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In the book by journalist Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East, Israeli journalist Amira Hass talks about an experience that her mother Hannah had during World War II, as she was marched from a train to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen during the summer of 1944. “She and the other women had been ten days in the train from Yugoslavia. They were sick and some were dying by the road. Then my mother saw these German women looking at the prisoners, just looking. This image became very formative in my upbringing, this despicable looking from the side. It’s as if I was there and saw it myself.”
That dread of being a bystander is something that has filled me up even more than it has in the past. I’ve often felt that if I were in the position of someone trying to get by in Gaza that I would surely hope that someone in the outside world would notice, and do something to help us, whatever that might be. So here’s just the first chapter of my time in Gaza. Come back in a day or two, and watch the story unfold. Photos are on the way as well. And maybe together, we can do something to help, just by knowing, maybe later by taking some action of some kind. But knowing is the first step.
I just returned home a few days ago from what was to have been five days in the Gaza Strip, which practically at the last minute turned into ten days! (One of my fellow delegates, a Scottish professor named Keith, knew I’d been planning on a few days in Cairo following Gaza, and over dinner on what was supposed to have been my last day, said, “Why don’t you stay?!” And I realized I could, so I did.)
Plans to write in Cairo about my time there had to be scrapped when my laptop became unusable due to a virus, so now i find myself back home in beautiful, sunny, northern California, having finished transcribing my notes two days ago, and now trying to convey what I’ve seen for the benefit of those who haven’t yet been.
My inbox has daily been flooded with the writings and postings of images and videos all over the internet on the part of the 65 others who signed up with the US anti-war group Code Pink to travel to Gaza from May 30 – June 4. Sixty-six people from ten nations and from eighteen states decided to go and see for themselves what was happening on the ground in Gaza. We all have new friends, and stories to tell.
We’d left Cairo May 29 in two buses, and arrived not far from the Rafah border crossing in the town of Al-Arish, where we spent the night. The following morning was a harbinger of the emotional times ahead of us when two Egyptian women and friends — a journalist named Mai El-Shiekh and an artist and teacher working with special-needs kids named Nadia Tawfik — were denied permission by the Egyptians to cross with us into Gaza. All of their papers and permissions were in order, but it seems that the Intelligence bureau, or secret police (whatever) had not given their authorization. And so tearful goodbyes were said, and Mai and Nadia were left standing by the side of the road. It was small comfort knowing that they quite aware well in advance their having been let through would’ve been a bureaucratic miracle. The Egyptian government, like Israel’s, like the EU’s, and like our own, wants nothing to do with the democratically elected government in Gaza, aka Hamas, and so permission for Egyptians to cross into Gaza is not often given.
We arrived at the Khan Younis Training Center, a gorgeous facility where a huge feast had been prepared for us. Code Pink was visiting Gaza at the invitation and under the auspices of the UN Relief and Works Agency, and its long-serving director the Irishman John Ging greeted us with a lengthy and informative speech. After a delicious meal under open-air tents, followed by spirited “dubka” dancing, the Palestinian national dance, we re-boarded our buses for the drive into Gaza City’s Commodore Hotel, and those of us who’d asked to be assigned accommodations with families met our hosts for the next five days.
A young Portuguese guy named André who’d just finished his medical studies and I were both assigned to the family of a young guy named Hozaifa, a university student studying Business Administration, in English, at the Islamic University. His best friend and classmate Nasser also greeted us at the hotel, and later that night the four of us were sitting around water-pipes, outside in downtown Gaza City, getting to know each other.
It was during that relatively cool first evening in Gaza, relaxing with “Hoze” and Nasser and listening to the stories of their lives (esp. of their lives since the 22-day Israeli attack last December-January), that André and I first began to get a glimpse of the emotional roller-coaster that lay ahead of us.
The adventure has begun.
i am writing this in the lobby of the Pension Roma, fourth floor of a big old building in downtown Cairo, right next door to Cairo’s oldest Jewish temple, which comes complete with numerous well-armed soldiers in various strategic positions around the front and approaches from the side. A tad ironic.
The Roma is the unoffical headquarters of our Code Pink delegation, which is now comprised of 66 people from 10 nations (including 3 from Australia, one from Scotland, some nice Canadians, etc.) and from 18 states in the US. i was especially excited to realize that an Ann Wright who is a CP organizer does not just coincidentally have the same name as the Col. Ann Wright who was prominently in the national news not so long ago: it’s really HER! (When Medea informed me that yes, it was that Ann Wright, the next time she came in the room where i was tap-tap-tapping away, assisting in media outreach efforts, i got up, went over and gave her a big hug saying You’re Col. Ann Wright! She laughed and said something funny which i don’t recall.)
