The Writing on the Wall: Maha Abu Dayyeh

Maha’s office is close to her home (L). She just walks across the street to her office. Now, the wall (right) ends just before the intersection. When its construction is completed the street will be blocked. (Margo Okazawa-Rey)


Maha Abu Dayyeh is director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling (WCLAC) in Jerusalem.

MAHA ABU DAYYEH: “AS LONG AS THERE IS A SOCIETY THAT RESISTS THERE IS HOPE.”

My office is close to my house—I just walk across the street. Now, the Wall ends just before the intersection of where I cross. When its construction is completed, I will have to drive all the way through Qalandia checkpoint, turn right around, and cross the check point again and go to Dahiet Al-Barid, before I can get to my office.

I live on the left the hand side of the street going from Jerusalem to Ramallah which is the Jerusalem side. However, all the services for my daily existence will be on the side that will be blocked off. Think about getting vegetables or food, or getting maintenance and household support. Half of all Jerusalemite Palestinians are going to suffer from this because electricians or maintenance people all live in areas that are blocked off. Because they will be harder to get, they will be more expensive. Life is going to become much more expensive, and not only monetarily.

We also will pay heavy social and emotional costs. We will become disconnected—literally and figuratively—from family and friends. Going to them in Ramallah or Beit Jala, places actually not very far from here, will be very difficult.

Practically speaking, the Wall is imprisoning us. The gates are not in the house itself but beyond the house. To go in and out you will need to have a special permit, and you will need to pay for it. On top of that, there is destruction to the environment in areas close to the Wall because of the digging in the streets, the dust, the fuel, and the fumes.

Dust and fumes are always in the house; you can’t ever get it totally clean. Going in and out of the house means jumping over rubble and concrete, over all kinds of building refuse. You destroy your clothes, your shoes. You have to have extra budget for all those expenses. And the Wall blocks the view. You can see only a few meters beyond. You wake up in the morning and face the massive, ugly, grey cement blocks. We are living in chaos.

One has to realize how the Wall specifically and the overall living conditions also block us psychologically. When you are psychologically blocked, your thinking is also blocked. Your ability to be creative is blocked. Your ability to feel is blocked because you have to protect yourself all the time from feeling frustrated. These are what destroy the person. It’s a sort of psychological torture.

You always have to be on the alert. You can’t be relaxed. You always think how you are going to deal with the next obstacle. You can’t ever plan and fully expect to complete one plan. You always have to have plan A, plan B, plan C. It often happens that you can’t achieve the goals you worked so hard for. All the time you face disappointments.

An outsider to this situation has to go through this to understand what it really means. The Wall is one of the most violent forms of psychological and physical aggression directed against the Palestinian collective and against the Palestinian individual. This is especially true for those whose daily existence requires them to cross the Wall or go around it.

Maybe there are a few people in the center of Palestinian towns who can manage and who do not have to move, but these are very few. The majority of the people have to cross the Wall all the time. You cannot cross without a permit issued by the Israeli government, so the Israelis control our movements. They decide who is able to move or not. In so doing, they control the lives of the Palestinians. They decide who is important or not; what is valuable or not; who can go to work or not.

On a day-to-day basis, these decisions are up to soldiers who guard the gates. These soldiers on the ground make a lot of their own, independent decisions. They can sexually harass the women if they want to. They can choose to be easy, hostile, or violent. And when they have violated the rights and dignity of Palestinian people, they can always find an excuse and the government will cover up the violations. We live our daily lives within this violent situation.

Because of the current situation the number of women who are able to reach our office is declining. We are not able to help as much as we could. It forces us to open more centres throughout the region, which is more expensive, unnecessarily expensive. It is a terrible waste of resources. We end up using our money on administration, on rents, on other overhead expenses including transporting staff, rather than on doing program work.

There is nothing like one’s own real experience. I internalized the violence of the Wall after I heard that it was built around Qalqilia. But hearing about it and internalizing it in an intellectual way are incomparable to the actual experience of having to go around or walk or drive by it. You drive next to the Wall but there are also buildings bordering the other side of the road. They built the Wall in the middle of the street and you’re stuck between it and the buildings in a narrow channel, like cattle.

