In the Garden of Good and Evil – Palestine, Pt. 8
This is the last in the series of essays written about my time spent in the West Bank. The idea was to present the non-fiction equivalent of a small mosaic novel, a collection of pieces that could be read in isolation but whose value is enhanced when consumed as a whole. I’ve much experience reading travelogues and perilously little writing them. Nonetheless, I hope the collection has been enjoyed and has provoked a bit of thought. This last essay was written originally on July 29, 2013, the morning that Netanyahu issued a plea in the Jerusalem Post asking for acceptance of his decision to move forward with the release of 104 Palestinian security prisoners held since before 1993.
In the news not long ago was the story of an IDF soldier outside of Al-Aqsa Mosque who shot and killed a Jewish man, claiming he heard the man shout Allah-u-Akbar and thought him a terrorist.
Last night in Jerusalem, a friend and colleague from work, while touring me around the city, revealed the rest of the story; that the IDF soldier was a Druze and that the Jewish man had been tormenting him with slurs and racial epithets on a regular basis, daily, and that the IDF soldier planned to murder this man and only afterwards claimed that he thought the man a terrorist.
Netanyahu has written an open letter to the people of Israel begging them to realize how necessary it is for him to agree to release the 104 Palestinian prisoners that have been in Israeli jails since before Oslo. The gesture is meant to help restart peace talks that have been stalled for three years. A measure of goodwill to placate a Palestinian populace burdened with what a reasonable person might agree is a healthy weight of skepticism.
We waited that night, July 28, 2013, at a tram stop after having met up with a friend of my co-worker’s and we heard loud music coming from a spot a couple hundred meters away. A party, one of us suggested, and the friend shook her head and demurred, saying she didn’t want to go over there, couldn’t. She got in trouble the last time she was over there, and wouldn’t go into details.
It took quite a bit of cajoling on my colleague’s part to eventually get me to Jerusalem and while the three of us sat on the roof of the Austrian Hospice with the sun gilding East Jerusalem, waiting expectantly for the muezzin so that we could begin eating the sweets we’d picked up in the souk, she asked why I’d waited until my last week in Palestine to come to Jerusalem.
I thought about the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that we had toured and how very much like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem it was. I thought about this time touring such a towering spiritual dwelling with an atheist rather than a devout Orthodox Christian, and how my loneliness at not having ritual to engage in on this ground–no paintings for me to kiss because I didn’t know how, no platforms for me to kneel on because I didn’t know what they commemorated, no icons to make the sign of the Cross before because Protestants didn’t do that–was left unfulfilled, my spirit somehow paganized. The Church was much more an empty building than the destination of a pilgrimage. It felt hollow, and so did I.
I thought of the Qalandiya checkpoint that I’d seen numerous times and had occasionally passed through and how the very sight of all those Palestinians herded like cattle through the stations, many of them waiting in lines in a shack reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic Six Flags, made my hands start shaking. I thought of how comfortable I’d gotten in Ramallah, even as this place had begun to wear on my spirit. It was familiar. More familiar than leaving.
And I thought of everywhere else I’d traveled to. All the other countries where voyaging was an effortless thing. A wish was all it took to put me on a train in Paris that would spirit me to Amsterdam. Being stranded at the Kosovo-Serbia border and having to negotiate my way through Macedonia, cut a path through Bosnia, to wind up back in Croatia again, that was an adventure. Rabat to Tangier, an inspired odyssey.
Here, though, freedom of movement didn’t seem to exist beyond the contours of Ramallah. There were passable barriers, but the trouble of negotiating them overwhelmed me so that it took as long 10 weeks for me to see a city that was but 10 kilometers away.
So when my friend asked me why it took me so long to get to Jerusalem after I’d been here for almost ten weeks, I shrugged and said I was scared.
On June 25, 2006, Hamas militants captured a 19-year-old IDF soldier named Gilad Shalit near the Kerem Shalom crossing at the Gaza border. He was held in captivity for five years, during which he was denied visits from the Red Cross, and communication with his family. Five years later, on October 18, 2011, he was released in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails.
In 2009, Israel approved and passed into law Article 186 of Military Order 1651, which allowed for a special Israeli military committee to sentence released prisoners to serve the remainder of their previous sentence based on secret evidence provided by the military prosecution, without disclosing the evidence to the prisoner or his lawyer. As of June 2013, 15 of the prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit exchange have been rearrested and administratively detained.
Wandering the souk in Jerusalem’s Old City during Iftar, most others we saw were pale-faced tourists. Shopkeepers had retreated into their homes; many of them sat outside their shops, clustered together over several large plates of food while their wares hung overhead, untouched, unsullied, unstolen.
