Where the streets had a name

Walking the streets of Ramallah these days has become an act of reflection, uncertainty and force of will. Having just returned from a break from Cairo, where I was reminded what it was like to walk the streets of an Arab country without apprehension, with its bustle and life, its smells, shouts, laughter and systematized chaos, I could not help but mourn the loss of those walks in Ramallah. Driving in the taxi back from the airport (the third taxi on my ground journey back, one from the airport to Jerusalem, another one from Jerusalem to Kalandia border crossing, as it can no more be called a checkpoint, and a third from the other side of the crossing to my apartment in Ramallah � a total of three hours, compared to my 1 hour flight to Cairo) I was reminded again of the beauty of this city called Ramallah. It is a unique beauty, marred by tragedy and fear, but a beauty nonetheless. As one is drawn to the eyes of a child whose life has been scarred by unhappiness, so one is drawn to the beauty of this place.

The beauty of it is very different from what I had expected when I first returned, from the stories that I remember when growing up in Canada, of the olive, almond and apricot trees, of the lazy summers spent in the cool breezes in the midst of sweltering heat, of the warmth and kindness of the people. There is a light and life to this city that I have not witnessed in any other city during my extensive travels. Unlike Cairo, where one is constantly reminded of the life that springs from those streets, the feeling of a city that has a soul and mind of its own, the streets of this city exude a life that is ancient in its suffering, but which has persevered despite the continuous attacks on it. It�s a life you feel when you touch someone�s skin and feel their pulse beneath that thin protection�a slow and steady stream of life that is hard to destroy.

I walk the streets now, wondering what will happen during each journey. Walking to the shop on the corner, I look at the Ford vans that transport people throughout the city and wonder if Israeli special forces could be riding within its interior, stopping at any point in the city, bursting out of the van with weapons and tear gas, shooting into the streets or raiding a building in the center of town. I look at the people who walk in front of me, beside me, behind me, and see if I recognize them, wondering if the man walking beside me with his head covered with a keffiyeh might be a member of another Israeli special forces team, who will suddenly pull out a gun and attack the young men walking beside me. I wonder if suddenly the drone of the reconnaissance planes that are often circling above us will disappear and be replaced by an Apache attack helicopter and begin to rain down bullets from the sky as I am walking to my friend�s home. I look at the car parked on the side of the road beside me as I wait for a taxi to stop and pick me up and wonder, what were to happen if the car suddenly exploded beside me. How far away do I have to stand from a car to ensure that I won�t be hurt if it does explode? Will it make a difference if I cross the street? I worry about walking around corners where I can�t see the road ahead, because perhaps there will be an Israeli jeep hiding in the bushes waiting for someone to arrest or shoot at. I hear a loud boom, and wonder as I walk home whether it is a large garbage truck going over a speed bump, or someone�s house being exploded by the Israeli military.

But my most favourite walks are the ones that take place whilst this city is under curfew. When its pulse has been slowed as a result of foreign substances that its body has become accustomed to rejecting. I walk at night during curfew, as it is these small acts of defiance that remind me that I am still human, that force me to reject the poison of occupation which continues to throw condemnations at me to convince me that I am not human. It is the freedom I feel when walking the streets after 6 pm, when curfew is imposed, that reminds me of life. That freedom is a crime under occupation. Yet I commit this crime with my head held high, challenging anyone to tell me not to do otherwise, and watch other �criminals� do the same. When walking the streets of your hometown becomes a crime, you know you are treading on strange waters. However, it is these small acts of defiance that form the courage of a people. Like the story my friend Cathy told me when she was under curfew, of her colleague deciding to get in his car and buy much needed cigarettes and bread. To the very worried protest of his wife, he simply answered �Ana mish kalb��I am not a dog. Yet so many here have been treated worse than dogs all their lives, that it sometimes becomes difficult to convince yourself that you are not

Yet these acts of courage hold such grave ramifications, forming the every day battle of Palestinian�s non-violent resistance. Attempting to live one�s life, as a human being in the Occupied Palestinian Territories has been one of the longest standing forms of non-violent resistance in our history. I am wearied and sickened by the constant calls for Palestinians to take up non-violent resistance in face of Israel�s brutal occupation. I am disheartened by those who have not lived under occupation telling me that if only Palestinians would call a halt to violence, then the world would support their cause. Palestinians have been doing this it seems all their lives � the mere fact of existence is resistance. In fact, they have been the forerunners of non-violent resistance in the face of oppression. A friend reminded me some time ago that Palestinians were in fact one of the first to use civil disobedience as early as 1925 in the form of general strikes in protest of Zionist colonization, and later in 1936 during the Arab Revolt, where a comprehensive general strike was held for six months, well before the civil rights movement in the US. Not long afterwards, it was the Zionist militias whom the world community was condemning as terrorists. The only difference now is that those militias have become a state, whose government and military conduct state sponsored terrorism, with the tacit and, sometimes outright, approval and support of the world community.

If you told me 10 years ago when I was in Vancouver that I would be living this life, I would have laughed in your face. If you had tried to relate to me what it was like to walk the streets here now, I would have called you a paranoid freak. If you told me then that I would be spending a night like last night, woken by Israeli occupying forces banging on my door at 3 am, making me and the other 40 tenants of my apartment building (many of whom are children) stand outside in the freezing cold while they searched the building, I would have told you that things like that just don�t happen in this modern world.

Yet here I am, 12:30 am, having spent the day writing yet another press release about someone who has been arbitrarily detained, this time whilst going to a world forum to discuss these very same issues, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to come back again, because they said they would. Here I am, again reading stories of daily tragedies, of children killed, of leaders arrested, of humiliation at checkpoints, of whole neighborhoods demolished and destroyed. Here I live, where the unreal has become horrifying real. And I wonder if ten years from now, I will be back in Vancouver, and dreaming about the streets that I used to walk down, the streets that used to have a name before they disappeared through the bulldozer of apathy, lack of political will and the too late recognition of a people denied life.

Hanan Elmasu, a Palestinian-Canadian human rights consultant, is the International Advocacy Officer at Addameer Human Rights and Prisoner’s Support Association, based in Ramallah, occupied Palestine.

Related Links:

  • On violence and the Intifada, by Ali Abunimah, The Electronic Intifada, 22 January 2003.
  • The message of the mortars, by Nigel Parry, The Electronic Intifada, 31 May 2001.