The minister was free to torture us because he was the minister, and this was his church, and the film that kept dying on his big screen, to our groans and our fury, was at his mercy. Every few minutes he would mouth his steely-eyed vow to resurrect the dead film, a documentary on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue called Two Sided Story.
Turning to Bassam Aramin, sitting in the back, just off the plane, far from Jerusalem, I found myself thinking that the great men of the world are great for reasons we are not always aware of. Imprisoned by Israel at age seventeen as a Fatah militant, tortured, kept in jail for seven years, switched to peace activism, founded with other Palestinian and Israeli ex-fighters Combatants For Peace, saw his ten-year-old daughter Abir killed by an Israeli policeman’s rubber bullet, fought even harder to outreach Israelis, was “greeted for two hours” at New York’s JFK by Homeland Security, arrived finally to a busted cassette, an addled minister, an unruly crowd he had come to address. He made me aware of just how underrated was the mystery of endurance.
I went over to him during one of the film’s many deaths. He remembered the two times we talked in Jerusalem five years before.
“Ambassador Hotel…Notre Dame.” Aramin was happy, in the gray crumble of his jet lag, to see a familiar face. He was not happy in Jerusalem when I was darting him with my questions. I wrote this about him after we met: My first impression of Aramin: the stillness of a monk, except for his hands. His hands, cradling a cell phone, are fidgety.
His hands, that Sunday afternoon, were empty. I was struck again by his solitude. His way of being in a place but not of it. As night fell, he and his Israeli counterpart, Robi Damelin (the two belong to the Israeli-Palestinian bereavement group, The Parents Circle – Families Forum), were asked up to the podium to tell their stories, to take questions about the film no one had a chance to see except in endlessly recurring snippets.
Damelin spoke of her son David, a soldier killed by a Palestinian sniper near the Kalandia checkpoint. She spoke of her wish to visit in jail the Palestinian who killed him, to see him face to face, to dialogue with him. Neither her story nor his were able to smooth down the frayed edges of the Jewish crowd, or the dismayed minister. I could tell everyone felt they had just been through their own war and were dealing with the advanced trauma of technological frustration.
When Aramin told the crowd that as Americans they had the responsibility to try to change their government’s Middle East policy from side-taking to peace-making, a woman got up and said, “You think many of us haven’t tried? We have. It’s no use. The government and the arms industry make change impossible.”
“Don’t say it’s no use. When Abir was killed, my son wanted to take revenge. I talked him out of it. Lives were saved. We all do what we can.”
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Robert Hirschfield is a freelance writer and photographer whose work appears in Ode Magazine, The National Catholic Reporter, Outlook (the Indian newsweekly), and the London Jewish Chronicle, among other publications. He has travelled most recently to north and South India, and to Israel and the West Bank.
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