You know what happens with cattle: The cattle are lined up and the machine takes them one by one while they can’t move, like in a cage. The same happens to us. You cannot run away. You cannot backtrack. You cannot go left or right. You are stuck between the Wall and the other buildings. You’re in a line and whatever happens, you cannot act on your own or control your own destiny. This happens all the time.

You get the feeling that, inevitably, you are going to be destroyed, killed, stampeded, caught in the middle of a shooting, as if you are living your life in one giant, ubiquitous crossfire. You are constantly on the alert, and feeling very vulnerable. To say this is a disempowering experience is an understatement. In fact, you are being choked unmercifully, cold-bloodedly.

All our lives we have to deal with crises. You become weaker as a person. Your capacity to tolerate difficulties becomes much smaller. You are emotionally charged most of the time.

Personally I am deeply affected when I observe the children. The kids are nervous all the time, agitated, so much of their energy and effervescence is restrained. They are afraid, especially of soldiers. When they see a patrol, they all run away and start crying. If they start crying, I start to cry myself. And that shows I too have been, and continue to be, traumatized. It is a new thing in me. I am affected by the whole situation. It is a horrible way particularly for children to grow up.

Freedom, for me, is the ability to walk endlessly without being stopped. To be able to keep moving forward. For me this ability is physical and also mental. To think without being restricted. I find that my ability as a thinking and moving human being is handicapped because my physical movements are continually hindered and restricted.

Freedom also is being able to do what I want to do, see my friends when I want to see them. Freedom is not to be restricted irrationally and arbitrarily, that is, when I don’t understand why I am restricted. In my childhood I never could accept a “no” without an explanation. I wanted to see friends, to be with people, to have activities, and to be able to participate with my friends in joint activities. And to be able to think freely and to express my thoughts freely without being shut up or being told that I am stupid or unrealistic or otherwise blocked in my ability to think.

As an adult living under Israeli occupation, I see the same patterns. The restrictions and hindrance are more sophisticated but the same principles are still there. There is an English expression, “the sky is the limit.” That means that one’s imagination and ability to be an actor in the world should be far-reaching, limitless, unrestricted. But in the Palestinian context, the Wall is the limit.

As an individual, I cannot complain. Indeed, if I compare myself to many other people, I am a lucky person. I am able to travel abroad, and meet very interesting and creative people. They help me overcome my own thinking blockages. I think with them, learn from them.

When I return home, I am better able to overcome my own limitations in thinking freely. Traveling and seeing other realities enable me to regain my sense of balance. When you travel you see that the situation here is abnormal and the normal should be what people out there experience. When you stay here you get used to the situation and come to believe there is no other way of life.

So my level of anger is elevated when I come back and see the situation again. My anger means that I am alive. My anger makes me act more, be more constructive with my colleagues, with my kids. I try to help them cope with the situation they are in. Being able to use my anger to help others is important to me because it gives me energy.

If I can maintain my anger at a steady level, I am energized. Anger means that I am trying to act on what happens. I think people need to be angry all the time about the situation. People have the right to be angry and express their anger. It’s a sign of living, a refusal to die.

Through anger, you say no to a brutal situation. We should not walk quietly in the face of brutality. One should resist, for instance, by showing anger to the soldier and by breaking the rules. Refusing to respond to instructions given in the Hebrew language is a form of resistance. Everybody has a chance to resist by any small way or means. It builds one’s strength. Resistance is not the same as survival. Survival is barely making it, just going on with your dealings.

Resistance is acting consciously, purposefully on your situation. Some people just choose to survive because they are tired of resisting and fighting; I can’t blame them. I consistently hope that not all people in our society fall into that mode. So far, it looks like they are resisting and fighting.

My organization supports coping strategies but also the fight to maintain humanity, the refusal to be dehumanized, to maintain hope. When we do our educational programs in the community, we just remind people of the issues of justice and the rule of law. You can always find hope for building a better life.

I personally refuse to be killed emotionally or psychologically. I will not give up. I am a resister. As long as there is a society that resists there is hope. I see people resisting as a profound, courageous expression of choosing life. I see it all around me. It may not be tangible in the immediate, but when people choose life, there is hope. I see happy children too all around me. As long as there are kids laughing there is hope.

Toine van Teeffelen is development director at the Arab Educational Institute (AEI) in Bethlehem. This interview is part of a series made for United Civilians for Peace. The interview has been published on EI with the permission of the author.

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