Btw, this narrative is interrupted specifically for a huge shout-out of gratitude to my sister Eileen, without whom all of the media outreach i did on Code Pink’s behalf would’ve been impossible, not to mention the writing and distribution of this blog itself. Perhaps i should add — or does it go without saying? — that i am personally responsible for 100% of this blog’s contents. And while i’ve got her attention: Eileen, your suggestion that i play The Price of Silence on my radio show was one of the hottest musical tips i’ve gotten in the past year of DJ’ing! LOVE that song, and the Colombian rock tune by Aterciopelados from which it is derived. MUCHAS, muchas gracias, hermanita.
Hardly surprising that i wouldn’t recall an off-the-cuff comment from this morning, which at this point here seems like a week ago. i am energized, positively overwhelmed by this group. There is of course lots happening, too.
Marla dropped me off behind the Denny’s in Eureka where i boarded a 6:45 Monday morning Amtrak bus for San Jose. My last night in the US was spent with Matt and Gigi, who saw how loaded down i was with baggage when i left their house in San Jose. You all might be a little relieved then to hear that i abandoned my plans to save about $13 by taking a series of public buses from the airport, in favor of a taxi. It was so hot and muggy stepping outside the airport, and after traveling for 27 hours, i was glad for a quick ride to the French-run Select Hotel, on the 8th floor of another old building, reached by either one of two very old-fashioned elevators, the kind now only seen in old movies: the cage with the double sets of doors, creeping upward at a pace that makes you wonder if you should’ve just walked. It’s just around the corner from the Roma.
An Egyptian guy named Ehab checked me in around 9 pm (when my body was saying, wait it’s 11 am, right? why is it so dark outside?), and when he learned that i was here with Code Pink, he said, Oh your queen is here! CP co-founder and chief rabble-rouser Medea Benjamin, Ms. Wright and a 3rd CP organizer, a guy from LA named Tighe are all housed there as well, which turned out to be an auspicious coincidence.
After checking-in and dropping my bags, i walked outside and into the first little hole-in-the-wall place that served up hookahs, where i enjoyed exercising my rusty Arabic-speaking muscles with a guy i met who knew about as much English as i knew Arabic. i bought an Arabic child’s book for learning to write on my way back, showered and fell into bed about 11:30.
Up before 6 this morning for coffee in the Select kitchen with Tighe, then out with him to buy on the street fruit, veggies and different, delicious freshly-baked breads for breakfast, then by 9 at work assisting with media outreach, mostly to Egyptian and American media outlets. Obama’s speech here on June 4 is already hugely in the news, and the excitement and tension as to what he might say is palpable. i won’t say for now what CP is planning, but some of us will be leaving Gaza one day early in order to execute an action whose plans i am not at liberty to discuss, which itself reminds me of my days as a secret agent in Amsterdam. (Ask me what that’s all about next time we’re F2F, if you don’t already know.)
i took a break around 2 this afternoon to go get a shave and a haircut, another activity i’d been relishing almost since the moment in mid-April when i first decided to make this trip! i watched my barber finish shaving a handsome client, as i tried in vain to remember the Arabic expression for nice haircut! Fortunately, the barber himself used it (ny EE mon!), so i didn’t have to struggle with asking in my broken Arabic how to say it.
The CP orientation tonight in the dining room of the Roma was a wonderful event, the room packed with close to 80 people, counting delegates, organizers, and a couple of young Egyptian journalists along for the ride: one male, one female). We started with brief introductions, and i can’t express adequately how inspiring and joyful it was to begin to get to know my fellow travelers. One gal, a second-generation Lebanese American, talked about how emotional it was for her to be going to Gaza, and to see so many of our non-Arab new friends making the same trip, for many of the same reasons. She sat next to a Jewish-American gal who’d grown up in a mostly Zionist household. Another Jewish American guy i walked out with this evening told me of growing up in a similar environment, and of leaving five months of community activism in the West Bank after Operation Cast Lead. i introduced myself to an older gentleman who was ahead of me on the stairs going down to the street, and hadn’t realized until a few minutes that yes, he’s that Norman Finkelstein: author of, among other books A Farewell to Israel: The coming breakup of American Zionism.
Imagine the reactions among this motley crew when we finished introducing ourselves, and Medea said, If you’d asked me two days ago if we were going to get through Gaza, I’d have said probably not. But now, thanks to your efforts — writing and phoning our members of Congress asking them to exert whatever influence they could bring to bear on the Egyptian government, getting our stories published in our local media before leaving, etc. — I am now happy to report that we are almost certainly going to get through! [Loud, extended applause.]
The highest levels of the Egyptian government had previously issued instructions to bus companies not to transport foreigners from Cairo to Al-Arish, and so things had been looking bleak. No longer: three smaller delegations have proceeded ours, and this fourth one is the largest of all. The timing of Obama’s speech could also not be better, Medea pointed out, as the Egyptian government would not want the world to see images of Americans camped out at the Rafah crossing, prevented from delivering toys and soccer balls to Gaza’s children.
