My friend has a story

My story on openDemocracy as part of the Gaza Voices column:

This isn’t my story. But it could have been, and it can be the story of any young Palestinian living in this small besieged part of the world. Only that it bears much more painful profundity being the story of that particular man who chose to be nicknamed “Awsaj”— the Arabic equivalent for Lycium, which is some kind of a thorny shrub that bears red berries and is used sometimes for hedging.

Awsaj is my new friend whom I have met only twice, the first meeting lasting for no more than a quarter of an hour at a mutual friend’s, and the second born out of my initiative to venture out southward to the far eastern areas of Khan Yunis near ‘the Green Line’ (a phrase which refers to the demarcation lines marking the lines between Israel and other territories including the Gaza Strip occupied by Israel in 1967). Awsaj is an intelligent human being. He is an angry young man with such a variety of contradictions which, though they can be seen almost everywhere in Gaza, would make any description of him sound like the figment of an eccentric writer’s imagination. To be painstakingly interested in perfumes, to hold a degree in IT studies, and to voraciously read such a fussy amalgam of Jubran Khalil Jibran, Edward Said, Karl Marx, and Marquez, these are all signs of a human being with an especially sophisticated interest. To be, on top of this, a self-sustaining farmer absolutely adds up to an unparalleled elegance.

We arrived at Awsaj’s farmland where, in perfectly farmer-like style, he was diligently ploughing the land with a shovel, and as we hailed him from a distance, he looked up, waved back to us, and wiping the sweat off his brow with the back of one hand, placed the shovel aside with the other, and walked in our direction to welcome us. “He can’t be a farmer,” I said to myself, “he’s trying to look like one!”

Soon he was chopping small pieces of wood to add to the small fire he had just built in order to make us some of his special manually-ground black coffee. I had already formed a considerable admiration for Awsaj, both inspired by and jealous of his exhaustive knowledge, his avidity for reading, his ardent passionate talk and angry criticism of almost everything. We shared several targets of scathing criticism. We were particularly sarcastic about “our” buffoon politicians. These, we agreed, are complete morons whose very presence in the positions they occupy is only a matter of fortune, or the arbitrariness of fate, or, as some would say, demonstrative of the injustice of this world, a world in which it is hard to believe there is any logic at work. It is their job to lead the “country” (a word we use almost always cynically) down the road into, well, the abyss. They are an untouchable gang; mostly silly, possibly educated but unquestionably unthinking, blinded by an absolute loyalty to the party they belong to. “Morons, indeed!” he sighed. They are of two sorts: the openly treacherous, base and self-interested collaborators and, most annoying, the completely delusional. Although they are one step away from, probably unknowingly, following the exact same steps as their lousy predecessors, they never stop indulging in self-aggrandizement and claiming the moral high ground and relentlessly bore you with their unexciting oratory. “You know what,” Awsaj told me, “I have no problem with the first kind of politician. It’s similar to working like a prostitute: although everyone else knows they are one, the prostitute is still okay, possibly even proud, about being one. As simple as that, my friend!”

He was unorthodoxly and harshly critical of parents as fosterers of hypocrisy, mental impotence, personal insecurity… Though at some point, a fiery debate erupted between us over his unwarranted criticism of how people’s relationships are no more governed by affection, care and mutual respect for the other, but rather largely dominated by private interests where, in the normal state of affairs, it should be presumed that hate pre-exists any human communication. Nevertheless, our personalities were largely drawn to each other, and Awsaj made such a favourable impression on all of us.

To be equipped with a critical mindset and a desire to learn and read is enough, at least in our eyes, to make someone worthy of being held in high esteem by their interlocutors. But that’s not the case in a local community that is concerned, first and foremost, with outward appearances and thus can be easily manipulated and mind-controlled, a society that no longer has the slightest appreciation for complaining, outspoken and ungovernable personalities, a society that is highly polarized in politics, social convention and religion and every other field of life, and a society that has no understanding, acceptance or tolerance for the other, or the different. “I am right, and everyone else is wrong. Things should be done my way. This is when victory will come your way. This is when you can liberate Palestine!” Awsaj furiously and succinctly reproduced this doctrine of fanaticism while we both continuously shook our heads in sympathetic agreement.