I remarked to my colleague that the souk, earlier when it was humming with bodies and vehicles edging their way around those bodies, reminded me of the souk in Hebron, only without the metal grating overhead to catch projectiles thrown by settlers. She smirked, but there was something hard next to the mirth in it. Still, walking the souk at night had the flavor of transgression. The place felt holier than the church I’d invaded not an hour earlier.
We ate sweets whose name I forgot and drank almond milk and joked and pondered all the liqueurs and spirits it would go with (quite a few), and then they asked why I’d taken so long to come here and to meet this second friend and I told them I was scared.
A little to our left in a nearby patch of city, on a rooftop, Star of David flags whipped in the breeze and a plainclothes soldier or cop or security guard stalked the rooftop with his Makarov pistol in plain view. A settler lounged on that same rooftop while the call to prayer sang over East Jerusalem, and I asked if any of what was before us was West Jerusalem, noting the Israeli flags. This new friend indicated West Jerusalem was over the hill to my right. That was just a settler having colonized his small plot in the Islamic Quarter.
This second friend had on a Metallica t-shirt with a picture of the “Kill ‘Em All” album cover, which was how I’d spotted her in the souk outside the sweets shop. We introduced ourselves and she said something in Arabic along the lines of “Do you understand if I speak Arabic” and I replied “La atakelem al-Arabiyya” and she smiled and switched to English so fluent I mistook her for an American transplant.
My colleague, when it was just us two, laughed when the shopkeepers would see me and make an Obama joke or start to solicit me in English, and she told me that many of them speak half-a-dozen languages, necessities of their profession. “I’ll test them next time,” I told her and when the next storekeeper called ‘Obama’ to check out his wares and asked how he fared, ‘Obama’ replied ‘ça va, merci,’ at which point the storekeeper shot back in French ‘hey, a Frenchman! Bring that lucky lady over here with you.’ And my friend could not stop laughing at the shock on my face. In the souk, before it closed, we stopped at a shop that displayed sepia-toned photos of what looked like Mandate Palestine and my friend spoke about how she’d gotten one of these for her mother, who had loved it dearly. Elsewhere, we saw a Boston Celtics t-shirt with Hebrew on it and I spent the rest of the night searching for one with Arabic because it would have been the perfect gift for a girl back home.
This morning, it was reported across nearly all major news outlets that Netanyahu had agreed, after putting the vote to his cabinet, to release 104 pre-Oslo political prisoners in staggered stages as a precursor to and a gauge for the progress of peace talks. Depending on whom you ask, this is heresy and betrayal to bereaved, a long overdue act of reconciliation, or meaningless political theater. A bit of song thrown into the chaos.
This time last week (I think it was the 22nd of July), I saw the Ofer military court for the first time. It wasn’t that far from the office. We took a service taxi to the gates, offloaded and got into a van that operated much like a taxi the way a plainclothes cop is police and we crossed the first major threshold, whereupon we passed through the first metal detector and showed our passports to the bored guard behind the glass. When we came out from beneath the shelter of that first station, we walked down an outdoor corridor to a waiting room where waited family members and men and women in the process of attending their own hearings, often for parking tickets.
My supervisor took our passports into the main booth and then after a wait, we went through. Shoes belts, removed, emptied pockets, and came out on the other side with our belongings. Down another corridor and into a courtyard that looked very much like the prison courtyards in the US, only this was populated with family and friends of the to-be-incarcerated. Sun-heat blanketed everything and people bounced in and out of the shade, waiting, joking about what they’d do if they couldn’t get rid of the parking ticket. I talked career paths with a fellow intern and movies, I think, with another. Inside a small shack-like building that resembled a mini airport waiting station, I practiced my Arabic script and a fellow intern taught me some new words and I worked on my numbers. With us, at that time, was the wife and the brother of one of the detainees we’d come to see, a man who had worked and researched with the organization and who had been arrested and detained last September. We were here for his sentencing hearing.
I was permitted a notebook beforehand and a pen. I scribbled and even now, my notes are nigh indecipherable, but words or phrases will emerge and bring an entire image or sequence of events to mind, vividly, in full relief, and the chaos of the scene will have returned.
Brown prison uniforms, hands unshackled for the hearing, feet/ankles shackled.
We occupy seats in the back, a barrier to our right and one before us. Defense attorneys to the right, and in the corner by the door, a brown-haired translator that looks like a girl I pined for in high school. One defense attorney towards the wall to our right: fancy blouse, black sweater over it.
The prisoners in the booth to the left; at the desk before the bench and to the right, an Ethiopian prosecutor. Across from her, in glasses and olive green, an administrator. He looks like second counsel. Behind the bench: a bearded, bespectacled judge. To his left, before a massive, aged computer, his secretary. All the IDF personnel, except the translator, are in olive green.