Speaking of which: to all of you who so kindly donated to help the kids of Gaza, i was happy to put into Medea’s hands this morning the grand sum of $271. This does not include the checks that i know many of you have sent in the mail, or the amounts some of you have told me you planned to contribute at the Code Pink website. Most sincere and heartfelt thanks to you all.
Well as usual i could go on, but it’s just gone midnight, and we are all to meet in a parking lot across from the Nile Hilton at 8 am, to board one of the two buses being provided for our trip to Al-Arish where we will spend the night, prior to crossing into Rafah Saturday afternoon. (Cairo is 10 hours ahead of Pacific Time.)
i am one of many delegates who said yes when asked about interest in a possible home-stay. i am especially hoping to meet an English professor at Al-Aqsa University named Haider Eid, who has written often and at length about the Occupation, which he has termed “a genocide in slow-motion.” Even more memorable for me, was an article of his in which he wrote that the 22 days of Israeli bombing of Gaza will turn out to be, for Israel, what the Sharpeville riots of 1960 were for the South African system of apartheid.
And so for now dear friends and family, i would like to close with a quotation that looks like the one below, or better yet, sounds like the one below: Since it’s rhythmically poetic, i would suggest reading it aloud, if you feel you’re in the mood for poetry.
They stole my land,
burnt my olive trees,
destroyed my house,
took my water,
imprisoned my father,
killed my mother,
starved us all,
humiliated us all.
But I am to blame:
I shot a rocket back.
So they stole more of my land,
burnt my olive trees,
destroyed my house,
took my water,
bombed my country …
~ seen on a t-shirt, on sale here. [Author unknown.]
For a long time one of my favorite sayings has been, The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. We are (i am) all to often easily overwhelmed by the feeling that something is too big to tackle. Or that something is too preposterously complicated to even consider. My decision to travel to Gaza at the end of May falls into both categories.
Many of you reading this will no doubt recall my announcement in July 2008 that i would accompany a Global Exchange delegation leaving for Iran in October. At that time, the drums of war were beating more loudly than they are now for an attack on Iran, which i felt would have been even more unjustified than the attack by ex-President Bush (i just love the sound of those words!) on Iraq. i was strongly attracted by the citizen-to-citizen aspect of the trip, and the hope that where nation-to-nation contacts (i.e., diplomacy) had so spectacularly failed for so long, people-to-people contacts would at least draw the world’s attention to another way of doing things. Don’t you feel that, especially in times like these, business-as-usual needs to be shown the door?
Unfortunately, i was unable to follow through on making that trip. Planning a trip to a place like Iran is one thing, but doing so without the benefit of being ensconced in one’s own home — without, for example, one’s own computer hooked up to the internet — made going on that trip seem impossible. In any event, as readers of my other blog know, after many months of hoping for the right place in southern Humboldt to materialize (near the community radio station where i’m a music-DJ), i finally realized that Spirit had plans for me elsewhere, and i have been happily enthroned in my new home up here in northern Humboldt, where the housing market is much livelier, since the end of March.
So when the email in mid-April from Code Pink announcing that international delegations, at the invitation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) would attempt to enter Gaza (one from Egypt through Rafah, the other from Israel through Erez), i was .. catalyzed. i’ve attempted to come up with a few answers for anyone who might be wondering why am i going to Gaza?
because i’ve emailed and made phone calls for a long time now, about a range of issues, and have felt for some time that i’ve wanted to do something more visible, hopefully more meaningful;
because i realize that my previous experiences .. as a world traveler, and as a teacher of English and manager of a corporate library in the Middle East for six years, who has Arab, Jewish and Muslim friends in several nations .. have produced a set of interests and personal skills that make a trip like this imaginable;
because my skills as a writer, photographer and editor can perhaps be put to use more effectively in educating Americans about the realities of the Palestinians’ struggle for self-preservation if i can talk about what i’ve seen with my own eyes. And finally, not least
because the casual way the world regards the plight of the Palestinians (and the Darfuris, and the Kashmiris, and the Congolese, ad nauseam) seems in itself an injustice. i want to play a part, however seemingly small or insignificant, in bringing the attention of the international community back to Gazans, especially the children of Gaza.
This might be a good place to stop for the first post. i’m thinking i’ll try to include a bit more about the chronology of events over the past ten days or so, and then just update on a regular basis. Thanks for tuning in. Hope you’ll be with me for the rest of the trip, at least in spirit. i close now with some food for thought, until the next time we engage.
My friend, take care. When you recognize the concept of ‘Palestine,’ you demolish your right to live in Ein Hahoresh. If this is Palestine and not the land of Israel, then you are conquerors and not tillers of the land. You are invaders. If this is Palestine, then it belongs to a people who lived here before you came. ~ former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Yediot Ahronot, 17 Oct. ’69, cited in Roane Carey, ed., The New Intifada: Resisting Israel’s Apartheid, p. 176.