To have to face these things, however — or, more precisely, to tell yourself that you do — and to display, on top of that, some interest in politics, to steer most of your conversations toward politics in Palestine, essentially saying nothing about the conflict more than stating its most obvious facts (like, for example, ‘not every Jew is a Zionist!’), to always talk to your international ‘friends’ about how Palestinians are craving to live in peace and to simplistically speak of “peace”, time and again, as the solution to ending this conflict as though “peace” per se was not the problem in the first place and as if there actually was unanimous agreement on the meaning of the darned word. Moreover, to have the kuffiyeh wrapped around your neck or flung over your shoulders every now and then, and to stress to your interlocutors the fact that you run a blog, never mind how infrequently you update it or the sort of stuff you post on it, and you are then the very guy who is likely to be identified here as an activist, which is an appealing personality, largely regarded as a promising peace (and potential human rights) champion by roughly everyone working in the field here, particularly by a bunch of foreign journalists with whom you engage in seldom profound, political discussions and who you might win over, but by no means does your knowledge about Palestine, Israel or politics match theirs.

Awsaj is of this type, for which so little space has been left in our society. There is still something much more characteristically appealing about him, i.e. (what he boastfully dubbed) his wide-ranging experience and “history of struggle”. And out of this history, there is one specific experience which Awsaj found himself narrating to his guests that, listening to, we agreed must uniquely underlie this man’s personality, at which I insisted that it would not go unrecorded.

Almost every Palestinian must have been in direct contact with Israel, and by ‘Israel’ I mean Israel as it is referred to by ordinary Palestinians, the occupation and its actual manifestations, its war machine, the military establishment, its rogue army and every other Israeli atrocity it inflicts upon the Palestinians; and every Palestinian, therefore, must have been a direct victim of Israeli crimes. There is no such thing as an indirect victim within the context of the Israeli occupation and its ubiquitous oppression of the Palestinian people, being essentially a conflict between a state (i.e. Israel), on the one hand, and individuals (i.e. Palestinians) on the other. Israel as a state and in the above sense is an enemy of every Palestinian as an individual, as far as they are its direct victims. It’s no big deal therefore when I am told that this old man had spent twenty years in Israeli prisons; that this little boy’s parents were killed during Israel’s last airstrike in Gaza, this old woman’s son was assassinated by Israel in the 1980s; these two kids were traumatized during a night raid by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers in Nabi Saleh, or this student from Gaza has lost their scholarship because they were not allowed to travel, and so on and so forth…

The weighty significance of Awsaj’s experience, I believe, resides in the fact that it encloses within its narrative several Israeli actualities. Whereas most of the endless Palestinian encounters with Israel lose an extremely large share of their actual significance once the real encounter is over and is narrated time and again as a past experience, Awsaj’s experience seems to have acquired vitality and a renewed reality each time he has narrated it since. During his powerful narrative, Israel would borrow such a physical existence that it was no more an abstract entity but had become embodied in the Israeli soldier, the Israeli jeep, and the female officer’s broken Arabic phrases, the Bedouin collaborator, the scars across my friend’s back… The reason? It definitely lies somewhere in relation to Awsaj’s human passion and dramatic eloquence. During the course of his narration, Israel becomes one single intimidating and repulsively antagonistic entity that one will have to face with nothing but piles of pent-up anger and extreme hatred, both securing the last vestiges of their almost lost humanity.

The sun having sunk, we head towards our friend’s home, having already chatted for what seemed to be ages. Straight backed, we walk, gossip and whistle, leaving behind neatly-queued, graceful thyme saplings, four scattered coffee-soiled plastic cups, a dying fire, and several untold stories.

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