The male defense lawyers wear the same uniform: black slacks, black tie.
One of the prisoners argues with the female defense attorney, mutters aimlessly at a few other members of the audience: he wants a different lawyer.
Chaos. There’re usually more soldiers, my supervisor tells me, and it seems as though they’re figuring out whether the new guy will be the prisoner’s counsel.
There are four in the prisoner’s box. Young men. The middle two look to be in their late thirties. Clean-shaven, but a little gray in the face, though they smile often enough. The guy closest to the translator is unshaven. Biggest out of the bunch, he seems to talk a lot with people involved in the trial and not. The boy farthest at the end is just that: a boy.
The female defense attorney leaves, comes back.
The judge says something, gestures in our direction as though to welcome us, after asking where we were from. The head of our legal unit, cloaked in a robe of his own, over black slacks, a white shirt and a black tie, responds with what seems like joviality.
The procedure seems the very definition of disorganization. All the Israeli women here are beautiful. Why? As soon as I jot that note down, a new male translator (no uniform, just an intimidating black shirt and black cargo pants) takes the previous one’s place.
A beanstalk of a boy in olive green with his sleeves rolled up past his elbows, brings in a stack of files, brings out another. Occasional loud banging thunders. Is something getting stamped or is someone being angry?
It is only then that I notice that the defense attorneys, all Arabs, are speaking Hebrew.
The prisoners have nothing in common but their jumpsuits and their courtroom. Different charges. Different attorneys. The same trailer in which their sentences are announced to them. And it occurs to me, looking at their box, that perhaps the female translator left because the bearded prisoner closest to us kept putting his elbow up to rest on the banister, touching her by accident and generating a sneer.
Soon after, we are moved to Trailer 4 where our colleague is being held. There are four prisoners in the box here as well. Less chaos. No pretty women. There’s one dignified hijabi woman who looks like defense counsel. New witnesses enter, and we play musical chairs to shuffle so that the men sit in an unbroken line.
A big bald security guy by the far entrance stares at us, trying to figure out what we’re doing here. The head of our legal unit explains our presence. Behind me I can feel the wife of the detainee we’ve come to see start to stir.
“Families, please be quiet or you will be removed,” comes the announcement, “by orders of the warden.”
The judge does a roll call of the prisoners. Are their names the only thing said in Arabic?
The translator here has a wide, sharp face, stubbled, shiny blue eyes, looks like so many kids I went to school with. A Billy club hangs from his back pouch.
A dumpy middle-aged prosecutor charges his phone in the wall behind him.
The prisoners here are older. Much older.
One of the prisoners received word from his wife, behind me, seated amongst the spectators, that his friend had just died. “My God,” he said, “rest in peace.” The expression on his face is beyond my ability to describe. Before he can fully process the news, his attention snaps back to his hearing.
The prisoners are handcuffed in pairs and led out. That was it.
It turns out the hearing for the man we had come to see was now moved to July 29, 2013. Today. Four hearings in five minutes.
When we exit the trailer, the detainee’s wife is visibly distressed. He’d been in good humor when we saw him, sagely gray hair winging his temples, his glasses lending him the look of a scholar. He looked thinner than he did in the posters of him around the office, but he smiled when we waved to him. His wife, now outside with the rest of us, can barely speak. She fights tears. A blue-shirted Israeli groundskeeper tries to usher us out of the yard where the court trailers are kept.
We wind up in Trailer 7, the chaotic one we’d occupied before our transfer. A child hearing, I’m told to expect. Behind me, a mother weeps quietly. A sharply-suited lawyer with a blue tie over a white shirt with the top button undone is apparently a lawyer with our organization. The attractive translator is back.
The stamping I thought I’d heard earlier is just the prosecutor’s aide slamming his palm on the table. To no discernible effect.
This, it turns out, is the tail end of a previous hearing. Three prisoners here. “Is this when and how sentencing happens?” I asked myself in disbelief. Quick deals made in rapid-fire succession between the defense and the prosecution with the briefest consultation to the prisoners themselves? Some of them hear their charges here for the first time.
Lawyer to the youngest prisoner, the one farthest down: “Welcome, I’m your lawyer.” They shake hands, meeting for the first time. The kid seems in good and mischievous spirits. Smiles with his teeth a lot.
The judge asks the middle prisoner, not quite emaciated but far from healthy, for his phone number. No reason is given. The lawyer and the prisoner who just met look like they’re simply chopping it up. Two of the male defense attorneys look like twins, certainly brothers.
