My heart sinks, it plummets down into a depth of despair I have not felt for some considerable length of time. I have no answers, no suggestions to what continues and repeats itself in Palestine.
In 1987 for a year/eighteen months I was part of the renowned British theatre company Joint Stock. Joint Stock’s creative process meant that I, one other actor, the director and writer flew to Palestine to do research for our next play on the then Israeli, Palestinian conflict. We landed the day The Intifada broke out in 1987. I personally had never really experienced countries with a visible military presence with the exception of Northern Ireland during the troubles. I’d been to Central Europe and America where law enforcement agencies are armed and to South America Peru where all tourist where routinely given an armed guard to visit Machu Picchu, Ichupata and other famed Peruvian locations.
One of the first things I was to see after the leaving customs and then driving out towards the West bank was an armed helicopter slowly rising above the brow of the small hill that I was stood on. Reminiscent of a scene from the TV show MASH.
Watching the whirling blades and being able to see the Israeli soldiers with their M16s sat on the floor of the helicopter, legs swinging nonchalantly over the side. It felt as if all I needed to do, if I’d wanted to, was to stretch out my hand and I could have touched the soldiers’ faces. The soldiers smiled. I guess it wasn’t often at that time they would have seen a female East Asian standing next to a Palestinian and a Black African on a hilltop in the middle of the Westbank. It unnerved me even then. The memory of it now sends a tremor down my spine.
Travelling to Ramallah, Nablus, The Westbank and I was lucky enough to spend some time in Jerusalem itself. The brutality as it was first seen, when that now infamous CBS TV clip of the Israeli soldiers beating a group of Palestinians went around the world, it appears has not diminished. The weaponry has just become more sophisticated and attitudes become more entrenched and embittered.
Whilst I was in Palestine, now over a quarter of a century ago, I was put to shame.
As an ethnic minority I arrogantly presumed that I would never display or harbour feelings of prejudice or racism. When I was in Palestine I had to confront my own feelings of prejudice and racism. To try and understand why I, a person of colour and different ethnicity could feel, could even think of expressing such views that I had decried and protested against back in Britain. But the American-Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane did just that. It was a bitter, unsavoury and sobering experience. To confront within me the potential to be as racist and as prejudice as the next person. My ethnicity, my minority status in Britain did not shield me from potentially being as bigoted and as racist as the National Front and BNP (British National Party), parties I loathed with a passion.
The second was talking to ordinary people both Jewish and Palestinian. We spoke with one senior Jewish male, I think this was actually in Jerusalem.
My notes are somewhat faded and in parts I cannot clearly read my own handwriting. What this gentleman said was astonishing and went along these lines:
We (the Jews) often cry, why? Why did you (God) put us through the holocaust? We have to stop seeing this as a punishment. I know some survivors or relatives of survivors turned their backs on Him (God) because they thought that He (God) had turned his back on them, on us. How little we know. How little we understand. It was a test, maybe. A lesson, most definitely, not just for the Jewish people but for the world. We as the Chosen, were chosen for a reason and we cannot pick and choose only to have the pleasant tasks. This was His (God’s) lesson, to teach us what it means to hate. To teach us to understand what it truly means to be outcast, to teach us what happens when we do nothing. It was us, who turned out back on Him (God). And then He (God) gives us a second chance to live in this beautiful land, to share in His benefice. And what do we do the very things that we have cried and wailed about. The very things that we say, never again. Look, look around you this is what we do. This is how we repay His (God’s) faith in us. This is not right, this is not what He (God) wanted. We are so stupid.
Just thinking about this take me back to that hot Jerusalem evening. It stirs deep emotions within me even now. That such a human being existed is a testament to all that is good, all that we, as a species should aspire to. The fact that I was found wanting on such a minor scale and to hear from the mouth of someone who had truly experienced hell and the depths to which humanity can slump, was utterly humbling. It was not one-sided either. In Nablus we sat and had tea with a Palestinian family who had lived for many generations peacefully with their neighbours old and new. They had lost all the young male members of their family. They had either been shot dead or were in prison at Ramallah for throwing stones. The mother talked openly of her grief, of her inability to understand what was happening. But then she said something that was extraordinary.
You see that Soldier out there in the heat. Would I help him if he were injured, would I offer him a drink of water? Yes. He is someone else’s son. Some mother’s child. How can I as a mother, as a human being do anything else?
Sat there, in this woman’s home. This woman who had lost her sons. How could she say, how could she find such compassion? I was not sure then, if I (god forbid) were ever to find myself in such circumstances, whether I could find it within myself to think the same. I still don’t think, that even now, if I was in the situation, that I would be able to see things in the same manner as that Palestinian Mother did.
I cling onto the hope that the many people who I had the good fortune and honour to met and talk with. Both Jewish and Palestinian, all those years ago, have born and encouraged the growth similar human beings.
I only went to Palestine once, but it has remained deeply embedded in my heart, mind and if you like, my soul. Full of contradictions, a complex and beautiful country. With its own deep sorrow.
I can still picture in my memory the Dome of The Rock at sunset. Captured through the small stone window of the Jerusalem dwelling that I stayed in. Watching the sun set on the glistening golden dome, listening to the Imam calling the faithful to pray, the smell of freshly cut wild thyme and the song of the crickets, cicadas and honey bees.
I wonder if I went back would I still hear and sense the same sounds and aromas?