Very recently I heard a young Israeli called Yehuda Shaul being interviewed on Radio Ulster. Yehuda is the co-founder of Breaking the Silence, an organization that aims to expose the harsh realities of the Occupation to fellow Israelis. His words made such a deep impression on me that I made up my mind to put my own thoughts on the Occupation into an essay. I made five attempts at writing the essay and each time abandoned it, defeated by the scale of what is happening in the occupied territories. But this morning I remembered that in 2010 I had written an unfinished novel a section of which touched on two opposing points of view, one Israeli and the other Palestinian. I found the relevant part and read it. Yes, I thought, this is probably as close as I will ever come to expressing the tragedy. Yet what I have written is fiction. What will I do? And then I remembered something the English philosopher Francis Bacon once wrote: “Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.”
So here is my fiction. Here is my truth.
They fettered his mouth with chains
And tied his hands to the rock of the dead.
They said: You’re a murderer.
They took his food, his clothes and his banners,
And threw him into the well of the dead.
They said: You’re a thief.
They threw him out of every port,
And took away his young beloved.
And then they said: You’re a refugee.
Mahmoud Darwish, Palestinian poet
My name is Yohevet. I live in Area C on the West Bank. This is my home. International law says I am living here illegally but I spit on international law. I spit on Europe and I spit on American liberals. These cowards have the blood of millions of my race on their soft hands. I will tell you about my father. My father was born in Vilnius, Lithuania and every day he lived there he was reminded that he was a Jew. Once in the school playground some boys and girls wrestled off his pants and held his hands away from his body so that they could all see the sign of circumcision. The boys sneered and the girls sniggered. He was twelve years old when this happened.
In 1937 he and his parents moved to Warsaw. Two years later Hitler invaded Poland and announced that he intended killing every Jew living there. Rabbi Stephen Wise, head of the American Jewish Congress, went to see President Roosevelt and presented him with a large dossier, Blueprint for Extermination, which documented Hitler’s plans. Roosevelt tut-tutted and straightaway went back to dealing with Japan’s threat in the Pacific. For as far as Roosevelt was concerned territory was what mattered.
When Britain’s House of Commons heard about the Rabbi’s dossier it stood for a minute’s silence. And as the honourable members stood with heads bowed Anthony Eden their foreign secretary made an eloquent speech in which he expressed the hope that Hitler would refrain from exterminating these unfortunate people.
For some reason Eden’s hope and Roosevelt’s disapproval did not stop the Austrian butcher and six and a half million Jews were murdered. One of them was my grandmother, taken from her home and raped by German soldiers. It was my father who found her next day hanging from a lamp-post. But here’s what I couldn’t understand when I was a child. Britain had declared war on Germany in order to save Poland. Hadn’t they? No. They had declared war to preserve the balance of power in Europe. That was the reason. They could have fought to evacuate European Jews to Palestine but no, this would have upset the Arab oil producers.
But now we are in the West Bank and this is our home, my father, my wife, my children and I. We are here and here we stay. The miracle is that he never lost his mind. I think the reason is that he has been able to let things out. He dreams at night about things that happened and the next day if he gets the chance he will talk to me about it. One incident comes back often in his sleep and up to now he has managed to wrench himself awake from it before the final part. He is searching the darkened streets of Warsaw trying to find his home. Everywhere he goes there are blackened remains of buildings and high walls that go on forever. He cannot get over the walls and he is not sure if his home is a ruin for with every ruin looking the same as the others there are no landmarks. As he looks around tearful and frightened a boy only a little older than himself approaches and asks him: “Where is your star?” and he answers: “I do not have a star. I am not a Jew”, for that is what his parents have taught him to say to German soldiers. The boy strips him from the waist down and shines a torch on him. “There is your star,” he says and it is when he forces my father to lie face down on the road that the dream ends.
There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. Hosea: 11:1
I dream. The night is strung with stars light years away. Foetid, sweet and thick is the smell from the sea. If people could see they would think it strange, a man like me, sitting here in the bay at such an hour so close to the slow surge of the tide. The waves are sluggish now with their cargo of human waste and the yellow foam fingers towards me. I almost faint with the weight of memories. Dreaming I feel the castles and the rock-pools in my hands and round the bend of the Mediterranean I touch the girl from Rafah. She is old now, or dead, old or dead it doesn’t matter. But I am stealthy when I think of her for my wife is alive, and worse, she hears me in my sleep. Yet dreams will come. Dreams. What is it they call them? There are names for them. The sovereignty of the mind, the charming illusion. When your land has been taken and your home from in front of you and your son cut down and his wife imprisoned what do you have?
I tried to take their children for a walk this morning but the stench from the wrack and the reek of the sea turned us away. This is a place of death. Thirty-seven days ago a soldier blew off the crown of my brother’s head. Samih, stubborn foolish Samih, took the short cut to bring us bags of peas. The short cut indeed. Yesterday they killed a boy of fifteen, armed they said, and today a toddler who I’m told will never walk. But maybe that’s wrong, maybe she will. Even in this enclosure it is still possible to exaggerate.
Sometimes I think we would be better without Hamas. America tells us we would. Europe tells us too. Sometimes I am almost sure they are right, other times I tell myself that without our representatives we would only have the peace of the pigsty. I remember the Aborigines, the Tibetans and the Burmese who live under the same sky as we do. They look up and they have dreams. Mandela had the wildest dreams of all and he looked up from his prison cell and took them. It’s hard to credit, I didn’t know it until yesterday that in America they still call him a terrorist. What a strange place America is. An angel, a girl from that very country, showed this very thing to me on her computer. Write to the House of Representatives, she told me, and you will see it is true. Enclose a postage-paid self-addressed envelope, she said, and they will write back and explain that they have him down as a terrorist and that he is subject to restricted movement. But all that comes from the time apartheid suited them and I’m sure they will fix it soon. An anomaly, she said.
When will they get round to us? The truth is, I would fly like the wind if they let me. Would I leave my wife and grandchildren? Yes. I do not love her and the children will be victimised with or without me. The woman is a fool. She sleeps with title deeds in a plastic bag under the pillow and keeps in her pocket the key to a house that isn’t there. There are dreams but this is stupidity. And now I will tell you another truth. Nobody cares about us except the agitators for justice and the world says that they are left-wing cranks and troublemakers. All it takes to get into Palestine is to be born here. America and Israel blame us for this accident but still they will not let us leave. To get out we have to die because no matter how many times we say we are sorry for what the Germans did it will not be enough. Our jailers will never forgive us or allow us to forget the Holocaust.
What else must we answer for? Thirty million Indians were murdered by the British through famine and forced labour. India, we are sorry. Fifty million Chinese were murdered by Mao in the Great Leap Forward. China, we are sorry. In whose interest is it that we are so maligned? As for the suffering Jews who survived the Holocaust, I do not believe there are any of them here. For if there were they would speak out. The colonisers who are here in their place hold the handed down memory in their hearts like possessive lovers. But they hold us in their clenched fist. Their terror of their own extinction blinds them to our terror and to the memory of who did what. Allah forgive them for they know not what they do.
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Thank you for reading. – Colm