The persistent shouting is broken up with little bursts of exasperated laughing. The female defender tries to placate and humor her client, the man closest to us, but he looks far from pleased. He looks defeated. He looks like business as usual.
Callousness seems like the right word here.
The young prisoner popped the collar of his prison uniform. The defeated one shares a brief joke with the cute translator.
Another prisoner, this one in a yellow shirt, perhaps only recently arrested, is brought in. An Ethiopian in olive green and a yarmulke fixes his handcuffs, stalks him from behind. It’s never clear who’s on trial, who’s being charged, who’s being defended by whom.
The prisoner in the yellow is charged with entering Israel, charged with entering Israel on false documentation, and charged with breaching the Wall. His lawyer tells him “you can plead guilty today and pay the fine, to be decided later, or you can wait until next Thursday to appeal to higher court.” The man in the yellow can’t believe what he’s heard, or, at least, that’s what shows in his face. “You’re my lawyer, figure it out.” The lawyer tells the judge that this case is no different from the previous case where he let the prisoner out on bail. The man in the yellow is released on bail with a 5000 shekel fine. Failure to pay fine will result in a revocation of bail. He has 72 hours to appeal the decision. A final decision regarding his release will be made August 13.
Those prisoners are brought out and the children are brought in. Handcuffed, trying to squeeze past each other, having not yet learned the rhythm of the older men who’d been here before, and who knew, in all actuality, that they would someday be there again. The judge announces that because they’re juveniles, the session is closed. And we’re kicked out.
I remembered some of this when, last night, I watched these two young metalheads my age, joined by another friend of theirs, practice yoga poses in the courtyard by their student dorm buildings. At the Jerusalem Hotel beforehand, over argileh, the Metallica girl and I whispered urgently and shouted excitedly about video games, and she earned serious points when she answered the age-old Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter query with Mortal Kombat. The only correct answer.
I remembered some of the sentencing hearing when, just before the yoga session, we devoured two cases of wings, one garlic lemon, and one that falsely advertised itself as spicy. (‘Challenge’ was its specific designation.) I told them about that one time in Provence when my 8-year-old host niece had bestowed upon me the moniker “L’ogre” and would begin every dinner, eyes trained on me, by saying, “Le massacre commence.” The graveyard of chicken bones that remained, we scattered for the cats that had gathered around us. Initially, they fought for the few we tossed their way, then our increased generosity placated them. Each had their bone and wouldn’t bother the others.
I and the Metallica girl shadow boxed and I taught her an uppercut-hook combo. My colleague made several well-meaning, ultimately-aborted attempts at introducing me to yoga. My body refused. The spirit was willing, and all that.
The next morning, waiting for the bus with my co-worker, a large Modernist sculpture behind us, teenaged soldiers with their rifles slapping their thighs drinking coffee around us, I’d glance at my friend, this young Palestinian metalhead, earrings with skulls painted on them, black hair shot through with auburn, having discovered that she was born in her home while her mother watched live coverage of Tiananmen Square. Staying here for 10 weeks, doing the work I’ve been privileged to do, salted my views of this place with a fatalistic pessimism that didn’t see a happy ending anywhere for Palestinians. It was easy for me to believe because it seemed the most likely outcome. A grain of pride sat beneath that ability to distance myself from the parts of this place I’d come to care about it. I could imagine it burning to the ground, so I wouldn’t be completely destroyed when it did. But seeing her now, this girl, it became suddenly difficult to believe such a thing as a happy ending would never be afforded her. The general rendered specific. I want, all of a sudden, to see things turn out all right. For her. For this place. For our colleague whose hearing was once again postponed. For the kid on trial for throwing stones. For the grocer who taught me how to say colors in Arabic by pointing to different packs of Gauloises cigarettes and from whom I buy my twice-weekly stock of Pringles. For the prisoners who are slated to be released in this preamble to peace talks and for those among them who may be rearrested.
I went to bed on a mattress in their room and as I drifted to sleep, I didn’t once think of my detained colleague or the prisoner who’d met his lawyer for the first time at his sentencing hearing or the accents I’d impressed my new friends with while we waited for our wings or the cavernous Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the 16-year-old Palestinian Arab in the local news facing 20 charges of attempted murder for throwing stones at settlers.
I wasn’t gripped by fear at the prospect of returning to Ramallah in the morning for work or eventually working my way to Amman for my weekend flight to New York by way of Heathrow. Nor was I encased in regret at having waited so long to meet some of the most wonderful metalheads I’m likely to meet in my entire life. (That would come in the morning.)
I dreamt only of that elusive Boston Celtics shirt that surely must exist somewhere, in someone’s shop, and the girl I would’ve bought it for.