go to her town, the three of us remaining go through to the other side. The apparatus of The Wall is all around us. I wonder what it will look like once it is completed. How much more sky will it swallow?

At Qalandia, the traffic to get out is so bad, there is no way everyone will do so before the checkpoint is shut down for the night. Still, people wait. We do as well, for Hamdi to pick us up. We collapse into the car. Drop off May. Maysoon and I eat a meal at Ziryab, fatigue and hunger battling within us both. Yazen joins us for part of our meal. We talk to our sweet waiter, Mohammad, who works everyday but Friday, when he goes home to Tulkaram to see his family. Once home, I fall asleep on the couch while Maysoon works on the computer.

Amari Camp in the morning. This time we are joined by Rhonda, from Ohio by way of Sin Jil. I love Rhonda, not only because she is Marwan’s sister, but because she has worked to take Palestinian American kids to hospitals and camps while they were here for the Al Bireh Convention. She tells us Israeli Army helicopters use the headstones as target practice. We pass out foam paper and place mats, along with yet more beads and foam stickers, glue, foam animals, stars, fish, boats, suns, trees. The children are going to place their dreams of what the camp will look like once they and their families are allowed to return to their original villages. That is all you here, “When we go home.”

The workshop is loud and the kids ornery. We’re pretty tired as well. But the art is beautiful. They all want their names on their pieces. They hang them up in the room. Sing for us. Fight amongst themselves. After a long hour and a half, we begin to wrap up, and walk to the other rooms to see the children we didn’t work with today. There is also a group of Europeans who have some to the camp to meet the children and the staff. We talk to them about today’s workshop and previous ones. There is a kind Franciscan woman with a huge wooden cross around her neck. She is older and sprightly, with white hair and a wide smile.

Khalil is asking for me, Maysoon says. Khalil is the boy who’d ripped up his Polaroid project last week. He hit, cursed and interrupted. But today he isn’t in our class, and now he is looking for me. Khalil was born with a healthy upper body, but below the waist, his legs and feet are useless, tiny appendages. He is ten years old, and brown as earth. Someone has painted his face, and the circle on his nose makes him look like a lion to me. Majestic.

Khalil’s wheelchair is thrown together and ill-fitting beyond discomfort. He goes up and down stairs by using the strength of his arms. We walk into a classroom of girls who are going to sing for us. One of the girls wants him out. “Why?’ “I don’t like him,” she answers. “I hate her,” he responds. Turns out they always hit each other. “Who starts?” “I do,” Khalil responds. Well, we’re still gonna here the songs.

Maysoon, Rhonda and I are about to call Rhonda’s dad to pick us up when we here a commotion. The first few minutes, we figure it to be the kids getting ready to go home. Anxious, loud. Then we hear screams, and see children running away from the main door, children running towards it. “The Jews! The Jews!” We can’t believe it. What would the army be doing here, at the UN girl’s school at lunch time? Yet, there they are, at the door. One boy says he peeked through the gate before the staff closed it. “Their guns were out, and soooo big, ya Allah!” How many are there? We can’t tell. Maysoon can see seven or eight from where she is. The soldiers are looking for a man from the camp who is in hiding. They will enter the school, no matter who is at the door. “Where are the Europeans now? We need witness,” Maysoon and I tell each other.

Amazingly, Shaher has just taken the group out of the school, so they can visit people’s homes in the camp. But, thankfully, they are right around the corner. They see it for themselves. The children are terrified. It is chaos in the courtyard. The teachers shout at them to get into the playground. The older boys want to go see the confrontation. We screech at them to help us get the younger kids into the playground with us. We are dazed. The fear is right here, I can touch it. Shaher is at the door, more confident in speaking to the soldiers because of the European contingent. “If they hadn’t been there, I’d have run inside as well,” he jokes. May, maybe seven years old, with a long braid and pale skin is shaking. Is she paler now than she was ten minutes ago? There are children all around us, all in their own worlds of terror. “They are terrorized,” Maysoon says. This is terrorism.

Khalil, out of his chair, waddles over to me. He rests his head on my lap. I caress his hair. He says nothing, just sits there. The army is still at the entrance. I ask him how many brothers and sisters he has. I ask him where he wants to travel to. “Amman,” he quickly responds, “I want to get an operation so I can walk. I want to walk.” The chaos is all around us, and we sit in the shade, on stairs in the courtyard. He wants to run.

After nearly half an hour and several life times, the army retreats from the school and enters the camp’s homes. The children are lined up and groups of them go home together, under as much guidance as the staff can muster. Rafat, who is blind, has to wait for someone to take him home. Mohammad and Hosam are taken by a teacher and an aide. Hind sits with us in the teachers’ room as soon as all the other children have left. We hear an explosion. Then we hear gun shots. The children are still just outside of the school’s back door.

One of the older girls who has stayed in the room with us says, “Good, we will die martyrs. What is better than that?’ “Living,” I tell her. “Living is better than that.” She eyes me. “What life? This is life?”

Suheir Hammad is a Palestinian American poet, born in Amman, Jordan to refugee parents on October 25, 1973. Suheir’s family immigrated to Brooklyn NY when Suheir was five years old, and she was raised there until the age of sixteen. Suheir has been touring with the Emmy Award-winning Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam show on Broadway. Her journals from Palestine can be found at suheirhammad.com.